Recipes from the Heart

A family recipe handed down for generations is truly a happy thing to treasure. These recipes are tried and true, having proven they can withstand the test of time because they are sooooo good. When I was little, I often visited my grandmother and the first thing I did was to make a beeline for the round pink glass cookie jar in the kitchen. It was always filled with sugar cookies, never any other kind, but they were sweet and crisp and topped with big crunchy sugar crystals. I have her recipe, handwritten in cursive on lined paper. The recipe has aged and yellowed but it still warms my heart and then I recall the joyful memories of my visits there. I keep a notebook of recipes handwritten by my friends and relatives and it is one of my most favorite possessions.

Another favorite recipe is from my Aunt Bee who had a quaint small restaurant with a limited menu but everything was homemade. Working there was my first job and the recipe was a secret until her death. Now I have it and I’m giving it to you! This is a one-pot meal so you don’t have to spend precious time cleaning up.

Mrs. B’s Special

1 pound ground beef
1 onion chopped
1 cup chopped celery
½ cup green pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
3-4 cloves garlic or heaping teaspoon garlic powder
½ tsp dry mustard
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup ketchup
8 oz tomato sauce
Beef bouillon

Cook the ground beef in a pot big enough to hold all the ingredients. Remove and drain the beef after it is browned. Add olive oil and sauté all the vegetables until they are soft. Add remaining ingredients including beef and simmer for 10-15 minutes, diluting with beef broth to your desired thickness. Serve over toasted hamburger buns.  Squirt some yellow mustard on the top, if you like.

I keep green peppers frozen in halves so those are always on hand, also beef bouillon concentrate. You can substitute garlic salt for the garlic and the salt. One time I was out of ketchup so I used tomato paste and brown sugar. This is one recipe you can play around with to make it your own. You can easily double the recipe. Once I made it for a gathering of 18 people and it was delicious and satisfying.

Do you have a favorite heirloom recipe? If so, consider writing it down and giving it as a present to someone. Who knows, maybe your recipe will be unforgettable and give joy and nourishment to people down the road for many generations to come. I’d love to hear about yours!

UFO’s in the Fridge

One time when I was housesitting, I decided to tidy up the fridge. It was about ready to explode, stuffed with too many jars, cartons, bottles and leftovers. Ironically, when I looked in there, it seemed as if there was nothing to eat. What an unappetizing mess it was! I was surprised about how many yucky unidentifiable things were living in the back of the fridge, covered with fuzzy, slimy, slithering stuff. I spontaneously coined the term “UFO”, meaning “Unidentified Food Object”.  You can find these inhabitants in freezers, too.

I set out to fix the problem. I started by taking each item out one by one and checking the expiration dates. Many variables determine how long food lasts, therefore, expiration dates are estimates only. I used a common sense approach to determine whether to save or toss each thing. Unopened containers near or just recently past expiration dates were kept. For open containers, I used “organoleptic” testing, a fancy word that means “the sensory assessment of flavor, odor and appearance of a food product”, which is another way of saying just trust what your senses tell you. If an opened item smelled and tasted okay, it was kept even if it was just past the expiration date, especially if it was not rapidly perishable. For example, I kept sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, pickles and capers. Foods that were rapidly perishable such as meat and dairy got tossed when past the expiration date. All the discards filled a big black trash bag two-thirds full. The fridge was almost empty so I took the opportunity to take it apart and thoroughly clean it. I used a solution of four cups water, two cups white vinegar and one teaspoon liquid dish soap (I use Dawn) in a spray bottle.

Maybe your fridge is in a similar state and just opening the door raises the fur on the back of your neck, so many aliens! You may feel overwhelmed and wonder how do I start. Where you start is by doing one section at a time. Chances are, once you get going, you will feel a sense of relief and accomplishment. And maybe you would even do more than you had intended, and suddenly poof. You are finished!

If you need some inspiration, read the book “Fridge Love” by Kristin Hong. The book is full of lovely pictures. The author puts all her food in transparent food storage containers and that lends an orderly uniform appearance. The book has many handy tips, especially on how to store produce to extend shelf life.

To avoid future UFO’s, remember to date each item. How many UFOs do you have in your fridge? Truth and  Confessions!

Small is Remarkable

I love the constant procession of the little joyful things in life, those small sweet moments that could quietly slip by unnoticed, if you weren’t paying attention. Because they are fleeting, we can sometimes disregard them as being insignificant. But I like to remind myself that “big is just a whole bunch of little”, then I can be alert and watching for these lovely small things that make such a big contribution to life. When I was young, I remember lying awake just after having gone to bed and been aware of myself as being infinitely small and infinitely big all at the same time so I have been aware that big things are made of lots of little things.

This concept holds true in your cooking, too. Sometimes the addition of just one tiny flavor can kick your creations up a notch or even two. They can go from good to extraordinary in just one small sprinkle. I call these powerful small additions “flavor bursts”.

One such flavor burst is chopped green onions. They are so versatile and just a few can add a punch of flavor and texture to many dishes, such as baked potatoes or scrambled eggs with cheese. But how often do you keep fresh green onions in the fridge? My friend Denise recently told me that they can be chopped and frozen, so you can have them on hand. I decided to freeze some to see how well this works. I bought a few bunches of green onions, chopped them and spread them out on a small cookie sheet (to keep them from sticking in one big lump), then popped them in the freezer. Once they were frozen, I put them into an airtight freezer container. I then took out a spoonful and they maintained their color and flavor. Some of their crisp texture was lost but I made a tuna salad with dill weed and capers and the green onions were a wonderful addition to the overall flavor.

You can even freeze lemon and lime juice, heavy cream, and chicken and beef broth. Freeze these in ice cube trays and then store the cubes in airtight containers. This way, you can use just a small amount at a time. Last year, I bought a half gallon of organic cream on sale after the holidays and froze it. It lasted almost a year. I do the same thing for lemon and lime juice; I buy the whole fruits in the winter when they are inexpensive and then make the juice and freeze it.

Just as these as small moments bring so much joy to my life, these small and mighty frozen flavor bursts can add zing to your cooking as well – so delightful!!!

An Unexpected Guest Cake

We have been so isolated these past two years and missing the satisfying connection that face-to-face contact can bring. When we meet in person with another, we use all our senses to communicate. We can see that person’s body language which accounts for a large part of communication. Now that many of us are not wearing masks we can see smiles and give hugs again. Isn’t that refreshing?

It’s always a welcome event when I hear that a VIP is coming, which can also mean a “Visitor-in-Person”. What do you do when you want to welcome your guest with a delicious treat but are unprepared for their visit? You could dump a few store bought cookies on a plate and call it a day. But wouldn’t it be so much more gratifying if you surprised them with something special? Then when your guest walks in, you can greet them with a smile and the irresistible aroma of a baked good in the oven. This is a way to convey how much you appreciate their presence.

I have a go-to recipe for a chocolate cake that gets rave views from everyone who eats it. You can whip it up without making a special trip to the store, if your larder is well-stocked. This recipe was developed during World War II when eggs and oils were in short supply, but mayonnaise was readily available which is mostly oil and eggs.

Chocolate Cake

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½  cup cocoa, (Dutch processed preferred – makes it taste more chocolaty)
2 ounces dark chocolate, chopped fine
1 cup hot coffee
⅔ cup mayonnaise (I like Best Foods)
1 tbsp vanilla

Heat oven to 350⁰.  Grease an eight inch square baking dish. Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine cocoa and chocolate; pour hot coffee over cocoa mixture and whisk until smooth; let cool slightly. Whisk in mayonnaise, vanilla. Stir flour into mixture until combined. Scrape batter into the pan, bake 30-35 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out with few crumbs. Let cool. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. This cake doesn’t need frosting!

One of my favorite memories about this cake is making it for my son, then a hungry teenager. I usually kept aerosol whipped cream in the fridge. I shot little dabs on the pieces of cake, then sprinkled the whipped cream with cocoa powder and minced candied ginger. William then took the can, tipped his head back and with glee, sprayed the whipped cream in his mouth. In person visits are so lovely, especially when silly little spontaneous moments like these happen.

The Sourdough Murder

While I was staying at the monastery, I made sourdough bread. My friend Rachel had recently learned how to bake with a sourdough and sent me beautiful pictures of her golden brown artisan style loaves, of the kind seen in a fancy bakery. I was inspired.

My first task was to make a sourdough starter. My first two tries were unsuccessful and produced a raunchy smelling mass that couldn’t possibly make a fragrant loaf of bread. Fortunately, to my rescue, came a woman who had some starter and was willing to share. Poof! That was easy.

I followed her instructions about how to feed it and eagerly anticipated my first loaf of sourdough bread. Watching it transform from sleeping beauty to this frothy and bubbly thing was very exciting. It looked like a living being as it bubbled away to twice its size. I photographed it like it was a new baby and sent the image to a few friends. I then proceeded to make my first loaf, using rye flour. The bread turned out surprisingly well for a first try and it was difficult to refrain from devouring the whole loaf all at once. The irresistible aroma of hot baked bread had definitely whetted my appetite.

The next day, I set about to make another loaf, this time with whole wheat flour. The sourdough starter, once fed takes 4-5 hours to become active enough to make a good loaf of bread. However, when I calculated the amount of time required from start to finish, it couldn’t happen that day due to time constraints.

The solution! Coax the starter to hurry up. The warmer the temperature, the faster the starter will activate. The monastery had a “proofing box”, an appliance that heats air from 72⁰ to 120⁰ so a person can accelerate the speed of the rise. I cranked it up to 120⁰, fed the starter, and went on to do other things.

I checked it about an hour later. Nothing happened. Not one bubble, not even a little tiny one. After that, I peered at the starter with increasing frequency, each time issuing a powerful command “Hurry up! Can’t you see I’m pressed for time?” But noooo, it just wasn’t having it, no matter how much I demanded performance. Judging it for not accommodating my schedule didn’t work either. I finally gave up after six hours. I bombed it. Then I nonchalantly washed the starter down the drain after giving it a good scolding. Oh well.

Impatience and forcing my will on the starter killed it. Sometimes things have to be given the freedom and space to gently unfold on their own sweet time, especially sourdough bread.

The Path is the Goal

While staying at a Buddhist monastery recently, I was told that the Abbott (the head of the monastery) liked pizza. So I set about to learn how to make pizza during my month long visit there. Fortunately, I had access to a state-of-the-art kitchen and everything necessary to do this task: a pizza stone, a peel, a proofing box, a Kitchen Aid mixer and a commercial gas range that could get hot enough to make a crispy crust. Also in the kitchen were six 30-something aspiring monks who might be able to assist me.

I connected with one in particular, a handsome young lad named Artem, who had been at the monastery for several months. We decided to undertake this project together and since neither one of us had any prior pizza making experience, we developed a methodical joint approach. I researched and ordered different kinds of flour: pizza, bread, artisan, and several kinds of all purpose. We watched YouTube videos; one had 20 million views.

For our first try, we diligently followed the instructions on the back of the pizza flour bag: combine the ingredients, mix together lightly, and stick the dough in the fridge for 24 hours. The dough was like a rubber band that would always pull back no matter how far we stretched it. The result was a big lump. On our second try, we followed the instructions in the YouTube video.  We made two different pizzas exactly as instructed, but the result was a far cry from the perfect pizza. Oh-oh, another big, thick wad. Darn! Where on earth did we do wrong even though we tried our best and followed the instructions?

My time at the monastery was up and I was quite disappointed that I was unable to make perfect pizza for the Abbott. On my way home, I reflected on the experience. Our desired outcome did not happen but the journey along the way was immensely gratifying. We had so much laugher and fun playing with the dough. Here we were, confident that we would reach our goal of making a perfect pizza and then – we didn’t. On the surface, it seemed that our best efforts failed. But did they?

On the way out, I said goodbye to the Abbot. I told him that I gave pizza making my best shot, but failed, and I tried to explain why. He invited me back and underneath a very kind and gentle smile said “I’ll give you a second chance on the pizza”. Even though the end result was not a perfect pizza, the sharing of joy, heart, and connection with others was splendid. What could be better?

The Secret Ingredient

Life. I love the unpredictably of it, especially when it is full of pleasant surprises, that is. Surprises keep it interesting and fun! A couple of weeks ago, I was unexpectedly invited to accompany a friend on a trip to a Buddhist monastery in southern California. That was certainly not on my agenda and would definitely be a new experience.

The day after our arrival, we attended the Sunday service and pot luck provided by the congregation mostly of Thai people. I was amazed at the vivid display of foods: noodles, roasted vegetables, salads, rice, meat, fruit, fancy pastries, breads, and condiments and so on. Imagine 60 or maybe 70 dishes spread out on 50 foot long table. Each dish was thoughtfully prepared and was a visual feast as well as a culinary one. I’ve never seen anything so . . . over the top of the top. I was beyond impressed by the explosion of creativity and outpouring of loving generosity from the community.

While I was waiting my turn in line, I started a conversation with another guest. She proudly told me about her “Burmese Rice”, a recipe that had been in her family for many generations. I told her how taken aback I was about the display of carefully prepared foods. I asked her “What is different about this than, say, an elaborate buffet at a nice restaurant, club, cruise, or casino?” I loved her sense of humor. She replied “No cheat and heat here”.

Over the next few days, I contemplated that question and I believe I have the answer. Love. Love was definitely the common ingredient. The food was filled to the brim with the spirit of love, almost as if the food absorbed it, much like a sponge would. We don’t tend to think of “love” as being an ingredient, because it is intangible and cannot be measured. For instance my friend Rachel, who is learning how to bake with sourdough starter, said that heat is a key ingredient in the fermentation process. And although heat is invisible, the effects it creates are tangible and real. In the case of sourdough starter, warmth makes lots of bubbles that cause the starter to expand and come to life.

While I was in the library at the monastery, I read these quotes, attributed to Buddha: “If anything is worth doing, do it with all your heart”. And, “When you like a flower, you just pluck it. When you love a flower, you water it daily.” Love is abundant, powerful, not subject to food inflation and can be used freely in big amounts. Go for it!

A Simple Sauce

Recently I was at County Flowers in Condon and ordered a grilled vegetable burrito and it was beyond delicious. Flavor burst with every bite! Why this delicious taste, I wondered? After all, it was just vegetables and cheese in a burrito shell. Would the chef tell me what was in this mysterious burrito? I couldn’t help myself. I was filled with curiosity and needed to know.

Putting my hesitation aside, I tracked down Jeremy, the chef. Fortunately for me he was gracious and disclosed the culinary secret. “It’s all in the sauce and the sauce is so simple to make,” he said.  So how in its simplicity could it be so extraordinary?

After pondering that question for several days, I concluded that with simplicity comes a certain spaciousness. Each unique ingredient is free to fully express itself without the competition and overcrowding of many flavors.  Each little flavor can be the star of the show.  Never overlook the enormous power of simplicity. 

A Simple Sauce

1 part mayonnaise
1 part ketchup
1 part dill pickle relish

I like to use Best Foods mayonnaise, after all, there must be a reason the company has been in business since 1912. I couldn’t find any dill pickle relish in our local stores so I added some sweet relish along with a few minced dill pickles.

Now that I had the recipe, I was anxious to try it out. I sliced some red, yellow and green peppers, onions and mushrooms, lined a cookie sheet with foil and tossed them with olive oil and kosher salt. Turned the oven up to 400⁰ and roasted them for about 25 minutes. I took a large burrito shell, sprinkled it with sharp cheddar cheese, and melted it in the microwave. Then I spread a couple of tablespoons of the sauce on it and added the grilled vegetables. It was as good as Jeremy’s, well . . . . almost.

Then I made fish tacos using some breaded fish. I chopped some green cabbage, cilantro, and tomatoes. I spread some of the sauce on the burrito shells, added the fish and filled them with the vegetable mixture, then sprinkled on some capers. Yum! Delightful!

This sauce could go on almost any kind of sandwich. A Reuben, a hamburger of course, grilled cheese, and I’m guessing tuna fish.  The recipe is close to a thousand island dressing so I imagine it would be good on a tossed green salad too.

Having a simple sauce on hand is like having a magic wand. The wand adds sparkle and joy. Don’t let the sauce’s simplicity fool you. Leonardo Da Vinci once said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” I bet he would have loved Country Flowers veggie burrito.

Dan’s Chicken

I was at the Condon hotel a few weeks ago and had a lovely conversation with one of my readers, Dorothy Schott. Did she have a favorite recipe to share? One that has few ingredients, is simple to make, and leaves few things to wash? She pondered for a moment then told me about a foolproof chicken recipe. Well, actually it is her husband Dan’s recipe:

Garlic Salt
or any other seasoning

So I bought some chicken and tried it. Chicken can be difficult to cook to the just right doneness. It’s either undercooked and slightly raw, or overcooked and tough and dry. Getting it perfectly cooked so that it is juicy and succulent can be like babysitting; it needs to be checked on constantly. I made this recipe three times, in three different ovens. It came out perfectly every time, and received rave reviews from everyone who ate it. Here’s how:

Prepare chicken pieces, any kind you like. Trim off the fat and the skin too if you don’t like to eat it. Rinse and pat dry, but not too dry, as it needs to be moist to get the seasonings to adhere to the chicken. Put a wire rack on a rimmed cookie sheet or a jelly roll pan, lined with foil to make cleanup easy. Preheat the oven to 400⁰. Cook for exactly 25 minutes, then turn the pieces over and cook for another 25 minutes. That’s it! What could be easier?

Dan seasons his chicken with paprika and garlic salt. For some reason, I started pondering on the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe and searched the internet to see if the recipe was public knowledge. Apparently a lot of other people have tried to crack the code on this secret recipe too. I looked at a few; I didn’t have all of the herbs and spices the various recipes called for, so I used the ones I had on hand in equal measurements of one tablespoon: Italian herbs, dried hot mustard, paprika, garlic salt, ginger. I mixed them in a bowl big enough to add one piece at a time to thoroughly coat. If you don’t like spicy, eliminate or reduce the hot mustard.

I cut up some small red potatoes, tossed them with olive oil and garlic salt and put them alongside the chicken in the oven. They went in at the same time and came out at the same time. When I pulled them out of the oven they had a lovely caramelized brown color and were slightly crunchy.

The total preparation time was about fifteen minutes. I can’t wait to tell Dorothy about my mock KFC recipe with Dan’s way of cooking chicken.

Simple is Best

These days, the whole subject of food has become so complicated. The number of choices available is absolutely crazy. I once went to a big supermarket and counted the wide array of canned tomato products. The grand total was 144. There were whole peeled tomatoes. Crushed, pureed, chunky, diced, petite diced, pureed, plum, stewed, sauce, and paste. Tomatoes flavored with Italian herbs, or basil, or fire roasted. Add to this the whole array of organic canned tomato products. All these options made me want to crumble into a heap and pull my hair out.

Then there was the time I went to Safeway to buy a one-pint container of plain Greek yogurt. I estimated the refrigerator case was about 11 feet long. I literally stood there for ten minutes trying to find what I was looking for. I had no idea there were so many different kinds of yogurt, especially now that plant-based is “A Thang”.

We have too much choice and it can lead to paralysis where we have so many choices, we choose nothing at all. We just run out of mental energy and can’t sort it all out. The term “decision fatigue” has been coined to name this syndrome.

Overtime, I’ve dialed back the number of foods I keep in my pantry and believe it or not, this simplicity leads to remarkable creativity and ease around food. There is surprising freedom in limiting the number of options. For example, in the alphabet, there are only 26 letters. Those letters combine to form 171,476 words in the English language according to the Oxford dictionary. For example, I’ve reduced my number of canned tomatoes to just three: whole plum tomatoes, sauce, and paste. With whole plum tomatoes, you can puree them, or cut them up anyway you like. I also like to use tomato powder.  It’s like magic; a tablespoon added to any tomato dish will concentrate the tomato flavor.

My friend made spaghetti with homemade spaghetti sauce and introduced me to a herb and spice blend that streamlined my collection of seasonings. It’s called “Tones Italian Spaghetti Seasoning Blend” (it’s not just for spaghetti). This incredibly versatile seasoning works like magic to add concentrated flavor to any dish, from vegetables, soups, beef, chicken, pork, rice, noodles, you name it. Somehow the flavors swirl around your mouth and the taste bursts. It’s amazing! I’ve tried other brands of Italian seasonings and they just don’t work as well as this one.

By condensing my pantry to items I use the most, and simplifying my cooking, I have avoided the craziness of supermarket decision fatigue. That leaves more energy to think about other things like trying new recipes with friends.