12 January 2015

Hearty Chicken Stew

Food For Recovery

Do you have a secret ingredient you rely on in the kitchen?

This past year a neighbor brought us dinner several days after I had major surgery. She brought us cornbread and a fragrant chicken stew. It was loaded with tender chicken and diced vegetables. The seasoning included a pinch of thyme, adding a subtle and delicious counterpoint to the mellow onions and sweet carrots, enhancing the flavor without assaulting my tender senses.

This unassuming meal tasted wonderful and was deeply appreciated. Food never tastes better than when the body is striving to heal and refuel. When we had finished our meal my husband sent a note of thanks and a request for the recipe that we enjoyed so much.

THE Secret Ingredient

The next day our friend replied:

“Yours is the first e-mail I opened this morning. I am delighted to hear that you enjoyed my simple dinner.

I will be happy to share the recipe. The secret ingredient was Love. I was constantly mindful while preparing the meal with thoughts of healing, recovery and nourishment …”

Neighbors like that are one of the reasons it was so hard to leave Tennessee!

May all our kitchens be stocked with a generous supply of THE Secret Ingredient as we care for and nourish those around us!

Hearty Chicken Stew

1 lb. chicken breast tenders, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, ¼ inch slices
2 cans (14.5 ounce) chicken broth
½ teaspoon thyme
1 Tablespoon ketchup
2 carrots, peeled and ¾-inch diced
1½ cups yellow or red potatoes, peeled and ¾-inch diced

Combine the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow container. Toss the chicken pieces in the flour mixture to coat.

Melt the butter in a 4 quart pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil. When hot, add the coated chicken pieces. Cook until chicken pieces are lightly brown.

Add onions and celery. Stir and cook another 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add remaining ingredients. Return to heat and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.


01 January 2015

Quick Collard Greens with Cranberries

I have spent most of my life avoiding collard greens. In my view they didn’t sound good and they didn’t smell good. Gathered in bunches, dog-eared and dirty, they didn’t even look good on the produce aisle let alone cooked at length until they were ladled out in a dark lifeless clump of mushy leaves.

That naive impression was hard to shake until I moved to Memphis, TN. There, as I explored the city, I found collard greens on the menu again and again. Not only were they offered with the city's celebrated staples, like fried chicken and barbecued ribs, but collard greens could be found on more innovative menus as well. In Memphis I learned that while collards don’t always look pretty they are a leafy green with enough character to stand up to a variety of interpretations. I began to seek them out and order them whenever I had the chance. In Memphis I even began to cook with collard greens and made some interesting discoveries.

This recipe offers a quick approach to savoring those homely greens I once judged so harshly. Here collard leaves are cut into thin strips and quickly sautéed with cranberries in olive oil and vinegar. The resulting side dish is bright and tangy with a tender but toothsome texture. It easily feels at home beside Cornbread and Lucky Black Eyed Peas when celebrating the New Year, or with Herb Roasted Chicken or fried eggs anytime.

Quick Collard Greens with Cranberries
Adapted from a recipe in Real Simple magazine

1 lb fresh collard greens (about 8 cups)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
½ cup dried cranberries

Wash collard greens. Trim and discard stems and tough stalks from the center of the leaves. Stack remaining leaves and roll up beginning at one long side. Slice the roll at ¼-inch intervals to yield long thin strips of collard leaves.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the collard strips, dried cranberries, vinegar, salt and pepper. Cook and stir until the greens are wilted and tender, approximately 3-5 minutes.


24 December 2014

Family Traditions - Cranberry Eggnog Salad

Taking Sides

Last year I read a piece in Southern Living magazine that had me laughing out loud. “Taking Sides” by Allison Glock described a formidable family tradition in the form of The Cranberry Salad, a side dish that nobody liked but was made and served each Thanksgiving day as a matter of family tradition.

I could relate. I was already acquainted with The Cranberry Salad tradition, though in my family the salad was made with an eggnog layer and was served at Christmas dinner rather than Thanksgiving. Ours had not yet spawned any of its own “baby traditions” but Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad was a signature recipe. Festive and interesting, it was associated with Aunt Hen's table. Not only was it known as her recipe in our small community, Aunt Hen submitted the recipe to Southern Living magazine where it was published in the November 1986 issue.

While this detail added a certain gravitas to Aunt Hen’s recipe among her contemporaries, it did nothing to make it any more palatable from my point of view. I never liked bits of anything, sweet or savory, embedded in my jell-o. What’s more, well past childhood I had serious doubts about eating cranberries or nuts and eggnog is something I have never cared for.

While tasting Aunt Hen’s Cranberry Eggnog Salad didn't appeal to my young palate, I admired it's composition all the same. The salad added a touch of drama to Aunt Hen's holiday table and the bright contrasting red and white layers were undeniably pretty. From time to time I would ask her to tell me about the salad, what was in it and why she made it but, as far as I can remember, I never actually tried it. Though my dad would say, “you just don’t know what’s good!" with a mischievous grin as he took another bite himself, Aunt Hen knew my preferences and never held it against me.

A Traditional Christmas Dinner

Aunt Hen was always the hostess of my family’s Christmas Dinner. On Christmas morning, after waking early and opening gifts at home, we would run to Aunt Hen’s house, just two doors away, past the old tin-roofed farm house where my father grew up, to see what Santa might have left for us there. Because he knew our family like he did, the jolly old fellow was kind enough to fill stockings for us there just as he did at our own house, while he tucked a few more gifts with our names on them under her tree.

Aunt Hen would already be up and in the kitchen no matter how early we arrived. She usually had a ham in the oven and was working on a variety of side dishes by the time we got there. After greetings we gathered around her Christmas tree to open gifts. That done the adults would reconvene in the kitchen to finish dinner preparations. Daddy sliced the ham while Aunt Hen and Aunt Betty put the finishing touches on the rest of the meal: scalloped potatoes, an oyster casserole, Southern Style Green Beans and, of course, the Cranberry Eggnog Salad.

While there may have been older family traditions that inspired Aunt Hen to serve a ham or an oyster casserole, the cranberry eggnog salad was her own personal contribution to our menu of holiday traditions. In a homespun church cookbook from 1980, a version of Aunt Hen’s Egg Nog Salad is given a page. The forward to the recipes collected declares, “This booklet is about remembrances of good times and good food…” Several other pages include sparsely detailed recipes accompanied by charming memories of holidays past and paragraphs about the traditions of families in our community. Aunt Hen’s page, on the other hand, details the recipe with clarity and precision while her words about the significance of the recipe state simply, “There is no special memory or tradition about this recipe. It is just one I always use at Christmas.” Reading that, I have to smile. In it’s own way, that page portrays a perfect likeness of my aunt.

The Family Cookbook

As I grew older I became more and more interested in our old family recipes. When I made my Family Heirloom Cookbook I included the recipe for Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad among other favorites like Brownie Pie, Peanut Butter Fudge, and Cherry Cheese Pie in Aunt Hen’s section of the book. I still hadn't tried the recipe myself. I added it on her authority, as well as that of Southern Living. After all, everyone knows you can trust a recipe published in Southern Living.

Finally, one Christmas season, the stars aligned. I found my jell-o mold, a thing I had never used but had set aside years earlier for this very purpose, and I remembered the recipe. Over the years my tastes had evolved and I even considered it within the realm of possibility that I could enjoy a salad of eggnog and cranberries. What's more, I had a number of the necessary ingredients on hand. I had a carton of eggnog in the refrigerator and some chunky cranberry sauce left over from a test recipe. I had gelatin and crushed pineapple in the pantry. At last it was time to try Aunt Hen’s special recipe.

It was a busy Saturday during the holiday season. Distracted by the events of the day I missed the target consistency of the cranberry layer. It was mostly set by the time I finished the eggnog mixture. Undeterred I poured the eggnog layer on top and let it set without much worry. When it was ready to be released from the mold all seemed well. I took a few photos then let it rest in the refrigerator until dinner time.

Tasting the Recipe

Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad made a nice presentation at the table. Served on a crystal platter with my mother’s silver tomato server (which had long been repurposed in our family traditions as a canned cranberry relish server.)

Grace was said and plates were filled. Still no one had touched the Cranberry Eggnog Salad. I urged them on but met with resistance. Finally I took it upon myself to dig in. I gently pressed the serving spoon against the salad to cut a slice. Just as I thought it was about to yield the entire wreath shaped upper cranberry layer slid away from the eggnog layer beneath it and onto the white linen tablecloth!

Surprised and slightly horrified I heard a collective gasp. A moment later everyone at the table burst into laughter. Vindicated in their resistance my children helped me gather the cranberry layer back onto the eggnog salad. They even tasted the ravaged remains briefly before getting back to the Southern Style Green Beans, Cornflake Casserole and Pumpkin Bread of their own cherished holiday traditions.

Taking a bite for myself I had to admit I still found the tastes of the salad unappealing. Maybe it was the type of cranberry relish I chose to use. Perhaps it was the problem with the setting consistency of the eggnog layer. Or maybe it was that I just don’t like eggnog or textured bits of anything in my jell-o. I know I didn't like the celery in the eggnog layer. Whatever the reason this is one family tradition I will probably leave in retirement, at least until I can think of a good way to make it more palatable to current family tastes. Still I’m glad that I gave it a try. And who knows? Just because I didn't like it doesn't mean that you won't. After all, I don't even like mayonnaise!

Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad

Cranberry Layer

2 (3-oz) packages raspberry flavored gelatin
3 cups boiling water
1 package (10-14-oz)cranberry-orange relish (frozen, jar or homemade)

Eggnog Layer

1 (20-oz) can unsweetened crushed pineapple, undrained
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
3 Tablespoons lime juice
1 1/2 cups commercial dairy eggnog
3/4 cup diced celery (optional)
Lettuce leaves (optional)

In a mixing bowl, pour boiling water over gelatin; stir until dissolved. Add cranberry-orange relish, stirring until thawed (if frozen) and well combined. Pour mixture into a lightly oiled (or spray with cooking spray) 8-12 cup mold. Chill until partially set.

Drain pineapple, reserving the liquid. Set pineapple aside. Soften unflavored gelatin in pineapple juice, and let stand 5 minutes. Cook gelatin mixture over low heat until the gelatin dissolves; add lime juice and eggnog.

Chill until partially set (until the eggnog mixture is roughly the consistency of unbeaten egg white.) Fold in pineapple and celery (if desired). Pour over cranberry layer. Chill until thoroughly set. Unmold onto lettuce leaves (if desired). Yield: 14 servings.

Merry Christmas!