Friday, December 30, 2011

Thanksgiving and Green-Bean Casserole


A select group of family members began spending Thanksgiving at the farm of my Aunt Roberta and Uncle Bob sometime in the early 1980s.  In the beginning, the number of attendees filled the chairs around a large oak dinning room table.  The group included my aunt and uncle and their three sons, my mother, my brother Steve and wife Sandy plus children and grandchildren, and me.

The table’s top featured numerous crocheted doilies covered by a piece of clear plastic.  Roberta spent much of her time cooking, crocheting, quilting and doing farm chores.  These doilies represented some of her finest work.  A quilting frame, holding Roberta’s latest quilt, sat nearby showing minute, precise hand stitching.

Roberta’s legend as seamstress dissipated when compared to her fame as a cook.  My mother, whose cooking depended on her mood, loved to “drop in” at her sister’s farm around dinnertime.  Roberta, unfazed by the increased number of people around the table, peeled a few more potatoes, opened another can of vegetables and figured a way to stretch the meat.  The dinner appeared as if she planned the number of dinners.

Her sons, John, Glen and Gary, learned kitchen skills from their mother as they grew into men still living at home and unmarried.  John was the only one of the three that married, but he and his wife parted after the birth of a daughter.

Aunt Roberta called on her three sons to assist in the preparation of our annual Thanksgiving feast each year, with their main contribution the turkey cooked on a rotisserie located in a shed near the house.  The rest of us brought our share of the fare as well and waited patiently for the turkey, which debuted each year with a crisp-golden exterior and juicy, tender interior.

Dinner took less time to devour than to cook, but we sat satisfied afterwards, basking in our fullness and waiting for dinner to settle so we could indulge in the pies, at least one of those pumpkin, that beckoned to us from the counter where they sat filled with goodness.  Some years, Aunt Roberta added a chocolate cream pie to the mix, other years she presented her famous pineapple cream.  Whichever kind she decided upon, it always came with a thick covering of light meringue accented with golden peaks. 

As time passed, the numbers around the table began decreasing, first by the leaving of children to other lives in other states, then with the death of my mother in 1997.  Uncle Bob followed a few years later and then Aunt Roberta.  Next came the deaths of my brother Steve and cousin John, both in 2009.  For the past two years, the four that remain, myself, my sister-in-law Sandy, and cousins Glen and Gary, continue to gather around a much smaller table, not yet ready to let go of the tradition.

The meal remains much the same, turkey, dressing, mashed and sweet potatoes, gravy, olives, stuffed celery sticks, deviled eggs and, of course, green-bean casserole.  This past year, Glen opted to prepare a turkey breast in the oven; not quite as splendid as the rotisserie-cooked bird of old, but still crispy and juicy.  The pies, pumpkin and this year pineapple cream, still beckoned us after our meal.  We remain grateful for each other’s company and the memories left by those who now join us only in spirit.

Sandy cooks the green-bean casserole each year, preparing it according to the recipe provided on the container of French’s French Fried Onions.  The original recipe calls for canned mushroom soup and canned green beans.  It is one of my favorite vegetable dishes, but a full recipe makes more than I need for one person so I set out to make my own version, which can feed two at one meal or one person with some leftover for a second meal.

            Green Bean Casserole
            Ingredients:
            1 Tablespoon unsalted butter or 1 tablespoon olive oil
            4-5 Button mushrooms, chopped (about one cup)
            1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
            ¾ Cup milk (can use low-fat)
            Salt and pepper to taste
            1 8-ounce can cut green beans, drained
            ½ Cup French’s French Fried Onions

            Directions:
1.     Sauté mushrooms in butter or oil over medium-high heat until all moisture evaporates, 5-6 minutes.
2.     Stir in flour and continue to sauté one minute longer.
3.     Stir in milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
4.     Stir in the green beans and 2 tablespoons of the French Fried Onions.
5.     Pour mixture into a 15-ounce oval baking dish coated with cooking spray.
6.     Bake uncovered in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes.
7.     Spread the remaining French Fried Onions over the top and bake 5 minutes longer.  Serve piping hot.
           
            

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chowder with sunshine and ice-skating


Cretia and I grew up in neighboring states, she in Nebraska, me in Kansas.  We met in Wyoming where we both made stops on our way to where life took us, Cretia to California, me to Colorado.  We now sat in a patio café eating lunch while watching ice skaters glide over a man made rink a few yards away.

The patio café is part of the Hotel del Coronado located on a peninsula just off San Diego Harbor in California in the beach community of Coronado.  Cretia worked at the Hotel for eight years giving her an insight into the history of the place, which she shared with me on a tour after lunch.  According to Building The Dream, Elisha Babcock, Jr. and Hampton Story created the Coronado Beach Company in April 1886 and followed with the establishment of a number of other enterprises, including the Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888.  The hotel’s architecture offers a castle-like appearance in the Victorian era Queen Anne style with a roofline outlined in turrets, gables, dormers and round corner towers.  Its fulgent red tiled roof contrasts with the subtle blueness of the Southern California sky.

Inside, Cretia explained that the interior rafters contain no nails, with construction taking 11 months.  The book notes that construction utilized a number of woods, including Douglas fir for framing, California redwood, hemlock and cedar for the exterior, Illinois white oak in the lobby and Oregon sugar pine, selected because it lacks knotholes, in the Crown Room.  This fascinating hotel, filled with history and beauty, draws tourists from around the world.  We decided I must come back sometime, take a room and explore the full scope of its history and architecture.

When you think about it, we happen onto the people with whom we develop lasting friendships much as we stumble onto history.  Cretia and I happened onto each other nearly 30 years ago when she answered an ad for employment.  I handled accounting, inventory, shipping, receiving and some purchasing at a cattle hide company and needed an assistant.  It took all of five minutes to decide this smart, attractive woman would be the perfect working partner.  She was bright, cheerful and completely down to earth.  I liked her immediately and it took little time for us to develop a compatible working relationship that soon matured into friendship.

We found much in common, including a love of books and animals.  Cretia credits me with giving her a copy of Atlas Shrugged, something I could have done, but do not remember.  I credit her with giving me a Calico cat named Kate, something she did, but does not remember.  She also does not remember encouraging me to pursue my writing career by purchasing a weekly newspaper, but I do.  That decision, made with her encouragement, changed my life in many good ways and I credit her for giving me the courage to write.

Cretia now lives, surround by books, with her husband Dave and two boxers, Maggie and Ringo, in San Diego.  I, now retired after publishing a weekly newspaper for 27 years, live in Colorado with my eight-pound wonder Poodle, Brieanna and Katy Joe, my third Calico cat.  Books fill my house as well.  Cretia and I admit to reading critically and loving the look and feel of books.  Our common interests no doubt explain why we can go years without seeing each other and immediately fall into conversation as if our last visit happened yesterday.

As we sat on the Hotel Del Coronado patio basking in the warm California sun, we enjoyed soup and salad.  Amazingly, we even tend toward the same kinds of food.  Cretia chose the clam chowder with a spinach salad dressed with pear slices, candied pecans and blue cheese.  I selected the same salad, but opted for the butternut squash soup because it contained truffles, something I wanted to experience.  We decided to hold off on wine until later that evening, when Dave joined our conversation and we heavily debated politics.  Our visit ended much too soon, but implanted more cherished memories of a dear friend.

It was easy, once back at home, to duplicate the salad and butternut soup minus the truffles, but fresh clams for chowder are hard to come by on the high plains of Colorado.  Still, chowder stayed on my mind so I decided to make a fish chowder based on a recipe I found in my latest copy of Cooks Illustrated.  This recipe makes enough for one large or two small servings.

            Fish Chowder
            ½ Teaspoon Canola oil
            1 Slice bacon, cubed
            1-2 Tablespoons chopped celery
            1-2 Tablespoons chopped onion
            1 4-ounce Cod fillet (Haddock or other flaky white fish also works)
            1 Cup water
            ¼ Teaspoon dried thyme
            1 Small bay leaf
            Salt and pepper to taste
            1 Small Yukon Gold or Russet Potato, cubed
            ¾ Cup whole milk

Directions:
1.     Coat 1-quart saucepan with oil and add bacon.  Sauté over medium-high heat until crisp, 3-4 minutes.
2.     Remove bacon and drain on paper towel.  Remove all but about 1 teaspoon of the bacon grease from saucepan.
3.     Add onion and celery to saucepan and sauté until soft, 2-3 minutes.
4.     Add water, thyme, bay leaf and seasonings to saucepan and bring to boil.
5.     Place fish fillet in boiling water.  Remove saucepan from heat and allow fillet to poach for five minutes.  Remove fillet from saucepan and set aside.
6.     Place potato in saucepan, bring to boil, lower heat and cook until potato is tender, 15-20 minutes.
7.     Remove the bay leaf, flake fish and add to saucepan along with milk.  Reheat soup, but do not allow to boil.  Serve with your favorite crackers and garnish with the bacon bits.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skating Bears and Betty’s Barbeque Sauce


“What do you think of skating bears?”  That question, from a dear friend, began a column I wrote in 1991 following a weekend gathering with “girlfriends” in Colorado’s high country.  Betty died a couple of years ago from a brain aneurism, quickly and much too young.  Her younger sister, Faye, also a life-long friend, brought a copy of the column when she visited me recently.  We spent the weekend as usual, talking, remembering and laughing.  I waited until she left to read the column, knowing I would cry, which I did.

My response to Betty’s question was: “I think those animal activists get a little too radical,” which leads me to believe that animal activists of the day may have been protesting skating bears.  This is only a guess, but my next comment put Betty smack in the thick of things: “Betty threw her hands on her hips and stared me down with a grin I’ve known since the big issues were heart throbs, tight blue jeans and customized Fords and Chevrolets.”

The column went on:

Faye and I exchanged a look that said: “We love her anyway,” and we continued down the road basking in the brisk mountain air and friendships grown stronger over time.  There’s something invigorating and yet calming about both.

Faye, Betty and I go back to days of youthful expectations centered on societies design for happiness: love, marriage and children.  Over the years we’ve each strolled our paths, finding disappointments in that design and healing strengths in our ability to adapt and go on.

Perhaps it is because of those forced concessions that we grew into who we are today.  Or maybe it is whom we were, common in stubborn determination that allowed us to fight the winds and continue to reach toward the sky.  No matter, we share a common kinship cemented long ago and erected over time.

After re-reading the column, I sat back, closed my eyes and tried to recapture Betty’s face.  It came to me in that moment, eyes dancing like a skating bear and wearing her trademark grin, which always made the one she directed it at feel properly put in place but glad of heart.

The column ended with these words: Friendship is like a remembered and cherished grin that draws love’s emotions and allows our acceptance of the other.  It’s invigorating and calming in moments when we least expect it.

Funny how thoughts of a particular person tie us to memories of food.  Thinking of Betty, reminded me of a time, more than 40 years ago, when she prepared a barbecue at her house in Salina, Kansas.  She grilled hamburgers and dressed them with a sweet barbecue sauce made from scratch.  Afterwards I requested the recipe and she wrote it out on a 3”x 5” index card.  I made the sauce several times then stuffed the card away in an old brown index box I inherited from my Aunt Myrt.

After Faye and Montana, the Saint Bernard she inherited from Betty, left my house on Sunday, I retrieved the brown box and found the card, yellowed with age, spotted with ancient barbecue sauce and written in Betty’s tiny but precise and curly style.  Each line straight, each letter perfectly formed, each curl added with a slight, non-pretentious flare.  No directions, just the ingredients; Betty gave me credit for knowing how to put it together.

Betty’s BBQ Sauce
Ingredients (per Betty):
1 Cup cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon garlic powder
4 Cups Catsup
2 Pounds brown sugar
1 Tablespoon liquid smoke

Directions (per me):
1.     Place all ingredients in saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves, 3-4 minutes.  Continue cooking and stirring 1-2 minutes longer.  Store any left over sauce in refrigerator.
2.     Grill or fry hamburgers to desired doneness and toast hamburger buns.
3.     Spread 1-2 tablespoons warm sauce over hamburger meat and top with chopped cabbage.

Chef’s note:  Use this sauce in place of purchased barbecue sauce when grilling chicken or ribs.  However, cook meat until done first and then lightly baste with sauce for the last minute of cooking to prevent burning.  It is sweet so a little goes a long ways.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Raspberry Vinaigrette: Simply


Recently I came across a chicken recipe that called for raspberry vinaigrette.  Since I rarely purchase ready-made vinaigrette of any type or flavor, I bulked at the idea of buying a bottle just to make this dish.

A number of reasons not to purchase vinaigrette, beyond having another bottle of something strange floating around your refrigerator door and that it is so easy to make, come to mind.  If you read labels, which I do, you find water listed as the first ingredient in most processed vinaigrettes.  Next comes various types oil and, in the case of raspberry vinaigrette, the list includes such things as corn syrup and sugar.  Somewhere down the list of ingredients, you find raspberry juice concentrate and/or other artificial flavors.  The lengthy list goes on with some items just as hard to pronounce as they are to invision, which makes one wonder why something that sounds so simple should be so complicated.  I concluded that it should not and, since the raspberry bushes located in my back yard produced nicely last summer, meaning a large bag in my freezer, I had the resources.  Even those without backyard bushes can find frozen raspberries at most supermarkets.

I checked out a number of recipes for raspberry vinaigrette on the Internet and found most called for ingredients such as maple syrup, Dijon mustard, soy sauce and or various herbs that seemed flavor intrusive to me.  Raspberries need no assistance in the flavor department, in my opinion, so I set out to make a simple refreshing vinaigrette that worked well in my recipe and doubled as a nice, lite but flavorful dressing for greens.

Raspberry Vinaigrette
Ingredients:
½ Cup white distilled vinegar
½ Cup fresh or frozen raspberries
½ Cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ Cup honey

Directions:
1.     Place vinegar and raspberries in small saucepan and bring to boil.  Remove from heat and allow to steep until completely cooled, approximately 30 minutes.
2.     Strain vinegar through mesh strainer and press to remove seeds.
3.     Whisk in oil and honey.  Store in refrigerator.

Raspberry Chicken with Caramelized onions
Ingredients:
½ Skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Teaspoons olive oil
¼ Medium onion, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons raspberry vinaigrette
1 Teaspoon soy sauce
¼ Teaspoon minced ginger
1/8 Teaspoon dried rosemary
1 Serving of cooked rice

Directions:
1.     Sprinkle the chicken pieces with pepper and set aside.
2.     Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and sauté onion until golden, 8-10 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, remove caramelized onions from skillet, leaving any remaining oil and set aside.
3.     Add chicken to skillet and sauté until no longer pink, 3-4 minutes.  Remove from skillet and set aside with onions.
4.     Add remaining ingredients to skillet and bring to boil.  Cook, whisking constantly until sauce thickens, 2-3 minutes.
5.     Return onion and chicken to skillet and continue cooking until heated through, 1-2 minutes.  Serve over rice.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Headless Chicks and Dumplings


Each spring my mother and her sister Roberta ordered baby chicks from the local farmer’s cooperative.  My four brothers, three cousins and I watched these cute, furry yellow creatures grow into sturdy chickens running about our respective farmyards.  Then, each fall, my brothers, cousins and I gathered the first day at one farm and the next at the other farm to watch our mothers chop off chicken heads.  Then the fun began.

The processing began early in the morning when instead of being turned out to roam the yard, the chickens remained locked in the pen.  They clucked away wondering why this day should be any different from any other as one by one each woman bought out a bird, held its wings and feet together, laid its head on a tree stump and chopped it off with an ax.  She would then toss the headless chicken onto the grass where it ran around and flopped about for what seemed a considerable time.  Thus, I suppose, came the saying, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”  Once the women completed their slaughter, a few lucky laying hens remained in the pen, their job now to provide eggs for the family.

Once the headless chickens lay quiet, they received a quick ducking into a pail of boiling water to loosen the feathers.  This had to be done quickly so as not to cook the skin.  The job of removing the feathers generally fell to the older children in attendance.  Then the birds went back to the women for removal of all those parts no one wanted to eat.  Finally, each washed her bird and tossed it into an ice-water bath to cool before wrapping each for the freezer.

One of my jobs entailed cleaning gizzards; with the challenge to remove the sack inside this digestive organ without breaking it and having the grain inside contaminate the eatable part.  Usually, I broke the sack, which meant considerable time spent removing unwanted skin and grit.

The other part of the chicken that I got to clean more often than not, was the neck, which if the bird in its floundering left the grass, would be imbedded with dirt.  Chickens purchased in supermarkets these days rarely come with the neck attached, but the fried chicken placed on my mother’s, aunts’ and grandmother’s tables always included the neck and back with skin attached and fried crisp.  Neither skin nor frying are poultry correct these days and it’s been a while since I saw a chicken with its neck attached, but I still find tasty use for a chicken’s back.

The following recipe feeds one or two depending of the size of appetite.

Chicken & Dumplings

Ingredients for the soup
1 Chicken back with skin and bone included
1 Large carrot, divided
1 Stalk of celery, divided
1 Small onion, divided
1 Clove garlic, smashed
1 Tablespoon fresh or frozen parsley (1 Teaspoon if using dried)
3-4 Peppercorns
3 Cups water
1 Tablespoon butter or oil

Directions for soup
1               Wash and dry chicken back and place in 3-quart saucepan.  Wash carrot and cut in half.  Place one half in pan.  Peel the second half and slice thinly, reserve.
2               Cut celery in half.  Cut one half in large chunks and place in pan.  Thinly slice the remaining half of the celery stalk and reserve.
3               Cut the onion in half and add one half to the pan.  Chop the remaining half of the onion and reserve with carrots and celery.
4               Smash the garlic clove and add to pan along with parsley, peppercorns, water and salt to taste.
5               Bring water, chicken back and vegetables to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour.  Remove chicken back and set aside to cool.  Strain vegetables from stock and reserve stock.  Skim off any excess fat.  (At this point, the stock and chicken back can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.)
6               When ready make soup for dumplings, melt butter or oil in 3-quart saucepan.  Add reserved vegetables and sauté until onion is transparent, 2-3 minutes.
7               Add soup stock to pan and bring to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
8               Meanwhile, remove and discard skin, bone and any gristle from the chicken back.  Remove any remaining meat and chop into small, bite-sized pieces.  When vegetables are finished cooking, add chicken meat to pan and return to a boil.
9               Mix dumplings using recipe below

Ingredients for dumplings
2/3 Cup Jiffy Mix
¼ Cup milk (can use fat-free or low-fat milk)

Directions for dumplings
1.              Stir milk and Jiffy Mix together until well blended and drop by spoonfuls into the boiling soup.
2.              Reduce heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes.  Do not remove lid while dumplings are cooking.  Makes 6 small dumplings.

            Chef’s note: Use a pan large enough to cook the dumplings without removing the lid.  It is important to leave the cover on while the dumplings are cooking to prevent them from becoming gummy in the center.

            Added note: If you do not have a back, a leg or thigh works well.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Garden Tomatoes: Summer and winter

The greatest fruits of summer come from the tomato vines growing in my garden.  The greatest fruits of winter come from the tomato vines that grew in my garden the previous summer.  This I remind myself as a sea of red begins to cover the top of the counter in my washroom.  I have been eating my fill everyday: sliced tomatoes drizzled with pesto; salad greens spotted with tomato chucks; grilled tomato slices; tomato and mayo sandwiches; tomato, bacon and basil sandwiches; tomato and cucumber salad with vinaigrette.  You name a tomato dish and I’ve eaten it with the exception of the “Tomato Tart” recipe that my friend Rose sent me, which I plan to try very soon.  Still the pile grows, but that’s okay because the fruits covering that counter soon fill jars in the cupboard and small containers in the freezer; storage for the coming winter months.

Why both?  I prefer canned tomatoes for most recipes, but there comes a time when I just grow tired of canning, not to mention running out of jars.  That’s when I turn to freezing, but not whole tomatoes as my mother did.  I just never cared for the watery result of those whole frozen tomatoes.

I prefer to chop the tomatoes into a pot, after a good washing and removal of any stems, bring them to a boil; skin, seeds and all.  Once they begin to boil and shrink into their own juice, I allow them to simmer 10-15 minutes before putting them through a food mill to remove the seeds and skin.  What you have left is a nice smooth puree that makes great soups and sauces.

I should note that I take great care when I can tomatoes to make sure I follow the rules to insure safely.  I would urge anyone planning to can any type of food to check with their  local Extension office for canning safety tips.  There is also tons of information on the Internet.  Just make sure to choose a reputable site.

Since I cook for one, I also can and freeze for one.  I can tomatoes in half-pint jars and freeze in one-cup containers.  If a recipe calls for more than a cup, I can always open two jars or two containers, but most of the recipes I cook for my single self take one cup so these sizes work well.

One of my favorite wintertime soups, Tomato Bisque, I first tasted one Christmas when my brother Phil and I ate dinner at a Little America restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyo.  I came home determined to recreate the taste and texture of that soup.  After trial and error I came up with a soup that I feel comes close.

Tomato Bisque Soup

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons butter, divided

¼ Cup minced onion

½ Tablespoon dry sherry (optional)

1 Cup chicken broth

1 Cup crushed or pureed tomatoes

¾ Cup milk

¼ Cup heavy cream

1 ½ Tablespoons flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Tabasco sauce to taste

Directions:
  1. Sauté the onions in 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat until soft, 1-2 minutes.  Do not brown.  If using sherry, add now and continue cooking 1 minute longer.  Add broth and tomatoes to pan and bring to boil.  Lower heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
  2. While the soup simmers, melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat and add flour to make rue.  Cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes but do not allow the rue to brown.  Whisk in the milk and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens.  Whisk rue into the soup.  Add cream.  Add salt, pepper and Tabasco to taste.  Serve with hot bread and a salad or combine it with a grilled cheese sandwich and pretend you are in elementary school again.

Chef’s Note:  My friend Rose substituted olive oil for the butter and non-fat condensed milk for the cream for a healthier version.  I prefer my version, but for those of you watching fat in your diet, hers is very tasty.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BBT Sandwich

On preparing to fix breakfast earlier this week, I encountered the realization that it was time for a shopping day.  One of the things I’ve learned over years of cooking for one is restraint when it comes to purchasing perishable foods, which often means running out of or low on some items before its time to shop again.

This seems especially true in the summer when garden supplies fill my refrigerator and I’m even less inclined to stock up on things like lettuce.  Still, one cannot live on zucchini alone, especially when the tomatoes begin to ripen at an exaggerated pace.  The good thing is tomatoes can be  easily and safely canned (if you take the appropriate precautions), but not before I eat my fill.

This particular morning I found myself without milk for cereal, no yogurt to eat with my fruit, and not one egg to be found in my refrigerator.  What I did have were a few slices of bread, a couple of slices bacon, lots of tomatoes and an abundance of Basil.

I could have slapped a bit of peanut butter, which I consider a non-perishable item, on a toasted bread slice, but tomato does not seem a likely companion of peanut butter, at least not in my opinion.  That left the bacon and tomato, but there could be no BLT without lettuce, which I seldom purchase when I have so many summer veggies to eat, and the lettuce in the garden had long before gone to seed.

Looking around, I spotted the Basil seated in a glass of water near my sink.  Why not?  I asked myself.  Basil is green and leafy.  I fried up the two slices of bacon, drained it on a paper towel, toasted two slices of bread, slathered those with mayo, sliced a nicely ripened, garden fresh tomato and cleaned and dried a hand full of Basil leaves.  I layered Basil leaves on one slice of the mayo slathered toast, added the bacon and tomato slices and covered the tomato slices with more Basil leaves.  I then added the second slice of toasted, mayo-slathered bread and oh la la, a Basil, Bacon and Tomato Sandwich.  Yum!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rose and Eggplant Parmesan

The harvesting of my garden’s first eggplant this season coincided with a visit from my best friend Rose.  The two seemed to fit together like sunshine and rainbows.  Each vivifying the world around me: Rose with her uplifting, intelligent personality, the eggplant with its vivid purple color and strikingly subtle taste, the latter quality shared by both.

I met Rose in 1987 when she served as librarian in a neighboring community.  Ever the feisty optimist, Rose attempted to bring culture to a populist grown artistically anemic.  On this occasion, she organized a book signing by local author Kent Haruf following the publication of his first novel, The Tie That Binds.  Haruf later garnered national recognition when Hallmark® created a made-for-television movie based on his third novel, Plainsong.

Rose and I clicked immediately.  I wanted to know more about her and in the asking discovered that she published a newsletter (For you youngsters out there, think snail blog.).  The newsletter’s mast, Rose’s Good Food Gazette – Recipes & Lore For Thoughtful Cooks, said it all.  This delightful publication went beyond recipes to include Rose’s special lively style of food-based humor and information.

The Gazette offered an opening to feature Rose in the small weekly newspaper I published at the time.  And that interview gave opportunity to discover even more about this small, lovely woman of huge intellect mixed with incredible common sense.  The more I discovered the more I admired her and we quickly planted a growing friendship that has stood the test of time, joint sojourns and living miles apart.

I could go on and on about Rose: How she quit her job as librarian at the Denver Post to travel to Alaska, where she worked as a fish cook and completed the three necessary actions necessary to become a true Eskimo; how she endured being robbed three times while driving a taxi cab in Denver once she returned; how this city girl moved to a small rural town and, after leaving her job as librarian, lived on a hog farm and worked as a copy editor at a community newspaper.  These are her stories to tell and I hope she does sometime so others can enjoy her wonderful wit and zest for living as much as I do.

As life often happens, Rose eventually moved away but lasting friendships cannot be parted.  We stay in touch as much as two writers subject to selective telephone use can, and thanks to the nerds of the world who invented email.

Rose and I both love the preparing of food nearly as much as we savor the bounty of flavors so during our visits we cook, this past visit being no exception, and the eggplant became our course of choice that first night.  We shared the experience of cooking and the devouring of the meal along with laughter and conversation and, of course, a glass of wine.

The tomato sauce for my version of eggplant Parmesan can be made the day before and stored in the refrigerator.  You can also make extra sauce, freeze small containers and thaw in the refrigerator when ready to use.  The sauce recipe below makes enough for two servings of eggplant Parmesan.

 Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon olive oil

¼ Cup grated onion, juice included

1 Medium garlic clove, grated

1 Teaspoon chopped fresh oregano or 1/3 teaspoon dried

1/2 Teaspoon sugar

2 Cups crushed tomatoes

¼ Cup chopped fresh basil

Directions:
  1. Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium high heat and add grated onion along with the juice.  Sauté 2-3 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté one minute longer.
  2. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar and oregano.  Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until reduced and thick, about 30 minutes.  If saving for later, cool and refrigerate.  You should end up with about one and one-half cups prepared sauce.

Note:  You could certainly chop the onion and mince the garlic, but I like the way grated onion melts into the sauce.  I use a Microplane® grater, but a box grater would work.  Also note that I do not add salt to the sauce since canned tomatoes already contain salt and I later salt the eggplant slices.

 Eggplant Parmesan (For one)

Ingredients:

Olive oil for frying (Enough to generously coat the bottom of a small skillet)

1-2 Small to medium Asian eggplant or ¼-½ large classic eggplant sliced ¼ to ½ inch thick (You need enough eggplant slices for at least two layers in the bottom of a 15-ounce oval baking dish.

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Flour for dipping

¾ Cup prepared tomato sauce

1 ounce fresh Mozzarella, thinly sliced

¼-½ Cup finely shred Parmesan

Directions:
  1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot. (The oil should be shimmering.)
  2. Slice eggplant and season with salt and pepper.  Let set for 5-10 minutes.  This allows the salt to adhere to the eggplant slices.
  3. Dip eggplant slices in flour and shake off excess.  Fry in oil until lightly browned, 1-2 minutes per side.  Drain on paper towel.
  4. Heat the reserved tomato sauce.  Remove from heat and stir in chopped fresh basil.
  5. Spread ¼ cup of the tomato sauce over the bottom of casserole dish (I use a 15-ounce oval Corning Ware® baking dish that works great.).
  6. Layer browned eggplant slices over tomato sauce and spread ¼ cup tomato sauce over eggplant slices.
  7. Place second layer of eggplant slices over tomato sauce and cover with remaining ¼ cup of tomato sauce.
  8. Place Mozzarella slices on top of last layer of tomato sauce.  Sprinkle shredded Parmesan over entire top of casserole.
  9. Bake in 350°F oven for 7-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and browned on top.

Note:  You can reheat and toss any leftover tomato sauce with cooked pasta.  Top with grated Parmesan for a delightful pasta dish.  Better yet, add some sautéed eggplant or zucchini cubes to the pasta just before you toss.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer: A time for zucchini, zucchini and more zucchini

A friend told me recently that he planted a dozen zucchini plants.  I tried not to gasp but failed.  I plant one each summer and grow enough zucchini to feed a small community even picking them when they reach six to eight inches in length.  A dozen plants, I assume, would feed the entire planet.  Zucchini is the only photosynthetic, eukaryotic, multicellular organism that I know of that procreates better than a weed.  This means, even with my one and only lonely plant, a steady summer diet of this somewhat bland veggie.

It does help that there are numerous ways to fix a zucchini and its nutritional value is exceptional.  At just 18-20 calories per raw cup, zucchini contains zero fat, minimal sodium and carbohydrates and it is chucked full of vitamin C.  Of course, like any good-for-us food, we can defeat all of that in the preparing.

The other thing about summer and food is that mostly I try to stay clear of the kitchen.  When I do cook, it is usually over a grill in the backyard.  Most Sundays I grill up several boneless, skinless chicken breasts and find ways over the next week to use the meat in salads or sandwiches.  I also grill a few zucchini slices that have been brushed with a small amount of olive oil and seasoned with whatever strikes me that day.  Sometimes simply salt and pepper, but other times I add some of the seasoning I use on my chicken breasts: a mixture of minced garlic and whatever herb happens to be in my garden, rosemary, thyme, basil.  Do not over cook the zucchini slices.  A couple of minutes per side is sufficient to leave them  slightly crunchy.  These grilled zucchini slices I eat immediately, sometimes making a meal with nothing else.

The cold, grilled chicken can be pared with halved grapes or cubed apples or both, along with sliced celery, chopped onion and/or nuts and yes, cubed zucchini, to make a wonderful, tasty and nutritious summer salad.  The dressing can be a simple mixture of yogurt and mayo with a bit of ground ginger.  If you want a sweeter dressing, add a small amount of honey.  I usually go half and half on the yogurt and mayo, say a tablespoon of each for a small amount of salad.    You can also use sour cream if you do not have yogurt.  And yes, feel free to use low- or no-fat products.

I also toss chopped zucchini into my salad greens or julienne one to dip in ranch dressing for a snack.   They make a great addition to your breakfast omelet as well.

If you grow tomatoes, which I do, you can sauté zucchini slices along with a tablespoon or so of chopped onions and a chopped tomato until all are tender.  Add a bit of chopped, fresh basil just before serving and enjoy.  Of course for this one you need to be in the kitchen for a brief period.  Sometimes you do what you need to.

You might notice that I said nothing about zucchini bread.  That’s because I save any bread baking for winter and the only zucchini I use in bread are those that get away from me.  I am at a loss as to how this happens.  I check my zucchini plant every day and think I get them all.  Then, out of nowhere comes a humongous zucchini sticking out of the bottom of the plant.  These I peel, grate and freeze in measured amounts for bread next winter.

Near the end of summer, when you become just too tired of zucchini to enjoy its healthy effects any longer, there is a way to add a bit of decadent to the dish.  By that I mean add some sugar and spice.  These pickled zucchini slices keep well in the refrigerator and go great with anything barbecued.

Pickled zucchini slices

Ingredients:

3-4 Small to medium zucchini squash, halved and sliced

1-2 Tablespoon kosher salt

½ Cup cider vinegar

¾ Cup granulated sugar

1/8 Teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/8 Teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 Teaspoon Turmeric

1/8 Teaspoon ground black pepper

¼ Teaspoon celery seed

Directions:

1.     Cut each zucchini in half lengthwise then cut into ¼ to ½ inch slices.  You should end up with 3-4 cups.

2.     Place zucchini slices in a glass dish and sprinkle with kosher salt.  Use ½ Tablespoon per cup.  Toss to coat with salt, cover and place in refrigerator overnight.

3.     The next morning, rinse the zucchini slices with cold water and drain well before returning to the glass dish.

4.     Add remaining ingredients, vinegar, sugar and spices, to small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Stir until sugar dissolves.

5.     Pour hot broth over zucchini slices.  Cover and refrigerate at least eight hours before serving.  These will keep well in the refrigerator.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gardens: growing for greens

It appears, if one reads history, that home gardening gains popularity during war and/or economic hard times.  Think “Victory Gardens” during both World Wars and the self-sufficiency movement during the Vietnam conflict.

Consider President Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign of the late 1970s and the current push to grow food during our current recession.  Granted, today’s enticement for home gardening involves more than saving money.  There is rampant obesity from eating high-fat, high-calorie fast foods, the controversial “greenhouse” effect from over production and materialism and, for some, a longing for a calmer existence; all of the which makes those of us residing in rural areas, where gardening is simply a fact of life, appreciate our traditions.

In my small Colorado town, gardening is common in many yards each summer despite our short growing season, which runs from near the end of May until late October.  Moving to the High Plains with its sandy soil from the hard, clay flatlands of Kansas meant learning to garden all over again, but after nearly 27 years, I now manage to grow enough summer treats to fill my belly and store some for winter.  My garden, however, is small compared to those of many of my neighbors.

The thing about gardening is that it seems a hard habit to break.  Many rural residents start tossing seeds and plants into the ground while raising children.  The problem is, children leave home but the gardening bug stays.  Thus you have older couples like my neighbors who continue to plant huge gardens that produce much more than they can eat, especially in the greens department, which means letting them go to waste or sharing the bounty.

Luckily for me, my neighbors love sharing as much as they like growing and eating.  That means a steady supply of lettuce and spinach, which makes me very happy since my small garden consists of things like zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and eggplant.

During a recent picking visit, my neighbor pointed out a leafy plant, saying this was the first time she grew Swiss Chard and did not know what to do with it.  I had heard of Swiss chard, but it is not one of the vegetables our small grocery store carries.  I’m nothing if not adventurous, though, when it comes to trying new foods.  I offered to take some of it (big of me don’t you think) and look on the Internet for a way to fix it.

Here is where I must recommend allrecipes.com, which I think is the best Website ever for any cook, but especially the single cook.  Not only is the site chucked full of recipes, but it contains a tool to recalculate recipes for smaller or larger numbers of servings.

During my search for Swiss chard I found several recipes, one of which I decided to try with a few adjustments.  For instance, I substituted ham for bacon, replaced one tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil, added sliced scallions and lowered the amount of lemon juice from three tablespoons to one.  Three made the dish a bit too lemony for me, but feel free to add more lemon juice if you like.  The recipe indicated two servings as a side dish, but I left the amounts the same and made it a one-skillet meal for one.  Here is my version of “Pan Fried Swiss Chard” based on the one found on allrecipes.com.



Fried Swiss chard

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 4-ounce slice of cooked ham, cubed.

2-3 Scallions, sliced with some green included

1 Garlic clove, minced

1 Tablespoon butter

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

4-5 Cups Swiss chard cut into 1-inch pieces

Salt and pepper to taste



Directions:

1.     Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat; add scallions and sauté until soft, 2 minutes.

2.     Add ham and sauté 2-3 minutes; add garlic and sauté 1 minute longer.

3.     Add butter and lemon juice.  As soon as butter melts, stir in Swiss chard.  Toss until leaves begin to wilt then cover and allow to steam 3-4 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Joanna and the pea fight

Visits from family tend to invoke memories.  A recent visit to this blog by my niece Joanna triggered many such memories, not the least of which involved a pea.

First a bit about Joanna with hopes that she forgives my dredging up her past.  Joanna came into this world kicking.  She never learned to walk, preferring instead to run as fast as she could on legs that measured, at least in my memory, approximately four inches floor to seat.  She broke from her run only long enough to open each and every cupboard door she encountered.  Then she would proceed to empty each cabinet of all contents making sure she missed nothing.  I soon learned to store only plastic and metal objects in those cupboards within her reach.

Joanna and her sister, Julie, three years older, spent a good amount of time at our house so my husband Lawrence and I grew to love them dearly and know them well.  Julie played quietly with her plastic horses, never raising a ruckus and rarely making a noise.  I made constant checks to make sure she had not wandered off, but I always found her just where I left her, quietly enjoying her own little world.

Not so, Joanna.  You heard her coming.  You moved out-of-the-way.  She rarely stopped to rest, earning her the name, “Jo Jo on the go go.”  She also stood firm when it came time for a fight.

I recall one time when we visited a family friend.  The friend, Virgil “Blackie” Ball, lived in a rather rough neighborhood.  Blackie and I sat inside his home visiting as Julie and Joanna played outside.  Suddenly we heard a commotion.  We raced outside to find Julie sitting on the porch while her three-year-old sister stood at the curb, hands on hips, shouting to three much larger boys across the street.  “Come over here and say that,” she shouted before picking up a rock and throwing it with all her might at the enemy.

A few years later, on Joanna’s first day of kindergarten her father, George, received a call from the school principal requesting that he come to school to talk.  It seems Joanna started and finished a fight with several second grade boys who ended up in tears.

Another example of Joanna’s grit came when my Mustang mare, Sugar, spooked and took off across our back lot with Joanna hanging on for dear life.  George, who had been holding her a moment before, raced to catch the horse without success.  However, when the horse reached the back fence, it stopped suddenly tossing Joanna, a mere toddler, to the ground.  George grabbed up the screaming Joanna and headed back to where I stood so we could check her injuries.  As the two came near and I made out what she was screaming, I could only laugh.  “Me want to ride the horse,” she sobbed.

What a kid, I thought as I dried her eyes and told her we would ride the horse again later.

Which brings me to the pea.  After I left Kansas and moved to Wyoming, Joanna often came to visit.  On one such visit, I fixed peas for dinner.  The rule at me house was always that the child at least taste what was prepared.  If the child did not like it; he or she would not need to eat more.  Joanna quickly informed me that she did not like peas.  “Try just one,” I said, and placed the one pea on her plate.

Joanna cleaned her plate, eating around the pea.  She was determined ; so was I.  “You are not leaving the table until you eat that pea,” I said.

I wish I could remember how this standoff ended but I cannot.  I do remember Joanna seated at the table long after the rest of us left.  I think, however, that the pea ended up in the trash.  So, Joanna, the following recipe is for you.

Creamed peas and potatoes

1 Small Yukon Gold potato peeled (or scrubbed) and cut into 1” cubes.

Water to cover

½ Teaspoon Kosher salt

½ Cup frozen peas

3 Tablespoons dry milk granules

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter (can use olive oil if watching saturated fats)

1 Tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

Directions:

1.     Place potato cubes in small saucepan, cover with water (filtered if available) and bring to boil over medium high heat.  When water begins to boil, add salt, lower heat and continue cooking 7-8 minutes.

2.     Add frozen peas to water with potatoes, return to boil and continue cooking 3 minutes longer.

3.     Drain potatoes and peas, reserving 2/3 cup of the liquid.  Remove potatoes and peas from saucepan and keep warm.

4.     In saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter then stir in flour to make a rue.  Cook, stirring constantly for 1-2 minutes.  Do not let the flour brown.

5.     Stir powdered milk into reserved liquid and add to the rue, whisking to combine.  Continue whisking and cooking until the sauce begins to boil and thicken.  Remove from heat and stir in the reserved potatoes and peas.  Adjust seasoning if needed before serving.

Note:  This can easily be increased to serve two small appetites by using a medium to large potato and increasing the amount of peas to ¾ cup.  Or, for two  larger appetites, just double the recipe.

Note 2:  For the single cook, powdered milk is a great substitute for fresh milk without the worry of it turning sour if you don't use it right away.  I always keep it on hand and when used for cooking find no fault with the taste.  If you do not have powdered milk, you can substitute fresh milk but you miss out on some of the flavor not to mention the nutrients you get from using the cooking water.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

New Orleans: Not my grandmother’s gumbo

Beyond its reputation for Mardi Gras, slavery, Civil War history, voodoo and music, New Orleans abounds with foods, especially seafood and southern fare.  The dinning guide supplied in my hotel room during a recent visit entitled “New Orleans Where” listed 78 eating establishments in the French Quarter alone not to mention those listed in the Central Business/Warehouse District, 36; the Garden District/Lower Garden District, 13; Mirigny/Bywater, 9; Mataire/Kenner, 3; Mid-City, 10; and Uptown, 29.

It seems one could spend weeks, even months eating around New Orleans, but my stay called for a meager eight meals, which included three breakfasts.  After spending considerable time reading about the various offerings, I decided the best plan was to play things by hunger and take my chances.  I was also seeking my grandmother’s gumbo.

That first morning I stopped at the front desk to inquire about the closest breakfast place.  The desk clerk directed me to an IHOP a block away on Canal Street, which is billed in the tourist information as “one of the widest avenues in the world.”

The IHOP with its well-worn interior offered the same menu as any other IHOP around the country so I settled for a simple breakfast of a pancake, egg and bacon.  Taking the long way home I spotted a small hole-in-the-wall bar that bragged on a wooden tent sign, “southern style breakfast served all day.”  The next day I walked the extra block only to find nearly the same IHOP menu with the exception of grits, which I’ve never been fond of, so I ordered a pancake that tasted astonishingly like northern style.

Thankfully lunches and dinners offered more adventure.  On Tuesday when lunchtime hunger struck I found myself seated in the Riverfront Café, where a wonderful breeze wafted through open ceiling-to-floor windows.  I ordered a spicy bowl of seafood gumbo and a mild locally brewed ale.  The combination tantalized my tongue and lifted my spirits.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of the French Quarter watching tourists, listening to the sounds of Zydeco and jazz as it streamed from shops filled with t-shirts, Mardi Gras masked, voodoo dolls and other souvenirs no doubt “made in China.”  I purchased post cards for my friend Rose, voodoo dolls for other friends and a deck of cards for another.  Along the way I found a bookstore filled with the mildew smell of damp paper and purchased two histories of the city, one serious with photos and facts, a second with fun stories about New Orleans culture and charm.

I ate dinner that night, a salad with balsamic vinaigrette over mixed baby greens and strawberries followed by grilled steak and shrimp, at a café with patio dinning.  I sat mildly content enjoying the warm evening air until my entrée arrived and I my eyes locked with the beady black eyes of the shrimp, served heads attached.  It took me a moment to contain my objection to this presentation before pushing aside my squeamish sensibilities.  I pulled apart each shrimp, removed the tail meat, tried hard to ignore the staring eyes and found my succulent reward.

The next day I rode the Canal Street and St. Charles streetcars to each route’s end and back again.  Each offered different insights into New Orleans; Canal Street impoverish and downtrodden in places and culminating with New Orleans’ famous cement “cities of the dead” (the cemetery district), St. Charles glutenous but elegant with block after block of huge mansions and thriving gardens.  These mansions were built, I read, when men became rich off the labor of slaves.

For lunch, “The Gumbo Pot” offered more gumbo.  I opted this time for the chicken and sausage, with another local ale.  Again seated on the patio, a gust of wind whipped over an umbrella before settling into a pleasant breeze, so unlike the continuous winds that whip across Colorado’s high plains.

After more leisurely walking around the French Quarter, I went back to my hotel for a short nap before venturing out to experience New Orleans’ nightlife.  Before long, I found myself seated at a table inside the “Bourbon House”, famous for its seafood.  Kevin, an energetic young waiter, advised me that the Redfish on the half shell served with a portion of lump crab was the best on the menu. “Bring it on,” I instructed him.

I started the meal with pecan pesto drizzled over slices of heirloom tomatoes, which Kevin bragged the restaurant grew in its own garden.  The Redfish did not disappoint, but I was stunned when I bit into my wonderful heirloom tomato and found it chilled from being refrigerated.  I wanted to complain but then I remembered I was in the south.  My southern grandmother refrigerated her tomatoes and taught my mother to do the same.

While my southern grandmother knew little about preserving the flavor of a warm sun-ripened tomato, she made the best gumbo I have ever experienced.  I suppose I had hoped to find a gumbo of similar taste in New Orleans, but alas, it was not to be.  While I enjoyed both attempts, neither passed the test.  I have also tried over the years to match hers and failed.  Perhaps gumbo really is a grandmother state-of-mind.

Chicken Gumbo almost like my grandmother’s

For the chicken:

Oil for frying

1 3-4 pound chicken cut into pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Flour for coating

Heat the oil in cast iron skillet over medium high heat.  Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper and then coat with flour.  Fry chicken pieces until crisp, 5-6 minutes per side.  Lay chicken on paper towel to drain off excess oil and reserve.

For the soup:

8 Tablespoons butter, divided

1 Pound fresh okra, thinly sliced (or use 2 ten-ounce packages frozen okra, defrosted)

1 Cup finely chopped onion

½ Cup finely chopped green bell pepper

1 Teaspoon minced garlic

2 Tablespoons flour

4 Cups chicken broth or stock

6 Medium ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or use two 14-ounce cans crushed tomatoes)

6-8 springs fresh flat-leafed parsley tied into bundle along with one large bay leaf.

½ Teaspoon dried thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Pour excess grease from skillet used to fry chicken and wipe clean with paper towel.  In same skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  Once the foam subsides, add the okra.  Stir okra constantly and cook until “roping” stops (Roping is the white treads the vegetable makes as you stir it.).  Remove skillet from the heat and reserve.

In a 3-4 quart Dutch oven, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  When foam subsides, add the onion and pepper.  Sauté 4-5 minutes until vegetables are soft but not browned.  Add the garlic and sauté one minute longer.  Add flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Slowly whisk in chicken stock then add okra, tomatoes, herbs and seasoning.  Push chicken pieces into soup until all are covered.  Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer 30-40 minutes.  Remove chicken pieces to a plate for serving separate from soup.  Remove and discard parsley and bay leaf.  Serve soup in individual bowls over rice.

Note for single cooks:  Once the soup is done, you can freeze individual portions then thaw and re-heat when ready to use.  Freeze, thaw and heat the rice separate.

To make seafood gumbo, make soup as directed without chicken.  Just before serving, add seafood of choice (shrimp and /or oysters).  If using both, add oysters first and simmer 2-3 minutes before adding shrimp.  Oysters are done when they plump up and the edges begin to curl.  Just before serving, add 2 teaspoons each of lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and cayenne pepper to taste.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Terrorist blender blade: a smooth operator

Americans beware.  A previously unknown threat, which the Transportation Security Administration is determined to stop, now invades the skies of this great country.  The danger involves the common, everyday blender found in many kitchens across the nation.  Well, not the entire blender, just the threatening terrorist blade found inside the blender.

This blender-blade crisis surfaced when my granddaughter Shannon boarded an airline flight in Dallas, Texas, headed for Denver, Colorado where I retrieved her from Denver International Airport a week before Christmas.

Shannon arrived with a perturbed look on her lovely face.  “I have a funny story to tell you, Grandma,” she said, as we proceeded to the baggage department.

It seems Shannon purchased a blender for her younger sister as a Christmas gift and opted to carry it on the plane rather than add to the weight of her already heavy, large suitcase, which the airline charged her $20 to cart.

At the time she checked the suitcase, she asked the agent whether she could carry on the blender, which was in its original, unsealed box.  The agent told her, “no problem,”

However, when she reached security, a TSA employee told her he needed to inspect the blender, which he promptly did by opening the previously unopened box.  He then removed the blender blade and informed her that she could not carry it on the plane.

“What am I going to do with it?”  She asked, incredulous at this new development.

The TSA agent wrapped the deadly device, put it in a box nearly large enough to hold the entire blender and told her to take it back to baggage, where the baggage agent promptly charged her $30 for a second piece of checked luggage.

Reaching the baggage carousal after she landed, we retrieved Shannon’s large suitcase and patiently waited for the box containing the blender blade.  Luggage appeared and thinned as other passengers retrieved suitcases, but no box.  We waited.  We waited.

Hell, I thought, they lost the darn box.  Sure enough, the last of the luggage from the flight made its way to the carousal but the box failed to show.

Long story short, the airline paid for a new blender and we left the blender blade floating somewhere in baggage claim continuing its threat to the safety of all Americans.

I am not sure how Shannon’s sister Sierra plans to use her new blender, but my less dangerous blender works well for making fruit smoothies.  Here is one how-to.

When my local market puts overripe bananas on sale I purchase several large bunches along with several bags of frozen berries.  Bananas sweeten as they ripen, so the riper the better as long as they are not rotten.  It does not matter what kind of berries: mixed, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries or blueberries; pick what you like.

I peel the bananas, slice them onto a parchment-paper lined cookie sheet and place the slices in the freezer to harden.  This takes about an hour.  Once the slices harden, I place 1/2 cup of banana slices along with 1/2 cup of berries in a sandwich bag.  Remove as much air as possible and place the small bags of fruit inside a larger freezer bag (gallon size works well) and keep in the freezer until ready to use.

When I want a smoothie, I remove one bag of fruit and place it in the blender along with a cup of non-fat milk and blend.  You can use whole milk or low-fat milk or even soymilk if you like.   All work well.  You get a wonderful sweet treat with no threat to your health.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Turkey: a dumb bird with smart possibilities

My Aunt Roberta never met a bird she did not like.  She filled bird feeders outside her kitchen window and watched as Sparrows, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Doves and Finches flew in to eat.  She also kept birds in the house.  She once set up two love birds in a small home and watch hopefully for them to engage in what their name implies, allowing their tiny eggs to lay in the nest waiting for them to hatch.  Unfortunately no little ones emerged since neither bird seemed inclined to sit on the eggs in the nest.

When my mother passed away, I took her orphaned Parakeet Peter to live with Roberta and he/she (one never knows with a bird) chirped happily in front of a large picture window until Roberta joined my mother in the hear-after and Peter went to live with my daughter, Teresa.  We won’t mention the cat that ultimately sent Peter’s little bird spirit to join mom and Roberta.

While Roberta’s inside birds bring smiles, my most cherished memories surround the fowl that roamed the farmyard where Roberta, her husband Bob and three sons Johnny, Glen and Gary lived.  These birds at one time or another included: chickens of all shapes, sizes and colors; a male peacock; ducks; guinea fowls, some of the ugliest, noisiest birds you ever want to meet; and last by not least a herd of turkeys.

“They are the dumbest birds you ever want to meet,” said Roberta one day as she scattered feed around the yard.  She then related how when a recent rainstorm hit the farm she looked outside to see the turkeys looking toward the sky while the rain fell.  “They were too dumb to go into the coop and half of them drowned before I could get out there and shoo them inside,” she said with a glint in her cocoa brown eyes.

It took a minute or two for me to realize that she was feeding me a bit of her dry-Kansas humor.

Dumb or not, anything a chicken can do, a turkey can do more of, especially for the single cook.

Just before Thanksgiving a local supermarket chain advertised 10- to 12-pound turkeys for $4.99 with the purchase of $10 worth of groceries.  Sounded like a great deal to me, especially if I could stretch this bird over time and meals, which is what I did.  Here it is February and the turkey’s meat continues to feed me well.

After roasting my turkey and allow it to cool slightly, I sliced the white meat and pulled the dark meat off the bone.  I then froze the meat in 4- to 5-ounce packages, separating the white and dark meats and marking the packages white or dark along with the date.

What then remained was the turkey carcass, which I slowly simmered in a pot along with a stalk of celery, a couple of chopped carrots, a chopped onion, a clove of garlic, a bay leaf and enough water to cover it all (Allow to simmer for at least an hour or longer).  After skimming off the foam and removing the vegetables I had a good amount of stock that I also froze in 1-2 cup containers for use in soups later.  This boiling of the carcass to make stock saved my mother a trip back to earth from heaven to haunt me.  A child of the depression, she wasted nothing and scolded me if she caught me tossing anything she considered “still of use.”

The small packages of frozen turkey meat thaw quickly in the refrigerator and can be used in place of cooked chicken when the recipe calls for it.  How about a little turkey salad in a sandwich?  The white meat works well for this purpose.

The dark meat adds a hearty flavor to soups like the one below.

Turkey-zini Soup with red beans

Ingredients

1 Tablespoon oil

¼ Cup chopped onion

½ Cup chopped carrots (about 2 small or 1 medium)

1 Garlic clove, minced

1 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

3 Cups water

1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

3-4 Ounces cooked turkey, preferably dark meat

1 Small bay leaf

1 Small to medium zucchini, quartered lengthways and sliced

Salt and pepper to taste (keep in mind that canned beans contain some salt)

Heat oil in two-quart pan.  Add onions and carrots and sauté 3-4 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes longer.  Add beans, water, tomatoes, turkey and bay leaf.  Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer 30 minutes.  Add zucchini and simmer 15 minutes longer.  Season and serve.  This makes 3-4 servings, but it heats well and in fact improves with time.  You can sprinkle on some grated Parmesan if you wish.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Salmon: Let me count the ways

So many ways to cook salmon; so little time.  Not really.  Salmon is a quick fix for busy schedules.  Depending on how you favor your salmon.  Some prefer rare.  Others, like myself, want it flakey and moist but done (I leave eating raw or rare fish to my California sushi-loving relatives.).  Cooking time for a 4- to 6-ounce salmon filet is 10 minutes for rare, 15 minutes for medium and 20-25 minutes for well done, which is my preference.

In addition to quick and easy, salmon also responds well to today’s push for healthy eating.  Attempting to respond to the advice to add more fish to my diet, salmon has become one of my favorite health-conscience alternatives to meat.  Not, however, the dry salmon patties my mother used to mix from canned salmon.  There are many tantalizing ways to prepare fresh salmon, which is readily found, single-wrapped for the single cook, in your grocer’s freezer.

You can also purchase unfrozen fresh salmon from most super markets these days, but I prefer wild salmon, which is often specified on the package when you purchase it frozen.  Just make sure you are getting fresh salmon that has not been tampered with.  By that I mean, watch out for pre-seasoned filets unless that is what you want.

One simple and easy way to fix salmon is to lightly salt and pepper the meaty side of the filet and lay it skin-side down on a lightly oiled grill or skillet.  Turn the filet over halfway through your desired cooking time.  All you need is a salad and a side of rice, which I will discuss in a future blog.

Any of the recipes below can be easily doubled if you are cooking for two.

Here’s some other ways with Salmon:

Poached

1 4- to 6-ounce salmon filet, thawed

¼ Teaspoon dried dill weed

¼ Teaspoon lemon-pepper

1 Tablespoon olive oil

¼ Cup finely chopped onion

¼ Cup chicken broth or water

Sprinkle salmon filet with dill and lemon-pepper.  Set aside.  In small skillet heat oil and sauté onions until lightly browned and caramelized.  Using a rubber spatula, move onions to side of the skillet to make room for the salmon filet.  Lay the filet in the skillet, skin side down.  Pour the chicken broth into the skillet and cover.  Poach until salmon reaches desired doneness as outlined above.  Pour the onions and any sauce over the salmon to serve.

Glazed

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 Tablespoon molasses or honey

1 Garlic clove, minced

¼ Teaspoon lemon zest

1 4- to 6-ounce salmon filet, thawed

In small bowl, whisk together the oil, molasses, minced garlic and lemon zest.  Lightly oil a small skillet over medium heat.  Once skillet is hot, place salmon filet in skillet, skin side down and brush the top with the sauce.  Halfway through desired cooking time (For me this is 10 minutes), turn over, baste once more and continue cooking until desired doneness.  Serve with any remaining sauce.

Baked in paper

1 4- to 6-ounce salmon filet, thawed

1 Garlic clove, minced

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

½ Tablespoon olive oil

Tear a sheet of parchment paper large enough to wrap the filet.  Place the filet in the center of the paper.  Mix the garlic, lemon juice and oil together and pour over filet.  Wrap the filet and juices, securing the edges.  Place on a baking sheet in a 425°F oven for your desired cooking time.  For me, that would be 20 minutes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dessert: Life’s most important meal

Life must include occasional desserts.  Otherwise, eating lacks joy.  I’m not talking the fake sugar or fat-free kind of dessert.  I’m talking dessert that slides smoothly over the tongue and sends joy to one’s taste buds.

Thinking to ward off the food police, I’m not suggesting that every meal end with a sugar treat or that you eat cake and/or pie every day.  I am suggesting that once in a while a small decadent treat lengthens rather than shortening one’s life.  In fact, it is my opinion that not allowing an occasional dessert could cause one to die of food boredom.

At the same time, we singles dare not bake an entire cake or pie and leave it around to temp over indulgence.  That, to me, defeats the purpose.  Dessert should be anticipated and cherished on rare occasions.  Moderation, in my opinion, is the key to everything good in life.

Here is a dessert that I make a couple of times a year when I feel like treating myself.  Each bite brings such joy that eating it seems almost sinful.  I’m betting, however, that God approves.

Anisette Flan

Ingredients

1 Cup half-and-half

1/4 Cup sugar

1 Tablespoon grated orange zest

3 Egg yolks

1 Tablespoon Anisette Liqueur

1/2 Teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 Teaspoon coconut extract

1 Drop almond extract

Cinnamon

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 325°.  Put half-and-half, sugar, and orange zest into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar dissolves (about 5 minutes).

2. Meanwhile, put egg yolks into a small bowl and whisk until thick and frothy.  Gradually add half-and-half mixture to yolks, whisking constantly.  Stir in Anisette, vanilla, and coconut and almond extracts.  Strain through fine sieve into two 6-ounce ramekins.

3. Arrange ramekins in a deep baking pan and add enough boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Carefully place pan in oven and bake until flans are just set and centers are slightly soft when you jiggle the ramekins, 35-40 minutes.  Remove flans from water bath, sprinkle with cinnamon and set aside for at least 15 minutes.  Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

Note: Makes two servings.  I like to eat one at room temperature the same evening I make them and chill the second for the next evening.  Or, if you have a special friend you would like to give a nice treat, make a home delivery to that person around dinnertime.  Better yet, invite that person over for dinner when you make this delightful dessert.

Note 2: Can be made with other flavors of liqueur for a different taste and lemon zest also works fine.

Use tip: Store the egg whites in the refrigerator until the following morning, then make a healthy veggie omelet for breakfast or Sunday brunch.  Just chop and sauté some veggies such as bell pepper, onion, mushrooms and or tomato and pour slightly beat egg whites over all.  Cook until set and sprinkle with a little cheese before serving.