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The Pink Cupcake

December 16, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

When you readers take a break from all of your rushing about, I would like to share a short story, “The Pink Cupcake,” which I wrote a few years ago, about a traumatic event that occurred when I was 7. As small as my world was back then, I knew that each day would give me something to chew on. There was always plenty happening in my usual haunts, and it was being writ large in my brain. With such vivid memories of my childhood, I made a few attempts over the years to capture them in a novel. (Along the lines of Cold Sassy Tree or The Cape Ann.) Sadly, I just didn’t have to have the skill and gumption to weave all of the strands into one substantial rope. So, here is just one strand.

The Pink Cupcake

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When my sister Kris and I were little girls in Villisca, a small town tucked into the southwest corner of Iowa, we felt lucky that our grandparents were the proprietors of the local hotel, The Elms.  There was always much to do, always another odd nook or cranny to be explored, and our easy-going grandparents rarely put restrictions on what their only two grandchildren could do. Best of all, our house was only a block away, so we could pop in any time we wished.

The Elms Hotel was one of the larger structures in our town of 2,002 residents. (“Welcome to Villisca, Home of 2,002 Friendly People,” boasted the sign out on Highway 71.) Imposing, but certainly not charming, the hotel’s most distinguishing feature was a huge front porch that faced west and then continued to wrap on around the building along the south side, uncomfortably close to the railroad tracks. (Even now, I could diagram the entire floor plan of that two-story structure, as well the basement.) Huge elm trees dotted our entire town’s landscape like a Grant Wood painting and provided luxurious shade to that porch during the hot season. When the previous owner, decades earlier, had named the hotel, he must have known that the trees would always be its most attractive asset.

Most of the inhabitants of the 15 or so sleeping rooms on the second floor were elderly people who had made it their home. There were also occasional travelers who would exit the trains and walk the few hundred feet from the depot to the hotel—traveling salesmen or railroad crews who needed lodging for a night or two.

When a person first stepped inside, it became apparent that grandness was not the goal. The Elms was utilitarian, but not in an efficient way. Timeworn too, yet not quite rundown. Ancient rotating ceiling fans propelled dust motes to the undersides of sagging sofas and chairs randomly distributed throughout the large L-shaped lobby. Most of the furniture was turned in the same direction, to the west, to afford their occupants a grand view of the railroad tracks and depot station. Watching trains heading west to Omaha or east to Chicago provided a great pastime for local spectators. When the room began to vibrate, it was time to find a spot for the show. A slight intake of breath in the room meant that everyone was watching the man lean out of the speeding train to expertly yank the mail sack hanging from the pole. Grandpa always noted that the sack had to be tied just the right way, or the man could lose his hand. I would be half-expecting a bloody appendage to come flying through the hotel window, all because of a poorly tied sack. We would wave to the people in the dining cars, and the man standing on the caboose platform never failed to smile and wave at us. Many a lazy afternoon’s entertainment was available right there for free for any of the town folks who dropped by to have a chat and cold squatty bottle of Coke from the machine by the front door.

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The Elms Hotel, Villisca, Iowa

At the front counter where guests checked in, there was a glass window display case with an array of chalky plaster-of-Paris figurines, vases, horses, kittens, praying hands. They were made by our Uncle Allan back in his tiny bedroom just off the kitchen. Filled with rubber molds and big bags of plaster of Paris, his room always looked as though a flour sack had just exploded. He kept the front case well-stocked and was eternally optimistic that some itinerant artist might happen upon the hotel looking for objects to paint.

Around the corner on the back wall was an upright piano, missing several ivories. A large glass jar sat on top, filled with old used pieces of soap gathered over the years from the guest room sinks in the rooms above. It never occurred to anyone that this might be an unusual spot for discarded soap to accumulate.

All of this seemed perfectly normal to Kris and me when we sang along with Uncle Allan as he pounded out our favorite show tunes or hymns. Or, he might tap dance around the lobby or down the wide staircase, with the dust mop as his partner. Allan was our dad’s only sibling and was 10 years his junior. He was in high school. Talented, fascinating and always funny, Allan was our favorite person. We knew he would make it big in Hollywood some day. (He did get to Hollywood eventually and landed a few bit parts in some TV shows and a movie, which was never released. The rest of his time there was spent as a men’s clothing salesman at Orbach’s department store, likely because of all his experience in working for our dad’s clothing store in Villisca.) He often babysat for us when our parents went out with friends, or played golf or bridge. He and our grandparents, Burt and Dorothy, handled all the work of cleaning and running the hotel, which didn’t appear to be a big priority for any of them. This didn’t matter in the least to Kris and me. They were goodhearted people who enjoyed their lives, and we loved being immersed in the exciting yet molasses-paced lifestyle of a small-town hotel.

One Christmas, when I was 6 and Kris was 5, we received a Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. We could not have loved a gift more. Within a few weeks, we had baked almost every mix that came with it. All of the little cakes and cookies were so deliciously and artificially flavored, tasting faintly of wood pulp. We savored each one because we had made them by ourselves. Saved for last was the best one of all, a white cake mix with pink frosting to be baked in tiny white cupcake papers! These were going to be amazing. And they were!

Kris, always the thoughtful one of the two of us, insisted that we give the cupcakes to a few people who lived at the Elms. But I wanted them for us. She let me have one, and finally I relented on the other three, and we “drove” them to the hotel on our tricycles. I only accompanied her up the staircase so it would appear that I cared for these people as much as she did. After handing out the first two, we headed to the room of our third recipient, Mr. Harding, a bachelor in his 70s, spare,  dour and very private. He was a pharmacist at Moore’s Drug Store, and lived only to work, every day except Sunday. Opening the door to our knock, he appeared confounded to see us standing there proffering the tiny cupcake. He barked out a gruff thank you as he closed the door on these out-of-context gift-bearers. For the next several months, after routinely cleaning Mr. Harding’s room, Grandma or Uncle Allan would report back to us that the pink cupcake was still there, sitting on top of his bureau. By now, I also taken ownership of our kind gesture, and Kris and I would grin at each other, convinced that Mr. Harding’s no-nonsense veneer had a little crack in it.

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Uncle Allan, Kris (on left) and me (1953)

On an unseasonably cold April night in 1956, Kris and I were asleep in our shared bed when the mournful sound of the Villisca fire siren pierced our dreams. Outside it was eerily bright. Mom and Dad were in their bedroom next to ours, talking agitatedly. We ran in there, where the windows faced south, to witness the unimaginable—the roof of the Elms Hotel fully engulfed in flames.

Most of the occupants escaped. Three men, including Mr. Harding, did not. Within a few hours, our beloved Elms Hotel was reduced to rubble. Uncle Allan and Grandma and Grandpa were brought to our house. With residual smoke and ash clinging to him like gauze, Uncle Allan crawled into our bed and wept into a pillow. Kris and I could scarcely take it all in.

I don’t think Mr. Harding had any living relatives. In truth, Kris and I hardly knew him; however, we were forever linked to this solitary man through The Pink Cupcake. We mourned his death as if he had been a dear family member. I hope that somehow he knew.

Foodiva

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Now we move to happier thoughts. Christmas is sugar-cookie time, but of course we love them year-round. They are such a pleasant way to celebrate any season or holiday or special occasion. I know there are several of you who crave to make lovely decorated sugar cookies but they end up looking like broken and battered accident victims. I have taught some cookie decorating over the years to encourage wannabes that they can do it. I am not a professional. I have just developed some techniques in order to decorate a respectable cookie that I would be proud to set out on a platter. I had hoped to include all of the ideas, but it takes too much space. So allow me to share a couple of thoughts and then we’ll move on to the other special recipes I have for you.

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One important requirement (law, really) in terms of my philosophy about frosting that I use for sugar cookies is that I don’t want to eat anything made with shortening or margarine, and I don’t like crunchy royal frosting. I know. It’s my issue. But trust me, butter is better. Gorgeous cookies are sold all over this town, but often the frosting is made with shortening or royal frosting is used. I do think these kinds of frostings are more flexible and allow for more creativity for cookie decorators. BUT … well you know. I won’t compromise on flavor. And my second priority is, “the look.” Every cookie should look well-composed and neat, not sloppy.

As a cookie connoisseur, you should have two expectations of decorated cookies:

They should be delicious. A treasured recipe and quality ingredients, including real butter and pure vanilla extract, are essential. In other words, they should be nothing less than splurge-worthy.

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They should be eye-catching. This requires an investment of time and effort. Any schmuck can schmear a cookie with frosting. A cookie decorator will spend quality time with each crumbly soul, lovingly applying colors and and designs of buttery frosting to make each one the best darn little cookie it can be. A quick word must be inserted here about decorated-sugar-cookie-eating etiquette: A slow, deliberate approach to a proffered cookie is proper and recommended because each one should be initially admired for its beauty and uniqueness. Sadly, we are all quite aware of the end-game for the decorated cookie. Gnashing, crushing and disintegration by human mastication is its raison d’etre, its destiny. Sapient cookie artists have always been aware of this disturbing reality, and yet they know they cannot dwell on such things, opting to soldier on, creating ever more beauteous, mouth-water morsels. C’est la vie!

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When friends eat my cookies with gusto, I have to remember that they really don’t care about the effort I put into creating each one. I freeze a fake happy smile on my face as these cannibals brazenly masticate my lovely works of art right before my horrified eyes. And yet, would I rather that these cookie killers just shellac them for drink coasters? Of course not. So, I silently watch them gnaw away at those crumbly little souls, each one lovingly nurtured from doughhood. Sorry. All of this talk of former cookies I have known and loved is making me melancholy and hyperglycemic.

 

Here are the recipes I use for my cookies. I received the sugar cookie recipe years ago from Charlotte McCormick, mother of baby Matt (story from the last post). The frosting recipe is from my friend Darla Stiles, who also loves to decorate cookies and does a spectacular job!

Charlotte's Sugar Cookies

  • Servings: Makes 2 dozen
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  •  1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons good quality vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups flour (or a bit more) (Hint: take a bit of dough and pinch between your fingers. If it holds together and doesn’t stick to your fingers, you have added enough flour.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (scant)

In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually mix into butter mixture until incorporated. Pat into a ball and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Remove dough from refrigerator and let rest for 15 minutes or so before rolling it out. Cut dough in half. (Note: You do not use flour to roll out this dough.) Roll out each half between two sheets of wax paper. After dough is chilled and you’re ready to cut out the cookies, pull off top sheet of wax paper. Flip it over and pull off other sheet. Lay it back on the dough and flip it over again. Cut out the cookie shapes. Bake at 375 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes (varies with size of cookies). Don’t let them brown around the edges. Remove from oven, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Use a special thin-metal spatula to scoop up the cookies and move them to racks to cool completely.

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Melt-in-Your-Mouth Butter Frosting

  • 1 (2-pound) bag powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (scant)
  • 1/2 cup whole milk or half-and-half
  • 2/3 cup butter, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons good-quality vanilla extract

Mix all ingredients together with an electric mixer until smooth. Don’t overbeat or air bubbles will form in frosting. If frosting is too thick, add another drop or two of milk. Portion frosting into small bowls and tint each with gel-type food colorings. (Note: Do not use liquid type of food colorings often found in the grocery store.)

Several years ago, I wrote a handout for people who wanted to learn how to decorate cookies, called The Well-Appointed Sugar Cookie—A ‘Cut-Out’ Above the Rest by Tracy Mullen, The Flaky Cookie Lady of West Des Moines. I have it saved in Microsoft Word. If anyone needs some helpful hints, just can leave a comment with your email address and I will forward it to you.

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Welcoming winter with tiny marzipan mittens and snowballs (cake balls).

Now, on to the featured recipes for this post. I am sharing lots of my recipes today and some are from of great friends. So, hang on to your aprons!

We certainly want a beverage and a couple of appetizers to ready our constitutions for the big holiday meal(s) to come. Our first one is ‘Mullened’ Wine, my little play on mulled wine, and great sipper to thaw your core. It’s like a warm, full-bodied sangria with a skosh of Templeton Rye to help maintain the glow.

‘Mullened’ Wine

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'Mullened' Wine

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  • 1 (750 ml.) bottle red wine (I used Menage a Trois.)
  • 2 cups cranberry cocktail juice (or apple cider, if preferred)
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 to 3 sticks cinnamon
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1 shot Templeton Rye (or less, if preferred)

In a medium saucepan or crockpot and simmer all of the ingredients for an hour or two, until the spices infuse the wine and juices. Ladle into cups and serve warm. May garnish with orange slice and/or cinnamon stick, if desired.

A a great Christmas appetizer with plenty of green and red is Rita Jennings’ recipe for Olive-Stuffed Mushrooms. So savory. One of my gourmet group friends, Rita entertains lots of friends and family, and therefore is a good source of amazing recipes.

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Rita is always cooking up something delicious; at least she is when she isn’t busy traveling.

 

Olive-Stuffed Mushrooms

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Olive-Stuffed Mushrooms

  • Servings: 12 or more
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  • 1 pound small baby bella mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup diced roasted red peppers or pimentos (from a jar)
  • 1/3 cup kalamata olives, diced
  • 1/3 cup pitted green olives, diced
  • 3 green onions, diced
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup good grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Clean mushrooms and remove stems. Mix together remaining ingredients in a bowl. Place mushrooms on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet and fill each with a generous spoonful of filling. Bake about 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven. Serve immediately. (Tracy’s note: I have baked them a day ahead and reheated them in the microwave when ready to serve. They survive pretty well.)

Some of my most favorite recipes are from my friend Lynn McCollum, and I have featured them in some of my other posts. Marinated Basil Shrimp is another great recipe of Lynn’s, which I have modified a bit. It’s always a hit with guests.

Marinated Basil Shrimp

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Marinated Basil Shrimp

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: Easy to Medium
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  • 1 pound raw shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon tarragon or white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (or canola oil, if preferred)
  • 1/2 cup minced red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon creamy horseradish
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh chopped basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

To cook shrimp, drizzle olive oil over shrimp and sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Spread on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake 8 to 10 minutes at 400 degrees until they are pink and opaque. Meanwhile whisk all of the remaining ingredients together. Put shrimp in a bowl with a lid. Pour marinade over it and stir well. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Put in a serving bowl and serve chilled.

Moving on to our family’s favorite Christmas Eve entreé, this outstanding recipe is from my friend Kathy Zumbach. I adore many of her recipes and another one was featured in an earlier post. This is a melt-in-your-mouth, rob-a-bank-to-pay-for-it  recipe that is reserved for special occasions. Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper Crust is served with a stunning mushroom, sun-dried tomato, cognac pan sauce.

Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper Crust

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Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper Crust

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Medium
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  • 1 (2-pound) beef tenderloin
  • 1/2 cup whole black peppercorns, cracked*
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • Additional butter
  • 1/2 cup shallots, minced
  • 1 (8-ounce) package sliced, fresh mushrooms
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1/2 cup cognac
  • 1/2 cup sliced, sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Salt meat and roll it in the cracked pepper to coat heavily. (Note: To crack peppercorns, spread half of them out at a time on a cutting board. Use the bottom of a small skillet to crush them, cracking the hulls and breaking them down. You want them to remain rather coarse.) Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter in a large oven-safe skillet, browning beef on all sides over moderately high heat. Place pan with browned beef into the oven at 475 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes for medium rare (use meat thermometer). Remove meat from oven and place on a platter. Cover with foil to keep warm. (Be careful when removing pan from oven; it will be searing hot.) For sauce, add enough butter to pan drippings to make 3 tablespoons. Sauté shallots and mushrooms over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes; add beef stock, cognac and sun-dried tomatoes. Boil down to half; add cream and boil down to half. Slice meat 1/4-inch thick and serve with sauce in a sauce boat.

For dessert, we have Petite Cranberry Cakes with Vanilla Sauce. They have “holiday” written all over them. When you serve them you’ll receive rave reviews. Remember to be humble.

Petite Cranberry Cakes with Warm Vanilla Sauce

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Petite Cranberry Cakes with Warm Vanilla Sauce

  • Servings: 12 to 14
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 2 cups raw whole cranberries, sorted, washed and drained

Combine all ingredients, except cranberries, with an electric mixer until blended. Stir in cranberries and then scoop dough (with ice cream scoop to maintain uniformity) into muffin tins. Bake about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool about 10 minutes and then run a knife around each one. Gently loosen them and then place them upside down on a rack to cool. Store in a large rectangular plastic container.

Warm Vanilla Sauce

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla

Combine ingredients, except vanilla, and heat to boiling. Boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. When ready to serve, ladle warm sauce over each petite cake.

Entire recipe can be made a day or two ahead. To garnish, use sugared cranberries and a small branch of rosemary. To sugar cranberries, make a simple syrup (1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water) and boil for 2 minutes. Cool for five minutes and then stir in cranberries (as many as you desire to use for garnish). After an hour or so, remove cranberries and roll them in sugar. (I used sugar crystals, but they are also beautiful rolled in regular sugar.) Allow them to dry overnight. (They also are delicious to eat as a snack!)

Of course, you often have to serve other meals to your crowd during the holidays, so here are a few more ideas to prevent starvation among the troops.

For breakfast, one of my family’s most favorite muffins is an old recipe from Bob’s mother. They aren’t overstuffed with the usual extras like raisins, nuts, apples, etc. Before you reject this concept, you must make them once to see how the buttermilk and bran come together to create a melt-in-your-mouth, almost graham-like flavor. The beauty of this recipe, besides the flavor, is that the batter lasts for up to three weeks, so you can bake a fresh hot batch every morning. We have loved them for years!

Mrs. Mullen’s Muffins

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Mrs. Mullen's Muffins

  • Servings: Makes 6 dozen
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 2 cups Kellogg’s All Bran Buds
  • 1 cup butter
  • 3 cups sugar, less 3 tablespoons
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 cups Kellogg’s All Bran Original
  • 1 quart buttermilk
  • 5 cups flour
  • 5 teaspoons soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt

In a small bowl, pour boiling water over the All Bran Buds. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar; add eggs, All Bran Original and buttermilk. Add flour, soda and salt and mix well. Fold in water-soaked All Bran Buds. Store in glass jars or plastic containers in the refrigerator. Bake as many as you desire in muffin tins at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Will keep for 3 weeks.

Another one of Lynn McCollum’s recipes is perfect when I have lots of people around: Tijuana Train Wreck. It’s fun and everyone always loves it.

Tijuana Train Wreck

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Tijuana Train Wreck

  • Servings: 12 or more
  • Difficulty: Medium
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  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (15-ounce) can petite-diced tomatoes (and juice)
  • 2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste (Tracy does not use this.)
  • 1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed (Tracy prefers 2 cans of black beans.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (or more)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Toppings (see below)

Brown ground beef in large skillet with onions and garlic. Add all other ingredients and simmer 1 or 2 hours. While meat mixture is simmering, assemble bowls of several or all of the following: a mixture of Fritos and tortilla chips, shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, chopped green onion, guacamole or avocados, sliced black olives, sour cream and salsa. Diners file by with plates and assemble their own portions, putting chips on the bottom, then meat sauce and then their choice of toppings.

Soups are always loved by everyone and a delicious way to serve a lots of people. Back to my friends Lynn and Gordon, they have made this soup for years, and it is so soul-satisfying. It comes together quickly after all the chopping. (I have slightly modified the recipe, but just a bit.)

Frank’s Cheese Soup

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Frank's Cheese Soup

  • Servings: 4 to 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced green pepper
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup diced onion
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour (Tracy uses 1/4 cup.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (32-ounce) carton chicken stock or broth
  • 2 cups milk (Tracy uses half-and-half.)
  • 16 ounces American cheese, cubed (Tracy uses 2 8-ounce packages of shredded colby jack and or mild cheddar.)
  • (Tracy also uses one Knorr chicken-flavored bouillon cube.)
  • (Tracy also adds a tablespoon or 2 of sugar.)

Sauté veggies in butter until soft. Add flour, salt and pepper. Cook 1 minute. Add broth and milk. Heat and stir occasionally. Add cheese in handfuls and stir until melted and soup is hot.

I am a fan of winter for about three days of the year—the day I put up the tree, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then I’m done with it. When the National Weather Service announces that a dangerous winter storm lurks, I continually track its progress on the local TV stations, as well as my favorite one—that storm-forecasting behemoth—The Weather Channel. I’m a wild horse of hyperactivity. The prospect of being snowbound for weeks à la Laura Ingalls Wilder makes my heart gallop. To prepare for the worst, I start something sturdy and luscious, such as an aromatic chicken tortilla soup, in a pot at the back of the stove to telegraph “safe,” “warm” and “sustaining” to every corner of the house. I seem to channel a pioneer woman (kind of like those DirecTV “settler” commercials). I start saying things like, “When the blizzard blows in from the prairie, we’ll have hearty provender to comfort lost souls who may find our door. Let’s burn a taper in the window for stragglers in search of refuge from the tempest. Robert, ye will set them to dry by the hearth whilst I knit them some shawls.” (Gee, now I’m thinking that maybe pioneers wouldn’t ever have supped on chicken tortilla soup. But they would have loved it!)

TNT (Tracy’s No-Tortilla) Soup

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TNT (Tracy's No-Tortilla) Soup

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: Easy to Medium
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  • 1 1/2 cups diced onion
  • 3 or 4 large garlic cloves, minced or crushed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 (16-ounce) jar Chi Chi’s Fiesta Salsa (Mild or Medium)
  • 1 (15-ounce) can petite diced tomatoes (juice too)
  • 1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chilies, drained
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Knorr chicken-flavored extra-large bouillon cubes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
  • 5 cups cooked, shredded or chopped chicken (Consider using a rotisserie chicken.)

In a large soup pot, over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add broth, salsa, tomatoes, green chilies, brown sugar and seasonings. Bring to boil and then turn down low and add the chicken. Simmer for an hour or so. Taste soup and adjust seasonings. When ready to serve, ladle into bowls and consider eating it unadorned to enjoy its full, brothy flavor. But I know you won’t, so feel free to add toppings as you wish. When I add toppings, I usually only use shredded jack cheese and crushed tortilla chips. But each to his own.

For snacking, there’s nothing more addicting than TV Snack Mix, my mother-in-law’s version of party mix. It is naughty because it has lots of butter, but hey, it’s Christmas! Remember, though, when you see the amount of butter that this is a very large recipe. It’s also a great gift to give. My friends look forward to this little dalliance with decadence each year.

TV Snack Mix

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TV Snack Mix

  • Servings: Lots
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 small box Cheerios
  • 1 small box Corn Chex
  • 1 small box Rice Chex
  • 1 small box Wheat Chex
  • 3 cups butter (not a typo)
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons garlic salt (I use Lawry’s.)
  • 1 large can deluxe mixed nuts or cashews
  • 1 small bag pretzels, any shape

Pour the cereals (in the proportions you like) into a very large roaster pan (or large foil turkey-roasting pan). They won’t all fit in; you’ll have leftover cereal in most boxes. Mix. In a medium-sized saucepan, heat butter, Worcestershire sauce and garlic salt, and stir until butter is melted. Pour evenly over cereal and stir gently to mix. Bake 1 1/2 hours at 250 degrees, stirring every 15 minutes. Just before last 15 minutes, add nuts and pretzels. Sprinkle with more garlic salt if necessary. Cool thoroughly before storing in large container.

And finally, this recipe for Melt-Aways (the dough is made of only three ingredients) is my son Bradley’s favorite little sweet treat. Drizzled with a little butter frosting, they are almost like a rich miniature pastry, touched with cinnamon. (The secret ingredient? Cottage cheese!)

Melt-Aways

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Melt-Aways

  • Servings: Lots
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup cream-style cottage cheese
  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups flour
  • More soft butter (about 1 stick)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon

Blend butter and cottage cheese together with electric mixer. Mix in flour. Form dough ball. Chill at least 2 hours. Remove from fridge and cut into four approximately equal parts. Roll one section into a circle, about 1/8-inch thick, with plenty of flour, as you would for pie dough. Spread with butter. Mix cinnamon and sugar and generously sprinkle over dough. Cut into pie-shaped wedges (triangles). Then roll up each triangle, starting from the wide end. Do this for each quarter of the dough. You can cut the pie-wedge shapes as large or as small as you like. I prefer mine cut narrow. So, I probably get about 20 Melt-Aways from each quarter of dough. Bake at 400 degrees for 9 to 10 minutes. Cool and then drizzle with butter frosting.

Butter Frosting

  • 2 tablespoons half-and-half
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Powdered sugar

Heat first 3 ingredients until butter melts. Stir in powdered sugar until frosting is thick enough to drizzle (and stay put) on the Melt-Aways. Be sure they are completely cool before storing them in a plastic container.

So, there you have it! There are so many more from these friends and family members—an amazing collection of cooks—that I didn’t get to include because this post is too long already. I hope you have a chance to try them.

Curiosities in Food News

I also want to leave you with an extra laugh. Here are three news items that I have culled from the Des Moines Register over the years. (I am not making these up.)

  • “Sandwich Stolen at Des Moines Airport”—March 6, 2003. “The case of a stolen peanut butter sandwich at the DSM airport has been turned over to federal authorities …”
  • In the “Crime Report” section—June 22, 2012, “A man reported that somebody had put 20 pancakes in his mailbox and then knocked it over.”
  • In the “Classifieds” section—“Curing Foreman position available. Requirements: 3-5 years’ experience in receiving, injecting and cooking of fresh and frozen pork bellies, with direction toward slicing. Knowledge of product thawing, pickle mixing, pickle injection and smoke house procedures a must. Candidate should have good employee management skills.”

Christmas Gift Idea

Guess what we are giving our several of family members this year? 23andMe, a genetic testing kit so that we can learn about where we came from. (Ancestry.com also offers a similar kit.) I admit they are a bit pricey at $99 each. After “spitting into the bottle,” they send it back to the company and in a matter of weeks they will find out all about who they are. (For an extra $100 per person, the company will also test for health data, but we are not doing that part. That might be depressing!) I think it will be fun to see what turns up in the ancestry of our family, the inlaws and outlaws.

Final Bites

That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town …. For no particular reason, I just kept on going …. I’m pretty tired …. I think I’ll go home now.—Forrest Gump

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So, I’ve come to the end of the line for my blog, as well. This is my 26th and final post. My wonderful kids who gave me this unusual gift for Christmas last year had no idea how much this would mean to me. I didn’t know myself. Somehow they knew this would be a meaningful forum for me. I have reconnected with so many friends and relatives, and have shared (and probably overshared) so many aspects of my life and how I perceive the world.

Even though I told my kids that I was stopping, they just renewed the Messy Cook Blog for another year in case I had a change of heart. But, like Forrest said, “I’m pretty tired.” It’s time to stop … and clean up the kitchen. You will be able to communicate with me through the blog any time through next December 2017,  if you wish. And I will be plugging this last post on Facebook for the next two weeks. (Also, I plan to put together a list of all the recipes in Microsoft, which I will email to anyone requesting them. Just send a request in the Comments section of the blog any time this coming year. It probably won’t be ready until at least February, but I’ll keep a list of those who want it.)

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Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year! And thank you for hanging in there with me! (And thank you Bradley, Lindsey, Kelly and Bob!)—Love, Tracy

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Great Expectations

December 2, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

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The greatest season of all has arrived! Oh yes. We’re going to do it all this year! Our decorations will dazzle. We’ll bake cookies by the dozens, arrange them on adorable plates, and deliver them to all of our friends. Our holiday shopping will be completed in record time, and the gifts will be wrapped in color-coordinated papers and placed under our gorgeous tree (or trees). Christmas cards, with accompanying clever letters, will be sent early in December to the entire list of family and friends. We’ll host a holiday dinner or two, and maybe a neighborhood coffee or a happy hour. The custom-monogrammed stockings will be hung by the chimney with care … and …. Whoa! Rein in your reindeer and that big sleigh full of holiday spirit. You’re going to pop a vein if you try to do it all! Seriously though, we adore this crazy time of year, don’t we? We love to make lists and check them all twice to see how we’re coming along on our grand plan to create the best Christmas ever. We are cockeyed optimists who believe that in the end we will do it all and do it well.

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If you’re like me, however, each year I find myself letting go of a few more things on the “To Do” list. The Christmas cards got the heave-ho about 10 years ago, followed by just saying “no” to making dozens of candies and decorated cookies. (Now I only make a few favorites each year.) Next, I came to my senses about decorating three trees (including one that’s 10-foot-tall with about 8,000 lights). Why would a five-foot-tall woman with bad knees and a fear of heights ever have considered such madness? This year I ordered a sensible, slimmed-down, 7 1/2-foot, pre-lit version. (I do expect some family backlash regarding my new underwhelming tree—but it certainly won’t come from my high-branch-helper, Bob.) My shopping has devolved into buying lots of gift cards. The kids can get what they desire most and the cards don’t take up valuable space in their suitcases for the flights back to their homes. Most of the rest of my shopping is done on Amazon or other internet sites, and then I can have the gifts sent directly to their homes. I am seriously trying to scale back on much of this Christmas busyness.

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I think Clark Griswold would approve of my 10-footer.

The question is, has this pared-down approach to Christmas made me a happier elf? Probably not. I love to futz with everything. I adore the big-production aspect of the season. (Whaddaya say, kids! Let’s put on a show!!!) I do wonder if I can find enough joy in this less frantic pace to justify what I have given up. Bottom line: Whether I go grand or minimalist, I will always want a little tszuj (think Carson Kressley) to satisfy the holiday-decorating beast that smolders within me.

Here’s  a fun idea that I pulled together several years ago when I still exuded lots of exuberance.

“Come for an unforgettable holiday dinner!” That’s what the invitation to our guests said. Talk about great expectations, I think our friends were anticipating a fine meal. When the seven of them arrived on the appointed evening, a surprise awaited. They could see that the dining room was dark and the table hadn’t been set. No fragrant food aromas hung in the air because nothing was in the oven. As we greeted them, we handed out new chef’s aprons, wooden spoons and copies of recipes. We sat them down with some wine to give them courage because they were about to learn that they were going to make the entire meal, including the appetizers. Then we told them that they should get moving because we were hungry and this was going to take some work! Pan-demonium!

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It was all quite humorous. We allowed them to help each other in order to save some the food from impending ruin and to assure that the meal came together before 10:00. Watching an attorney frost sugar cookies and pipe guests’ names on them (to serve as place cards) was a knee-slapper. (No, the cookie pictured above was not decorated by that guy.) The laughter, confusion, barrage of questions and bumping into each other was continual, and probably fairly dangerous with all the knives and hot pans in the vicinity.

This party required a lot of advance planning. If you decide to do it, you must think of recipes that are appropriate for a sit-down dinner. In other words, no canned pork and beans or Spam. And it must be something that can be prepared in a timely manner. Obviously, roasted chicken or lasagna would take too long. Remember that your job as the host(s) is to be the troubleshooter, bartender, time manager, and EMT. You must forgo those obsessive/compulsive tendencies to offer unsolicited advice. No matter how the food looks or tastes, praise everyone! And eat that plate full of crappy stuff even if it kills you. (Actually, our cooks’ dishes all turned out well.) Finally, you might want to think about having your “unforgettable dinner party” at a time other than during the holidays. I honestly don’t know how I was able to do this at Christmas time!

***

Now I would like to share a non-holiday story from my high school days. Later on in this post, you will understand why.

Be assured that no babies were harmed in the brief time that I babysat in junior high and high school, but perhaps I should have been required to watch some training films.

My high school principal and his wife had adopted a new baby boy, Matt. This was the first time since his arrival that they had decided to go out for the evening. I was flattered when Mr. McCormick called and asked if I would be willing to babysit. I hadn’t ever taken care of a baby. Yet, here he was asking me, out of all the other high school kids, to care for their precious little son. (Well, I suppose he may have asked me since I lived only a few houses away.) Of course I said yes. Mr. McCormick said, “Now I assume you have taken care of a baby before?” I lied and said that I certainly had. (I knew that my mom could tutor me on the basics.)

When I arrived on the designated evening, the McCormicks showed me the bottles in the refrigerator and how to warm them, etc. I nodded knowingly. Then we went into Matt’s room where they showed me his crib. Pointing to a bed in the room, they explained that it was where I would change Matt’s diapers. And with a sweep of his hand in the direction of the bed, Mr. McCormick said, “The overnight diapers are over there too.” (Overnight diapers???) “Yes, of course,” I said. And then they left, knowing that he was in capable hands. Feeding Matt the bottle went well. I read to him from my American History book for awhile to lull him to sleep. Soon it was time to put on his overnight diaper and lay him in the crib. And that is when a mighty struggle ensued.

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In those days, there were no disposable diapers—just cloth ones held together with big diaper pins that had yellow duck  or white rabbit heads on them. I worked up a lather trying to get those pins into that diaper. Matt never fussed during the entire ordeal. When I finished, I surveyed my work. Definitely not good but it would have to do. I concluded that the McCormicks must change diapers as a team. One person could not do it alone.

When the McCormicks returned, they immediately wanted to know how it went. “Good! Very good!” I said. Shortly after I returned home, the phone rang, and all I could hear was Mr. McCormick laughing convulsively. (What???) He finally caught his breath and asked me why I had put the thick, brown-felt changing pad on Matt. (That wasn’t the overnight diaper???) The McCormicks never got over that. I was so relieved when Matt grew into adulthood with no apparent hip dysplasia—because when I had put him in his crib that night, his little legs were sticking straight out from their sockets.

***

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Bob and I were married for 10 years before we had kids, and even then, for those nine months of my first pregnancy, I couldn’t grasp the reality of it. I was fairly positive that I had a boulder-sized, undiagnosed tumor. When a real baby boy (I sound like Geppetto) actually made his appearance, I could not fathom it. I had about the same baby-care skill level as that night years before when I took care of Matt McCormick. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the huge responsibility of it all. By some grand design, Bradley and his younger sister Kelly did make it to adulthood, despite the fact that their parents were rank amateurs when it came to child-rearing.

So, what is my point? You may have guessed by now. Bradley and our daughter-in-law Lindsey are expecting a little boy in May. We are thrilled! Bob and I have by now forgotten everything we ever knew about taking care of babies. Even so, we hope they will trust us to hold him and be occasional babysitters when they want to go out for dinner. At least I know a diaper from a changing pad now.

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I gave these little boxes of sugar cookie leaves to some of our friends to announce that, come spring, there will be a new leaf on the family tree.

Some Curiosities

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Expecting babies reminds me of the time I made gingerbread bears as party favors for a friend’s baby shower. As an extra “treat,” I tucked inside of each diaper (on the bear’s back side) a small, “well-formed” piece of Tootsie Roll. It looked very realistic!

 

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A few days ago, I was cutting into a red onion and right there in the middle of each half was a heart!

 

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My mom decided to save some of my Christmas cookies. She took them home, stuck them in a storage closet and forgot about them … for more than 15 years! She found them and brought them all back to me last Christmas. She thought they had survived amazingly well! Whew, that butter smelled rancid! I took a photo of this pathetic Santa and then quickly tossed him and the rest of the sorry bunch into the garbage.

 

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Every year, these strange relatives show up for our several days of Christmas celebration. We let them stay because they come bearing wonderful gifts, food and champagne.

 

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There will always be those who do not show proper respect for the noble art of food preparation.

 

 

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Don’t you hate when this happens? I had popped into the Hy-Vee to pick up some raspberries and there stood this woman ahead of me in the express line. The poor thing must have left her house in a hurry too. One time I forgot to remove the sticky “size” tape running down the front of my sweater and I wore it to lunch. Another time, I attended a seminar where we had to do some role-playing. Afterwards, I went to the grocery store, forgetting that I was still wearing the large nametag on my sweater that said, “Hi! I’m Amelia Earhart!” Why did it have to be such a big nametag? Why didn’t someone stop me and ask where I had been all these years?

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It’s Christmas! Time to trot out some recipes that you might enjoy for the holidays. It’s so hard to know which ones to choose.

Let’s start off with some delicious holiday beverages! I call them Jingle Bellinis. Your guests may choose from minty-lime or berry-lime.

Jingle Bellinis

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Jingle Bellinis

  • Servings: 20 or so
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 (12-ounce) cans frozen limeade, thawed
  • 3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 8 fresh raspberries
  • 12 ounces  water
  • 12 ounces cranberry juice
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 (750 ml.) bottles Prosecco
  • Thin sliced quarters of lime (for garnish)
  • Raspberries (for garnish)

For green Bellinis: Pour 1 can of limeade, chopped mint leaves, 12 ounces of water, and 1/2 cup vodka into a blender. Purée until leaves are pulverized. (May pour through fine-mesh strainer if you don’t care for floating green leaf bits in your Bellinis.) Pour mixture into shallow plastic container and freeze for at least 8 hours. About 15 minutes prior to serving, remove the mixture from the freezer and use a heavy spoon to scrape and chop it into a slush. To serve, fill a champagne flute half full of slush. Fill with Prosecco and stir. Drop in a lime slice for garnish. For red Bellinis: Pour remaining can of limeade, 8 raspberries, cranberry juice and 1/2 cup vodka into a blender. Purée until raspberries are pulverized. (May pour through fine-mesh strainer if you don’t care for floating bits of raspberries.) Pour into shallow plastic container and freeze for at least 8 hours. About 15 minutes prior to serving, remove the mixture from the freezer and use a heavy spoon to scrape and chop it into a slush. To serve, fill a champagne flute half full of slush. Fill with Prosecco and stir. Drop in a raspberry for garnish. (Sometimes, I don’t freeze the mixtures. I just refrigerate them and then use the same proportion of the mixture and Prosecco.

Published at http://www.messycookblog.com

If you’re in a hurry, but you need an appetizer, here is a simple idea. Buy the giant green Greek olives. They are such a gorgeous color. (You can find them at Trader Joe’s, Costco and Whole Foods.) Also buy a jar or two of sun-dried tomatoes. Drain the oil and cut them in half or in thirds, depending their size. Pile the sun-dried tomatoes in the center of a round plate and then surround them with the drained olives. Serve with toothpicks.

Greek Green Olives and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

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Here’s another quickie! Make a package of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix (dressing mix, not dip mix) according to the directions, except use only a half-cup of milk. Stir in a half-cup or more (to your taste) of your favorite salsa to the dressing. Or, if you prefer, make a curry dip. Pour a small amount into several shooter glasses, being careful not to get it on the sides. (I used a small funnel.) Put a selection of your favorite veggies cut into sticks (or whole snow peas or sugar snap peas) into each glass. Make enough for each guest, if possible. That’s it!

Fresh Veggies and Dip, Shooter-Style

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Could there be a salad that’s more Christmas-y than this one? It makes a gorgeous presentation for your Christmas dinner. And those bread “trees” are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The recipe for the Cheese Bread Cut-Outs came from a  late great friend, Bobbye Scheidler; many of her dear friends have this recipe and have made these cute little cut-outs for years.

Raspberry  Spinach Salad with Cheese Bread Cut-Outs

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Raspberry Spinach Salad with Cheese Bread Cut-Outs

  • Servings: 6 or more
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 2 (6-ounce) cartons fresh red raspberries
  • 8 red raspberries (taken from one of the cartons above)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons poppy seeds
  • 1 (9-ounce) bag baby spinach leaves
  • Thinly sliced red onion rings
  • 2/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted

To make the dressing, put sugar, dry mustard, salt, vinegar, onion, 8 raspberries and vegetable oil into a blender and process until thickened. Pour into a jar and stir in poppy seeds. Refrigerate. (Can make this a few days ahead.) To serve, divide spinach among 6 plates. Drizzle dressing over spinach. Arrange a few slices of the red onion rings, several raspberries, and toasted almonds on top.

Cheese Bread “Tree” Cut-Outs

  • 3/4 cup (3-ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons grated onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon Lawry’s garlic salt (optional)
  • 16 slices Pepperidge Farm very-thin-sliced white bread

Mix the Parmesan cheese, mayonnaise, onion, white pepper and garlic salt (if using) together. Cut desired shapes from the center of each slice of bread with a cookie cutter. Spread mixture evenly over each bread shape. (Tracy’s hint: It’s easier if you spread the mixture over the center area of each bread before using the cookie cutter.) Choose shapes according to the season or the type of party you’re having, such as autumn leaves, hearts, Christmas bells, stars, trees, footballs, flowers, etc. Place cut-outs on a cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes. Makes 16.

Published at http://www.messycookblog.com

These Christmas Wreath Cookies are unique because the shortbread-like dough also has oatmeal in it, making for a toothsome yet delicate-crunch combination. This recipe came from a bridge-group friend many years ago.

Christmas Wreath Cookies

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Christmas Wreath Cookies

  • Servings: 2 Dozen Cookies
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups uncooked quick oatmeal

Beat butter until creamy. Add powdered sugar gradually, beating until fluffy. Add vanilla. Add flour and salt. Add oatmeal. (Tracy’s note: I often don’t use the entire 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal because it makes the dough too dry. I probably use 1 to 1 1/4 cups.) Roll out to 1/8-inch on surface dusted with powdered sugar. (Tracy’s note: I sprinkle the powdered sugar on a big sheet of waxed paper. I put half the dough on it. Sprinkle on more powdered sugar and then put another sheet of waxed paper on top. I roll out the dough between the two sheets of waxed paper. Then I remove the top sheet and cut the cookies with a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. I gently lift each cut-out cookie with a thin spatula and put it on the parchment-covered cookie sheet. Repeat with the other half of the dough and continue until all of it is used.) Bake at 325 degrees for 7 to 8 minutes. Remove immediately from the cookie sheet. Allow them to cool on a rack. Frost with your favorite butter frosting, using plain white for a base coat. Add a “wreath” of green frosting on top of the base coat, along outside edge of cookie. (Use a small leaf tip or star tip on frosting bag or purchased tube of frosting.) Press 3 red hot candies together in the green frosting to make a cluster of “berries” (or use a #5 round tip on frosting bag to make the berries with red frosting, which is what I do).

Butter Frosting

  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons half-and-half
  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Microwave the butter and half-and-half for 30 seconds. Beat in the powdered sugar, salt and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth.

Published at http://www.messycookblog.com

A friend shared this flan recipe with me years ago after she had made it for her gourmet group. It is a rich, elegant, showstopper dessert for the holidays.

Cheesecake Flan

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Cheesecake Flan

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons good vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Fresh fruit for garnish/decoration, i.e., strawberry halves, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, kiwi slices, etc.

Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. (I use a non-stick pan but I still butter it.) In a small, heavy saucepan, heat the sugar over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the sugar has completely melted and is caramel-colored. Immediately pour syrup into prepared pan, quickly tilting pan to coat the bottom evenly before it hardens. Be careful. The syrup is extremely hot. Set aside. (Hint: It helps if the cake pan is warm so that the melted sugar doesn’t harden before it has covered all of the bottom. I set the cake pan in a 200-degree oven until I’m ready for it.) In a large bowl, with mixer on low speed, beat cream cheese and egg yolks until smooth. Gradually beat in whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla and salt until blended. Wrap foil around the bottom and up the sides of the cake pan. Pour milk mixture over hardened syrup. Set cake pan in a large baking pan and put it in the middle of a preheated 350-degree oven. Pour very hot water into the large baking pan so that it comes halfway up the side of the cake pan.Bake 50 minutes or until the flan has set (doesn’t jiggle much when shaken). Carefully remove entire contents from oven. Then remove pan of flan from the pan of water. Cool completely on a rack, and then cover the cake pan with foil and refrigerate until well-chilled. (This can be done a day ahead.) A few hours before serving, loosen flan from pan by running a sharp knife around the edge. Set a serving plate over the top of the pan and then quickly flip it over. The flan should release easily from the pan. Allow the syrup to drip from pan onto the top and sides of the flan. Decorate top with fresh fruits. (Hint: Be sure the serving plate is much larger than the flan to allow space for the syrup. I often pour some of the syrup down the drain before I invert the pan.) Slice into 12 pieces.

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Published at http://www.messycookblog.com

Last Bites

When we were invited to a holiday potluck dinner a few years ago, I fretted because I didn’t have time to make something homemade. I was working long hours, so I had to do what many working women do—rely on store-bought, or as my friend Linda likes to say, “buy and put.” I told Bob we would just stop at Baker’s Square and pick up a pie on the way to the potluck. As we pulled up, Bob waited for the car ahead of him to move on. An elderly lady was very slowly getting out of the passenger side. As her husband drove away, Bob pulled up to the door to let me out. The lady was still trying to hoist her leg up over the curb. Suddenly she tilted backward and fell into the wheel-well area of our car.

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We both leaped out and found her semi-conscious and half-sitting against the car. I froze. (I should point out that in kindergarten I got a “3” in “Meets situations calmly.”) Bob ran out into the parking lot to find her husband. I was trying to suppress my urge to flee as well as form coherent thoughts about how I could help. I could see that her wig had come off and was sticking out from under the tire. So I leaned down and gave a yank. It came out relatively intact. I lightly pounded it back onto her head. I thought the woman would agree that this was the most important thing I could do for her in that situation. By this time Bob was slowly shuffling along with the elderly husband and was almost back to our car. So, I ran inside the restaurant and told someone who appeared to be mangerial, and he called an ambulance (no cell phones back then). Then I ran back outside, but remembered I needed a pie. With Bob and the husband and other onlookers now at her side, I hurried back in and came out with pie box in hand. I don’t know how serious her injury was, but at least I left the scene knowing that I, in some small way, had helped to put her back together again. Moral of the story: Next time,  just find something at home to take to the holiday potluck.

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***

With so much to do and so little time to do it all, you can find yourself holidazed. Every now and then you must stop and remember why you are going to so much effort. You’re supposed to be having fun, not losing sleep from worry. I loved this quote that I saw on Facebook recently: Brain at 3 a.m.: I can see you are trying to sleep, so I would like to offer you a selection of every memory, unresolved issue, or things you should have said or done today, or in the past 40 years!—http://www.silversurfers.com

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I have observed that sleepless nights seem to occur more frequently during the holidays. I have no advice on how to overcome this affliction since I am an insomniac of the first order. I can only wish you well during your nightly efforts to wrestle your brain into submission.

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An illustration from Great Expectations, published in 1861, shows that expectations of a civilized Christmas dinner may not always have been realized back then either.

It’s time to get back to work! You have important things to do. We eternal optimists have great expectations for the season so there’s no time to dawdle! I am reminded that the title of Charles Dickens’ book Great Expectations was intended to be ironic. I think many of us see irony in our own Christmas-season expectations. And that’s fine—as long as we remain merry! I hope you’ll find time to come back here for a new post on December 16! Thank you!—Tracy

And So It All Begins … Again

November 18, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

Purchase this image at http://www.stocksy.com/417768

 

A three-year-old had this reaction to her Thanksgiving dinner: I don’t like the turkey, but I like the bread he ate.—Unknown

Occasionally, someone will say to me, “I’ll bet your family always has a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner.” Uh, no we don’t. No way.

Two holiday meals never stray outside the bounds of our family traditions—Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving is always turkey and dressing with the usual trimmings, and Christmas is roasted chicken with homemade noodles and mashed potatoes and other regular accompaniments. It’s possible we could become briefly untethered and offer a new side dish or salad but it just wouldn’t be worth the backlash.

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In recent years, Bob and I haven’t always been able to make it to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. That’s when I usually steer away from the usual feast. True confession: Like that little girl in the quote above, I’m really not that crazy for turkey. I do eat it, but I much prefer chicken over turkey. And when it’s only Bob and me, I defy convention and make a pork roast. We still have dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and all of the usual fixings, including pumpkin or pecan pie, but in much smaller quantities, of course.

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Pecan pie made by daughter Kelly.

If you and I were guests at another family’s feast, we probably would enjoy it, but we would still be thinking that our own families’ holiday meals are better because that’s what we grew up with. Often there are no written recipes; “a  pinch of this and a smidgen of that” is what we do to make it taste just right. I could never write down (or put into a blog) how to make some of our favorites because I couldn’t do justice to them.

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The cooks in our family have never been measurers (except when baking). Our holiday family recipes would have to be learned in the presence of a taskmaster—me, or Kris, or my mom. I am especially testy about this. I have to be sure that the nuances are understood. If I shared one of these “recipes” in the blog, I would not be there in your kitchen to grab a spoon out of the drawer to taste the progression of your flavor-building or to see if it looks and smells the way it should. I wouldn’t be there to say to you, “The stock needs more salt or more onion.” Or, “You have rolled out the noodles too thin.” Or, “You haven’t cooked the noodles long enough; I still taste the flour.” (Our family has always made noodles on the thicker side. We like them toothsome.) Most of you are experienced cooks, but it’s good to be reminded that your taste buds are your buddies. They’re just loitering around inside your mouth waiting for something to do. Give them a sample every now and then as you create your savory dishes. For example, I love our family’s dressing (and oyster dressing, too). It’s so beautifully seasoned. I wish you could taste it. I suspect if you did, though, you would say, “Yes, it’s good, but it’s not as good as my family’s dressing!” I understand. We all love what we have grown up with.

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Kris and I mastered Noodle-Making 101 after we were married. We watched our mom make them, just as she watched her mother-in-law make them, and on and on back through the generations of my dad’s family. Kris and I were so pleased to know that our daughters-in-law, without being nudged, wanted to learn the craft. So, Lindsey (married to our son Bradley) and Jaclyn (married to Kris and Fred’s son Cory) tied on aprons and rolled up sleeves to become baptized in a cloud of flour. Even Bradley, sometimes our daughter Kelly, and Bob (who was born without the cooking gene) help with rolling-pin duty. Making noodles is a labor-intensive affair, but with all this help, it goes fast. It could go faster if the laborers would stop eating the raw noodles as fast as they make them. They know that drinking wine and champagne while they work is much more fun than whistling, and they hold onto unfounded hope that the alcohol will kill stray salmonella that may have hitched a ride on the noodles. With floured lips, pale as snowflakes, these dusty mimes appear to be a diligent crew of noodle-makers.

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Lindsey
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Jaclyn

 

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Lindsey, Jaclyn and Bradley (with the flour lips) are in full noodle-production mode.

Most times, the family gathers for Thanksgiving at Kris’ house in Wichita. Bob and I (and Kelly) won’t be there this year. This means that Kris and Mom may have to indoctrinate Lindsey and Jaclyn into the family way of making dressing, if there is time. (Yes, I hear you. I’m sure that Lindsey and Jaclyn would love to introduce some of their families’ traditional recipes into our menus. We welcome this, of course!)

Sorry to interrupt the flow, but talking about chickens and turkeys has reminded me of a story, which many of you have heard me tell before.

A few years ago, my friend Connie Isaacson and I were invited to dinner for the Iowa Poetry Association. We weren’t members; we were merely “seat-fillers” for a few people who couldn’t attend. We had a great time, even though I feared unnecessarily that someone would ask me to recite my favorite poem. I believe that Eletelephony by Laura Elizabeth Richards might not be contemplative enough for this group. When I was a child, I discovered the poem in our set of Collier’s Junior Classics. I memorized it for show-and-tell because I thought it was so hilarious.

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During the dinner—I sat next to a nice older gentleman who told me he owned a large hatchery business in the northern part of the state. “Oh really?” said I. “How admirable that you have such an interest in poetry.” He leaned close to my ear and lowered his voice, “Truthfully, a few years ago a friend asked me if I would be interested in going to a meeting, so I agreed to tag along. I wondered why all these people were standing around talking about poems. I thought I had been invited to a meeting of the Iowa Poultry Association.” After I came up for air from laughing so hard, I asked him, “So why did you join?” He replied, “I guess I liked all these people, and you know, I really do enjoy the poems.”

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Foodiva

Thanksgiving is just over the river and through the woods, so you’d better start thinking about your menu. I’m sharing seven recipes with you, just in case you want to surprise your family with something new to go along with the old. I know that’s a lot of recipes, but remember, we are talking about a feast!

Spaghetti squash can often be rather ho-hum. When I first started making it, I never thought I seasoned it enough. Now I have finally perfected it, and I crave it! Gruyère is such a fabulous cheese. It’s expensive, but you don’t need very much. You could certainly use freshly grated Parmesan instead, and it still would be delicious. A word of warning: Those fresh sage leaves fried in butter are positively addicting. You might want to fry a few extras so  you can enjoy their incredible tastiness. This dish is somewhat time-consuming, but it’s worth it, and everyone will be asking for the recipe.

Spaghetti Squash with Fried Sage Leaves and Gruyère

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Spaghetti Squash with Fried Sage Leaves and Gruyère

  • Servings: 4 or 5
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1  approximately 3-pound spaghetti squash
  • 3 or 4 tablespoons butter
  • 30 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1 or 2 ounces freshly grated Gruyère cheese (may use Parmesan)

(There are many ways to cook a spaghetti squash. I prefer this method because trying to cut through the hard exterior of the squash is difficult; even dangerous. You can find the other methods on the internet.) Wash the squash. Fill a large stock pot about two-thirds full of water. Put the whole squash in it to make sure that, when the water is boiling, it won’t be too full. Then remove the squash while the water comes to a boil. Then add the squash very carefully so the boiling water doesn’t splash up on you. The squash will float. Cover and reduce heat so that the water boils but not vigorously. Cook for about 40 minutes; less if the squash is smaller. After it has cooked for 20 minutes, use wooden spoons or lifters to roll the squash over to cook on the other side for the last 20 minutes. Dump the squash and water into the sink carefully (lots of hot steam), and let squash cool. Then cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and discard them. (Using an ice cream scoop makes this easier.) Use a fork to scrape out the strands along the bottom and sides of the squash halves. If the squash still seems very firm, put a piece over each half and microwave, one half at a time, for another 10 minutes or so, until the squash is softer and it’s easy to scrape the strands. Don’t scrape too deeply into the flesh or bits of hard shell can flake into the strands. Place the strands in a bowl.(At this point, it can be covered and refrigerated until ready to use later in the day or even the next day.) Discard the shells unless you want them to be the “serving bowls.”

To prepare the squash dish, melt the butter in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the sage leaves and fry them, stirring constantly until they become crisp, 30 or 40 seconds. The butter should be browned but not burned. Don’t let the skillet get too hot. Reduce the heat and quickly remove the leaves to a plate to cool. Add the garlic to the browned butter and sauté briefly. Add the squash back into skillet with the garlic and browned butter. Turn the heat back up to medium high. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté for a couple of minutes or just until some of the squash starts to brown, then turn off the heat. Crumble the sage leaves into smaller pieces and sprinkle over the squash. Add the pine nuts. Add 1 ounce or so of the Gruyère and stir in. Scoop into a shallow serving bowl. Garnish with more shredded cheese and a few fresh or fried sage leaves, if desired. Hint: You can refrigerate it a day ahead and then heat it in the microwave right before serving. If you decide to make it a day ahead, don’t add the pine nuts until you re-heat the squash.

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Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

Here is another side dish that can be made ahead and served at room temperature. I created this recipe to provide an unexpected bright green surprise on the Thanksgiving table. Why? Because so many of the seasonal foods are in the same color ranges of orange, brown, yellow and cream.

Marinated Asparagus with Chopped Eggs and Aioli

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Marinated Asparagus with Chopped Eggs and Aioli

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic salt (I prefer Lawry’s)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
  • 2 teaspoons Grey Poupon Country-Style Dijon Mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

For the marinade, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, garlic salt, honey and red pepper flakes. Cut off the tough ends of the asparagus so they are all the same length and place in a microwave-safe dish with a 1/2 cup of water. Cook for three minutes or until they are tender-crisp. Drain in a colander and then immediately “shock” them by plunging them into a bowl of ice-cold water. (Put several ice cubes in to make it extra cold). This causes the asparagus to retain their bright green color. Spread them out on paper towels, rotating them occasionally until dry. Pour the marinade into a large 1-gallon resealable plastic bag. Add the asparagus and close bag. Gently move the asparagus around in the marinade and then refrigerate for several hours. Occasionally move the asparagus around during the marinating process. Melt the butter in a small skillet and sauté the onions. Let them cool. For the aioli, mix together the mayonnaise, mustard, garlic salt and pepper. Stir in the cooled onions. When ready to serve, arrange the asparagus on a platter. Spread a generous amount of aioli over the mid-section of the asparagus. Sprinkle chopped eggs over the aioli. (I don’t use all of the aioli and eggs. I put the rest of it in two little bowls in case someone wants more since the asparagus on the bottom may not have much.) Serve (with tongs) at room temperature.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

If you’re ready for a different take on pumpkin, then you should consider this delicious seasonal Pumpkin Crème Brûlée. It’s a creamy, delicately spiced custard that will melt in your mouth.

Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

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Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin purée
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Granulated or turbinado sugar

Whisk egg yolks in a small bowl. Gradually add the sugar. Lightly whisk in the cream. Transfer mixture to a medium-sized heavy pan. Over medium-low heat, constantly stir custard until almost boiling. Remove from heat. Whisk in pumpkin, spices, salt and vanilla. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Pour into 6 half-cup ramekins. Place them in a large baking pan. Carefully pour boiling water into the pan so that it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Gently set the pan with the ramekins in the center of the oven, which has been preheated to 300 degrees. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes. (They may quiver slightly but will set up when chilled.) Remove ramekins to rack to cool. Then cover each one with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. When ready to serve, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over each one. Caramelize the sugar with a kitchen blow torch, or place ramekins under the oven broiler and watch closely until the sugar has caramelized.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

My friend Barb deBuhr, whose fabulous Boursin potato casserole recipe was featured in this blog several weeks ago, has a great dessert recipe for those times when you’re in a rush. Here is No-Bake Chocolate Truffle Pie. The recipe below is Barb’s, except I have modified it for the little individual graham cracker crusts. Simply divide the ingredients equally among the individual crusts. You’ll need two packages since only six come in each one, and this recipe makes at least eight tarts.

No-Bake Chocolate Truffle and Caramel Tarts

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No-Bake Chocolate Truffle and Caramel Tarts

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1/2 cup pecan pieces, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 8 Keebler mini graham cracker pie crusts (come in a package of 6)
  • 5 ounces (17 pieces) individual caramels, unwrapped
  • 1/4 cup canned evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed)
  • 1 1/2 cups (9 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • Whipped cream for topping

Sprinkle pecans in the bottoms of each tart crust. For caramel layer, in a heavy saucepan over low heat, warm caramels and evaporated milk (or can do it in bowl in microwave), stirring often until caramels melt and mixture is smooth. Pour some over pecans in each crust. For truffle layer, heat chocolate chips, cream and butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat or in a bowl in microwave, stirring until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Pour over caramel layer. Refrigerate 4 hours or more. To serve, pipe or spoon on whipped cream. (Note, if you decide to make it as Barb’s original pie recipe, use a 6-ounce ready-to-fill chocolate-flavored crust.) I made simple fall leaf decorations by piping melted chocolate (with a #1 or #2 pastry tip) into simple leaf designs on waxed paper placed on a small cookie sheet. I put them in the refrigerator to set. Then I gently lifted the leaves off the paper and stored them in a small plastic container in the refrigerator until I was ready to tuck them into the whipped cream. Handle them as little as possible because they melt easily.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

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Even though Carolyn lives in sunny Florida now, she wears her favorite snowman apron (year-round) whenever she cooks.

My friend and former neighbor, Carolyn Eliason, is a wonderful cook and an amazing photographer. (She has her own photography blog “52 Weeks with Carolyn,” which is published every Friday at http://www.carolyneli.wordpress.com. Be sure to check it out.) She has given me so many great recipes over the years, but one I go back to frequently when I’m entertaining is her Crustless Quiche. Not only is it delicious, but it provides so much flexibility for cooks to put their own spin on it. I love that. Why are we talking about brunch, you may ask? Well, as you know, when the tribe descends for several days you’re expected to feed them at other meals besides the Thanksgiving feast. So, Carolyn’s recipe will come to the rescue. I have noted changes in the way I make the recipe. And you also can choose how you make it. How civilized!

Crustless Quiche

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Crustless Quiche

  • Servings: 8 to 12
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 4 large eggs, beaten (I used 5)
  • 16 ounces small-curd cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk (I used half-and-half)
  • 1/2 cup flour (I used 1/4 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion (I used 3/4 to 1 cup)
  • 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms (I didn’t use)
  • 1/2 cup chopped red or green pepper (I used 3/4 to 1 cup)
  • 2 cups frozen chopped broccoli, par cooked (I substituted 5 ounces of chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed)
  • 1 cup cubed ham
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted (allow to cool a bit)
  • 8 ounces grated Swiss cheese (I used 4 ounces)
  • 8 ounces grated Colby Jack cheese (I used 4 ounces)
  • (I also used 8 ounces of grated mild cheddar cheese)
  • (I also used 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Spread into a buttered 9×13-inch baking dish. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes; remove foil and cook another 15 minutes or until starting to brown. Let it stand for about 10 minutes before cutting into servings. Freezes well (unbaked). Thaw slightly before baking. Vary the recipe with your own choices of veggies and meats or shrimp or crab. Also could add a jalapeño pepper or a can of green chili peppers or sun-dried tomatoes. Use your imagination. (Tracy’s note: I often mix together all of the ingredients, except the grated cheeses, the day before and then refrigerate it in the bowl. The next day, I remove the bowl from the refrigerator about a half hour before baking and stir in the cheeses. Then I pour it into the baking pan and bake.)

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Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

It’s always nice to have a tasty quick bread for the family to enjoy with their coffee (or milk) in the mornings. Here is a deliciously moist and dense Autumn Apple Bread that my sister Kris makes when the new fall apple crop arrives in the stores.

Autumn Apple Bread

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Autumn Apple Bread

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso  or instant coffee powder (optional, but I love it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (or more if you prefer)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups apples (any variety), peeled and diced
  • 4 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream sugar and butter. Add eggs and sour cream. Add flour, soda, salt, espresso powder (f using), cinnamon and vanilla. Stir in apples. Spread in buttered (or sprayed) 9×5-inch loaf pan. Combine last 4 ingredients and drop little chunks of it over the top. Bake at 35o degrees for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool for 5 or 10 minutes. Remove from pan and leave on cooling rack until barely warm. (I always wrap the bread in plastic when it’s barely warm. It helps to keep it moist.) Slice and serve.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

meerkats

And the finale to this marathon of recipes is a very easy appetizer because, for crying out loud, shouldn’t there be one thing that doesn’t take three hours to make when you already have a million other things to do to get ready for these people who will soon invade your house like a burrowing herd of meerkats? Of course you love them all, bless their little hearts. Those cranberry sauce stains on the ceiling from last year’s gathering are fainter now. And that bloodstain did come out of the tablecloth. When it’s over, you will have stuffed another year of memories into that graying grey matter of yours. And then you’ll say, “I had fun, right? Let’s do it again!”

Hot Pepper Peach Brie with Bacon and Dried Cherries

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Hot Pepper Peach Brie with Bacon and Dried Cherries

  • Servings: 8 or more
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 wheel of Brie (any size)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/4 cup Robert Rothschild Hot Pepper Peach Preserves*
  • 5 slices bacon, fried crisp (but not burnt!)
  • Dried cherries
  • Cocktail crackers (I love Trader Joe’s Pita  Bite Crackers with Sea Salt; not the multigrain ones)

Place the Brie in an oven-safe serving dish. Bake at 325 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile in a small saucepan, melt butter and briefly sauté onion. Stir in garlic salt and peach preserves and heat until melted. Remove Brie from oven and spoon peach mixture over top and sides. Sprinkle with bacon and dried cherries. If a larger Brie is used, you may have to increase the other ingredients a bit.) Place a spreader knife by the Brie and serve with crackers or pita chips.

rothschild-hot-pepper-peach-preserves*Note: I am having trouble finding the Rothschild Hot Pepper Peach Preserves at my grocery store. It is available at Amazon.com, in case you can’t find it at your store. To substitute, I use regular peach or apricot preserves and add 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper to it; however, the Rothschild preserves are the best.

 Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

 Last Bites

A lot of Thanksgiving days have been ruined by not carving the turkey in the kitchen.—Frank “Kin” Hubbard

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Bob—ready to carve turkey.

For some reason, it has been a tradition through the years that men are the chosen ones to carve the turkey, and this ritual must take place at the dining room table in front of everyone. Who decided this? There are probably many guys who are comfortable with this task, but there are plenty more who want no part of it. I’m guessing that the ones who like to do it are the guys who know how to cook. My husband does not.

It would be charming to have Bob, dressed in a suit and tie, stand at the head of the Thanksgiving table, ready to carve the bird (how Norman Rockwellian). But sadly, Bob has no useful knowledge of turkey anatomy and the sharpest tool he has mastery of is the fingernail clippers. Watching him saw away on a turkey leg would be like watching a grisly slasher movie, not to mention that Great Aunt Rildabelle’s antique linen tablecloth would be ruined.

I did a little research online to determine if emergency rooms observe an uptick in injured people crying “fowl!” on Turkey Day. As a matter of fact, they do. Here are some commonly seen mishaps: knocking the turkey off the table and onto the foot (causing contusions and toe fractures); slightly inebriated “carvers” impaling themselves (causing finger, thumb and hand lacerations); fingers and hands being skewered with sharp pieces of turkey bone; and being burned from dropping the turkey while removing it from the oven or deep-fryer. These poor victims wait their turn to be x-rayed and bandaged and then they are sent back home in time to gnaw on few leftovers.

 

 

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Robert Englund, 1984, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection
Bob—after carving the turkey.

It would be so helpful if these fledgling carvers could watch some instructional videos on how to carve a turkey before their big moment in the spotlight. As it is, many of the chosen ones merely whittle away at the bird, while chunks of greasy meat and skin fly onto the tablecloth and floor. The guests feign nonchalance as the side dishes congeal in their bowls.

There are those of you who think there is nothing sexier than the foreplay of parading around a 25-pound bird on a slippery platter from kitchen to dining room. If your chosen one can do it well, then I bow to his skill, dexterity, and ultra coolness. For our family feast, however, the women will continue to efficiently reduce the bird down to neat piles of dark meat on half of the platter and white meat on the other—out in the kitchen and out of the spotlight.

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The following story is an example of why Bob should never be asked to perform tasks in the kitchen or dining room, except to be on the cleanup crew:

Years ago, my husband was given charge of our two young kids and our dachshund Schultz while I was out of town for the weekend. I wrote several pages of instructions on the care and feeding of children and wiener dogs. Bob, who is quite knowledgeable about things like bank mergers and acquisitions, knew nothing about cooking. He was planning to take the kids out for every meal, except breakfast (which involved only cereal). I decided to buy a “take and bake” pizza for their first night’s meal, thinking “how hard can it be?” I wrote down more instructions, explaining in detail how to bake the pizza—such as, where the oven is, how to turn it on and set the timer, and pointed out that the plastic wrap must be removed prior to baking, etc. That night, I called home to see how it was going. Kelly answered the phone and began sobbing, “When Dad took the pizza out of the oven, he dropped it on the floor and he made us eat it anyway!” Bob wrested the phone from her little mitt and calmly said, “In your instructions, you failed to note that I was supposed to use potholders when I removed the pizza from the oven.”

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Embrace your family this Thanksgiving. A hug assures them that you love them, quirks and all. And when it’s time for everyone to go around the table and say what they are thankful for, remind yourself not to say, “Caller ID.”

I appreciate all of you who come here and spend time reading my musings and recipes. Thank you! My next post will be on December 2. Happy Thanksgiving!—Tracy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pick, Pick, Pick

November 4, 2016

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You probably know someone who is or was a picky eater. I am married to one. And so is he. A few years ago, after reading an article I finally understood why. We are supertasters. This may sound like some  outstanding achievement, but really, it’s all about genetics—the number of tastebuds you are born with. I will provide more information later in this post.

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It’s not unusual for children to be fussy about food, but I seemed to have an extreme case. Here’s an example. And yes, it will probably lessen your opinion of me.

I was invited to a friend’s house for an overnight when I was about nine years old. I didn’t want to go because of my irrational fear of what I might be served at mealtime. She lived on a farm with baby kittens and puppies, so I decided it would be worth the risk. Naturally, my worst fears came true when we were called to dinner. Her mother handed each of us a big plate of nasty-looking goulash ladled over a slice of white bread. Filled with angst, I followed my friend as we carried our brimming plates to the back porch where we sat down at a little table-and-chair set. My friend ate heartily, while I slowly pushed mine around the plate. As she yammered on about what all the things we would do after lunch, my eyes surreptitiously scanned the room like a hunted criminal looking for a trap door. I spotted the  answer to my problem and quickly formulated a plan.

I gulped down my Kool-Aid and asked if I could have more. She took my glass and went back to the kitchen. I jumped into action, threw open the clothes hamper sitting conveniently behind me, dumped the gooey mess directly on top of their dirty clothes, and slammed down the lid. I was calmly placing my fork on my empty plate when she returned. Magnificent relief flooded over me. Picky eaters have no shame. I would love to say that I was overcome with guilt, but seriously, I chose not to think about it. In recent years, I have had latent guilt pangs. What must her mother have thought when she lifted that hamper lid? To her credit, she never said a word to me or my mom.

clothes-hamper

Even if you aren’t touchy about food, you probably have been served something you didn’t like when you were eating at someone else’s home. Did you handle it well? Of course you did. (Aren’t we the Little Goody Two Shoes!)

One more short anecdote. When I was little, I asked my Great Grandma Johnson what foods she didn’t like. She replied that she couldn’t think of any; she liked everything. I found this unimaginable! She and Great Grandpa Elias were of sturdy Norwegian stock, and they raised 12 children, so I’m guessing their meals weren’t very exotic. When our children were born, they became part of five living generations. Grandma Johnson was almost 100 when she died.

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Great Grandma Anna Johnson in her younger days.

 

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Five generations. Back row: My mom, Leatrice, and me, Tracy. Front row: My Grandma Pearl Danielson, Great Grandma Anna Johnson, and baby Kelly.

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You might assume when we humans slide down the chute that we all arrive equipped with the same tastebud inventory. Not so. About one-fourth of all humans have an extremely heightened sense of taste. They are known as “supertasters.” And there are probably several of you who are among the 25 percent who fall into this category.

Note: I am including several paragraphs from a research paper that I presented to another group a few years ago. The paper was about our innate and varying abilities to taste. I enjoyed learning about this topic, and I hope you will find it informative too.

A typical person is born with about 10,000 tastebuds (fungiform papillae) located on the back, sides and tip of the tongue, on the palate, and in the throat.

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In 1991, Dr. Linda Bartoshuk (a Yale University pioneer researcher in the study of genetic variation in the ability to taste) coined the word “supertaster” as a way to recognize the 25 percent of the population born with 25,000 or more tastebuds. She assigned the term “medium taster” to the 50 percent of the population having about 10,000 tastebuds. The last 25 percent were named “non-tasters” because they have fewer tastebuds than normal.

How did the doctor determine these three taster categories? She placed small pieces of filter paper saturated with a chemical (phenylthiocarbamide 6-n-propylthiouracil)—otherwise known as PROP—on the tongues of her test subjects. Supertasters reacted instantly and intensely to the bitter taste. Medium tasters took about 10 seconds longer to determine that they tasted a somewhat bitter taste, while non-tasters could not taste anything. (These taster categories only relate to a person’s ability to taste PROP.)

Utilizing PROP is a quick and easy method to determine where our tongues land on the tastebud continuum. Even though there are other primary tastes—such as salt, sweet and sour—this reaction to bitterness is the most accepted and defining factor in determining who has the supertaster gene. (Another method involves placing blue food dye on the tongue and then counting the pink papillae that show through.)

blue-tongue

Most of us enjoy eating pizza, but each of us savors it within our own personal tasting realm. Dr. Bartoshuk explains, “Supertasters live in a neon world of taste, while the others live in a pastel world.” Because supertasters have so many tastebuds, they have a much more sensational taste repertoire: Bitter tastes are bitterer; salt is saltier; sour is sharper and sweets sweeter; fat feels fattier; alcohol and chili peppers burn more fiercely. The inside of a non-taster’s mouth is “a very small world compared to the supertaster’s,” she  says.

It would seem that being a supertaster would be an amazing gift, right? Like an acrobat being double-jointed. Not necessarily so. The supertaster’s sensory reactions can be so intensified that many foods are avoided; in fact, they may only desire bland foods. Some frequently disliked foods include: broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, hot chili peppers, strong cheese, grapefruit, dark chocolate, artificial sweeteners, red wine, beer and coffee. If they do drink strong coffee, they often add cream and sugar to cut the bitterness. And they may experience more tingle from carbonated drinks. Dr. Bartoshuk says, “Supertasters are super-feelers and super-pain-perceivers, at least with their tongues.”

girl-and-brussels

Even though supertasters may start out as picky eaters, over time, they learn the phenomenon of “acquired tastes,” demonstrating that the taste sensation is malleable and educable. In other words, the intensely flavored foods they disliked as youngsters may become quite enjoyable as they mature. “Learning can override genetics,” says John E. Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State.

This brings up an interesting debate over whether parents should make children clean their plates. Kids in general are more naturally sensitive to bitter flavors. So, insisting that your supertaster child eat his broccoli may make you a contender for the starring role in the remake of Mommy Dearest. Enforcing the clean-plate rule for these children might be considered cruel. And then there are those moms and dads who brag about their amazing child who adores kale, blue cheese, hot sauce, etc. These parents would likely be surprised to learn that, even though their child may be quite precocious, he or she is probably a non-taster.

clean-plate

Non-tasters and medium tasters should be viewed as the lucky ones because they are often the more adventurous eaters. The bitterness or spiciness of foods is simply not an issue for them. Their fewer numbers of tastebuds have given them the advantage of an expanded food world.

The tongue map is something you may remember from your grade school science class when it was taught that we had four taste sensations located on specific regions of the tongue—bitter in the back, sour on the sides, salty on the front edges and sweet at the tip. The tongue map was debunked in 1974; it is now commonly agreed that the entire tongue can perceive these tastes more or less equally.

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The tongue map was debunked in 1974.

 

For years, there were only the four recognized primary tastes—bitter, sour, salty and sweet—until in recent years when a distinct fifth taste sensation was added. “Umami,” a word meaning “delicious, savory taste,” was identified by a Japanese researcher in the early 1900s, and after further investigation, became the fifth basic taste in 1985. And there is ongoing research that may eventually add “fat” and “metallic” as the sixth and seventh tastes to the primary taste canon.

Of course, the sense of smell is also very much a part of tasting because 80 percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. By the way, the olfactory world has its “supersniffers” too. (Unfortunately, there’s not time to delve into all the interesting facts about our sense of smell.)

nose

Interestingly, Dr. Bartoshuk is a non-taster. She says that even though we all dwell in different taste words, “most of the pleasures of eating are conditioned; learned by experience.” In the end, she says it really doesn’t matter what type of taster we are, the human brain will adapt to whatever set of tasting abilities we are born with because it wants to keep those calories coming into our bodies to assure that we will survive. And quite simply, it is just our nature to enjoy the taste of our food to the maximum, no matter what that maximum is.

Do you want to know which type of taster you are? There are several companies at Amazon.com that sell PTC papers so you can find out. I have provided this information in the Last Bites section.

***

I have come a long way since my goulash-dumping days. I no longer fear food. I savor it! Yes, sometimes I’m served something that I don’t like, but I try to deal with it in a more mature fashion. For example, there’s a quiet minority of us Thanksgiving diners who don’t really care for sweet potatoes to be smothered in a sticky foam of melted marshmallows and brown sugar. We don’t admit it to anyone because we are grownups now. We don’t want to be banished to the “fussy kids” card table, conveniently placed a safe distance away from the really sophisticated adults’ table with the cloth napkins, fancy centerpieces and crystal goblets. To mask our inability to eat well with others, we’ll usually put a tiny no-thank-you helping on our plates. Then we’ll wash it down with a flood of ice water, hoping to prevent those syrupy spuds from wiping out our pancreas (pancreasses?). A few years ago, I created a salad featuring roasted sweet potatoes, which you might want to consider for your Thanksgiving dinner. There may be people like me at your family feast who would be grateful for a less cloying version of those super-sweet sweet potatoes.

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Foodiva

I’m including some recipes that you might want to consider for your Thanksgiving menu. Of course I know that you have all the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie aspects of the feast down pat. Sometimes, though, you just want to mix it up a little with a few new recipes that fit in well with the rest of the meal.

This post features recipes for an appetizer, two salads, a side dish, and a dessert.

My friend from gourmet group, Catherine Fitzpatrick, created this appetizer, Boursin-Cheese and Cinnamon-Sugar-Almond Stuffed Dates. They are a tasty treat for hungry guests before the Thanksgiving meal is served, and they are perfect for you too because they can be made ahead of time and they are easy.

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Catherine is an amazing cook. She is known for her beautiful and delicious macarons.

Boursin-Cheese and Cinnamon-Sugar-Almond Stuffed Dates

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Boursin-Cheese and Cinnamon-Sugar-Almond Stuffed Dates

  • Servings: As many as desired
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 (5-ounce) carton Garlic and Herb Boursin cheese
  • 1 package cinnamon sugar almonds (I bought Fisher brand)
  • 1 package pitted dates
  • Thinly sliced prosciutto

Slice open a date. Stuff a teaspoon or less of Boursin cheese into the date. Place an almond into the cheese and squeeze the date back together. Cut the proscuitto into two strips. Wrap a strip around the stuffed date. Place the date seam-side down onto a serving platter. Repeat for as many as are needed.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

A few years ago when I had some leftover pumpkin purée after making pies, I decided to use it to make a salad dressing. For the salad, I used freshly sliced pears and pomegranate seeds. Pear and Aril Salad with Pumpkin Vinaigrette is a pretty addition to any Thanksgiving or fall meal.

pomegranate-seeds

A word about pomegranate seeds, otherwise known as arils. They are best when they have been freshly wrested from their natural pink leathery “purse” designed by Mother Nature. Removing arils can be a tribulation, but who said that good things in life come easy? Nowadays, though, thoughtful companies have come to the rescue by providing the oft aril-less public with an easy way to pluck them—from little plastic containers full of them, purchased at the grocery store. These juicy little seeds are ready to eat, but be warned, they are not quite as delicious as the ones you have to work for.

Pear and Aril Salad with Pumpkin Vinaigrette

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Pear and Aril Salad with Pumpkin Vinaigrette

  • Servings: 6 or more
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1/4 cup canned pumpkin purée
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons apricot jam
  • 1 medium clove garlic, pressed or finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 carton baby spinach or baby romaine lettuce
  • 4 pears (any ripe juicy variety), sliced, unpeeled (if Bartlett)
  • Pomegranate seeds (arils)
  • Roasted, salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
  • Shaved Parmesan cheese

In a small bowl, whisk together the pumpkin purée, vinegar, apricot jam, garlic, dry mustard, salt and pepper. Add the olive oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly until well blended. Divide the spinach or romaine (or both) among the number of plates desired. Drizzle each with dressing. Channel your inner Rembrandt and artfully fan out the sliced pears (5 or 6 slices per plate). Drizzle a bit more dressing, if desired. Sprinkle with arils and pumpkin seeds. Top with shaved Parmesan.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Here is the version of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes that I enjoy. Sans marshmallows and brown sugar. I prefer to roast the sweet potatoes with red onions and rosemary, and toss them with some arugula.

Roasted Sweet Potato and Arugula Salad

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Roasted Sweet Potato and Arugula Salad

  • Servings: 8 or more
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into approximately 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large red onion, chopped into bite-size chunks
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons dried rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon, or so, kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider (or juice)
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons honey (to taste)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, pressed or minced
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 large package baby arugula
  • Dried cranberries
  • Roasted, salted sunflower seeds
  • 1 (4-ounce) carton crumbled feta cheese

In a large bowl, toss together the sweet potatoes, red onion, olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Roast at 400 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until crispy brown. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature. Whisk together the vinegar, apple cider, honey, garlic, salt, pepper, curry and dry mustard. (The roasted sweet potatoes and the dressing can be made the day before, if desired.) When ready to serve, add the arugula and as much dressing as desired to a bowl and toss to coat. Place some arugula on each salad plate. Top with the roasted sweet potatoes and onions. Sprinkle cranberries, sunflower seeds and crumbled feta on top. (May also mix everything together in a large serving bowl for a big gathering.)

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Usually everyone loves to stick with their traditional side dishes, but just in case you’re looking for more ideas, I’ll include one. I often made plain old roasted broccoli for dinner, but when I found out how my friend Marcie Morrison makes hers, I switched to her method. It is extra delicious. And Bob and I (two reformed picky eaters) can polish off the whole pan of it all by ourselves.

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When I asked Marcie for a picture taken in her kitchen, she jokingly sent this. (She was Cruella De Vil for a Halloween party.) The joke’s on her. Here it is! Doesn’t she look sassy and classy?

Roasted Broccoli and Garlic with Parmesan Cheese

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Roasted Broccoli and Garlic with Parmesan Cheese

  • Servings: 3 or 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 to 3 bunches broccoli
  • 4 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced (I use 3 cloves and minced them)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil (or a bit more)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese (shredded or grated) (I only had shaved Parmesan when I took the photo)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. (My oven is hot enough at 400 degrees.) Cut the stems off the broccoli and leave only the florets. Place broccoli and garlic in large Ziploc bag with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss and mix it around inside the bag. Add more olive oil if necessary. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast 20 minutes or until most of the broccoli has browned tips. Remove from oven; pour lemon juice over all. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog

Templeton Rye whiskey was originally made in Templeton, Iowa, during the Depression as a way for farmers in Carroll County to supplement their incomes, according to the Templeton, Iowa, website. A rich amber-color, it was considered high quality and became popular in the Chicago, Omaha and Kansas City speakeasies during Prohibition. It was said to be a favorite of mobster, Al Capone. Templeton Rye was revived in 2007, and according to its producer, is “based” on the Prohibition-era recipe. It has been produced in Indiana since its reintroduction; however, it was announced recently that it’s coming back home to Iowa. The company plans to spend $26 million to build two barrel-aging warehouses and a distillery in Templeton, and everything should be up and running by spring 2019.

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Here is my recipe for Bread Pudding and Blackberries with Templeton Rye Whiskey Sauce. It’s my salute to the return of Templeton Rye to Iowa. For those who are looking for an alternative to pumpkin pie, give this a try.

Bread Pudding and Blackberries with Templeton Rye Whiskey Sauce

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Bread Pudding and Blackberries with Templeton Rye Whiskey Sauce

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 10 ounces French or Italian bread, cut into 1-inch slices
  • Butter, room temperature
  • 3 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons good vanilla
  • Fresh blackberries for garnish

Spread a thin layer of butter on one side of each slice. Place bread, buttered side up, on baking sheet at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Cool briefly. Cut slices into approximately 1/2-inch pieces. Butter a 9×13-inch baking dish. In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla. Add the bread and stir together gently. Pour into the baking dish. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour or a bit longer, until it looks golden and bubbling.

Templeton Rye Whiskey Sauce

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 tablespoon good vanilla
  • 1/4 cup Templeton Rye Whiskey
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat, add butter, sugar, salt, and half-and-half. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil 2 minutes and remove from heat. After it cools a bit, stir in vanilla and whiskey (and cinnamon if desired). Allow the bread pudding to cool completely and cover the pan with plastic wrap. When ready to serve, cut into squares. (Can be reheated if desired.) Place the squares on dessert plates or in shallow bowls. Reheat the sauce and ladle generously over each piece. Garnish with 5 or 6 blackberries. (The Templeton Rye can be left out if a simple vanilla sauce is preferred.)

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Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Last Bites

This year, before everyone nods off after the Thanksgiving dinner, why don’t you consider entertaining them with an unusual parlor game? “The Taster Test”! With PTC strips, test each person present to see what type of taster they are! (I would recommend that you not tell them ahead of time about the bitter taste reaction that you’re watching for. That way they aren’t influenced by the power of suggestion.) You can explain to them that when they were enjoying their Thanksgiving feast, each person was tasting their food on a different level—within their own realm of tasting abilities. (You’ll have to order the PTC strips ahead of time; they look similar to litmus papers.) And now that you have read this post you can share even more information about this phenomenon to everyone, which could lead to a discussion of each person’s food likes and dislikes. It could be one of your more interesting Thanksgivings. (That doesn’t set the bar very high, does it?)

ptc-papers

To order the PTC papers, go to Amazon.com. The photo above shows what a  vial of test papers looks like. The cost is about $7. I ordered this brand—Precision Laboratories (by Nasco). The description says, “Phenylthiourea (PTC) Paper Strips—Genetic Testing (Vial of 100).” There are other brands too.

Note: It was brought to my attention that the photos were missing from several of my earlier blog posts. I have fixed them all (I hope), so if you ever wish to refer back to an earlier post, they should be intact now. (Also, I am aware that the “Print” button doesn’t work on the recipes. I have tried to solve the mystery, but I can’t. So sorry for the inconvenience.)

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It’s pear season! This beautiful bowl of pears was spotted on the kitchen counter at the home of my friend Shayla From.

Thank you for visiting the blog. Please come back on November 18 when more Thanksgiving recipe ideas will be featured.—Tracy

 

A Ghost Story

October 21, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

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It was a dark and stormy night. Isn’t that how scary stories begin? Well, really, it wasn’t stormy.

When a colleague of mine and her husband invited Bob and me to come for dinner several years ago, we looked forward to seeing their charming little house in a small town near Des Moines. They had spent several months remodeling it and were ready to show it off.

vincent-priceAs we sipped our wine, they showed us around, pointing out the new features of their turn-of-the-century home. Then, as we tucked into a delicious lasagna dinner, the conversation took an unexpected turn. They matter-of-factly announced that their house was haunted. Whoa! Say what??? Come to think of it, her husband does look like Vincent Price! I tried to lock eyes with Bob, but he was calmly gnawing on his garlic bread as if he regularly received this kind of news. I always had thought these friends were normal; who would have guessed they were paranormal? They explained that the ghost was a woman and they were fairly certain that she and her family were the first residents of the house. Occasionally, she would appear at the foot of the couple’s bed at night. The porch lights or interior lamps were often turned on when the couple returned home after an evening out. She was a helpful ghost, you see.

My friend then related the time when she returned home from a hospital stay and left her overnight case in the bathroom. The next morning she was shocked to find that the ghost had unpacked her toiletry items and put them away on a shelf behind a glass door that had been stuck shut for years. She led me into the bathroom to show me how the glass door still could not be moved, but there were her toiletries sitting behind the glass. We returned to the table. I don’t remember much about the meal, except those first fabulous bites of lasagna. I do recall half-expecting Lurch to walk in from the kitchen with the dessert tray.

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I love the graphic quality of black and white frosted sugar cookies.

I didn’t drink any more wine or water, and skipped the coffee because I was afraid to go back into the bathroom; it was a 25-minute drive back to Des Moines. Bob’s antennae finally received my mental telegraph that I wanted to go, so we left right after the dessert. Really sorry we have to go. We’re pooped! We spent all day raking the shag carpeting, waxing the Pinto, and polishing the Harvest Gold appliances. We simply must get back to our mundane little split level in the suburbs.

I always felt guilty that we just ate and then  … departed. The couple has since divorced and moved away. I wonder who lives there now. And do they have spectral visitors? Sometimes I think I imagined the whole thing. Bob assures me I didn’t. At least I have a great ghost story to share if I’m ever invited to a slumber party.

Foodiva

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Feeling raven-ous? (Ravens made of marzipan perch warily on almond cake balls.)

Perhaps my spooky story has left you reaching for your security blanket. Maybe you need some good old reliable comfort food to calm your fears. I’m sure we all have our favorites. Here are a few of mine. A very popular one is Comfort Casserole. I have shared this recipe with many people over the years. Besides being a satisfying meal for the family, it is a perfect dish to share with someone who is ill or going through a difficult time. I am also including my version of chili, known as Chili Redemption. And a quick and satisfying recipe to accompany a casual meal is Garlic and Blue Cheese Biscuit Bites. And I can’t forget to give you the recipe for the delicious lasagna we had that night with “Vincent” and his wife. Our family calls it Hauntingly Good Lasagna. And finally, I’m sharing a very tempting and easy recipe that you won’t be able to leave alone, Salted Caramel Sauce.

Comfort Casserole is always a well-received dish when the family comes together after a busy day. It’s also perfect for emergencies. It can be assembled quickly for a timely delivery to a friend or relative who has had a death in the family or is laid up with an illness. Everyone loves its simple goodness.

Comfort Casserole

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Comfort Casserole

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 8 ounces extra-wide egg noodles, cooked al dente (about 8 minutes or so)
  • 3 cups cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces (A deli rotisserie chicken saves time.)
  • 2 (10 1/2-ounce) cans cream of celery soup
  • 8 ounces shredded Colby Jack cheese
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1/2 cup diced green pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise (more, if needed)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons dried, minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Plain bread crumbs (They usually come in a can.)
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted

Mix all ingredients together, except last two. Spread into a 9×13-inch pan. (I often divide it into two smaller pans, and then bake one and freeze the other.) Sprinkle bread crumbs liberally over the top. Pour melted butter over all. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbling.

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Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Who doesn’t crave a bowl of chili when it’s chilly? The lack of joy for my old recipe was humiliating. It was a loser and a snoozer. Its sin? No pizazz. And so, after religiously studying a few “chili bibles,” I saw the light. I worked up a more spirited recipe (featuring salsa and beer) and now my family is filled with adoration. Praise the Lord and pass the crackers!

Chili Redemption

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Chili Redemption

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 or 4 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 (16-ounce) carton fresh chunky-type mild salsa, drained*
  • 1 (14-ounce) can petite-diced tomatoes and juice
  • 1 (12-ounce) bottle beer, any kind (I like Corona.)
  • 1 (8-ounce) can V-8 juice
  • 1 (4-ounce) can green chilies
  • 2 or 3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon chili power
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 or 3 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 3 cubes Wyler’s beef bouillon
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Salt, if needed

In a medium soup pot over medium heat, brown the ground beef with the onion and garlic. Add the salsa, tomatoes, beer, V-8 juice and green chilies, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the black beans and remaining ingredients. Simmer for another hour or so. Adjust seasonings, as necessary. (*You can find fresh, chunky salsa in the refrigerated case, usually near the produce aisle of your grocery store. I like Fiesta brand, an Iowa product, but there are usually several to choose from.)

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Who would guess that a humble can of refrigerated biscuit dough could be elevated to a rich and buttery treat? Garlic and Blue Cheese Biscuit Bites (or you can use Feta cheese, if preferred) are a great casual food because they can be placed in the middle of the table at meal time and everyone can reach out and take some.

Garlic and Blue Cheese Biscuit Bites

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Garlic and Blue Cheese Biscuit Bites

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 (7 1/2-ounce) can refrigerated biscuits, cut into fourths (I use a kitchen shears.)
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • Garlic salt
  • 2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (or feta cheese may be used)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-inch pie pan with nonstick spray. Arrange biscuit quarters in pan. Pour melted butter over all. Lightly sprinkle with garlic salt. Sprinkle cheese over all. Bake 12 to 14 minutes. Pass biscuits or, if it’s a casual meal, set the pan in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves—fingers are allowed! (Original version from late great friend Bobbye Scheidler.)

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Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Even though the ghostly evening that Bob and I experienced was unusual, we certainly enjoyed the lasagna that our hosts had made. In fact, it has become one of our family favorites. My sister and her family love this recipe too, and in fact, she makes it much more often than I do.

Hauntingly Good Lasagna

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What is more satisfying than a big slice of fresh lasagna?

Hauntingly Good Lasagna

  • Servings: 10 or more
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef (or 1 pound ground beef and 1/2 pound ground sausage)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons salt (This is a big recipe, so it needs plenty of salt.)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed plum tomatoes
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 (15-ounce) carton ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 9 lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions
  • 1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Brown hamburger (and sausage, if using), onion and garlic in olive oil, breaking down the meat as it cooks. Add the next 9 ingredients. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. (If sauce becomes too thick, add 1/2 cup water.) In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the egg, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, parsley, salt and pepper. In a sprayed (or oiled) 9×13-inch Pyrex pan (or lasagna pan), start with a thin layer of meat sauce. Then add a layer of noodles (3 noodles, side-by-side lengthwise, per layer). Next spread about 2 cups of meat mixture, then add several dollops of ricotta mixture (about a third of it), then add approximately 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and about 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese. Repeat layers two more times (if there’s enough room in the pan), ending with the remaining meat sauce and cheeses. Place pan on a baking sheet in the oven. Cover loosely with foil that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 15 minutes or until cheese is brown and bubbling. Allow lasagna to cool for 15 minutes before cutting to serve.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

 

ghost

Help! I’m being terrorized by the lady ghost from the haunted house story because she caught me in a lie. The truth is, the lasagna photo above is not a genuine slice of Hauntingly Good Lasagna. I ran out of time to make it, so I microwaved a slice of Stouffer’s, took a picture of it, and then made Bob eat it for dinner. I had hoped you wouldn’t notice, but you were suspicious, weren’t you? I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Now, tell this spook to disappear!

And finally, something to satisfy the sweet tooth, and it can be made in just a matter of minutes! It puts the store-bought stuff to shame. Salted Caramel Sauce, heated and then poured over vanilla ice cream, is lip-licking good. (Häagen-Dazs Vanilla or Vanilla Bean ice cream is excellent!) Or, try it drizzled over apple cake or pie. Also, the sauce poured into the little jelly-sized jars, makes great take-home gifts for friends and family during fall gatherings. And here’s a surprise! If you cook it too long you end up with soft, luscious caramel candy! What a recipe! You’re welcome.

Salted Caramel Sauce

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Salted Caramel Sauce

  • Servings: 4 or so
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1/2 cup butter (not margarine)
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon (scant) kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon good vanilla

In a heavy saucepan (not smaller than 3-quart), add all ingredients, except vanilla and heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Boil gently over medium-low heat until mixture thickens, about 7 or 8 minutes. Remove from heat. After 15 minutes, stir in vanilla. Allow it to cool and then store in jars, or serve warm over vanilla ice cream. If you allow the caramel sauce to continue cooking for another 4 minutes or so, it will become a soft, chewy caramel candy. If you use a candy thermometer, it becomes candy when it reaches about 235 degrees. (But, if you don’t have one, don’t worry about it. If it is too soft, then it is still sauce—and that’s okay!) If you cook it to candy (soft ball) consistency, then remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla and pour into a buttered 8×8-inch pan. Allow to cool completely and then cut into squares. Wrap each one in plastic wrap.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Last Bites

fullsizerender158Have you ever noticed that your favorite comfort foods are hardly ever low calorie? There’s nothing like a rich sustaining meal to bring on that feeling of warmth and well-being associated with childhood and Mom’s home-cooking.

Speaking of rich foods, I have never liked to use the word “grease” in my stories or recipes. Is there anyone who believes that “grease” sounds appealing? I like to use more palatable euphemisms, such as “oil,” “butter,” or “shortening,” when possible.

“Grease” reminds me of a misunderstanding that occurred when our son Bradley was about to graduate from high school. He walked into the kitchen, grabbed a snack, and said he was planning to take his friend Sarah to Grease (which was playing at the Civic Center). I snapped back, “Are you kidding? There’s no way your father and I would allow you and Sarah to go to Greece.” “But why would you have such a fit about Grease?” he asked. I replied, “I cannot even believe you would ask me why. End of discussion!” “Mom, I don’t get it. Is it because Grease is expensive?” he persisted. “Of course Greece is expensive,” I said. “Your father and I would not even go right now with four years of college ahead.” “Wow, I don’t see how it can be so expensive,” he mused. Finally he asked, “So is the real reason because it’s pornographic or something?” I paused for a moment, “Well now, that’s an odd question. I suppose there are some Greeks who are into pornography but probably no more so than any other country.” Brad gasped and his eyes burned into mine as if I had just Brylcreemed my hair into a pompadour and kick-started a motorcycle. “Greeks? Mom, are you crazy? I’m talking about Grease the Musical!” The fog cleared. “Grease the Musical?  Oh my gosh! Well then, never mind. Of course you may go, Bradley,” said his batty mother.

witch-and-bat-orange-moon

Let’s return to the subject of ghosts, which makes me think of tombstones, which make me think of epitaphs. Have you ever thought about what yours would be? I have known forever what mine would say: She just needed one more day. Indeed, whenever I start a project, I seem to think of more and more things that I could do to make it better. And then I find myself scrambling right up to the last minute to get it finished. It’s not because I am a procrastinator; I would say it’s because I’m a “lily gilder,” which is so time-consuming! I inherited this trait from my late Great Aunt Dora—that desire to go above and beyond what is necessary. For example, Aunt Dora made the most spectacular decorated sugar cookies. They were loaded with intricate frosting flowers, birds, bells, hearts, trellises, glitter, and silver dragees. (You could crack a molar if you bit into one, but still, they were amazing to behold.) She also made exquisite wedding cakes. Each time she completed one, she would stand back, give it a critical eye, and then wistfully sigh, “I always put one too many roses on it.”

I hope you will come back again in two weeks, on November 4, when I’ll have another post for you. Thanks for dropping by!—Tracy

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Soup’s On!

October 7, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

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As leaves softly crash-land upon the changing landscape, our thoughts turn to chilly days and comforting soups and stews. Extreme weather, political babble, and other world events preoccupy our minds, but we are calmed by those sturdy soups that fill our bellies and pacify our souls. Soup is mystical. A watched pot may never boil, but it can maintain a gentle simmer that melds lovely and disparate ingredients into something glorious. Mmm mmm good!

On those days when I know there’s leftover soup in the fridge ready to be zapped for lunch, I am so pleasant to be around. If there’s none to be had then I’m testy, wondering what I can cobble together for a miserable bite to eat. I may decide to head to The General Store in Valley Junction (West Des Moines) to indulge in their tasty soup and sandwich concoctions. And soon, I’m happy again!

fullsizerender132Creating a soup can be rewarding. If you like to experiment in the kitchen, a soup is a great place to start. Focus first on what you like and don’t like. Read through soup recipes in cookbooks and online, and select the best parts of several of them. Then dive in! With so many permutations and combinations of meat, veggies, broths, and seasonings, you may have to rein yourself in. You could easily cross over the fine line between adventuresome cook and mad scientist. So, just simmah down and make a plan. Once you have completed your experiment, it’s time to have a taste. If it is amazing, immediately write down the ingredients, quantities, and how you did it, before it all gets lost inside your temperamental temporal lobe. But, if it turns out that your whole hypothesis was wrong, don’t blow up your Bunsen burner in a fit of rage. Your soup might possibly be redeemable! First, invite your soup for an overnight in your fridge. This will help the flavors mingle. You may also need to add a skosh more salt and pepper, and even a spoon full of sugar to help balance it and make it wondrous! Also consider other enhancements —more onion, garlic, bouillon? Tweaking is a good thing! (Twerking isn’t, especially when you’re messing around with hot soup!) If the soup still is vile, then as Elsa reminds us,Let it go” (directly down your garbage disposal). Don’t look back. Failures build character. Each time you fail, you become a finer person. (You believe anything I tell you, don’t you?)

***

I believe the perfect soup should provide the all the elements of a fine meal in just one perfect pot. And you don’t have to make a lot of extra things to go with it. Inviting a few people over for a Sunday night supper can be such a simple joy. Soup, salad, bread, beverage (wine, beer, water), apple crisp, and coffee. The unspoken message: “We didn’t fuss too much while making this rustic meal for you because we consider you family (and quite frankly we just didn’t want to have to work that hard).”

Occasionally, I do like to put more effort into a meal. I will put together a fun soup lunch for my friends. (Yes, then I may fuss quite a bit!)

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***

For years, I have collected fall leaves. Each autumn, I look for new additions to my collection. I press them between magazines and pile books on top of them for a week or two. For a small effort, I have beautiful, natural (and free!) decorations for the dinner table, fall arrangements, or gift wrapping. Here a few of the many leaves I have filched from people’s yards over the years.

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***

Another fun thing to do this time of year is to make fall leaves from marzipan (ground almond paste). Marzipan comes in a tube tucked inside a small rectangular-shaped box in the baking section of the grocery store. The paste can be dyed with gel food coloring. For fall leaves, I break off three pieces of marzipan and dye them moss green, orange (copper) and yellow.  Then I press the three together and knead them just slightly so the colors don’t completely run together. I roll the colored marzipan with a miniature rolling pin, and then cut out leaves using a small “leaf” cookie cutter. A paring knife makes nice “vein” impressions in the leaves. After they dry, they can be stored indefinitely in a small plastic container. They are edible, of course, and eye-catching when perched on a dollop of whipped cream on sitting atop a slice of pumpkin pie or arranged in groups of three with little hand-made marzipan pumpkins to garnish a dessert plate. (The leaves may look rather large here, but they are really fairly small.)

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***

One of my favorite childhood books was the ancient folktale, Stone Soup. That huge cauldron of boiling soup concocted by the soldiers and villagers sounded so mouth-watering to me, even though I was totally weirded out by all the grit and bacteria that must have been floating around in that broth.

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Foodiva

It was a challenge to decide which soup recipes to include in this post. I finally chose one with beef, called Brothy Beef Stew, two with chicken, Tortilla Blanca Soup and Roma Chicken Tortellini Soup, and one vegetarian, Autumn Nip Soup. Parsnips may not reside in your “root vegetable” realm, but they make a memorable, delicate fall soup. The next time you’re feeling intrepid, pick up some parsnips in the produce aisle! And finally, the perfect accompaniment to soup, an addicting cheese bread recipe, Epic Garlic Cheese Bread, created by our daughter, Kelly Mullen, who has become quite the cook.

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The first time I ever tasted Brothy Beef Stew, my friend Kathy Zumbach’s recipe,  I was gobsmacked by its deliciousness. It would become a regular in my fall and winter menu rotation. It is an intensely beefy, brothy, umami-filled recipe. On that particular late afternoon many years ago, I had stopped by Kathy’s house to drop off something. My nose instantly caught the savory fragrance of her simmering stew. She scooped up a few bites into a bowl for me to taste. It was so heavenly that I ate two bowls of it before I left! I was very full and very embarrassed that I had eaten so much. On my way home I asked myself, “Why should I make a nice meal for the family when I am full of soup?” So, I stopped at McDonald’s and picked up fast food for them. I know. I know. I’m a disgusting person and I ruined my chances of ever being named Mother of the Year.

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Kathy Zumbach is an excellent cook and keeps her kitchen extremely tidy even when she’s making a meal—a foreign concept to her friend, The Messy Cook.

Brothy Beef Stew

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Brothy Beef Stew

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds lean sirloin beef, cubed
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 (14.5 ounce) cans beef broth (or more, if preferred)
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • Small dash of allspice
  • 8 ounces peeled baby carrots; cut each one into 4 or 5 slices
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks

In a medium soup pot, sauté beef, onions, and garlic in oil until browned. Add all remaining ingredients, except potatoes. Simmer, uncovered, 1 1/2 hours. Add potatoes and cook until tender (30 to 45 minutes). (Tracy covered the soup for about 10 minutes after adding the potatoes, and then uncovered it again.) Remove the bay leaves and ladle into bowls.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

I created Tortilla Blanca Soup several years ago, and it has always been a favorite of our son Bradley. I usually make a batch for him and his wife Lindsey when we go to Phoenix. Since they work long hours, they don’t get to spend as much time in the kitchen as they would like.

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Bradley and Lindsey

 

Tortilla Blanca Soup

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Tortilla Blanca Soup

  • Servings: 8 or so
  • Difficulty: Easy to Medium
  • Print

  • 1 1/2 cups diced onion
  • 3 large cloves garlic, crushed or minced
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 (16-ounce) carton fresh salsa, drained (found in the refrigerated section of the produce department; I prefer an Iowa-made product called Fiesta; I prefer “mild”)
  • 1 (32-ounce) carton chicken stock or broth
  • 1 (4-ounce) can green chilies (does not have to be drained)
  • 1 (14- to 16-ounce) bag Birds Eye frozen corn (I prefer Birds Eye Baby Gold and White Corn or can use Birds Eye Sweet Kernel Corn, or can cut the equivalent amount of fresh corn off the cob)
  • 1 cube of Knorr chicken bouillon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 2 cups cooked, chopped chicken breast
  • 1 (8-ounce) package shredded Monterey Jack cheese or Colby Jack cheese
  • Crushed tortilla chips

Sauté the onions and garlic in the butter until translucent. Stir in the flour. Add the salsa and the chicken stock and bring to boil, stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Add the green chilies and the corn. Stir well and add the seasonings. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half. Add the chicken and simmer for 15 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring well after each addition. Taste soup and adjust seasonings as needed. Ladle into bowls. Have a small bowl of crushed tortilla chips at each place setting to sprinkle over the soup. (Remember, never boil soup after the cheese has been added; it can curdle.)

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

A few years ago it suddenly dawned on me how popular packaged tortellini (in the refrigerated section at the grocery store) had become. I hadn’t received the memo. So, I got busy and created my own recipe for Roma Chicken Tortellini Soup. I like it a lot, especially when I load it up with grated Parmesan cheese! (And another thing—don’t even consider leaving the wine out of this recipe! )

Roma Chicken Tortellini Soup

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Roma Chicken Tortellini Soup

  • Servings: 4 to 5
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 heaping cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1 (32-ounce) carton chicken broth (my favorite is Costco Organic Chicken Stock)
  • 1 (14-ounce) can petite-diced tomatoes (juice too)
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
  • Fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube
  • 1 (9-ounce) package three-cheese tortellini
  • 2 cups cooked, chopped chicken breast
  • Freshly shredded or shaved Parmesan cheese

In a soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté onions, garlic, and green pepper until tender, about 5 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, and wine. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or so. Add seasonings (including bouillon cube) and simmer for a few minutes. Add the chicken and tortellini, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low boil until tortellini are cooked (about 9 minutes). Adjust seasonings, if necessary. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle liberally with Parmesan.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

Autumn Nip Soup is a lovely vegetarian soup. I developed it when I wanted to add a root vegetable soup to my “portfolio.” The carrots and parsnips give it a rich and delicate golden color. If you aren’t familiar with parsnips, you must get to know them. Crunchy fried shallots piled on top add a savory little kick.

Autumn Nip Soup

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Make delicious fried shallots in just minutes to top off the Autumn Nip Soup (or almost any cream soup).

Autumn Nip Soup

  • Servings: 6 to 8
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (16-ounce) package baby carrots, each one chopped into thirds
  • 1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and chopped into small chunks
  • 1 (32-ounce) carton chicken broth or vegetable broth (for vegetarians)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 or 2 large shallots, thinly sliced on a mandolin
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons flour
  • Vegetable oil
  • Salt

In a medium-sized soup pot, melt the butter and sauté the onions and garlic a few minutes and then add the carrots and parsnips. Sauté for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Add the broth, garlic salt, and pepper. Boil slowly for 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat. While mixture is cooling, prepare the shallots. Sprinkle the flour over the sliced shallots. Pour about two inches of vegetable oil into a small skillet and heat to about 350 degrees. (I don’t use a thermometer. I just toss in a couple of small pieces of shallot to determine if the oil is hot enough. If they start cooking and bubbling, the oil temperature is just right.) Add the rest of the shallots and stir them around gently. If the oil starts to smoke, it’s too hot! Turn down the heat. In a couple of minutes, the shallots will start browning and crisping. Remove them immediately from the skillet with a slotted spoon or tongs and place them on a paper towel. Sprinkle them lightly with salt. Set aside. When the soup mixture is cool, purée in batches in blender until smooth. Return mixture to soup pot and heat. Add the cream. Stir until heated through. Adjust seasonings as needed. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with a mound of fried shallots.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

Kelly loves to devise her own recipes when she has some rare free time. Her boyfriend Jesse is also the benefactor of her delicious creations. She recently flew down to visit her grandparents (my parents). She made her Epic Garlic Cheese Bread for them for dinner one night, and they loved it so much they asked her to make it again the following night!

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Jesse and Kelly

Epic Garlic Cheese Bread

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Epic Garlic Cheese Bread

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 (8-ounce) package shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 1/4 sticks butter, softened
  • 4 scallions (white and light green parts), minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 5 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 baguette or loaf of French bread

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, mix the cheese with mayonnaise, 1/4 stick of softened butter, and scallions. Add salt and pepper to taste, and set aside. Melt the remaining stick of butter in a skillet over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook and stir until garlic is fragrant. Slice the loaf of bread in half vertically and cut off the ends. Brush the garlic butter on each half. Evenly spread the cheese mixture on both halves and bake 8 to 10 minutes. Cut into slices and serve.

Recipe published at http://www.messycookblog.com

Last Bites

HotYears ago at occasional family reunions, I would be transfixed by my Great Aunt Julia as she chatted with other relatives seated at the table. Without so much as a grimace, she would gulp down brimming cups of scalding hot coffee or bowls of soup heated to near evaporation. I always wondered what her doctor saw when he peered down her throat during her checkups. Was her gullet a mass of scar tissue? Were her tonsils burned to the nubs? Was her uvula nothing but a big blister hanging at the back of her throat? She was such a sweet little lady; but her innards were “industrial strength,” to say the least.

***

hall-of-laureatesWhen a friend or family member is having health issues, I usually make soup for them. I’m a big proponent of feeding fevers, not starving them. In fact, I strongly condone a “no starvation” policy in all eating situations for myself and generally for most all creatures of the world. Speaking of the world, as an Iowan, I am proud of our spectacular World Food Prize Hall of Laureates whose headquarters is planted right here in Des Moines, Iowa. The World Food Prize is a highly coveted, international monetary award presented each year to individuals who have increased the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. Bravo!

meals-from-the-heartlandWe are but mere specks on this planet, so how do we do our part to feed so many hungry people around the world? Many Iowans volunteer their time and/or give donations to local food pantries, such as the Food Bank of Iowa and the Des Moines Area Religious Council. Another outstanding organization, Meals from the Heartland, is also located in the Des Moines area. It feeds millions of hungry people around the globe annually, thanks to generous donations and the efforts of thousands of volunteers from every walk of life. They gather together to assemble dried food packets that can be reconstituted; each one can feed six people. Being part of these humanitarian efforts can fill us up in ways that a hearty soup never could.

Now … where was I? Sidetracked again! I was talking about how important soup is when we are sick. (Untethered thoughts meander of their own accord.) I’m not a scientist, but I proudly earned a “C” in college chemistry, and so I feel that I can speak with some authority on the restorative powers of soup on the human body. No? Well, then let me say that soup is quite simply a warm hug of a meal that can almost always sustain and comfort us, especially on those days when we require an extra boost to get through the day.

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As Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, once said: Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup? Who soothes you when you are ill? Who refuses to leave you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give a hearty sustenance and cheer? Who warms you in the winter and cools you in the summer? Yet, who also is capable of doing honor to your richest table and impressing your most demanding guests? Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don’t catch steak hanging around when you’re poor and sick, do you?

I look forward to another visit from you on October 21, when the next post is published. Thank you for stopping by!—Tracy

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Love for Sale

September 23, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

Last year, we attended a Dead Poets Society Party, where each guest took turns at the podium, regaling the group with essays, songs, dramatic readings, poems, anecdotes, etc. Hosted by Debby and Glenn Angelino, it was a fun, sometimes poignant, mostly hilarious evening. Debby and Glenn are pictured in the top left photo, with my husband Bob sitting in the middle. Jim and Janie Wine (top center photo) read a scene from When Harry Met Sally. (Jim also brought down the house with his unique stylings of That’s Why the Lady Is a Tramp.) Joel From (top right photo) provided some entertaining medical anecdotes, with a lot of heart. (He’s a cardiologist.) The variety provided by the group was impressive. Me? I wrote an essay on—what else—food. I have included it below (so I can get a little more mileage out of it). Perhaps it’s a bit ribald; as Mrs. Doubtfire’s dear late husband Winston would have said, “Brace yourself, Effie!”

Love for Sale in the Produce Aisle

fullsizerender35Piloting my cart through the maze of shelves and shoppers, I arrive at the produce department and behold the teeming carnival before me. I push past the bell peppers in brazen colors that belie their mild proclivities; spurn the harlot-rouged tomatoes seducing me from their clear-plastic bordellos; dodge the pheromonal onions with their unkempt topknots and flimsy overcoats hiding pungent secrets; disdain the dainty-leafed lettuces overdressed in their endless ruffles; shun the bronzed carrots flaunting their gratingly slim, androgynous bodies.

Rounding the corner, I pull up to my favorite spot—the potato bin—and invite some stodgy russets to take a ride. Perhaps they don’t radiate the vitality of the other vegetables, but I do admire their stoic inner beauty. Today, I’m not in the market for those pretty prima donnas laid out like magazine centerfolds on every shelf. I watch the hydrating mists caress their delicate skins every few minutes, and it gets on my nerves. Well, wouldn’t we all look dewier if we were continually being coddled and moisturized? I try to remind myself that they are mere flashes in the pan—fresh and lovely now, but their days are numbered.

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Earthy, fleshy, homey. Starchy, stuffy, sturdy. As my trusty tubers bump along the conveyor belt, I see the knowing glints in their many eyes. I sense that we are simpatico with their forthcoming reincarnation—that moment when these hard-core hunks will morph into malleable mounds of mmm mmm goodness; when white hot heat sears their very souls,  ending in a climax of butter melting deep into softened flesh. And a final flourish of salt and pepper enflames their mortal wounds. Sadistic? Perhaps, but balms of sour cream are brought in to soothe their glorious agonies.

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When the consummation is complete, my plate—licked clean—reflects my regret. But not for long, thanks a generous pour of lusty cab sitting to my right.

My obsession is the stuff of aching-loin novels. I could pen this overwrought potato prose well into the wee hours of night, but then who would dispense with these dirty dishes? My reverie fades as I fill the sink with soapy water. Truth be told, though, I tremble in anticipation of my next dalliance with those humble lumps of pure goodness. (August 2015)

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An excellent cook who is never afraid to try something new, Barb is a fellow ISU home economics graduate. So, what’s with the Hawkeye shirt, Barb?

It is my pleasure to feature my most beloved potato recipe of all time, thanks to my friend, Barb DeBuhr, who first introduced it to our gourmet group a few years ago. I could eat an entire pan of Yukon Gold and Boursin Gratin and never tire of it. Be warned that this recipe is definitely near the top of the “Naughty Scale,” but once you have wrapped your lips around these amazingly rich, elegant, velvety potatoes, you will never forget them. When you are having company for dinner, this is the side dish that you will want to serve. It’s just as delicious rewarmed. Don’t even think about discarding the leftovers.

 

 

 

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My favorite potato recipe ever—Yukon Gold Boursin Gratin!

I could not operate in my kitchen without a mandoline. When you don’t own one, you have to find the sharpest knife in the block to slice your potatoes (or other vegetables) to a uniform thickness. Slicing several pounds of potatoes is time-consuming, which makes investing in one of these handy tools well worth it. While it’s on your mind, why don’t you start your holiday wish list and write “mandoline” at the very top? Be certain that your Santa knows what a mandoline is; otherwise, we’ll be expecting to attend your mandolin recital at Hoyt Sherman Auditorium after the music lessons start paying off.

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Woman with mandolin. (This work is in the public domain.)

I have two mandolines. One is the “safe” kind that has prongs to hold the potato (or other vegetable) in place while you slide it over the blade. It is fairly safe to use, but there is always a piece of potato left on the prongs that you must remove and slice with a knife. I personally prefer my very old mandoline that has no safety guard. Slicing potatoes on this thing takes no time at all, but you can quickly slice off your fingertips if you’re not paying attention. I have used it for years so I know that I must be ever vigilant; fortunately, I have never had an accident. Unless you are going into the Witness Protection Program and need to have your fingerprints removed, I recommend that you go with the safer version of this tool.

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This kind of mandoline makes potato slicing easy and it’s relatively safe to use.
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This is an old mandoline/slicer and is risky to use unless you are an extremely cautious person. I love this old thing. When I’m using it, I have the rescue unit on speed dial, just in case.

Yukon Gold and Boursin Gratin

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Yukon Gold and Boursin Gratin

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 2 cups heavy (whipping) cream
  • 1 5-ounce carton Garlic and Herb Boursin cheese
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Peel and slice potatoes into 1/8-inch (or so) slices. Combine cream, Boursin and shallots in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until cheese melts. (If some small lumps remain, that’s fine.) Butter a 9-x-13-inch baking dish. Spread half of the potato slices in the bottom. Pour half of the cheese sauce over the potatoes. Sprinkle 1 1/4 teaspoons of salt evenly over all. Grind black pepper over all. Spread the remaining potato slices on top. Pour remaining cheese sauce over potato slices. Sprinkle with remaining salt, and grind more black pepper over all. Bake at 400 degrees (uncovered) for 50 to 60 minutes, or until top is golden brown and potatoes are tender.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Now, let’s talk more about that baked potato pictured above. To make a beautiful baker, scrub a good-sized russet (or as many as you require) with a vegetable brush under running water. Dry it well. Pierce it in several places with a paring knife to help release steam. Rub it with olive oil and roll in kosher salt. Place it directly on the oven rack at 350 degrees for at least 1 hour (depending on size of potato). When it “gives” slightly, it’s done. Remove from oven; let it rest for a few minutes. Slice part way down into the potato and also almost all the way across to each side. Gently push in on both sides to make it open up as a perfect pocket for all the toppings you love. Use your kitchen shears to cut a bunch of fragrant chives to sprinkle on top. Pure joy!

Yesterday was the first day of fall, and just in time to celebrate the change of seasons is  my sister Kris Gourley’s Apple Party Mix. It’s so fragrant and spicy; one whiff will convince you that summer has packed up and moved out.

 Apple Party Mix

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Apple Party Mix

  • Servings: 10 or so
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 12-ounce box Crispix cereal
  • 1 2.5-ounce bag Seneca Original Crispy Apple Chips (in produce aisle)
  • 2 2.5-ounce bags Seneca Granny Smith Apple Chips
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh pecan pieces (I used whole pecans)
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup white sugar (or a bit less)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (or a bit less)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon (to taste)

Pour cereal into large roaster pan. (Note: Kris uses a large aluminum disposable roaster pan. I used my large granite roaster this time, but I like the idea of no clean-up with the disposable pan. She often doubles the recipe.) Break all the apple chips into smaller pieces and remove any seeds or hulls that happen to remain in the chips. Add them to the cereal. Add the pecans. (Note: I toasted the pecans for a few minutes in a skillet with a tablespoon of butter and a sprinkle of salt before adding them to the rest of the ingredients. This is not necessary. I just happen to like them a bit toasted.) Gently mix everything together. In a medium saucepan, add the butter and sugars. Bring to a boil just briefly until the sugars are dissolved. Stir in the cinnamon. Pour over cereal/apple mixture. Stir gently to evenly coat. Bake at 275 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool completely and store in large plastic container.

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Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

Last Bites

I’ve never been a fan of deprivation. Certainly there have been plenty of times when I have been deprived (or deprived myself) of things I wanted. Haven’t we all? When it comes to food, though, I admit that I cannot turn down something beautifully prepared. It doesn’t have to be costly—macaroni and cheese, baked potato, grilled cheese sandwich, deviled egg, tomato basil soup, chicken salad. And the occasional expensive dinner splurge is immensely satisfying as well. If food is well made with quality ingredients that I love, I will savor every bite, without guilt. I wasn’t endowed with the steely mien required to just say no. So I say, “Here’s to joie de vivre wherever you can find it.”

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I love the following quote. (I understand that some of you will not care for it.) It is attributed to poet Charles Bukowski. Others say, however, that it originated with author and musician Kinky Friedman.

My dear,

Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.

Let it kill you and devour your remains.

For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.

Food, music, reading and writing are some of my passions. When I am immersed in one of them, hours may pass without my realizing it. Think about what activity you love that causes you to become lost in yourself over a period of time. That, my friend, is your passion. Life is short. Do what you love as intensely as your time, health and wherewithal will allow. Give yourself permission. Tempus fugit.  Do you hear me?

The consequences of a foodie lifestyle are hard to hide. The following quote—another one of my favorites—says it all.

She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.—P.G. Wodehouse

I hope this post didn’t leave you feeling overstuffed and dyspeptic. I’ll look forward to seeing you here when the next post is published on October 7. Thank you!—Tracy

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Peggy, Piggy, and Pork

September 9, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

Back when David Letterman was king of late-night television, he featured an occasional segment called “Brush with Fame.” A few audience members would be invited to share their stories about a time when they had had a brief encounter with someone famous. Here is mine; I just wish I could have a “do-over”!

Peggy Fleming Figure SkaterFor a time, the National Pork Producers Council, headquartered in Clive (Des Moines), had a well-known personality as their spokesperson, Olympic figure skater and gold medalist Peggy Fleming. (I hear you. Probably most of us wouldn’t have thought of her if asked to consider potential pushers of pork products.)

It was around 1988 when, out-of-the-blue, I was asked by a local marketing/PR firm if our home could be used for an all-day film shoot for a training and promotional piece for the National Pork Producers Council. Peggy Fleming would be there all day with  Pork Council people, the marketing team, and a film crew. “Hmmm-let-me-think-about-it-YES-of course! Are you kidding me!” I was in a dither, but there was a catch. The whole thing was going to happen just a day-and-a-half later. Could I really be ready in time? Our two kids were in elementary school; we had a demanding, curmudgeonly wiener dog; I was doing some freelance writing projects; and I was knee-deep in volunteer work. But I couldn’t say no. The crew was to arrive by 8:00 a.m. on the appointed day, and I was to have the entire house ready to go since they weren’t sure which rooms they would be using.

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Our porky little puppy Schultz loved hanging around with his family; however, guests always greatly disturbed his universe. So, he didn’t get to meet Peggy Fleming.

Winding up that invisible key my back, I  set about to spiff the house, top to bottom. The Messy Cook was a blur of activity—and bitchiness—according to certain family members’ recollections. I stayed up the entire night before, and by morning, the house was respectably clean and tidy. In those wee hours before dawn, I resorted to throwing open the door from the house to the garage and wildly heaving out bags of garbage like I was at the city dump—dog toys, Star Wars figures, magazines, books and games. I would salvage the important stuff later, but I couldn’t worry about it then. One little mishap during the bag-tossing phase. I slipped off the step mid-fling and went flying to the floor. “This is gonna hurt,” I was thinking as the concrete rushed up before me. Fortunately, I landed on top of the bag. It popped like a balloon, breaking my fall and blasting the contents out from underneath me. Without missing a beat, I rose up, ran back inside for a final check of the house, and then scurried upstairs to shower off all the garbage molecules. Bob got the kids to school and deposited “Mr. Hangdog” at the kennel. I did it! I was ready to greet them at the door like Perle Mesta! (You remember the “hostess with the mostest,” right? Google it.)

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Film crew equipment has been streamlined a bit since 1988, I do believe.

I spent the morning watching the filming. Peggy, a wife and mother, was a nice, normal, still-very-attractive woman. Between a few of the takes I got to chat with her about her kids, carpooling, pets, her home in California, etc. And before I knew it, the crew announced that it was noon and a catered lunch was being served in the garage. Hold it! Say what?? Served where??? No one had told me that I had to have a clean garage too! My heart stopped beating—only the adrenaline coursing through my body managed to jump-start it again. I willed myself to the garage to behold where lovely Peggy Fleming was going to sit down to lunch.

My brain could barely process it. All of the garbage bags had been stacked on the outside wall of the garage, out of sight. The remnants of my garbage-bag crash-landing had been whisked away. Bicycles, lawn mower, lawn spreader, Weber grill, garbage cans, etc. had been moved outside toward the back of the house. Rented tables and chairs were set up with white tablecloths, flowers in vases, napkins, etc. A buffet table of food was arranged along the front. Unfortunately, an absurd gallery of grimy, discordant objets d’art still adorned the interior walls—tennis rackets, weed killer, bug sprays, sports balls, rakes, shovels, gas cans, cobwebs, spiders, dust. I was in a shame spiral. The floor should have been scrubbed, the walls repainted, music piped in, maybe a chandelier hung from the garage door opener. If only I could have had one more day. Why didn’t they set up the lunch on the patio or in the rec room? Why, why, why?

Of all the daydreams I ever had, I never conjured up one that included Olympic skater Peggy Fleming and the pork producers sitting down to lunch with me …. in a pigsty.

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Could we all pretend that this was my garage where Peggy Fleming and the film crew and staff sat down to lunch?

Foodiva

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Packed with precious pork cargo and praying there’s no delay!

Speaking of the National Pork Producers Council, Iowans have access to some of the finest pork in the country. Whenever Bob and I go to Arizona to thaw out for a few weeks, I freeze a pork loin roast and some pork tenderloins, specially cut and tenderized by the butcher, and then I pack them in my suitcase. I keep my fingers crossed that my luggage doesn’t end up in an American Airlines lost-luggage netherworld. That would be bad! I’ve been lucky so far. Our son and wife, who live in the Phoenix area, look forward to a couple of memorable meals created from my personally imported Iowa pork.

I’m pleased to share two of our family’s favorite ways to enjoy pork. They aren’t gourmet recipes; they are simply guidelines on how to make a flavor-infused rustic pork loin roast as well as some of the most luscious fried tenderloin sandwiches ever. A bold statement, I know. My mom and dad were masters of these two pork-centric meals; they always recognized how important the quality of the meat is in a meal’s success.

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Even our cat Benny enjoyed scraps from Mom’s roast pork dinners.

In addition, a perfect Blue Cheese Cole Slaw recipe from my friend Rodie Gibson and a flavor-filled curry dip appetizer for fall from my friend Denise Dornbier round out the recipes featured in this post.

Trying to understand the characteristics of different cuts of pork can be confusing to the uninitiated. Quite frankly, I don’t know all of them myself, and I wouldn’t bore you with these details anyway. If you remember nothing else from this post, just know that the two pork recipes I am sharing with you today are not made from those prepackaged pork tenderloins that come two to a package and are often marinated.

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These pork tenderloins are NOT the cut I use in the two pork recipes featured in this post.

The first recipe requires a boneless pork loin roast. It is a gorgeous cut of meat and is much bulkier than those prepackaged long, skinny tenderloins. The difference between these two cuts is quite obvious, and they come from  different parts of the animal. The pork tenderloin is thin and long, with darker-colored meat, and is usually trimmed of most fat, while a pork loin roast is wide and blocky, with excellent pink color, and a layer of creamy fat attached to the top. Often the pork loin roast will be tied with string or a stretchy net. Sometimes two of these large roasts are tied together. (I have never understood why anyone would want to buy them this way, though.)

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This is a beautiful pork loin roast, which is the featured cut in my family’s “Roast Loin of Pork in Wine and Rosemary” recipe.

Pork tenderloins (the long, skinny ones) are best quickly cooked over high heat, while my favorite, the pork loin roast, is better for slow-roasting. It’s the words “loin” and “tenderloin” that cause confusion. And when I talk about the next recipe, which is my version of the pork tenderloin sandwich, you may really get confused. You just have to keep in mind that, even though we call them “Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches,” mine are not made from the long, skinny tenderloins; mine are made from the loin. (The cut I use for my tenderloins is the butterfly pork chop, which is basically the same pork loin roast, except it has been cut into slices.) I know, I know. I’m sorry. Just try to hang in there. I think you’ll get it as we go along. And I have included photos. (Even though I have pushed you to the limit, you should also know that there is also wonderful “prime” cut, which is the pork loin plus some shoulder meat. It is great for making pork carnitas, a recipe I featured in my Cinco de Mayo post. But no worries, we’re not using that cut in this post.)

img_2138Okay! Now, back to my mother’s pork roast dinner, with its fragrant aromas of onions, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary, and wine wafting from the oven. This Sunday dinner (always served at noon) was on a regular rotation with other family dinner favorites. Over the years, my sister and I have made our own tweaks to our pork loin roast recipes. Here is how I like to do it. I like to cut off the girdle of fat off the top and then rub on a thin layer of olive oil to keep it moist. Leaving the flavorful layer of fat intact is always a delicious option, and believe me, my mom and dad would never remove this. Their roasts often included the bone, making it extra delicious. However, I started doing it this way several years ago as a way to enjoy it in a slightly more healthful version. If you try it, you’ll find that you won’t miss the extra fat. The meat may be a bit drier, but when you ladle the  pan-roasted drippings over the meat, it becomes quite moist and fragrant. As you can see in the top photo on the left, the loin comes with a layer of fat still attached to the meat and it’s wrapped in a stretchy string. The photo just below it, shows the string and top fat have been removed.

fullsizerender100Let’s also talk briefly about one of my most essential tools in the kitchen—no, it’s not the few All-Clad cooking pieces that I own (even though I adore them); it’s my small (13-inch), inexpensive oval Granite Ware covered roaster pan. My family and Bob’s family have always used them (and I’ll bet many of your families have too). The pan makes such excellent roasted meats, evenly distributing the heat, while helping the meat to brown and stay moist. The small oval ones (also available in a round size) are becoming harder to find. Usually Target and Wal-Mart carry the very large ones but not the smaller ones. Good news, though; they can be ordered through http://www.amazon.com or http://www.walmart.com. I also have the medium (14 or 15-inch) and the very large (16 or 17-inch) roasters, so I can accommodate every size/amount of meat that I am oven-roasting.

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I couldn’t live without my Granite Ware roaster pans.

Roast Loin of Pork in Wine and Rosemary

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Roast Loin of Pork in Wine and Rosemary

  • Servings: 6 to 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 3-pound pork loin boneless roast (not the prepackaged long, skinny tenderloins)
  • 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Fresh-ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium-to-large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 8 ounces cut and peeled baby carrots
  • 1/2-cup water
  • 10 to 12 small new red or white potatoes (with skins on, unless they are particularly thick), washed, and cut in half

Remove string (if there is one) and fat from top of the pork loin. Place it in a 13-inch Granite Ware roaster pan. Pour the olive oil over the roast and roll it around in the pan a few times to cover well. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, paprika, and rosemary evenly over the roast. Tuck the bay leaf along the side. Arrange the onions and garlic all around the edge of the roast. Cover with lid. Place in 350 degree oven for 1 hour. After one hour, pour in the wine along the sides of the pan around the roast and return to the oven; reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Set timer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place the carrots in a microwave-safe dish with the half cup water. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. After the 30 minutes is up, remove roaster pan from oven and carefully place the carrots and water all around the edges of the meat and then add all the cut potatoes on top of the carrots. Sprinkle lightly with more kosher salt and pepper. Return to oven for 45 minutes or until toothpick is easily inserted into potatoes. Remove pan from oven. Place meat on cutting board to rest 10 minutes before cutting. Place potatoes and carrots in a serving bowl or on a platter surrounding roast. Pour all the pan juices (which includes all of the soft pieces of cooked onion) into a sauceboat or a small bowl with a ladle to pass).

Recipe from messycookblog.com

If there is leftover pork, you are in for another treat. Simply shred it, add any leftover pan juices (if no juices remain, just add a small bit of water), add your favorite barbecue sauce to suit your tastes. Heat in a small pan until hot. Pile onto fresh buttered buns toasted on a griddle. That’s it!

Fried Pork Loin ‘Tenderloin’ Sandwiches

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True confession: I have not had a restaurant-made pork tenderloin in years. Yes, I was always afraid of what was hidden under all that breading. No fatty, gristly, pounded-flat, deep-fat-fried-to-a-crisp mystery pork for me and my family. The picture below shows what my pork tenderloins look like before they are cooked. Totally lean, trimmed, boneless loin. (Hint: I choose the best-looking butterfly pork chops in the meat case at Hy-Vee, and then I ask the butcher to “run them through the tenderizer in both directions.”) When I am ready to make them, I cut them in half vertically. (Remember, butterfly chops are really just one thick boneless loin chop that has been sliced horizontally in half, but not quite all the way through, and then pressed open so that it looks like twin pieces of meat hooked together.) I trim all the fat (some people want to leave it on; I don’t). One package of two butterfly chops makes four tenderloins.

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Fried Pork Loin 'Tenderloin' Sandwiches

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 4 “tenderloins” trimmed of fat and cut from two tenderized (in both directions), boneless butterfly pork chops (total weight of meat will be about 1.2 to 1.5 pounds)
  • 1 beaten egg (more, if you are making more than 4 tenderloins)
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 sleeve saltine crackers, crushed, but not super-finely (more, if making more than 4 tenderloins)
  • Vegetable oil
  • Fresh bakery buns
  • Butter
  • Dill pickle slices
  • Yellow mustard (or ketchup or mayonnaise, if preferred)
  • Lettuce leaf (optional) (“No tomato” is my rule; it sogs up a beautifully crunchy sandwich.)

Dip pork in egg wash (the egg, milk, salt, and pepper beaten together) and then into cracker crumbs. Press down on the crumbs to make sure both sides are coated well. Cover bottom of large, non-stick skillet with oil, about 1/8-inch or so deep. Allow it to heat steadily until it is hot but not so hot that the oil is smoking. (You NEVER want that.) Place the four breaded loins in the skillet. They should be sizzling nicely. If so, you may turn the heat down a bit, but don’t let it cool down so much that it is not sizzling. They should fry for about 3 minutes, or until they are looking nicely browned. Then turn them over gently and cook for another 3 minutes, still sizzling but not intensely so. Be sure to salt and pepper each side as you turn them. Turn them over again for another minute or two, and then turn once again for another minute until they are a perfect crisp golden brown on each side. So, the tenderloins are turned a total of 4 times (2 times per side). While they are cooking, place four fresh, buttered buns (top and bottom) on a large griddle on the stove on medium heat to toast them to a golden brown. Remove the bun halves as they brown and place on a platter. When tenderloins are finished, place one on each bun. Set out pickles, yellow mustard, and other desired condiments on the table. Dive in!

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The finest pork, lightly breaded and coaxed to a tender-crisp, golden brown. These are, bar none, some of the finest tenderloins you will ever taste.

Recipe from messycookblog.com

Baked beans go great with tenderloins, but a tangy cole slaw is really the perfect partner. My friend, Rodie Gibson and “almost cousin,” created this recipe several years ago, and has shared it with plenty of friends. Topped with creamy crumbles of blue cheese, it is always a hit. (And how is Rodie my “almost cousin,” you may ask? Because she is my mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter’s husband’s brother’s wife. The whole six-degrees-of-separation thing!)

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My friend Rodie Gibson, a wonderful cook, wife, mother, and grandmother, is a true connoisseur of life.

Blue Cheese Cole Slaw

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Blue Cheese Cole Slaw

  • Servings: 8 or more
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1/2-cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons grated onion
  • 1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
  • Cracked pepper
  • 1 cup light vegetable oil, like safflower or canola
  • 1 16-ounce package shredded cabbage and carrots
  • 1 8-ounce package crumbled blue cheese

Combine all but last 2 ingredients and blend in blender or with a whisk. Just before serving, pour dressing over cabbage. Add crumbled blue cheese and toss.

Recipe from messycookblog.com

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Simplicity! Pork tenderloin sandwich with classic yellow mustard and sliced dill pickles, some tangy Blue Cheese Cole Slaw, and a cold Bud Light. You’re welcome!

I adore my friend Denise Dornbier’s Curry Dip, which she serves with a variety of fresh crunchy vegetables. One day I was thinking, “Why wouldn’t roasted veggies be just as delicious as fresh ones, especially as a pretty fall appetizer?” Indeed! It was also delicious and pretty!

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My friend Denise Dornbier knows how to prepare some amazing dishes. In her family of one husband and three sons, she had plenty of practice over the years.

 Curry Dip (Served with Oven-Roasted Veggies)

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Curry Dip (Served with Oven-Roasted Veggies)

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Curry Dip

  • 1 cup Light Hellman’s mayonnaise
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon dry ground mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar
  • Optional: Tracy likes to add 1/2 teaspoon of Sriracha sauce for a little kick.

Mix all ingredients together. Serve immediately, or chill.

Oven-Roasted Veggies

  • Cut up a combination of your choice of fresh broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, butternut squash, etc. (all about the same size)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon or more (to taste) kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Stir everything together to coat well. Spread into single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the vegetables become browned and crispy.

Place dip in bowl in center of plate. Arrange the veggies around the dip. Serve warm, if possible, but cold is fine too.

Recipe from messycookblog.com

Curiosities

I was hanging out in the produce aisle the other day when I happened upon something I hadn’t seen before, chocolate and white bell peppers. I think the produce manager sometimes keeps an eye on me because I like to stalk new and unusual produce. (While he stocks, I stalk.) Who doesn’t like to discreetly fondle and sniff produce when at the store. Right? I bought one each of the peppers and took them home to taste. I think the chocolate pepper tastes just like a red bell pepper. The white bell pepper is more anemic-tasting. There’s a hint of bell pepper flavor, but not much. I do think they would be gorgeous sliced on a fall-themed fresh vegetable platter, though. By the way, the chocolate pepper is much browner than it appears in this picture. I think these newcomers are a lovely addition to the fall vegetable color palette.

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A recent thrilling discovery was the most beautiful sparkling wine I have ever seen—a gorgeous shade of blue! My friend Teresa Choi introduced it to our mah jongg group. (We have been known to enjoy a bit of bubbly while we’re stacking the tiles.) It is called Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux; she got it at Ingersoll Spirits and Wine for about $20 a bottle (but it does go on sale once in awhile). Made from California chardonnay grapes with an “added hint of blueberries,” it is effervescent and bright-tasting. I found out that it has been produced since 2006; obviously I didn’t get the memo when it first came out. I’m sure it must be popular for weddings and wedding showers. You would swear it had been bottled at Tiffany’s!

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My friend and libation trendsetter Teresa Choi with a bottle of Blanc de Bleu Cuvee.

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When I was at Hy-Vee last week I enjoyed seeing carved … no, not pumpkins … watermelons! These two specimens celebrate Iowa State University and University of Iowa sports teams. I’ll bet they are a hit on the tailgate circuit. Clever!

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Last Bites

Peggy Fleming OlderHere are a few more interesting things about Peggy Fleming. Her gold medal in figure skating, earned at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, was the only gold medal that the U.S.Olympic team won during those games! She has been a television commentator in figure skating for more than 20 years. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, she conquered it after successful surgery and became an activist for early breast cancer detection. Fleming, 68, and her husband, Greg Jenkins, have two sons and three grandchildren. The couple owned and operated Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery in California, until it closed in 2011, after seven years in business. She was mentioned frequently in the Peanuts comic strips in the 60s and 70s because Snoopy had a crush on her. An odd factoid: Fleming became the spokesperson for the Robitussin “Last Names Giveaway” in 2011, because her last name sounds like a flu and cold symptom that Robitussin treats—phlegm. (I don’t make this stuff up, people.)

She was a darling of the media for many years, and for me, it was an unimaginable brush with fame to spend a brief time with her. At the end of filming, she went upstairs to our master bath to remove the heavy makeup that she had to wear. Later, I found the makeup-smeared white fluffy wash cloth next to my sink …. I’ll just let you wonder if I kept it.

A few weeks later, she sent three autographed photos with personal notes to Bradley, Kelly and me. I would have included them in this post but, alas, they are misfiled in The Messy Cook’s “intricate” filing system. As Snoopy would say, “Sigh.”

Thank you so much for reading my posts! I hope you will come back for the next one on September 23rd!—Tracy

 

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End-of-Summer Reveries and Recipes

August 26, 2016

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August rain: the best of summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time—Sylvia Plath

While the conformities of autumn wait in the wings, the vestiges of summer linger, but not for long. So, we savor those last fresh morsels from gardens and farmers’ markets; have brushes with spiders spinning webby barricades across our screen doors; ignore the stream of pumpkin and apple recipes on Facebook and Pinterest; and pretend that we don’t see the Halloween merchandise swamping store shelves.

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It’s the time of year when worlds collide—it feels like summer, but we can’t ignore fall. While in this evanescent period, we live in a strange duality—leaving our air-conditioned homes to go to football games; preparing BLTs  and sweet corn for dinner while the kids do homework; anticipating the arrival of fall mums while mowing the lawn.

It is at this juncture where we can find a small space of time to celebrate the beautiful meals and memorable moments of the past three months. But we must do it fast while we still have access to excellent produce—tomatoes, basil, sweet corn, peaches, etc.

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And what would be the perfect end to the season? A “Summer, We Hardly Knew Ye!” dinner celebration! (Forgive my wordplay on this old Irish folk song.) Just think back on all the fun, silly, crazy, scary, sad, weird things that happened this past summer. They deserve to be shared with others over a great meal. Since this is an incongruous time of year, I say don’t do the obvious; don’t have your dinner outside. Invite your friends and/or family to sit down to a mouthwatering summer meal inside your house where weather, bugs, and shorter days will not put the kibosh on the merriment.

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Why not have an end-of-summer dinner celebration?

Now, before you have your dinner celebration, would be the perfect time for you to take part in an archaeological quest. Why don’t you go exploring all around the interior of your home to determine if you have a dining room? If you find indications of one, carefully dig down through the piles of papers and debris, and see if you come upon a table and chairs. If you do, fire up the leaf blower and blast away the layers of dust and cobwebs, paper clips, recipe cards, pens, coloring books, etc. (Be very careful of that vase from the Ming Dynasty that you found under the sideboard.) Set the table with some pretty dishes. (Look in your attic for boxes marked, “Great Aunt Rildabelle’s China”.) Serve your precious summer meal (recipes provided below) and toast all of those special memories everyone has shared. Ask them to hold up their glasses and proclaim in unison, “To the Summer of 2016! We Hardly Knew Ye!” This evening of laughs and stories, and maybe a few well-chosen photos, will also become a great memory and perhaps even an annual tradition. (And, if you don’t happen to uncover a dining room in your home, of course the kitchen table is perfect, too.)

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My sister Kris (middle) loved being a Campfire Girl. Her friend Gwen (right) was also in the troop (although she appears not to be as “into it” as Kris). On the left is our cousin Pam, who was a Bluebird (a first-year Campfire Girl).

Speaking of summer memories, here is one of mine from many years ago when I was a Campfire Girl. My sister Kris loved to go to Camp Hantesa, the Campfire Girls camp near Boone, Iowa. She attended a week-long session for several summers when we were in grade school. I went once, against my better judgment, and regretted that decision throughout my incarceration. The ultimate carrot-dangler for campers was the highly sought-after “Hantesa”, an award patch that recognized good behavior and rigid rule-following during the camp stay. It was presented to each good girl at the end of the week to show the folks back home which ones were the upstanding and obeisant campers. I wasn’t a rebellious sort, but the haranguing by some of the counselors to clean my plate at every meal was, for this picky eater, unreasonable. I remember one particularly tense standoff when Miss Muggs insisted that I eat my slice of bread, which had become saturated in the corn juice on my plate. I refused to put that wet sponge in my mouth. After that, I seemed to be closely monitored at mealtimes. I’m sure they were thinking, “What might this finicky fusspot do next? Stuff the Spam casserole into a knothole or wedge a hotdog between the floorboards?” I continued to leave food on my plate. For the rest of the week, I was feeling low but not “Lo”, which is part of the Campfire Girl mantra of “WoHeLo—Work Health Love”. When the week finally ended, and I was back in the safety of my parents’ station wagon heading home, I tearfully confessed that I didn’t receive a Hantesa. Mom and Dad, who never forced Kris and me to eat food we didn’t want, considered this a non-issue.

IMG_2039Miss Muggs mug occasionally popped in and out of my nightmares for a few years. Now, it’s just one of those crazy childhood summer memories. I’d like to think that a picky eater with more moxie than me might have tied Miss Muggs to the totem pole and made her swallow a swollen loaf of corn-juiced bread. Revenge, even in one’s imagination, is sweet!

In fairness to the Campfire Girls organization and Camp Hantesa, I want to be clear that they are a wonderful organization. Camp Hantesa offered (and still does) many opportunities to young girls (girls only, back then) and its staff certainly did run a tight ship. I just happened to be the odd barnacle that roiled the waters.

Foodiva

Even though I have already featured recipes for summer produce in some other posts, I can’t let summer go without including a few more of my favorites! I have a knack (not something to be proud of) of taking fresh, low-calorie, healthful fruits and vegetables and turning them into something naughty. So, let’s lay this out on the table right now. I’m not condoning naughtiness for every meal. But for a special occasion, such as a “Summer, We Hardly Knew Ye” dinner, consider wrapping your lips around these luscious dishes. Then you can go back to your “winter of discontent”.

The appetizer for our special dinner is actually quite healthful. This bruschetta topping is addictively good when homegrown tomatoes are used. It’s not really a recipe but rather a suggestion on how to use the following ingredients and tweak them into a ratio that pleases your taste buds. My friend FullSizeRender(76)and healthful eater Barb Thornton (pictured on the left) has a very similar recipe, except that hers is more specific (and she uses less salt, olive oil, and balsamic than I do). For mine, you will need at least 3 large, peeled, chopped homegrown tomatoes, fresh chopped basil, extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, kosher salt, pepper, and crostini. When I’m in a hurry, I substitute Lawry’s garlic salt for the minced garlic and kosher salt. And often, instead of making crostini, I buy it at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I mix all the ingredients together (except for the crostini). Then I taste it (and use my common sense) until it reaches perfection. I place this heady concoction on a platter with the crostini. I hand out appetizer plates and tell everyone to dig in. My work is done, except to eat it. Some of you cooks may think you are being helpful by putting the topping on before it is served. You aren’t. Yes, you want all that good stuff to soak into the crunchy crostini, but doing it too far ahead makes them soggy. A reminder—most people are perfectly capable of spooning the topping onto the crostini all by themselves. You are not their mother. It won’t kill them to lift a spoonful of topping from the bowl all the way over to a crostini. In fact, hopefully they will be thanking you for the workout you’re giving their arms.

You say you would rather have an actual recipe? All right then. Here’s Barb Thornton’s. (It is fantastic, and I don’t know why I just didn’t give it to you in the first place!)

Homegrown Tomato Bruschetta

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Homegrown Tomato Bruschetta

  • Servings: 4 or more
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 1/2 pounds homegrown tomatoes (or may use ripe plum tomatoes from store)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon (or more) balsamic vinegar
  • 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Sliced and toasted baguette (or crostini from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, etc.)

Peel tomatoes, cut in quarters. (Barb removes the seeds and juice. I do not.) Then chop into smaller pieces. Add remaining ingredients and stir well. For best flavor, serve at room temperature. (Remember to taste before serving and adjust seasonings if necessary.)

Recipe from messycookblog.com

IMG_2043My dear friend Lynn McCollum grows the most amazing basil plants in her garden every summer. Basil “shrubs” is really more descriptive. I always look forward to receiving basil bouquets from Lynn when her garden starts producing. As she always reminds me, do not put the basil in the refrigerator! The fridge is no friend of this herb. Put it in water and leave it out on the counter. Change the water every day or two, and it will last quite awhile. It looks gorgeous in a vase and fresh basil is right there within your reach! Chicken and Fresh Basil Cream is Lynn’s very decadent entrée that she makes once a summer when her basil is overproducing. Right now at the grocery store you can find little packages of fresh basil from $2.99 to $4.99. Lynn’s recipe calls for 1/2 to 1 cup of chopped fresh basil, so it can be a bit pricey to make this recipe when basil is not available from the garden or a good friend!

Chicken and Fresh Basil Cream

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Chicken and Fresh Basil Cream

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
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I have slightly altered Lynn’s recipe because I like more sauce! Love the sauce!

  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (Tracy buys about 1 1/2 pounds of chicken breast. She prefers to slice each of them into 3 or 4 strips to make it easier to cook and eat.)
  • Milk
  • Bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup butter (or a bit more if necessary)
  • 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon (Tracy prefers to use 1 Knorr Chicken-Flavored bouillon cube)
  • 1/2 cup water (Tracy does not use the water.)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 to 1 cup snipped fresh basil
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Dip breasts in milk and bread crumbs. (Tracy says, “We’re talking about chicken breasts here, people!”) Brown in butter in a large skillet until golden. Remove chicken to a warm platter and cover loosely with foil. Crumble bouillon cube into drippings and stir. Add water (if using) and heat to boiling. Add cream, and heat to boiling. Stir 1 or 2 minutes. Turn off heat and add basil, Parmesan and pepper. Stir well until cheese is incorporated. Pour over chicken or put in a sauceboat to pass. (Tracy also occasionally makes angel hair pasta, stirs in some butter and parsley, and then twirls it into several small nests. She places one on each plate beside the chicken and pours a bit of the sauce on it as well.)

Recipe from messycookblog.com

 

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A picture from the 1980s shows how our family-dinner clean-up team functions together. Mom and Kris have their hands in the dishwater while I stand next to them with a glass of wine.

Our mom Leatrice concocted this terrific side dish, Yellow Squash Bake, years ago for her family. I still make it several times each summer. It’s easy and delicious. In fact, I could eat the whole thing myself!  When the family comes together for a meal, which doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to, Mom, Kris and I still “team cook and clean up” together. (It’s been noted more than once that The Messy Cook often seems to disappear when the clean-up time begins.)

Yellow Squash Bake

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Yellow Squash Bake

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
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  • 3 small yellow (summer) squash, or approximately 1 pound
  • 1/2 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Morton’s Nature’s Seasons salt (or to taste)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons cold butter
  • 6 to 8 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Spray a 2-quart casserole or a 9×13-inch pan with cooking spray. Cut off ends of squash and slice into pan. Sprinkle green pepper over squash. Sprinkle seasonings over all. Chop butter into small pieces and sprinkle over all. Top with shredded cheese. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove cover and bake another 15 to 20 minutes until cheese starts to brown and bubble.

Recipe from messycookblog.com

The Colorado peaches are here for their annual brief appearance, and it would be a shame not to glorify these beauties in a fabulous dessert. I have made these peach dumplings for many years. The original one calls for a placing a whole peach, minus the pit and skin, in a square of pie dough and then pressed together. I think it’s hard to eat a whole piece of fruit in a crust. So, I chop the peaches into bite-size pieces and then wrap a little pile of them (along with butter, cinnamon and sugar) into pastry “packages”. It makes a great presentation and is much easier to eat. And it is so good!

Mini Peach Dumplings

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Mini Peach Dumplings

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

You can make these a day ahead, if preferred, and cover with foil so the crust won’t harden. Serve them warmed with vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream. (You can use apples for this recipe, if peach season is over.)

  • Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust (You will use both crusts in the package.) (I don’t like packaged crusts, but they seem to work okay in this recipe and then you might be more inclined to make it!)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 or 3 juicy peaches
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Cold butter (2 or 3 tablespoons)

Take out the pie crusts from the refrigerator 15 minutes or so before using. In a medium saucepan, boil the 1 cup sugar, 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons butter, pinch of salt and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon for 3 minutes. Reduce to low simmer. Peel the peaches and remove the pits. Cut peaches into small slices (or dice them). Mix together the 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. Unroll the the pie crusts and cut them into 4 quarters, for a total of 8. Place about 1/4 cup of peaches (or a bit less) into one of the quarters. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar/cinnamon mixture and top with a thin slice of butter. Gently pull the crust up and around the peaches into the shape of a round package and pinch together at the top. Repeat process with remaining quarters. Place the 8 packages, spaced apart in 2 rows, in a buttered 9×13-inch pan. Pour the hot syrup around the dumplings. Bake immediately at 400 degrees for 35 minutes or until crust is nicely browned. (If you decide to make homemade pie dough, make a recipe for 2 crusts, and roll into a rectangle. Cut 8 6-inch squares and fill with a 1/2 cup of peaches, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon-sugar mixture, and slightly larger slice of butter. The rest of the method is the same, except the baking time is 40 to 45 minutes. Obviously, these are larger packages.) Serve warm with some of the baked syrup spooned around the dumpling, and a scoop of good vanilla ice cream.

Recipe from messycookblog.com

When I was in the produce department at the grocery store last week, I came upon a basket of hedge apples, which are a common sight in farm fields this time of year. I was a bit flummoxed by their being placed in the same area as the fresh fruits and vegetables. Although many Midwesterners are familiar with this green softball-sized fruit that resembles a brain, those who do not know about them should be advised that they are not edible. In fact, when I purchased one to photograph for this post, the woman sacking my groceries asked me what they are and how I prepare them! Also known as an Osage orange, this junk fruit is a headache for farmers who must gather and dump them each year because they are not edible and they are a choking hazard for animals. These fruits come from hedge trees planted years ago by homesteaders to help delineate property boundaries and keep cattle from wandering away. The trees (which can be as tall as 60 feet) have thorny branches, which served as a form of  FullSizeRender(77)“barbed-wire” for pioneer farmers back in the day. They used the hedge apples in their homes to help keep spiders away, and some people still do today. Last year, NPR featured a story about hedge apples (December 9, 2015),  explaining that this junk fruit is garnering new respect. Todd Johnson, a chemist from Burlington, Iowa, recalled how his great uncle would cut open hedge apples and rub them on cuts to help them heal, and Johnson also had read that the Osage Indians believed in their medicinal properties. So, he decided to conduct research on the hedge apple. He extracted the seeds and pressed the oil from them. Eventually he developed a cosmetic oil called Pomifera, which has become popular with makeup artists. Johnson pays $180 a ton for hedge apples, and his Pomifera oil sells for $85 per ounce! For the rest of you, however, the important takeaway is—don’t be making or eating any hedge apple pies! These things might make an striking centerpiece, though!

Last Bites

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—the days when summer is changing into autumn—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.—E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web.

There is a melancholy that comes with the end of summer days. Don’t we owe ourselves one last hurrah before the next season ushers in a new round of activities and expectations?

IMG_0410Post script: So many of us lost a beautiful friend this past week. Bev Riess will always hold a special place in our hearts as a loving, gentle soul who touched so many lives. (Her wonderful soup recipe was featured in one of my early posts.) Bev, if there is wine in heaven, pour yourself a glass now, dear friend, because this toast is to you!

My next post will be Friday, September 9. Thank you for dropping by.—Tracy

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Hot, Melty, Sticky

August 12, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 004

It was August—Iowa State Fair time in Iowa. Butter was on sale at Hy-Vee, so I was buying 12 pounds to freeze for Christmas baking. The boy at the checkout counter seemed amazed by the quantity of butter I was unloading from the cart. Suddenly a knowing look crossed his face. “Ohhh, you’re the one who carves the butter cow at the state fair, aren’t you?” I stared down at the stacks of butter, which now seemed to be quite a measly quantity if I were truly sculpting an entire cow. I replied that I did not sculpt butter cows, but I did mold some butter hearts for a luncheon one time. He was instantly bored with me and the conversation was over. Back home, as I piled the butter into the freezer, I decided that I probably did have enough butter to carve several decent-sized goldfish … if perchance the Iowa State Fair ever wanted to do a “butter koi” display.

Recently, I wondered how hard it would be to sculpt an animal from butter. I went to the fridge and grabbed a stick. “Hmmm, this would have to be an animal that’s long and low to the ground, like a dachshund or a weasel.” But, I knew that FullSizeRender(68)my subject should be a farm animal, so I decided on a pig. I am sending kudos to Sarah Pratt of West Des Moines, the current state fair butter cow sculptor. It’s hard to do! It’s really more butter molding than sculpting. I could only work on it for a short time before the butter would get too soft, and then I would have to shove it back in the fridge and do something useful for awhile. (Obviously, I have no life.) After a few hours, I finished my object d’ art. This is Willard the Pig (a salute to my home town’s pig statue that greets everyone entering Villisca’s city limits on Highway 71). Willard recently donned biking shorts to greet the RAGBRAI riders as they swarmed through the town.

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Villisca’s Willard the Pig (named after weatherman Willard Scott) wore bike shorts, helmet, and shades to greet this year’s RAGBRAI riders. (Photo courtesy of Villisca native and resident Susie Enarson.)

Where to begin? We all know that the Iowa State Fair is a festival for all of us, with contests, exhibits, concession stands, midway rides, the Sky Glider (for a 360-degree view of the grounds), talent show, demonstrations of various products and equipment, camping, grandstand shows, people-watching, and on and on!

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Obviously, I can only scratch the surface, so here is your midway ride through my brain as I share my impressions of the Iowa State Fair and plant some ideas for a  celebratory Iowa-State-Fair-themed party in your own back yard. Hang on tight! I only hope when we get to the end of this odyssey, you haven’t woofed up your corn dogs.

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My friend Judy Quick, who is a true fair fanatic, has taken many photos over the years. She kindly supplied me with some wonderful ones from her files to help inject the proper state-fair state of mind here at The Messy Cook blog. They will be interspersed throughout this post.

When I was in grade school, I was invited to go camping at the fair for a couple of days with my friend and her family. I had camped once (in a little trailer) with my aunt and uncle and cousins. I wasn’t exactly a camping fan, but the lure of seeing the state fair for the first time made it easy to say yes. Here are the two main things I remember: 1) I hardly slept; 2) I didn’t shower. The August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 277showers were in a large building on the campgrounds, so rather than risk showering with a spider or a wet chipmunk or maybe even a weasel, I decided I would just smear deodorant all over my body. I was tan from swimming, so I’m sure the white streaks looked like a bad case of dry skin. I am reminded of a quote I recently saw  on Facebook, “Camping—where you spend a small fortune to live like a homeless person.” Seriously, sleeping with only a thin layer of material between you and the ground is … ummm … character-building. This family loved horses, so a lot of our time was spent at the horse barns/arena area. I wanted to spend more time at the midway, or the concession stands, or seeing some baby pigs, but I was the guest, not the travel director. (And yes, I do think horses are cool; I just have never known any personally.)

August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 126Many years later, Bob and I took the kids to the fair. They were dazzled by all the food stands serving every treat imaginable. So, right out of the gate, we had to stop and fuel up on snacks. Next, we rode the Sky Glider, and it was then that Brad and Kelly noticed there was a midway below us. Several rides later, we steered them back to petting baby animals, watching a border collie round up sheep, and seeing the winning cakes on display. But they fussed about going back to the midway. “Just a few more rides and then no more!” we said. Then we were off to see the butter cow. They liked it, but they really wanted some more snacks. After one more trip to the concession stand, we  announced, “No more junk!” As we headed off to the Varied Industries Building, they had a meltdown … and so did we. That was our day (a mere few hours) at the fair. It still remains a fond memory for us all. Seriously!

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Oh yes, those concession stands reminded me of another story. Years ago, Bob and I took Bradley, 8, and Kelly, 4, to Busch Gardens in Tampa. After being flung and twirled by the “wild” African-themed rides, we continued on through the Dark Continent. It was then that I noticed a sign in the distance that said, “Snake Pit”. “Hey kids, I said, “Look! There’s a Snake Pit over there! Shall we go see it? Brad shouted, “YES!” Kelly stopped dead still and refused to move another inch. “I DO NOT want to see snakes,” she announced. After much fussing, she agreed to go, but her arms were in a vice-grip around Bob’s neck. As we got closer, she was whimpering in fear. I happened to glance at the sign again. What?? Oops! “Oh kids, I read it wrong! This is a Snack Pit, not a Snake Pit!” Bradley was crestfallen, and Kelly began to cry, “You said we were going to see the snakes! Where are the snakes? I want to see the snakes!”

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Each year I am fascinated by what new foods have been skewered to be sold to hoards of hungry fairgoers. Here are some of the new introductions for 2016 that I would like to try: Cheddar Bacon Cheese on a Stick, Fried Fruit Kabobs, Apple Fritter Bite, and the highlight for me would be the Loaded Taters on a Stick! The all-time most decadent “stick” treat  has to be last year’s Deep-Fried Butter on a Stick. It’s no longer available. (I could make a joke here, but … no.)

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I cannot attend the fair this year, but if I could go, here would be the must-sees/must-do’s for me: chicken washing and blow-drying demonstration; the Iowa grocery-bagging contest; fiddle/mandolin contest; Mr. Legs contest; ice carving demonstration; piglet racing; Great American Spam Championship (not); grape stomp; old-fashioned hymn sing; butter sculpting contest (yes!); the Gantry Show (a self-contained 22-foot tall gymnasium structure, powered by pedaling, which features acrobats and contortionists); and the new Discovery Garden Pathway. And even though I’ve never participated, I love the fair’s legendary food-judging contests, where ordinary (and extraordinary) Iowa cooks have the opportunity to present their prepared recipes for judging. This state has produced a lot of blue-ribbon winners!

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Maybe you can’t make it to the fair this year either, or even if you can, here are some ideas for celebrating our iconic Iowa State Fair with your own party!

Of course, “Hot, Melty, Sticky” is how everyone feels after spending a humid August day at the fair, but it’s also a great theme for a state fair party. After your friends have agreed to attend, tell them their admission ticket is to bring a butter sculpture that they have made themselves. It should be carved, molded and/or sculpted from a stick or a block of butter. You should have sheets of paper for each guest to write down what they think each sculpture is. (It might not always be easy to tell.) Awards for best, worst, most obscene, etc., should be presented. (How about giving out Butterfingers for prizes?)

FullSizeRender(70)Another messy but hilarious activity is the egg-smashing-on-the-head game (similar to the one that Jimmy Fallon often plays with celebrities on his show). A dozen eggs in an egg carton are presented to two willing players—six are boiled; six are not. The first person chooses an egg and smashes it on his head. If it is boiled, the person gets a point. If it is raw, he gets no points. Then, the other person selects an egg and does the same. This continues until the person who gets five points first, wins. It’s a hoot!

Foodiva

FullSizeRender(64)In keeping with the “Hot, Melty, Sticky” theme, we’re going to need plenty of “fair” food. We’ll talk about “Melty” first, and that means butter! We want it fresh! So, everyone will make their own, and get in a little workout while they’re at it! Here’s how to do it. Use a small jar with a rubber-gasket-sealed lid. I bought these cute Anchor Hocking jars at the Hy-Vee Food Store. You can also get them at Amazon.com. You’ll also need two (freshly washed) dice per jar to drop inside to help with the churning action. Fill the jars half-full with heavy (whipping) cream and a heaping 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt. Allow the cream to come to room temperature—45 minutes or so. Then the action begins when you tell everyone to start shaking their jars. (People can take turns so you don’t have to provide so many jars of cream.) After about 10 minutes, voilá! The cream has IMG_1935turned to butter! The thin buttermilk surrounding the butter can be drained off. With a spoon, the butter can be removed from the jar and slightly squeezed to remove the dice and the remaining liquid. The butter can be placed in small bowls with spreader knives. Then everyone can enjoy it on crisp crackers. You may also want to have small bowls of herbs, garlic, pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, etc., for seasonings. Just plain is wonderful too. (This would be a good activity to wear down your children and grandchildren so they’ll sleep well later.)

Homemade Butter

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While playing mah jongg this past week, I interrupted our game to see if my friends would be willing to shake up some fresh butter for me (for a photo for this post), and did they ever do a fine job! While Nancy Armstrong, Teresa Choi, and Denise Dornbier shook for 10 minutes, I relaxed in a chair and drank champagne. The Messy Cook is a sly fox, eh? Here is a short little video of these movers and shakers.

 

2016-07-10 18.05.22Now we move on to the “Hot” part of the party theme. Anyone who has been to the state fair has probably chowed down on those hot and peppery Grinder sausage sandwiches, also known as “Gizmos”. My friend and excellent salon stylist for many years, Andrea Baker is also a great cook and creative person. She figured out how to make a very authentic-tasting gizmo slider several years ago, which rivals any sold at the state fair. And no state fair party would be right without serving these delicious hot and spicy sliders! The recipe makes lots, so it’s a great one for a large group.

Hot Gizmo Sliders

Hot Gizmo Sliders

  • Servings: Lots
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 3 pounds Graziano’s ground sausage
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 24 ounces or more Classico Tomato Basil spaghetti sauce (buy 2 jars to be safe)
  • 1/2 cup Old London Italian Seasoned bread crumbs
  • Rotella Italian rolls or mini-cocktail buns
  • Sliced mozzarella/provolone cheese
  • And Andrea’s secret ingredient—half the juice from a 12-ounce jar of mild banana pepper rings. (Andrea likes Vlasic.) Save the pepper rings for sandwich topping or add to meat.

Before cooking, mix the sausage and ground beef together. Put meat mixture in a dutch oven. Cook over medium heat, chopping continuously to get a fine mix. Drain. (May transfer to crockpot at this point, if desired.) Add the spaghetti sauce and pepper juice. Simmer on low to blend the flavors. When the meats are tender and flavors are blended, add bread crumbs to thicken the mixture. This helps the meat stick together. Add more sauce, juice, and bread crumbs to suit individual taste. Fill rolls with meat, cheese, and peppers. Wrap sandwiches with foil and place in 250-degree oven to warm and melt cheese. For parties, Andrea uses the crockpot. She sets out a tray of mini-cocktail rolls, thin slices of cheese, and peppers for guests to assemble their own sliders.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

 

FullSizeRender(58)IMG_7481And how can we throw a party without having a  blue-ribbon-winning recipe for guests to enjoy? Several years ago, Ginny and Mark Haviland were asked to submit a recipe to the “Cookie’s Bar-B-Q Contest” at the Iowa State Fair. So, they submitted a baked bean recipe that they loved, which was based on one they had seen on an early-morning TV cooking show. And, they won the blue ribbon! Mark says, “The recipe could feed most fairgoers for a day, so you may want to cut the size down to whatever works for you. Enjoy!” (Ginny and Mark are a great team, no matter what project they decide to undertake!)

Blue Ribbon Baked Beans

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Ginny and Mark Haviland at the Iowa State Fair several years ago, with their daughter and grandchildren, after they won the Blue Ribbon for their baked beans.

Blue Ribbon Baked Beans

  • Servings: Lots
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

This recipe serves a large group, so cut down the ingredient portions if necessary.

  • 2 (55-ounce) cans Bush’s Baked Beans, drained
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 cup California white raisins
  • 1 cup Cookie’s Bar-B-Q Sauce
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 or 3 red or green apples, chopped (not too small)

Mix all ingredients together. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or longer at 350 degrees in a large (10×15-inch) Pyrex pan. Best to let stand for 20 to 30 minutes before serving. Recipe size can be decreased or increased as needed.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

 

Then we come to the “Sticky” part of the theme, which represents the most well-known type of food served at the Iowa State Fair. Here are three different food-on-a stick ideas for your party menu. You probably even have your own ideas of favorite dishes that could be converted to “on-a-stick”.

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My friend Susan Furtwangler is an outstanding cook and is especially known for her Asian-cooking expertise. This appetizer was a hit when she served it to the gourmet group a few years ago.

Seared Tuna Skewers with Wasabi Mayonnaise

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Seared Tuna Skewers with Wasabi Mayonnaise

  • Servings: 28
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 tablespoons wasabi powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (Hellman’s is good)
  • 1 pound fresh tuna steak, at least 3/4-inch thick
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 28 large slices pickled ginger
  • 28 6-inch wooden skewers
  • Black sesame seeds
  • 1 bunch watercress (Tracy didn’t use this, but it looks pretty when you do.)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Mix wasabi powder and water in small bowl to blend. Whisk in mayonnaise, cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. (Can be made one day ahead. Keep refrigerated.) Combine tuna steak and soy sauce in medium bowl or Ziploc bag, toss to coat. Marinate tuna for 30 minutes at room temperature; rotate occasionally. Meanwhile, thread 1 ginger slice onto each skewer, 2 inches from tip. Line a platter with watercress. Place bowl of wasabi mayonnaise on platter. Drain tuna steak; pat dry. Sprinkle with pepper on both sides. Dip one side of tuna steak in black sesame seeds. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add tuna steak and sear until browned on a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add tuna steak and sear until browned on both sides but still pink inside, about 1 minute per side. Cool to room temperature and, if serving later in day, refrigerate. Cut tuna in 3/4-inch cubes. Thread cubes onto prepared skewers next to ginger slice with “sesame seed side” out. Arrange skewers on platter and serve.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

 

One of the great summertime treats in the Des Moines metro area is when the Fabian Seafood truck arrives from Galveston, Texas. Several times during their seafood season, Fabian sets up shop on the corner of 28th and Grand Avenue, not far from the governor’s mansion. This has been the routine for this company for at least 35 years. The seafood (gulf shrimp, red snapper, blue crabmeat, fresh shucked oysters, etc.) is caught in the Gulf, iced down, and driven straight to Des Moines in a refrigerated truck; it’s never seen a freezer. Many local fans have their names on Fabian’s email list in order to receive advance notice of the truck’s arrival—always on a Wednesday, but not every Wednesday. You can be on the list too if you sign up at http://www.fabianseafood.com. This is a recipe I created the first time we bought the shrimp. I usually don’t put the shrimp on a stick, but it’s a requirement for a state fair party!

Cajun Barbecued Shrimp

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Cajun Barbecued Shrimp

  • Servings: 7 or 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons barbecue sauce (I used Masterpiece Original)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 pound raw* shrimp, shelled and deveined, tails left on (frozen (thawed) uncooked shrimp may also be used)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the first 8 ingredients and set aside. Peel, devein, and rinse the shrimp. Add cleaned shrimp to a Ziploc bag, add marinade, and close. Move the shrimp and marinade around at least a couple of times while they marinate. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.When ready to cook, remove shrimp from bag, shake off excess liquid, and discard marinade. Grill 5 to 7 minutes, or until they turn opaque and pink. To oven roast: Place marinated shrimp in one layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes, or until they turn opaque and pink. Do not overcook. After they cool a few minutes, they can be threaded onto skewers, if desired. Grind more fresh pepper over all. (*Note: Don’t even think about using already-cooked shrimp for this recipe; it’s not an option. If you do, they will be as rubbery as an old bicycle tire. Then you’ll hear my screechy little voice somewhere in your brain saying, “I told you so!”)

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

 

I enjoyed some amazing Chicken Satay at an excellent restaurant a few years ago. It was garlic-infused and so tender. I tried to duplicate it in my kitchen, and I think I have come pretty close, even though it may not include all of the usual satay ingredients. I have tried grilling the strips of chicken with and without skewers. Personally, I enjoy them more when they aren’t threaded onto a stick (even though that is how they are customarily served). And since we are all in a state-fair state of mind, we want the convenience and schtick of food on a stick. So, go ahead and serve it lollipop-style, but for me, I prefer to “satay away” from the skewers.

Chicken Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce

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Chicken Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce

  • Servings: 4 to 6
  • Difficulty: Easy to Medium
  • Print

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts*
  • Basil in chiffonade, for garnish

In a bowl, whisk together all ingredients, except that last two. Slice each chicken breast lengthwise into approximate 1-inch slices. Put into a large Ziploc bag and pour in the marinade. Knead bag with fingers to mix well. Put in refrigerator for 4 hours or more. Knead a few times during marinating process. Grill chicken pieces about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes on each side. If it’s not grilling weather, use a grill pan (or griddle) on stove. May thread chicken onto skewers after cooking, if desired. Sprinkle on basil. Serve with Peanut Dipping Sauce. (I prefer mine without sauce.) (*I always use the Smart Chicken brand.)

Peanut Dipping Sauce

  • 1/2 cup fresh peanut butter (in the refrigerated section of grocery store)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground ginger root
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  •  1 clove garlic, minced

Stir all ingredients together in a small serving bowl. If it seems too thick, add more water until it is of a “dipping” consistency.

Recipe from http://www.messycookblog.com

 

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By now, you’re dipping into your reserve tank for energy, so you need something easy for dessert. There’s no shame in serving good chocolate truffles or cake balls. (Cake balls from Caché in West Des Moines, http://www.cachebakeshoppe.com, are among the best I’ve ever tasted, especially the almond ones!) Just put them on sticks and arrange them in a vase with a bow, and you’re done! The chocolate truffles I used for this picture are Godiva brand. Lamb sugar cookies with “wool” made of creamy butter frosting would be the perfect dessert for a state fair party, but alas, I am spent, and I’m sure you are too!

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Lamb sugar cookies are fun to make, but that’s a project for another day.

Last Bites

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The Iowa State Fair is consistently ranked in the top three state fairs in the nation. From August 11 to 21, more than a million visitors will pass through the gates. Situated on 445 acres on the east side of Des Moines, there is truly something for everyone! (Thank you again to Judy Quick for the well-chosen fair photos. Wish I could have used them all!)

By the way, do not get into any heated political arguments during your “Hot, Melty, Sticky” party. Those food sticks are sharp! You’re obviously not an Olympic-level fencer (or else you would be in Rio right now), but try to be en garde when you are near these things. Being punctured by one might not kill you, but it could leave some seriously deep dimples. You have been warned. (I wonder if the state fair EMTs have to rescue a lot of food-stick-impaled people.)

Thanks for dropping by. I will be back with a new post on August 26. Don’t you forget now!—Tracy

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