Hey Vinnie, Where’s the Beef?

When I actually worked for a living, I had the opportunity to eat at a lot of really nice restaurants all around the United States. You know, the restaurants where you are served a tiny piece of Mozambique tilapia with stewed raspberries and capers drizzled with Sicilian olive oil on an oversized, square white plate, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $50, salad not included. For the most part, those meals were delicious and I was able to try a lot of foods I wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise. I am grateful to have had that opportunity.

But for the most part, I am a simple eater. And thankfully, so is my husband. When I told Bill I would take him anywhere he would like for his birthday dinner, he chose a place famous for its fried chicken. And as I go through my recipe files – those on Pinterest and those in my recipe box – the fanciest recipe I have is Coq au Vin. And I haven’t made that for years.

Bill grew up in Chicago – the food capital of the United States in my opinion. If you go downtown, there are innumerable fancy restaurants, similar to those I enjoyed earlier in my life. But the restaurants that Bill enjoyed were not really restaurants at all. They were food joints on the South Side of Chicago. Hot dog stands. Gyros places. Pizza parlours. If he was feeling really fancy, he might go to a locally-owned steak house where they still have red leather booths and serve a relish tray before bringing your salad made out of crisp iceberg lettuce and carrots.

And when we go to Chicago to visit his mother, those are the places we dine. I have mentioned before that Bill’s favorite food is pizza, and his favorite pizza joint is Fox’s, a chain of four or five restaurants on the south side of Chicago. The pizza is thin crust, and he always orders pizza with sausage. Yum…..

Bill Fox pizza

We were thrilled a couple of years ago when one of Bill’s favorite Chicago joints opened up a restaurant in Mesa, right down the street from where the Chicago Cubs play spring baseball. Why not? The place is always busy when we are there, and we go quite often.

Portillo's MesaPortillo’s has all of your Chicago favorites – hot dogs, gyros, tamales, hamburgers. But his (and increasingly my) favorite is their Italian Beef sandwich. Italian beef is slow cooked roast beef sliced very thin, served on a roll that is drenched in the “gravy.” It is served with either sweet or hot peppers. Sweet peppers are simply roasted green peppers and hot peppers are similar to giardiniera – a mixture of spicy pickled vegetables. Again, yum.

Recently he was hankering for an Italian beef sandwich, and it wasn’t handy to make a quick trip to either Chicago or Arizona. So I tried my hand at it, and found a Portillo’s copycat recipe for Italian beef. I’m no expert on whether or not it rivaled Portillo’s but I will tell you it was good, and satisfied my sandwich loving husband. And best yet, it cooked in a crock pot!

Soon we will be eating the genuine article in Mesa. But here’s something to enjoy in the meantime….

Italian Beef

Portillo’s Italian Beef Sandwich, adapted from Food.com

1 t. salt
1 t. ground black pepper
a t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
1 t. onion salt
3 c. water
1 t. dried parsley
1 t. garlic powder
1 bay leaf
1 (2/3 OZ) package Italian salad dressing mix
5 lb. rump roast

In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, combine the water, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, onion salt, parsley, garlic powder, bay leaf and salad dressing mix. Stir well and bring just to a boil.

Place roast in a slow cooker and pour mixture over the roast. Cover and cook on low setting for 10 to 12 hours OR high setting for 4 to 5 hours. Remove bay leaf and shred meat with a fork. Serve on hard rolls.

Nana’s Notes: Genuine Chicago Italian beef sandwiches are made on a certain kind of bread that’s not available here. I used French hard rolls and it was delicious. Also, the genuine article uses roast beef that is sliced VERY THIN. Since I don’t have a meat slicer, I shredded the meat and it worked great. Chicago, don’t hate me. Finally, the test of a true Italian beef sandwich is that it is so sloppy that you have to lean over your plate to eat it. It might be hard to tell from the photo, but this one definitely was.

Cooking Teachers

I’m not sure I can entirely remember what life was like prior to Food Network. This fact, of course, isn’t exactly surprising since I can’t remember where I park my car at the mall. The irony I’m afraid is that I CAN remember my home telephone number from when I was a 6 years old and the words to all of the songs from the 1960s. Sigh. Way to waste those important brain cells.

I guess our parents used those funny things called cookbooks. They didn’t have anyone to teach them to cook from their little black and white television sets. Well, except for Julia Child. And I don’t know about anyone else’s mom, but my mom didn’t particularly want to learn to cook French food. I would have liked to seen the look on my dad’s face should mom have plopped sole meuniere in front of him one night.

My mom says she learned to cook from my paternal grandmother (her mother died at a very young age). I learned to cook by watching my mother. And more recently from watching Food Network and PBS cooking shows.

It used to be that Food Network consisted almost entirely of actual cooking shows. Nowadays, you can find a few cooking shows on during the day, but nighttime consists entirely of competition shows. They don’t particularly interest me. So I mostly watch during the day. Ree Drummond, Trisha Yearwood, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis. Others.

If I’m to tell you the entire truth, most of the stars of the shows drive me crazy. I can’t imagine cooking showing as much cleavage as does Giada, if for no other reason than that I would undoubtedly splash my chest with hot bacon grease. I sometimes think that if Ina Garten says “How (fill in the blank) is that?” one more time, I will throw my coveted seasoned cast iron skillet through the television screen.

But I have learned things from all of these Food Network and PBS cooks that I think has made me a better cook. Here’s a few of the things I have learned…..

Ina Garten: As annoyed as I get when the Barefoot Contessa instructs us to use “really good wine” or “good vanilla” or, as in one recipe, “really good saffron” (as if you should spend even more on an ingredient that already requires you to pawn your wedding ring to buy), I have learned that she is right that the better the ingredients, the better the final result. But the way I look at it, it doesn’t mean you have to fly to Madagascar to pick up a bottle of vanilla. It means, if possible, buy real vanilla extract as opposed to vanilla flavoring.

Paula Deen: Paula’s use of butter is (and I think was meant to be) ridiculous. But she taught me not to be afraid to use butter in my recipes. It simply tastes better. I also learned the easiest way to prepare collard greens – fold them in half and pull the leaves off the stem in one fell swoop.

Giada De Laurentiis: Despite my constant annoyance with her cleavage and the fact that she won’t simply say “spaghetti” or “fettucine” the way we do, she has taught me to use the freshest ingredients possible. Recently, she made a pasta red sauce that looked delicious, and she threw the rind of a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano into the sauce to flavor it. I will definitely give that a try. Giada also uses a lot of fresh fennel, and once I gave it a try when using one of her salad recipes that included fennel and grapefruit, I was hooked. Yum.

Ree Drummond: The Pioneer Woman has given me permission to use store-bought ingredients. Though Ina Garten must turn her nose up at Ree Drummond, I love that Ree will open up a box of chicken broth or use a jar of store-bought pesto.  If she can do it, so can I! It makes me happy to see her use her cast iron skillet so often because it’s one of my favorite cooking utensils. I couldn’t live without it. I love her 16-minute meals. Next to Lidia, I probably use more of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes than any other.

Lidia Bastianich: I left Lidia until last because, well, you know. I want her to adopt me. She speaks to me. For example, the day after I burned my hand because I grabbed the handle of a pan that I had taken out of the oven a minute or so before, she told me, “Kris, make sure when you take something out of the oven, you place a towel on it to remind yourself and others that it is hot.” (Well, she might not have directed it specifically to me, but she said it on her show the next day, and I know she meant it for me.) She has taught me not to fear anchovies but to embrace them as a rich and salty seasoning that melts in your fry pan and therefore won’t scare others, who will simply wonder why your sauce is so good. I also learned to salt my food as I cook, every time I add an ingredient or move to a new step. (If you fear oversalting, place the amount of salt you want to use in a little bowl and take from that. That’s what Lidia told me.) And maybe my favorite instruction from her is, “Clean hands are your best kitchen tool.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Lidia recipes…..

Pasta with Baked Cherry Tomatoes, courtesy Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia Bastianich

3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
½ c. plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. fine dry bread crumbs
1 t. kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot
¼ t. pepperoncino flakes, or to taste
1 lb. spaghetti, gemelli, or penne
10 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
½ c. freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano) plus more for passing
4 oz. Ricotta or ricotta salata

Arrange a rack in the center of the oven, and heat to 350 degrees.

Toss the cherry tomato halves in a large bowl with 3 T. olive oil. Sprinkle over tomatoes the bread crumbs, salt, and pepperoncino; toss well to coat the tomatoes evenly. Pour the tomatoes onto a parchment-lined sheet, and spread them apart in a single layer. Bake until the tomatoes are shriveled and lightly caramelized (but not dried out), about 25 minutes in all.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with salted water, and heat to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes are nearly done, drop the pasta into the pot, stir, and return the water to a boil.

As soon as the pasta is cooking, pour the remaining olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium-high heat, and scatter in the sliced garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until it is sizzling and lightly colored, then ladle in about 2 c. of the pasta cooking water, and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring up the garlic. Let half the water evaporate, then lower the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and keep the sauce barely simmering.

As soon as the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven.

When the pasta is al dente, lift it from the water, drain for a moment, and drop it into the skillet, still over low heat. Toss pasta quickly with the garlic-and-parsley sauce in the pan, then slide the baked tomatoes on top of the pasta. Scatter the basil shreds all over, and toss everything together well, until the pasta is evenly dressed and the tomatoes are distributed throughout. Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the grated cheese, and toss once more.

Serve immediately.

pasta with baked tomatoes

Nana’s Notes: I cut the recipe in half by simply halving the ingredients. I used fresh tomatoes out of my garden, which I’m madly harvesting. The only cheese I used was Parmigiano. The meal was delicious. Thanks again Lidia.

Not My Mom’s Cooking: Bring on the Limes

We are a family of grillers. All of my siblings cook frequently on the grill. In fact, during the summer, I’ll bet we mostly cook on a grill. What’s more, most of our children do the same. Whenever Court and his family are over for dinner, he takes over the grill and cooks the food. Yay!

It makes me happy that we are all grillers because we take after my dad. He manned the grill in the summer in Columbus when grilling wasn’t even a thing. And not a gas grill mind you. He lit coals and waited for them to begin turning to ash. He stood by the grill and watched his meat carefully so that it wouldn’t burn until it was ready to eat. He wasn’t empty-handed, of course. He had a beer or a martini in his hand as he cooked. Why not?

I have a gas grill, as does most everyone these days. They are quick and easy to use. I can light it up even in the cold weather, and frequently do. But I have to tell you that one of my favorite things to do is haul out my charcoal grill from the side of the house, light the coals, and wait for them to be ready with an ice cold martini in my hand. The perfect ending is a juicy ribeye steak.

My siblings might be able to correct me on this, but I don’t think Dad always cooked chicken on the grill. Steaks, yes. Burgers and hot dogs, definitely. Pork chops, undoubtedly.

But the reason I say this about chicken is because I remember when Dad started grilling chicken, and it was because of my cousin John, who came to visit from the small town of Valley, Nebraska, just outside Omaha. While John is my maternal cousin, he and Dad were good buddies. My mom was the youngest of 13 kids and John’s mom was the eldest, so the age difference between John and Dad wasn’t great.

John prepared chicken in the simplest way possible – salt, pepper, butter, maybe a bit of lemon juice, and a beer to douse the flames. Oh, and perhaps a bit would spill onto the meat. Oops. To this day, my brother will say that his favorite olfactory memory of Dad is the smell of beer on hot coals. It’s the only thing I ever use to keep a grill under control.

I’m telling this story because though Mom and Dad eventually began to cook chicken on the grill, I don’t think they ever did anything besides the lemon chicken and maybe chicken with barbecue sauce. I don’t think they went beyond those boundaries.

I, on the other hand, cook chicken on the grill many different ways. Chicken is still fairly inexpensive. It’s versatile. And it tastes good. Most people use chicken breasts, but for me, it’s chicken thighs every single time.

This is a recipe I came across recently because I discovered a multitude of limes in my refrigerator and wanted to use them up. I have a habit of buying limes just about any time I go to the grocery store because I can’t remember whether or not I have any in the refrigerator. So they add up because a person can only drink so many gin and tonics. I think my fear of running out of limes is left over from a couple of years ago when there was a lime crisis in Mexico (probably not the most serious crisis they face each day) that resulted in a shortage of limes, at least in Arizona. It is surprising how this impacted my life. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it probably isn’t good.


Chili Lime Chicken
Adapted from rasamalaysia.com

2-2.5 lbs. skin-on bone-in chicken thighs
½ c. fresh lime juice
3 t. fresh lime zest
¼ c. olive oil
4 T. fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 jalapenos, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 T. honey
2 t. salt
1 large pinch of red pepper flakes, or to taste.

Rinse the chicken thighs and pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.

Mix the remaining ingredients together in a big bowl, making the marinade. Add chicken to the marinade, making sure to stir and coat the chicken evenly. Marinate for 2 hours.

uncooked chicken

Prepare your grill, brushing a little bit of oil on the surface. Add a bit of the garlic, cilantro, and jalapeno from the marinade on top of the chicken and grill until they are golden brown and charred on both sides. Watch carefully, as the honey will burn easily.

Chili Lime Chicken

Nanas Notes: I think chicken is kind of difficult to cook on the grill because the fat in the skin causes flames. I cooked the thighs for 10 minutes on one side with the lid open, keeping a close eye on them. I then cooked the thighs for 10 minutes on the other side. I turned off one of the burners and cooked the chicken on indirect heat with the lid closed for 30 -35 minutes, until finished. With this particular recipe, it really is necessary to oil the grill grate prior to cooking. The honey in the marinade results in sticky chicken. If you don’t oil the grill, your crispy skin will stick to the grill and you will lose out on some good eats.

Waiter, My Soup’s Cold

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Nebraska, where, while they might not be able to lay claim to its origin, red beer is king. You know, tomato juice or V-8 (or, in the case of my brother, Clamato) mixed with lager beer. Red beer. Go Big Red. Cornhuskers. As my granddaughter Mylee would say, “Got it?”

Anyway, I love tomato juice. And V-8. And I might like Clamato if I ever tried it. However, not being a beer drinker, I can’t say I like red beer. But I like tomato juice with most everything else. Put a spicy Bloody Mary into my hands, and I’m very happy. I don’t even need all the fancy accoutrements, like okra or bacon or dilly beans. Just tomato juice and vodka jazzed up with hot sauce and spices. Yum. A great excuse for alcohol at 8 o’clock in the morning.

I was thinking about tomato juice the other day as I prepared a batch of gazpacho. Gazpacho, as you might know, is a tomato-based vegetable soup served icy cold in the summer when vegetables are at their freshest. An alcohol-free bloody mary in a bowl. Since I have been trying to cut back on carbs, I have been looking for sandwich-free meals for lunch. I thought about gazpacho, especially now that vegetables are plentiful at the market.

I started looking for a good recipe, and then realized a written recipe is probably unnecessary. Use what’s in your refrigerator and pantry. But I will share my mother’s recipe nonetheless, and then tell you how I modified it.

But first I must tell you a couple of things. The first thing is that I fully admit that I had never heard of gazpacho prior to living in Leadville, when my mother inserted it into her soup repertoire. I loved it from the first bite. That’s surprising, because the second thing I’ll tell you is that I heartily dislike cold soup of almost any kind. And I’m a big fan of soup in general. But don’t give me cold borscht or vichyssoise. Cold melon or strawberry soup? No thanks, though I love both melons and strawberries.

I’m pretty sure gazpacho was new to my mom too. I think she got the recipe from a friend. The recipe card is handwritten, and I don’t recognize the handwriting.

Mom’s Gazpacho

4 c. diced tomatoes
¾ c. chopped green peppers
1-1/2 c. chopped onions
1 garlic clove, minced
2 c. beef bouillon
½ c. lemon juice
¼ c. olive oil
½ c. diced cucumber
1 T paprika
Salt and pepper to taste.

Combine all ingredients except cucumber. Let stand at room temperature for one hour, stirring frequently. Chill. Add cucumber just before serving.


Nana’s Notes: Here’s what I did, using things from my pantry and my refrigerator. I chopped up a cucumber, a jalapeno, two cloves of garlic, a half of a red onion, and a couple of stalks of celery. I would have included a green pepper if I’d had one. I put half of each of the chopped vegetables in the blender with 3 small cans of tomato juice that I had on hand, a tablespoon or so of sugar, a half cup of olive oil, and about a cup of beef broth. I blended it, but didn’t totally pulverize it. I then put that in a bowl, added a tablespoon of sugar and the remaining chopped vegetables. I added a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes in lieu of a fresh tomato since they aren’t yet in season. I happened to have a half of a container of pico de gallo, so I thought, “why not?” and added that as well. I chilled the whole bowl for several hours and enjoyed a delicious, nutritious, and low carb lunch (several, actually).

Morning at the Lake

Red Mountain LakeBill and I simply can’t talk ourselves into going to the gym on these beautiful March mornings. Though I feel guilty (for some reason, it seems like more genuine exercise if I’m walking on a treadmill than if I’m walking along the side of a lake), we are enjoying the clear and cool mornings as we walk around the lake in a park near our house.

By noon it’s already inching dangerously close to 90 degrees.

Yesterday morning we were out and about just after 7:30, and it was a nice time to enjoy our urban countryside.

I know those two terms seem contradictory. Still, that’s exactly what it is. A bit of country in the middle of the city.

When my cousin visited last weekend, her husband commented that we probably didn’t have a lot of birds in this area. Au contraire mon frere. Though it was exactly what I thought before we bought our house in the desert, I was surprised to learn that there are all sorts of birds in the area, including cardinals. And not just the football team.

Arizona Cardinals football player

Arizona Cardinals football player

The other Arizona Cardinal.

The other Arizona Cardinal.

I have mentioned before that our backyard hosts a variety of birds including mockingbirds, quail, and mourning doves. In fact, as I watched the quail yesterday morning before we left for our walk, I told Bill that I think quails are a sign that God has a sense of humor. They are the funniest of birds.

fishing buddies

But back to our walk. Red Mountain Park is quite large with several covered eating areas and a couple of playgrounds. The sidewalk winds all of the way around a beautiful lake that looks as if it could be out in the country. There are ducks and geese aplenty. One lap around the park is just under a mile, so a couple of laps gives you a pretty good walk.

This park, as I have observed is true in most parks in the area that have a lake, are open for fishing. And in the morning, especially as lone fisherearly as we walked, there were plenty of men and boys fishing. Most are sitting in lawn chairs paying little attention to their lines. Yesterday we saw a couple of men fly fishing, which I had not seen before.

Again, in the way that I have, I begin to invent stories. I think these are men from Minnesota or Wisconsin or Iowa who are retired and loving their new lives of leisure. They probably spend a few hours a couple of times a week fishing, not really interested in whether or not they catch anything. Probably throw them back if they do. What they used to do only on weekends in the summer they can do any day of the week!

4 bunniesYesterday, in addition to many birds, we also saw a little bevy of bunnies. Perhaps they were divying up duties for the upcoming Easter holiday. They didn’t appear to be even remotely concerned about the nearness of humans. I guess they just figured if we try to harm them, they just won’t leave us any Easter candy!

As we near Easter and thus the end of Lent, I am going to offer one more Lenten recipe that we enjoyed. It just didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice…..

shrimp stir fry

ginger shrimp stir fry




Generation Next

When I was a small girl, my mom’s sister Ann lived near us. Well, to be perfectly honest, Columbus was/is a pretty small town, so arguably everyone  lived near us. For a period of time, Ann lived in a house that at various times accommodated different members of my mother’s family.

My recollection is that when Ann resided in that house it had a HUGE rock garden with beautiful flowers. When I drive by the house today, there is no garden, and the side yard where the garden once was located is just a normal sized yard. Ah, the eyes of children….

But what I really remember about that house is that Ann’s decorating taste ran to, well, let’s call it busy. There were pictures or crafts or some kind of tchotchke on every part of her walls. I’m not trying to be unkind. It wasn’t particularly tacky. It was just, well, I can’t think of a better word than busy.

Very unlike our house. My mother’s style was simple. Our house was decorated with impeccable taste.

In other words, not busy.

I thought about different decorating styles yesterday morning as Bill and I took a three-mile walk around our neighborhood. Our route took us past a block of single family homes that seemingly house older residents. You can just tell.

One house in particular gave off the vibe of housing an elderly person. (And remember, an elderly person is anyone older than you. As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer people older than you. Sigh.) The yard was filled with garden gnomes and geese wearing clothing and artificial flowers. As we walked past, I said to Bill, “Do you think there will come a time when will I start putting garden gnomes and artificial flowers in our front yard?”

But I realized that I likely never will. It’s just what each generation brings to the table as a result of experiences and what you grew up with.  And each generation is different. My generation doesn’t really do garden gnomes.

In my blog yesterday I talked about vegetables. One of my commenters noted that her mother always cooked vegetables – even broccoli – an hour, until they were mush. Her comment made me think about the dining room in the retirement community in which my mother-in-law resides. Their chef, God bless her, offers fresh vegetables at each meal, and every time I’ve been there, Wilma and her friends have complained that the vegetables are undercooked. They aren’t happy unless the green beans or the broccoli are a pale green and can be swallowed without chewing.  It’s what they grew up with.

My generation, trained to cook by the Food Network, steams the vegetables until cooked but not mush. Later generations will probably just take a pill instead of eating vegetables at all.

Different generations; different ideas. Life goes on.

And speaking of vegetables, in keeping with my promise to offer a meat-free recipe each week during Lent, here is today’s offering…

yeastThe grocery stores are carrying something new from Fleischman’s (and perhaps others as well) called Pizza Crust Yeast. I’m not sure how the yeast is different, but you can literally have a homemade-from-scratch pizza in less than a half hour because the dough doesn’t require any time to rise.

Our pizza was heavy on the cheese and included a few vegetables cheese pizzaon half the pizza. Guess whose half?

Please, please, please don’t let the idea of kneading throw you off the notion of making this pizza. The dough is soft and easily worked, and you just knead it for 3 – 4 minutes. Push it away from you, fold it over, push it again. Kneading is easy.

I was able to shape the pizza without a rolling pin, though I did then use the pin to make it an even thickness. I baked it right on my pizza stone that I sprinkled with corn meal, but you can put it on a greased pizza pan or cookie sheet as an alternative. Still try the corn meal. Yum.

The recipe makes one thicker crust, or two thinner crusts. I haven’t yet tried dividing the dough.

That’s amore!

homemade 30 min pizza






Cafeteria Plan

From first grade (the first year that I was in school all day) through 12th grade, each and every day I ate my lunch in the school cafeteria. The same cafeteria. That’s because my elementary, junior high, and high schools were all part of the same Catholic school system. The cafeteria was located over near the high school, so in grade school (particularly the younger grades) we had to line up, two by two, holding hands, to quietly walk over to the cafeteria.

By the way, that walk over to the cafeteria caused me to get the only reprimand I ever got in school. I was accused of talking to my friend on the way, and got a paddle on my behind as a result. I assure you, I was innocent.

And for that entire time, and for several years after I graduated, the school cafeteria was run by a woman named Mrs. Fletcher. I’m sure she had a first name, and perhaps I even once knew what it was (Clara?), but I always knew her as Mrs. Fletcher.

I can’t recall what the cost of our school lunches were, but what I can tell you is that, unlike the lunches of today (and perhaps even the lunches of the period about which I’m talking at schools other than mine), the lunches were quite good. Homemade by Mrs. Fletcher and her minion of school lunch cookers. A bevy of women in hair nets who dished out our lunch each day. We would go through the line, take our food (no choices, you ate what they served), grab a carton of milk – white or chocolate – and find your friends at the table.

When you were finished with lunch, you would put anything you hadn’t eaten into the milk carton so that the nuns wouldn’t need to lecture you about the poor, starving children in the Philippines.

Dad was friends – or at least friendly – with Mrs. Fletcher, because part of the reason the lunches were so good is that the bread was made fresh each day by Gloor’s Bakery. Hamburger buns, white bread, dinner rolls. All home made. And he would deliver them.

I thought about Mrs. Fletcher recently when I came across photos of typical lunches from around the world. I believe the point that was being made by these photos is that school lunches in America are inferior to those in other countries. Maybe yes, maybe no.  I suspect it isn’t easy to feed children food that they like within tight school budgets, no matter the country.

france lunch

italy lunch

usa lunch

Here’s what I do know, however. Mrs. Fletcher helped form my taste buds. To this day when I eat Sloppy Joes, I take the two halves of the bun apart, lay them side by side, and ladle the Sloppy Joe mix over the two halves. There is no topping better on chocolate cake than whipped cream. Nothing tastes better than putting mashed potatoes right on top of your meatloaf. Salmon loaf needs to have potato chips crumbled on top. And, while I probably haven’t eaten a fish stick since I graduated from high school, nothing says Friday lunch better than fish sticks.

scampiAnd speaking of Friday, here is another meatless meal offering. This recipe includes shrimp, so it obviously isn’t vegetarian. There are many recipes for Shrimp Scampi, but I find this lemony shrimp scampi by Food Network’s Melissa D’Arabian to be one of the best. I love the lemony flavor of the sauce.


Shrimp Scampi jpeg





Mom’s Soup

chickpea minestroneAs promised, here is my second meatless meal recipe…..

I’ve talked before about Mom and Dad’s brave move to Leadville, Colorado, from Columbus, Nebraska, in the mid-70s. For as long as I remember, they had wanted to live in the Colorado mountains that they loved so much. The bakery in Leadville is what finally presented itself to them.

It wasn’t a perfect fit by any means. A while back I wrote a blog about our family’s time in Leadville. It was a rough town, largely dependent upon the molybdenum mine. Miners are a unique animal we soon learned.

But in addition to having to get used to the thin air (Leadville sits at an altitude of over 10,000 feet making for difficult breathing and short summers), my parents also had to get used to the fact that along with the bakery, there was a small coffee shop.

I’m not sure what the previous owners offered in the coffee shop. But for Gloor’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, breakfast consisted primarily of coffee and donuts or sweet rolls from the attached bakery and lunch was also simple – a few kinds of sandwiches and homemade soup.

Soup wasn’t a particularly new thing for my mom. As we grew up, she occasionally made us soup for a simple dinner or maybe a lunch treat. I remember she made vegetable beef soup with a beef shank that was absolutely delicious. I don’t think any of us have her recipe for that soup (because frankly she probably never had a recipe), but man I would like to have a bowl of it right this minute.

Anyhoo, under the direction of my mother, the Gloor Bakery Coffee Shop offered homemade soup, each day a different kind. Not endlessly different, but 10 or 12 kinds of soup that she rotated. I remember people stopping by the coffee shop in the morning to see what the soup-of-the-day was for that day, or calling to ask. Everyone had their favorite.

The soups truly were homemade from scratch. Each and every afternoon (except Saturday), Mom would make a big pot of soup for the next day. I’m sure at first this was kind of fun. After all, nothing smells better than soup simmering on the stove.

I’m here to tell you, however, that the fun wore off rather quickly and changed into drudgery. I hope that I don’t shock any of you when I tell you that my mother began referring to her soup as her “f***ing soup” as in “I’ve got to go make my f***ing soup for tomorrow.” Petite and pretty as she was, she could cuss right up there with the best of them!

And man-oh-man, was her soup ever good. She made Cream of Broccoli (which she called Broccoli Soup and I posted her recipe previously – also meatless by the way, which many of her soups were), Cream of Cauliflower, Cream of Asparagus, Clam Chowder, Beef Chili, Green Chili, Vegetable Beef, Potato, Ham-and-Bean, Minestrone, and for those warm summer THREE days or so, Gazpacho. I’m probably forgetting a few, and I’m sure my siblings will remind me.

Even writing about them makes me want to go cook up a pot of soup today. I only have her recipe for a few of them, unfortunately.

Here is a recipe I found for Chickpea Minestrone. As I write this, I’m 900 miles away from my mother’s Minestrone Soup recipe (one of the few soup recipes I have), but as a recall, her minestrone also contained chickpeas, pasta and no meat. However, this was a good version, and it comes from Vegetarian Times….


The Meat of the Matter

Ingredients for a simple and delicious meatless meal.

Ingredients for a simple and delicious meatless meal.

As a so-called cradle Catholic, I’ve always been puzzled at the concept of abstaining from meat on Fridays. When I was a child, we couldn’t eat meat any Friday of the year. At some point in the mid-60s I think, the Church rule changed to what it is today – abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent only.

What’s always puzzled me is, why meat? Why not something else? Why not coffee, or meat and fish, or alcohol, or bubble gum. Well, maybe not bubble gum as I don’t think there was such a thing as bubble gum in the middle ages.  There is some thought that a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Catholic Church was trying to help out the struggling fishing industry. I don’t know if that is true or not, though according to the internet – which as you know, never lies – that is very possibly the case.

The reason this puzzles me so is that not eating meat on Fridays is absolutely no sacrifice for me. In fact, I love that I finally have an excuse to cook fish to serve to Bill, for whom giving up meat IS actually a sacrifice.

And furthermore (and I’m really starting to get nervous about a bolt of lightning), not eating meat on Fridays has the oh-so-slight resemblance to the hypocrites, about which I have been so focused this Lenten season. Look at me. I’m a Catholic. I’m not eating meat on Fridays. My conclusion is that while I may go to hell, it won’t be because I ate a piece of meat on Friday during Lent. Not that I have, mind you.

Having said all of that, I have been furiously posting nonmeat recipes on Pinterest and googling simple and tasty vegetarian fare so that I can have something to place in front of my hungry husband each Friday. As an aside, (and I know I have mentioned this before) back in the days when we couldn’t eat meat on any Friday, I remember my mom and dad staying up until midnight Friday night so that my mom could fry a skinny steak for my dad, who apparently believed he couldn’t go to work with only salmon casserole in his tummy. God bless them both.

As a service to my Catholic readers or anyone else interested in occasional vegetarian eating (and also to break the monotony of my seemingly endless blabbering on about my wholly uninteresting life) I am going to post non-meat recipes each week during Lent. For one day a week for the next 40 days and 40 nights, I’m going to pretend I’m a cooking blog.

God help us all.

When my son Court was small and my parents were both still living (I know you are all now saying, “I thought she wasn’t going to talk about herself!”), we used to meet at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Denver.  I have so many fond memories of mclains spaghetti factorythe times we spent there. And my memories continue, as it still is such a fun place to eat, especially when you have kids. We recently ate dinner at the Spaghetti Factory around Christmastime when our Vermont family was visiting. No one minded that there were a few kids running around and the volume was somewhat elevated.

Every time I have eaten at the Spaghetti Factory – every single, solitary time – I have ordered the same thing. It is called Pot Pourri, which is a sampler of their spaghetti with meat, marinara, clam, and mizithra cheese and browned butter.

The truth is, I don’t know why I don’t just order spaghetti with mizithra cheese, spaghetti mizithraas that is the one I like the most. I think it’s because I like to have a bit of the red sauce to mix into the cheese.

Here is the method  for making Old Spaghetti Factory’s spaghetti with mizithra cheese and browned butter. The most important thing is to make sure the butter is nicely browned. Not just melted, but browned. And lots of cheese.

spaghetti browned butter mizithra cheese 2

Voila. A perfect Friday dinner.



Loosy Goosy

imagesWhen Bill and I travel, we like to taste the food that is native to the state or region where we are traveling. For this reason, a few years ago as we made our way across Iowa to Chicago via the seemingly endless I-80 corridor, we elected to stop for lunch at a Maid-Rite to try the so-called Loose Meat Sandwich. In Iowa, Loose Meat Sandwich = Maid-Rite.

I was eager to try it, having heard stories about its deliciousness from friends who had grown up in Iowa, where loose meat is king. And, of course, in the sitcom Roseanne, which takes place in Iowa, Roseanne opens up a café featuring loose meat sandwiches. If there is a sitcom featuring loose meat sandwiches, and several trustworthy Iowa natives recommend it so highly, it must be good, right?


Now, I recognize that tastes vary, but I found my sandwich to be not even remotely good. In fact, it was darn right bland. Steamed and unseasoned ground beef on a bun. Adding ketchup, mustard, and pickles didn’t even seem to help. It made me nostalgic for s sloppy joe, with its spicy tomato sauce.

The next time we drove to Chicago, I asked Bill to stop again. We must have done something wrong, or just stopped on a bad day. So we again ordered the loose meat sandwich, this time adding cheese. Nope. Still didn’t taste good to me.

Don’t hate me, Iowa.

But eating Maid-Rite made me begin to think about runzas – Nebraska’s version of a loose meat sandwich. I grew up eating runzas – Mom didn’t make them, but Nebraskans love runzas so much that there is actually a fast food chain – Runza Hut – that offers the Nebraska ground beef sandwich. I ate there often, especially during my two years of college at the University of Nebraska.

Similar to a Maid-Rite, runzas add cabbage and onion, and brown the beef instead of steam it. And instead of serving it on a bun, it is completely wrapped in bread dough, which you bite into, releasing the steam from the hot sandwich.

So on another trip to Chicago, again zooming down I-80, we stopped in North Platte at the Runza Hut. I was excited to have Bill try a runza, proud to be able to introduce him to the Nebraska treat.

It shames me to tell you that I was so disappointed at what I recalled being a flavorful sandwich actually being lukewarm and bland – only slightly more flavorful than Maid-Rite – sandwich.

Don’t hate me, Nebraska. Perhaps it’s just me.

All this is to say that, for reasons I will not try to understand, I woke up yesterday morning suddenly hungry for a runza. A homemade runza, which would undoubtedly be better than the version from a fast food restaurant, no matter the name.

But in order to give me the greatest chance of success at making a flavorful sandwich, I called in the Big Guns.

My sister Jen.

There is no one like Jen more able to taste something and come up with an idea on how to replicate it, or, more often, make it better.

I called her at work.

“Hi Jen. I know you’re busy trying to earn a living as a single person who owns two homes and is a sole provider,” I said, “but I need you to focus on me, me, me.”

To her credit, she put her boss on hold to tend to my needs – that being a way to make a runza more flavorful.

“Add some ranch seasoning to the ground beef,” she said. “And let me get back to work so I can make my mortgage payments.”

Whaaaaaaaat? Brilliant!

When she retires, she will write a real cooking blog, not a fake one like mine, which rarely includes recipes since I’m only an average cook.

I adapted my recipe from the basic Runza recipe on the Rhodes Bread Dough website since I wasn’t willing to take the time to make homemade bread. Perhaps next time I will bring my pink Kitchen Aid mixer inside and make fresh homemade bread. And of course I added half a packet of ranch dressing seasoning and garlic, because garlic makes everything better.

It was delicious. There is no place like Nebraska.

cooking runza







And just to play fair, here is a link to a purported Maid-Rite copycat recipe….