Thursday, February 25, 2010

When the recipe fails

We’ve all had the experience. On paper, a recipe looks good. It uses an appealing variety of ingredients and perhaps it comes from someone whose recipes we admire. When we begin to cook, it even smells good. But in our hands, it doesn’t turn out like anything we would want to serve to company.

That happened to me this week when I tried a new recipe for tuna casserole. It included broccoli and peas so I could use some of my frozen garden produce. It also used a semi-homemade broth instead of the high fat, high sodium canned cream soup. So I gave it a try. The result was bland and somewhat dry. Jim slathered ketchup on his and said that made it good.

So what do we do (other than the ketchup trick) when we try a recipe that uses ingredients we want to eat but doesn’t please the palate? Of course you can totally ditch it and never wander down that path again. Or you can consider ways to add more flavor to the recipe. Here are some things I like to try.

1) Add garlic. Jim and I love its flavor. In just about any recipe that calls for sautéed onions, I throw in a little garlic for more flavor and nutrition.

2) Experiment with herbs. If you have fresh herbs, it’s especially fun because you can smell and taste them before throwing them in. Remember that dried herbs are stronger than fresh, so you need smaller quantities. Keep track of which herbs you and your family most like and which foods they combine with especially well.

3) Add cheese. How can you go wrong with cheese? Again, know the taste before you throw it in. Although cheddar is commonly used in many recipes, it is higher in saturated fat that many. If you choose it, use it sparingly. Try an aged cheese with more flavor and you’ll need less, like parmesan or gruyere. Some cheese, like feta, add a salty bite. Others, like cream cheese or mascarpone, add a creamy texture. Cheese offers many options.

4) Add sun-dried tomatoes. They provide an unexpectedly sweet and tangy flavor.

5) Substitute other vegetables. In the tuna casserole example, I’ll likely try replacing some of the broccoli with our home-canned carrots.

6) Top the dish with toasted seeds, nuts or both. This works especially well on vegetable and rice or pasta dishes and, again, expands the nutritional benefits.

We still have plenty of tuna casserole in the refrigerator waiting for more experimentation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spring will actually arrive!

We had beautiful spring-like weather here yesterday. I think it hit 64 degrees. Even though it’s too early and wet to do anything in the garden, I wandered around the yard picking up limbs and sticks. Then I gathered up dried leaves to mulch the daffodils that have broken through the soil. They don’t know it’s going to get cold again this week!

I also found the first flowers of spring – snowbells (see photo). The plant is the height of my index finger. A friend gave me some of her snowbells a few years ago to plant in my flower garden and they are a delightful sign that winter is ending. Unfortunately, I’ve pulled some of them up during my weeding frenzy of warmer days (they look like long grass when not blooming) but there are a few, including these in my Marian garden, that survived. Now I need to mark them so I don’t pull them up, also!

The sun also inspired me to plant my first seeds for my “indoor greenhouse,” which is the window in my office. Every year I like to try something new so this year it’s leeks, which need to sprout and grow inside for several weeks before they are ready for transplanting. It was so nice to see dirt under my fingernails.

Before I knew it was going to be so warm, I made a pot of butternut squash chili with one of final two squashes from last season. I love the recipe not only because it tastes so good, but I can also use our canned tomatoes in it. So we have a good pot of soup to carry us into this week.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Preservations Lessons Round #3: Coleslaw

I grew up eating creamy coleslaw. But like with many tastes, as an adult I find that I also like slaw made with a vinegar dressing.

A couple of summers ago when we had more cabbage than we could eat straight out of the garden, Mom gave me a winter slaw recipe. When I pulled out some of the frozen results to serve at a writing retreat a few months ago, one of the other writers rejoiced. She said it was just what she had grown up with in southern Indiana. I, also, grew up in southern Indiana, so I’ve decided this must be titled Hoosier Winter Slaw.

Like with most foods I prepare, I substitute freely. For example, I don’t know that I’ve ever had red peppers on hand to use, but I have added cucumbers instead. Yes, it’s a different flavor, but it works.

If you like vinegar-based slaw, keep this recipe to use with this spring’s cabbage crop.

Hoosier Winter Slaw

3 lbs. shredded cabbage
2 chopped onions
2 chopped green peppers
2 chopped red peppers
1 TBSP salt
1 C vinegar
1 C water
2 C sugar
2 tsp. celery seed
2 tsp. mustard seed

Mix chopped vegetables in a large bowl. On the stove, Mix remaining ingredients and bring to boil Pour over vegetables. Chill then freeze.

Please keep in mind that it’s always safest to avoid the use of plastics in cooking or storing anything that is hot or warm as the heat can draw out toxins from the plastic. So mix this in a glass or stainless steel bowl. If your freezer container is plastic, don’t fill it until the slaw is well chilled.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Herbs for health

“God surrounded us with everything we need, we just don’t know how to use it.”

When Glenda McQueery said that at the Nature’s Thyme Herb Club meeting on Saturday, I knew I was in the right place. I had been trying to get to one of the group’s meetings for months and this was the first time it worked out. It was exactly the right time for me as it was their annual tea and I’ve been a tea lover for years. Glenda spoke about growing a tea garden.

I began growing herbs about three years ago. Every year I try to add another herb or two to my collection. I’ve bought some of those herbs from Glenda, who operates Flatwoods Farm in Garrard County, Kentucky and has always been great about telling me about uses for and care of the herbs I’ve bought from her.

For years, I hesitated to plant herbs because I didn’t really know how to use them. Then I started seeing recipes that called for fresh herbs. They became such a staple for me (especially parsley, which is my favorite) that I try at some point every winter to grow them inside. Thanks to Glenda’s presentation, I’m now thinking about which herbs to plant so I can make my own tea.

Herbs aren’t only pretty and aromatic; Glenda told us they are an easy way to get nature’s healing forces into our bodies. “Fresh plants help strengthen the immune system,” she wrote in her handout. “They are loaded with vitamins, fiber, minerals (including calcium), enzymes, chlorophyll and many other compounds to boost our health.” For example, parsley contains volatile oil components and flavonoids that have unique health benefits. Parsley is also filled with Vitamin K and provides significant amounts of Vitamins C and A, folate and iron.

Besides the health benefits of the herbs, they can also attract and or repel pests in the garden. Last year I interspersed basil and cilantro throughout my vegetables to get those benefits. Like everything else I do in the garden, I’m never sure if it “works” the way it appears or if it’s dumb luck on my part, but I had few bugs and plenty of vegetables. I hope this year I’ll also have plenty of herbs to dry for a winter morning’s tea.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Looking ahead with garden seed

As I look out my window on this winter evening, my garden spot is covered by snow. The first year Jim and I lived in this house, we planted potatoes on Valentine’s Day. Last year, I put my first seeds in the ground on February 28. I fear that this year it will be March before I’m able to sink my hands into that dirt again.

My window herbs are growing, although some of them are terribly “leggy” since they have to stretch toward the light. Nonetheless, their green boosts my spirits and reminds me that winter will actually end.

I put in my orders for seeds today. I like to try something every year that I haven’t grown before. This year, it will be leeks, a mix of hot peppers, pinto and kidney beans. Perhaps something else will come along, also, although there is no more space for my garden to take over so I am limited. But I do have more seeds catalogs to look through. Some of them are filled with great gardening advice to learn from during these days of winter longing.

And as I wait for my seeds and for the ground to dry, I continue to write, hoping that my articles and stories are planting their own seeds in a reader somewhere.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Using frozen vegetables

A few years ago I began to read that if fresh vegetables were not available, frozen was the next best choice, nutritionally speaking. If frozen soon after harvest, then a vegetable will retain its nutritional properties. As opposed to canned vegetables, the frozen ones aren’t cooked and treated with additional salt and other ingredients that can add calories and alter taste.

The frozen vegetables, of course, cook up much differently than fresh. I find them to be most useful in soups, casseroles, stir fries and quiche. So yesterday I pulled out some frozen broccoli, re-hydrated tomatoes and made a broccoli quiche.

I became a quiche fan in the mid-1980s when I was living in New York City on a small salary and working for a magazine located in a skyscraper at 44th and Broadway. Many of the surrounding restaurants were too expensive for my budget, but there was a small place around the corner that offered quiche with soup or a sandwich. So I developed a taste for this filling dish. When I moved to another job at 23rd and Park Ave., I said goodbye to my favorite lunch spot and learned to make the quiche myself.

Here’s the basic recipe I use. It results in a hearty quiche rather than an airy, eggy dish. Keep in mind you can alter the types of vegetables and cheeses to your taste. Yesterday, instead of using all feta I cleaned out the cheese drawer and used a combination of feta, asiago and mozzarella.

Broccoli Quiche

Partially baked pie crust
Dijon mustard
½ C chopped onions
1 garlic clove
2 TBSP butter
2 C broccoli, thawed
½ C re-hydrated sun-dried tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of nutmeg
¾ C cottage cheese
¾ C feta or other cheese
3 eggs
¼ C milk

Bake the pie crust for about 10 minutes. Brush with Dijon.

Sautee onions in butter, add garlic and broccoli. Season with salt and pepper. Add nutmeg. Stir in re-hydrated tomatoes. Remove from heat.

In another bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add cheeses and milk (can use heavy whipping cream instead). Add cheese mixture to vegetables. Pour into pie shell and top with cheese and small pats of butter. Bake about 25 minutes.

What’s your favorite quiche filling?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Going on a bean binge

Other than making stir fry with some freezer vegetables one evening, I didn’t cook much this week. Jim was in a cooking mood and he went on a bean binge. We had pinto beans and cornbread, chili and great northern beans. They were great bowls to warm us on the cold winter evenings.

Beans are a nutritious source of fiber and protein with multiple health benefits. Foods with significant fiber can help to lower cholesterol while preventing blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after eating. For more nutritional benefits of beans, check out

We didn’t grow the beans we cooked this week, although we might take it up again this year. I find growing beans to be relatively easily; it’s shucking the dried beans that is the hard work. Jim, however, has tough hands that do it more readily than mine so it’s worth considering if we have the garden space to grow some of our favorite beans.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Preservation Lessons Round #2

One of my great pleasures when the snow is on the ground is to open a jar of our tomatoes. We can tomatoes whole, make juice and prepare salsa and Lucy’s Basic Fresh Tomato Sauce. We use the sauce on spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, anything that calls for a jar of spaghetti-type sauce.

My friend Lucy gave me this recipe nearly eight years ago and I began freezing it then. But we began to have increased tomato gardening success and to realize we could use more of this yummy sauce, we started to can it. Just add a little lemon juice after it’s in the jar and it will keep with no problem.

One thing I’ve learned in making this sauce is that it cooks more quickly and more thickly if I remove the liquid from the tomatoes before throwing them into the pot. To prepare the tomatoes, we rinse them, score the top, drop them into boiling water for 30 – 60 seconds, then drop them into ice water. That makes it easy to peel the skin. Then I chop them, removing the seeds and inner jelly-like liquid, then put them into a mesh colander in the sink where more liquid will drain from them before I add them to the pot. My favorite type of tomatoe to use (although we use whatever we have) is the San Marzano, which grows larger than a Roma in my garden and has strong pulp but little liquid.

Lucy’s Basic Fresh Tomato Sauce

2 med. onions, chopped finely
4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
5 pounds (about 12 med.) firm, ripe tomatoes
1/3 c. olive oil
½ c. minced green onions, include some of green tops
1 green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 to 1 ½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. anise seeds, crushed (optional-they have liquorish flavor)
1 Tbsp. oregano or Italian seasoning
¾ tsp. rosemary leaves, crushed
1 tsp. paprika
about 1 ¾ c. dry red wine, or to your taste

In large kettle, cook onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until golden, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes into eighths, or smaller if you like a finer sauce, and add to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients. Bring to boil and stir to break up tomatoes. Cover and reduce heat to simmer and cook for an hour. Remove cover and continue to boil gently until mixture reduces and thickens to your preference.