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Mother Nature tricked us with a late spring that jumped right into summer so we Midwest gardeners are just now starting to reap the bounty of our labor. As often happens, we tend to get a little of this and a bit of that to begin with…and soon thereafter find ourselves inundated with a lot of one thing or another.

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Cucumbers and a few other veggies don’t hold up well for extended storage. Yet they don’t arrive early in sufficient quantities to make it worth the home cook’s time and effort to can them.

Bread and Butter Pickles are a family favorite, so every summer I hope for a bumper crop of cucumbers so I can to replenish the pantry stock. Problem is that the first harvest usually nets only a few cukes: too many for hubby and me to use up before they go soft, but not enough to  justify pulling out the canning equipment to make pints of pickles.

Ah…but I’ve figured out a recipe solution for that problem.

With a few adjustments, I transformed my mother’s recipe for Ice Box Pickles into a no-canning version of Bread and Butter Pickles that can be made and consumed in small batches while I wait for the big cucumber harvest. (That will likely come when it’s hotter than Hades and any exertion whatsoever in the 99.9% Missouri humidity results in buckets of perspiration.)

In the meantime…

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Refrigerator Bread and Butter Pickles

Ingredients:

4 cups sliced cucumbers

1 cup sliced onions

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt

1 cup white sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

1 cup white vinegar

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

½ teaspoon celery seeds

1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric

Instructions:

Toss the cucumbers, onion, and salt together in a large bowl. Cover and chill in the fridge while for about an hour. Meanwhile, you can prepare the pickling solution.

For the pickling solution, combine sugar, brown sugar, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, and turmeric in a large sauce pan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugars are completely dissolved and incorporated. Continue simmering for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Drain the cucumbers and onions into a colander and rinse to remove any undissolved salt. Return to the bowl and pour the hot pickling solution over the cucumbers and onions. Let stand at room temperature for about an hour before storing in an airtight container.

This will make about 4 cups of pickles, so you could store them in a quart jar or 2 pint jars. You can use Tupperware-type containers, but glass is better for retaining the flavor.  These pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month, but they usually don’t last that long around here.

healthy vegetables hand gardening

Radishes tend to come all at once. If you happen to harvest more than you can consume raw in salads before they get pithy, you have a couple of options: cook them or pickle them. You can sauté them with bacon and radish greens or roast them with carrots, peppers, potatoes, and/or other vegetables. Cooked radishes have less of a “bite” than raw ones do.

Or you can turn them into a condiment!

Taking inspiration from Do Chua, the pickled daikon and carrot concoction that is prevalent in Vietnamese cuisine, I developed a recipe that combines garden-variety radishes with carrots in a versatile relish. Whether it is topping humble grilled hot dogs, spicing up a salad, or adding extra oomph to a slow-smoked brisket, it has become a summer staple in our household.

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Poor Girl’s Do Chua (Pickled Radishes and Carrots)

 Ingredients:

1 large carrot

½ pound (8 ounces) cherry belle or other rosy-skinned radishes

1 clove of garlic

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

Instructions:

Wash, peel, and dice carrot into small cubes. Wash and trim radishes and chop coarsely. (Do not peel radishes unless you use a less common variety like daikon or watermelon radishes. The red skin makes for a delightfully colorful relish.) Peel garlic clove and slice very thinly. The easiest and safest way to do this is to use a vegetable peeler to shave thin strips from the clove.

In a large, non-reactive bowl combine carrots, radishes, garlic slices, sugar and salt. Use your fingertips to toss the vegetables together and work the salt and sugar into them until dissolved.  In a 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the water and vinegars.

Pack the vegetables into a pint canning jar (see Note) and then pour the pickling liquid over them. Cap the jar tightly and refrigerate for a minimum of 10 minutes before use. While the relish can be served at this point, the flavor is better if it’s allowed to chill at least 24 hours.

Unused portions of relish can be safely stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, but it will  begin to lose some crunchiness after about a month – still edible, but not quite as yummy.

Yields about 1 pint.

Note: Storing the relish in a plastic container instead of glass will ultimately result in a less flavorful relish as the vinegar will gradually seep into the porous plastic.

pickled jalapenos preserve preserved

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Despite the adage’s negative connotation, being “in a pickle” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it?

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Thanks to our typically atypical Missouri weather, we got a late start with our vegetable gardening this season. A cold, rainy April was followed by about thirty minutes of spring in early May before we jumped right into hot, humid summer days.  When it wasn’t too cold or rainy to till the veggie beds, some other pressing chore stood in the way of progress.

Some years are just like that.

I took advantage of that one spring-like day in May to hand-till my little four-square garden and plant kale, mesclun, turnips, and radishes. Two days later I discovered that some critter had chewed through the plastic fencing. Mr. ‘Possum (or possibly Miss Raccoon?) had a heyday digging and rolling in the newly seeded soil. Dear hubby and I replaced the fencing with metal chicken wire which, while less attractive, would certainly prove to be a better wildlife barrier. Of course, in the process more seeds were disturbed and trampled. That left nothing more to do than wait a week and see if anything sprouted.

The results proved quite interesting. A handful of kale survived along with three or four pathetic lettuce sprouts and a whole lot of weeds. The turnip section was absolutely covered with seedlings, but there was no telling at that point what might be growing among the root veggies. Only the radish bed seemed somewhat unscathed. A bit of thinning actually produced a nice little bunch of radishes. Eventually, the turnip bed yielded gallons of greens…and nothing else.

((Sigh.))

healthy vegetables hand gardening

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I completely reworked the four-square after the chaos caused by the critter invasion and fence renovation. Kale and lettuce are sprouting again and so are the radishes, beets, and turnips.

Ah, turnips.

Just to illustrate how failure can result in bounty, my clearing of the ill-fated four-square garden did not yield a single turnip embryo, but I harvested all the leaves – which proved to be more than I could fit in my slow cooker. After we feasted Saturday evening on turnip greens and a bacon-wrapped, moonshine-basted, and smoked pork loin, I had enough cooked greens left to freeze two quarts. Between the remaining turnip greens and the leaves I harvested from the radishes, I’ll be able to cook another mess for the freezer. And future harvests of beets, radishes, and turnips will provide even more.

It’s a good thing hubby and I like to eat our greens.

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Some people shun cooked greens. I suspect that’s because they were introduced to them as children. And no offense to Popeye, they were probably force-fed that yucky canned spinach that does not do justice to real soul-food greens.

I divide leafy green vegetables into two categories: Salad greens and cooking greens.

Spinach, arugula, and anything remotely resembling lettuce are salad greens. They should be eaten raw or “wilted” by sautéing them with oil, vinegar, sugar, and seasonings.

Cooking greens are the leaves (often tough or prickly) of most root vegetables as well as thick-leafed, heavy-stemmed vegetables like collards. Kale is a crossover because some varieties lend themselves more to salads and others are only suited to cooking.

And yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to prepare cooking greens. The right way is low, slow and long. The wrong way is, well…any other way.

Here’s how I do it in my 8-quart Crockpot.

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Real Southern-Style Greens

Ingredients:

About 10 to 12 cups of cooking greens that have been thoroughly washed and roughly sliced (Any combination will do…turnip, beet, radish, kale, or collards…even dandelion leaves!)

1 large red or sweet yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

6 slices of bacon cut crosswise into ½ inch strips

¼ pound diced salt pork or ham (or 1 whole smoked ham hock)

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste (about ½ teaspoon works for us)

5 or 6 healthy dashes of red pepper sauce

6 cups of water (more if needed to cover the greens)

Hard boiled eggs for garnish (optional)

Instructions:

Before you do anything else, wash the greens in several changes of water and remove any thick, tough stems. Don’t depend on “prewashed” greens being free of sand, dirt, insects, and other foreign objects.

Gather handfuls of greens on your chopping board and slice through them across the leaves in ½ inch strips. The idea is to shred them, not chop them.

Layer about half the shredded greens in the bottom of your slow cooker and top with chopped onion, bacon strips, and ham (or salt pork) cubes. Add the remaining shredded greens and 6 cups of water. Push down with the back or a spoon to make sure there’s just enough water to cover the greens. Pour in the apple cider vinegar, sprinkle with brown sugar, salt, pepper, and hot pepper sauce. Stir to dissolve the sugar and then toss and stir to thoroughly combine all the ingredients.

Cook on the low temperature setting of your slow cooker for a minimum of 6 hours. Taste the pot liquor and adjust seasonings if necessary. If desired, garnish each serving with chopped or sliced hard boiled eggs.

Yields about 3 quarts of cooked greens (with pot liquor).

For authentic Southern soul effect, serve up cornbread alongside for sopping up the pot liquor.

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And don’t pour the excess juiciness down own the drain! Stored in airtight containers, pot liquor can be refrigerated or frozen and used later as a nutrient-rich addition to soups, juices, and smoothies.

(By the way, the same holds true for the water in which peeled potatoes have been boiled. It can be used to make white sauces or as a base for creamed vegetables or soups.)

Freeze leftovers in quart or pint freezer containers for up to 12 months.

Be strong. Be brave. Be healthy.

Eat your greens!

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My late mother’s birthday fell on July 7. Daddy’s sister, Aunt Celia Ann, also had a birthday around that time, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall the exact date. In any case, these July birthdays prompted the creation of the original Army Green Birthday Cake.

I can’t remember who first had the idea, but my two older sisters and I decided to surprise Mother and Aunt Celia Ann with a memorable treat. Although I can’t recall my exact age at the time, I know I was young and eager to participate in any activity from which I wasn’t banned by my siblings. Happily, the army green birthday cake proved to be such an event.

Together, the three of us set about testing our baking, frosting, and cake decorating skills. The batter may have been chocolate…or maybe yellow…perhaps lemon? I’m not sure. The flavor seemed somewhat immaterial. The icing made this cake special.

I remember there being much discussion regarding how to tint the frosting. All we knew was that none of the options available in that little box of food coloring seemed special enough for our creation. I believe we thought lavender would be nice. Sadly, our version of that purplish hue too closely resembled grey and required adjustment. I don’t suppose any of us were well versed on how blue and red combine to make purple or, conversely, how green results when you mix yellow and blue.

Thus the experimentation began.

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I’m not sure how many combinations we tried before realizing that we’d better settle for that putrid olive drab before our frosting went from hideous to coyote ugly. (So nasty you would chew off your own paw to escape it.)

Certainly I was not the only sister who wanted to cry at that point, but we soldiered onward. We assembled the layers into a towering thing of beauty covered in army green icing. We hid the finished product in Mother’s aluminum cake cover, latched tight so there would be no peeking to ruin the surprise.

The next day, we loaded up the family station wagon and drove from Missouri to Colorado over the long Independence Day weekend to visit Aunt Celia Ann, Uncle Bill, Aunt Helen and all of my first cousins. Together we would celebrate those July birthdays in style. Mother packed a picnic basket and a cooler so we could drive straight through, saving time and money – both of which were no doubt in short supply.

With the whole family gathered, what a shock the unveiling of our masterpiece proved to be. I vaguely remember one of the cousins exclaiming, “It’s green!”

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And I’m pretty sure there was laughter…a lot of it.

But the only memory of the event really worth keeping is Mother’s reaction. Her voice conveyed sheer delight when she exclaimed, “Did you girls bake this cake for us all by yourselves? It looks wonderful!”

Thank you, Mother! In that moment you taught me an invaluable lesson. Even an army green birthday cake is beautiful when viewed through loving eyes.

Today is the 37th Mothers’ Day I’ve spent celebrating only the memory of my mom.  She passed away too young. Way too young.

Happy Mothers Day

Happy Heavenly Mothers’ Day 2018 to the amazing lady who, by her actions, taught me to be strong and independent; to love unconditionally; to be brave and unafraid to try new things…

And to appreciate all the army green birthday cakes life has to offer.

 

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Every home cook has had some recipe not turn out as expected. At least I hope I’m not alone.

Some dishes that flop can’t be redeemed and it’s best to cut your losses, pitch the burnt chicken that wasn’t supposed to be Cajun-blackened, and order a pizza.

Interlaken, Berner Oberland, Switzerland

But if we get creative…and more than a little lucky…that “oops” can be salvaged or put to some other use. Got a little carried away salting the stew? No problem. Add more potatoes. Potatoes suck up salt. Did the rice stick to the bottom of the saucepan? Just leave about ½ inch layer everywhere it’s stuck. The fluffy white grains tend not to pick up a burned taste if they’re not in direct contact with their less fortunate friends.

There are things that can be done to at least make the product edible. If you can move past the initial upset and frustration, you might even find your kitchen malfunction amusing.

Case in Point:

One sunny Thanksgiving morning I felt excited that my daughter had volunteered to host the family feast. Instead of taking the time and effort to prepare the entire meal, my assignment seemed pretty simple. She only asked that I bake a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie to bring to the dessert table.

My recipe for pumpkin custard fills two 9-inch shells, so the previous day I baked up a couple of them along with my son-in-law’s favorite pecan pie. Although dear daughter hadn’t requested it, I decided it would be a nice touch if I took along some fresh whipped cream to dollop on top. (Because, of course, there weren’t enough calories in those pies already to put us all into a near-terminal food coma, right?)

Joyfully singing my favorite Thanksgiving hymn, We Gather Together, I pulled out my stand mixer, poured in a pint of heavy whipping cream, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a couple of tablespoons of sugar in the bowl and pushed “start.” I watched for a bit until the sugar and vanilla disappeared into the creamy whiteness before deciding I might as well unload the dishwasher while the mighty mixer did its thing.

By the time I finished that little chore and went to check on my mixer, the cream had gone from liquid through whipped and straight into butter.

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Oops.

Well, it was still edible, so this was not an epic fail. I just found myself short on whipped cream and long on butter. I poured a tablespoon of honey and about a teaspoon of cinnamon in to the bowl and started the mixer on low speed. I watched it constantly and hit “STOP!” the instant everything had blended. Removing the soft honey butter from the mixing bowl, I shaped it into a flat oval and pressed a design on top with a cookie stamp. Then off it went to the fridge to chill.

Voilà! A disaster turned into a bonus.

On the way to the feast, hubby and I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a can of store-bought whipped cream. Not as fresh and not as impressive, but still capable of adding unnecessary calories to the pies.

When we arrived at dear daughter and son-in-law’s home bearing pies, whipped cream, and the mystery gift, I announced, “I hope you don’t mind. I knew you planned on baking those yummy yeast rolls, so I took the liberty of making some cinnamon-honey butter to go with them.”

“Oh, Mom!” she exclaimed. “You shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble, but I’m sure the kids will be thrilled.”

“It was literally no trouble at all,” I replied with a Cheshire cat grin.

Cheshire Cat Grin

My kitchen failure might have remained a secret had not sweet hubby found it necessary to announce to all present, “Yep. Your mother tried to make homemade whipped cream, but instead she made butter.”

Oh, well. It got him a good laugh, even if it was at my expense.

All’s well that ends well. The kids (and adults) really did love the “accidental butter” on their dinner rolls. Canned whipped cream served the purpose just fine. And everyone raved about how delicious the pies were.

If it is edible it’s not a failure, right?

Comment below to share your experiences turning kitchen disasters into edible non-failures.

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Sometimes a bargain is just too good to pass up, even if you don’t know what the heck you’ll do with the items you’re buying. It happened to me just a couple of days ago.

Cruising around the produce section of one of my favorite grocery stores, I spotted the biggest, most beautiful lemons I’ve seen in a long time. And bonus! A three pound bag only cost $1.79 and contained six bright yellow lemons. At 30¢ per huge lemon, I couldn’t resist.

On the drive home, I started second-guessing that decision. With just hubby and me at home, I puzzled over how I could use six huge lemons before they shriveled up and turned rock-hard.

We aren’t real big on lemonade. I like to add a citrus note to a lot of my recipes, but a little bit goes a long way. I figured I could use two, maybe three lemons before they went to waste. Not good enough.

Then it dawned on me: Lemon Meringue Pie. I hadn’t baked one in years…and when I did, I had always gone the easy route, using box-mix lemon pudding (not instant…the kind that you cook). When I separated the eggs for the meringue, I just beat the leftover yolks and whipped them into the pudding while it was thickening. I never tried making lemon pie from actual lemons, but I was pretty sure that’s how my grandmother did it.

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So, out came the cherished family cookbook, but I found no recipe for Mabel Norton’s Lemon Pie. Darn!

Next, I turned to the 2-volume cookbook I inherited from my mother when she passed away. Mom always said that before she got married she couldn’t boil water without burning it…hard to believe because she certainly developed into an awesome cook, though not much of a baker. I figured if those cookbooks were responsible for her transformation, they could surely teach me how to make a lemon pie from scratch. I found a couple of Lemon Meringue Pie recipes and studied them. Once I’d familiarized myself with the basics, analyzed the similarities and differences between the recipes, and threw back a shot of Apple Pie Moonshine for courage (just kidding…I actually poured myself a mug of coffee), the experiment began.

Here’s the recipe I developed for putting my own spin on the classic Lemon Meringue Pie.

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Janet’s New-Fashioned Lemon Meringue Pie

Ingredients:

1 baked and cooled 9-inch pie crust (see Note)

1 cup granulated sugar, plus 6 tablespoons for the meringue

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ teaspoon salt, plus a small pinch for the meringue

1½ cups water

Juice and zest of 2 large (or 4 small) lemons

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs, separated

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon almond extract

Directions:

While you’re preparing the pie crust, set your eggs out so they’ll come to room temperature before you start making the filling and meringue.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and place a baking sheet on a center rack.

For the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together 1 cup of sugar, flour, cornstarch and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Zest the lemons over a 1-pint glass measuring cup. Fill the cup to the 1½ cup mark with water. Squeeze the lemons over the cup. You should end up with about 2 cups total liquid. If it measures less than 1¾ cups, juice another lemon. If you’re close to the 2-cup mark, just add a bit more water.

Separate your eggs, putting the whites in a small glass or metal mixing bowl and the yolks in another small bowl. Set the egg whites aside and whip the yolks until they’re broken down and lighter in color.

Add the lemon juice mixture into the dry ingredients in your saucepan and whisk to combine. Cook the filling mixture over medium-high heat, whisking frequently, until it comes to a boil. Stir in the butter and vanilla extract. Once the butter has melted and is completely incorporated, reduce heat to the lowest setting and remove about 1/3 cup of the hot filling mixture and slowly add it to the egg yolks, whisking constantly. (We want to temper the egg yolks, not cook them, so add that hot liquid very slowly!)  Add the tempered egg yolks to the filling mixture in the saucepan. Increase heat to medium-high and bring it back to a boil. Whisk constantly until the mixture thickens to the consistency of pudding. Once thickened, remove from heat and pour into the prepared pie shell.

To make the meringue: Using an electric mixer beat egg whites until frothy. Add a pinch of salt, the cream of tartar and the almond extract. Beat on high until white and a bit shiny. At this point, the beaters should leave a slight trail in the egg whites and soft peaks begin to form when the beaters are lifted. Begin adding the 6 tablespoons of sugar, no more than 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until stiff peaks begin to form.

To assemble and bake the pie: Spoon the meringue on top of the filling, starting at the crust edges and working your way to the center. It’s important that the meringue seal against the crust to keep it from shrinking away from the sides as it bakes. Once you’ve completely covered the pie with meringue, use the back of a spoon or a spatula to lift it into pretty waves or peaks. Place the pie on the pre-heated baking sheet and bake at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes to thoroughly cook the egg whites. Increase oven temperature to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and bake another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the meringue is golden-brown.

Remove pie to a cooling rack away from drafts and allow it to cool completely before serving or refrigerating.

NOTE: For information on how to pre-bake a pie crust, see my blog post titled Misery Loves Chocolate

Don’t skip the almond extract in your meringue. It adds a subtle, but delightfully delicious flavor counterpoint to the sweet/tart taste of the lemon filling.

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What do I do when life hands me lemons? Why, bake a pie, of course!

 

 

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If you were a homemaker in the 1970s, odds are that a kitchen witch adorned your galley, magically preventing pots from boiling over, milk from curdling, and roasts from burning.

She may have been riding a wooden spoon or a whisk instead of the traditional broom. And she may have resembled a plump crone or a sexy maiden. Regardless of their appearances, transferring such talismans brought good luck to both the giver and the recipient, enhancing their popularity as housewarming gifts.

The tradition is believed to have begun in Scandinavia, although there’s some debate over precisely which country gave birth to the practice. Regardless of the origin, the custom dates back hundreds of years to an era that modern Wiccans often refer to as “before the burning times.”

In those superstitious days, thousands of years ago, a prevalent belief existed that the fire heating stone ovens possessed magical, transformative powers. A large black cauldron hung over glowing embers tended by the women of the family became the center of the home. From this vessel, the witches (it wasn’t considered a negative term back then!) prepared food to sustain and herbal concoctions to heal.  These wise women played a vital role in the peasant communities.

We can learn much from the practices of these ancient healers. Our stoves, utensils, pots, pans, and ingredients are the magical tools with which we create nourishing, healthy, and delicious foods for our families and friends. If we educate ourselves on the properties of various herbs and other plants, we can use them not only to enhance flavors, but also to create chemical-free household cleansers and home remedies that effectively treat common maladies.

As one whose love for gardening is almost as intense as my enjoyment of cooking, I suppose I am a kitchen witch. Hearth and home are the center of my universe and I like to believe that – on a good day, at least – magic happens on my stovetop and in my oven.

I grow a variety of herbs in my gardens and at any given time you’ll find bundles of them hanging to dry in my kitchen.  Herbs can be expensive to purchase at the grocery store, but they’re easy and inexpensive to grow. It isn’t necessary to have a large garden plot or a serious green thumb to do it yourself. Most herbs grow happily in pots on a sunny window sill or planted in groups in a container on your deck or patio. They love to cohabitate flower beds with annual or perennial plantings or make themselves at home in vegetable gardens. Basil and tomato are wonderful companions…and what could be more welcoming than the pleasant aroma of lavender greeting visitors at your front door?

A comprehensive discussion of herbs and their uses would be far too lengthy for a blog post. Perhaps we’ll visit the topic more in the future. But for now, I’ll provide you with a list of my five favorite herbs and some (perhaps unexpected) uses for them.

  • Sage is a lovely perennial herb. Once established, it will come back year after year. It pairs deliciously with poultry, sausages, fish, and roasted root vegetables. In the garden, it attracts pollinators and repels cabbage moths, so plant it alongside broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts. Combined with white vinegar and a drop or two of dish detergent, sage makes a delightfully scented all-purpose cleaner. Infuse sage and lavender together and mix with water to create a wonderfully fragrant linen spray that will leave your bedroom smelling fresh. It is believed to repel bedbugs, so carry a small spray bottle with you when you travel and apply it to the linens in your hotel room. Couldn’t hurt, right? That lavender and sage infusion mixed with Epsom salts makes a soothing, relaxing bath blend – great for soaking sore muscles from all that work you did in the garden and even better bottled in a pretty container to give to a friend.

 

  • Rosemary is possibly my favorite herb. Where I live, the winters get too cold for rosemary to winter over successfully in the garden, but in warmer zones it is a perennial herb that grows heartily into an ornamental shrub. It pairs most famously with lamb, but also enhances pork, beef, and chicken as well as roasted vegetables…especially potatoes. Its earthy, woodsy aroma makes it a natural air freshener. If you combine rosemary with peppermint and dry rice and sew the concoction into a small pillow, you have a fantastic treatment for sinusitis or migraine. Just lie down for thirty minutes or so with the pillow over your closed eyes and you’ll likely feel some relief from your headache. A word of caution: this remedy should not be used by folks who have seizure disorders because both rosemary and peppermint are highly aromatic and could possibly trigger an episode.

 

  • Basil is an annual herb, so in outdoor gardens it must be replanted yearly. If you grow tomatoes, plant your basil right alongside them. These two are as fine companions in the garden as they are in marinara sauce. And without basil where would pesto be? I generally plant both green and purple basil, primarily because I can’t decide which variety is the prettier plant. It may be an old wives’ tale, but I’ve heard that if you chew a basil leaf to release the oils and then apply it to a recent insect bite or sting, it will draw out the venom and help ease the pain. Some believe basil has both antibiotic and antibacterial properties and it’s said to calm the digestion. (Would this be why so many Italian recipes call for the herb?)

 

  • Peppermint (and all other members of the mint family) should be grown with caution. It is highly invasive and spreads faster than wildfire. I recommend growing it in a glazed container on a saucer…and checking frequently to make certain no roots have escaped. It’s also important to keep it well trimmed so that it doesn’t go to seed. As mentioned above, peppermint is highly aromatic, so if some does escape into your lawn, mowing it would at least be a pleasant olfactory experience. I originally started growing peppermint for the sole purpose of making Mint Juleps on Kentucky Derby Day, but I found that I enjoy it more when it’s infused into iced tea than when it’s muddled with whiskey. I also use it to make Mint Jelly, which is my favorite condiment to accompany lamb. Sachets stuffed with dried peppermint are great for deodorizing athletic shoes if one is diligent about inserting them every time the cross-trainers come off of one’s feet. Chewing peppermint leaves can freshen the breath and soothe the stomach.

 

  • Oregano is a member of the mint family. Although not as invasive as peppermint, precautions should be taken when you introduce this perennial herb into your garden. Trimming to control flowering is important and pulling up runners to maintain a compact plant makes it more attractive and less likely to overrun its neighbors. I grow both Greek Oregano and Golden Oregano in my garden. This herb lends a Mediterranean flavor to many dishes. We’re all familiar with its use in Italian herb blends, but one of my favorite uses is incorporating it into breads…especially focaccia. I love a slice of warm Greek oregano bread dipped in garlic-flavored olive oil. Yum! You’ll find the golden variety in most of my recipes for marinades. It does something quite magical to the flavor of roast beef. According to Medical News Today, oregano is believed to contain antioxidants and may have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

 

Including herbs in our proverbial “bag of tricks,” contributes to our kitchen success. So, stir that cauldron (or stock pot), with the blade of your charmed athamé (or maybe just a wooden spoon!), and throw in some fresh or dried herbs to create some stovetop magic.

And, please…don’t say “Kitchen Witch” like it’s a bad thing.

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I inherited a pink and orange polka-dotted apron from my dear, departed mother-in-law with those words emblazoned in bold letters. Who Invited All These Tacky People? Wearing it when I host meals is usually good for a laugh from family members.

There’s nothing I love more than gatherings, but sometimes finding a date for a holiday celebration that fits the schedules of most of my children, grandchildren, and all their in-laws, outlaws, and significant others proves challenging.

Easter is a prime example.

The first conflict came decades ago when I worked for a large local CPA firm and Easter Sunday fell smack in the middle of the final days of the April tax filing crunch. I had to work the entire weekend. Due to other people’s scheduling conflicts, we had to postpone our family gathering until three weeks after Easter.

At that time, our holiday events included extended family…sisters, nieces, nephews, the spouses and significant others thereof, as well as the occasional renegades, rebels and rogues. When, by some miracle, everybody attended, we numbered 25 or more. Eventually we agreed that we either needed to pare down the gatherings or rent a hall. The majority voted to have each branch on the family tree do their own thing instead of having one huge party.

That was a wise decision. If we were to all come together now – with all the steps, grands, and great-grands – we would number well over 100. As much fun as that would be, (a) scheduling would be a nightmare, and (b) the cost of renting a facility and providing food for that army would probably break several banks.

After that official pruning of the family tree, time marched on and before we knew it, hubby and I had granddaughters. Soon we started running into dance competitions held in other states which, of course, involved travel time…and other complications like family members with conflicting work schedules, and taking into consideration the holiday plans of in-laws . We had to start choosing between before or after Easter and rarely celebrated on the actual holiday.

After a few years, we gave up calling it Easter Dinner and the celebration became known as The Spring Family Gathering.

The years flew by and before we could say “Peter Rabbit,” we had reached a point where those pesky college spring breaks never seemed to align with their high school  counterparts. And by then the situation had become even more complicated since we wanted to include boyfriends of the grand-princesses in our celebrations.  We also added a step-grandson, another significant other, and a baby grandson to the mix.

Sadly, our step-grand-prince sometimes has to miss these events so he can spend quality time with his father. And the restaurant where one of our grand-princesses works seems always to schedule her for a shift  at the exact time the rest of us would be sitting down to eat.

The Spring Family Gathering has unfortunately morphed into Spring-Brunch-And-Whoever-Can-Attend-Does-And-We’ll-Miss-The-Rest-Of-You.  But that’s just how it goes, isn’t it?

In a way, that’s a blessing. We enjoy each other’s company one day and hubby and I relish sharing a quiet Easter Sunday to worship and celebrate on our own – like the happy bunny couple pictured above.

Taking into consideration work schedules, spring breaks, and competing celebrations (among other conflicts), Easter is coming early to our house this year. Spring Brunch will be held on March 18. For the next six days this house will be a hotbed of activity. Between the baking and cooking, the candy-making, the egg decorating, the housecleaning, and the other assorted tasks associated with making sure every family member’s favorites are included, I will be one busy woman.

So far, here’s how the menu is shaping up:

  • Egg, Sausage, and Cheese Casserole (Everybody’s favorite.)
  • Yogurt (One of a few foods our picky toddler might eat.)
  • Devilled Eggs (I can’t disappoint my son or the grand-princesses.)
  • Fresh Fruit Tray (Keeps hubby smiling and offers a healthy choice for all.)
  • Biscuits with Milk Gravy (Dear S-I-L, this one’s for you. Enjoy!)
  • Blueberry Muffins (Because it’s just not brunch without muffins.)
  • Gingerbread Waffles  (I’ll make the batter; you’ll bake your own.)
  • Asparagus Roll-Ups (Dear daughter, I know how you love these!)
  • Cinnamon Roll Swirl Cake (A hit with the significant others.)
  • Solid Chocolate Rabbits (Only for the older grands.)
  • Chocolate Pudding Parfaits (Chocolate rabbit substitute for the toddler.)
  • Virgin Mimosas (No champagne until you’re over 21. I mean it!)
  • Coffee, milk, hot tea, iced tea, and lemonade (Everybody happy?)

Important note to those who can’t attend: Yes, I will fill a plate with all of your favorites to send home to you.

After the feast comes the egg hunt.

The older grands are now in charge of hiding the eggs and the only hunter is the toddler. We learned an important lesson last year. This young man knows the difference between an egg and a plastic do-hickey shaped like a bunny or a chicken. He won’t touch those plastic “egg substitutes,”  but he will collect every egg that actually looks like an egg…even especially the one that fell out of a robin’s nest.

Next Sunday will be a joyful, but exhausting day for me. It is such a wonderful treat having the people I cherish most dearly come together to share love and laughter.

Even though I know the answer (me), I sometimes wonder “Who Invited All These Tacky People?”.

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Just like different physical ailments require different medications, our cravings for specific comfort foods depend largely on our emotional state. Sometimes these foodie cures seem light years away from what you consider your favorite dishes.

When your Inner Child needs a little special attention, a meal that takes you back to your elementary school days might be just what the doctor orders. Who’d have thought that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or frozen fish sticks and box-mix mac’n’cheese could lift your spirits?

Sometimes melancholy sets in when you miss your departed mother and the only thing that will chase away the gloom is whipping up a batch of chicken and dumplings…just like she used to make them. After you convince yourself that one day blowing your healthy diet in favor of this carb-laden entrée is worth an extra 30 minutes of cardio you should go ahead and spoil yourself.

I’ve found that nothing turns frowns upside down in this household better than chocolate, but the fix obtained by eating a candy bar is too short-lived. Only chocolate cake, brownies, or something equally decadent will suffice to achieve a long-term mood lift. I usually rely on my grandmother’s recipe for Chocolate Meringue Pie.

Now, Grandma had a reputation for “accidentally” omitting some ingredient or technique when she passed down a requested recipe. That effort to preserve her reputation as a good cook and an even better baker is understandable.

Do I seem like someone who would allow that to deter me from reproducing…and possibly improving on her famous chocolate pie? I think you’ll appreciate my effort when you take a look at the “before” and “after” versions of the recipe.

Mabel’s Chocolate Pie (Before)

2 squares chocolate, 5 T. flour, 1-1/2 c. sugar, 2 c. milk, and 4 egg yolks. Cook until thick. Add 1 tsp. vanilla. Put in baked crust and put meringue on top and brown.

Janet’s Chocolate Meringue Pie (After)

Ingredients:

Pastry for a 1-crust pie

1 pound dried beans (any type will do) or pie weights

2 cups milk (fat-free, low-fat, or whole milk)

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract (divided)

4 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), broken into small pieces

5 Tablespoons flour

1¾ cups granulated sugar (divided)

1 large egg (at room temperature – takes about 30 minutes)

4 egg yolks (at room temperature)

4 egg whites (at room temperature)

Pinch of salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Directions:

To prepare the pie crust

Place a baking sheet on the lowest rack position in your oven and preheat to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place pie crust in a 9-inch pie plate, fold and flute the edges. Use a dinner fork to pierce the sides and bottom of the crust at about 1-inch intervals. Line the crust with a double layer of aluminum foil large enough to completely cover the sides of the pastry shell. Pour the beans into the foil, making sure the entire bottom is covered and beans stack up the sides of the pan (or use pie weights). The idea is to apply pressure to the crust as it bakes so it (hopefully!) won’t form bubbles or shrink away from the pie plate.

Bake the pie shell on the pre-heated baking sheet for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the edges of the crust begin to turn golden. Use the aluminum foil to carefully lift the beans out of the pie shell and set them aside. (Since the beans aren’t any good for cooking after being used for this purpose, once they’ve cooled, label them “baking beans” and store them for the next time you pre-bake a pie crust.)

Return the un-weighted pie crust and baking sheet to the oven and bake another 10 minutes or until the entire crust is a light golden brown. Set the baked crust aside on a cooling rack while you prepare the filling and meringue.

Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which you will bake the meringue.

To prepare the filling

Before you start cooking the filling, separate the eggs and reserve the whites for making the meringue.

In a large heavy saucepan over low heat, combine milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and chocolate and stir constantly until the chocolate starts melting. Increase heat to medium and stir in flour and 1½ cups of sugar. In a small bowl, whisk together the whole egg and the yolks, beating until all the egg white is incorporated. Slowly pour eggs into the milk mixture, whisking them in to combine thoroughly. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the filling thickens to the desired consistency. (It should seem as firm as you want it to be in the finished product.)

Remove the pan from the heat and allow the filling to cool while you prepare the meringue.

To prepare the meringue

In a stainless steel or glass mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt on low speed until frothy.

Add the cream of tartar and gradually increase beater speed to medium. When the egg whites are fluffy, begin adding the remaining ¼ cup of sugar about a tablespoon at a time. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract and continue beating until the meringue looks a little shiny and soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted from the mixture.

To assemble and bake the pie

If you haven’t already done so, reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stir the filling thoroughly and spoon it into the prepared pie shell, using the back of the spoon to spread it evenly to the edges of the crust.

Beginning at the crust edge, spoon the meringue over the filling and work your way into the center. Pile the meringue a bit higher in the center. Use the back of the spoon to lift the meringue into decorative waves or peaks. Before baking, make sure that the meringue completely seals the filling inside the crust.

Place the pie on a rack in the center of the oven and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 30 minutes or until the meringue is evenly cooked and lightly browned.

Allow the finished pie to cool on a rack, away from drafts, for at least 2 hours before refrigerating until serving time. If there are any leftovers, they must be stored in the refrigerator.

 

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Bone Throne

This article has nothing to do with a video you might find on YouTube or a fan-fiction variation of the epic books penned by George R.R. Martin. Nor is our Game of Bones about throwing dice or stacking dominos. We’re talking about putting kitchen scraps to good use.

Sometimes lovingly referred to as “Jewish Penicillin,” chicken soup has earned a generations-old reputation for being good medicine to cure just about anything that ails you. It turns out that our grannies and their grannies knew their stuff. While hot chicken broth won’t end the common cold it is quite effective at alleviating some of the symptoms, even though it’s not entirely clear how it works its magic.

Researchers who published their study The Journal of the American College of Chest Physicians reported back in 2000 that chicken soup can actually help reduce upper respiratory inflammation. Since fluids in general help loosen congestion and keep you hydrated, the hot broth also helps in that regard.

More recently there have been claims that “bone broth” has other amazing benefits, but little reliable scientific research is available to back them up. In the absence of such evidence, who knows if it really promotes gut and joint health?

We can be certain of one thing: broth and stock are staple items for serious home chefs. And, yes, there is a difference between the two.

Broth is made by simmering protein (meat, poultry, or fish) for a relatively short time in water that’s usually seasoned with herbs and vegetables. Stock, on the other hand, is concocted from bones and cartilage slowly cooked in water for six to eight hours…and sometimes even longer… to release the bone marrow and collagen, which results in a slightly thicker, richer product. In most recipes the two can be used interchangeably, but unless you make an effort to remove it, the fat content of broth will be higher than that of stock.

Just to confuse matters further, that trendy bone broth (which may or may not help your gut and joints) technically isn’t a “broth” at all because it’s made from bones and cartilage, not meat. And even though they sell vegetable broth in your local grocery store, it’s not really broth or stock; it’s concentrated vegetable juice!

There are plenty of stock and broth recipes available on the web and in cookbooks, so I won’t post one here. Instead, I want to emphasize that most kitchen scraps have more to offer than taking up space in a landfill somewhere.

When you’ve had all the meals you can make from a roasted chicken – whether you cooked it yourself or purchased one of those handy rotisserie hens – don’t pitch the carcass. Even in our busy lives it only takes a few minutes to throw that in a slow cooker, cover it with water, and season it with salt, pepper and maybe a few herbs and let it cook on low while you go about your business. Pour it through a strainer and freeze in quart containers and you’ve got some homemade chicken stock to use as a base for soups. Frozen in ice cube trays, the smaller quantities can be used to season rice or make gravy.

The same goes for the scrappy bits that are left over when you trim a beef roast of visible fat. There’s always some nice meat clinging to it. If it doesn’t seem to be enough to make broth, put the raw scraps in a quart freezer bag, label it with the type of meat and the date. Every time you have beef, throw the scraps in the freezer bag and hold it until you have enough to produce a batch of beef broth. After 6 to 8 hours in the slow cooker on low, you’ve got a nice supply of beef broth to freeze for future use. You can do the same thing with pork.

If you’re a gardener, you can save and dry vegetable and fruit seeds to plant in the spring. Even the skins, peels, cores, and other junk left from cleaning fruits and vegetables can be put to further use by composting them. But that’s a topic for another day.

Today we’re just playing A Game of Bones.

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You’re probably familiar with the Portuguese fable about a kindly old gentleman who happened upon a starving village. He only wanted a place to sleep and a simple meal, but the fearful people offered no hospitality to the stranger. Food was scarce and the villagers had become quite protective of what little they had.

Unabashed, the elderly man pulled out a cauldron and filled it with water from a nearby stream. The townspeople watched with great curiosity as he set about building a fire under the pot and dropped a large stone into it.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “There’s nothing like a nice pot of stone soup to fuel a weary traveler. I would be pleased to share it with you.”

He sniffed hungrily at the boiling water. “The only thing better than stone soup is stone soup with cabbage. Now, that makes for a truly tasty broth.”

Soon a woman appeared with a small cabbage, her hunger having overcome her fear. The old man made great ceremony of chopping the cabbage and dropping it into the cauldron. “You know,” he said, “I once ate stone soup with cabbage that was flavored with some salt pork and a few potatoes. That, I must say, tasted delicious.”

In short order, another villager produced a rasher of bacon and yet a third brought half a dozen small potatoes to add to the pot. And so it went with onions, carrots and other bits of food that the people had hoarded.

Soon the kettle contained a hearty meal that the traveler and the villagers shared. And for the first time in a long while, no one in the village went to bed hungry.

Of course, the intended moral of the story is that when everyone contributes what they can and people work together, the greater good is achieved. But there’s another lesson to be learned from this tale: Sometimes it’s possible to make something out of nothing…or at least what seems to be nothing.

The term “famine cuisine” may not be as familiar to you as the stone soup story, but they have something in common. Both involve making do with what is available and neither lets anything go to waste.

Worldwide, nearly every nation has at some time experienced famine…at least among the poverty stricken. When starvation threatens, human beings can be incredibly resourceful in finding nourishment.

Ironically, some of the foods once eaten out of desperation are now considered delicacies. The fried or braised chicken feet offered at high end dim sum restaurants come to mind. At one time, shellfish and fish were considered poverty food in Maine and along the east coast of Canada. So much so, in fact, that people buried the shells in their yards so nosy neighbors wouldn’t see them in the trash bin and know the unfortunate souls had sunken to eating lobster.

Much of the food we think of as Southern cuisine and/or soul food here in the U.S. had its roots in the meager rations provided to slaves and in the poverty and food shortages experienced by Southerners of all races during the Civil War. A pan of cornbread filled more bellies than a single ear of corn. Dandelions and collard greens could be cooked up with a discarded ham bone to feed hungry young’uns. One scrawny old hen and some flour could be transformed into enough chicken and dumplings to nourish a lot of people.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl once again challenged the ingenuity of homemakers frantic to feed their families. With apples selling for as much as 50 cents each and the average annual income of those lucky enough to be employed hovering around $1,500, baking an apple pie was simply out of the question.

Then some clever person rediscovered a recipe dating back to the 1800s for making a pie with crackers for a filling. And the rest was Mock Apple Pie history. The unusual pastry found renewed interest during World War II when apples were in short supply and rationing once again tested the cleverness of home cooks.

Fortunately, most of us don’t currently find ourselves in a situation of having to make something out of nothing in order to eat and feed our loved ones. These days culinary inventiveness seems to center on the use of exotic and expensive ingredients along with finding ways to fuse seemingly opposing cuisines (Italian-Chinese, anybody?).

Just for today, let’s buck the trend. Let’s reach back into our poverty food history and make something out of nothing. More accurately, let’s make apple pie out of crackers.

Mock Apple Pie

Ingredients:

Pastry for a double-crust pie

18 saltine crackers, each broken in half

1½ cups granulated sugar

1¼ cups water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

 

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place one pie crust in a 9-inch pie plate. Layer crackers in the shell and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Bring to a full, rolling boil. Carefully pour the liquid over the crackers. The filling will be thin, but don’t be concerned about that. Allow the filled shell to sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cut strips from the remaining pie crust and weave them into a lattice over the filling. Seal and flute the edges.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 25 minutes or until the crust is golden brown.

OPTIONAL: Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream or top each serving with vanilla ice cream (which would transform your dessert into a decadent Mock Apple Pie a la Mode).

 

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