Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pot of beans

I’ve been on the lookout for a good baked bean recipe. The main requirement? That it not be sweet. I’ve tried several recipes, some sweetened with just a touch of molasses or a couple glugs of maple syrup, but they were always too bland, too blah.

I love sweet baked beans, really I do, so I was starting to give up hope. Maybe I was destined to be a sweet baked bean eater only? Perhaps my taste buds were conditioned to expect lots of brown sugar and ketchup with my white beans and I would never be able to do better?


But then I tried this recipe and my baked bean lot was revolutionized. A tomato-based baked bean dish with a bit of bacon and onions and garlic, these beans only use a couple tablespoons of honey to sweeten them up. And that’s all they need! They’re rich and flavorful, and absolutely delicious. Now I have a baked bean dish I can serve without feeling guilty.


A side note: my kids didn’t go for them—but then, they don’t go for any baked beans—and they did eat up their no-thank-you serving easily enough so I have hope. And my husband said, “These could really grow on me. Regular baked beans are way too sweet.” That reserved statement, my friends, was as good as any royal stamp of approval. These beans will be our summer staple. Amen.


Baked Beans
Adapted from Simply Recipes

I used my roasted tomato sauce—it was, of course, divine (you really must can some for yourself this summer)—but you can use a standard tomato sauce, or extra tomato paste and more broth. Play around with what you have on hand.

The bacon adds good flavor—so good, in fact, that I think a quarter pound of ground sausage would be a lovely addition. I love pork.

I did not have fresh parsley on hand so I used a couple teaspoons of dried. It was fine, but I think the fresh would add a delightful kick, so if you have it, use it.

1 pound dried white beans (I used Great Northern)
1/4 pound bacon, cut in half lengthwise and then chopped into smallish pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh sage (or rosemary), minced
½ teaspoon chili flakes
2 tablespoons honey
2-4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 pint roasted tomato sauce
2 cups chicken (or beef) stock
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Soak the beans overnight. In the morning, rinse them and then simmer till soft. (Don’t forget to salt them while they’re cooking—it adds much more flavor to the final dish.)

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven (or other heavy cooking pot) and add the chopped bacon. Once it has browned, add the onion and saute till golden brown. Add the garlic, sage, and chili and cook for one minute. Add the honey and tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the tomato sauce and stock and stir well. Bring the beans to a simmer and check for salt.

Put a lid on the pot and slip it into a 325 degree oven. Bake for an ample hour—if the beans are still too soupy, take the lid off and let the moisture evaporate while it bakes a bit more.

Immediately before serving, stir in the fresh parsley and vinegar.

These beans can be made ahead of time, stored in the refrigerator or freezer, and then reheated in a crock pot. So stock up now—it’s summer time!

This same time, years previous: meet the gang, shredded wheat bread, rhubarb jam (this jam is best eaten fresh)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Juxtaposed

Everything feels a little surreal right now.

It all started on Wednesday night when my husband and I stayed up till midnight watching The King’s Speech (one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time), and then I dreamed I was an actress—a very talented one, I might add. Royalty and British accents were involved. It was intense and fun and kind of overwhelming, this new life of fame and memorized lines.


And then yesterday some neighbor girls came over to play and that was kind of surreal because I don’t relate to plain Mennonites in everyday life and then suddenly four of them were running around barefoot in my back yard.


Besides, my mother grew up plain Mennonite so it felt like a step back in time ... but a time that was before I was.

This morning there was the royal wedding, a'course. I googled for some live streaming and was immediately immersed in the magic of it all. I couldn’t help myself. When it comes down to it, humans must be programmed to crave pomp and circumstance. (Yes, I’m slow on the uptake. Disney is not.)

In the middle of all that—staring at the computer, the kids pitter-pattering downstairs, cracking eggs into a bowl for breakfast—I learned that my distant cousin (the niece and granddaughter of some very close family and friends) committed suicide on Wednesday. Her death comes as a complete surprise to the family. She was 23.

And just like that, right there in my morning kitchen, a lovely fairytale and a family’s complete pain and devastation were standing side by side.

The contrast is surreal. I feel wobbly.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Spray, soup, and everything in between

Thanks for all your sweet suggestions and advice regarding yesterday’s post. You guys are the bestest.

We think we know what caused the eye-popping allergic reaction: wasp spray. As in, the poison that you spray to kill wasps (not poison that wasps spray to kill humans—that's silly) and then somehow (?!?) get on the tricycle and then the little tyke rides the trike and everything goes downhill from there.


It was the big kids that actually figured it out (and we’re still not for certain—it’s our best guess, though). After yesterday’s allergic reaction (which was very mild and not at all alarming because I knew what it was—knowledge does wonders for fear reduction), the big kids went outside to do some sleuthing and then recalled the Sunday evening wasp-spraying session. I was not a part of the event, unlike the other adult member of the house, and if I was feeling at all underhanded I would say things like, like—well, never mind.

Hey, IT’S FREAKIN’ STUPID TO SPRAY POISON AROUND KIDDY TOYS, YOU NUMBSKULL!

Oops, sorry. That just slipped out.

Anyway, the kids washed the trike and were getting ready to scrub down the porch with the pressure washer but I stopped them because, dude, it’s a pressure washer. I didn’t want to run the risk of anyone getting their eyes blasted out of their head.

Nickel has been fine since then, so I’m hoping it was the spray and not something seasonal, herbal, or animal.

In other news...

*The child who kicks doctors had a FABULOUS dentist appointment yesterday. She sported her sunglasses and nitrous mask with serene aloofness, permitted them to yank her loose tooth, and didn’t even flinch when they jabbed a needle into her gums three different times.


I do believe the kid is growing up, hallelujah.

*Two days after our neighbors’ horse had a baby, they called us up to come see her.


She was fuzzy as a baby chick and skittish.


The kids loved on her so heavy that by the end she was nuzzling them. So sweet.

*We have a new nook.


After relocating the two bookcases (one is leaving the house completely), John moved in a table and chairs, hung a light, and stuck a board on the wall and called it a shelf. I tacked a map to the wall (crookedly, my One True Love informed me), and filled the shelf with art supplies and obscene piles of scrap paper.


The kids love their new spot. Heck, I love their new spot. Now they can be in the same room as me and do their artsy-fartsy stuff without getting all up in my business. I think this is what is called a win-win situation.

*The rest of the house looks like a couple of obsessed-with-getting-rid-of-things people tore through it, piled everything that was on the shelves onto the floors, and then up and left.


Which is pretty much what happened, though we didn’t actually leave.

We’re in the middle of rearranging a couple bedrooms, getting rid of as many books as possible, installing shelves, putting in window screens, and sorting papers. It’s hairy and scary and I can’t wait till we’re done.

*I made soup.


I know now’s not the time to talk about soup what with it being sunny and hot and all (at least in my corner of the world), but seeing as this weather’s been rather crazy, I’m assuming we’ll all get a few more cold snaps before true armpit soaker weather hits.

When that chilly weather whistles at your door, make this. It’ll do you good.


Roasted Carrot and Red Lentil Soup
Adapted from Luisa of The Wednesday Chef

I used about 1/4 teaspoon of chipotle powder and it was too spicy for the kids. If serving it to sensitive palates, adjust accordingly.

1 ½ pounds carrots, peeled
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, thinly sliced
1/8 - 1/4 chipotle powder (or cayenne)
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
4 cups chicken broth

Arrange the carrots on a baking sheet, toss with three tablespoons of the oil and sprinkle with the salt a couple grinds of black pepper. Roast the carrots at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, stirring once. Add the onions slices and roast another 15 minutes. The vegetables should be fork tender and flecked with black.

Once the carrots have cooled a little, chop into bite-sized pieces. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a soup pot, add the vegetables and chipotle powder and paprika and saute for a minute or two. Add the lentils and chicken broth and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer till the lentils are soft, about 25 minutes. Taste to correct seasonings before serving.

This same time, years previous: me and you, and the radishes, the perils of homemade chicken broth, the Monday rambles, creamed asparagus on toast (this is GOOD), sticking my neck out, and shoofly pie

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Drama trauma

My word, people. This child of mine is making me age prematurely.


Or else he has a secret plan to collect all the ER’s stuffed animals in the shortest amount of time possible.


Yesterday I had, quite possibly, the most adrenaline-pumping car ride of my life. I exceeded the speed limit. I laid on the horn and zipped through a just-turned-red stoplight. I passed in the right lane. I picked up my husband (who was standing curbside) so fast that, if I had been driving a windowless black van, it could’ve been a scene straight out of a Jackie Chan movie.

Don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t trying to careless. In fact, there’s a good chance I was a better-than-normal driver, level-headed, focused, and attentive. (The tears and snot streaming down my face, the raspy breathing and repeated pummeling of the steering wheel—because cars were going so dang slow—were just for dramatic affect.)

Besides, I bet you’d go through the same little song and dance if your five-year-old’s eyeball turned all squishy yellow and swelled up so huge that it looked like it would fall out of its socket at any minute.

Seriously. I’ve NEVER seen anything like it.

We still don’t know what caused it. I was working outside, planting annuals and perennials, picking asparagus and rhubarb, potting plants, and trying to cajole the kids into helping me. Nickel was hanging out, playing in the yard and on the porch, doing his best to not help me. He got a little fussy. Said his eye hurt, that something was in it. He didn’t cry, didn’t yell. Just sat there fussing. So of course I ignored him.

About ten minutes later I went in the house to get lunch ready. I washed my hands and then said to Mr. Fussy, “Okay. Let me see your eye.”

I took one look—the whole outside edge of the white part of his left eye was bulging—and grabbed the kid under his armpits, raced him to the bathroom, splashed water on his face, realized water wasn’t good enough, and ran in circles around the kitchen, arms a-flapping, searching for the phone.

“Meet me at the ER,” I barked at my husband.

I called my sister-in-law. “We’re going to the ER,” I informed her. “I’m dropping the kids off.”

By the time I hung up the phone, all of the white part of his eye was spongy, yellow, and bulging in a way that no eye should ever bulge.

"GET TO THE CAR!" I screamed at the kids, wetting a hanky with cold water and slapping it on the eye as I raced out the door. The kids were already huddled out by the car. (Sweetsie was so traumatized by the grossness factor that she refused to sit in her regular seat beside her brother.)

After a drive-by drop-off at my sis-in-law’s house (and getting flagged down by my sis-in-law who was on the phone with my husband who was asking if I could pick him up on such-and-such a road), I passed a woman out walking her dog and pulled over, “Do you have medical training?” She shook her head no and I sped off.

By this point, Nickel’s whole eye was bubbling and bulging with wild abandon. The skin under his eye was pushed out so far it seemed like it no longer possessed any eyeball restraining power whatsoever. (To steady my racing brain I focused on the fact that there’s an awful lot of networking behind the eye that keeps it in place.)

"My eye feels like it’s cracking,” Nickel whimpered.

Suddenly the 20-mile drive to the hospital seemed impossibly long. Our friend, a nursing professor and a long-time overseas missionary in Central America , lived several miles down the road. Surely she would have a clue as to what in the world was going on. When I zipped around the curve in front of her house, she was sitting outside on her porch—I jerked the car over and backed into her drive. I called to her and right away she knew this was no regular neighborly visit I was paying. She jumped up from her rocker, ran to the car, took one look at Nickel’s eye, made like she was going to jump into the car with us, changed her mind and flew into the house for ice and a cloth, and off we sped. (Our friend was so worried about his eye—she had never seen anything like it, either—that she eventually drove the whole way to the hospital to find out how we were, but we had already been discharged.)

I already told you about the rest of the drive, minus the part when Nickel said, “My throat hurts,” and John said, “Just drive.” (I figured if a cop pulled me over, all the better. I’d just show him the eye and get myself a personal escort service.)

By the time we got to the hospital, the swelling was going down and we were beginning to realize that this was an allergic reaction. They put us straight through to a room, but then it took the doctor awhile to come in so we had a chance to regain our composure. Clearly, his eyeball wasn’t going to fall out. He would be fine. We relaxed.

The doctor confirmed our suspicions. Nickel had had an allergic reaction. To what, we don’t know. We now have drops to put in his eye if it happens again. If his lips swell up, he needs more than the drops (but it was the pharmacist who told me that—the doctor didn’t seem concerned about that).

I still have tons of questions. Like, do we even need the drops if a cold compress did so much to bring the swelling down? Like, was the slightly swollen eye that I noticed last week (the left eye, too) a precursor to this? It is likely this will happen again and will it be worse next time? Is this a condition he’ll have during a particular season for the rest of this life?

The internet was reluctant to cough up very much information on this condition. I looked for images and this one (the second picture) most closely resembles my baby’s eye (though his was more yellow than red and the skin under the eye was bulging out much further). I wish now I had taken pictures—it was so incredibly incredible-looking—but I don’t think of photos when I’m in the middle of being traumatized. Sorry.

In any case, Nickel now has a new stuffed animal and I know that I have the potential to be an ambulance driver if I ever get the urge.

P.S. Whaddaya know, he had another reaction as I was posting this.


So here you can see what his eye looked like in the very beginning stages, lucky you.

Oh yeah, and in all the drama of the last ten minutes, I burnt the bread, too.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Friday list

1. It’s raining. But it’s April so everything is as it should be.

2. My mom and dad stopped by this morning. They are buying ten acres two miles from our house and came down (up, whatever) to get the survey done. In the rain.

3. A friend and her three wee ones paid us a visit.


The four-week-old baby was the hit of the show. My oldest son laid on the sofa, the babe asleep on his chest, and would’ve stayed there the whole time if I’d-a let him. But I was hungering for my baby fix so I up and booted him from the room.

4. Another friend and her granddaughter are coming to visit this afternoon. I need to rid the house of 273 flies before they get here.

5. The kids and I are doing a little skit at church this evening. The Baby Nickel has a dual role: first a servant boy and then a rooster. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

6. Rhubarb’s up.


This is my standard rhubarb dessert. It’s a perfect way to star the tart stalks. Half of the crumbs make up a crunchy bottom crust and the other half makes a crunchy topping, thus the name Rhubarb Crunch. It could not be more appropriately named.


This last time I used half sour cherries and half rhubarb—it made for a right pretty (and delicious) crunch.


Rhubarb Crunch

3/4 cup flour
1 cup oats, either rolled or quick
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup water (or fruit juice)
½ teaspoon vanilla
4 cups diced rhubarb

Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingers to make crumbs. Press half of the crumbs in the bottom of a greased 9 x 9 glass pan. Reserve the remaining crumbs for the topping.

In a small kettle, stir together the sugar and cornstarch. Add the water (or fruit juice) and vanilla. Bring it to a boil, stirring steadily, till thick and smooth. Remove the kettle from the heat and add the rhubarb, stirring to coat. Pour the saucy fruit on the crust and top the fruit with the remaining crumbs. Bake the crunch at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the juices are bubbly and the crumbs—both top and bottom—are golden brown.

Serve warm, with milk or vanilla ice cream.

This same time, years previous: bacon-wrapped jalapenos, honey-baked chicken

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My lot

This week I’ve been stomp-my-feet-and-cry frustrated about the state of my house.

I get that houses are to be lived in. I understand that the influx of five, six, or, like yesterday, nine people is going to require a fairly high level of upkeep. I know that the dirty floors, the tossed jackets, the spilled books are all signs that things are happening and that I’m surrounded by the people I love.

If I were the Pollyanna type, I would sing songs of thanksgiving whenever I’d spy a dirty dish: thanksgiving for the dish that held the food, thanksgiving for the food that fed the body, and thanksgiving for the body that ate it. Rapturously clutching the dirty dish to my bosom, I’d twirl around the room, luxuriating in the realization that, because of this dirty dish, I might possibly be the richest person in the world! But then I’d twirl-step on a tea towel that some love-of-my-heart child tossed on the floor, my foot would screech to a halt while my body would keep going, and I’d crash to the floor with a thud. Then I’d lay there, thanking my lucky stars (that are suddenly—whoa! look at that!—visible) that I even had a floor upon which I could break my fall.

That’s what I’d do if I was Pollyanna.

But I’m not Pollyanna. In fact, my mood is such that if Pollyanna walked across my path, I'd probably sock her a good one.

Or else hand her a toilet bowl brush and tell her to get to.

All day long I maintain. I assess the status of my home, create a list of chores, and then oversee the kids doing the chores.


That sounds a lot easier than it really is. Here’s how it actually breaks down.

I see a dirty bathroom sink. I tell a child to clean it. I check the “cleaned” bathroom sink and determine that my child needs to learn how to wield a rag. I call the child back in and teach a lesson in Basic Sink Cleaning 101.

Or, I have a child wash the dishes. Later, I empty the drainer. I find dried egg on a fork, grease on the bottom of a bowl, starchy gunk on the outside of the oatmeal pot. I set aside the soiled dishes, call the child into the house, and have the child wash them again.

By themselves, those two examples don’t sound all that bad. In fact, you’re probably thinking way to go, Mama, being consistent and patient and all that jazz, right? (Note: nobody said anything about being patient.) But! Multiply those scenarios times four (‘cause I have four kids, get it?) and set it on auto-repeat for hours on end and you can see why I’m a little worn down.

The other day I walked into the bathroom and saw that my freshly washed window (I’ve been trying to wash a few windows every day—it’s my gradual approach to spring cleaning) was completely smeared.

As I studied those smears, my chest constricted. My head ached—nay, my very bones ached. I exhaled and all the hope and perseverance whooshed right out of my body. Eyes smarting, I pondered my options. I could:

1. Wash the window myself.
2. Assign a child to wash the window.
3. Cry.
4. Scream.
5. Shut the blind.
6. Complain to my husband.
7. Do nothing.

I chose Option Number Six.

My husband was in the kitchen. I wasted no time in sharing what was on my heart. “I can hardly stand it!" I wailed. "There are messes everywhere! I hate all the stuff in my house! I want more bookshelves! The girls’ room is a mess! Nobody puts their clothes away! We don’t even have a broom so we can sweep the porch! There are no steps to the attic! The flies are driving me nuts! You worked late on Monday! The potatoes didn’t come up! There’s a mouse in the stove again! I want a new camera lens! I only have one pair of blue socks! The sofa has a hole in it!”

“What do you want me to do about it?” he asked, his voice level, his eyes laughing.

“I want you to get up at 5:30 tomorrow morning and clean the house!” I sniffed. “Clean everything.”

When I came downstairs the next morning, the house looked right sharp. Granted, it looked that way for only a few hours, but with that little boost I was able to make it through till the end of the day when I start yelling about how I can’t STAND the mess and how I can’t DO this anymore.

Hopefully I’ll feel better next week. ‘Cause the messes sure ain’t going anywhere.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Willy Wonka's chocolate river tastes like

I can not keep it from you any longer: it is time I tell you what I did with those six egg yolks I had leftover after making the mint wedding cake.

Really, I had no plan for them ... at first. I plopped them in a little plastic container and slipped them onto the top shelf of the fridge. Later, when I opened the fridge later Somethingorother, I spied them, paused in my mad dash, focused my full attention on yolks and applied all my mental energy to the task of coming up with a use for those six golden orbs. I actually felt the heavy clanking wheels in my brain heave forward. ICE CREAM flitted across my mind, the wheels ground to a halt, I grabbed the Somethingorother, and moved on.

In the intervening hours between when I decided on the ice cream and when I made the ice cream, I pulled my David Lebovitz ice cream book—it bristles with sticky notes—off the shelf and rifled its pages.


I didn’t have to look for long; the very first sticky-noted page caught my eye.


I like chocolate ice cream well enough, but I’ve never made a chocolate ice cream that I was proud of. David's chocolate ice cream looked fair enough. Perhaps a little more convoluted than some of the more straightforward recipes I’ve tried, what with both powdered and bar chocolate and a bunch of egg yolks, but a bit o’ convolution is good when you’re searching for a better than average recipe. (Now that I’m looking at the recipe again, I see that it calls for only five yolks. This confuses me. Did I unwittingly add six? Or did I do something with the other yolk that I can not, for the life of me, now remember? Hmmm, it’s a mystery.)

Making this ice cream made for some crazy-fun times. The textures and tastes thrilled me to the tips of my toes. My heart raced, my adrenaline pumped, and I giggled and laughed, cackled and crowed. I even cornered my children and made them eat samples. (For once, they didn’t argue with me.)

After boiling the cream with the cocoa powder and pumping it full with chopped chocolate, I peered into the saucepan full of thick chocolate sauce and saw it for what it was: a heck of a lot of ganache. I think it was at this point that I started smiling. Clearly, I was heading down the right track.


The warm ice cream base was out-of-this-world good. Creamy and smooth, it slipped down my throat with alarming ease. Or I would've been alarmed if I hadn't been in the midst of one of the most fabulous chocolate-induced stupors of my life. The ice cream base was exactly what I imagine the chocolate river in Willy Wonka’s factory to taste like. I had planned to kick up the chocolate factor with a generous handful of cacao nibs, but it was at this point that I decided that there was no way I was pebbling its sexy sleekness with anything nibbly.


In fact, while I was standing there, methodically dipping and tasting, it occurred to me that this is what hot chocolate should taste like. Forget that milky, sugary drink that passes for hot chocolate—real hot chocolate should be made of cream, thickened with egg yolks, and served in shot glasses. Can I get an amen?

Once chilled, the mixture set up into the consistency of a thin pudding. I forced myself to do a bunch of taste testings so I could be sure my “thin pudding” description was accurate. It was.


And then I churned the ice cream. (Or, I should say, my super-duper Mother’s Day gift from last year, this splendiforous ice cream maker, churned my ice cream.) Straight from the machine, the ice cream was Class-A Soft Serve. (No pics, night had fallen thunk.) And after a sleep in the freezer it was Class-A Hand Dipped (set it out for 10 minutes to soften a little prior to scooping).

Funny story: one night after my stand-at-the-counter-and-eat-straight-from-the-ice cream-container session, I put the ice cream away. Or so I thought. The next morning I found a container of chocolate pudding sitting all pretty-like on the top shelf of the fridge. I shrieked wildly, put it in the freezer, and several hours later it was ice cream again. Moral of the story: this ice cream has endurance.


Chocolate Ice Cream
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
5 large egg yolks
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Put one cup of cream and the cocoa powder in a pan and bring it to a boil, whisking steadily. Remove from the heat and add the semisweet chocolate and stir till smooth. Stir in the remaining cream. Pour the mixture into a large bowl.

Wash out the pan and measure in the milk, sugar, and salt. Heat it till warm but not boiling. In the meantime, but the egg yolks in another bowl. When the milk is hot, use it to temper the yolks. Pour the tempered yolks back into the pan and heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until it has thickened a little. Pour the custard through a strainer into the bowl of chocolate. Add the vanilla. Thoroughly chill the mixture (it will get quite thick) before churning.

Yield: a generous quart

This same time, years previous: baked spaghetti, chocolate mayonnaise cake, a dirt pile (lately, it's been turned into a cave)

Monday, April 18, 2011

It just kind of happened

I’m not the most gifted crafter of soup. I have a propensity for cooking half of the ingredients to mush, and almost always a bad case of brain fog overtakes whenever I try to imagine what spices might go with what vegetables might go with what meats. For these reasons, I stick to recipes when making soup.

However, last week I defied all my norms and created a soup to be proud of, a soup to write home about, a soup to blog about—and here it is!


I was sad when it was all gone. I think of it fondly. I need to make more.

This soup kind of just happened into being. Earlier in the week when I was scanning my freezers as a first step in my weekly menu planning routine, I discovered a quart of frozen white beans. There were also a few more containers of Swiss chard, and I had a pound of ground pork stashed in the refrigerator freezer. I tapped my lower lip, thought hard, and proclaimed that a dinner of chili was in our near future.

When I got down to work frying and chopping and stirring, I discovered a few more goodies that needed to be used up: a half quart jar of frozen multicolored sweet pepper strips, a half cup of white wine, and some celery. I debated whether or not the chili should be cream-based or tomato-based, but after a bit more lower lip tapping, I opted for the later and dumped in a pint of roasted tomato sauce and a quart of stewed tomatoes. (I also added the dregs of a jar of pizza sauce—good, but not a recipe requirement). The smells were intoxicating, the flavor was swoony.

The soup was fortifying, bracing from the chili powder and rich from the roasted tomato sauce. In fact, I’m convinced that it’s the roasted tomato sauce that transformed this soup from good to great. I think this is the first soup I’ve added the sauce to, but it will certainly not be the last. From now on I’ll be dumping pints of the glorious goodness into as many soups and sauces as I can concoct. It’s powerful stuff. Do yourself a favor and can yourself a boatload of it this summer.

A word about using frozen Swiss chard. When I put it up, I just wash the leaves, chop them up, and pop them in the freezer. The thawed leaves have a musty odor that we all find rather repulsive. However, I’ve found a way to fix the problem: dump the container of frozen leaves into a saucepan, add an inch of water, bring it to a boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Drain well, pressing on the leaves to get rid of all the juice, and then proceed with your recipe as normal. The flavor is delicious. (My mother reports that blanching her chard before freezing eliminates that moldy flavor. So with a little extra work, either pre- or post-freezing, you’ll be good to go.)


Ground Pork and White Bean Chili

You can substitute the white wine with chicken broth or water. And if you have no roasted tomato sauce, simply add some regular tomato sauce, or an extra pint of canned tomatoes.

This is a convenience meal all the way, baby: it’s made in a crock pot, and the leftovers freeze well, too. Whee!

1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground pork
1 cup diced bell peppers (red, green, orange, yellow)
2 ribs celery, diced
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white wine
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 quart cooked small white beans
1 quart chopped chard, cooked and drained
1 quart stewed tomatoes
1 pint roasted tomato sauce
salt and black pepper, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a heavy soup pot. Add the pork and cook till brown and sizzling. Transfer the pork to a crock pot.

Add the peppers, celery, onion, and garlic to the fat that’s left in the pan and saute for 10 minutes. Add the white wine and simmer for another minute. Dump everything into the crock pot, making sure to scrape out all the flavorful drippings.

Add the remaining ingredients to the crock pot and cook for 4-6 hours (cook it on high till it bubbles and then turn it down to cook on low for the rest of the time).

Serve with cornbread or buttered toast.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The point is cake

A few weeks back I got the sweetest email from a friend of yore, a girl that I went to summer camp with and then college. She was writing to tell me that she reads my blog and uses my recipes—two bits of information that always catch me off-guard and give me a little thrill. Aside from a handful of readers who leave lovely comments I have no idea if people actually read my blog. Sure, I occasionally glance at the ticking numbers on my site meter, but they don’t mean much—for all I know, the majority of hits are by people searching for enlightenment and when google lands them on my blog they suffer pangs of bitterest disappointment and disillusionment which leads to a falling out with all search engines. I hope that doesn't happen, of course, but I have no way of knowing. (Yes, there are high-techy ways of finding out, but I am not inclined towards any techy-ness, and certainly not any HIGH techy-ness.)

So when Bethany (for that is the name of the aforementioned sweet girl) emailed me and told me that she actually uses some of my recipes in her CSA newsletter, I was first surprised, second tickled, and third addled. Because—hello!—does this means there are people actually reading and cooking from this little blog? I mean, that’s what I want them to do, but whoa, dude! All my shortcomings—the stupid things I've said and done, the outrages claims I've made—it's like getting caught with my pants down, and just because I'm used to walking around in public with my pants down doesn't mean I don't still blush when someone looks at me, know what I mean?

You don't?

Um, okay. Forget I said anything, okay? (Geesh.)

I am slip-sliding all over this post, the point of which (yes! there’s a point!) is cake.


Cake was the point of Bethany’s email, too. See, she was after a recipe. This is what she said, “I still remember a particular mint cake that your mother sent down to school once - a three-layer white cake with flecks of green that was dense and sweet and amazing. I had the recipe and lost it. I'd be grateful for any leads on this - but no hurry.”


I immediately knew exactly what she was talking about. It’s not every day that you eat a mint cake with real mint in it, and I clearly remember the first time I had this cake. It was at a cousin’s outdoor wedding up in Pennsylvania (my husband and I were a couple months shy of getting married ourselves), and at the reception, we had this cake.


Come to think of it, I don’t remember much of anything about the wedding or the cake. It’s more of a fact lodged in my brain than an actual visceral memory. I know we had this mint cake, and I know it was delicious, and I know the wedding was lovely. But that’s all I know. The end.


In order to bake this cake, I had to beg some dried mint from my mom. She brought me the last of her mint which didn’t measure quite up to the full three tablespoons, but it had to do.

And do it did, just fine.


I iced the cake with cream fluff frosting, but any butter frosting would be fine. However, I think this elegant cake would be super classy served plain (perhaps baked in a bundt pan), dressed only with sugared strawberries or red raspberries, whipped cream optional.


Here’s what happens when I serve my husband his first piece of cake. I pull up a stool, sit down, and then stare at him as he eats.


“What do you think?” I ask.

Silently, he chews. I tap my foot and wait. He swallows.

“Well? What do you think?” I ask again.

He ignores me, shovels another piece into his mouth, and continues chewing.

“You’ve had plenty of time to taste it,” I snap. “TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK!”

Then the Baby Nickel sidles up to the table, attempts to sneak a taste with his grubby paw, and gets the boot.


And I am appeased, for my question has been answered. My husband likes the cake.

Mint Wedding Cake

This cake made two full 9-inch layers, but you could get three layers if you used 8-inch pans.

A note on my recipe card says: put no mint in icing. The cake is perfectly minty as is—any more would be a plunge headlong overboard.

Oil of peppermint is not to be confused with peppermint extract. Check the baking aisle of your grocery store or a health food store.

For a standard white cake: omit the oil of peppermint and dried mint leaves, and increase the vanilla extract to 2 teaspoons.

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups sifted cake flour (I used Softasilk)
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons crushed dried mint leaves
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 drops oil of peppermint
6 (3/4 cup) egg whites

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

Using the soiled beaters, cream together the butter and sugar.

Measure the flour, baking powder, salt, and dried mint into a small bowl. In another small bowl, measure the milk, water, vanilla, and oil of peppermint.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture alternately with the wet. Fold in the beaten egg whites. Divide the batter between two greased, wax paper-lined (grease the wax paper, too), and floured 9-inch cake pans. Bake the cakes at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Allow them to cool for 10 minutes before running a knife around the edges of the cakes and carefully dumping them out onto a cooling rack.

If desired, ice the cooled cakes with buttercream (some suggestions: cream fluff frosting, buttercream frosting, and vanilla buttercream frosting).

I stored this cake, well-covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. The cool temperatures made the cool minty-ness even more refreshing.

This same time, years previous: banana cake with creamy peanut butter frosting

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wild hair, cereal worhip, and other sundry tales

My friend called me this morning:

Friend (all excited-like): Well hell-OH!!! Are you OKAY???

Me (surprised): Well, yes, I’m fine, thank you. Why do you ask?

Friend: Because you haven’t blogged for like FOUR DAYS and I have no idea how you’re doing when you don’t write. I was getting all worried because I thought something might be wrong because you weren’t writing and then I have to call you to find out and—

Me: Oh goodness, I’m FINE. Truly! And I think it’s only been three days since I posted, but I’ll forgive you the slip-up ‘cause it’s real sweet of you to care. Not much is happening here. I'm plugging away at using up my freezer stuff so I don’t have any new recipes to write about and I figured that everyone is probably bored stiff of hearing about the kids so that’s why I didn’t post. I do have a new recipe in the works—

Friend: Oh no, no. When you don’t write, I worry and then I have to call you to find out what's going on.

Okay, so that’s not the conversation verbatim—

(Excuse me, but my youngest son is hacking up something in the downstairs bedroom with a scissors. I better go check.)

(Back again. No scissors involved [like yesterday]—he was just pounding on a sheet of cardboard with a green dry erase marker and a metal dustpan.)

—but it gets the point across.

And yes, I really am fine. I have a luscious cake post I've working on, but since my friend didn’t say she doesn't want to hear more about my kids, I guess she kind of might not mind hearing more about them, so...

Story One: Windy Wood
Last I wrote, my kids had just rigged up a two-sided ramp using sawhorses, boards, and sheets of plywood.


They spent the afternoon shooting down the sides on wagons, trikes, and bikes.

When it came time to clean up, my son discovered a new game: stand a sheet of plywood up on end and then let it fall to the ground with a whoosh, right beside the other kids and resulting in a vigorous gust of wind and some wild hair. I observed this new game from my spot in the brand new strawberry patch (25 Sparkle and 25 All-Star).


It didn’t take me more than two seconds to toss my baby plants and sprint to the house for the camera.


I sat on the ground beside the girls and snapped madly away while the my son hoisted and dropped the board and my husband hollered at me from the strawberry patch to put the stupid camera down and come over and help him right this very minute.


Story Two: Cereal Worship
I don’t buy cereal any more. We’ve been living on granola (I make this recipe once a week, and sometimes twice), oatmeal, pancakes, and eggs. This is a big switch for me, a former cereal addict. But it’s gotten to the point where I no longer crave the boxed bits o' dry crispies (too much), and I’ve accustomed myself to think ahead for our morning meals.

However, we’ve eaten so much granola lately that even the kids have started to beg for mercy. So a couple weeks ago I bought one box of frosted mini wheats and everybody but Papa got one bowl before the box was empty. It wasn’t nearly enough to alleviate our granola boredom.

So yesterday I included “cereal” in my grocery list. My husband was doing the shopping and stopped at a Dollar General on the way out of town to pick it up. Three whole boxes, he got. The kids were ecstatic.

My oldest son was the first to spy the splurge. He ran leaping and yelling (and totally ignoring our orders to come back here right this minute to help bring in the groceries) upstairs to shout the good news to his sisters. Then he sat down (once again, ignoring our orders to help put away the groceries) to read the cereal boxes.


worshiping

This morning’s breakfast of honey nut cheerios (mixed with granola, ‘cause I can’t help myself) was an enormous hit. It put everyone in a downright jolly mood.

Story Three: The Life of My Porch Swing
It appears that my porch swing has a life of its own. It gets tired of always facing west and likes to shake things up every now and then.


Sometimes I go outside and find it facing towards the road.


Other times I go outside and find it making out with the white bench. (I know!)


And still other times I go outside and find that it’s up and tried to leave the porch all together and that a little monkey has taken its place.

Story Four: My Niece
Yesterday evening we took care of my niece. Normally when she comes over, she disappears with the older kids and I never see her. But this time my son was mowing the yard and the roaring machine, it turned out, kind of shell-shocked the poor dear.

At first I didn’t realize there was any problem. I was in the garden and the other kids were in the yard, on the porch, running in and out of the house. But then I went to the house for something and found the little girl quietly kneeling behind the picnic table, her hands over her ears.


I took her to the other side of the porch where it was quieter, but even when the machine was on the opposite side of the house, she kept her ears covered. She didn’t seem that upset, really, just ... frozen.

Eventually she made it out to the rocks in the flower garden where she played with Sweetsie for a bit. But then my son brought the mower around to the barn and shut it off.


I watched my niece watch my son as he sat on the silent mower. After a minute she called to me loudly, never once taking her eyes off the monster machine, “Jennifer! I’m scared!”


I alerted my son to the traumatized child fleeing the rock garden behind him and he came up on the porch to entertain her.


I think my niece might adore my son. Just look at that face!


He danced around and made silly so she might be happy.


He cracked her up, he did.

And then he cuddled with her on the porch bench while my husband did the finish-up mowing.


This same time, years previous: flour tortillas, chocolate-covered peanut butter eggs, the value (or not) of the workbook, asparagus-walnut salad, asparagus with lemony crème fraîche and boiled egg