Posts Tagged ‘recipes’

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.

food vegetables cucumbers gherkins

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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


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


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)


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


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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person holding a green plant

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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.


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.


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


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)


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.


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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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.


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.


Janet’s New-Fashioned Lemon Meringue Pie


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


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.

lemon pie

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



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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)


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


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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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


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



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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Recently a friend called me an “experimental cook.” I consider that the highest compliment I could ever hope to receive for my kitchen exploits. Some tests are more successful than others. And, of course, there are the occasional totally disgusting flops. But we learn from our mistakes and move forward.

Here’s the philosophy that drives me to try new things: If it’s edible, it’s not a failure.

Cooking is all about chemistry. Combine the right elements in the appropriate manner and, given the perfect environment, the result won’t blow up in your face. You might even start the next “foodie- must-have” trend. Somebody was the first person to wonder what would happen if you dipped bacon in chocolate, right?

There are things any home cook can do to prepare for becoming a mad scientist in the kitchen. First, and probably most important, is learning about the physiological components that make things flavorful. The taste buds that dot our tongues are specialized. Much like various areas of our brains perform different functions, those little fellas are sensitive to specific flavors. At least five basic tastes exist that, when well-balanced, produce a pleasant sensation for our palates: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (or, as the Japanese say umami).The Ayurvedic style of cooking, prominent in Indian cuisine, also identifies “pungent” (like chili-pepper spicy), and “astringent” (dry like popcorn).

What does this mean for the kitchen chemist?  If we think in terms of layers, we can bring out subtle nuances of in our dishes and impress the lucky folks who get to sample them.

Play an imagination game with me. Let’s pretend we’re baking a cake; let’s say yellow cake with chocolate frosting. But instead of using milk chocolate frosting from a can, we’re going to make a dark chocolate glaze. By itself, dark chocolate touches two of the five main taste sensations: sweet and bitter. Pair it with orange and you add a hint of sour. Now you’ve hit three of the five, so it tastes even better. Envision that you melt that dark chocolate, and then add a pinch of salt, some heavy cream, the juice of a small orange, and grate some zest of that orange in for good measure. Give your concoction a good stir and taste it. We’ve now stimulated sweet, bitter, sour, and salty…and made a lovely orange-chocolate ganache, which we can use as a glaze for a simple yellow cake.  Give that a taste. Isn’t the flavor more sophisticated than plain old yellow cake with milk chocolate frosting? If we were feeling especially brave, we might also add a dash of cayenne pepper to our ganache to wake up our pungent-loving taste buds. It would be such a small amount that you would not discern it from the other flavors, but you would have added another layer that your palate would appreciate. The tiny bit of heat from the cayenne pepper would make the chocolate taste sweeter and enhance the citrus notes from the orange.

The next step is training our palates.

Did you ever wonder why you couldn’t stand asparagus when you were a kid, but as an adult, you can’t seem to get enough of the stuff? (Okay, not everyone loves asparagus, but you get the point.)  The answer is that your palate has become more refined over the years. This evolution took place largely because as you grew up you became more courageous about trying new foods. You probably hated when your mom insisted that you eat at least one bite of creamed spinach, but you should thank her now because if you hadn’t exposed your taste buds to new flavors, you might still be eating nothing but chicken nuggets and ketchup.

There are some easy steps you can take to further educate your palate. Follow your mother’s advice and try something new every now and then so your taste buds won’t get bored.

Try not to be a distracted eater. If your brain is busy focusing on a TV show, it’s not going to process the flavor information it’s receiving, so you won’t know what the food you’re eating actually tastes like. Your belly might get full, but your taste buds won’t be satisfied if you’re eating mindlessly.

Become a culinary world traveler by sampling new cuisines. Some people assume they won’t like Thai or Indian food because it’s all too spicy. Surprise! There’s nothing chili-pepper spicy about Chicken Satay and curry comes in varying levels of heat.

Consider trying the elements of one of your favorite recipes individually to isolate the flavors they contribute to the whole. Make note of trends. For example, you might discover that you only tolerate the flavor of canned tuna in your casserole if there’s extra sharp cheddar in there to offset it. The next time you whip one up, try substituting Swiss and see if you like that just as well. Try adding some bleu cheese and fruit to your tossed green salad. Play with contrasting textures.

Experiment with spices. Relying only on salt and pepper to season your foods is so limiting. If your idea of spicing up a hamburger is adding a little garlic powder, be daring and try sprinkling some dried thyme on there, too, before you throw it on the grill. Add a generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg when you cook leafy greens and see how you like that. On my palate, the nutmeg cuts through the bitterness of the greens without altering the earthiness of their flavor. It might taste different to you, but you’ll never know unless you try, will you?

Go put on your lab coat…er, I mean apron…and embark on your new avocation as a kitchen chemist.  There’s no telling what you might invent.

And remember: If it’s edible, it’s not a failure.

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In the world of microeconomics, there’s a theory put forth that manufacturing in large quantities decreases the cost of production per unit, thus providing large corporations a pricing advantage over smaller concerns. Mass production also allows the big guy to by raw materials in bulk, making vendors willing to offer discounts, further reducing the manufacturer’s cost of goods sold. Economists call this phenomenon the economy of scale.

So, you might wonder, what does this have to do with a kitchen scale? Well, those inexpensive kitchen gadgets come in handy for more than helping you manage your calorie count.

Big batch cooking can save a home cook time and money, but today let’s focus on the purchasing side. Stocking up on non-perishable goods when they’re on sale is sort of no-brainer. If you have sufficient and appropriate storage space, go for it. Just make sure that the sale price is actually a bargain…but more on that another day.

For now, let’s just talk about buying meats.

Around Christmas a local grocer offered whole, untrimmed beef tenderloins (also called PSMO, which stands for Peeled, Silver-Skin, Side-Meat-On) at $9.99 a pound. They also had fresh, Frenched racks of lamb for $7.99 a pound.

Our family gathering was scheduled for Christmas Eve to accommodate kids, grandkids, and their significant others who needed to be elsewhere the following day. For the first time in decades, dear hubby and I would be on our own for Christmas dinner. A duck, or maybe a couple of Cornish hens, would make us happy.

It’s been a long-standing tradition for Mom (a.k.a. me) to make lasagna, Caesar salad, and garlic bread on Christmas Eve. My entire family threatened mutiny if I didn’t deliver. So I had no need for a $70 or $80 beef tenderloin or an equally expensive crown roast of lamb…or did I?

Filet mignon runs around $25 a pound at the grocery store and our local meat market, so I can’t bring myself to buy it. Can you guess where that delicious cut comes from? The beef tenderloin.

Hubby and I love herb-crusted lamb chops, but we don’t have them very often because even at the big discount stores like Sam’s Club and COSTCO, they cost between $13 and $15 a pound. Yikes! That $7.99 lamb rack sounded better by the instant.

So I splurged. I picked out one of the smaller tenderloins that weighed just a tad over 7 pounds and a 6-rib, 3 pound lamb rack. Yes, I blew the grocery budget that week by buying about $100 worth of meat for two people. But I felt confident that the economy of scale would justify my extravagance. And it did.

I spent about half an hour cleaning and butchering the tenderloin. It isn’t that hard to do. I won’t go into the process in detail because there are plenty of places online that do so. (Google “trim and butcher PSMO” and you’ll find a lot of sites with excellent step-by-step instructions and/or videos.)

My roughly 7 pound hunk of beef yielded a nice 2-pound beef tenderloin roast (the perfect size for hubby and me to enjoy for some Sunday dinner with leftovers for sandwiches), 10 thick filet mignon ranging in size from 6 to 8 ounces, and about a pound of “scraps” from which I concocted a most amazing Beef Stroganoff for that night’s dinner. Bottom line, we’ll enjoy eight very nice meals (16 servings!) from that $70 expenditure…roughly what it would cost for one outing to our local steakhouse if we both ordered the filet mignon.

Bonus: I threw all the fat and sinew I trimmed away, along with scrappy bits of meat that were too riddled with “junk” to be worth saving. I covered them with water, added a generous splash of red wine, a teaspoon of sea salt, and some coarsely-ground black pepper and let the whole thing simmer for about an hour. Then I poured it through a strainer into a 1-quart freezer container, labeled it, and threw it in the freezer…saving myself about two bucks the next time I prepare a recipe that calls for beef stock.

While that stock was simmering, I removed the lamb from its packaging, rinsed it with cold water, patted it dry, and tied it into a tiny just-for two crown roast of lamb, packaged it and froze it. In a couple of weeks, that would become the star of our 46th wedding anniversary dinner. That lovely tenderloin roast and five storage bags containing 2-per package filet mignon joined it in the freezer.

One of my husband’s favorite entrées ham loaf like his grandma used to make. Her recipe calls for (a direct quote): Have the butcher grind a pound of ham, then a pound of lean pork, then have him grind the two together. That might have been possible in her day, but now not so much. I haven’t found a meat man willing to do that…and believe me, I’ve tried. It seems they’re required by law to clean the grinder every time they change cuts of meat, so they don’t want to grind small batches and they absolutely refuse to do something that would cause them to clean the grinder three times to sell two pounds of meat. Luckily, one year for Christmas, my hubby gifted me with a fancy stand mixer with all the bells and whistles, including grinding and sausage-stuffing accessories. He may have had an ulterior motive.

Every now and then I humor him with Grandmother May’s Ham Loaf. With my super-mixer, I can DIY all the grinding. I just have to buy the meat, which can be challenging in and of itself when your family consists of only two people.

So, the last time hubby got vocal about his ham loaf craving, I did another “buy big and cut it down to size” operation. Bone-in half hams were on sale at 99 cents a pound. I dug around until I found a small one – about 7 pounds. Way more than I needed for a ham loaf, but there was method to my madness.

Boneless pork required a little more thought. I only needed a pound, but the bargain price on pork that day was $1.99 a pound for a half loin. That was cheaper by $2 a pound than boneless chops. Where do boneless chops come from? Yup, you guessed it…from the pork loin. I found a nice, relatively lean 4-pounder and tossed it in my cart.

By now you’re probably thinking that I spent $15 on ingredients to make nothing fancier than a ham loaf. Well, you’re right…and wrong.

Here’s the evolution of the ham: First, I baked it for Sunday dinner, accompanied by mashed sweet potatoes and green beans (both of which came from our little veggie gardens). After dinner, I used an electric knife to slice a pound of the ham deli-thin for sandwiches and popped it in the fridge. Then I cut eight slices about 1/2 inch thick for ham steaks, bagged and labeled them for the freezer. After that, I carved out a chunk that I eyeballed to be about a pound and a half which, when trimmed of visible fat would become my pound of ground ham for grandma’s ham loaf. I put the bone and all the lovely ham still attached to it in a gallon storage bag and threw it in the freezer. I won’t have to search for a ham hock the next time I get the urge to cook up some dried beans or greens.

Voila! That half ham yielded approximately 10 meals for two (20 servings total) for right around $7. Do the math. That comes out to 35 cents per serving. You can’t even get a deal like that on the fast food $1 menu.

The half loin of pork was what they call “butcher trimmed,” which means that most of the sinew and other yucky stuff that usually comes with bulk meat purchases had already been removed. Being picky, I had taken time to find a loin with a relatively small fat cover, so after about ten minutes with a sharp filleting knife, i had a roughly 99% lean 4-pound chunk of loin. I cut 1/4 of it off and packaged it for the freezer, writing on the storage bag that it was designated for hubby’s ham loaf. The rest I cut into thick boneless chops – great for stuffing, baking, grilling, or pan-searing.

So, yeah, at least 14 servings (counting ham loaf and leftover ham loaf) for $8. That’s less than 60 cents per serving.

In case you were wondering, I don’t own a stand-alone freezer. But when large cuts of meat are broken down into meal-sized portions, you would be amazed at how tightly you can pack them in the freezer compartment of your fridge.

And, of course, I rely on my handy-dandy kitchen scale to weigh the portions before storing. I use a lot of quart-sized freezer bags and keep a permanent marker close at hand so I can label each portion with the weight, quantity, and type of meat along with the day it goes into the freezer.

The moral of this story is simple. Sometimes a seemingly expensive meat purchase yields relatively inexpensive entrées, allowing you and your significant other to dine like royalty for weeks.

Thanks, of course, to The Economy of the Kitchen Scale.

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Although the title might lead you to believe otherwise, this is not a political rant. It’s not about left, right, and middle.  You won’t need to defend the party of your choice or debate liberal versus conservative views.

It’s all about soup…bean soup, to be specific.

I unscientifically polled my social media contacts with one simple question: What is your favorite cold-weather food?  Although a small percentage named other comfort foods, the vast majority of votes went to soups…even if I counted chili as a category unto itself.

Some folks craved tomato soup (preferably accompanied by grilled cheese or peanut butter sandwiches), while others wanted something beefier or chock-full of vegetables. A very small number mentioned the famously medicinal chicken noodle. But not one person voted for bean soup.

That surprised me.

Thick, creamy bowls of beans flavored with ham served with a side of hot cornbread fresh from the oven always meet with approval at our house on a cold winter night. And I doubt there is a more budget-friendly soup a home chef can stir up. Dried beans are an inexpensive source of protein and they have a shelf-life just short of eternity when stored properly. Add some of that leftover holiday ham, a few staple vegetables, and some crucial spices and you can produce enough hearty soup to generously serve 4 to 6 people.

You might wonder by now what bean soup has to do with politicians. It’s simple. Bean soup has been on the menu in the U.S. Senate cafeteria daily since the early 1900s. That is, except for September 14, 1943, when World War II rationing left the chef with insufficient beans. This was big enough news to hit the pages of Washington Times-Herald. According to a 1988 speech made by the Honorable Senator Bob Dole on the Senate floor, the bean crisis was short lived.  He stated, “Somehow, by the next day, more beans were found and bowls of bean soup have been ladled up without interruption ever since.”

Two official recipes for the soup can be found on the Senates’ website if you’re a stickler for authenticity. But dear hubby and I don’t need five gallons of the stuff, so here’s how I make it.

What you’ll need:

1-1/4 cups of dried white beans (I use either navy or Great Northern)

7 cups of cold water (plus extra for rinsing and soaking the beans)

1 small ham hock (or ham shank, or ham steak)

1 large yellow or white onion, peeled and diced

3 stalks of celery (including leaves), split lengthwise and chopped

1 large or two medium potatoes, washed, peeled, and diced

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced or pressed

1-1/2 teaspoons of salt (Don’t skimp. Potatoes and beans absorb salt like mad!)

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Pinch of ground nutmeg

(My Mom swore cloves kept the beans from causing gastric distress. I don’t know if that’s true, but it couldn’t hurt to include the spice, so I do.)

What to do:

Before you do anything else, spread the beans in a colander and pick through to remove any little pebbles that might have hitched a ride in from the field. Next, run cold water over the beans, stirring and massaging them with your hands to make sure they’re soil-free. Dump the beans into a large stock pot, rinse the colander, pour the beans back into the colander and rinse them under cold water again. Give your stock pot a good rinse, too.

The next step is to soak those beans to soften them. This process also helps to break down the sugars they release…compounds that contribute to the digestive issues some folks experience. Pour the beans back into the stock pot and cover them with water by 2 to 3 inches. Bring them to a rolling boil over high heat, give them a quick stir and let them continue to boil for two or three minutes.

(You know that old saying, “A watched pot never boils.”? Well, I find the reverse is also true. Don’t walk away during this brief period because as sure as you do, the pot will boil over and leave a mess. Who’s going to clean that up? You are, of course, so let’s avoid that crisis.)

Okay, so after the two minute boil, remove the pot from the heat and cover it with a snug fitting lid. Set your timer for one hour. While the beans soak, you can do all the peeling, chopping, and measuring of the other ingredients…probably with time left over to put your feet up and enjoy a cup of coffee. Just don’t forget to put the diced potatoes in a bowl of cold water. We don’t want them turning that icky purple-brown color they get if left to their own devices.

When the timer buzzes, check the beans. They should have puffed up to about twice – maybe three times – their original size. Carefully pour the beans back into the colander and rinse them again to discard all of the soaking liquid.

If all the above seems like too much time and effort, substitute 4 cans of drained and rinsed Great Northern beans (approximately 16-ounces per can) for the dry beans.

 Now we’re ready to make some soup!

Place the beans and ham hock in the stock pot and cover with 7 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then dial back the temperature to produce a gentle simmer.  Drain the diced potatoes and add them, along with the onion, celery, garlic, salt, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. Stir the soup occasionally and remember to watch that pot now and then to avoid boil-overs. Continue to reduce the heat as needed so the simmer won’t get ambitious and escalate.

After the soup has simmered for an hour, remove the ham hock and let it cool for about 15 minutes so it will be easier to handle. Discard the skin, bone and fat and dice the meat. Return the ham bits to the soup and simmer another 15 minutes.

The potatoes should have softened sufficiently to have broken down and thickened the broth. If not, use an immersion blender (or a good old-fashioned potato masher) to create a slightly lumpy, but thick and creamy texture.

As for that side of hot cornbread, that’s a recipe for another day, so rely on your favorite box-mix for the time being.

Just for the record, your senator probably is full of beans. And that’s not a political statement.

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