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.

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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.

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:

Fall Food

Less than a week until Autumn. This is a bitter sweet time of year for me. I love the festivities – the new school year, Halloween and Thanksgiving, festivals or outings planned nearly every weekend, farm tours, pumpkin patches and then carvings, warm, spicy apple cider, football, slightly cooler weather… But the cold, the darkness and the lack of fresh produce are only a couple months away now. There is less variety at the farmers market and some vendors appear to be taking time off – much needed I’m sure, and well deserved. Or maybe it’s the lack of produce and the need to plant fall and winter crops.

Spaghetti squash was my “something new” for this week.

I didn’t think the two small, yellow ones from the farmers market would be enough, so I bought another one from the grocery store. There was little difference in taste.

This is a great low carb alternative to regular pasta. We were all skeptical, but once we started eating it was easy to forget that it was squash and not noodles of some sort. We topped it with a leftover meat sauce, sliced Italian sausage from Grateful Growers, Parmesan and parsley. Linsey even asked for seconds. London wouldn’t touch it (as usual).

Now that the weather is cooling off I find myself craving warm herbal teas. I had never thought to put rosemary in tea, and can’t remember where I got the idea, but I should have known. I love rosemary in everything else. And now I love it in tea. It’s so good for you. So’s mint. I made an herbal infusion of white tea with mint, rosemary and stevia. Sadly my mint isn’t doing well (which is a bit weird since it’s supposed to be so hardy, sometimes even invasive). Or maybe I just need to leave it alone for awhile. But this tea was so comforting.

I steeped the mint, stevia and rosemary first, until it cooled completely. Then I warmed it again and let the tea steep for a couple of minutes. Di-vine. I grew my own chamomile in the spring. It wasn’t very hardy and I only managed to dry enough buds for one cup of tea. I was surprised how much they smelled like apples. And that’s the flavor they impart in tea. I’m feeling inspired. There’s an herbal tea garden in my future – one with stevia, violets, lemon thyme, lemon verbena, more chamomile, mint and rosemary. Maybe jasmine and lavender.

Another highlight of fall – chestnuts! One of my favorite foods of all time. And my dear, sweet, very generous mother hooked me up! I’m feeling a bit gluttonous at the moment. Good thing they are so nutritious and low in calories compared to other nuts. Walnuts, for instance, have about four times the calories as chestnuts. There are about 170 calories in 100 grams of chestnuts. Chestnuts have more fiber, less fat and are loaded with vitamin C.  In fact, eating 3 ounces will supply you with almost half the daily recommendation. They’re also a good source of vitamin B, copper, folate, magnesium and manganese.

^^The girls sharing an after school snack – warm chestnuts.

I also find myself craving Korean food lately. I’ve been watching the Kimchi Chronicles on PBS. This show makes my mouth water. Also makes me want to visit my mother’s home land. One day…

^^Somen noodles cooked in chicken broth, garlic and green onions with turnip kimchi.

^^ Mandu soup again with chicken broth, garlic and green onions. Also fried egg and toasted seaweed.

When Two Seasons Collide on a Plate

August might just be the best month for food (at least here in my region). There are still some tomatoes and summer squash on the vines. Some herbs and leafy greens are perking up again thanks to cooler temperatures. A few peaches and cantaloupes are left.  And now the first of the winter squash is being harvested. You can never really get bored when eating seasonally. Something new is always cropping up at the farmers market (or in the garden). And when two seasons collide on a plate, it’s a culinary dream. This week I have been successfully keeping things seasonal and simple. I don’t think I spent more than an hour on a single meal this week. (Well maybe the gnocchi, but that was my fault. Keep reading.) I cooked in bulk, made use of leftovers and kept recipes simple.

On Sunday we had chilli made with browned ground pork and cooked beans straight out of the freezer and tomatoes that had already been pureed and canned. (Why do they call it canning, if you put it in a jar?) All I had to do was chop some onions, peppers and herbs and throw it in a pot with my precooked beans and ground pork and a little seasoning. I did make cornbread from scratch (adding jalapenos and frozen corn for more yum).

“Meatless Monday” consisted of a stir-fry with seasonal veggies and shiitakes served with brown rice (cooked a double batch) and the best thing I’ve eaten in awhile: grilled okra. The simple recipe came from a friend. (Thanks Nisa!) I washed and dried the whole okra then tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper. I skewered it, then grilled it on medium high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. So simple and delicious – it blew my mind. I thought I hated slimy okra. Now I can’t wait to get some more at the farmers market tomorrow! Revisiting foods you thought you hated, only to discover that you really love them… priceless.

Porkchops were on the menu Tuesday. I could eat vegetarian nearly every day, but after a Meatless Monday the rest of the family was ready for something meaty. I used my favorite pork chop recipe. I browned them, then let them braise in their own juices and some red wine, garlic and rosemary. They braised for two hours, but I wasn’t in the kitchen for that! I also made one of my kids favorite sides, potato wedges (olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper – 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven), and their not-so-favorite sauteed swiss chard (onions, garlic and olive oil). We also had a salad with homemade mustard vinaigrette (olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, honey, rosemary, salt and pepper).

Wednesday we had Baked Delicata Squash with Lime Butter. Delicata is a winter squash that looks kind of like a mini watermelon. I served it with leftover brown rice, lima beans (cooked in a broth made with leftover juices from Monday’s pork chops). We had salad again with homemade avocado mojito dressing (avocado, olive oil, a few tablespoons of Greek yogurt, mint, lime juice and zest, salt and pepper and a little milk to thin it out a bit). I also toasted the seeds from the squash (seasoned with olive oil and chilli powder). We sprinkled them on our salad to add a zesty crunch. The salad dressing was so refreshing and complimented the squash with it’s chilli-lime-butter.

Yesterday we had ricotta gnocchi. I always thought gnocchi was some fancy, technical Italian dish. It was so easy. Well… it should have been. I made it hard by trying to use a piping bag (which was way too small) instead of just rolling it into a thick rope and cutting it like the recipe instructed.  This was the most time consuming recipe of the week, but it can be done quickly if you don’t get in your own way. I used this recipe as a template for the gnocci, but replaced the nutritionally deficient and refined all purpose flour (bleh!) with 1/2 whole wheat flour and 1/2 brown rice flour. This made a dense, yummy gnocchi. But the sauce is what really made it tasty. I chopped and browned half a package of bacon, then removed the bacon bits and added  a couple tablespoons of chopped sage, about two ounces of gorgonzola and aji dulce peppers to the bacon drippings. I let that cook for a minute, then turned off the heat and added some broccoli I had steamed in the microwave and some thawed chopped spinach. When the gnocchi floated to the top of the boiling pasta water, I just tossed them straight into the spinach and broccoli mixture. I topped each plate with the reserved bacon bits. Oh, and I’m giving myself a pat on the back for remembering to double the gnocchi recipe so that I could freeze a batch for later.

Aji Dulce Peppers - Sweet and fruity like habeneros, minus the heat!

Tonight we’ll be finishing off the avocado dressing with our fish tacos (cod seasoned with lime, tequila and chilli powder, served with lettuce, tomato and green onions). And as for lunch, we’ve been enjoying leftovers and sandwiches. We had baked potatoes for lunch one day, which was a big hit with the girls. For breakfast we’ve had Greek yogurt which we flavor ourselves, cereal (not the junky, sugary ones), burritos (eggs, cheese and veggies) and stone ground grits with bacon, goat cheese, kale, tomatoes and onions (not those quick cooking southern style grits – mine are more like risotto and could easily be served for dinner). I’ve been snacking on another one of my seasonal favorites – goat cheese stuffed figs. They don’t have a lot of flavor on their own, but I’ve found that marinating them in a little bit of balsamic vinegar for just few minutes really brings out their flavor. I add a tiny bit of goat cheese and some walnuts then drizzle them with a little honey. Yum. So sad that fig season seems to be winding down. The balsamic marinated figs are also a great addition to salad.

A Taste of Autumn

The tomatoes are almost done. Preseason football starts today. I’m already anticipating autumn. As far as seasonal eating goes, it’s as exciting as spring. Even if it’s the polar opposite. Rich, heavy, warm meals. Soups. Stews. Warm spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cumin… We’ll be watching the football game on Saturday with a big bowl of chilli. (What else?) It’s supposed to rain all day, which suits me just fine. But a couple of weeks ago (and again tonight) I got a little taste of autumn, in the form of butternut squash.

I was delighted to find it at the farmer two Saturdays ago. I had never tried it until last fall, when I first discovered it there. It’s kind of strange that I had never seen it in the grocery store. It was there of course. I just hadn’t noticed it. There are a lot of things I never noticed until I started shopping farmers markets. Anyway, it’s now one of my favorite fall foods.

It tastes similar to pumpkin, but the texture is more dense like a sweet potato. If you’ve never tried it before, you should. Especially now that it’s in season. Like most winter squash, it can be prepared savory or sweet. Either way I like to cube it and roast it. My favorite savory recipe is simply olive oil, salt and pepper. Maybe some herbs or garlic to spice it up. Tonight I wanted something sweet. I squeezed some lime over it, then tossed it in butter and a little vanilla infused sugar and sprinkled a bit of salt and pepper over it. Then I roasted it in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes. I served it with chicken legs, which I roasted simultaneously in the oven with the squash, steamed broccoli (a little bit of water, covered in the microwave for about 4 minutes) and leftover beans (soaked over night, then cooked for two hours in water, onions, garlic and thyme). Very economical and nutrient dense. Simple. Delicious.