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Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Ginger and Honey

Smashing Expectations

Over the past few years Sweet Potatoes have been elevated in status at my family’s table. These days we eat them at least once a week, and frequently more often. Savoring their creamy sweetness I now wonder how I could have ever spurned them.

It’s hard to believe that I hardly touched sweet potatoes for the first forty years of my life. In fact, none of my family much liked them. The only time I ever saw them as a child was at Thanksgiving dinner. There they came from a can before they were slathered with butter and brown sugar then blanketed in marshmallows, additions that covered rather than enhanced the innate sweetness of those gorgeous roots.

The Sweetest Sweet Potatoes

These days I frequently enjoy sweet potatoes unadorned by butter or cream and without the addition of brown sugar or marshmallows. All alone, roasted sweet potatoes are deliciously smooth and sweet.

That said, while great on their own, roasted sweet potatoes are easily taken from basic to special when smashed with a few simple additions from the spice drawer: a small amount of ground ginger, a pinch of cardamon, a dash of salt, a whisper of cayenne. A drizzle of honey also adds an interesting dimension, a rich bridge between the spices and the potatoes' natural sweetness. With these spare embellishments Smashed Sweet Potatoes become completely irresistible.

This side dish is also easy to prepare. The sweet potatoes can be roasted ahead and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use. When you get a break in meal prep, simply peel the sweet potatoes and smash them with their spices. Microwave them or place them in the oven to warm. They’ll be ready when you are.

Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Ginger and Honey
Adapted from an old newspaper clipping

3 or 4 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds)
1 Tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamon
dash of cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

1. Scrub sweet potatoes and pat dry. Poke each potato with a fork several times.

2. Place the prepared sweet potatoes in the middle of the oven, directly on the oven rack. (Place a foil lined pan on a lower oven rack under the potatoes to catch any drips.) Roast sweet potatoes until tender, generally about 1 hour. They are done when a fork can easily be inserted. You want the potatoes to be quite soft.

Note: Sweet Potatoes can be roasted at higher or lower temperatures than 375F. Tuck them into the oven around other items you may have in the oven and adjust the baking time accordingly.

Do ahead tip: Allow roasted sweet potatoes to cool then store in the refrigerator, in a covered container or wrapped in foil, until ready to use.

3. Peel sweet potatoes. Place the peeled potatoes in a bowl and mash them roughly with a potato masher or a fork. If you baked the sweet potatoes in advance, reheat them at this point, in the oven or microwave.

4. Add the honey, ginger, cardamon and salt to the smashed sweet potatoes. Continue mashing until well combined. Rewarm in microwave, if necessary, or cover and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.


Discovering Shrubs

On the Road Again

I have recipes, new and old, piling up around here. I’ve been on the road a lot these past few months but I’ve spent time in the kitchen too as I work some new discoveries into my seasonal repertoire. Looking back there are at least a few that are worthy of sharing and still pertinent to the holiday season that is fast approaching.

Take these shrubs for example. I first discovered shrubs on the drink menu at Pizzeria Toro in Durham, NC. It was a warm September evening as my husband and I sat across from each other at a long communal table in front of the pizza oven. The fire was bright and the activity in the kitchen was brisk as pizza crusts were smothered with toppings then paddle loaded into the oven chamber, rearranged and, a few minutes later, retrieved all melty and golden.

We looked over the drink menu, more interested in ordering something thirst quenching than buzz inducing. We saw “shrubs & soda” followed by a list of fruits and wondered. Asking, we learned that shrubs are an old-fashioned concentrated syrup generally made from fruit, vinegar and sugar. While shrubs make great cocktail mixers, added to club soda alone they make a drink that is both sweet and tangy as well as refreshing, something like a cross between lemonade and soda. My husband ordered the watermelon shrub and I ordered the peach.

Where Have I Been?

Perhaps I am a bit late to the game. Though I had never heard of shrubs before, once I was initiated I began to see them everywhere. The next day we stopped by Parker and Otis to pick up some local handcrafted nut butters I had read great things about. Only a few shelves away I quickly noticed a book titled Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times. I flipped through it briefly before adding it to my basket along with a bottle of Grapefruit Shrub elixir from Shrub & Co.

The Grapefruit Shrub elixir was delicious. It was the perfect drink mixer for late summer afternoons on the front porch. I have never much liked the syrupy sweetness of ordinary soda drinks. I prefer lemonade but too often it errs on the sweet side as well. This grapefruit shrub, mixed with club soda, is pleasingly tart without tasting puckery. There is just enough sweetness to balance the tart and a hint of grapefruit bitter to offer an exotic twist. Overall it maintains a light and healthy vibe enhanced by Shrub & Co.’s promises of local organic sourcing and responsible business practices.

By the Book

As it turns out, the shrub recipe book is fabulous too. Here Michael Dietsch offers some history on the evolution of shrubs, along with a few historic recipes from the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Martha Washington. After grounding our understanding he describes technique and offers recipes for a wide variety of fruit flavor combinations, along with a few interesting exceptions. The last chapters provides recipes for cocktail and other shrub creations. All the while this book encourages experimentation and creative license.

I have tried several of the recipes from my new book. I especially liked the Pear-Ginger Shrub. Its flavors are well balanced and rooted in autumn. It smelled so delicious while I was making it that it was hard to wait the week it steeped in the refrigerator before trying it. It was one of five shrub recipes I tried from the book and it is definitely my favorite.

This shrub would make a nice beverage for holiday gatherings. It incorporates the flavors of the season in an interesting mix of sweet, spicy and tangy without getting too complicated. The ginger adds a nice bite and the flavor of ripe pear adds a little soft sophistication. Try it with club soda over ice or experiment with a cocktail recipe of your own.

Pear-Ginger Shrub

From Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times by Michael Dietsch

6 ripe pears, cored and diced
2/3 cup fresh ginger, grated
1 cup sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar

In a medium bowl, combine the diced pears, grated ginger and sugar. Crush the pears with a fork or potato masher. Stir to combine. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to macerate for about 24 hours.

When the fruit has macerated strain the liquid into a small bowl using a fine mesh strainer. Add the vinegar, whisking well to incorporate any undissolved sugar.

Pour the syrup vinegar mixture into a clean mason jar. Cover with a lid and shake well. Store in the refrigerator. Allow the mixture to rest for one week before using.

To Serve: Mix 1 part shrub syrup to 4 parts sparkling water or club soda. Pour over ice in tall glasses.


Peach Cobbler

I made Peach Cobbler a week or so ago. It was a last minute addition to a weekday dinner, a way to make good use of just a few perfectly ripe organic peaches that graced my kitchen counter.

I haven’t made cobbler in so long that I was surprised by how much I liked it. The biscuit topping was a perfect complement to the warm peaches baked with a touch of nutmeg and a splash of bourbon. We ate every bite. Still, it was a little sweeter than I felt it needed to be.

Of course that meant I had to try again. I went back to the market for more peaches. This time I halved the sugar in the cobbler topping and lightly brushed the top of the biscuits with a sugar mixture just before browning. It turned out just right: sweet yet tangy, lusciously silky and very slightly complicated. Though I cut back on the sugar in the second cobbler, I also topped it with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, extinguishing any claim to a health conscious makeover while adding a cool creamy contrast to this golden dessert.

These days, my writing has slowed to a crawl. Earlier today, before I had looked through my pictures, and written out the recipe for my Peach Cobbler, I was at the market again. Those piles of peaches in softly blushing yellows have now yielded their space to the rusty pinks and bright reds of crisp fall apples.

Still it is cobbler season and this recipe for a small homespun version is one to remember. It’s worth saving until the next time I find peaches in season, and probably worth adapting to other seasonal fruits throughout the year …

Peach Cobbler
Adapted from a recipe at Epicurious with a few flavor notes from Serious Eats

Fruit Mixture

3 large peaches, cut into 16 slices each
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon bourbon (optional)
2 Tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon cornstarch
pinch of salt
dash of nutmeg

Biscuit Topping

½ cup flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 slices
2 Tablespoons boiling water


2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon bourbon (or hot water)

Preheat oven to 425F.

Toss sliced peaches with lemon juice and bourbon. Whisk together 2 Tablespoons sugar, cornstarch, pinch of salt and nutmeg. Sprinkle mixture over peaches. Toss peaches until well coated. Transfer peaches to a small (about 1 quart) baking dish. Bake in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the Biscuit Topping:

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, 2 Tablespoons sugar, baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cut in the slices of cold butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in 2 Tablespoons boiling water just until combined.

When the peaches have baked for 10 minutes remove from the oven and drop the biscuit topping mixture by spoonfuls over them and spread slightly (being mindful that the topping will spread on its own as it bakes.) Bake in the middle of the oven for another 15 minutes.

In a small cup, prepare the Glaze. Stir together the brown sugar and a scant 1 Tablespoon of hot water or bourbon until the sugar has dissolved. When the biscuit topping has baked for 15 minutes, remove the dish from the oven and gently brush the Glaze over the Biscuit Topping. Return the dish to the oven for another 10 minutes or until the topping is golden. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Serve warm, topped with whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.

Serves 2 – 3


White Chocolate Almond Brownies

Summer Love...

I once had a recipe for the perfect summer dessert bar: White Chocolate Brownies. I found it in an issue of Southern Living Magazine. The photo was luscious 80’s elegance, a stack of pale squarely sliced bars drizzled with a grid of dark chocolate and arranged on a red plate. They looked picnic ready and utterly delectable. I swooned and clipped the page.

That recipe called for a white chocolate candy bar with almonds. Though the brand name wasn’t mentioned the only readily available option at that time was Nestle’s Alpine White with Almonds, a creamy white candy bar with a quick smooth melt and just the right amount of almonds to add chewy resistance and balance the white chocolate sweetness. Though I wasn’t always a huge fan of white chocolate that candy bar was one of my favorites.

I made those moist and delicious Alpine White brownies again and again that summer. I loved the subtle depth of flavor, the moist and chewy texture, the refined appearance. I made them occasionally afterward but, unfortunately, I saw that Alpine White bar less and less after that summer until it disappeared from store shelves altogether. In its place I tried several other varieties of white chocolate candy bars but they were never the same. Though I hung onto that clipping I eventually gave up on finding a suitable replacement and the recipe got buried in my files.


Recently, on a warm afternoon, I rummaged through my pantry. In a small glass mason jar I found a handful of sliced almonds. I tasted them for freshness and found that they had a nice al dente texture in the afternoon heat, resistant but yielding with a mild nutty flavor. Then I found a half used bag of Ghirardelli white chocolate chips. I shook a few morsels from the bag and was surprised by the way the heat of the afternoon enhanced the smooth melt of those chips on my tongue. They were creamy and sweet, with a nice hint of vanilla. The combination of almonds and white chocolate took me back to that long gone Alpine White candy bar and those White Chocolate Brownies of summers past. Then I wondered why I hadn’t tried to simply concoct my own balance of white chocolate and almonds long ago, instead of depending on the capricious availability of a particular candy bar to make the perfect white chocolate brownies.

I dug out that old magazine clipping and made a few changes to the original recipe. I now melt some white chocolate chips with the butter to mix into the batter along with a restrained quantity of sliced almonds. A little almond and vanilla extract adds flavor and balance. A hint of dark chocolate, drizzled in the same spare grid pattern as in the original recipe’s photo, adds shape and definition to the subtle chocolate character of these ivory bars.

I like the result. These White Chocolate Almond Brownies seem to taste every bit as good as those Alpine White bars of so many sweet summers ago. Tasting these brownies I can see them joining me for picnics, barbecues, al fresco dinners or a tall glass of lemonade or tea on a hot summer afternoon. There we can quietly reminisce about bygones while embracing new friends and sharing something sweet with the next generation.

White Chocolate Almond Brownies
Adapted from a recipe in an old issue of Southern Living magazine

5.5 ounces white chocolate chips
¼ cup butter
1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup sliced almonds

1 ounce semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F.

Combine white chips and butter in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl over hot, not boiling, water. Stir and watch carefully until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the eggs until thick and lemon colored (about 3-5 minutes.)

Gradually add the sugar as you continue beating. Add the vanilla and almond extract, beating until well combined.

Stir in the flour mixture. Add the white chocolate mixture, stirring just until combined. Fold in the sliced almonds.

Spread the batter in a greased 8-inch square pan. Bake at 350F for 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rake.

Melt the semisweet chocolate chips in the microwave or in a small bowl over a pan of hot water, stirring until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Drizzle the chocolate over the cooled brownies. Chill the brownies until the chocolate sets. Cut into squares.


Pineapple Sweet Potato Salsa

It feels like summer has arrived in Georgia and spring is already all but forgotten. It happened fast. While I was distracted the rains ended and the temperature rose. Air conditioners came to life and mosquitoes began to challenge my comfort on the front porch…and still, I haven’t posted the filling I devised for those Wonton Cups.

To be honest, I have been sorely distracted. Another photo disaster has been the focus of my free time this past week. Some days ago I opened the photo album from my first few years of marriage and found water damage and mildew that had been hidden by a strong binder since our latest move. Hardly phased by this latest challenge I simply got on with what had to be done. Over the next week I scraped the photos from nearly 100 old magnetic pages, scanned them into digital files, and stored the undamaged photos in a new book.

Now that I have salvaged what I can I am remembering the salsa I made to fill those crispy Wonton Cups I shared a couple of weeks ago. The salsa I made reflects the change of seasons. The flavors are tropical and the colors are rich and warm: sunny yellow pineapple, deep orange sweet potato and crisp white flakes of coconut. Add a squeeze of lime, a touch of spice and a spoonful of honey and those beautifully browned Wonton Cups are dressed for the season.

Pineapple Sweet Potato Salsa

1 cup diced sweet potatoes (½-inch dice)
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cups diced fresh pineapple (½-inch dice)
¼ cup flaked unsweetened coconut
2 Tablespoons macadamia nuts, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced
Zest of one lime
2 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons honey
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of red pepper flakes

Toss diced sweet potatoes with 1 teaspoon of olive oil (or spritz with an olive oil filled oil mister.) Spread sweet potatoes on a small baking sheet. Roast at 400F until tender. Remove from oven and let cool.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Stir in the cooled roasted sweet potatoes.

Cover and allow to rest in the refrigerator for several hours to allow flavors to blend. Just before serving sprinkle with additional unsweetened flaked coconut, toasted would be nice, and/or chopped macadamia nuts.

Serve with mild tasting chips, ginger snaps, or nestled in Wonton Cups.


Wonton Cups

Neither Here Nor There

Spring can be a little confusing. One day the air is languid and warm, the sun is shining and I slip into sandals and shorts. The next day the mercury plummets, the sky is deep in cloud cover and I am reaching for a cozy sweater and my favorite boots.

Held between one and the other I often address the tension by shutting down my kitchen. I’m not sure what I want to eat so I rely on quick answers and bland choices: rotisserie chicken and steamed vegetables, picked up last minute from the market. At home I focus on spring cleaning and organizing my closet and life rather than more creative pursuits like cooking and writing.

A Neutral Palate

What I need is inspiration, a clean space and an empty vessel. Here’s a recipe that begins like simplicity itself; with a neutral palate. All you need are two ingredients: cooking spray, which you likely have on hand, and wonton wrappers, which are readily available but sometimes take a little looking to locate at the grocery store. Spray muffin tins, mini-muffin tins or custard cups and arrange wonton wrappers with a few creatively attractive creases and folds, to form a cup, a vessel for whatever your creativity unfolds.

Wonton Cups are mild in flavor and commit to neither sweet nor savory. They blow with the prevailing winds and act as a vessel, a vehicle for whatever flavor your appetite is currently inclined toward. For an appealing appetizer, fill them with a sweet or spicy salsa, sweet jam or something of your own design.

Wonton Cups

1 package square wonton wrappers
nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350F.

Spray 24 muffin cups with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange one wonton wrapper in each muffin cup, gently line each muffin cup with one wonton wrapper, fitting the center of the wonton wrapper into the bottom of the muffin tin and arranging the corners to extend upward.

Spray the top edges with nonstick cooking spray. Bake at 350F for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from oven. As soon as possible remove the wonton wrappers from the muffin tins and allow them to cool completely on a wire rack.

Fill and enjoy!

Honey Roasted Parsnips

Familiar Root Vegetables

Over the years I have become familiar with a variety of root vegetables. I have even pulled a few from the ground and brushed the earth off their homely faces. I have gorged on fresh carrots when they are slender, leggy, and easy to love. I have come to appreciate beets for being well rounded and imbued with raw sweetness and voluptuous color. I’ve watched radishes mature quickly and contribute a crisp blush of piquancy to a salad and I’ve avoided turnips like uncles, earthy and substantial with strong and sometimes objectionable opinions.

Parsnips and I, on the other hand, are practically strangers. While they have a rather common reputation I can’t remember ever growing them in our garden back home. Neither do I remember them being served at our table. I have seldom even seen them on a menu. It wasn’t until late last year that, out of boredom or curiosity, I picked up a bag at the grocery and made their acquaintance. Now I can only wonder - where have they been all my life?

The Nature of Parsnips

The charm of a parsnip is subtle. They are unassuming at their introduction. Even among humble root vegetables, a parsnip is pale and homely. It’s skin is sallow and etched with brown ridges. It’s shape is generally top heavy and it’s waist is thick. Parsnips are like the carrot’s matronly aunt; graying and full-figured. Neither sugary sweet nor piquant, they keep their persuasions to themselves. When pressed, however, they shyly begin to reveal their nature.

Beyond their dowdy appearance and modest character you will discover an unexpected freshness at the heart of a parsnip. Inside there is a hint of citrus, notes of green grass and fresh herbs. The juxtaposition of appearance and aroma makes me smile. Something about its surprising yet gentle unfolding informs me of the hope of spring.

Parsnips are great for roasting. While they are gently sweet, unlike sweet potatoes, they retain their texture nicely, softening without turning mushy, holding their edges while only gently yielding. Sliced into long thin strips they curl slightly in the oven giving them an interesting appearance as they brown. Pair them with beef or lamb or serve as a point of contrast on a vegetable plate.

Honey Roasted Parsnips
Adapted from a recipe in Real Simple magazine

1 ½ pounds parsnips
1 Tablespoon honey
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 425F.

Wash parsnips and cut into 3 to 4-inch lengths. Halve thinner pieces and quarter thicker pieces, lengthwise.

Combine parsnips, honey, oil, salt and pepper in a gallon sized Ziploc bag. Seal the bag and shake until the parsnips are well coated.

Spread the coated parsnips on a rimmed baking sheet.

Roast at 425F, turning occasionally, until golden brown, approximately 30-35 minutes.

Note: For a more colorful side dish, you can combine parsnips with similarly sliced carrots.


Cooking Constants

How are Magazines like Rabbits?

Cleaning up around my house I am always amazed at the way magazines proliferate. On a quick evening clean up I put a couple of magazines in a basket on a shelf. The next time I check the basket I am sure they have multiplied.

Looking through the basket I find issues from November……and the November before. Somehow I never seem to find the time to look through them in season.

I sit down and flip through a few. I am a sucker for a pretty picture. I find cookies from Christmas that look too good to throw away. I linger over a few side dishes and a pie from Thanksgiving. Some look so fine I promise to try them as winter winds down.

A Picture's Worth…

At first glance, that recipe for the pretty pie appears wholesome. After all it is about sweet potatoes, a nutritional powerhouse and one of my favorite vegetables. The slick photo confirms its virtue. The pie photographed just couldn’t be more gorgeous …and we learn from an early age that beauty and virtue walk hand in hand, right? What’s more I see “½ cup sugar” in the recipe, a relatively low amount for a pie, along with a few other basic ingredients.

I go to the grocery store and buy the cutest little sweet potatoes, already scrubbed and sorted for a microwaveable side dish. They looked just right in size and shape for the sliced rounds used in the recipe. I also pick up some pie crusts and an orange and I am ready to start cooking.

Lessons from Childhood

Since I was a child cooking from Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls I have been instructed “Before you start to cook…..Read your recipe and all directions in it very carefully.”

I have read or heard that rule countless times since, and still, often enough, in my enthusiasm to try a new recipe, I skip over that sage advice, along with “Wear an apron to keep your clothes clean”. Both omissions I have later come to regret.

It wasn’t until I was well into the recipe that I began to suspect I had been deceived. I cooked the sweet potatoes in the first ½ cup of sugar. Then I noticed another half cup of brown sugar was called for near the bottom of the list of ingredients. What’s more there was a separate recipe for the streusel topping that began at the end of the recipe but was baked right on top of the pie. Its ingredients were added like a note, rather than a stacked list, and included another ¼ cup brown sugar and 1 Tablespoon white sugar.

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Ugh! Not only is sugar the current nutritional fall guy but I really haven’t had much of a taste for sugar since my surgeries last year and I have been trying to listen closer to what my body is telling me these days.

At that point I considered leaving out some of the sugar but having already worked through part of the recipe I couldn’t decide where it would work best. I felt a little immature when I went ahead and added the whole amount thinking I didn’t want to add to the chances that my pie wouldn’t turn out as pretty as the one in the magazine picture.

So here it is - a pretty pie for certain. It’s stacked architecture gives it a fashionably trendy look like those beautiful kitchen backsplash tiles I’ve seen everywhere the past few seasons. It’s a beauty, but it’s one to be wary of. It is cloyingly sweet and, except for the toasted nuts in the topping, there is little to recommend it in terms of flavor. While I still admire the way it looks, it definitely needs some reduction in process and artifice before I’ll make it again.

Happy Pi Day!

Lentil Soup

Seasonal Humility

Life has its ways of keeping us humble. Just as the sun begins to shine and the horizon looks level, just when we begin to think we’ve got it made, the road takes an unexpected turn and:

  • That groundhog sees his shadow. 
  • Hopes of an early spring in the deep south are dispelled by ice, snow and cold. 
  • A general feeling of malaise turns out to signal a virus that has left us coughing, sneezing and worse these past two weeks. 
  •  iPhoto does a self-induced update on my computer and suddenly 12000 photos disappear…

But no matter. Let bygones be bygones. Last night I kicked the covers off the bed as I heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Not once was I awakened by the sound of coughing. This morning white flowers in the small park out my front window proved spring has not been deterred. I have even been able to recover most of my lost photos.

Late Winter Comfort

Though the season has begun to turn I find myself still craving the comfort of humble soups. Last week we made several meals of a large pot of Chicken and Dumplings. This week a pot of Lentil Soup is on the menu. It is fairly simple to prepare. It starts with a few leftover vegetables from the crisper: a rib of celery, a carrot or two and a chopped onion. Add broth, canned tomatoes and dried lentils. Lentils are small and cook quickly so the soup requires little in the way of advanced planning. As is, it tastes warm and healing. Add the panch phoron, coriander seeds and chile pepper for a more exotic flavor and visual interest.

Lentil Soup
Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
2 cups lentils, rinsed (I used a lentil trio from Costco)
1 14.5 oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2½ quarts water
2 Tablespoon vegetable base
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Place a large (six-quart) pot over medium heat. When hot, add 2 Tablespoons olive oil. When the oil shimmers add the onion, celery and carrots. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent, 6-7 minutes.

Add the lentils, tomatoes, water, vegetable base and cumin. Stir well making sure the vegetable base has dissolved. (Or use 2½ quarts of vegetable broth in place of the water and vegetable base.)

Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a low simmer for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the lentil are tender.

Use a stick blender to blend soup to your preferred consistency.

Spice Garnish

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon panch phoron
1 small dried chile pepper

Place a small heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. When hot, add 1 Tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot add the coriander seeds, panch phoron, and dried chile pepper to the oil. Stir and cook, watching carefully, for a short time, until fragrant. Remove from heat.

Ladle Lentil Soup into bowls and top with a small drizzle of the spice garnish, reserving the chile pepper.

Stir any remaining spice mixture, and the chile, if desired, into leftover soup. Lentil soup is often even better the next day, after the flavors have had more time to meld. Prepare more of the spice garnish to top any leftovers, if desired.


Aunt Hen's Chocolate Bar Pie

Aunt Hen’s “Favorite Recipes”

Aunt Hen was a lifelong reader. As early as I can remember she belonged to several mail order book clubs. She often sat at her dining room table looking over catalogs as she decided which books to order. She looked forward to opening the box when her selections arrived by mail. Her favorite genres were Christian Fiction and Cookbooks. She read them much the same. Aunt Hen would read a cookbook like a novel, page by page.

Aunt Hen was also a writer of sorts. Around the time I got married, Aunt Hen had begun to collect recipes in bound journals with the words “Favorite Recipes” in gold on the front cover. There she wrote out recipes that she liked in her own tidy handwriting. Some of the recipes may have been original. Others were credited to the source of the recipe, often a friend whose name I would recognize. After they were written she numbered the pages and indexed the recipes in the back of the book.

Decades later I am still enjoying Aunt Hen's cookbooks. Among those passed down to me are slick Southern Living cookbooks, spiral bound community cookbooks and special interest cookbooks. The collection also includes three of Aunt Hen’s “Favorite Recipes” books that I keep on a shelf near my kitchen. They contain recipes for everything from down-home favorites to unlikely salads and casseroles to a wide variety of interesting cakes and pies.

Aunt Hen liked her homemade cookbooks and, as a wedding gift, she wanted me to have one too. She promised to start it for me, writing out some of the recipes we had made together and others she knew I liked. Then she gave it to me so that I could add favorites of my own.

One Hundred Years

Today I have been thinking of Aunt Hen and looking through her legacy of cookbooks. It is her birthday. If Aunt Hen were still with us she would be one hundred years old today. I thought of making a cake for her birthday but while I remember birthday cakes she made for me I cannot remember any that were her personal favorites.

More often I remember the way she enjoyed special pies. I remember her Cherry Cheese Pie, Aunt Hen’s “Brownie” Pie and Lemon Meringue Pie topped with her favorite recipe for “No Weep” Meringue. All of those recipes are already posted at My Own Sweet Thyme. But there is another pie I first learned to make with Aunt Hen. Near the front of my “Favorite Recipes” book is a childhood favorite from Aunt Hen’s kitchen, Chocolate Bar Pie.

Chocolate Bar Pie is a simple recipe. All you need to make it is two basic ingredients along with water, a pinch of salt and the pie shell of your choice. Still it is a crowd pleaser. Nearly everyone of every age likes chocolate and that’s nearly all there is to it. Aunt Hen recognized the value of such a recipe. Classically light and sweet, it was easy to make, easy to enjoy and still made her guests feel special. I think she would enjoy a bite as much as I would. Happy Birthday, Aunt Hen!

Chocolate Bar Pie

One ready-to-fill 8-in. pie shell (either a pre-baked pastry shell or a graham cracker crumb crust)

1 8-oz. chocolate bar (with almonds or plain)
1/3 cup water
dash of salt
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Break up chocolate bar into small pieces. If your chocolate bar isn't 8-ounces (these days the large chocolate bars I find are 6.8 ounces) make up the difference with some chocolate chips or part of another chocolate bar. (I used one Hershey's Chocolate Almond bar plus nearly 1/4 cup of chocolate chips.)

In a small saucepan combine the chocolate, water and dash of salt. Stir over moderate heat just until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Cool at room temperature.

In a medium bowl, beat heavy cream with an electric mixer until stiff. Fold in the cooled chocolate mixture. Spoon mixture into prepared pie shell. Chill until ready to serve.

Garnish with chocolate shavings and/or additional whipped cream.

Note: This pie can just as easily be made from other chocolate candies. We have often made it with leftover holiday themed chocolates. There are lots of possibilities.


In the Pink - Cast Iron Salsa

The Phone Call

Sometimes life takes a radical turn. Sometimes you see it coming. Sometimes you don’t.

Last year, in February, I went for a routine mammogram. Then I went about my business. I attended a women’s retreat. I posted to my blog. I hardly gave it another thought.

I had no reason for concern. A mammogram was a routine part of my annual health care. It had been since my 20s. I hadn’t felt a lump or anything out of the ordinary in my monthly self-exams and I wasn’t unusually anxious about the results.

Then I got the phone call. I needed to come back to the women’s health center for more pictures, then for a biopsy. Less than two weeks and three tests later the results were confirmed: Breast Cancer.

The Learning Curve

I spent the next three weeks reading, praying, asking questions and keeping appointments. Besides learning about my cancer there was little time to do anything but eat and sleep. When what I learned began to ache in my chest and feel like paralysis, I slept. I slept a lot during those weeks as decisions were made and I moved toward treatment.

After an MRI, genetic testing and appointments with several surgeons, I checked into the hospital for a double mastectomy. By the grace of God, my margins were clean. My sentinel nodes were clear. Thankfully my breast cancer was caught early. Another couple of weeks and my drains were removed. I was on the road to recovery.

As I have learned over the past year, my story is not unique. It happens again and again all around us. Sometimes we hear about it, sometimes we don’t. Some people are comfortable sharing and some people aren’t or don’t know how to. I learned about others who were recently diagnosed: another woman in my Bible Study group, someone two streets over in my neighborhood, a friend from church. I learned the stories of survivors: my cousin, a neighbor from Texas, a neighbor from Virginia, women at church, the mothers and sisters, daughters and friends of those who offered care and concern and wonderful meals that kept me well nourished as I recovered from surgery. And I have been reminded of the stories of those who, like my mother, haven’t survived and still are well remembered.

Reflections in Cast-Iron

I’ve been one of the quiet ones. I haven’t talked much about my cancer. I’m not one to dress in pink or wear the ribbon. But today, one year later, I want to share a recipe that in some way speaks to this milestone in my walk with cancer.

I clipped this recipe for Cast-Iron Salsa from Southern Living magazine last year. It starts with the deep pink of plum tomatoes. Toss in pungent garlic and white onion along with a fiery jalapeno. Together they are seared and sweetened in my cast iron skillet, the big one that always sits on my stovetop reminding me of where I come from and those who have walked before me.

I have little to add to the recipe. I scarcely deviate from the steps as written. I slice through the tomatoes, tear up as I confront the onion, wince at the scent of the split jalapeno roasting on the hot bed of the skillet.

Once the vegetables begin to char, they are roughly chopped in a food processor. Then they are salted to bring out their character, brightened with a zing of lime juice and garnished with the chopped leaves of fresh cilantro.

Tempered by hot iron this salsa has a rich depth of smoky-sweet undertones. Serve it with chips or savor as a relish with eggs, meat or fresh roasted vegetables.

Cast-Iron Salsa
From Southern Living

3 plum tomatoes, halved
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 jalapeno pepper, halved
1 medium white onion, cut into 16 wedges
1½ Tablespoons fresh lime juice
¾ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot (approximately 5 minutes.) Place the tomato halves in the skillet, cut side down, spacing them evenly. Add the garlic cloves and jalapeno pepper. Cook, turning the vegetables occasionally, until soft and slightly charred, about 6 minutes.

Transfer the tomatoes and jalapeno to the bowl of a food processor. Peel the garlic cloves and add them to the bowl.

Place the onion wedges in the hot skillet and repeat. Cook the onions, turning occasionally, until soft and slightly charred. Add the cooked onions to the bowl of the food processor.

Process the vegetables briefly, 30-45 seconds or until they reach the desired consistency. Add the fresh lime juice and salt. Pulse to combine.

Allow the mixture to rest for 10-15 minutes to cool completely. Stir in the chopped cilantro.

Transfer to a pretty bowl and serve.

Warm Spiced Olives

This is the best kind of recipe: simple, warm, fragrant and delicious. Like Fried Almonds with Rosemary, it starts with something nice that is easy to pick up at the market. Then, with only a few ingredients and within just a few minutes, kicks it up a notch and makes it personal.

Olives make a wonderful appetizer. They are relatively low in calories and high in phytonutrients, antioxidants and other beneficial qualities. From the deli or olive bar they are delicious just as they are. I have eaten them like that for years, enjoying olives straight from the container. Though I know they also add a nice note to many warm entrees I never thought of serving warmed olives as an appetizer.

Leave it to Martha. Looking through a back issue of Martha Stewart Living I found this gem of a recipe on the recipe card page. I followed the concept and list of ingredients while changing the quantities and directions somewhat. I left the seed spices whole and cooked them a little longer before adding about half as many olives as the recipe called for. I love toasty bits of rosemary and the crunch of whole fennel and coriander seeds adorning each gently warmed olive.

These olives are completely delightful as a party snack or pre-dinner nibble. Gently warmed the olives are meltingly tender and infused with a lingering aftertaste of warm chiles and sweet fennel. Remember to have a few breadsticks or chucks of crusty French bread on hand to mop up any of the warm spicy oil and seeds left over once the olives are gone.

Bonus: Your kitchen will smell fantastic!

Warm Spiced Olives
slightly adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 small dried red chiles
Leaves from 1 rosemary sprig, (about 1 Tablespoon)
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1-2 cups mixed olives, rinsed and patted dry

Heat oil, chiles, rosemary, fennel seeds, and coriander seeds in a medium skillet over medium heat until fragrant and starting to brown, about 3-5 minutes.

Reduce heat to low, and add olives. Stir to coat.

Heat olives, stirring occasionally, until warmed, about 5-10 minutes.

Serve and enjoy!

Black Rice with Gingered Sweet Potatoes

Lost Words

I’ve been through a lot over the past year or so. One thing seems to have morphed into another only to pale in comparison to what came next. Somewhere along the way words got lost.

Looking back I don’t have to go far to see that I have been here before. And again I find I can relate to that rectangular white bowl given to me by a friend. Once again life has been like a canvas with hard edges, some abrupt corners and an unusual turn or two. Once again, the only way I’ve known how to go forward has been to open my arms and accept the space I am given as I continue on the journey.

Beautiful things have filled that open space. Friends and kind people who were, not long before, strangers, sustained me with meals and cards and stories of their own journeys. New recipes and dietary considerations colored my appetite and sense of taste as I explored new ways to feed myself and my family. Faith and nutrition played major roles in my ability to weather the storm.

A Happy Discovery

Even as change has continued to bombard me in ways that have sometimes been frightening and sometimes costly, it has also been exciting to learn and move forward, making things new and sometimes better.

Here is a side dish filled with rich color and good nutrition for the journey. Black rice is not only beautiful it is high in antioxidants, has a firm texture, and an appealing nutty flavor. Ginger adds a little sass while aiding digestion and fighting inflammation. Sweet potatoes provide a colorful contrast that is high in Vitamin A (an antioxidant powerhouse) and fiber. Interesting, beautiful and easy to prepare, Black Rice with Gingered Sweet Potatoes is a happy discovery.

Black Rice with Gingered Sweet Potatoes
From the back of the bag and also at Epicurious

¾ cup black rice
1½ cups water
¾ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 bunch scallions, chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 large sweet potato, (12-14 oz) Peeled and cut to ½-inch dice

chopped scallion greens for garnish

Serves 4

Rinse rice. Place the black rice, water, and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and most of the water has been absorbed (30-35 minutes). Remove saucepan from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes.

While rice is cooking, heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When shimmery, add the scallions, ginger, and sweet potato stirring until well coated. Saute about 2 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium and add remaining salt (¼ teaspoon) and a little pepper, if you like. Cover and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until potato is just tender, about 12 minutes. Add rice to potato mixture and toss gently to combine.


Hearty Chicken Stew

Food For Recovery

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

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

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

THE Secret Ingredient

The next day our friend replied:

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

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

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

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

Hearty Chicken Stew

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

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

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

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

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


Quick Collard Greens with Cranberries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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