Archive for August, 2008

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

Eating Well – Meatlessly

Eating a vegetarian meal doesn’t mean you have to buy odd grains or eat funny-shaped beans that take hours to cook. When it comes to quick, easy meals ideal for busy weeknights, many vegetarian entrees are ideal since you don’t have to thaw or cook meat. If you’re an occasional vegetarian, you already know this.

But if you tend to stick to the meat-and-potatoes routine, consider giving vegetarian dinners a try. These three ideas can be just as satisfying as beef or chicken, and are quick to put together after a busy day. And if you decide you absolutely can’t do without meat, any of these recipes could also be a great side-dish for a beef or chicken entree.

Black Bean Soup
If you omit the sour cream, this soup is suitable for anyone who is lactose intolerant.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup chopped onion
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 small can green chiles
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¼ cup sour cream (optional)

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Saute onions and garlic in oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, green chiles, and thyme and simmer till hot, about 15 minutes. If using sour cream, add at the end of the simmering time. Do not allow soup to come to a boil after adding the sour cream or it will curdle.

Tomato Zucchini Casserole
If the weather is hot, wrap this up in foil – minus the cheese – and grill!

2 large zucchini, sliced in rounds
2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
½ cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350°. In a greased casserole dish with a lid, layer half of the zucchini, tomatoes, and onion. Repeat layering with remaining ingredients. Sprinkle salt and pepper over, and top with Parmesan. Bake, covered, for 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake for about 15 minutes more to allow excess moisture to evaporate. Serve with crusty bread.

Potato Frittata
A frittata is an Italian version of quiche, only easier because there’s no crust.

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium-sized baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 tablespoons flour
¾ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon basil or oregano
8 eggs, beaten to blend
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

Melt butter and oil in a heavy 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Mix potatoes with flour. Add potatoes, paprika, garlic powder, basil or oregano to skillet, and cook, stirring often, until potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes.

Combine eggs with Parmesan cheese in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture over potatoes in skillet. Do not stir eggs – instead, pierce holes in egg mixture and lift edges with spatula, tipping pan to allow uncooked egg to flow underneath until an edge forms, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to low, cover skillet, and continue cooking until eggs are set, 10 to 12 minutes. When eggs are set, invert frittata onto platter and serve.

August 5, 2008 at 12:42 am 4 comments

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