Easy Eggs

With gas prices sky-high and bank accounts plunging, suddenly we’re all looking for ways to stretch a dollar. When it comes to the kitchen, one of the best ways to do that is with eggs.

If you’re cooking for only one or two people, think about it: a dozen eggs (in the midwest, at this time) costs less than $2. With a few other ingredients–many that you may already have on hand–you can easily make two meals with that dozen eggs.

And don’t worry about the health issues surrounding eggs. Years ago, eggs got a bad reputation as a source of cholesterol, to be avoided at all costs. And yes, it’s true that for some people on restricted diets, eggs may still be a concern. But for those of us who have not been ordered to follow those tight restrictions, eating a meal made with eggs now and then shouldn’t be an issue.

On the plus side, eggs are a good source of protein and are as versatile as anything you can name. Whether you’re in the mood for basic scrambled eggs, a flavorful quiche, or a plain hard-boiled egg with salt and pepper, eggs make a quick and easy, breakfast, dinner, or snack. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Basic Hard-Boiled Eggs

Bring a large pan of water to a gentle boil. Gently lower eggs into the water using a spoon or a ladle, being careful not to crowd the eggs. Cook eggs for 12 to 15 minutes. Drain boiling water, and cover eggs with cold water for 3 or 4 minutes before removing shell.

To remove shell, crack the large end of the egg first to break the air pocket. This helps loosen the rest of the shell. Gently peel away the shell.

Deviled Eggs

Make hard-boiled eggs, as above. Carefully slice the cooked eggs horizontally, and gently pop the yolks into a medium-sized bowl. Set the egg whites aside.

To the yolks, add about 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise per every 4 eggs you’ve boiled. Blend with a fork to make as smooth as possible. You can also use plain yogurt in place of some or all of the mayonnaise. Add 1/2 teaspoon of mustard, salt, and pepper to taste. Optionally, you can also add paprika, cayenne pepper or horseradish. Stir to blend.

Gently spoon yolk mixture into egg white halves. Cover and refrigerate if not serving (or eating!) immediately.

This is about as easy and fast as a meal can be. Quantities here make two omelets.

2 Tablespoons butter or oilive
5 eggs
2 Tablespoons milk
Salt and pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. Beat the eggs and milk together just until blended. Add salt and pepper to beaten eggs. Swirl butter in bottom of pan to coat, then add eggs. Cook the eggs without stirring for almost a minute, then use a fork or thin spatula to lift the edge of the egg mixture and allow uncooked egg to flow to the edges for faster cooking. Continue lifting the omelet and allowing the egg to flow to the edges for 2 to 3 minutes, until eggs are no longer runny.

During this stage, you can add any number of optional fillings: diced ham, onion, bell pepper, mushrooms, grated cheese, salsa, herbs… you get the idea.

Use a large spatula to fold the omelet in half or in thirds (keep this step in mind when adding fillings!) and slide the omelet onto a plate. With bread and a green salad, you’ve got a quick, light, well-rounded meal.

October 5, 2008 at 9:22 pm 2 comments

Apple Harvest: 3 Easy Ideas

Aside from their health benefits–you know, the old “apple a day” cliche–apples really are pretty amazing. This time of year, when you can find more and fresher apples (especially if you have any orchards nearby), apples are especially good: juicy and firm, so much better than apples that have been shipped across half a dozen states and then stored for months.

Even as a beginning cook, there are lots of ways you can enjoy the apple harvest that don’t involve the hassle of a pie crust. When you buy apples for these recipes, check the skin to make sure it’s not cut open, and check for bruises. Apples should be firm and smell–well, like an apple. Not like mold or dirt or anything else. Buy enough for the recipe you’re making, and one or two extra to grab as a quick, portable snack. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Apple Pizza
Adapted from a recipe by Mollie Katzen, of Moosewood Restaurant fame.

1 Boboli pizza shell (thin)
3 to 4 medium-sized tart apples, such as Granny Smith, cored and sliced into wedges (peeling is optional)
1 – 2 tablespoons sugar (depends on how tart the apples are)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup apricot jam (optional, for glaze)

Preheat oven to 400. Set the pizza shell on a baking tray. Place apple slices on pizza shell in a spiral pattern until shell is covered.

In a small bowl, mix together sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle mixture on top of apples. Bake pizza for 15 minutes, just until apples are starting to brown at the edges.

For the optional glaze, while the pizza is cooling, melt the jam over low heat in a small saucepan. Brush melted jam gently over the apples ad let set for about 15 minutes. You can serve the apple pizza hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Apple Shortbread Pie
Not quite as much fuss as a pie–and just as good!

2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 egg, beaten to blend
1 pound apples (4 or 5 of your favorite kind)
1/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

For crust: Preheat oven to 400. In a large bowl, blend flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter and cut together until small crumbs form. (You can use a pastry cutter, or a knife and fork to do this. Some people just use their fingertips, rubbing the butter and flour mixture together until it looks like coarse cornmeal.) Drizzle the beaten egg over the flour mixture and mix, using a spoon, just until large crumbs form. Do not form a ball.

Pat 3/4 of the mixture into the bottom of an 8-inch square pan, and set aside.

For filling: Mix apples, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg in medium bowl.

Pour apples into crust. Sprinkle remaining crumb mixture over the top. Place pan on a baking sheet (in case juices overflow), and bake for 15 minutes. Turn oven temperature down to 350, and continue baking about 20 more minutes, until the top is light brown and the filling bubbles. Cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Homemade Apple Sauce
If you find yourself with more apples than you can possibly use in a reasonable time, this is an easy way to use them up. Homemade applesauce is great with oatmeal, or pancakes, or on its own.

Peel, core, and dice apples into a slow cooker or a large pan with a tight fitting cover. Add about 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar (granulated or brown or a mixture) per 5 pounds of apples. (If you like sweeter applesauce, you can add more sugar.) Add about 1 tablespoon cinnamon. Cover and cook the apples over low heat for several hours, stirring occasionally.

When the apples are soft and break apart as you stir them, uncover the pan to allow excess moisture to evaporate. (If you want to impress people, have them come over at this stage–your house will smell wonderful.) If you like chunky applesauce, you can use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to break up any remaining apple chunks. If you like smooth applesauce, once the mixture is cool, puree it in the blender in batches.

Store in the refrigerator or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

September 21, 2008 at 9:49 pm 2 comments

When Life Gives You Tomatoes…

I love this time of year. In my area, everything from the garden is ready right now: cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, sweet corn, bell peppers, carrots, onions, potatoes, and of course, tomatoes. Don’t let the fact that you don’t have a garden get you down. I don’t have one, either. But there are still ways to take advantage of the abundance.

If you have a local farmers’ market, go there, and go frequently! If not, find roadside stands; offer to help friends and neighbors who do have gardens harvest and prepare their vegetables. If you have co-workers who bring extra vegetables in, take them up on the offer. Most gardeners I’ve ever known are generous people and will gladly give away food they cannot possibly eat simply because they can’t bear to see it go to waste. And once you taste the difference between home-grown and store-bought, you’ll begin to understand how they feel.

Of course, don’t over-do it: you don’t want to accept a gardener’s gracious gift and then let it rot because you didn’t know what to do with it. Case in point: tomatoes. If you find yourself with more tomatoes than you can handle via salsa, BLTs, or bruschetta, here are a couple easy ways to preserve them. No special equipment or techniques are involved. (What I mean to say is, “no canning”!)

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Preheat your oven to 375. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with foil. Using ripe tomatoes, core them, then cut them in half horizontally. Place the tomatoes, cut side up, on the cookie sheet. Drizzle each tomato half with about 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt. (Optionally, add a pinch of dried or fresh basil to each.) Roast the tomatoes for about 45 minutes, checking frequently once they begin to seep juices. The amount of time needed will depend on how many tomatoes you are roasting.) Turn the pan if needed to roast the tomatoes evenly. When the halves start to sag and there is juice in the pan (some of which may carmelize — that’s fine), take the pan out and let the tomatoes cool completely. To store, layer tomatoes in a resealable plastic container, drizzling a bit more olive oil between layers. Freeze for up to 6 months. Thaw as many halves as you need and use them to add a summery, intense flavor to any tomato-based sauce, or in stew, chili, or pasta dishes.

Peasant Tomato Sauce

I call this “peasant” because it’s un-fussy: I don’t worry about removing all the seeds and skins. This won’t end up perfectly smooth like a canned tomato sauce, but the flavor is wonderful.

Using ripe tomatoes, core and partially skin them, removing areas that are heavily blemished. Cut tomatoes in half and squeeze out excess juice and seeds. Coarsely chop tomatoes and put into a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour pureed tomatoes into a large pan or dutch oven with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil per 2 cups of tomato puree. Add a teaspoon of salt, if desired. Simmer the sauce for at least an hour, until most of the excess water has boiled away and the sauce begins to thicken. Let cool completely. Once the sauce is cool, store it in resealable plastic containers (it’s a good idea to divide the sauce into the serving sizes you anticipate using) and freeze for up to 6 months.

September 7, 2008 at 6:11 pm 2 comments

Stop the madness!

At my house, the school year–and all its lunacy–starts tomorrow. That means there will be less time to make and eat dinner with my daughter, but even more need to make sure she gets the nourishment she needs to meet the demands of her challenging schedule.

God bless her, she’s a picky eater. I try to get her to try new things, but it’s rare that she finds a new dish she really likes. And casseroles or anything with sauces are Out Of The Question–food touching other food is not something she’ll tolerate.

What to do? This time of year, a favorite option is what we fondly call a “grazing dinner.” The terms comes from the time when she was a toddler and the many evenings I could not get her to sit at a dinner table for any meaningful length of time. My older sister (a mother of four) cheerfully said, “Oh, she’s just a grazer!” And I took my cue from there. Rather than have my daughter eat poorly, I’d find a way to accommodate her restlessness at least occasionally, and still get decent food into her growing body.

Grazing dinners here usually consist of at least three things: some type of meat, whether it’s deli lunchmeat like turkey or ham, or cooked shrimp; vegetables such as sliced tomatoes, broccoli florets, cauliflower, carrots, or sliced zucchini; and cheese, usually mozzarella, provolone, or cheddar. Optionally, I’ll include some bread, or some sliced fruit, or nuts if I have them. If I’m feeling really festive, I’ll add some black olives or dill pickles to the mix.

I arrange everything on a platter (or two, depending on how hungry we are) and set it out for whoever is here to munch on as they want. After an hour or so, I do put the meats and cheeses away, for safety’s sake, but if anyone is still munching on vegetables, fruit, or bread, I’m fine letting them continue with that for as long as they want.

This loose dining arrangement works well on evenings when we’re trying to multi-task. For example, on Halloween night while we’re answering the door for trick-or-treaters, a grazing dinner works very well. We often graze while we decorate our Christmas tree (a three-hour ritual here!) or wrap holiday gifts. If you have sports fans, grazing during the Big Game can be a better option than offering only fatty chips and dip.

Another benefit to a grazing dinner is that it is very quick: simply slice the things you want and set them out. You can even slice things up ahead and store them covered in the refrigerator, so that all you need to do to eat is place food on plates. During the hectic school year, I have no doubt this is a strategy I’ll be using frequently to stop the madness and still make sure my daughter eats reasonably well.

September 2, 2008 at 1:51 am 3 comments

Beyond the Brown Bag

With the close of summer, more discipline seems to descend on my household: more schedules, more deadlines, more items on the never-ending “to do” list. I’m not sure why this happens, but my guess is that nearly everyone reacts to the schedules the school year imposes.

After the weightlessness of summer, to me, a little discipline feels good. The summer break is always welcome, but there’s something energizing about the cooler air, the shorter days, and the anticipation of diving in to new challenges that makes me look forward to the beginning of the school year.

There is one drawback, however: lunches. In the mad dash to get everyone where they need to go and check all the homework and still do the basics like paying bills and laundry, fall brings the challenge of packing lunches for those who refuse to eat cafeteria fare. It doesn’t take too many peanut butter and jellys before I start to wonder why I thought the discipline of the school year was a good thing.

I’ve found that with a little creativity, sandwiches can be as fun as a summer day at the lake. Mixing and matching breads, fillings, and spreads opens up enough possibilities for the pickiest of eaters. Although these aren’t recipes in the strict sense, here are a few thoughts to get you started.

August 28, 2008 at 1:34 am 1 comment

What’s for Dessert?

Even the busiest beginning cook sometimes wants something sweet–and homemade–to finish a meal.

Here are some recipes to demonstrate that a beginning cook doesn’t have to go without dessert due to lack of time, equipment, or skills. I’ve included an idea for those times when a chocolate craving simply must be obeyed, one for hot weather, and one for cooler fall weather.

“Beverly Perry” Brownies

These are named after a neighbor years ago from whom my mom got this recipe. It doesn’t get much easier!

1 deep chocolate cake mix
1 small package chocolate pudding — not instant
2 1/2 cups milk
1 12-ounce package chocolate chips
Chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 325. Cook the pudding with milk until thick; let cool slightly. Stir in the dry cake mix. Pour mixture onto greased jelly roll sheet (a cookie sheet with a rim). Cover the top with chocolate chips and nuts, if using. Bake for 30 minutes. When cool, cut into squares and store in an airtight container. (These also keep for a month in the freezer if wrapped in plastic or in a resealable plastic bag.)

Grandma Thompson’s Frozen Cheesecake

This was my grandmother’s recipe. I’m noticing a pattern here of family recipes that I can trace to their roots.

1 package graham crackers (usually half a small box)
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
3 eggs, separated
1/2 pint whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt

Crush graham crackers in food processor or by putting crackers into resealable plastic bag and crushing with a rolling pin until fine crumbs form. Melt butter in large saucepan. Add graham crackers and stir until crackers are moistened. Press crumbs into the bottom of an 8 x 8 pan.

With an electric mixer, cream together sugar and cream cheese. Add eggs yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each one. Add vanilla and salt; mix well. Clean beaters thoroughly. In a separate bowl, whip eggs whites until stiff. Clean beaters again. In a third bowl, whip cream until soft peaks form. Gently fold in egg whites, then whipping cream. Pour cream cheese mixture over graham cracker crust and freeze for 3 hours or more.

To serve, let soften for 10 minutes, then cut into squares. This is great with fresh berries over the top!

Apple Crisp

Yes, I know the pedigree of this recipe, too! It’s from my mother’s 9th grade “home economics” class at her high school in southern Minnesota. I don’t think they use the term “home ec” anymore, do they?

2 cups peeled, sliced apples (anything firm and tart will work well)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350. Put apples in a greased 8 x 8 baking dish. Sprinkle apples with cinnamon and pour water over. Work flour, butter or margarine, and brown sugar together to form a crumbs. Sprinkled over apples and bake for 30 – 40 minutes. Pull out your best vanilla ice cream to go with this!

August 23, 2008 at 8:43 pm 1 comment

Comfort Food 101

Have you ever noticed how troubles seem to come in groups? Some say in threes, some say more than that. It struck me recently that several people I know seem to be going through rough patches right now – at home, at work, with children, grandchildren, with health, with simply making ends meet.

So what’s the best way to cope with the ups and downs of everyday life? I say, when the going gets tough, the tough get into the kitchen to make some comfort food!

Comfort food can mean something different to everyone, but there seems to be some fairly wide agreement (at least in the U.S.): mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, stew…things that are warm and hearty seem to fit the bill when we need food that satisfies not just our stomachs, but our souls.

Here are some dinners even a beginning cook can make quickly and easily, to help smooth out a rough day. Watch for a separate article with some easy desserts that provide home-style comfort.

Macaroni and Cheese

1 can cream of mushroom soup
½ cup milk
½ teaspoon mustard
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 cups hot cooked elbow macaroni (shells or rotini would also work fine)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 can (2.8 ounces) French fried onions

Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix soup, milk, mustard, pepper, pasta, and 1 ½ cups cheddar cheese in a 1 ½ -quart casserole dish. Bake until hot, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and stir gently. Sprinkle with French fried onion rings and remaining half-cup of cheese. Bake 2 – 5 more minutes, or until onions are golden.

Mashed Potatoes
I know these aren’t, in and of themselves, a meal. But for many people, mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. With this recipe, you can make them anytime without resorting to the instant kind, which do absolutely nothing to feed the soul.

2 servings

4 medium-sized baking potatoes (russet or Idaho potatoes)
1 clove garlic (optional)
¼ cup milk (approximately)
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper

Peel potatoes and cut into 1 ½-inch chunks. Place in large saucepan with lid. If using garlic, peel and add to pan. Cover potatoes with cold water, and boil until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. To check doneness, stick a fork into a chunk. If the potato is tender and falls apart, it’s done. Drain water off potatoes and, using a potato masher, mash until smooth, adding milk as needed until the desired consistency is reached. (If you like very smooth potatoes, use a ricer — but not an electric mixer. That will only make the potatoes gummy.) Stir in butter, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Any leftovers reheat beautifully in the microwave.

Mary’s Meatloaf
This is not my recipe, but is from another Mary I know who is a wonderful home cook. This, along with mashed potatoes, may be the ultimate comfort meal. Leftover meatloaf makes a great “comfort food” sandwich!

Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds ground beef
1 pound ground pork
3 slices white bread, lightly toasted and cut into ¼ inch cubes
3 eggs
1 packet Lipton’s Beefy Onion Soup mix
1 can condensed tomato soup (or 1 cup ketchup)
1 finely chopped onion

Preheat oven to 350°. Have a 9 x 13-inch pan placed on the counter. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together. (This is actually easiest using your hands rather than a spoon or spatula.) Form the mixture into a loaf in the 9 x 13 pan, leaving at least an inch of space between the meatloaf and the sides of the pan.
Bake for 50 minutes; spoon off excess fat into an empty can or container (do not pour down drain). Continue baking at least another 10 minutes, or until done (slice to make sure loaf is cooked through and no longer raw in the middle). Let sit for 10 minutes before slicing.

Go-Away Stew
So named because you can put it in the oven…and go away for a while.

1 ½ pounds chuck steak, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes
½ cup mushrooms, sliced (optional)
½ cup red wine (optional)
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine all ingredients in a dutch oven or large, oven-proof pot with a lid. Cover and bake for 1 hour. Check to make sure meat is tender and cook without a lid for a few minutes more to evaporate any excess liquid. This is wonderful served with hot bread or rolls to mop up the juices.

August 13, 2008 at 2:16 am 3 comments

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