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!