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.

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.)

Molasses Cookies, Royal Icing and Natural Food Coloring

The cookie jar is full.

No wonder we put on extra pounds every year during the holiday season. Last week it was apple cobbler, and this week it’s homemade gingerbread cookies. Sheesh! What is it about this time of year and homemade goodies? And I haven’t even gotten around to the dark chocolate peppermint bark and white chocolate coated popcorn yet. Maybe if we stop saving these homemade treats for the winter months and spread them throughout the year. Who says you can’t have peppermint bark in July? Why not make a couple of batches of cookies to share in the spring? I know the answer. Tradition. The girls and I look forward to cookie decorating during the holidays. We had hours of fun and there was no fighting and bickering for the duration. We all needed a break from the quarreling.

The cookies are Molasses Sugar Cookies and not gingerbread cookies, though I’m not sure what the difference is. The molasses cookies might be a little softer. But I found that if I cooked them a few minutes longer, they darkened and hardened a little. They were good either way, but the softer ones break easily. Click here for the cookie recipe. I used 2 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups of all purpose, and instead of shortening I used 3/4 cups of leaf lard and 3/4 cups of real butter. Next time I’ll use all butter just because it tastes better. Refrigerating the dough for hours is not necessary if you just use cold butter in stead of melting it as the recipe instructs. I do refrigerate between batches and recommend it if you are planning to roll it out and use cookie cutters. The first two batches were rolled into  balls and half of those were tossed in sugar.

I refrigerated the rest of the dough overnight and we finished up the following evening. No sugar coating was necessary since we were going to cover them in icing and candy.

London’s cute little cookies were covered in globs of icing and carefully placed pieces of candy. Yummy.

Haleigh, a budding artist, let her creativity fly. She’s a neat little artist.

Linsey, a budding perfectionist, wanted to make sure icing was evenly distributed on her cookies. I have to say though, that the icing is the glue that is keeping her cookies from crumbling to pieces in the cookie jar. This cookie’s head fell off, but the rest is still intact.

Let’s talk about the icing. Royal icing is considered the best type for decorating cookies because it dries and hardens quickly. Some recipes call for meringue powder, cream of tartar or powdered egg whites – things I don’t normally have on hand. How about you? Here’s my simple and easy recipe:

Easy Royal Icing

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or extract of whatever flavor you want to impart – lemon, peppermint, almond etc.)

Method:

  1. Beat egg whites in clean, large bowl or stand mixer at high speed until foamy.
  2. Gradually add sugar and lemon extract. Beat at high speed until thickened.

This made twice as much as we needed, so you might want to cut the recipe in half. Of course you can just use the white icing. Coloring isn’t really necessary since the candy is colored. We generally try to avoid artificial coloring. We did however have some artificially colored candy lying around so we used that, along with some mini-chocolate chips. But I don’t ever use or buy artificial food dyes. I attempted to try and color some of the icing naturally – purple, using juice from some frozen blue berries and pink, using juice from a large handful of pomegranate arils. (Who says Christmas cookies have to be red and green?) The results were not that great. I ended up with two shades of pale pink. Pretty, but not very vibrant. There are better ways, I know. But I was lazy.

And they were a little runnier, even though I added quite a bit more powdered sugar. My guess is that the acid from the fruit broke down the stiffness in the whipped egg whites.

Anyhoo, the girls loved the colors. My favorite are the ones with just chocolate chips. Chocolate chips and cookies belong together.

Grandma’s Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler

Grandma was right. This is definitely “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”. I don’t recall ever eating this cobbler made by Grandma. She lived out of state and we didn’t get to spend much time together. Maybe twice a year when I was growing up. Even less when I grew up and had a family of my own.  She passed away a few months ago. But my Grandma was something special. She wasn’t stuffy and prudish. Nor was she soft and gentle. But she was warm and fun. She was known to enjoy a couple of beers and she loved to play cards… and smile and laugh. She was in a bowling league for decades into her ripe old age. She was a ‘people person’. I will always remember her smiling, singing and dancing around. And if she wasn’t doing any of that, she was humming. Always. While she worked on her crossword puzzles. Or even when she was just strolling around the room, with one hand planted firmly on her hip. She was a ‘lefty’, and I swear there is just something special about lefties. I do miss her.

I stumbled across her recipe for apple cobbler a week ago. And what do you know? It’s apple season and I had a ton of them in the refrigerator. This apple cobbler was meant to be.

What I love about the recipe (besides that it’s damn good)  is the simplicity. It’s so quick and easy that you could be eating it within an hour of starting the recipe. And it only contains staple ingredients you would find in most kitchens. You don’t need any baking powder (something I frequently forget to restock) or corn starch. It’s just apples, a little lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, eggs and butter. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter because I wanted to taste her apple cobbler. I only needed about 6 apples since mine were fairly large and I used the juice from one not so juicy lemon, which may have been more like 1 1/2 tbs. Her recipe also calls for “oleo”, which makes this recipe even more charming to me. Oleo is an old-fashioned term used sometimes for butter or oil, but usually for margarine. I used real butter.

I should also say that technically, this may be more of a “crumble” than a cobbler, just in case you are looking for a true cobbler recipe. I thought it was a little bit unusual that there was an egg in the topping. Most recipes only call for butter, flour and sugar in the dough. The egg though, is what gave it the extra crunch that I loved so much. I also love that the apple “filling” is just apples and a little lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. No milk or water to make it soupy. No flour to thicken it. No added sugar to sweeten it. Just apples!  (I say to you with both hands in the air! Do you know how happy this simple detail makes me?) I wouldn’t use Granny Smith or cooking apples for this recipe. It would probably end up too tart and too dry. But if that’s all you have then just add maybe a 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water or juice to the apples. They may also need just a few more minutes in the oven to get them nice and soft. I almost always prefer to use regular eating apples and cut back on the refined sugar in any recipe. I used mostly Golden Delicious and a few Pink Ladies that I bought from Matthews Community Farmers’ Market (my favorite source for locally grown food).

I’m not sure if any of you actually care about the quality of the ingredients that I use. But I have a feeling some of you might. So from now on I’m going to put my first choice for ingredients first and then, in parenthesis the more common substitute in a sort of sliding scale. If I use organic, obviously the regular stuff will work in it’s place. I won’t bore you with every detail on each ingredient, but I’ll share this with you instead. Most of my produce and the little bit of meat we consume comes from the Matthews Community Farmers Market. Everything is grown or raised within 50 miles and the produce is either USDA Organic, organically grown (without the costly USDA certification) or grown with minimal amounts of the safest pesticides or chemicals possible to save crops from complete devastation; and the animals are all raised on pasture. I am confident that this is true because these farmers and vendors feel as passionately about real, unadulterated food as I do. Some of them are members and supporters of Slow Food. The vendors and the patrons all care about things like sustainable farming and the humane treatment of animals. If they didn’t, they’d be selling at another farmers market. This is the best farmers market in the Charlotte/Matthews area, I assure you. Also I usually buy organic when it comes to these big three:  corn, soy and wheat products – to avoid controversial genetically modified food (GMO’s). I wouldn’t be as worried about these, IF they weren’t in the majority of the products found in grocery stores (in one form or another). So here we go:

Mabel’s “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”

  • 8-10 local, organic apples, peeled and sliced (mine were not organic, but no detectable residues were found on the fruit upon testing, obviously commercial organic or regular apples can be used)
  • 1 Tbs. organic lemon juice (non-organic is probably okay when it comes to citrus juice)
  • 1 c. organic evaporated cane juice  (I used 3/4 cup since my apples were sweet and because I always try recipes with 1/4 to 1/3 less sugar at first. 3/4 cup was enough for our taste. Organic sugar or regular sugar works fine.)
  • 1 c. King Arthur’s organic all-purpose flour (Local and organic is better if you can find it. Hoffner Organic Farms has some, but regular flour will work, whole wheat flour is probably okay too)
  • 1 tsp. organic cinnamon (non-organic cinnamon will do)
  • dash of real sea salt (any sea salt or regular table salt)
  • 1 local, pastured egg, beaten (organic, cage free or free range or regular eggs will work)
  • 4 tbs. oleo (butter), melted (I used Kerrygold unsalted, which is pastured, but imported from Ireland. Organic butter or ordinary butter will work.)

Method:

Pour lemon juice over apples. Mix dry ingredients and egg until crumbly. Sprinkle over apples in 5 x 9 baking dish (a 9″ square pan worked just fine for me). Drizzle with the melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. “You can use peaches instead of apples if desired.”  (I’ll remember that when peaches are in season!)

Time Change, Halloween, Thrift Stores and More Seasonal Food

I’m in a sort of ‘zen’ mood this week. Last week was rough. I was ready to throw in the towel. But toward the end of the week I found my center. The chaos seems to be running in slow motion at the moment. Slow enough for me to handle. Slow enough for me to step back and see what’s really important.

The crape myrtle in my back yard is one of my favorite things. It’s my calendar. In the fall it looks like this. Green, yellow and red and pink all at once. Even though it’s leaves are dropping, the flowers are still hanging on. Normally, the time change bothers me. But this year, the early darkness seems calming. Evenings feel slightly less hectic. The rest of the world disappears. Only the center of my universe, my family, this house, is visible… at least until morning.

Halloween was fun, but lasted longer than usual. After a full night of trick-or-treating we decided to take the kids to see both sets of grandparents. We ate too much candy. We went to bed too late. We did not hand out boxes of raisins, apples or home made goodies as I wished we could.  Instead we gave out tattoos, lollipops and fruit snacks (organic, with no artificial colors or flavors – except for a few recycled handouts from other places). I also managed to find some decent, individually wrapped dark chocolate that was ethically produced. Expensive chocolate, unrecognized by most, that will probably be left in candy bowls and jars, until all the other favorites are long gone.

The girls were so darn cute. Especially our sweet little Dorothy. I’ll always remember Haleigh the year she dressed as Raggedy Ann, Linsey the year she was Dora the Explorer and now London as Dorothy, with her white stockinged legs and little feet shuffling in a sparkly ruby red blur from porch to porch.

This is the most delicious chicken salad I’ve made yet. I used seasonal ingredients: crisp fresh apples and dried cranberries. And I added a little curry powder. Hey, don’t knock the curry. I found it in this recipe from allrecipes, where it got rave reviews. I thought it sounded interesting. Why not try it? All I have to say is this: curry powder is now a staple ingredient in my chicken salad. Just a tiny bit – 1/2 tsp or so.

This was the best fish I’ve eaten in while. My picture doesn’t do it justice. (I’ll explain it in a minute.) My parents went on a fishing trip recently and came back with a nice sized catch, which they skinned, gutted and filleted themselves in freezing cold weather. And I am so lucky (and thankful) that they shared. Flounder is very delicate, apparently. Too delicate for a clumsy home cook like me. I ended up with a few fairly large chunks and a lot of bits and pieces. But it was a delicious mess – seasoned with salt, pepper, a little garlic and chopped fresh rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme. Every single one of the kids devoured it and begged for more. I reluctantly doled out the remaining “flakes” I thought I might have for lunch the next day, in second and third helpings. How can I say no when they plead for something so good for them?

This oven “fried” coconut and almond crusted flounder turned out much better. Sounds fancy, but I really just substituted regular flour with a mix of coconut flour and almond flour. You could also just use toasted coconut and ground almonds (food processor). Cook it in the oven at 475 deg. for about 8 to 10 minutes. I turned the broiler on at the last minute to get the tops nice and golden brown. The kids love this one too. You get the fried fish taste, without so much oil and again if you are looking for a gluten free alternative to fried fish, here ya’ go. (Also works for chicken, though you’d have to cook it longer. Here’s a recipe for Eating Well’s Almond Crusted Chicken Fingers.) I cut the fish into smaller, more manageable pieces and it turned out a great.  I made enough to freeze for another night.

Here’s another delicious mess of a meal. I found a recipe for carnitas on smittenkitchen.com. I didn’t have any orange juice or lime. I considered running out to get some, but knowing apples and pork go well together, I used some spiced apple cider and lemons that I had in the fridge instead. I also added about a teaspoon of some orange zest I have stored in the freezer. (I keep a stock of lemon, lime and orange zest in the freezer. Before peeling or juicing citrus I wash and grate the peel and store it in the freezer. It’s frugal and I love how this zest can brighten up a dish. I use it all the time.) The recipe is so great by the way, even though I burned it (because I stepped away from the kitchen). All the liquid evaporated out more quickly than I expected and it stuck HARD to the cast iron skillet, which – by the way – you should avoid cooking acidic foods in. I had hoped the lemon juice wouldn’t be too much. Between the burning and the damage from the acidic lemon juice, the “season” on the bottom of my cast iron dutch oven is gone. About a quarter of the pork had to be scraped into the garbage. The carnitas were yummy with the queso fresco and cauliflower I bought at the farmers market. I topped mine with avocado, yogurt, red onion, green onions, cilantro and a few drops of sriracha (hot chilli sauce). Mmm-mmm-mmm…

I had planned to split the pork into two meals. Luckily enough pork remained, even after I burned it. The following night I served the leftover pork with sauerkraut and smashed red potatoes and cauliflower (also leftover from the night before). If you are watching carbs, you should consider mixing potatoes with cauliflower (or even substituting completely). My family didn’t even notice it the first time I mixed our mashed potatoes half and half with cauliflower. Now that they know they like it, I don’t bother trying to disguise it. If you have a picky eater, you might want to try it that way. I don’t bother peeling my potatoes either.

This was last weeks “macaroni and cheese”. To my kids, anything with a white, cheesy sauce is macaroni and cheese. And they’ve grown to expect a few veggies mixed in. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually a little spoiled by our macaroni and cheese. The plain stuff just might not be good enough anymore.

The one above has a little bit of ground pork, arugula, peppers, onions, garlic, chives and thyme. The one below from last night’s dinner has a slightly less cheesy, garlic, butter and sage cream sauce. I threw in a few chopped kalamata olives and anchovies to add richness to the sauce. (A few anchovies added to a dish won’t make it taste fishy. It’s like adding any other salty meat, like a little bacon or sausage, to a meal. A little bit goes a long way.) There’s also some Italian sausage, onions, peppers, fresh parsley and chives in there somewhere.

I’ve mentioned that I love shopping at thrift stores. But did I mention it’s a great place to find cool cheap props! I’ve been finding some of the cutest dishes, place mats and other table decorations and kitchen stuff. I’m going to try to take some family photos soon and I’m thinking this is where I’ll find some interesting props.

I love these Italian and French glass canisters that I’ve been collecting from thrift stores. I found the set of four vintage French jars with garden vegetables on them and paid only $0.99 cents a piece. I found a set of three online for $30.00. The cheapest set was $13.00. I got a set of four for $3.96. Woo hoo!

Real Food, Busy Week, Charleston, SC

What a great week! Brian surprised me. He had planned a trip to Charleston for our anniversary. He arranged everything. Sitters were lined up. Hotel booked. We would leave on Friday, as soon as we could wrap up the work week. Meals were a little more hurried throughout the week and Haleigh’s rehearsal schedule is throwing me off. I’d forgotten to thaw the pizza sauce one night (which was leftover from a batch I made a couple weeks ago). Since we don’t have a microwave to thaw it fast, I had to come up with Plan B: a white sauce. I made a roux of one part butter and one part whole wheat flour. Added whole milk, fresh garlic and goat cheese. Too much milk. I reduced it, but not enough. It came out runny and practically disappeared into the crust. But the pizza was still awesome because the sauce and the toppings were so flavorful.

Homemade whole wheat crust, white sauce (flour, butter, milk, goat cheese), sauteed shiitake mushrooms and onions, aji dulce peppers, a few leftover chopped tomatoes, arugula and prosciutto.

My mom makes this wonderful dish with pork, kielbasa, hot dogs and sauerkraut served with mashed potatoes. It was one of my favorites growing up. Since we’ve cut back on the meat around here, I usually choose one of the three meats. This time it was kielbasa. And to put my twist on it and to save time, I made it a one pot dish with diced diced veggies and cubed potatoes, instead of mashed. I threw the sauerkraut on at the end just to warm it through.  This was quick and tasty.  Everyone loved it.

Sausage, Peppers and Potatoes

One day for lunch I used leftover rice to make fried rice. Saute onions in oil or butter. Push them aside then scramble some eggs  (we like a lot, so I use two per person).

One pot meal!

Add sesame seeds and rice. I like to get the rice nice and browned for great texture and flavor. The rice gets a little chewy and even a bit crispy in places. Sometimes I have to add a touch more oil and crank up the heat to get it that way. They don’t call it fried rice for nothing. Then I add the soy sauce and cook it for a little longer. A  tablespoon of butter right on each plate before serving is my little twist. Butter and soy sauce are so good together.

These bars are my “candy” and one of the few processed foods I buy regularly. They are filled with sugar, but the natural kind – from fruit. Dates. There is no added sugar, and usually five or less ingredients. I’ve only been able to find the Coconut Chocolate Chew flavor at Healthy Home Market. Luckily I don’t go there often. The Cashew Cookie is easier to find and has slightly less sugar. It’s good, but cashews and dates don’t tempt me the way chocolate and coconut can.

Chocolate Coconut Chew Larabar

Only five ingredients: Dates, Almonds, Walnuts, Unsweetened Coconut, Unsweetened Cocoa Powder -but 22 grams of sugar!!

This is a healthier snack. One I have more often… and guilt free! Apples dipped in peanut butter (no added oil or sugar, only ingredient is peanuts) and shredded coconut.

My apple dippers with peanut butter and shredded coconut.

And as for the weekend in Charleston… calming and delicious. I researched some restaurants before we went (something I always do before a trip these days) and we visited a few. If you’re ever in the Charleston/Mt. Pleasant area try The Glass Onion (my favorite restaurant – I had fried quail, greens and grits, also tried the deviled egg which comes highly recommended), Crave (I had scallops, lobster risotto and green beans) and Charleston’s Cafe (for breakfast I had the Southern Benedict – eggs, fried green tomatoes and bacon on french bread topped with hollandaise – one warning: “chippers” are potato chips, yummy but not a fan of chips for breakfast). There were so many great restaurants in the area. We visited the Charleston Farmers Market at Marion Square in Downtown Charleston and had lunch there. Brian had a delicious crepe from Charleston Crepe Company (in high demand, we waited around 15 minutes for this crepe) and I had a bowl of homemade lemon, chicken and rice soup. I love exploring places through food! Check out this Chihuahua we found occupying Charleston Saturday morning:

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