Cooking for Dummies

I feel like I’m not a great cook any more. I’m not horrible, but I feel like I’ve lost the patience necessary to be a tremendous cook. Almost daily I thank my lucky stars that I elected not to do a blog exclusively about cooking. Because some of my most recent failures would not offer a compelling read, unless my blog was entitled Cooking Blunders.

Take Monday night’s dinner, for example. No, seriously. Take it, because it was practically inedible. And God bless Bill because he doesn’t EVER complain about my cooking. So he bit into the pieces of completely charred Italian sausage and said something like, “Food Network would call this carmelized.”

It was such a nice try on his part, but the truth is Food Network would call it a cooking fail.

The recipe was simple. Tiny new potatoes, fresh green beans, sliced pieces of Italian sausage, seasoning, all doused in olive oil and put into a piece of aluminum foil. The foil was closed up to make a package, and cooked for 30 minutes on the grill. Easy, right?

Except that I should have double wrapped it in the foil because it cooked fine on the closed side. However, I turned it so that the part that I had allegedly pinched closed was on the bottom, and unfortunately, it really wasn’t closed. At least not tightly enough.  As a result, the olive oil dripped onto the grill and a rather large fire ensued. A fire of which I was entirely unaware because I was engrossed in a book. I was reminded of a simply hilarious episode of the Bob Newhart Show in which Bob was grilling steaks on his Chicago condo’s patio and unbeknownst to him, the steaks caught fire. Bob was in his living room doing all of the funny conversational things of which Bob Newhart is the master, and in the background the audience watched as the grill was consumed by flames.

That was me on Monday night.

Here’s an interesting fact about moi. I am easily influenced by reading what someone in a book is eating. So if I read a book that takes place in India, I crave Indian food. If Mexican food is mentioned, that’s what I want for dinner. It happens the book that I’m reading (in which I was so engrossed and totally missed out on a grill fire which rivaled the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, minus Mrs. O’Leary’s cow) takes place in Scotland, and the characters routinely eat scones.

Normally I can take or leave scones, but after reading about the characters eating scones with their tea, I simply HAD to have a scone. If I was in Denver, I would simply have walked over to Whole Foods and purchased a peach scone. Despite giving it plenty of thought, I couldn’t think where I could get a scone around our AZ house. (Bec has since reminded me that Starbucks sells scones and there are probably two or three hundred Starbucks in a five mile radius of our house. Oh well.)

So I made my own peach scones. Had I shot video of my endeavor, it would not have made the cut on Next Food Network Star. Perhaps on America’s Worst Cooks. Ina Garten makes the process of making scones look easy (using peaches imported from a small organic and sustainable peach grove in the south of France). She ends up with a beautiful disk of dough that she easily cuts into triangles and bakes until they are a golden brown with sugar crystals glistening on top. I, on the other hand, ended up with a crumbly mess that I pressed into roughly a round disk, all the while frantically patting the crumbs back into the dough.

But it didn’t turn out too bad…..

peach scone disc

And when it was all said and done, the scones were quite delicious, as evidenced by Bill eating two in a row.

Just as an aside, when I’m cooking, Ina Garten often comes to mind. Mostly how she would be horrified to observe me in the kitchen. For example, I thought of her recently when I was making chicken. I had seasoned the chicken, and needed to throw something away. Because I had not yet washed my hands (which were full of whatever it was that I wanted to toss) and didn’t want to touch anything with raw chicken still lurking there, I opened the cabinet door with my feet. While doing so, a couple of thoughts came into my mind: 1) I have never seen Ina Garten open a cabinet with her feet; and 2) I wonder if it is any more sanitary to put your feet on the kitchen cabinet handle than using chicken-laced hands.

Don’t worry, I used an antibacterial cloth to wipe the handle.

Here is the recipe for the peach scones. Despite the crumbly dough, the scones were delicious.

peach scone cut

Peach Scones, courtesy honestcooking.com

Ingredients
2 c. plus 2 T. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. brown sugar
1 T baking powder
½ t. salt
½ c. unsalted butter, cubed and cold
1 egg
¼ c. heavy whipping cream, plus more for brushing
¼ c. sour cream
2 t. vanilla extract
½ c. fresh peaches, diced

Process
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, mix together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Once combined, cut in the butter with a fork or pastry cutter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Whisk together heavy cream, sour cream, egg, and vanilla extract. Slowly add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Stir in the peaches, and mix until just combined.

On a well-floured surface, turn out the scone dough and pat into a small disk that’s about a half inch thick. Cut into 6-8 slices, and transfer to the baking sheet. Brush each scone with just a bit of heavy cream.

Bake for 16-18 minutes, or just until golden brown. Allow to cool.

Nana’s Notes: Her recipe had a glaze; I chose to sprinkle mine liberally with sugar after brushing on the cream. Also, since I was facing the above-mentioned crumbly mess, I formed my disk right on the baking sheet, and that seemed to work fine. Finally, I didn’t use fresh peaches; instead, I used canned. That made the dough a bit wetter and the resulting scones a bit more moist. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Family Cooking Ties

IMG_0069“Do you think you will use that ham bone or throw it away?” asked my nephew Erik as he got ready to leave on Easter Sunday. I knew right away why he was asking.

I assured him that the ham bone would be put to good use. But if I wasn’t going to use it, he wanted it.

“What would you make with it?” I asked him.

He didn’t have a plan, but he knew there were a lot of options. He also knew that a good cook would never let something as delicious as a ham bone with a lot of meat still clinging stubbornly to it go to waste.

This past Thanksgiving, Court asked Jll a similar question. What are planning to do with the turkey carcass? Jll assured him she didn’t really have a plan, and as she has four kids Court Closeupand was entertaining Heather and Lauren and the two boys, she was desperate for refrigerator space.

“Take it,” she said with obvious relief.

Like, Erik, Court wasn’t sure what he would make, but knew a turkey carcass would make something good. I think that carcass turned into turkey noodle soup if I’m not mistaken. And it undoubtedly was good because everything tastes better if there’s bones involved.

I have said on numerous occasions that my mother was a very good cook. Though I never asked her, I presume she liked to cook, because I don’t think you can be a good cook if you heartily dislike it. Given all of that, I often think how happy it must make her up in heaven to see how so many of her grandkids love to cook – and do a bang-up job of it.

Christopher and porkNot only are they good cooks, but they appreciate the art of cooking and the gift of good food. Recently, when Jen was here, we had the family over for carne asada. Dave’s son Christopher had smoked a pork butt the day before, and had some left over. He brought it along, knowing full well that somehow that smoked pork would be eaten. It was. I put it in a fry pan, crisped up the bottom, and it became smoked carnitas. In addition to pork butt, he smokes a delicious brat. My mouth is watering.

Jen’s son BJ is happiest if he can throw a piece of meat that he has marinated for a few hours onto the grill. He makes up his own marinade using whatever he thinks sounds good. I would never be able to do that. I require a recipe. Jen sent him home with leftover prime rib from their Easter dinner. He sautéed onion, garlic, mushrooms and a jalapeno in some olive oil, then added the meat to warm up. He made it all into a sandwich.

Good cooking isn’t limited to the men of our family. Mom would have loved seeing Jensen17 (2)Maggie in the kitchen. I have watched Maggie mature into an absolutely splendid cook in the years since she’s been married. She is far removed from her post-college days when she would be cooking something in a fry pan and call her mother in desperation as smoke was rising from the pan. Jen could hear even over the phone that the meat was frying at too hot a temperature. “Turn down the temperature!” she would firmly instruct Maggie. “It’s cooking too fast.

It’s nice to see our love for cooking being passed down to our kids and even our grandkids.

I used up my ham bone last night preparing green beans and ham. Here is my mother’s recipe for Green Beans and Ham, in the exact words from her recipe card…..

Green Beans and Ham or Bacon
Sauté chopped onion in margarine, add flour and brown slightly. Add hot water and boil a few minutes. Prepare frozen green beans (or fresh beans). Pour the onion mixture into the beans, add ham (or chunk bacon cut in small pieces). Simmer about 30 minutes. Add water, if needed. Add peeled potatoes and continue cooking until potatoes are done.

Nana’s Notes: I sauté in butter rather than margarine. Rather than water, I use chicken or vegetable broth. Nowadays you can get fresh green beans anytime, so I never use frozen, only fresh. When I was small, green beans were only available in the summer. Mom would buy them from a farmer. I carefully cleaned them, always on the lookout for a worm!  I like to use new red potatoes or new yellow potatoes.

The A’s Have It

There are lots of very satisfying things about spring. The flowers begin to pop out. The weather is mostly lovely. Here in the East Valley of Phoenix, weather in March is spectacular. Not yet hot and almost always sunny. People are driving around with the tops down on their convertibles – something they cannot do in the summer when it’s too hot.

In Colorado,  there is always the possibility of a spring snowstorm. Still, even in Colorado, there are probably more nice days than not starting in March.

My first three-day dill pickles of the year!

My first three-day dill pickles of the year! They’re about a minute old at this point.

But one of the best things about spring is the emergence of some of my favorite fruits and vegetables. Strawberries are luscious, red, and juicy. Pickling cucumbers are starting to appear in Arizona grocery stores. Pretty soon the sweet Vidalia onions will begin showing up on the store shelves, and they are ever so delicious to grill.

A fruitBut let’s give it up for the three A’s. Although you can get avocados all year round, come March, they are not only delicious but they are inexpensive. Artichokes…two bucks each. And what can I say about fresh asparagus? Why, I make asparagus probably four times a week, and each time I smack my lips with satisfaction.

At the grocery store the other day, the woman who checked me out was young – and not just young compared to me as many people are. She was, I would say, barely in her 20s. She still had braces on her teeth, though that doesn’t necessarily say much. I had braces on my teeth when I was in my 40s.

But she was quite puzzled by a couple of my vegetables. She looked at my leek as though it was from outer space. She called over to the next check stand, holding the leek carefully with her thumb and her forefinger as though it would bite.

“A leek,” I said patiently.

And because I was so patient, she then pointed to my artichoke. “What’s that?” she asked, her face aghast.

Training, Store Managers. Training.

“An artichoke,” I said, still patient. And this particular vegetable she really should pick up carefully, as those leaves have quite pointy ends, as you may know if you’ve been poked.

I have absolutely no reason to be snotty about her lack of knowledge of these vegetables. I had literally never heard of an artichoke until I was an adult, or very near. Artichokes were not in my mother’s vegetable repertoire. (As an aside, despite the fact that my mother was a very good cook, nearly every single night she opened a can of vegetables for the family. I think that was a 50s and 60s thing. The only fresh vegetables we ever ate were corn on the cob and green beans in season.)

My family’s very first experience with the admittedly hard-to-figure-out artichoke was with my dad’s sister Myrta, who offered it to us one night at her house for dinner. Despite the oddity of the vegetable, every single one of us was immediately hooked. And I believe every single one of us prepares artichokes the way Myrta did – cooked for an hour or so in water with a garlic clove. Served with a side of butter.

As an alternative – pull off a large number of the outer leaves, slice the artichoke in half, clean out the “choke” in the center and cook it on the grill. Very Italian. But I don’t like it quite as well as the old fashioned method.

I’m pretty sure I had also not tasted an avocado until we moved to Leadville and began eating Mexican food. Avocados, like artichokes, were love at first bite. My entire family loves guacamole – haven’t met one we dislike. But I also love to slice up an avocado, a delicious ripe summer tomato, and either a red onion or a couple of scallions, drizzle it with a good deal of olive oil and squeeze a couple of limes over the whole kit and caboodle, along with salt. Yum.

We did eat asparagus as a child, but, well, OUT OF A CAN. When I bought my first house after my divorce, the first spring following our moving in, I noticed unusual sprouts coming out of the ground. It took me quite a while to realize that the sprouts were asparagus spears. I was so freaked out about IF and WHEN I should harvest them that I missed out on the whole thing.

As I mentioned above, I cook asparagus for myself four or five times a week. Bill is not a fan. That’s okay. More for me. I drizzle it in olive oil and season it with season salt or Montreal seasoning and either grill it or roast it in the oven. I want some right NOW.

Enjoy vegetables in season when they taste the best and are the least expensive. When the price goes up, the flavor goes down.

Happy Spring!

It’s Getting Ahead of Me

Advent-Candles

From the time I was a little girl, yesterday’s gospel from Mark in which Jesus tells his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come,” scared the hell out of me. I want to know what my future holds, thank you very much.

And yet, that same gospel always gave me comfort when various zealots and/or nuts would say the end was coming on such and such a date. When I would fret, Bill would always remind me that Jesus himself said no one knows when the world will end. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark tell us that very thing in their gospels.

But our pastor put it all into perspective when he reminded us that as we prepare for the birth of Christ during this Advent season, we should be mindful that we should always be preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s an absolute cliché to say that we forget the real meaning of Christmas, but alas, it’s all too true.

The Christmas hub bub seemed to come really early this year. Earlier than other years, it seemed. Perhaps that’s because Thanksgiving was so late. But Christmas music was playing on the Phoenix easy listening station even before we returned to Denver on November 18, and Christmas decorations collided with Halloween decorations this year. Never even mind Thanksgiving.

Both of my sisters have been telling me that they are almost finished with their Christmas shopping. That absolutely FU-REAKED ME OUT! I have had to remind myself that it wasn’t even December yet.

The Christmas season really has expanded in the recent years. I remember when we used to put up our Christmas tree on my birthday in mid-December. Now it’s hard to wait even until Thanksgiving. This year I put my angel tree up the Sunday before Thanksgiving because I wanted my grandkids to help, and some of them were going to be out of town this past week. That, and the fact that we leave for Arizona on Christmas day, which requires that we dismantle Christmas on December 24 – just like the Grinch.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I am going to try and remember that the Advent season is upon us. Advent gives us the chance to prepare not only for the commercial Christmas, but also for the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

By the way, yesterday after doing a bit of Christmas shopping and feeling pretty snappy that I was finally making some progress, I got into my car, turned on KOSI 101 to listen to Christmas music. What I heard was Auld Lang Syne. Yikes. Now I need to worry that I’m not prepared for New Year’s!

I served this blueberry coffee cake on Thanksgiving morning. It was absolutely delicious. It comes from Betty Crocker.

bbery coffee cake

Blueberry Coffee Cake

Dressing Throw Down

searchI have learned over the years that one thing people are very proprietary about is their recipe for Thanksgiving dressing. Mom had a dressing recipe she always used, and it’s the one all of her children use. I don’t even give it a second thought. I have always presumed everyone likes it as much as I do. After all, it was my MOM’S!

A year or two after we were married, Bill (who NEVER cooks), asked me if he could make his mother’s dressing for Thanksgiving dinner. I acquiesced reluctantly. As I recall, the dressing was good, but it wasn’t my mom’s dressing. He undoubtedly reluctantly puts up with my mother’s recipe year after year as he has never made that dressing recipe again. Perhaps he just got tuckered out cooking when he could have been watching football.

In a recent blog post about hand-written recipe cards, my cousin Kate shared her grandmother Clare’s recipe for dressing (October 16, 2014). It was not terribly unlike my mother’s – not surprisingly since Clare was my mother’s sister. Clare used Cream of Chicken soup; my mom’s recipe calls for Golden Mushroom soup.

I am going to post my mom’s recipe, and I am going to request that you all respond via the comments section with your favorite dressing recipe. It might be an old family recipe or it might be something new you have discovered more recently and liked. You can share the recipe or simply tell me about the ingredients and what you liked about it. I come from a long line of really good cooks, so I hope you won’t disappoint me – or my readers.

Mom

 

Mom’s recipe stops there because I presume at that point she stuffed the bird. I do not stuff the bird, but put the mixture in the oven and bake at 375 for about an hour, until cooked completely through and browned.

I AM ISSUING A THANKSGIVING DRESSING THROWDOWN. What is your favorite dressing recipe?

Nana’s Notes: You might notice that I am using a new format for my recipes. My IT support (who also is my yard man, household repairman, and shares my marital bed) designed it. It is in its opening stage. My hope eventually is to have a button whereupon people can share or print. Baby steps. What do you think?

Greatest Generation

Reinie navyDang. I really wanted to come up with a different title for this post. The fact of the matter is, however, that Tom Brokaw really nailed my parent’s generation. They really were the greatest.

Baby Boomers come in second.

This past week as I’ve looked a bit deeper into the lives of a few of my aunts and uncles – all part of that Greatest Generation – I have been reminded why they were great.

I think a couple of things that happened during my mom’s and dad’s lifetimes really molded them into the kind of people they were.

The Great Depression undoubtedly had a profound impact on how that generation looked at life. Nearly everybody was deeply impacted. Oddly, both of my parents claim to have been somewhat protected from the worst of the situation. My mom’s family lived on a farm. She often told me that she never remembers being hungry or even wanting for food. “We always had vegetables,” she would tell me, and would describe a meal of thinly-sliced radishes on buttered bread, or a salted tomato sandwich. For her, that seemed nothing to complain about. I’m pretty sure that would have brought a complaint or two from me.

My dad’s family, of course, had the bakery. While meat may have been a scarcity, they always had bread and rolls to eat. The only thing I ever imagesremember Dad complaining about was that Grammie considered “Heavenly Hash” to be a meal. Heavenly Hash is a concoction consisting primarily of fruit, marshmallows, and whipped cream. Some recipes call for rice, but I don’t know if Grammie bothered with anything like that. Dad would be hungry after a long day at school and work, and the sweet meal just didn’t cut it for him.

But I also recall him talking about how Grammie would hand out rolls and bread to the hobos who would stop into the bakery looking for food. “Dad would be baking in the back of the store at the same time Mom was giving away bread and rolls in the front,” my father told me. What an example of generosity of spirit.

The other event that must have shaped their lives was World War II. Whether you served in the military or watched from the sidelines, it would have been impossible to not be impacted. I recently watched a 7-part special on the Roosevelts, and was able to get a pretty clear picture of just how scary the world must have felt at that time whether or not you were fighting overseas.

Despite everything, things seemed to be easier back in my parents’ younger days. Oh, you didn’t have the modern conveniences, there was no Internet and IPads were not even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ parents’ eyes.

But take cooking, for example. You didn’t have to worry about where to find turbinado sugar or gluten-free flour or Meyers lemons or whether or not your seafood was sustainable. You just cooked. You were happy if you had any sugar. You probably didn’t have access to any kind of fresh lemon if you lived in Columbus, Nebraska; you just used the bottled stuff. Even I, at this very moment, don’t fully understand how or why or when seafood is sustainable.

No extra-virgin olive oil. More than likely you just used lard. What can I say?

My second cousin Kate told me this week that she has her grandmother’s (my mom’s eldest sibling) recipe box. Her favorite recipe (likely because it is in her grandmother’s handwriting) goes like this….

Clare’s Dressing

7 cups bread cubes

1 cup celery chopped

1 cup onion

1 lb. pork sausage

Fry, remove and slosh the bread in the fat.  Put into container and add 1 can cream of chicken soup, season and bake at 350.

The Barefoot Contessa has never instructed me to “slosh the bread in the fat.”

At the same time, Kate told me they spent every Christmas Eve at her grandmother’s house. “EAT,” Clare would tell them, even though they were as stuffed as the turkey. Because people who like to cook like to see their food enjoyed.

And they always dressed in their Christmas finery for dinner, ready for Midnight Mass. Kate said she only remembers Clare missing Midnight Mass once, when she offered to stay home with Kate’s 6-month old baby on an especially cold Nebraska Christmas Eve.

But I am going on too long, and I will leave you, and my aunts and uncles, with one final recipe….

Mary Ann’s Cole Slaw Dressing

2/3 c. sugar

1/2 c. vinegar

Boil 1 minute.

Chill, then blend with:

1/4 t. salt

1/2 t. dry mustard

1 t. grated onion

1 c. oil

1 t. celery seed

Refrigerate

It remains my favorite cole slaw dressing to this day.

 

And So We Harvest and Prepare Food

Let us sing a sweet song, a song that’s of praise

For our crops to be ripened and harvesting days

For the apples and pears still ripe on the trees

For the fill of the honey pot, the toil of the bees

When the harvest is done, our glasses we’ll raise

And thank mother earth who deserves so much praise. – Deirdre Omaidin

 

pear treeShortly after we got married, Bill and I were in a hardware store – the old-fashioned kind, not a big box. Suddenly Bill said, “Look at that! We have to buy that for you.”

It was an apple peeler, the kind that you screw onto your counter, stick the apple on the end, and turn the handle.

“We do?” I said, having never in my life felt the need for an apple peeler.

“Of course we do,” he said. “My grandmother had one.”

Well, far be it from me to belittle the importance of buying something simply because it was owned by an ancestor. I do it all the time.

So I became the proud owner of an old-fashioned apple peeler. And, much to my surprise, I have used it often – very often. It does a stand-up job of quickly peeling an apple. Supposedly it will also peel potatoes, but I have never tried a potato. I should, since peeling potatoes is a dreadful job, right up there with emptying theapple peeler dishwasher.

The apple peeler has earned its keep this year, Friends, as I have been up to my elbows in apples and pears for the past week-and-a-half. It’s harvest time, you see.

For the first 15 years we lived in this Denver house, I virtually ignored my fruit trees. Oh, I would enjoy their springtime flowers. And I carefully watched as the flowers turned to fruit and the fruit grew larger and developed color.

But come late August and early September when the trees were heavy with fruit, I watched the squirrels make havoc with the pears and carefully picked up the half-eaten apples from the ground and tossed them in the garbage. I might gather a few of the low-hanging apples before they fell to the earth and make a pie or a crisp, but that was about all.

But, for the past week-and-a-half, here’s how Bill and I have been spending much of our time…..

bill picking pears

As a result, we have ended up with a fall fruit extravaganza, and I have been busy making apple sauce and pear sauce, enough to satisfy my grandkids and repay my neighbor for the wonderful rye bread she always brings us when she bakes. I have made a couple of apple crisps, an apple cake, and an apple pie. I have made a beautiful pear tart.

apples apples apples pears

 

Now, alas, the fruit flies are beginning to notice the plethora of fruit in my kitchen.  I am happy to say I am beginning to see the bottom of the pear and apple barrel.

I’m about ready to put the apple peeler away until next fall and move on to all things pumpkin.

Before I move on, however, this week I’m going to share some of my apple and pear recipes with you.

Do you have any good recipes that use apples or pears?

applesauceHomemade Applesauce, courtesy Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman

Ingredients

6 lb.s apples, peeled, cored, and cut into slices

1 c. apple juice or apple cider

Juice of 1 lemon

½ c. brown sugar, packed

1 t. cinnamon, more or less to taste

Optional ingredients, nutmeg, maple syrup, allspice, butter

Process

Combine all ingredients in a large pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes.

Carefully puree in a food processor or blender (don’t fill too full; split into two portions ifmylee applesauce 9.14 needed) until smooth.

Store in the fridge and serve by itself, over pork chops, over ice cream, over pancakes, or any place where applesauce is needed.

Nana’s Notes: Applesauce is so easy to make from scratch that I can’t believe I haven’t done it before. My grandkids have mixed opinions about cinnamon in their applesauce, so I made mine without, figuring they could add if they wished. Because of this, I added a bit more brown sugar, because, well, why not? I added none of the optional ingredients. I could have processed the applesauce to can for the winter, but I found the grandkids ate it about as fast as I prepared it.

 

Eatin’ Midwest

columbus house

Our family house — three bedrooms, one bath, for our family of six!

It didn’t matter what stressful event was happening in our lives – be it a failed math exam, a broken engagement, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, our Grammie Gloor would always say, “Ehhhhh, no matter what, you have to eat a little something.”

With that as our life’s motto, it is quite surprising that we don’t all look like Jabba the Hut.

What Grammie was really saying was that food is the thing that brings us together. Preparing a meal for others brings joy to anyone who likes to cook. Sitting together over a meal creates an atmosphere of love and closeness that is often hard to get otherwise.

It’s the attitude of people in the Midwest.

I grew up eating plain, simple, and good food. I am fully aware that not everyone who lives in Nebraska eats the way we did. I’m sure there were and are vegetarians, or people who avoid fried food, or those who enjoy cooking and eating a fine French meal. Maybe even people who eat seafood that doesn’t come from a can. Hard to imagine.

The food I grew up eating – both at home and when we ate out – was simple, delicious, often not particularly healthy, and it’s what I crave to this very day.

While Bec and I didn’t set out to eat more beef and fried food in one week than we generally eat in six months, it’s what happened. It was part of our effort to get back to our roots.

It started on our first day, a mere four hours after we got into the car. We stopped at Ole’s Big Game Bar in Paxton, NE. Paxton is a town of about 550 people in western Nebraska. The story goes that at 12:01 a.m. the day after the end of Prohibition in 1934, Ole opened his bar. He was, and continued to be for the next 35 years, a devoted big game hunter. The bar illustrates his devotion to this sport. As you dine, peering down at you are such taxidermied creatures as an elephant, a polar bear, a giraffe, as well as multiple deer, moose, and elk. It borders on creepy, albeit fascinating. The food, however, is delicious. Bec and I enjoyed the Sunday buffet, which included chicken fried steak and fried chicken. Why only eat one fried item when you can have two? A lettuce salad featuring iceberg lettuce. No arugula or watercress here. We enjoyed every bite.

Bec is being watched over by an elephant!

Bec is being watched over by an elephant!

While in Columbus, we ate at the restaurant at which our family celebrated nearly all important life events – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We had a glorious night catching up on the news of our cousins in the best way possible – over yummy food at the Husker House. In honor of Mom and Dad, we drank ice cold martinis. The piece de resistance – following a meal of a prime rib bigger than a basketball – was a grasshopper. Grasshoppers are dessert drinks made with Crème de Cacao, Crème de Menthe, and, if made correctly, ice cream. Mom and Dad served them each year at their annual Christmas party. Grammie, who rarely drank, would drink two or three of these yummy cocktails BEFORE dinner. Her cheeks would get pinker with each sip.

grasshopper drink

We ended our heart-stopping dining on our way home when we ate dinner the final night at Chances R, a steak house in York, NE. Figuring we had eaten enough beef, we elected to eat something healthy like chicken. Never mind that it was fried. Details, details. It was thoroughly yummy.

Chances R

Again, not everyone in Nebraska eats this way, and certainly not as often as we did last week. We had to fit a whole lot of cholesterol into a short period of time so we needed to do some serious eating. To balance out our diet, and to prevent us from having to make a beeline to a cardiologist as soon as we got back home, our cousin Kate kate mealprepared a delicious meal of tequila lime chicken, and her meal included VEGETABLES. Our cousin Chris also kept us full and content without causing us to keel over. And we enjoyed fresh oysters while in the Old Market of Omaha. So there.

When our families got together, there was always food involved. Casseroles, jello salads, cucumbers with sour cream and dill, fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni salad. Lots of food. And always delicious. Feeding our bodies fed our souls. It’s the Midwestern way. Even today, when my family gathers, it’s almost always over a meal.

Some of my favorite things to make to this very day are recipes I collected from my mom and my aunts – particularly my Aunt Leona. When I make Mom’s wilted lettuce or Leona’s frozen cuke salad, it takes me back to my roots in the same way as looking at old pictures does. Food memories.

Bec and I enjoyed our culinary experiences almost as much as we enjoyed spending time with our relatives. The best part was that we mostly got to do the two together.

Leona’s Frozen Cuke Salad

2 qts. sliced cukes

2 T. salt

Mix and refrigerate 2 hours. Drain and rinse.

Make syrup

½ c. vinegar

1-1/2 c. sugar

Onion to taste

Green and red pepper to taste

Parsley (optional)

Bring to boil, then remove from heat. Cool the syrup slightly and pour over cukes. Refrigerate another 24 hours.

Put in containers and freeze.

Leona’s note: We prefer to keep in frig and eat.

 

 

 

 

 

Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer

tomatoesI cook differently in the summer than I do in the winter. I think everyone does. In the winter, I love to do all those wonderful braises either in the oven or in my Dutch oven on the stovetop. The smell of a tough cut of meat cooking slowly, releasing its grip on its tight muscles to become delicious and tender makes my mouth water.

In the summer I’m more likely to fire up the grill and cook chicken or steak or some kind of chops with just simple seasonings like salt and pepper and maybe some Montreal seasoning (I’ve grown obsessed with the Chicago-style). Fast cooking and quick clean-up. Perfect for summertime when the house is hot. One of my favorite things to do in the summer is prepare the entire meal outside. Grilled vegetables. Potatoes cooked in tin foil. Chops or chicken cooked over the fire.

I’m pretty sure nowadays you can get most vegetables in grocery stores all year long. I remember the days when that wasn’t so. You had to wait until summer to enjoy fresh corn on the cob, for example. I recollect my mom buying home-grown corn on the cob from somewhere in the late summer – likely a farm stand on the side of the road — and bringing it home for us to clean. What I also remember is that every single time, at some point we found a worm in the corn. Organic corn on the cob, though we hadn’t ever even heard of that word. But, ewwwww. Man I hated finding that worm.

Now, I’m not promising that the vegetables you get in the winter are as good as those you get when the vegetables are in season closer to home. And of course they are much more expensive. That’s why I don’t generally buy any kind of melons any time except when they are in season, and even that is iffy. And there really isn’t anything more disappointing than a cantaloupe or honeydew melon that isn’t ripe. There is absolutely no flavor.

As an aside, I sometimes dream about the melon we ate in Italy. We would order cantaloupe with prosciutto as an antipasto any time it was available on the menu. Yum. It was always good. I don’t know how they do that. Maybe it’s because we always visited Italy in the summer when the melons were in season. In Colorado, we get Rocky Ford melons sometime midsummer, and they are also good. But where is the artwork by Michaelangelo?

Even though vegetables are available most of the year, there are certain things I simply don’t make in the winter. Mostly salads, I’d say. I make a really good salad out of fennel and grapefruit and oranges that is so refreshing when it’s hot outside. I love the tart flavor of the citrus coupled with the sweet licorice flavor of the raw fennel. Not for everyone, but I love it.

I also make any and every kind of tomato salad I can think of in the summer, particularly when the homegrown tomatoes start showing up at the farmers’ markets. A hothouse tomato is just as disappointing as an unripe melon. Maybe more so. As I wait on my tomato plants to begin bearing the fruit, and then wait a bit longer as the tomatoes ripen on the vine, I buy the heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods. It’s a shame about the second mortgage and all, but I love any kind of salad made with tomatoes and I just can’t wait any longer. I recently made a tomato and avocado salad that had a delicious lime dressing.

Earlier this summer I bought a hanging tomato plant at Home Depot. It has a headstart on the other tomatoes and I am already harvesting the cherry tomatoes. Well, I’m harvesting the tomatoes that I manage to keep the grandkids from picking when they’re still green. It’s so tempting and all…. Mylee in particular just can’t keep her hands off! I’ve trained her not to pick them when they’re green, but boy-oh-boy, they are so snatched off the vine the second they show the slightest bit of pink when she’s around.

As the temperatures reach the 90s, I’m even able to talk Bill into eating a salad for dinner. Of course it helps if there is also steak and bleu cheese dressing involved in the mix.

Here are a couple of recipes for good summer salads.

Citrus Salad, courtesy Giada De Laurentiis and Food Networkgrapefruit fennel salad

Ingredients

1 large orange, peeled and ends trimmed

1 grapefruit, peeled and ends trimmed

1 large or 3 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced

¼ c. extra virgin olive oil

¼ c. packed fresh basil leaves

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 c. chopped walnuts, toasted

Process

Place a sieve over a medium bowl. Hold an orange over the bowl, and using a paring knife, cut along the membrane on both sides of each segment. Free the segments and let them fall into the sieve. Repeat with the grapefruit. Squeeze the membranes over the bowl to extract as much juice as possible, reserving the juices in the bottom of the bowl. Place the fruit segments and fennel in a salad bowl.

In a blender or the bowl of a small food processor, blend together the oil, basil, and 3 T of the reserved juice in until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the fruit and fennel. Add the chopped walnuts and toss until all of the ingredients are coated.

 

Avocado and Tomato Salad, courtesy laylita.comtomato avocado salad

Ingredients

1-2 ripe tomatoes, sliced

1 ripe and firm avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced

¼ white or red onion, sliced or diced

Cilantro leaves, whole or coarsely chopped

Juice of 1 lime

1-2 T. olive oil

Salt to taste

Process

Arrange the tomato slices on a large plate. Next add the onion, and finally the avocado slices. Drizzle with the lime juice and the olive oil. Sprinkle with cilantro and salt to taste.

Nana’s Notes: I didn’t use oranges or walnuts in my Citrus Salad, though both would be yummy. I just didn’t have them on hand. And yet I had fennel. Weird.Oranges would provide a bit of sweetness which would be good.

 

Kids’ Whimsical Cooking: Fresh Summer Guacamole

Addie and guacNow that it is summer time, I try to make snacks that include fresh fruits and vegetables. This time I made guacamole. Guacamole is a fast nutritious snack that can be made in less than 10 minutes. Today I made a big batch of guacamole that I will share with my family later tonight as part of dinner. I encourage you to try making guacamole sometime with your family. — Addie

 

 

guac ingredients

Homemade Guacamole

Ingredients

2-3 ripe avocados

Juice of one fresh lime

¼ c. salsa, or to taste

½-1 tsp. garlic salt

4-5 shakes of hot sauce, or to taste

Tortilla chips

Process

Cut avocados in half, remove the pit, and scoop into a bowl. Mix in all of the ingredients (except for the tortilla chips), and mash together with a fork until fairly smooth.

Enjoy with tortilla chips.

Guacamole

Nana’s Notes: Homemade guacamole can be “doctored up” any way you want. I like to add jalapeno and cilantro to mine. Look for nice ripe — but not too ripe — avocados, and enjoy this healthy snack.