27 November 2010

A Gift for the Family - Alvine's Bread Pudding


An Old Fashioned Portrait

Cousin Alvine, also known as "Sister", played the organ at church every Sunday.  I can't remember a single Sunday from my childhood that she wasn't there, sitting behind the pulpit and to the left of the choir loft in the alcove under a copy of The Last Supper. She had a serious look about her when she played. She would tilt her head back and to the side and her lips would part slightly as if she were faintly mouthing the words of the tune she was playing.

She had a thin frame that made her look tall in my memory. She wore glasses and her hair was pulled purposefully to the back of her head in a bun. The style did not vary that I ever noticed though her hair grew streaked with silver over the years. Aside from those silver streaks she never seemed to age. She looked the same to me and my brother the last time we saw her as she had looked when we were children and my brother walked down the lane to take piano lessons from her some forty years before.

From a distance, with her glasses, her bun and her quiet inclination, Alvine had the look of an earnest librarian. Up close, however, when you talked to her, that illusion melted away. In conversation she lit up and at the slightest encouragement the warmth of her spirit transformed her demeanor from shy and bookish to eager and friendly. She always had a smile and a kind or complimentary word for us children when we greeted her. If we asked her a question her eyes would sparkle.

Sharing the Past

When asked about growing up next door to my Dad’s family her eyes would even harbor a hint of delight. Once she told me:
I remember your grandparents. We kids loved to go back there. Uncle George would play with us out in the yard. Aunt Kate would let Bet and me help her set the big table and do little clean up jobs. She was always laughing and telling us stories.
Your Daddy and his family had to be up early in the morning. They had to put on some old clothes and shoes to feed the cows and milk them, before they could get ready and go to school.  I can see them now: hurrying to undress and pitching their old shoes in a closet near the kitchen. Then we had fun walking to school.  


A Gift for the Family

The year I left the neighborhood where my grandparents and Alvine had lived the women in the little church I grew up in prepared a wonderful gift for the church family. At Christmas time they put together a simple little book with a line drawing on the front cover and thirty typed and photocopied pages roughly stapled together at the binding. It was titled “Family Memories Cookbook” and included a recipe and a few descriptive paragraphs about a favorite memory for each contributor from the congregation.

Since I had moved away from home earlier that year I didn’t get a copy of this simple cookbook when it was distributed. It was years later, when I was going through the books at my aunt’s house, after she became too sick to go back home for them, that I found this small collection of recipes among her stacks and stacks of cookbooks. Something about it caught my eye and I put it with the books I saved to look through later.

Every time I look through it I am touched by the sweet memories of these dear ladies I grew up seeing every week and yet scarcely knowing. They were familiar faces, friends of my family. Many, I learned later, are even related to me in one way or another. Their pages look fondly on the past, recalling hard times but sweet memories, times spent surrounded by family and tradition and recipes passed from one generation to the next.


Alvine's Contribution

In this little book I treasure is a recipe from my cousin, Alvine. She wrote of her mother, my great aunt Lene:
One of my treasured memories is of coming home from school and finding Mother cooking something good for our supper. She knew how hungry we children were and she was happy when she was preparing a good meal for us. This dessert is one I especially remember.
I took the liberty of making a few adjustments to her quantities and wording to make the recipe work out in my kitchen. I also chose to add chocolate chips instead of currant jelly between the pudding and meringue. The result was nothing short of wonderful.


Bread Pudding
A recipe remembered by my cousin, Alvine

2 cups milk
¾ cup sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
¼ t salt
1 t vanilla
4 cups bread crumbs, (I used pieces of Uncle Hal's Biscuits)
½ cup chocolate chips

4 egg whites, at room temperature
¼ cup sugar

Scald milk. Stir in sugar, egg yolks, salt and vanilla. Fold in bread crumbs (Alvine preferred biscuits broken into small pieces).

Melt butter in the bottom of a 2 quart casserole dish.

Pour the bread mixture over the butter in the prepared casserole dish. Place this dish in a pan of hot water. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, or until firm.

Remove from oven. Scatter ½ cup chocolate chips across the top of the hot pudding.

In a medium mixing bowl beat the egg whites at high speed until soft peaks form. Add sugar, a Tablespoon at a time, until stiff peaks form.

Spread meringue across the bread pudding until it completely covers the top and touches the sides of the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for another 12 minutes or until browned on the top.

Remove from oven to a wire rack.

Serve warm or cold.

Enjoy!

25 November 2010

Taking Stock - After the Big Meal


Making Turkey Stock

The table is cleared. The mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce is stored away for later. Uncle Bob is on the couch nodding off while your favorite sports teams are battling it out on the field. Everyone is happy and satisfied with the feast.

Your beautiful Thanksgiving turkey is but a shadow of its former self, no longer browned and beautiful but bare and skeletal. Even so it has a lot to give. As you peel off most of the remaining bits of meat for turkey sandwiches and leftover favorites don’t be too particular. When you get tired simply transfer the remains to a large stockpot and let your perfect turkey dinner keep on giving.

Throw in an onion and a couple of ribs of leftover celery from the stuffing. Add a couple of carrots, some fresh herbs, salt and pepper. You can even throw in any bits that came inside the turkey that you didn’t use in the gravy, especially the neck, and pan drippings from the roaster that didn't go into the gravy. Then cover it all with water, bring to a boil, turn down to low and allow the pot to simmer.



A Job Well Done

My friend Alanna, at Kitchen Parade, browns hers first beneath the broiler. Sounds intriguing! Try it if you like; I might this year. Simply spread the turkey bits and vegetables on a foil lined pan, and broil some six inches below the element. As the turkey bits sizzle and some get dark brown and begin to char, turn the pieces and let them brown again.

That done, add the contents of the pan to the pot. Again, cover with water. Let the pot simmer while you finish cleaning up, then sit down to some nice conversation with your family. Check it occasionally. Stir; adjust seasoning; skim; leave cooking.

When the bones begin to fall apart and the broth gets rich, anywhere from a couple of hours to all afternoon or evening, turn off the heat. When it has cooled enough to work with strain it through a mesh strainer into a new pan, pushing hard to get all the liquid from the vegetables. Then discard the remains and put the liquid in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day skim away the congealed fat on top and heat the remaining broth to use for a soup base or as broth for Turkey and Dumplings. Or, if you have no wish to use it right away, pour it into freezer containers and freeze for later use.

Now sit back and smile at a job well done.


Enjoy!

24 November 2010

Sweet Potato Thyme


Working through some potential holiday recipes I stumbled across this simple approach to serving sweet potatoes. It features thyme and draws out the sweet potatoes colorful root vegetable's simple earthy appeal. From someone who used to not like sweet potatoes that's saying a lot.

While sweet potatoes have not always been a personal favorite I, like most everyone else I've ever known, have loved roasted white potatoes since I first tried them.  Crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, roasted potatoes are a welcome addition to almost any meal.

Now I am finding that the same amazingly simple and forgiving cooking technique works its magic on sweet potatoes too.  This delicious recipe is both sweet and satisfying without added sugar.  The savory herbs and spices keep things interesting as the sweet potatoes begin to crisp on the baking sheet.  The result is a side dish that is simple to prepare and quite interesting to the palate, as appropriate for a Thanksgiving dinner  menu as for any ordinary weeknight meal.

So, why not find the thyme to try them?




Thyme Roasted Sweet Potatoes
adapted from a recipe at Epicuious.com

2.5 pounds sweet potatoes, roughly peeled and cut into chunks
3 Tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-4 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients.  Toss ingredients together until the sweet potato chunks are evenly coated with oil.

Arrange in a single layer on a heavy rimmed baking sheet.

Place in oven and roast, turning potatoes several times until they are browned and tender when pierced with a fork, approximately 40 minutes.

Serve warm, garnished with thyme sprigs if desired.

Enjoy!

21 November 2010

Carrots - A Question of Thanksgiving Guilt


Life's Necessities

Since reading a column last week titled "Give thanks for guiltless carrot dish" I have been stewing. The article begins, "Face it, carrots are the Thanksgiving side dish you force yourself to eat so you don't feel quite so guilty indulging in the rest of the meal." Really?

Personally, I am happy to eat carrots in a stir-fry, lightly glazed, roasted, even raw and unadorned. I have been since I was a child. I love their crunch, their earthy sometimes sweetness, their bright cheerful color. Even so, I am willing to allow that I may be in the minority in that fond regard.

If I am, I still wonder, do people really force themselves to eat carrots to assuage a sense of guilt about eating Thanksgiving dinner? Guilty thanks? Isn't that an oxymoron?

And suppose it were all true; would a carrot dish made with three pounds of carrots slathered in 2/3 cup of honey and 1/4 cup of butter really qualify as a "guiltless" dish in the column's suggested equation of justification? What then would constitute a "guilty" dish? I'm not sure I understand the math.

Of course this isn't the only recipe column to use food guilt as an angle to draw attention to a recipe. Food story after food story bids us to consider low calorie foods as angelic, no matter the artifice involved, while dishes rich in fat and calories are described as sinful or decadent even if they are quite nutritious.


Good Planning and Stewardship

So, what's with the food guilt? Eating is neither a vice nor a virtue: it is a necessity. It’s the quantity we eat that is the issue. The news regularly tells us that gluttony, or at least habitual overeating, is at a near epidemic level in this country. I think it is safe to say that most of us could choose to eat more responsibly.  Still I doubt that guilt is an effective encouragement to that end.

In my view, not only is eating a necessity, but feasting and celebration too, in their own season. They are part of a pattern that reaches back through time. Our calendars account for celebration, our history is told through celebration, even our laws set aside time for celebration. Celebration adds zest to life, binds us as a people and gives us something to look forward to. Rich delicious foods are an integral part of most celebrations offering seasonal delicacies that add to the story passed down through the generations. Of course overindulgence in those rich seasonal foods is not required but neither is it a crime, especially when tempered by leaner seasons of simpler less elaborate fare.


Giving Thanks

Actually though, the title of that food column does suggest something that is essential to our celebrations. We do need to give thanks as we find a way to lay down the guilt and commemorate the season. This may involve a pre-celebration period of contrition and moderation as in the traditional Christian seasons of Advent and Lent. It may also involve planning sound meals around more moderate portions of dishes higher in quality nutrition. But let's look at that for what it is, good planning and stewardship, not a self-indulgent guilt fest.

By these recipe standards I have a host of "guiltless" side dishes to share, several of which will grace my Thanksgiving table this year. How about Roasted Delicata Squash garnished with Curry Spiced Seeds, Moroccan Spiced Carrots, Sweet Potatoes with Bacon and Pecans and even Southern Style Green Beans. Or how about this interesting recipe for carrots that I found in a recent issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Still, whatever you do, don't design your Thanksgiving menu based on guilt. Lay that aside for one day at least to focus on the abundance of God's good gifts. Eat with intention and consideration. Slowly savor each bite and…..leave the guilt at the door. Let us all give thanks with joyful hearts!


Roasted Carrots with Feta and Parsley
adapted from the March 2010 issue of Martha Stewart Living

3 pounds medium carrots, sliced in 1/2 inch pieces on the bias
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese (low-fat or fat-free if you like)
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Toss carrots with olive oil and scatter in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper.

Roast for 25 minutes or until tender and caramelized.

Transfer carrots to a serving bowl. Toss with feta cheese and chopped parsley.

Serve and enjoy!

18 November 2010

Pumpkin Pancakes


All Things Pumpkin

In this season of everything pumpkin I find myself cutting out recipe after recipe: pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake, pumpkin soup, pumpkin cookies, even pumpkin fudge. They all tempt me with their list of ingredients as I imagine their spicy fragrance and rich fall color.

At least half of them I will never get around to trying. Another fraction will not turn out half as well as I hoped. But then there are those real winners; recipes I turn back to year after year.

Holiday Inspiration

Pumpkin Pancakes is a recipe I cut out of a magazine long ago and have looked to for a number of repeat performances. They add a special touch to a family breakfast without a lot of extra fuss. They give me a reason to open up those spice jars and let the scents of the season take me back to fond memories. They also inspire me with new enthusiasm to create something special for this holiday season.

This year I may be tempted to add a sprinkling of toasted pecans to the batter or to the topping. Or, considering my fondness for combining chocolate with pumpkin, I might add a handful of chocolate mini-morsels to the batter for a holiday morning treat.

And why limit pancakes to the breakfast table? These would make a delicious entree for a Thanksgiving Eve dinner. They would also be an interesting change of pace served for a casual dinner on Thanksgiving weekend.


Pumpkin Pancakes
Adapted from “Good Morning Pumpkin Pancakes” found on an old clipping of a Libby’s magazine ad

2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 T brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon allspice
1 12-ounce can evaporated skimmed milk
½ cup pumpkin
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, cinnamon, ginger and allspice in a large mixing bowl. Add the evaporated milk, pumpkin, vegetable oil, eggs and vanilla, mixing until smooth.

Heat griddle or skillet over medium heat. When hot add a little oil to the pan. Pour pancake batter by 1/3 – ½ cup full onto hot griddle. Cook until bubbles form and begin to pop and the edge is dry. (The bottom of the pancake should be golden brown.)

Flip the pancake and cook the other side until golden.

Serve with maple syrup, pancake syrup or honey.

Enjoy!

14 November 2010

Pomegranate and Roasted Corn Salsa


Seasonal Treasure

The tiny jewel-like arils of a pomegranate are nutty little seeds wrapped in a beautiful and deliciously succulent cloak of exotic flavor. I think it is the texture, the snappy crunch cushioned in soft sweet nectar, that makes pomegranate arils a tempting addition to savory snacks, especially those that thrive on harmonizing flavor notes and palatable contrasts of texture.

Salsa for instance. Fruity salsas are a fun way to serve tempting new flavor combinations. At their best they offer guests a surprising and nutritious contrast of herbs and spices, heat and cool, soft and crunchy, sweet and savory that invites them to explore the ingredients while taking the edge off those between-meal cravings.

This salsa is no exception. It blends some delicious seasonal favorites into a delightfully pretty appetizer that is replete with succulent contrast. Harvest flavors of roasted sweet corn, buttery pine nuts and earthy jicama balance the beauty and sharp piquancy of the pomegranate arils, tart notes of lime and spicy cilantro. It is a great way to wake up the palate in preparation for a satisfying meal to come.



Pomegranate Salsa

½ cup pomegranate arils
Zest of 1 small lime (1 teaspoon)
1 Tablespoon lime juice
1 Tablespoon pomegranate juice
2 Tablespoons honey
½ cup jicama, cut in small cubes or matchsticks
½ cup roasted corn, thawed
1 jalapeno minced
2 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
½ teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

To make this salsa first open a pomegranate:

  • Slice ½ to 1 inch from the crown of the fruit.
  • Score the outer skin of the pomegranate with a sharp knife, cutting from the top to the base along the sectional lines where the white webbing attaches to the outer rind.
  • Pull these sections apart and separate the ruby toned arils from the white pulp using a spoon or fork. (You can use your fingers but remember that pomegranate juice stains and will likely leave a brownish discoloration on the skin of your fingertips if that is your method of choice.)

Place ½ cup of the pomegranate arils in a small bowl, storing the remaining seeds in the refrigerator for another use.

Add the remaining ingredients. Stir until well combined.

Allow to rest for thirty minutes or so to allow flavors to blend.

Serve with plantain chips, or Sweet Potato Chips, or Home Baked Tortilla Chips.

Enjoy!

08 November 2010

Squash and Hominy Stew


Friends in the Kitchen

This recipe is adapted from one I found a couple of years ago on my friend Alanna's blog,  A Veggie Venture. Reading it just before Thanksgiving it made me smile.  Having shared a number of holidays with Alanna I knew I could trust her take on the recipe: that her Quick Green Chile Stew would be the perfect no-fuss pre-holiday warm-up.

The smile came from her advice to add something creamy to the bowl.  Anytime you have more than one cook in the kitchen you are bound to have a few points of friendly disagreement and this was one I remembered from way back when: I would always make a face when Alanna added cottage cheese to a soup. My aversion to things white and creamy has been documented. While I understood her suggestion in theory, in my mind cottage cheese is meant to be eaten on it's own with a few grinds of black pepper and a cracker. Enough said.

But the creamy cottage cheese was just the garnish for this recipe.  The basic recipe sounded wonderful to me, especially with the addition of salsa verde.  Right away I looked around the kitchen for the ingredients to make a pre-Thanksgiving pot of my own.


Improvisation

I didn't have an exact match for every ingredient. Good thing it's one of those recipes that seems open to interpretation.  I skipped the pumpkin as recommended and the poblano chiles since I didn't have any on hand.  Instead I roasted some squash to add to the stew in more substantial form than the skipped pumpkin puree. That left me in need of more liquid so I added broth.

Then, while digging around in the cabinet, I found a can of hominy. That hominy reminded me of grits, a food that I had always enjoyed eating but would cause Alanna to shake her head. Again I smiled. I added the hominy to the stew along with the beans.


Adaptation

Isn't that the way we all cook?  Every time I read comments following a recipe on, say, Epicurious, I am struck by the way it seems that almost everyone who tries the recipe actually tries a different recipe, adapted to their own habits and preferences as well as what they have available.  And really, that's okay, isn't it? As long as you don't blame the author for the way your adaptation turns out.

In this case, I found the adaptation every bit as appealing as Alanna did the original.  Mine turned out a little too spicy for some of my guests but I liked it that way.  I also enjoyed remembering the times Alanna and I once spent together in the kitchen, learning from each other's kitchen traditions and preferences, before we were separated by several thousand miles and more years than I care to admit to.

I've made this stew several times since then.  It really is delicious and easy to put together especially if you have leftover squash on hand.  Try my version or Alanna's or change it up to make it your own.



Squash and Hominy Stew
adapted from Quick Green Chile Stew at A Veggie Venture

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
2–4 cups squash (delicata, butternut or other winter squash), roasted and diced 
15 ounce can diced tomatoes
15 ounce can black beans
15 ounce can blackeye peas
15 ounce can garbanzo beans
15 ounce can hominy
10 ounce can diced tomatoes and green chilies (I used Ro-tel)
1½ cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if you prefer)
1-2 cans water
12 ounce jar salsa verde (I used Trader Joe’s)

Chopped cilantro and/or Curry Roasted Squash Seeds for garnish.

Heat oil in a 6 quart pot. When hot, add onion. Saute until soft and browned. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and summer for 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Scoop into bowls. Garnish with cilantro and/or  squash seeds.

Serve with corn bread or Pumpkin Braids and seedless mandarin oranges for dessert.

Note:  To make squash bowls, cut a turban squash in half, at the line of separation between the rounded base and top section. Place face down on a baking sheet and roast in a hot oven until the center is soft when pierced with a fork.

Remove the squash from the oven and allow to cool until easy to handle.  When cool scoop the soft flesh from each half leaving a shell of about half an inch along the skin side of the squash. (The removed squash can be used for the squash in the recipe, if desired.) Fill with Squash and Hominy Stew and serve.

Serve with cornbread and a salad, if you like.

Enjoy!

04 November 2010

Uncle Hal's Biscuits


Historic Dividends

My great great uncle Hal was a wonderful storyteller. Though his formal education was sparse he was well read and wrote with a broad vocabulary in a neat cursive hand. His handwritten 162 page memoir beautifully recounts his experiences in the early 20th century.

Uncle Hal was not only a fine writer but a cook of some merit, when the need arose. One story he shared in his memoir described his duties as cook on the farm he rented with a friend as a young man in Minnesota around 1916:
It was agreed beforehand that I was to be cook and housekeeper and Mrs. Clark taught me how to make biscuits the quick and easy way - I already knew how to boil beans and potatoes. Mrs. Clark rolled her dough and used a biscuit cutter, but my method was much simpler and more direct. When my dough was thoroughly mixed I dumped it into a bread pan, leveled it off a bit and put it in the oven to bake. And since it is never good to cut hot bread with a knife I would put it on the table just as it came from the pan and we could break off any size piece we needed. I baked a pan of the stuff every evening for supper and there was always enough left for the next two meals.
In addition to my homemade loaf we lived mostly on beans, potatoes, oatmeal, eggs and milk. Meat was hard to handle since we had no refrigeration and went to town only on Saturday night. For dessert we poured out a plate full of Karo syrup and mopped it up with bread or biscuit, whatever it was. If the Karo company paid extra dividends in 1916 and 1917 it was due largely to our patronage. I love biscuit and syrup to this day...

A Few Years Later

I remember eating Karo pancake syrup as a child. My aunt always bought Mrs. Butterworth's but my Dad was a thrifty shopper and not swayed by branding. Karo was inexpensive and tasted good, as winning a combination for a family watching their food budget as it was for a young man living in lean times fifty or more years before.

So, here's to Uncle Hal, some delicious homemade biscuits, cut in rounds, squares or baked as a loaf, a smear of good butter and a plate of Karo syrup. Or, if you prefer to forgo the Karo, try smothering them in maple syrup, honey or fruit jam. Whatever they're served with, homemade biscuits are delightfully plain fare; a tasty, filling and well appreciated comfort food that is a joy to share with family and friends.


Uncle Hal's Biscuits
adapted from "Get-A-Jump-On-The-Day Biscuits" in The Courier-Journal Kentucky Cookbook

3 cups flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add the milk and mix until the dough holds together.

Turn dough onto a floured board and knead lightly.

Roll dough into a rectangle. Fold it in half and roll to a 1/2-inch thickness.

Cut into two to three-inch rounds or squares with the top of a glass or other cutter.

Place with sides touching on a baking sheet.

Bake at 425 degrees for 12 - 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Makes approximately 1 dozen 3-inch biscuits.

Serve warm with butter, jam, honey or syrup.


Uncle Hal's version: Increase amount of milk by 1/3 cup. When milk is stirred in and dough holds together turn the dough into a greased loaf pan and bake at 425 degrees until golden brown, approximately 30 minutes.

"Break off any size piece you need."

Enjoy!