Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pasta e Fagioli soup

I don't eat at Olive Garden very often; I try to never eat at chain restaurants unless I have to do so.  I travel occasionally for work, and notice that most places that support manufacturing facilities often have every chain restaurant known to man and so I can expect to be invited dine at least one of them; Olive Garden is usually in the mix.  Or the inevitable Panera boxed lunch, or Subway.  Even factories in the middle of acres of cornfields often manage to provide a Panera boxed lunch (sub sandwich, cookie, chips, pop).  It must be part of Panera's business model to locate themselves near midwest industrial parks.    When I am asked for my preference, I always suggest that I'd like to try whatever the town's specialty is.    I don't get to travel to exciting locales, instead, I am usually going to a place that might end in "-ville".   My boss often adds "-ville" on the end of any city we are going to just for fun, even if it doesn't actually have it appended to it's name.  By asking about the local favorites, I find out about the local favorite salad dressing in Cozad, Nebraska or the delicious cream cheese filled blueberry muffin from a bakery in Montpelier, Ohio or the best takeout pizza in Cleveland.   If I was always eating at Panera or Starbucks, I would never have found these local food gems.   But sometimes, people think that the Olive Garden is the best restaurant in their town, so I will go there on occasion, but it's never my first choice.  I realized that perhaps I was a bit of a food snob when my son was going to the Olive Garden with a group for the homecoming dance, and he was concerned about it because he doesn't like olives and thought that is all they might feature there.   He was 15 years old and never had been to an Olive Garden in his entire life!  He made up for lost time - all during football season, he'd go there with his friends for team dinner because they really serve huge portions.

When I go to Olive Garden, I always get the same thing: the unlimited minestrone soup and salad.   I rarely eat pasta at's too easy to make at home.   I try to eat as many vegetables as possible on business  trips because it is really easy to gain weight eating out for 3 meals a day.    So I confess, I've never tried the original Olive Garden Pasta e Fagioli soup, but when I was talking to my sister the other day, she said it was one of her favorites and she made a copycat version of it and thought it was great.   After eating tons of rich foods this holiday season, I thought soup would be a good meal for the day before Christmas Eve, so I trolled the internet for a recipe.   I found one that I thought I could start with, however I wanted to use dried beans instead of canned and increase their proportion.  Also, I thought it was silly to cook the pasta separately, so I changed that, too.   The result was a very good hearty soup; more like a chili and full of lots of vegetables.   The men in the house usually rebel as soup served as a meal, but I didn't get too many complaints this time!  It is very filling.

Pasta e Fagioli a la Mothers Kitchen

1 c dried red kidney beans
1 c dried great northern beans
1 pound ground beef
1 small onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 14.5­ ounce cans diced tomatoes (undrained)
1 15­ ounce can tomato sauce
1 1/2 c V­8 juice
1 c. water
1/2 pound (1/2 pkg.) ditali pasta
1 T white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Cook dried beans your favorite way and drain.   My favorite way is to cover beans with water and pressure cook them for 25 minutes.  Meanwhile,  brown the ground beef and add vegetables, garlic and herbs and cook until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.   Add tomatoes, sauce and juice and cook for about 30 minutes.   Add water, beans and pasta and cook until pasta is al dente, about 10 minutes.  Add white vinegar and season with salt and pepper.   Serve with parmesan cheese.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


When I was a girl, I loved the story of Heidi  and the description of the melted cheese she ate....even though I didn't really like cheese at all when I was young.   Later on, I learned that was raclette cheese, and the Swiss custom of melting it fireside. A cheese originating in the Swiss canton of Valais, home of the Matterhorn, today Raclette is also produced in the French regions of Savoie and Franche-ComtĂ©.   I went to a raclette demo at Morgan and York, a specialty wine and cheese shop here in Ann Arbor, and fell in love with the raclette party.   The Swiss now make raclette grills just for this purpose:

raclette grill

Also, Morgan and York rent out the grill, which is what we did for our latest gathering.   The cheese is heated up underneath the grill and you grill whatever you'd like to eat with it on top.   Recommendations include vegetables, shrimp, charcuterie.  The traditional accompaniment for all this cheese is baguette and some cornichons and pickled onions.   For our party this year, we included braseola, pancetta, shrimp and kielbasa.   For vegetables, we had brussel sprouts, parboiled first and halved, asparagus, and small potatoes that had been boiled in very salty water and halved, along with the requisite pickles.  It's supposed to be 1/2 lb of cheese per person and remove the rinds, but that seems like a lot to me.   We didn't remove the rinds.  

To drink, we went with Gruner Veltliner (a white wine similar to sauvignon blanc) because once in the Alps, why not stay in the Alps?  The kids just drank diet coke.  The table was made ready...

I think we got about a pound and half of cheese for 7 people, but we could have eaten more.   We had teenage boys eating with us, so that could explain it.   It's really easy to eat too much cheese when you eat it this way.   We put all the toppings we could fit on the grill and just picked what we felt like putting cheese all over....everyone eats what they want...

One warning however....this cheese, like all really good cheese, is stinky when melted.   To quote one of the teenagers: "This cheese smells so bad but tastes so good!".   Even our fussiest eater loved it: "Anything is even better with melted cheese on it".   The Swiss have it right; raclette is a great winter time activity.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jewel Cookies

I hate to be "bah humbug" and all but Christmas cookies are very often not as good as they look. Years ago, I used to sit next to a gal at work that baked a ton of cookies for everyone during the holidays, and gave us all beautifully wrapped plates of them. She spent days on it - and the cookies looked fantastic, but tasted really bland and had a tough texture. I bit into one that was so bad, I actually had to fake blowing my nose so I could spit it out into a Kleenex! I tried to put them out by the coffee pot at work - engineers are notorious for eating any free food they can get their hands on, but even these beauties were left uneaten. When she wasn't looking, I threw most of them out in a garbage can on the other end of the building. Like Santa does each Christmas eve, I left a couple cookies on the plate with a few crumbs so that she thought that her cookies were well received. She had spent so much time on them.

A recipe for a cookie that's often featured in Christmas cookie platters - the "jewel" or "thumbprint" cookie is a frequent Christmas cookie offender. I've had many terrible versions of this cookie - tough dough, rancid nuts, fluorescent red and green maraschino cherries placed in the centers (a sin committed by yours truly in junior high). But done right, these cookies are sublime! Did you preserve some raspberry jam last summer? Now's the time to crack open a jar and make this cookie. Strawberry jam would work well it it, too. I got this recipe years ago out of Martha Stewart Living, but a tweaked it to make it better.

Jewel Cookies

3 sticks unsalted butter
1 c light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs, separated
2 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
2 2/3 c flour
2 c roasted pecans, finely chopped
1/2 c tart jelly - I prefer currant jelly

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg yolks, vanilla, salt, and then flour. Shape into 1 inch balls. Brush each ball with beaten egg whites, then roll in chopped pecans and place 2 to 3 inches apart on baking sheets. Press center of each ball with your thumb, and fill with 1/2 teaspoon jam. Bake 10 to 12 minutes until just golden around edges. Cool on a rack.

Makes about 2 dozen

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Miracle" cleaners myth busted!

Every day, a new facebook post shows up in my feed about a miracle cleaner that will take care of the toughest kitchen cleaning tasks, so I decided to put a few to the test....I had a cookie sheet that my daughter had burned cookies looked like this to start:

One of the facebook miracle cures was to mix together baking soda and hydrogen peroxide to a paste, and let it sit for a while and the burned on grime is supposed to magically wipe away.   Other people swear that Barkeepers friend, a mild cleanser, would do the same I decided to give that a shot too:

On the top half of the pan, I put a paste of Barkeepers Friend, on the bottom, I spread out the paste of baking soda and peroxide:

....and then I let it sit for 4 hours.....the result????

Well I guess that wasn't the miracle I was looking for.   The only way I am going to get that pan clean is with a brillo pad.   Sorry, but this was no miracle.   Also, there's another one floating around where you clean your oven door glass with a mixture of Dawn dishwashing soap, vinegar and and baking soda.   I tried that one too and it doesn't work.   The only thing that will work is putting the oven in self cleaning mode.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Whiffletree Recipes

In my effort to preserve recipes from favorite Michigan restaurants, I'm posting a couple from one of Ann Arbor's favorites, the Whiffletree was on the corner of Huron and Ashley, and it burned down in the late 80s, before I lived here.   It was a favorite recipe of many locals; I am sorry I never had the chance to visit it.  Here are two recipes from Ann Arbor's Cookin' a Mott Children's Hospital fundraiser cookbook no longer in print.  I simplified them to make them more clear, but tried not to change them too much, however there are a few things I probably would do differently like just use egg yolks instead of the 2 whole eggs in the mousse. and fresh herbs in the gazpacho.

White Chocolate Mousse

3 c. vanilla wafers
1/2 c. butter, melted

In a food processor, process wafers until they are are crumbs.  Add melted butter and mix, press in the bottom of an 8 inch springform pan.

1 lb white chocolate
10 egg whites
4 c. heavy cream
2 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
3 oz. white creme de cacao

Chop white chocolate into small pieces and and in a medium size bowl, microwave on high in 30 second intervals, stirring after each interval, until melted.  Set aside to cool to 95 F.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the 10 egg whites until stiff,  Then separately whip the cream until stiff peaks form.  In the bowl with the melted chocolate,  add the whole eggs, egg yolks and cream de cacao and whisk until smooth.    Add some of the egg whites and whipped cream and whisk it a little more, then fold in the remaining egg whites.   Pour mixture onto the crust and freeze.

1 lb frozen raspberries, thawed and strained.  

Top mousse with raspberry sauce.

Chilled Gazpacho Soup

1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 small cucumbers, peeled and chopped
1 med. green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 t.. basil
1 t. oregano
1/2 t, thyme
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. vred wine vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
1 tt. salt
1/2 t. ground cumin
8 oz. black olives, diced
15 oz. can whole tomatoes
1 fresh roma tomato
1 46 oz. can tomato juice

In a blender, add all ingredients except tomatoes.  Let stand 1 hour.   Add tomatoes and tomato juice.   Serve chilled, garnished with a slice of avocado, a spear of cucumber, ctourons and a dab of sour cream.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Best Cranberry Sauce

I really like cranberry sauce, but unfortunately, I am the only one in the family that does so I get to eat a lot of it.    This year, I was looking for the perfect recipe - nothing exotic like curry powder in it, no pecans, something that could be eaten on it's own, because it would be something I'd be eating long after Thanksgiving Thursday.   My friend Karen had suggested one she makes every year from an old issue of Cooking Light , circa 2001.   Let's pause a moment and lament the demise of Cooking Light.....

I finally had to let my subscription lapse after a while.   It changed - became more of a "woman's magazine" talking about beauty and fashion and less about cooking and lifestyle.   I used to love reading that magazine cover to cover on the day it arrived.   It would talk about an apres ski get together that included mulled wine and a roaring fireplace and appetizers that tried to stay below their unwritten caloric threshold of about 300 calories.   I don't know why it was 300 calories, but that's what it seemed to be.  Granted, if you ate enough 300 calorie appetizers, the point would be moot but that didn't matter.   What they did well was conjure up an image in my head of good friends getting together with good food after some exercise.   I don't know what drove them to change their format; it could be that I was part of the vanishing breed that still liked their food/lifestyle/travel groove.   After all, that's what killed Gourmet Magazine.   It seemed they were shooting for the Real Simple (a magazine I despise) style of mag....short brief articles with good photography intended on selling stuff more than content.   These days, Cooking Light has become a  Real Simple clone, so I let it go.   But I have hope for the kind of food mag that I like....Saveur and Bon Appetit are still really good at telling me about food and lifestyle.   EatingWell has filled the void that Cooking Light left in the world.   And thank God Martha Stewart Living (1-year auto-renewal) fired Pilar Guzman - during her brief tenure there she tried to "Real Simplify" that magazine too but luckily they got back on the right track.

Okay, back to the CRANBERRY SAUCE.   The original Cooking Light version had apples in it, instead of pears, but pears are what I had so I went with it.  I also added apple cider, but water or any kind of fruit juice could be used. It came out delicious!  It goes well even as a side dish - it's not too sweet.  Envision yourself eating this with good friends following an afternoon of snow shoeing in the woods for a winter solstice celebration. Don't you  feel like you are in a Cooking Light article from 20 years ago? Cranberry sauce like this is too good to be served just on Thanksgiving.....

Cranberry Pear Sauce

1 1/2 cups chopped unpeeled cored and seeded pears
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup apple cider
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (12-ounce) package fresh cranberries

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer until thick (about 15 minutes), stirring occasionally. Cool completely.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving Cookies

This year, I've really been getting into making decorated cookies.   The latest in my collection are these Thanksgiving themed ones....I bought a pumpkin cutter for Halloween and never got around to making any, so I wanted to try it out.  A cookie project like this takes 3 days - one to bake the cookies and let them cool, one to decorate and let them dry, and then they are ready on the third day.

I wanted an autumnal flavor, so I tried a Dorie Greenspan recipe from a 2007 vintage Bon Appetit.   Speaking of BA, have you checked it out lately? I have been finding it very inspiring and I love my recent subscription.    I thought the recipe sounded unusual because of the dry mustard....they came out delicious and perfectly spiced.  I used dark molasses instead of light and amped up some of the spices a little.  This recipe is definitely a keeper for me!  It made a nice crisp cookie which is critical for iced cookies like these.

Spice Roll Out Cookies
makes about 2 dozen

3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sift flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, allspice, nutmeg, mustard, and cloves into large bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in another large bowl at medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add brown sugar; beat 1 minute. Add molasses; beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg; beat until well blended, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to low; beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture; beat on low speed just to blend. Gather dough into ball; divide in half. Form each half into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap disks separately in plastic; chill until firm, at least 4 hours. I left mine in the fridge for 4 days until I had time to roll them out and bake.

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Working with 1 disk at a time, roll out dough between 2 sheets of waxed paper to 1/8-inch thickness for smaller (2-inch) cookies and 1/4-inch thickness for larger (3- to 4-inch) cookies. Using decorative cookie cutters, cut out cookies and transfer to prepared sheets, spacing 1 inch apart.. Gather scraps, roll out dough, and cut more cookies, repeating until all dough is used. If not icing cookies, decorate with sprinkles or other sugar toppings, if desired. Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are firm on top and slightly darker around edges, about 8 minutes for smaller cookies and up to 12 minutes for larger cookies. Cool completely on rack. Line baking sheets with fresh parchment as needed.

I have written very often on this blog about decorating with royal icing.   To get the recipe and technique, check out this blog post.  I had some brown left over from making footballs in early November that I kept in a plastic container in the fridge.  Royal icing is supposed to be good for a couple of weeks just sitting on the counter - but I put it in the fridge for good measure.   I had to add a little water to get it to the right consistency.  I used a Wilton #2 tip for the piping, and I flooded the pumpkin sections at different times to get the 3D affect.   To make the turkey tail feathers,  I piped 3 lines and used a toothpick in a figure 8 pattern.   I can't wait to try that same pattern with my Christmas tree cutter this year.    I made these cookies last week and froze them in a plastic container - to thaw them, keep them in the container and bring them up to room temp so the icing won't separate.

Mothers Kitchen Facebook Group

Hi everyone! I wanted to explain what this group is about...I've been writing my blog since January 2006. Almost 9 years! Over the course of the years, social media has changed quite a bit, and one thing I have noticed is that people tend not to comment on blog posts anymore...and I miss that interaction. So I am experimenting with facebook to see if a group will work well in that space. Also, I've found myself participating much less in yahoo groups and other email based social networking. So, I am going to try to keep the discussion going in facebook about food, cooking and canning etc. and see how it goes.  If you'd like to join the group, check it out here:

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Chicken Shawarma with Toum

The other day, I was listening to the Splendid Table and it featured a discussion about toum, the Middle Eastern garlic sauce.   I work in Dearborn, which is home to the largest group of Middle Eastern people in the U.S. and toum is a restaurant staple.    It's hard to describe, but it is a very light condiment and packs the largest wallop of garlic in any food I have ever eaten.    However, on the radio show, it was suggested that toum could be made ahead and kept in the fridge for up to a month.   It can be used whenever you'd use garlic - in a salad dressing, a marinade, etc.   I had made toum before, and it had egg white in it, but the recipe they discussed didn't, so I can see how it could be stored for a while.  It's just lemon juice, garlic and oil.   I like the idea of having it on hand for cooking, so I decided to whip up a batch yesterday.


Since I was making toum, I decided to make chicken shawarma sandwiches as well.   I marinated some chicken breast cubes in lemon juice, olive oil and some ground coriander and salt, and broiled the cubes.   I made a batch of Olga's Kitchen bread to wrap the chicken in, and added a dollop of toum and some dill pickle spears.   Delicious!

Here's my take on the Splendid Table recipe.    It requires a food processor, but I've made it in a blender before so I bet that will work too.  I tried their suggestion to peel garlic by soaking the cloves in lukewarm water, this DID NOT WORK.   I've tried the other method suggested in the past, which is shaking garlic cloves in 2 metal bowls; that is about 50 percent effective, so I didn't bother trying it again.   It's very messy and loud!  For perfectly peeled garlic, the best method I have found over the years is a garlic tube:
garlic tube

However, since the garlic for this recipe is going to be pureed, just smashing each clove with the side of a knife works great, so that's what I did.  

Makes about 2 cups

1 cups peeled garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil, or more as needed
Juice from 1 fresh lemon
3 T water

Combine the garlic cloves and salt in a food processor. Puree until as smooth as possible, stopping to scrape down the sides of the work bowl as needed. With the motor running, gradually add 3/4 cups of the oil in the thinnest possible stream; do not rush the process or the mixture will separate. Stop to scrape down the bowl. Gradually add 1/4 cup more of the oil in the same manner; the mixture should begin to set up a bit.  Then gradually add the lemon juice. The mixture will become lighter and whiter. Add 1/4 cup more of the oil in the same gradual fashion as before, then slowly add the water. The mixture will loosen but should not be runny.  Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup of oil. The resulting garlic paste should be creamy white and fluffy, like beaten egg whites. If not, keep the motor running and add more oil to achieve the right color and consistency.  Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid; seal and refrigerate for a few hours before using, and it's good up to a month.  Use it to add to salad dressing and marinades or anywhere else garlic is used.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Autumn Leaves

I'm not sure how it happened, but I never got around to taking all my vacation this year, so I have to great fortune of realizing I can take long weekends almost until the end of 2014.  I think it was because I changed jobs midyear and we didn't really have any big summer vacations planned with trying to get Jane off to college and all of Eddie's ankle surgeries.  So, now I can practice what retirement can feel like!    I had the day off on Friday so I decided to take on a cookie decorating project.

I signed up to make 4 dozen cookies for my church music program's fall concert.  I was inspired by the beautiful fall colors we have this year.
Off Dan Hoey Road in Dexter

St. Joseph Cemetery, Dexter

Greenook Lake in Loch Alpine, my subdivision
My favorite sugar cookie recipe is this one for cream cheese cutouts - it makes a very tender rich cookie that can hold up to the royal icing. but I wanted to upscale it to use an entire brick of cream cheese.    When I did, I ended up with about 10 dozen 2 inch cookies, which was more than I intended!   

Cream Cheese Cutouts 
(makes about 10 dozen)

Cream Cheese Cutouts

2  3/4 cup butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2  3/4 cup sugar
3/4  teaspoon salt
3 egg
1 T vanilla extract
6 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter, cream cheese, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla, using the paddle attachment.  Gradually beat in flour. Refrigerate, covered, 1-2 hours or until firm enough to roll. Preheat oven to 375°. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/8-in. thickness. Cut with floured cookie cutters. Place 1 in. apart on ungreased baking sheets on parchment. Bake 7-8 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool on pans 1 minute. Remove to wire racks to cool completely

Royal Icing Recipe


3/4 cup warm water
5 T meringue powder
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2.25 lbs powdered sugar


In mixer bowl, pour in the warm water and the meringue powder. Mix it with a whisk by hand until it is frothy and thickened…about 30 seconds. Add the cream of tartar and mix for 30 seconds more. Pour in all the icing sugar at once and place the bowl on the mixer.  Using the paddle attachment on the LOWEST speed, mix slowly for a full 10 minutes. Icing will get thick and creamy. Add just drops of water at a time to make the icing runnier.  If you add too much water at a time it’s more difficult to thicken it with icing sugar than it is to add water to it.  To make sure the icing is the right consistency for flooding, try the “10 second rule”.  Drag a butter knife through the surface of the icing and count to 10.  If the icing surface becomes smooth in anywhere between 5-10 seconds, then the icing is ready to use.  If it takes longer than approximately 10 seconds, the icing is too thick.  Slowly add more water.  If the icing surface smooths over in less than 5-10 seconds, it is too runny.  Mix the icing longer or slowly add more sifted icing sugar to thicken it.

Cover the bowl with a dampened tea-towel to prevent crusting and drying.    The best website I've found about how to do the decorating is this one....after some practice, I got the hang of it.    I used a Wilton #3 tip this time and gel paste colors.  

autumn leaves

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Jam and Jelly Contest

This year, I am entering the Downtown Home and Gardens annual Jam and Jelly Contest.   I haven't entered it in a few years because I usually don't make all that much variety...usually just some strawberry jam, but this year I've been obsessed with foraging wild fruits and started making jelly for the first time ever.

I don't know why I hadn't tried jelly making before - I had a jelly bag for years but I thought it would be a hassle to have to hang it and wait for the juice to strain, but it is actually easier in a lot of ways than making jam that needs added pectin or apple butter, that require putting the fruit through a food mill.   I use my KitchenAid fruit & vegetable strainer, which makes it easier, but it still is a lot of cleanup.     I have one that can stand on my large measuring bowl:

and it's easy to boil down the fruit and hang the bag overnight to make the jelly the next morning.   If the fruit needs extra pectin, I've thrown in an apple (or a hand full of crab apples) seeds, peels and all into the boiling fruit - no food mill necessary.

This year, it's been my goal to forage wild fruits for jam.  I was inspired by my visit to the Jam Pot in the Upper Peninsula this summer.   We took our son for his campus visit at our alma mater, Michigan Tech, and while we were up there, we stopped for some of stellar baked goods at the monastery.   I was reminded about when the brothers started their work, they used to forage for thimbleberries and rose hips at the house I lived in during graduate school, and after surveying their wild berry jams, I knew I wanted to try my own this year.  

In our neighborhood, there is a bumper crop of wild grapes.   Usually, I've used their leaves to help keep my pickles crisp, but the fruit is too sour to eat out of hand.   I did a little research and found out it makes excellent jelly, so I tried it out and the flavor is much better than grocery story stuff.   Check out how I did it here.    Last fall, I made some crab apple butter from my neighbor's tree.  Her tree bears fruit every other year, and last year was it.   And then lastly I tried my hand at currant jelly.   A colleague from work is a fantastic gardener, and he has 3 currant bushes and generously gave me some.   I think currant jelly is my new favorite; tangy and beautifully colored.   The best part about canning all of this is that it is almost free!  I just had to buy the sugar and the jar lids.    I'm looking forward to making some more stuff yet this year; my church friend Liz has a pear tree with tons of pears on it she wants to give away, and there is still more grapes and crab apples to be had.   

Today is cold and rainy, so it's a perfect day to stop by Downtown Home and Garden and vote for your favorite jam or jelly....hopefully it will be mine!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Grape Jelly

I've had it in my mind that I want to make wild grape jelly for years.  My woodsy neighborhood has lots of wild grape vines, and I have used the leaves over the years when I make pickles.   I can remember beck when my son was in middle school and I was a cabin counselor for 7th grade camp out at Camp Storer in the Irish Hills, waiting on horseback for my group next to a huge stand of wild grapes right at eye level and thinking "When I get home, I am going to make wild grape jelly!".   And here it is, 5 years later and my son is a high school senior and I still haven't made any.  A few weekends ago, when I was on my weekend jog through the neighborhood, I noticed that the vines were heavy with fruit, so I vowed that I would do it this year.

Supposedly, it can be a challenge for some people to identify wild grapes instead of the poisonous moonseed or Virginia Creeper, but I don't think it is all that difficult.  I don't think I've ever seen moonseed, but we have plenty of Virginia Creeper around here.   For more info, read this blog post here.  I picked about 3 pounds of grapes last weekend, and then I consulted my trusty The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.   Linda Ziedrich said that the wild grapes that she has in her Pacific Northwest backyard didn't make good jelly, but most varieties would.   I wasn't sure what kind we have, but I decided to give it a shot.   I looked around on the internet, and most of the wild grape jelly recipes had boxed pectin in them, but Linda said that it shouldn't be needed, but recommended adding some apple for extra insurance.   Since their was a couple crab apple trees right next to the grape vines, I decided I'd add some of those instead.

Wild grapes, unlike domestic grapes, are high in tartaric acid (from which cream of tartar is produced), will form crystals in the jelly so you need to let it settle out overnight before making your jelly.   After cooking down the grapes, strain out the juice and let it sit in a container in the fridge.   I actually let mine sit for a week because I couldn't get around to making the jelly anytime during this busy week.  I let it pass through the jelly bag yesterday afternoon and it left a ton of sludge in the bag.  Who knew?  If you eat a lot of wild grapes raw, this stuff is what makes your mouth feel dry and cottony.

Wild Grape Jelly
makes 3-4 half pints

3 lb. wild grapes, stems and all
1 c. crab apples, halved, (cut of stems and blossom ends, but leave the seeds in)

Heat grapes and apples in a large pot until boiling, mashing as you go with a potato masher.  Boil for 15 minutes.   Strain and let remaining juice settle overnight.  The next day, strain juice through a damp jelly bag for 2-3 hours.   Add:

3 c. sugar

Heat juice and sugar in a large pot (I like to use an enameled cast iron dutch oven to make jams and jellies) until the jelly reaches the gel temp of 220F.   Since I live below 1000 ft elevation, water boils at 212F and gel temp = boiling point of water+8 F.  If you live at higher elevation, your gel temp will be different.  Speaking of temperature, After trying many different cooking thermometers, I have figured out that the Thermapen instant read thermometer is the best for jam and jelly making and candy.  Yes, it will set you back about $100, but it's the last one you will ever need to buy.   I've spent more than that on a pile of cheaper ones that broke or didn't stay calibrated.   Learn from my sad tale and invest in the best one to start!   

Pour jelly into clean hot jars and leave 1/2 inch headspace.  Process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.  

I was a little nervous because it didn't appear to be setting up yesterday, and so I was envisioning having some jars of grape syrup instead of jam, but when I checked it this morning, it was set!  Sometimes natural jellies (no boxed pectin) take longer to set up - up to a week!

Since I have read that wild grapes can continue to be harvested until after the frost, I can probably make some more jars every weekend when I have time.  It will make great Christmas gifts!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Raspberry Zucchini Bread

I am not ready to let go of summer yet, even though fall is my favorite season.   We've had a cool summer this year, with a sudden onslaught of hot humid weather here in the first week of September.   It sure didn't feel like football weather on Friday....

Parent Night at the DHS game.....

Right before we had to take cover in the 1st qtr.

The game ended up getting delayed until Saturday because the storm was so bad.   Many were without power; we lucked out for once and didn't lose ours.  Despite football and school starting, I just don't feel like fall yet.  I'm not ready.   I've barely done any canning this year - just pickles so far.   Salsa is scheduled for next weekend.   The tomatoes are so late this are my green ones...I've got some late blight, but not as bad as last year.   I've been using neem oil to try to prevent it.  I grow my tomatoes in Earth Boxes, which are a hydroponic system and they work great for my deer and bunny infested yard.   I just put them on my patio and the critters stay away.

 So, I am not yet feeling the fall love. and when I went looking for a zucchini bread recipe online, they were all autumnal seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon.   I'm not ready for that yet!  Like everyone right now, I had a ton of summer squash to use up, so when I found a recipe online for lemony raspberry zucchini bread,  I liked the idea but didn't want to follow it because it had lots of things wrong with it.  I borrowed the inspiration instead and decided to use up half of the berries I bought at the farmer's market yesterday.  This tastes just like summer.  And it is still summer until September 21st, so let's make the most of what we've got left.

Raspberry Zucchini Bread
makes 2 loaves

For the bread
4 c unbleached all-purpose flour
4 t baking powder
1 t salt
4 eggs
3/4 c vegetable oil
1 1/3 c sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
2 c grated zucchini
2 c raspberries

For the Glaze
1 1/2 c powdered sugar
Juice from 2 lemons

Preheat oven to 350 ⁰F. In large bowl, blend flour, baking powder, and salt.  In the mixer bowl of a stand mixer/medium-sized bowl, beat eggs well. Then add oil and sugarand lemon zest, and beat on low until well combined.  Add dry ingredients and fold everything together, but don’t over mix.
Fold in the zucchini and then the raspberries.  Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes then remove to a wire rack and cool completely. While the loaf is cooling, in small bowl, mix the powdered sugar and lemon juice until well blended. Add more powdered sugar if it isn't thick enough.  Spoon the glaze over the cooled loaf. Let the glaze set prior to slicing and serving.

Monday, September 01, 2014


Yesterday, my eldest child went off to college.   Like others in my position, I'm vacillating between "How can this be happening already?" and "It's so great she's out on her own!".    I am really excited for her, because I loved my college years so much, although I expect our experiences will probably be different.   Jane is an art major at Eastern Michigan University, one of  the oldest colleges in Michigan, beautiful historic buildings.   I was an engineering major at Michigan Tech, and while located in the beautiful upper peninsula, the architecture is sometimes lacking....

Scherzer Hall (photo by Andrew Jameson)
 home to the Art Department at EMU

Smith MEEM Building aka "the Brick Dick"
home of the Mechanical Engineering Dept. at MTU

She has drawing and studio art classes, I had calculus and chemistry.  I can remember strolling through the campus in the fall, enjoying the foliage and listening to Simon and Garfunkel on a Sunday afternoon as a freshman.   I can also remember not getting along too well with my roommates, both farm girls and med tech majors from mid Michigan who loved .38 Special and professed to hate Detroit, and always borrowed my clothes without asking. At the time, MTU was proud of the fact that 3/4 of the freshman class would not survive the rigors of our education and wouldn't make it to graduation.    So I learned that roommates come and go, and many did go....I moved out in late fall to live with another girl down the hall that was also an engineering major and a much nicer person.   I can remember the dorm food - my favorite was something called "Fireman's Casserole"  which was a hot dish that featured ground beef and elbow macaroni in what must have been a cream of mushroom soup sauce.    Being that MTU was in the Upper Peninsula, we also had pasties every Wednesday...which I still love today.

College started my formative years as a cook - I had been cooking dinner for my family since I was in 8th grade when my mom went back to work, but our menu was very limited because my mother was a fussy eater.   It was during my college years that I learned what I really liked to cook and eat.    During my vegetarian era (doesn't every college student have one???) I liked to cook out of 
Jane Brody's Good Food Book or my sorority sisters and I had something called "Supper Club" where we used to take turns cooking for each other, and I would try my hand at recipes I clipped from the Milwaukee Journal or SELF.   Looking back at some of the recipes from those days, my collection included:

  • Jack's Balls - this was a Kentucky Bourbon Ball recipe made with copious amounts of Jack Daniels, our sorority drink.  I might try this recipe from Amada Hesser these days
  • Caramel Brownies made with a box of German Chocolate cake mix and Kraft Caramels.  These days, I'd make the Zingerman's Buenos Aires Brownies recipe.  
  • Cow Plops - i.e. chocolate oatmeal no bake cookies.  I still make these when I need a quick chocolate fix
  • Mrs. Field's Cookies - allegedly the original recipe that passed around on xerox copies.  It's how you shared recipes before the internet. Here's a copy of that chain letter
  • Pickled Eggs - a U.P. bar room treat
  • F&(*^&)ing Dip - our sorority's take on 7 layer dip
I can remember making a New Orleans style dinner for Mardi Gras for a gang of friends.  Another time we pressed apple cider at our house on Quincy Hill.   My friend Ray was a fabulous cook (still is) and we would get together for cooking projects like fondue or herb stuffed lake trout straight from Lake Superior.    I sure hope Jane has as many fond cooking memories as I do from my college days.  Wonder what she will be making....

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Thai Style Chicken with Basil and my favorite food podcasts

Most every morning I go jogging  - I really don't enjoy running all that much, but I find it is the most efficient form of exercise there is....I can do it just about anywhere and I don't need any special equipment.   If I don't exercise first thing in the morning, it won't happen.   One thing I do to keep it more interesting is to listen to cooking podcasts.   Currently I am enjoying listening to:

NPR Food Podcast - Recipes, interviews and the story behind your favorite foods from Morning Edition, All Things Considered and other award-winning NPR programs.

Earth Eats - from Indiana Public Radio, it features lots of Midwest local food information and recipes

Edible Radio - I enjoy most everything on this feature of the local food magazine Edible, but I especially like "Blue Plate Special".

The Splendid Table - I've always liked Lynn Rosetto Kasper's radio show, but I am rarely not busy during it's broadcast time here on our radio station, so I can catch up listening to the podcasts

America's Test Kitchen Radio - Hosted by Christopher Kimball, it's like a radio version of his show on PBS.

It was while listening to ATK Radio one morning that I found this recipe to use up the abundance of basil I have in my garden this year.   One can eat only so much pesto.  The tomatoes might not like the cool summer we've been having, but the herbs have been loving it!  In addition to the basil, I've got oregano that is the size of a small shrub and thyme that is overflowing it's container. I've got to find some way to use all that up, but for the basil, I've made this recipe several times and it is just delicious.

Thai Style Chicken with Basil
(my take on America's Test Kitchen's recipe)

2 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled
3 serrano chiles, stemmed
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 t. (or more) red pepper flakes

Process 1 cup basil leaves, garlic, and chiles in food processor until finely chopped. Take a spoonfull of  the basil mixture to small bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon fish sauce, oyster sauce, vinegar, and sugar; set aside. Transfer remaining basil mixture to large nonstick skillet, but don't bother rinsing the food processor bowl.  Pulse chicken and 1 tablespoon fish sauce in food processor until meat is chopped into -approximate 1/4-inch pieces. Don't go too far or it will turn into ground chicken!  Stir shallots and oil into basil mixture in skillet. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until garlic and shallots are golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add chicken, increase heat to medium, and cook, stirring and breaking up chicken with a wooden spoon until chicken is cooked through. Add reserved basil-fish sauce mixture and remaining cup basil leaves and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until basil is wilted.  Serve over hot rice.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Currant Jelly

I was given a gift of currants from a work friend - he has an awesome garden and had a surplus, so I stopped by his house on Thursday to pick some.  I've never made anything with currants and actually have never really made jelly....only once I made a May Wine jelly...but  that doesn't really count.  A few years ago, I bought a jelly bag, but I never had occasion to use it.   Now was the time!!

I stemmed the's debateable whether you need to do that or not.  For every lb of currants, you need to add 1/2 cup of water and heat it for about 30 minutes, mashing with a potato masher.   Then you strain....I had about 6 lb of fruit, and it made about 6 cups of juice.  Let it strain for about 6 hours.  If it's cloudy (mine was) strain it twice.  DO NOT SQUEEZE THE BAG! That will make it even more cloudy.  Making the jelly was super easy.....for each cup of juice, add one cup of sugar.   Here's how mine came out:

Currant Jelly
makes about 6 half pints

6 c. currant juice
6 cups sugar

Heat juice and sugar until sugar is dissolved.  Turn up the heat to medium high, and boil, stirring occasionally, until you hit the gel temp of 220F.   Add to half pint jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space, and process for 10 minutes.  couldn't be easier, and I actually LOVE THE TASTE! I think currrant jelly is my new favorite.  very tangy and beautiful.  I can't wait to plant some currant bushes myself.

I tried out the new Ball Platinum Jar just to see how they would look and I think they will be great for gift giving.    Lovely!