Southern Cookbook and Good Home Cooking

Now that school’s out and I have all three girls home with me all day, every day, my time is even more valuable, especially to them. Apparently, along with all my other roles, I’m also their personal chef, activities director and event planner for the summer. They don’t know how good they have it. I try to remember this when they try to lay on the guilt with: “I’m hungry. I’m bored. Can we go somewhere?” HELL NO! I’m trying to write in my blog. Of course I didn’t actually say that.

One place we love to go is the library. It’s good, free entertainment and we get to bring home books to occupy them later. I owe my sanity to the public library (which is why I made a nice little donation when I heard my branch might shut down due to underfunding). That’s not the only reason I love it. I could spend hours in non-fiction, browsing the shelves in section 641. Food and drink. I’m a big supporter of borrowing books rather than spending money on new ones. Especially cookbooks, since I really only use them for inspiration. But every now and then, I find one I don’t want to return. I renew it until I can’t anymore. Art Smith’s Back to the Family, is one such book. The pictures are amazing and the food is good and simple. I’ve made bread pudding (twice), fennel coleslaw and a brunch dish that coincidentally called for a cheese I’d just picked up at Trader Joe’s that I’d never used before (manchego). As usual, I made a few changes to suit our taste and food choices and sometimes just to use what we had on hand. If you like southern food, I recommend this book.

I’ve made several recipes already. My favorite is the bread pudding. I strongly recommend drowning the raisins in spiced rum first. I let them marinate for about an hour in hot rum. And I served it with ice cream as suggested (homemade vanilla). It’s so easy to make, it’s scary.  Scary because it so damn good.

One night I was looking for a way to use some cabbage that I’d had in the refrigerator for a week and a half, which by the way was still crisp and quite fresh since it was freshly picked when I’d bought it from Matthews Farmers’ Market (best in the Charlotte area, hands down). Raw veggies and apple cider vinegar have great health benefits. The recipe is for Fennel Coleslaw. I substituted half the fennel with my cabbage and added a red bell pepper.  I love fennel and it has its own benefits, but I don’t think my family would love a coleslaw made entirely of fennel.

Late one morning, I was looking through the book and came across a recipe for Asparagus with Manchego Cheese. I had a smoothie very early that morning and was getting hungry. This recipe looked easy and tasty. The tomatoes, now in season and delicious, and of course the manchego caught my eye. Similar to the bread pudding recipe, it calls for bread cubes and eggs. I substituted the French bread with a very dense whole wheat sandwich bread and the asparagus with broccoli, because that’s what I had on hand. When I was a less experienced and less confident cook, I would pass on recipes unless I had (and liked) the ingredients called for, which was a big mistake. It turned out wonderfully, but I can’t wait to try it with asparagus (and a few other veggies, now that I think of it).

I encourage less confident cooks to take a chance and make changes to suit your taste or use what you already have. (America spends a lot of money and resources on wasted food.) My mom has this simple and awesome fried rice recipe that’s comforting and makes me feel like a kid again. It’s not like the fried rice you’d find in a Chinese restaurant. There is no soy sauce or eggs and aside from the Korean sticky rice she uses, it’s more like an Americanized version of fried rice. She uses rice, carrots, onions, celery, ground beef, salt and pepper (and probably some minced garlic). I made this recipe with sausage instead, again because it’s what I had on hand. The smell of the sausage with those ingredients reminded me of another one of her recipes for dirty rice, so I meshed the two and added curry powder and a little extra turmeric (because it has some great health benefits and to give it a beautiful yellow color). Don’t get me wrong, my mom’s recipes are already good and very special to me. They are my comfort foods, along with the rest of her home cooking. (Where do you think my interest in food and gardening comes from?) However, I’ll be making this mash-up of the two again and again.

Spring – Time to Grow!

The weather has been unbelievable. I think we skipped the harsh winter months and got a head start on spring. And now it’s like early summer around here. I’ve found myself still too warm in a tank, shorts and flops more than once this week. The garden is growing and I’m adding more plants each week. The tomatoes I planted a week and a half ago – are already flowering.

I’m planting mostly food, but some flowers too. We have a small lot and last year I had decided there was only enough room for edibles. Unfortunately, it occured to me later in the summer that a few more flowers would’ve attracted more beneficial insects. (I had to hand pollinate my zuchininis and pumpkins.) And pretty flowers are nice to look at.

This year I have decided that I’ll have a few more flowers and I want a little more than food from my gardens. I want them to add a little natural beauty to my yard. I’ve found quite a bit of inspiration for neat ways to label plants using old stuff like wire hangers, wood scraps and small bamboo stakes. I’ve just been too busy planting the last couple of weeks. I just can’t seem to pry myself from tending to the gardens. My farmers’ market trips aren’t solely about buying food  ready to eat. I look forward to see what transplants are available each week. I’ve got a total of seven tomato plants so far. Fennel seeds are sown. There are carrots, countless herbs, garlic, spring onions, garlic chives, lettuces, beets, peas, kale, spinach, blueberries and raspberries and a few surprises (some kind of squash, pumpkins or maybe melons). Volunteer seedlings are popping up anywhere I mix in my compost. I’ll let a few of them go to see what grows. I hope we don’t have a late cold snap!

I do already feel the effects of the mild winter. Critters are everywhere. Literally. I come inside and have to inspect myself for hitch-hiking pests. I usually find at least one of these:

And my plants are all under attack. I found this huge snail in my garden. He looked like he could do some damage, so I had to relocate him – probably permanently. So sorry little guy. I have to admit that the small act of killing critters foraging for food sheerly for their own survival, does make me think twice before killing even the tiniest insects. Laugh if you must. I wish there was enough food in my garden to go around, but a seedling is no match for a slug or a snail or catepillar. My beet seedlings get devoured by something the day they emerge. If I could just get them to wait a little while… they’ll be enough for them too. Me and the snail hung out for a bit while I decided what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, so I put him in the trash bin. There is plenty of food in there. If he makes it out, well then kudos for him.

Last year I sowed only five pea plants. All but two of them were hacked by cutworms. We never had enough to make a side dish and usually opened the pods and ate them straight from the garden. This year I planted twelve. One of my food discoveries in this journey is that I don’t hate peas after all. I just don’t like the stinky ones you get in a can at the grocery store. Frozen or fresh peas are a staple now. I’m excited and hopeful about fresh peas! I may try and grow fava beans too, if cutworms thin out my peas again this year.

I’m looking forward to long, warm lazy days.  I’ve made a kind of bucket list for the spring and summer.

I hope I get to take a nap in a hammock (have to get one first).

I’m looking forward to outdoor dinners with amazing food, amazing people and laughter and smiles and candles and pretty table settings.

I hope I don’t get too caught up in the day to day details and I find time to do all the d-i-y art and garden projects I have planned.

I want to eat a meal made almost entirely with ingredients from my own back yard.

I want to swap and share homegrown and homemade food.

I want to can tomatoes, at least enough to last through the winter. I’ve planted seven tomato plants so far, and plan to get three more varieties.

I want to freeze some homegrown veggies, like peas and squash and peppers, so that I can have a taste of homegrown veggies in the dead of winter, when I’m craving springtime.

And those are just a few things I can think of at the moment.

Is It Spring?

Normally, I’m a red wine kind of gal, but National Margarita Day and unseasonably warm, spring-like weather has me craving cocktails and mixed drinks. I had set out to make a margarita one evening, but ended up making my favorite mojito instead. They are relatively low calorie and low carb. Not too much sugar and I use fresh ingredients. I have a weak spot for a well made mojito.

Muddle 1/4 lime wedges and 8 to 10 mint leaves in a glass.

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of mint infused simple syrup,

1 to 1 and 1/2 shots of white rum and

a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (optional).

Fill glass 3/4 full with ice.

Top off with seltzer; then shake or stir well.

I’ve been experimenting with vanilla vodka. I bought some vanilla beans a few months ago to make my own vanilla extract and still have plenty leftover. I’ve been hearing a lot about vanilla vodka lately and thought I’d make my own. It’s the same method I use to make vanilla extract, only it takes a lot less vanilla and time. After a week to ten days it was ready for drinks, but two weeks later it was even better.

I have a long list of drinks I want to make with my vanilla vodka. I’m unsure about a few of them. I tried it with lightly sweetened tea. Not good. I rarely drink soda, but I have found a few small, local soda makers that use better ingredients. I mixed a shot of vanilla vodka with half a bottle of Uncle Scott’s Natural Root Beer (made in Mooresville, NC). Tasted like a root beer float and took me back to my first job at an ice cream shop in Eastland Mall. I also tried it with some old fashioned ginger ale (Blenheim, made in South Carolina, and Boylan made in NJ). Hello cream soda. Mmmmm… But because it’s so sugary, this drink is dessert. It’s a treat I won’t indulge in frequently.

Linsey had a request last week. She wanted barbecue and that was just fine with me. I couldn’t make it to the farmers market for our usual Grateful Growers pork shoulder, so I tried it with free range, organic chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s instead. I cooked it slow and low in lime juice, a little pomegranate juice, basil infused rum, garlic, salt and pepper. Then when it was fully cooked, I turned the heat up to let most of the liquid reduce down. The meat gets browned and caramelized and chewy on the outside. But after I used two forks to shred it, I knew it was too dry. Pork has lots more fat, and that’s why it makes such good barbecue. So I added several tablespoons of the pastured bacon lard, which I always have on hand and let it cook, low and covered for another fifteen minutes. The chicken was moist and tender, the way barbecue ought to be. It had a subtly different flavor which we all enjoyed. It was a nice change and a good experiment. I served it with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and my favorite sweet and sour slaw with fennel, onion, red peppers and cabbage.

Spring and warm weather makes me want to slow down. We’re not even into spring quite yet, and already I’m looking forward to long summer vacation days with no schedule to keep. The kids were out of school for two days a couple weeks ago. We spent one lazy evening making pasta, from scratch. Haleigh was bored and sulking because she’s grounded and couldn’t go with her sister and her father to run a few errands. Being a parent sucks sometimes. Even though the punishment was deserved, my heart hurt for her. So I let her roll out the pasta. I’ll admit that I didn’t think she’d have much success with this temperamental machine, but she cranked it out. She had fun. She got the hang of it quickly and had every right to be proud of that. And I was free to prepare the other ingredients. We enjoyed each others company. Cooking, talking and laughing with her in the kitchen like that was exactly how I envisioned it. There will be lots more meals prepared this way now that the girls are growing up.

This weekend time changes and the clocks spring forward. We’ll have another hour of sunlight in the evenings. It takes some getting used to. We’ll probably spend a lot of that time outdoors on sunny days, and we’ll inevitably lose track of time. I welcome those days.

Quinoa Stir Fry with Veggies and Tofu

Quinoa. Tofu. Yummy. Don’t believe me? Well then you should try it stir fried. I am so in love with tofu these days. We’ve been eating it at least once a week for the past month. I like it cubed and browned in bacon drippings to give it some ‘meatiness’. Slightly crispy and chewy on the outside and soft on the inside. Last night I had to come up with something quick. We had Korean braised pork with rice the night before, so no rice tonight, which is my go-to side for tofu.

I haven’t made quinoa in awhile and I had some in the back of the pantry. I decided to try and make a quinoa version of fried rice. We were running low on fresh veggies, so I checked the freezer. Edamame, sweet peas, yellow squash and snow peas. I also had a few slices of bacon leftover from breakfast. It was so colorful and nutrient dense, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about eating rice two nights in a row. And it was almost vegetarian. If you were wearing a blindfold, you would never have known it was quinoa instead of rice.

QUINOA STIR FRY WITH VEGGIES AND TOFU

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of tofu
  • 4 tablespoons bacon drippings (can sub with other oil)
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 slices cooked bacon
  • 1 cup shelled edamame
  • 1 cup sweet peas
  • 1 cup squash
  • 1 cup snow peas
  • 2 green onions
  • 1/2 an onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • salt and pepper
  • toasted sesame seeds

Method:

  1. Cut tofu into three one-inch slices. Wrap in a towel and place between two plates. Stack a heavy pan on the plates to remove excess water. I let it sit for at least 15 minutes.
  2. While the tofu is draining, rinse quinoa to remove bitterness. Put two cups of water and rinsed quinoa in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and let cook for 15 to 20 minutes (until all water is absorbed and the quinoa is fluffy). Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  3. While the quinoa is cooking and the tofu is draining, prep the vegetables.  Chop onions, squash, green onions, garlic and cooked bacon slices. Then warm a pan with about half the bacon drippings on medium high heat to brown tofu.
  4. Cut the tofu slices into cubes and brown them in the prepared pan. Add salt and pepper to taste. I like them a little crispy and chewy, quite browned, so I cook them for awhile. Maybe 10 to 15 minutes, tossing them around in the pan frequently to brown evenly and prevent burning and sticking.
  5. Scramble eggs in a bowl and push the tofu to one side of your pan. Cook the eggs in the other half of the pan. Once the eggs are done add the rest of the bacon grease, then combine all ingredients together in the pan (quinoa, tofu, onions, garlic, peas, snow peas, squash, edamame, the bottoms (white parts) of the green onion, soy sauce and sesame seeds). Stir fry for about 5 minutes, until veggies are tender but still brightly colored. (Cooking them too long will cause them to brown and yellow. Not pretty.)
  6. When everything is cooked turn off the heat and toss in the reserved green onion tops. Add salt and pepper to taste.

You could use whatever veggies you prefer or have on hand. I used what I had on hand. Some were frozen veggies which I either thawed in the microwave or boiled with the quinoa. You could also substitute the tofu with chicken or whatever meat you prefer instead. I think some red bell pepper or shiitake mushrooms would have been nice in here. If you’ve never cooked with quinoa before this is a great way to introduce it to your family. Make sure you rinse it to remove bitterness. Some even suggest soaking it for a half hour. I just rinsed it a couple times and it wasn’t bitter at all.

Words, Food and DIY Mania

You know those moments in life when something in your mind just clicks into place. Unrelated ideas and memories and thoughts are scattered and out of focus, and then something happens. It all starts falling neatly in line. You figure something out about yourself, or rather you figure out how a bunch of random things in your life all fit together. That’s what’s happening to me. And now it all makes perfect sense.

I have never been a “put together” type of person. I mean I know when I like something, a piece or pieces, but I just could never seem to make them all fit together. But I’ve been reflecting a lot this week and I’ve discovered how different parts of my life from as far back as I can remember, fit neatly into certain words. Traditional and classic, natural, rustic yet elegant and fresh, but somehow still quirky and messy, simple yet inspiring and with lots of depth and meaning. Maybe that doesn’t seem so simple to you. But to me, those words sum up my entire life. It may not be the way others see me, but this is what my soul wants. Now that I see it, maybe you will too. The best part, the “click” if you will, came not just with these words, but with a realization. How when things are going right, these words are filling me up. The parts of my life that work, are all inscribed with these words. I’ve always loved these words. They are inscribed in my soul.

So what does this have to do with food? I’ll tell you what this has to do with food. I want my food to be those words. Simple and rustic and messy (aka easy and minimalist). I want it to be natural, fresh, traditional and classic (whole, farm to table and prepared using old techniques and recipes). And I like to use new and unexpected ingredients (quirky). I want the food to be inspiring (beautiful and yummy) and I want it to be full of depth and meaning (deeply nourishing for me, my family and every lovely person sharing our table).

So I’ve been a busy girl. Trying to make the outsides match the insides around our house. Especially in the food areas of the house. The dining room, the kitchen and the back yard (where a lot of our food comes from and where it is sometimes eaten). A friend introduced me to Pinterest a couple weeks ago and it has me believing I can do anything. That is one inspiring website. So I’ve been working on several d-i-y projects and have already made two trips to my new favorite store, Hobby Lobby, and a few trips to Home Depot. I started with a white wash on the picnic table. DIY semi-fail. Not enough water, so back to Home Depot for sand paper and a hand sander to strip some of the paint off. The good news is it has the look I wanted and the bonus of this “mistake” is a table that’s as smooth as a baby’s butt. (Which is great for our butts.)

Rustic

Then a classic, elegant chandelier makeover. Spray painted it “oiled bronze” and made a cover for the chain. That’s right, as in I bought fabric and used my sewing machine! (Who knew buying fabric could be so intimidating.) The best part is that this upcycle cost me less than $6. The paint was on sale and I only used half a yard of fabric.

Next I made these quirky little napkins. I already had the napkins, so all I had to buy was black fabric paint, some foam brushes and letter stencils.  This cost me about $15, but I have plenty of paint and brushes left and the stencil is reusable. I have a ton of stenciling ideas swimming around in my head already.

Did you notice the rest of the table? I bought some rustic burlap fabric, which I just folded, ironed and tied with some natural twine I had lying around to use as a table runner. The centerpiece, candles and candle holders were all a bargain from a thrift store. The flowers and ivy were in the garage. The table cloth was already on the table and the mason jars and plates came from my cabinet. This rustic, quirky, elegant table makeover cost me maybe $15 total!!

And the day I painted the chandelier, I also spray painted jar lids with chalk board paint for easy labeling. Seems like a good idea, but they scratch easily. Maybe they need more than one coat.

And here’s something quirky. I found this basket and vase at the thrift store. The fake flowers, the aloe plant and pot and the pine cone were already mine. Cute right?

The mirror pictured above and the “Kitchen” sign also came from a thrift store. Trash to treasure!! You know what else? I took all of these photos with my new camera. I’ve been practicing a lot. Inspiration is a wonderful motivator! Can’t wait to roast my rustic whole, pastured chicken and serve it with some rustic, chunky roasted beets and carrots and a salad – farm to table. All natural and whole from the farmers market. Then share it with my family in our newly redecorated rustic, elegant, natural and quirky dining room. My soul is happy!

Warm and Cozy Hot Chocolate

We have an icky bug floating around the house. It’s just a cold, but there are five of us. And when we have an icky bug, it can take weeks to run it’s course through our family. We still have a few sniffles, but we’re almost in the clear. The little one started it all. She missed school last Friday because of it. And of course they had something special planned that day. It breaks my heart when they’re sick. It’s worse when they miss an event they’ve been looking forward to all week because of it. This called for a little extra mommy lovin’.

So I had to re-create “warm and cozy day” at home. Especially since she was fighting a cold. We made hot chocolate from scratch. I haven’t bought that stuff in the packets in over a year.  We used to always have it around. So now when I make hot chocolate, it’s extra special.

While I prepared the hot chocolate, she picked a spot and arranged our picnic blanket and her stuffed “aminals”. She came to the kitchen several times. She’d grab my hand and lead me into the living room and ask “Is this okay?” They are unbelievably cute when they’re three.

The cookies were Trader Joe’s Highbrow Chocolate Chips. We don’t normally have this kind of thing in the house, but they were leftover from an event over the holidays. I was saving them for an emergency, and this seemed like the right time. The warm, creamy hot chocolate and those crispy cookies were perfect together. She forgot all about school.

“Uh oh. I had a little accident Mommy.” No problem. I worried that the all that chocolate would keep her from napping, but she slept soundly. The fever never came back after that. I doubt it had much to do with our warm and cozy hot chocolate, but who knows. I let her believe it was the cure.

Warm and Cozy Hot Chocolate

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups organic whole milk
  • 1/4 cup organic sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • pinch of  sea salt
  • 2 ounces good quality dark chocolate (or 1 square)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon organic virgin coconut oil
  • splash of organic heavy cream or half and half (optional)
  • marshmallows are optional

Method:

  1. Heat milk in a small saucepan over low heat.
  2. Whisk in the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, coconut oil and salt until dissolved.
  3. Stir in the chocolate until melted.
  4. Remove saucepan from heat and allow to cool slightly or add a splash of cold heavy cream or half and half, or a dollop of whipped cream. Throw in a few marshmallows if desired. Makes 2 servings.

I decided to add the coconut oil not just for a little more flavor, but to make it a little extra nourishing for my feverish lil’ pumpkin. And to strengthen my immune system, just in case I was next… I was.

Coconut oil has been used for centuries to treat illnesses.

The human body converts lauric acid into monolaurin which is claimed to help in dealing with viruses and bacteria causing diseases such as herpes, influenza, cytomegalovirus, and even HIV. It helps in fighting harmful bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia. As a result of these various health benefits of coconut oil, though its exact mechanism of action was unknown, it has been extensively used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicinal system. (from organicfacts.net)

I also had some homemade almond flavored whipped cream leftover from the a few nights before. Whipped cream is ridiculously easy to make from scratch. A cup of organic heavy cream, a few tablespoons of confectioners sugar and some almond extract, all whipped together with a stand or handheld mixer on high speed until thick and creamy. You can substitute with whatever extract you prefer. Store bought whipped cream isn’t anywhere near this good.

I doubled the recipe so I’d have enough leftover for the other two when they came from school. Friday treat!!

White Chocolate Cranberry Scones

Last week I received an email from my middleschoolers’ math teacher. I got nervous when I saw her teacher’s name in my inbox.

She’s been struggling in this class. There are only two weeks left to bring up her grade and I feared she was going to tell me that she was going to fail the quarter.

Instead, I was relieved to hear that she had seen real improvement and focus in Haleigh since they’ve been back from winter break. What a relief.

A Friday Treat was in order, to reward my girl for her hard work. Something sweet, but not too sweet.

White Chocolate Cranberry Scones

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups organic whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup organic sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 8 tablespoons real unsalted butter (cold or frozen, sliced)
  • 1/2 cup organic sour cream
  • 1 large pastured egg
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried organic cranberries
  • 1/2 cup white morsels
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Process the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and butter in a food processor until everything is combined. (You can cut the butter into the dry ingredients by hand if you don’t have a food processor.) The texture of this mixture should resemble corn meal.
  3. In a medium bowl beat eggs and sour cream together, then add the flour and butter mixture to the eggs and sour cream. Mix until combined, but don’t over mix. Scones are supposed to have a rough, crumbly texture.
  4. Gently mix in the chopped cranberries, white morsels and chia seeds just until they are evenly distributed through the dough. You may find that you’ll need to use your hands to gently knead them in evenly and to bring the dough together, but don’t over handle.
  5. Dump the dough on to a floured surface and gently pat out into a large disk, about 3/4 inch thick. Cut the dough like a pizza into 8 pieces and place them on a cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Cool for 5 minutes (if you can wait that long).

(Click here for a printer friendly version.)

My kids loved these! They have a lot less sugar than a chocolate chip cookie, but the kids didn’t mind a bit. Other than that they aren’t much different from cookies. I might cut them into 12 next time and shorten the cooking time just a bit. One scone seemed like too much. You could also substitute almost any dried fruit and any kind of baking chips (or leave them out if you want). It’s a really versatile recipe and easy to tailor to suit different tastes. But make sure you use real butter. Margarine contains too much water which might make the dough too wet. And get unsalted. I never understood why recipes called for unsalted butter, but called for salt later all, until recently. Most cooks will tell you that unsalted butter is “purer” and fresher than salted butter. Salt can be added to improve any “off” taste and to preserve older butter. More care is taken with unsalted butter and therefore the quality and taste is better. At least that’s the idea. Some say that in today’s market, there isn’t really a difference between the two, except that one is saltier. Who knows. But just to be sure, I now only buy unsalted. I can add my own salt (which is probably better than theirs anyway.)

By the way, chia seeds might be hard to find, but they’re worth looking for. I get them at a local health food store, Healthy Home Market. They have more Omega-3’s than flax seeds and are rich in antioxidants. Those tiny black seeds remind of poppy seeds, so I sprinkled some on top.  Ch-ch-ch-chia! (Sorry couldn’t resist.)

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