31 December 2013

Collard Salad with Lemon Dressing


New Year’s Day Dinner

Are you planning to dine on black-eyed peas and greens this New Year’s Day? Tradition tells us it will bring good luck and prosperity in the New Year. I cannot speak to the efficacy of this practice, though I admit that when I consider the events of 2013 I could use some of that luck. In any case this New Year’s Day will find me in the kitchen with my peas and greens. I love black-eyed peas and look forward to New Year’s Day as the perfect opportunity to cook them.

The greens are always a bit more of a challenge. I do eat greens but they are not my favorite, especially collard greens. Having recently moved back to the south I have had my share of opportunities to eat collard greens over the past year. Once or twice I would say they were good. More often their taste was bland and their color, less than inviting. That lackluster result discourages me from using the slow-cooked method to prepare collard greens.

A New Way

At Thanksgiving I flagged a recipe in Southern Living that took a new approach. It was for a beautiful salad that featured collard greens. I liked that it was a green salad you could dress in advance, in fact needed to dress in advance, to tenderize the greens. The dressing and added ingredients were also appealing.

Here I have simplified the recipe. Rather than an assortment of pricey greens for the salad I have focused on the collard greens. Cranberries add a touch of color and tangy flavor. Avocado and bacon add texture and round out the flavors. The dressing balances the bright flavor of fresh lemon juice with the spicy depth of garlic and Dijon mustard. The sum is a lovely salad that will add a fresh perspective to a traditional New Year’s Day meal.

Happy New Year!


Collard Salad with Lemon Dressing

Adapted from a recipe in Southern Living

Collard Salad

1 bunch fresh collard greens (8 ounces)
½ cup dried cranberries
1 avocado
½ cup toasted pecans, chopped
4 slices cooked bacon, crumbled

Lemon Dressing

2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ cup olive oil

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.

Prepare Lemon Dressing by whisking together ingredients until smooth.

Toss collard strips, cranberries and Lemon Dressing in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until almost ready to serve.

Just before serving toss avocado, pecans and bacon with collard mixture.

Serve and enjoy!

29 December 2013

Black-Eyed Pea Croquettes with Avocado Corn Salsa


After a season of feasting on rich foods and nibbling on elaborate cookies I’m ready to get back to basics. In my kitchen that often begins with the tradition of cooking black-eyed peas and greens to inspire luck in the coming year. The origins of this southern tradition are debatable but from a nutritional point of view it remains a profitable reminder to value the humble components of a healthy diet as I kick off the new year.

This year I’ve found some recipes that give a new spin to this old custom. This recipe for Black Eyed Pea Croquettes is one I may turn to again and again throughout the new year. I think most any type of bean would work as a substitute for the black-eyed peas and other types of beans might draw out different ethnic influences to complete the meal.

Here Avocado Corn Salsa adds a nice touch of color and a contrast of flavor and texture, brightening the plate and adding a bit of crunch. It is delicious with the croquettes but would also add a nice touch to a more traditional bowl of Lucky Black-Eyed Peas or simply accompanied by a bowl of tortilla chips as game-day snack.


Black Eyed Pea Croquettes

Adapted from a recipe in Southern Living

½ cup minced red onion
3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne red pepper
½ teaspoon salt
2 cans black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 large egg, lightly beaten
more panko crumbs (for dredging), if desired

Heat 1 Tablespoon of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and sauté until tender. Stir in the garlic. Remove from heat.

Mash two cups of the black-eyed peas with the cumin, cayenne pepper, and salt. Stir in the panko, cilantro, egg, onion mixture and remaining black-eyed peas until combined.

Form patties using 1/3 – ½ cup of the mixture for each cake. Dredge in panko crumbs, if desired.

Heat remaining oil in a large nonstick skillet. Place black-eyed pea cakes in the hot oil and cook over medium heat until golden brown, approximately 3-4 minutes per side.

Serve with collard greens, cornbread and Avocado Corn Salsa.


Avocado Corn Salsa

From Southern Living Magazine

Zest of 1 lime
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups corn kernels
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1 small avocado, diced
1/3 cup minced red onion
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

In a medium bowl, whisk together lime zest, lime juice, oil, mustard and red pepper until well blended.

Stir in the corn, tomatoes, avocado, onion and cilantro.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with black-eyed pea cakes or with tortilla chips.

Enjoy!

25 December 2013

A Christmas Dinner - 1945


Bits and Pieces

Looking through memorabilia in preparation for my Father-in-law’s 90th birthday party in October was a treat. I find historic detail fascinating and enjoyed getting to know my father-in-law better. At 90 his memory is still sharp and his detailed descriptions of his depression-era youth and years of service in the army during WW2 were compelling.


I learned a lot about my father-in-law’s family and the challenges he faced growing up. I especially enjoyed seeing what bits and pieces he had saved as souvenirs. He had some intriguing photos, a few postcards from Europe and even a few menus tucked away in a folder. Not only did we discover a Thanksgiving menu from 1938 but, owing to my interest in history and food, he also pulled out several holiday menus he had hung onto from his Army days.


One of them was from the 115th Station Hospital in Augsburg, Germany where he was stationed for several months at the end of WW2 before being honorably discharged in the spring of 1946.


A Christmas Dinner from 1945

Once again I was struck by how little had changed in our expectations at the holiday table this past half-century or so since the end of WW2 and the beginning of the atomic age. This celebration menu for a meal served just months after the end of WW2 included a roast turkey and dressing, potatoes and gravy served along with cranberries and hot buttered rolls. There was fruit and nuts and a Plum Pudding for dessert.

Again I was charmed by the attention to abundant detail and special offerings including pineapple juice, coffee and candy as well as the printed inclusion of cigarettes, that mid-century staple, on the menu.


I was also impressed by the optimism that accompanied goals accomplished in the war. While those present at this Christmas Banquet were still far from home they were encouraged that their hopes and dreams were realized in victory and that freedom and democracy prevailed. They were also unashamed to claim that victory as an answer to prayer.

May we also be mindful of God’s power and presence in our lives as we follow in their legacy, celebrating the birthday of our Lord and proclaiming peace on earth and good will toward men.

Merry Christmas!

23 December 2013

Easy Pecan Bars


Cookie Recipes

I have always loved holiday baking. As a girl, I spent many December evenings in Aunt Hen’s kitchen. After school I would walk up to her house and dig through her vast collection of cookbooks and holiday publications in search of the best recipes for Christmas cookies and candies. Aunt Hen would make a list of the recipes we wanted to try on the white writing tablet she always kept near her dining table. Once the list was made and she had collected the ingredients we would spend our evenings baking.


Aunt Hen tended toward traditional recipes with butterscotch chips or candied fruit and coconut. I tended toward new recipes with chocolate or nuts and spices. Together we mixed the ingredients, tended the oven and sometimes added decorations. Aunt Bet would often join us for conversation and coffee breaks and would help pack the finished product in big Christmas tins. Later we arranged plates of the cookies and candy we had made together to give as gifts to family and friends.

Christmas Baking

I still love to make and bake during the Christmas season. These days I am alone in the kitchen but some of the recipes I use, Peanut Butter Fudge, Chocolate Crinkles and Scandinavian Almond Cookies for example, haven’t changed since those baking marathons with Aunt Hen. Other recipes have been discovered or updated over the years. I still enjoy finding new ways to create holiday favorites.

This year I tried a new recipe for Pecan Bars. Though I have already posted a recipe for Pecan Pie Bites that is quite delicious I found this recipe from Better Homes and Gardens appealing because of its simplicity. The crust does not need to be rolled out, no candy thermometer or parchment paper is required and the addition of lemon zest to the crust layer sounded refreshing.

The finished cookie did not disappoint. It baked as described, was easy to remove from the pan and cut into pretty pieces. The finished recipe makes 54 cookies, (enough for a crowd) and, best of all, they taste wonderful!


Pecan Bars

From Better Homes and Gardens "Christmas Cookies" Issue, 1994

Crust:
½ cup butter, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ teaspoon vanilla
1¼ cups all-purpose flour

Directions for Filling:
1/3 cup butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1¾ cups coarsely chopped pecans
¼ cup whipping cream

Directions for Crust:

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large mixing bowl, with an electric mixer, beat ½ cup butter at medium speed until smooth. Add ½ cup sugar, lemon peel, and vanilla, beating until combined. Beat in as much flour as possible with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour with a wooden spoon.

Press dough into the bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Bake at 350F for 15 minutes. Set aside on a wire rack to cool.

Reduce oven temperature to 325F.

Directions for Filling:

In a medium saucepan, combine 1/3 cup butter, brown sugar, honey, and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar. Cook over medium heat stirring until the mixture comes to a full boil. Remove pan from heat. Stir in pecans and whipping cream. Immediately pour the pecan mixture over crust, spreading evenly. Bake at 325F for 25 minutes.

Cool completely.

Cut into bars, 6 x 9. Makes 54.

Enjoy!

17 December 2013

Dressing the Perfect Soft Boiled Egg


Rediscovering Eggs

One September, several years ago, on the sun-kissed shores of Lake Geneva, my husband and I fell in love with soft-boiled eggs. At the end of a continental breakfast buffet that featured croissants, cheese, fresh fruit and good coffee there was an arrangement of little egg cups beside a basket of boiled eggs. They seemed like an elegant breakfast choice as we ate them looking out onto the streets of Lausanne and the lake beyond.

Of course that wasn’t the first time we had eaten soft-boiled eggs. Both my husband and I also remembered them fondly from our childhood. Exploring those memories we found that they were less about the taste or quality of the egg itself than they were about the process and the accessories that eating soft-boiled eggs demanded. There was also a sense that those softly cooked eggs were something special our mothers wanted to share with us.

I remembered my mother serving soft boiled eggs at our chrome and formica kitchen table. Mine wore a pointed felt hat and sat in an egg cup that was decorated to look like a storybook character. My husband remembered cracking the top of soft boiled eggshells with the back of a knife and carefully peeling off the shell before spooning out the soft center.


Recreating Breakfasts Remembered

Home again, we began to collect our own set of implements to accompany soft-boiled eggs. We bought egg cups, egg spoons and an egg timer. Then we began our quest for the best method to cook a perfect soft-boiled egg, one where the white was firmly set and the yolk was thick and golden but not yet pale and crumbly. Through many trial runs we noted the details: depth of water, temperature setting of the burner, eggs added to cold water or after the water began to boil, number of minutes at a boil, etc. It may seem silly but, as with many simple things, the details matter.


As we experimented, we continued to collect. We now have a variety of egg toppers and several egg cozies. One set I found at Etsy reminded me of the felt hat my mother’s soft-boiled eggs wore.


Another set came from my talented sister-in-law who crafts the most amazing things. These snowmen cozies are paired with a handsome Christmas tea cozy she gave to us a few years ago.


Here is my husband’s current method for cooking soft-boiled eggs. It worked well this past weekend, yielding a firm white exterior that cradled a thick soft golden yolk. Once again we remembered how wonderful something as simple as a boiled egg can taste on a leisurely weekend morning.


Soft Boiled Eggs

4 large eggs
water, to cover
pinch of salt
a few grinds of pepper

Place eggs in a small saucepan. Barely cover the eggs with cold water.

Place saucepan on the stove over high heat. Heat water just to a boil.

Turn off heat, leaving the saucepan on the burner. Leave in place, uncovered, for 3 minutes.

Drain and place eggs in eggcups. Cover eggs with cozies. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or so before serving.

To eat:

Remove top of shell with an egg topper, or by gently tapping around the circumference of the egg, near the top, to break it, and peeling away the bits of shell over the top quarter of the egg. Sprinkle exposed egg with a few grains of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

It is nice to have egg spoons or other small spoons with a rounded bowl for eating the egg and scooping out the last bits of white from inside the shell.

Serve eggs with toast and sausage or bacon. Discreetly dip toast bits into the egg yolk if desired...

Enjoy!

Note: For another approach to the perfect soft-boiled egg read this post about the Cook’s Illustrated method. Or these tips from Cathy at Wives with Knives. Though we have had some success lately, I am still fascinated by the quest for the P.S.B.E. Plus I love the photos and serving ideas.

11 December 2013

Spicy Molasses Crinkles


Big Flavor…

Ginger is one of my favorite holiday flavors. Most every year I bake Gingerbread Cookies for the holidays. I like them crispy or chewy, with a robust blend of spices including chocolate, coffee and even pepper or with a breezier palate of ginger and citrus. Whatever the recipe I love the way the spicy notes scent the kitchen and invite memories of Christmases past.

This year I observed that spicy tradition with a new recipe I found in an issue of Cook’s Illustrated. This recipe is said to be the result of over 50 batches of experimentation to come up with the best blend of crisp and chewy and the best medley of warm spicy notes. I loved reading about the process and reasoning behind each step of the recipe as well as a breakdown on the best brands of molasses to use.


…In Small Packages

With all that research going into the recipe there was little room for constructive adaptation, and still….

I really wanted smaller cookies. I am willing to risk my spice cookies turning out on the crunchy side and I prefer Christmas cookies that are small enough to allow for tasting several kinds with a single cup of coffee. So I made mine about half the size suggested, roughly 2 teaspoons of dough in each rather than a heaping Tablespoon, yielding nearly 5 dozen cookies.

I also avoided rolling the dough into balls by hand. Instead I used my 1¼ inch cookie scoop to form the dough, leveling it off on the rim of the bowl and then dropping it into the sugar to coat.

The result was my idea of perfect: small, fragrant, spicy, a bit crispy on the outside but still soft on the inside. These spicy gems offer a little taste of Christmas in every delicious bite.


Molasses Spice Cookies

From Cook’s Illustrated "Holiday Baking" Issue
Yield: 4-5 dozen cookies 2-inch cookies

1/3 cup granulated sugar (plus ½ cup for dipping)
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup molasses

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place ½ cup granulated sugar in an 8 or 9-inch cake pan. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, soda, salt and spices.

In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, brown sugar and 1/3 cup granulated sugar until light and fluffy (approximately 3 minutes.)

Add the egg yolk and vanilla. Continue beating until blended.

Add molasses. Continue beating until fully incorporated.

Add the flour mixture stirring or beating until just incorporated, forming a smooth soft dough.

Using a 1¼ cookie scoop ( or a rounded teaspoon) scoop dough in balls and drop into the sugar in the cake pan, 4 or so at a time. Toss gently until the dough balls are well coated in the sugar. Place 2 inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets.

Bake 1 cookie sheet at a time until edges have set, about 8-10 minutes. (In my oven 9 minutes was the right number for crisp but still chewy. 8 minutes yielded a very soft cookie and 10 minutes was enough to make them crispy. Watch carefully. Ovens vary. )

Remove cookies. Place cookie sheet on wire rack, leaving cookies on the cookie sheet to cool for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely.

Notes:

For a crunchier texture and more sparkle, use turbinado sugar to coat the balls of dough rather than plain white sugar.

To add variety I drizzled Dark Rum Glaze over half of the cookies. Whisk together ½ cup confectioners’ sugar and 1 – 1½ Tablespoons dark rum. Arrange cookies on a baking rack. Using a spoon, drizzle the rum glaze over the cooled cookies. Allow glaze to set before storing in an airtight container.

Enjoy!

04 December 2013

Chestnut Roasting


The Christmas Song

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose….”
~ Torme and Wells

My knowledge of chestnuts is forever colored by the work of two men: my grandfather and Johnny Mathis.

Johnny Mathis provided the atmosphere. When I was small my mother had a collection of Firestone and Goodyear Christmas Albums featuring popular performers from the 1960’s: Tony Bennett, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams and Barbara Streisand among others. I can still hear the exact inflection of Maurice Chevalier singing Jolly Old St. Nicholas, one of my favorites.

Those albums also introduced me to the silken strains of Johnny Mathis delivering a golden version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”. In his accomplished voice I could feel the warmth of a holiday fire, the welcome of family celebrations and the wonder of the season. In that opening line chestnuts were forever polished with the glow of all that is beautiful about Christmases past.


Experiencing Chestnuts

While Johnny Mathis wrapped the word 'chestnuts' in dulcet tones it was my grandfather who introduced me to the experience of chestnuts and their sweet earthy flavor. Just the sight of chestnuts can take me back, crunching through the fallen leaves as I walk across my grandparents' farm wearing a big corduroy coat someone has put on me. The sleeves are too long and the tan fabric smells of the breath of farm animals and of eggs gathered from the hen house.

Past the horses and chickens, back to where the interstate cut across the farmland making a good portion of the property difficult to reach, chestnuts and persimmons grew. Every autumn those chestnuts were gathered by the bagful. Curious, I once asked for one. Pappaw cut into it with his pocket knife and gave it to me. I peeled away the brown shell. Beneath that was a fuzzy skin clinging to the nut. I probably peeled that too. The nut itself was a little soft and very convoluted with a deep rib, much like a pecan or walnut but with the nut meat clinging more closely to the rib and holding on. The meat of the raw chestnut tasted mildly sweet and almost crisp, unlike other nuts. Back at the house, Mammaw gave us a lunch sack full to take home. Pappaw sold the excess for a good price to local markets.


A Holiday Treat

Now whenever I see chestnuts for sale it brings a smile to my lips. I hear Johnny Mathis and smell the cool autumn air on Pappaw’s farm. I reach out and hold one for a moment, then choose a few, looking them over carefully to make sure they are clean and have a nice weight and color.

Chestnuts can be peeled and eaten as is, but roasting them deepens the flavor and adds its own charm while making them somewhat easier to peel, at least while the nuts are quite warm. As a slowly savored snack accompanied by your favorite seasonal beverage, chestnuts add enchantment to a quiet evening. So put on some Johnny Mathis, light a fire and settle in for a festive holiday treat.


Roasted Chestnuts

Preheat oven to 400F.

Buy chestnuts from reliable vendors or gather them from a known source. Edible chestnuts look much like horse chestnuts and buckeyes, both of which are toxic. After finding a good source, choose chestnuts that are smooth and glossy, feel heavy and full, and are free of dirt and mold.

Rinse chestnuts and pat dry.

With a small sharp knife, carefully (and I do mean CAREFULLY! Those smooth firm shells can be slippery and it was here that I cut my thumb, not badly, but let's avoid that part by being EXTRA careful on this step!) …


Carefully cut through the shell of each chestnut until the tip of the knife reaches the flesh of the chestnut. Cut a broad X through the shell of each nut. (The X I have pictured here is on the small side. When I roasted mine, even though I had cut a small x in each shell, one still exploded in the oven. Cutting a larger X across one side will insure that steam can escape and will make the chestnut easier to peel.)

Scatter scored chestnuts on a shallow baking pan. Place in the oven and roast at 400F for about 20 minutes. When the chestnuts are done the shell will have curled back at the X. You want to roast them long enough to allow the nut to pull back from the shell and the brown skin but not long enough to become dry. Either extreme will leave the chestnuts harder to peel.

Remove chestnuts from oven. Place the nuts on a towel or hold them in your hand using a potholder and squeeze them to roughly crush (crack) the shells. Let cool slightly.

As soon as you can hold them in your hand peel the chestnuts. This can be done with your hands, though your thumbs may hurt after a few. While the nuts are still warm the shells will come off more easily.

Reheat as needed to aid in peeling the whole batch.

Enjoy!

26 November 2013

Blueberries and Coconuts


Holiday Baking

It’s cold outside. Winter has begun to bluster kindling a genuine appreciation for warm fires and hearty holiday meals this late November. The refrigerator is stocked with the traditional excess of the season and I am baking Blueberry Tropic Oat Muffins, with warm notes of coconut and ginger.

What does coconut have to do with the holidays? I guess it’s just the way my mind travels. Remember a young George Bailey talking to Mary at the drugstore soda fountain in It’s A Wonderful Life?

CLOSE SHOT – GEORGE AND MARY AT FOUNTAIN

GEORGE - Made up your mind yet?

MARY - I'll take chocolate.

George puts some chocolate ice cream in a dish.

GEORGE - With coconuts?

MARY - I don't like coconuts.

GEORGE - You don't like coconuts! Say, brainless, don't you know where coconuts come from? Lookit here – from Tahiti – Fiji Islands, the Coral Sea!

He pulls a magazine from his pocket and shows it to her.

MARY - A new magazine! I never saw it before.

GEORGE - Of course you never. Only us explorers can get it. I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society.

Exploring Holiday Flavors

Lots of festive holiday recipes include coconut. Unfortunately, like Mary, I never really cared for the kind of sweetened shredded coconut most often used for holiday treats. Over the years, however, I have realized that it isn’t the taste of coconut that I don’t like as much as the texture. In fact I find the flavor of coconut quite appealing.

Here’s a recipe for a delicious muffin that whispers of the tropics, George Bailey and holiday classics. These fresh flavored oat muffins include a healthy handful of fresh or frozen blueberries, then add a touch of adventure in the form of coconut milk, to lend coconut flavor without the stringy texture. If you are not as adverse to the texture as I am I invite you to add some shredded coconut to the batter instead of, or along with, the white chocolate chips. Or sprinkle a little on top, before baking, for a pretty presentation.


Blueberry Tropic Oat Muffins

1 cup old fashioned oats, uncooked

1 cup lite coconut milk

2 egg whites, lightly beaten

2 Tablespoons safflower oil 

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (or ½ teaspoon ground ginger)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
½ cup white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly spray 12 muffin cups with cooking spray.

Mix oats and lite coconut milk in a medium bowl. Let stand 10 minutes.

Add egg whites, safflower oil, ginger and vanilla, mixing until well blended.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl and mix well.

Stir dry ingredients into the oat mixture, just until moistened.

Gently fold in blueberries and white chocolate chips.

Fill muffin cups nearly full.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

Cool muffins in tins on a wire rack. After 5 minutes remove muffins from pan.

When cool, drizzle with Coconut Glaze.

Yield: 12 Muffins

Coconut Glaze

1½ Tablespoons lite coconut milk
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

In a small bowl, whisk the coconut milk and vanilla into the confectioners’ sugar until smooth.

When thoroughly mixed drizzle the glaze over cooled muffins.

Serve and Enjoy!

24 November 2013

Dad's Plain Bread Stuffing


Holiday Dinners

Holiday meals were a known quantity when I was a child. In our extended family each member claimed a different holiday dinner to host. Every year we gathered at the same house for the same occasions and looked forward to dining on the same menu with the same guests as the year before, give or take minor variations.

Christmas Day we ate a dinner of Baked Ham with Scalloped Potatoes, Oyster Casserole and a congealed Cranberry Eggnog Salad at Aunt Hen’s. For Christmas Supper we ate Country Ham with Red-Eye Gravy at Mammaw’s house. Christmas Eve was open to some flexibility but was always eaten at Aunt Bet's. On Thanksgiving it was our turn to host the feast.

After Mom died, Dad continued the tradition of hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house. The guest list remained the same. Mammaw and Pappaw, my mom’s parents, were always there along with Aunt Hen, Aunt Bet and sometimes other friends. The night before Thanksgiving we would get together and help Dad get things ready. Usually that meant sharing coffee and stories in the kitchen while we got out the Currier and Ives Ironstone place settings and made sure Mom's silver flatware was polished. Dad made sure the turkey was fully thawed and the stuffing was ready to be assembled. His Plain Bread Stuffing always earned compliments.


Staging the Show

On Thanksgiving morning, Dad would rise very early, stuff the turkey and get it nestled in a slow oven. While it baked he held vigil in the warm kitchen, tending the turkey while he had his morning coffee, basting it as necessary to encourage a golden bird. I remember waking up to the aroma of Roast Turkey as it began to fill the house. As the morning progressed the rest of the dinner was prepared. We always had Corn in Butter Sauce, Southern Style Green Beans, Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Candied Sweet Potatoes, Cranberry Sauce, a Relish Tray and Soft Rolls.

As guests arrived the women gathered in the kitchen to help with last minute details. Though Aunt Hen was generally among the first to arrive and might be asked to make the gravy she would always defer to Mammaw’s greater experience when she and Pappaw arrived with the Pumpkin Pies. Aunt Hen brought another pie, made at my request, because I didn’t like Pumpkin. I don’t remember who made the Candied Sweet Potatoes. No one ate much of them. No one in the family really liked sweet potatoes but tradition dictated their place on the table.

Dad cooked the Buttered Corn and Green Beans along with the Turkey and Dressing. He put on the giblets for the gravy stock and he liked to arrange the Relish Tray; a pretty dish with celery hearts, carrots, green onions and olives. When the women arrived, however, he yielded the stove-top to them and focused on carving the turkey.


Duplicating the Magic

My Dad’s Plain Bread Stuffing has been a hard recipe to duplicate. When I asked for the recipe he directed me to his old Better Homes and Garden’s Cookbook. There I found a basic recipe for Celery Stuffing. It is the same as my Dad’s in theory. In reality, adapting that recipe to the dish he prepared required examining the concept from his point of view. I remember him multiplying the recipe, carefully premixing the salt and spices in a small bowl, leaving loaves of sliced white bread open to get stale early in the week and then gently turning the bread cubes the day before until they met his expectations for firmness. The only other helpful tip I was ever able to elicit was, “I get in with both hands and mix it.” I am guessing he was often a little overgenerous with the butter as well. In any case Dad's stuffing, when slowly cooked inside a well-basted turkey, was worth raving about even without any special ingredients. It was home cooking at its best.

When I make this dressing at Thanksgiving I also take liberties. In the end it remains more of a concept than a recipe. I hardly ever cook the stuffing inside the turkey. Instead I bake it in an enameled cast iron casserole. I often add some extra celery too, sometimes use different types of bread, sometimes use more butter and then add the broth until it seems right and the dried bread cubes are moistened. I also vary the temperature according to whatever is in the oven, a necessity on Thanksgiving and other special occasions. I leave it baking until it is hot throughout and shortly before serving I remove the foil or lid to encourage just a little browning on the top for a hint of crunch.


Plain Bread Stuffing

1 loaf white bread, cut into ½ inch cubes (about 10 cups)

1½ teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ - 1 teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon salt

2 cups celery with leaves, diced
1 medium onion, diced (about ¾ - 1 cup)
½ cup butter

2 cups broth, more or less

At least a day in advance, if possible, cut white bread into ½ –inch cubes. Scatter the cubes in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet and allow them to air dry and lose their softness. If the bread cubes are still soft when the time to assemble the stuffing approaches, place the pans in the oven and bake the crumbs at low heat (around 300F), turning them now and then, for 30 minutes or so. Allow them to cool again before adding them to the mixture.

In a small bowl, blend together the sage, thyme, pepper and salt. (We usually use dried herbs in the stuffing but if you have fresh herbs, all the better. Using minced fresh herb leaves, adjust the quantity by using 1 Tablespoon of fresh herbs to replace 1 teaspoon of the dried. Or, simply add a few sprigs of fresh to the quantity of dried herbs listed here to add a fresh boost to the flavor.)

Melt butter in a large pan on the stovetop. Add the onion and celery to the butter and saute over medium heat until the celery is tender and the onion is translucent. Remove from heat. Stir in the seasoning mixture. Stir in at least half of the bread crumbs tossing to coat well.

Pour contents of the pan over remaining bread crumbs. Toss to combine. (As my dad would say, feel free to get in there with both hands to mix it.) Pour 1 cup of broth over all, tossing to evenly distribute ingredients.

Turn the mixture into a large lightly greased 9” x 13” casserole dish. Add enough of the remaining broth to make the breadcrumbs moist but not enough to make them soggy.

Cover and Bake at 350F for approximately 30 – 45 minutes, or until hot throughout. Remove cover and continue baking until top begins to turn golden. (Or adjust cooking time to allow for the temperature to which your oven is set for other items.)

Enjoy!

18 November 2013

Our Thanksgiving Menu - A Look Back


Looking Back

My father-in-law turned 90 this year. Getting ready for his party we looked through old photos and mementos he had tucked away. We learned a lot about where he grew up in Yonkers, NY, about his education, his family and his service in the Army during WWII.

Among the documents, photos and other memorabilia was a folded sheet of aged brown paper. I was drawn to it and carefully unfolded it. Inside I found the menu for a Thanksgiving dinner celebrated 75 years ago.

My father-in-law didn’t recall it’s particular significance. He wasn’t sure why he had kept this menu tucked away with his army records and childhood photos all these years. In some ways it seemed insignificant filed among transcripts and discharge records, photos from army hospitals and postcards from Europe. We took a photo of it, like we did the rest, and turned the page.


1938

Fascinated by history and all things food related, I came back to that menu after the party. I wondered why it had been there, in my father-in-law’s folder, what it might have meant to him at the time he folded it and tucked it away.

Looking it over I noticed that it was carefully formatted and typed. I smiled at the detail, the way it broke out “bread” and “butter” and the relishes offered, to fill the page. Then it was inserted in a folder illustrated with a traditional Thanksgiving scene. The art deco style lettering on the illustration suggests the era confirmed by the date "1938" in the lower right corner.

Curious about the setting I looked up the events surrounding Thanksgiving 1938. After nearly a decade the US was still in the throes of the Great Depression. Unemployment was on the rise again at 19%, lower than at the peak of the depression but higher by roughly 5% than the year before.

The world was in turmoil. In the spring German troops had marched in, occupied and then annexed Austria. Earlier in November Kristallnacht had shocked the world and resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 Jews across Germany and many thousands more being taken to concentration camps as their shops and synagogues were destroyed.

And in New York, where my father-in-law grew up, there was turbulence as well. In September, over 600 people were killed when an unexpected hurricane wreaked havoc on Long Island and New England. Then in October, nationwide hysteria is said to have ensued when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio and many people believed, however briefly, that aliens had actually landed in New Jersey.


Still Giving Thanks

Given the realities of 1938 it is easy to understand an atmosphere of uncertainty. People felt uneasy about fluctuations in an economy they wanted to believe was improving. They were also disturbed about events around the world, not to mention climate fluctuations and even the effects of the media on the minds of the masses. And yet, what was not uncertain in 1938 was the celebration of a traditional Thanksgiving.

Looking at this menu it is clear that, at least in some important ways, little has changed over the past 75 years. This menu, though quaint, is recognizable. Without its title we would still guess the occasion given the featured Roast Young Tom Turkey with Giblet Gravy and the meal’s conclusion of Pumpkin Pie. Even the side dishes are scarcely different than those served at Thanksgivings I remember as a child. My father always prepared a relish tray for Thanksgiving including celery hearts and sweet pickles. And, while Ham Dressing may sound a bit unusual, dressing is one dish that often differs from table to table but has long been a hallmark of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, as is Cranberry Sauce and even Sweet Potatoes.

This year our feast will look much the same. My Thanksgiving Planner, highlighting posts from My Own Sweet Thyme that have been a part of my Thanksgiving feast, includes recipes for most of the items on this 1938 menu. It is my daughter who is hosting our Thanksgiving dinner this year and she is planning to use many of those recipes as well. A dish may change here or there but on the whole this Thanksgiving feast will look much like our feast and most everyone else’s, last year, when I was a child, and even in 1938. And this year, as in 1938, despite the world’s uncertainties, we will still count our blessings and offer our thanks!

11 November 2013

Navy Bean Soup


In the Navy

In 1942 the US Navy began to enlist women in the WAVES, or “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.” Aunt Betty, my Dad’s youngest sister was 23 at the time. With the nation at war and both of her brothers joining the Navy, Aunt Bet felt drawn to do her part as well and enlisted.


I don’t know much about Aunt Betty’s time in the service. What I do know is that she was stationed at the Quartermaster Depot in Jeffersonville, IN. Over the years, many of the anecdotes she shared in conversation began, “When I worked at the Quartermaster Depot….”

I don’t remember much about what followed. Back then, I didn’t have any real understanding of the setting or context. I had little enough idea what a depot was, let alone a Quartermaster. Instead of the details, what I took from her stories was the sense that serving as a WAVE had been a pivotal experience in her life and had shaped the curious, competent and interesting woman I had the privilege to call my aunt. I was delighted by her adventurous spirit and always impressed by her willingness to serve.


After WW2

Aunt Betty never married. After WW2 Aunt Betty took a job as a medical secretary at the Veterans Hospital. She had excellent secretarial skills and found her work at the hospital interesting. She worked there until her retirement in the 1970s.

Though Aunt Betty was not the most avid cook in the family, she possessed the gift of hospitality. Rather than cooking an elaborate meal Aunt Betty made her guests feel at home by sitting with them over a cup of coffee and drawing them into conversation.

When she did cook Aunt Betty preferred recipes that could be made ahead and left to stay warm as her guests arrived. One of her signature dishes was Navy Bean Soup. I always thought of that particular dish as having some personal significance, though I may have just imagined it. I don’t have her exact recipe. Instead, this simple recipe is from an old edition of “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook,” a family favorite.


Navy Bean Soup

Adapted from “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook”
Serves 7 (about 1 cup each)

water
1 pound dried navy or pea beans (about 2 cups)
2 cups diced cooked ham pieces
1 ham bone ( if you have it, don’t worry if you don’t)
1 small onion, finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
1 bay leaf
Dash of pepper

Rinse the beans in a colander. Sort through them carefully to remove any dark beans, small stones or other debris.

Place the rinsed beans in a 4-quart cooking pot. Add water to cover by about 1-inch. Heat to boiling. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cover. Allow to stand for 1 hour.

Drain the beans and return them to the same pot. Add 7 cups of clean water. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that forms on the top of the water.

Reduce heat. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender (1-2 hours). Add water during cooking if necessary.

Remove bay leaf. Remove hambone, if used. Adjust seasoning to taste, adding a little salt and/or pepper as you like.

Enjoy!

08 November 2013

Cauliflower Medley with Buttered Crumbs


Testing Tradition

With traditional meals and family favorites on my mind it can be a real challenge to think of new ways to add variety to the menus of the season. Recently, updating my Thanksgiving Menu Planner, I felt like I was in the company of old friends. Would they graciously accept a new recipe to the fold?

I feel the need to be careful, considering whether a new addition to the menu might detract from or clash with old favorites. I don’t want a new dish upstaging recipes that have waited all year for their turn to bask in the limelight.

On the other hand, I think it is important to test the expected now and then. Traditions need some sense of challenge to stay current and remain meaningful from one year to the next.


Old Recipes – New Friends

Here is a vegetable side dish worth introducing to the family. It has enough charm to mingle well with most menus without stealing the show. This recipe is not new, in fact it was cut from a magazine many years ago and taped into my old looseleaf recipe file, yet it has the merit of being both mildly unexpected and completely delicious.

This recipe brings cauliflower to the table. Here it is paired with fresh green beans and embellished with crunchy crumbs and nuts in a browned butter sauce. It is a simple dish but delivers both a healthy medley of contrasting color and a delicious hint of rich flavor that makes it a pretty complement to the main course without weighing down the feast.


Cauliflower Medley with Buttered Crumbs

Adapted from an old magazine clipping
Serves 8-10

2 lbs cauliflower, separated into large florets
1 lb fresh green beans
¼ cup butter
1/3 cup plain dry bread crumbs
¼ cup sliced almonds

Trim and cut green beans into two inch pieces. Arrange the beans and cauliflower florets in a steamer basket over boiling water. Cover and steam 8-10 minutes or until crisp tender. Drain well and transfer to a large serving bowl.

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Continue to heat for approximately 2 minutes or until golden brown. Add the bread crumbs and the almonds to the skillet, stirring to coat.

Continue cooking, stirring often, until the nuts are lightly browned, approximately 3-5 minutes. Pour the butter mixture over the hot vegetables and toss to coat.

Enjoy!

31 October 2013

A Pancake Breakfast


At the Touch of a Button

Today I am off the page in the realm of food blogging. I haven’t been home in over two weeks. I haven’t had a kitchen in nearly three months. Breakfast has gone from home cooked to oatmeal at McDonald’s or Chick-fil-a to scrambled eggs (if you want to call them that) at the Holiday Inn Express.

Now my exile is nearly over and I am celebrating with a morning exploration of something food related that fascinates me: the pancake machine on the Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar.

Technically this pancake machine is not a vending machine as there is no money directly involved in it’s operation; no slot to slip a coin or, these days, a credit card through. Still it intrigues me in the same way as those French Fry Vending machines I have written about in the past. After pushing a single clearly marked button at the lower left of the machine it drops dollops of batter to cook on a Teflon-coated conveyor belt, producing two hot, golden, moderately-sized pancakes in as little as 18 seconds each.


Pancake Photography – On the Go

I first discovered it here over a year ago when we were in transition from Washington to Tennessee. Back then I made a few pancakes and took a few pictures but really, it is difficult to capture my delight with this unusual food machine when photographing a couple of thin pancakes and a shiny puddle of syrup on a styrofoam plate.

Today we add dark clouds and rain to the mix. Yesterday my best point and shoot camera decided its memory card had a flaw. Still, pancakes are on my agenda for the day. Let’s see if I can share a glimpse of the intrigue.





They’re not bad but, then again, how great it would be if those pancakes tasted as good as they look!

30 October 2013

Breakfast in Greeneville, TN - Tipton's Café


On the Road Again

I gave up in Bulls Gap. Just two days into our latest road trip the weather began to turn and my mood with it. As we entered the east Tennessee mountains, my interest in adventure and chance began to wane. What I longed for was someplace to just be, someplace that offered comfort and welcome.

Down the road, in Greeneville, TN, we found that place. We checked into the General Morgan Inn, a lovely historic hotel, and asked for dining suggestions. That evening we enjoyed an elegant dinner at Brumley’s restaurant. Even better suited to my mood was the suggestion to try the breakfast at Tipton’s Café the next morning.

Tipton’s Café is a short walk down Depot Street from the General Morgan Inn. Established in 1966 this café remains a fixture in Greeneville, TN, largely unchanged in style or demeanor since it began operation. It was the perfect place to begin another day on the road. The old-fashioned menu was simple, the service was fast and friendly, and the authentic local atmosphere was a bonus.


Down Depot Street

Tipton’s keeps somewhat unusual hours. The night clerk at the General Morgan Inn told us that they open at 11pm and close early, after the morning crowd has died down. He told us he often goes there when he gets off work and assured us that they serve a good breakfast at a good price.

Later that evening we walked down Depot Street to take a look. Just a block past the General Morgan Inn’s perky awnings, Greeneville resembled other small towns across the heartland; an antique shop or two updating old storefronts wedged between abandoned building in varying states of disrepair. And then, there it was, Tipton’s Café, neither perky nor run-down, a narrow slice of a simple brick storefront operating as if time had never passed it by.


A Lively Business

The next morning, I walked by Tipton’s while taking photos around town. A neon sign in the window announced it was open for business. A peek in the window confirmed that conversation was lively and all but one or two of the stools at the counter were full along with both of the small tables that sat against the wall.

We stopped in closer to lunch time, on our way out of town. By then only a few of the dozen or so stools at the diner style lunch counter were full. We sat down and noticed how closely we were drawn to the bar leaving a narrow aisle between our backs and the tables by the wall. In front of us we were practically close enough to the griddle and the drinks to serve ourselves. The tight environment invited a comfortable camaraderie.


A Friendly Atmosphere

The folks at Tipton’s Café in Greeneville, TN were friendly and big hearted, especially when it comes to children and kittens. There were pictures of both on the shelves behind the counter. The staff greeted regular customers by name as they came through the door and drew us strangers into the conversation, cheerfully answering questions, and sharing stories about the photos, about teenagers and a tiny kitten they took under their wing, about the relentless march of time and, well, life in general.


The Value of Over-Medium

While there was nothing high-minded about the simple menu or the meal we were served, I can say that at Tipton's Café they know how to fry an egg. I ordered mine over medium, meaning I wanted my eggs fried so that the white was thoroughly cooked but the yellow remained a bit runny. They came over medium, a small thing, perhaps, but something that happens only rarely when I eat at breakfast-trade chain restaurants, and for which I am grateful.


They also know about value. Two eggs with two strips of bacon, two biscuits and gravy were $5. A hearty BLT on toast, served with thick slices of juicy and flavorful tomatoes, was a mere $3.50.


A Little Fun From the Griddle

At Tipton's Café they also know how to share a little fun. While eating our meal, donuts made their way into our conversation and another diner asked if we had ever eaten Tipton’s Fried Donut. As it was our first time in the area we shrugged and said no. They replied that we had to try one.

In a moment, without a question, the waitress/cook was frying a glazed donut on the grill right in front of us. Before we knew what to say it was on a plate, slathered with syrup, and served between us. There was nothing for us to do but dig in and give it a try.


The simple generosity with which it was prepared demanded a smile. And, I have to say, that Fried Donut really was good! Heating the donut seemed to reconstitute the same sort of fresh donut appeal that draws crowds to Krispy Kreme outlets from miles around. Heating it on the griddle added even more interest as it gave the sugar glaze a slight crispiness that inspired me to remember the Dunkin’ Sticks I ate as a child at my grandparents house. My grandfather loved to dip his in a cup of hot coffee when he took a morning break from his farm chores and joined us at the kitchen table to share some conversation and a story or two.

Thinking of my late grandfather, I resisted dunking my Fried Donut into my coffee cup but enjoyed the nostalgia of the moment. While I wouldn’t want to eat one every day I felt blessed by the opportunity to try something different, by the enthusiasm with which it was shared and by the memories that it evoked.


It wasn’t long before we had finished our meal, paid the bill and were on our way. Tipton’s Café serves fast food the old fashioned way. We left near their closing time feeling satisfied with a decent meal at a decent price and with a warm feeling about small town hospitality.