When it’s Okay to Cheat, Part Two

By now, you are probably familiar with my philosophy on food, which I sum up in three words – “keep it simple”. Stock your pantry with the highest quality “scratch” ingredients available. Scratch ingredients are unprocessed foods; they are real, single ingredient whole foods. I call these Master Ingredients. Stick to recipes that you can make in thirty-minutes or less. These recipes usually require just a few steps and minimal ingredients. Fabulous food does not need a lot of “do” to prepare! I will often make a super-simple concoction and say to myself “This was so easy that it really shouldn’t taste this good”, as if I had broken the law with my love of simplicity.

Recently my friend Jerry dropped by with a pan of surprisingly delicious meatloaf. Of course, I asked Jerry for the recipe. “It’s easy, he said. The recipe is on the back of the Stovetop stuffing mix for chicken”. For decades I have used Julia Child’s meatloaf recipe so I definitely know good meatloaf. Does Julia really have a box of stuffing as competition?

Intrigued, I bought a box of Stovetop and set foot in the kitchen. The recipe on the back of the box calls for two pounds of ground beef but I used one pound mild Italian sausage along with one pound of ground beef. I followed the instructions exactly. The recipe makes a generous quantity so I divided it in half and put it in two loaf pans. I baked one and put the other in the freezer to see if it freezes well. It did! The recipe says to top it with barbeque sauce but I wanted to know if ketchup would work as well. It didn’t – we all agreed the one made with barbeque sauce was better.

Then on the next batch, I acted on a suggestion that my love, Jim, made, and shaped it into hamburger bun size patties and baked them until a meat thermometer reached 160⁰. Then we topped them with all the usual burger condiments including cheddar cheese, dill pickles, and red onions. These definitely were leveled up hamburgers. In all my years with Julia Child, why did it not occur to me to make the meatloaf into hamburgers? Well, maybe because a hamburger is not French! In my opinion, a meatloaf sandwich is the best part of making meatloaf. This is a prime example of simplicity at its very best.

Out of curiosity, I googled Stovetop dressing and meatloaf isn’t the only thing you can make with this boxed convenience food. There are quick recipes galore! I made an exception to my self-imposed guideline of “no processed food in my pantry” and Stovetop dressing is now on my Master Ingredients List. Try it!

When it’s Okay to Cheat, Part One

Last week I went to a fund-raising dinner and the table was covered with a beautiful display of desserts: pies, cakes, cookies, and a chocolate thing topped with what looked like maple frosting. Being a confirmed choco-holic, I took a piece and sat down.

That first bite practically knocked me off my seat! The dark delicacy had a crunchy crust and a smooth, creamy, molten center that reminded me of a chocolate lava cake. What’s the secret? Is this fancy confection made from an old family recipe?  A treasure handed down for many generations? What is in this thing? The world’s finest chocolate just flown in from Belgium? How was this treat made? With a complicated baking process that takes multiple steps and three days to complete? And by the time you are finished, you have completely lost your appetite?

And the frosting! Never before had I eaten maple with chocolate! Chocolate pairs well with coffee, coconut, cherry, oranges, ginger, raspberries, apricots, pineapple, any kind of nut, rum, cognac, and kirsch . . . but maple?? That would definitely be a first.

I ate a few more bites then I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I absolutely had to know who made this luscious treat so I could track them down and learn all about it. I found the organizer and with perfect timing, the baker just happened to walk through the door and sat down next to me! Dude! I didn’t have to do anything, love that! I introduced myself and began to ask questions. She said the dessert was a Betty Crocker brownie mix topped with peanut butter frosting made from an easy Betty Crocker recipe. I was floored. Betty Crocker you rascal, you just fooled me! By the way, did you know that Betty Crocker is not a real person? She was created in 1921 and in 1945 Fortune Magazine named her as the second most popular woman in America, the first being Eleanor Roosevelt. She has a website: www.bettycrocker.com. You can ask her a question!

The next day, I went to the store and bought a box of Betty Crocker Dark Chocolate brownie mix. I made the recipe using eggs from happy chickens that run around and scratch on a farm. I used grapeseed oil because that oil is much more healthful than soybean, corn, or canola oil and it tastes and bakes better. While the brownies were in the oven, I made the peanut butter frosting. Then I smeared the brownies while they were still warm.

Wow! Making such a decadent dessert is so easy! Perhaps I will write Betty Crocker a thank-you note. After all, I know how to reach her now. 

That “Feel” Thing

Recently, Judy Thomsen of Condon wrote to me. She diplomatically mentioned that I forgot to include the baking time for “Creeping Crust Cobbler” in last week’s column.  Her question prompted me to stop and think. Why had I omitted such important information? Because I rarely pay attention to cooking times, that’s why!

I think of time differently than most people. Life flows on and events seem to have their own clocks. They unfold in accordance with their own unique rhythms; they take all the time they need to reach full expression. Haven’t you noticed that when you plan something, the estimated time often varies from the time things actually take? That’s called planned versus actual. Your prediction just doesn’t match up with what’s going on in the real world. Usually we have absolutely zero power to make things hurry up or slow down. We are powerless to force a conclusion to matters. A clock is an artificial, grid-like, inflexible thing that tries to measure something that is flexible: life as it unfolds in real time with all its unknown variables. Often life inserts itself into our plans, usually without asking for permission first.

The cobbler’s  baking time is around 30 to 40 minutes. But remember not all ovens bake at the same rate. Temperatures vary. Humidity affects the way food bakes, as does atmospheric pressure. Were the ingredients cold when you put the food in the oven? That increases the cooking times. A more reliable indicator of doneness is to rely on all your senses. When the cobbler is finished, it bubbles up around the edges. The top will be a dark golden brown. And suddenly poof!! The kitchen explodes with a lovely, potent fragrance that says – okay, I’m done, get me outta’ here! Maybe the cobbler took only 25 minutes. I can hear the clock arguing with the cobbler. Nooooo! You are not ready yet because I said so!!! You need to stay in there ten more minutes. So you can see, cooking times are estimates only.

Recently, I made “Brenda’s Peanut Clusters”, the recipe I wrote about in December. I made them exactly the same way as I did before, and they take three hours to cook in a crockpot. I set the timer for three hours and wandered off and forgot all about them. When I got back to the house in three hours, the kitchen smelled like scorched chocolate. How could that be? Well, cooking times vary. This is a perfect example of what I was just trying to explain. I need to take my own advice, don’t I? And pay attention to my senses. They are reliable, true, and accurate helpers in baking and cooking.

Creeping Crust Cobbler

By now, you probably know that I’m a bit lazy in the kitchen. My recipes are so simple! They typically require no more than five or six ingredients, thirty minutes, and few pots, pans, and utensils to wash. I never forget to add that invisible ingredient called love which always infuses my creations with not only taste, but feel. I use the highest quality ingredients available and then food doesn’t need much “do” to prepare.

In accounting and economics, there is a principle called “diminishing returns”. That’s when continuing efforts and resources produce a marginal result. For example, I could spend two hours in the kitchen to make a complicated recipe with many ingredients and dishes to wash, but is it really going to be any better than a simpler, faster recipe? The fare might be ten or twenty percent better, but how much added value does that extra time create? Most of the time, simple is best!

You also know by now that I love a reliable recipe that’s tried and true. And it’s even better when that recipe is handwritten by a friend. A couple of weeks ago, Donna Yonce of Fossil not only hand wrote one of her favorite recipes for me, she hand delivered it too (the recipe was given to her by Bev Mabe Osborn). I was quite moved by her kind gesture. I tell ya’ – it’s true. The little things in life are not little at all. They can have enormous impact. Especially generous acts.

Don’t let this recipe’s simplicity fool you. While it only takes a few minutes to assemble, the flavors are rich and satisfying. This would be a good recipe to make with young children because it’s so easy.

Creeping Crust Cobbler

½ cup butter, melted in pan
½ cup milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 cups fruit

Preheat the oven to 350⁰. You make this recipe in three layers. First: melt the butter in an 8” square pan or one of a similar size. Second: put the fruit in a bowl. I put a spin on the recipe and added two teaspoons of vanilla, a big squeeze of lemon, and a sprinkle of cinnamon onto the fruit. Put the fruit over the melted butter. I used frozen peaches and blackberries. Third: in a bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients and pour the batter on top of the fruit (I used half white sugar and half brown sugar).

Top this dessert with cream, whipping cream, or ice cream and you will have a delicious first class dessert. If you use canned fruit, adjust the sugar accordingly. This recipe only took me about seven minutes to assemble. Amazing!

Food is Love

Lately, I’ve been thinking about something my son told me when he was a teenager. “Mom, you are not very warm and fuzzy, but that’s okay. You show your love through food.” My heart filled with joy to know that he felt love’s presence in the food I made for him. I was always so happy when his friends would drop by with their huge appetites and I could host them with yummy treats. We can’t see love but we sure can taste it!

Isn’t love wonderful? Love circulates and flows like water, seeps into every nook and cranny and transforms to survive in every environmental condition. Ice, streams, rivers, vast oceans, steam, rain, snowflakes and snowcapped mountains. Love descends deep into the dark recesses of the earth and reaches up toward the sun in the sky. She falls back down to the earth again in a never ending cycle of creative beauty and genius. Where water is, there is love. Love shares and circulates.

For example, last December I saw a post on Facebook by Bob Durham and Sandra Myers in Condon. They had grown Hubbard squash in their garden and wanted to share the extra. I fired up Miss Daisy, my 1985 Ford diesel pickup, and drove on a sheet of ice that coated the landscape with shimmering, reflective light. We introduced ourselves and I received their beautiful gift. Back home, the squash sat on the kitchen floor for about a week until I was finished admiring it. Then in the interest of efficiency, because the squash was the size of a basketball, I chopped it up with my axe and roasted it in the oven for a couple of hours at 400⁰. After it cooled, I pureed the squash and put it into pint containers, eight in all.

A few days later, on a crisp and sunny day, I strolled over to my friend Ellie’s house and left a container on her front porch. Surprise! Then, soon after, she texted me and requested that I drop by for a visit – she had a little something to share with me. I walked in and she handed me six big, gorgeous muffins, made from the squash! I was thrilled and my heart was warmed by the generosity of her spirit.

I walked home, made a beeline to the kitchen, toasted the muffins with butter, smeared them with honey and shared the treat with those I love. Together, we savored a few moments of pure joy. This Valentine’s Day, open your heart and share a gift of food. Love tastes fabulous! Love is FUN!  Love is incredibly warm and fuzzy! You can give without love, but you can’t love without giving. Or receiving!

Steve’s Famous Sauce

About a year ago, Steve Bray of Fossil gave me his recipe for Chianti spaghetti sauce and I was so excited to try it. But a long time had gone by and I still had not made it. Every time I bumped into Steve somewhere, he’d ask me “Have you made the spaghetti yet?” Sheepishly, I would admit “nooooo”. I could not even think of a good excuse as to why not. Last week, Steve invited me to have dinner with him and his wife Ellie. Then, I could get an in-person “how to make Chianti spaghetti sauce” lesson. I looked forward to an evening of good food and good conversation. That’s what I call being “at table”. To me, being at table with friends and family is the spice of life.

We were set to start cooking at 3:00 in the afternoon. I was thankful for my spaghetti making lesson. Steve assembled the ingredients in a certain way. I would have missed out if he had not shown me. This goes to demonstrate that the cooking method is as important as the ingredients.

Chianti Spaghetti

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 stalk celery
1 medium yellow onion
1 tsp fennel seed, crushed
2 tsp minced garlic
½ lb ground beef
½ lb mild Italian sausage – not too hot or sweet
1 tsp Italian seasoning
2 jars Ragu Traditional spaghetti sauce, 24 ounces
½ tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
½ cup Chianti wine
⅓ cup water
Spaghetti noodles, one pound

Dice the onions and celery. Heat the oil in a big, heavy sauce pan. Sauté the celery for about five minutes, then add the onions. Add the crushed fennel seeds, then the garlic. When both the celery and onions are translucent, add the sausage and ground beef. After the meat has browned, take a pastry cutter and break up the meat until it is the size of peas. Add the sauce, the wine, Italian herbs, and sugar. Simmer the sauce covered slowly, for up to four hours. Steve uses an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and the sauce barely bubbled away. Stir occasionally – if it’s getting too thick add some more water. You will know it’s done when the celery and onions have dissolved into the sauce. Steve prefers Ragu traditional sauce, not the other flavors. Cook the pasta in salted water. Do not add oil to the water, or the pasta, or rinse the pasta, because then the sauce will not stick to it. When the noodles are done, drain and add the sauce and give it a good stir. The sauce is better after it melds for a day. And there you have it – Steve’s tried and true recipe for Chianti spaghetti sauce.

Sourdough Buckwheat Pancakes

Last week I finally made a recipe I had reminisced about for a number of years…buckwheat pancakes. While growing up, my family went to a restaurant called the Pig N’ Pancake.  Deciding what to order was always a toss-up. Do I want the chocolate chip pancakes with chocolate syrup, or the “little pigs in blankets – buckwheat pancakes wrapped around sausage  links?  The latter always won. While those pancakes were good, I wanted to up-level my recipe with a sourdough starter, freshly ground buckwheat flour, and some flavorful extracts.

I bought some organic buckwheat seeds. Seeds include both the hull and the kernel.  Together they make lovely dark, rich, and earthy flour. I dusted off my flour mill and ground some buckwheat seeds, fed my sourdough starter, and then made my first batch for dinner. Though tangy, nutty, and delicious, they were a bit dense which is the nature of buckwheat. What could I do to make them more fluffy and springy? Egg whites! Instead of adding whole eggs, why not separate out the egg whites, beat them until stiff, and gently fold them in?  I tried that on the next batch and voilaʹ – airy buckwheat pancakes.

On a recent shopping trip, I picked up a bottle of maple-bacon flavoring. I made one batch with vanilla extract and one with the maple-bacon flavoring. It was a tie, both were excellent. After all these experiments, there was a lot of pancake batter left. I put the extra in the fridge and the batter became more sour with age. The tangy flavor really stood out. Loved that! These pancakes are versatile; one time I cooked them with slices of Swiss cheese and topped the pancakes with sauerkraut.

Sourdough Buckwheat Pancakes

1 cup buckwheat flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup sourdough starter
3 tbsp melted butter
1 egg yolk and 2 egg whites, beaten
½ cup milk – any kind
1 tsp vanilla extract or other flavoring

Mix the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients, beat the egg whites until stiff, and gently fold in. Cook just like you would any other pancakes. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, substitute ¾ cup flour mixed with enough water to make a batter.

The first time I made these, I discovered we were out of syrup. While I rummaged around in the fridge, I noticed a bag of Heath toffee pieces. I cooked the pancakes in butter and just before I turned them, I sprinkled on the candies. They melted just a bit and added a lovely crunch and sweetness. Gee… would these pancakes taste good with chocolate chips and chocolate syrup? I just might try that!

A Drink From the Well

I recently had COVID and you may think I’m crazy, but I loved every minute of it. Well, most minutes. How could this dreaded and feared virus be so wonderful?

One day in early December, a giant hand reached down from the sky and switched on my off button, pulled the plug, and disconnected me from the busy, outside world. The weather was crisp, cold, and frozen and I slid to a hard stop. Every afternoon, sleep would lure me to my warm and cozy bed. The heavenly bed with the soft flannel sheets, an electric blanket, down comforter, fluffy pillows, and a lavender sachet by my pillow.  Sleep wooed me.  I’d sink deeper and deeper into relaxation and was overcome with a feeling of reassurance, safety, and comfort. Never before had I felt deep relaxation like this. Sleep fed me with nourishment, restoration, and joy. I had nothing to fear. All was well. Sometimes I would wonder if my deceased cat was with me; there she was curled up below my knees like she always did. Shakespeare says that “Sleep is nature’s soft nurse”. Yes, definitely.

When my off switch wasn’t on, I was slow. For a while I had two speeds: slow and stop. The excuse to dial back my activities and enjoy the winter’s still hibernation liberated me. I kept the window cracked open and my bedroom filled with cool crisp fresh air. I took a lot of big, deep breaths and felt fullness in my spirit. I didn’t want to eat much so I made a lot of smoothies. One day the smoothie would be dark orange ‒ made with fresh cranberries, persimmons and pineapple. The next, green: parsley, celery, kiwi, ginger, lime, and bananas. My friend John, who is a compounding pharmacist, suggested I add in some vitamin C powder and quercetin, a bioflavonoid known to strengthen the body. These drinks were vibrant and refreshing. They gave me confidence that my body had the true nourishment necessary to heal.

There wasn’t anything I could do about coming down with COVID – I had it. Why not fully embrace and enjoy the ride? This slowdown was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to completely dropout and be free from the to-do list, the tasks of daily living, socializing, working, and exercising. All forward movement was gone.  The standstill of life was emptiness, surrender, and peace. Delicious!

I slowly regained my energy and now I don’t need to wake up at 9:30, go to bed early, and sleep all afternoon. I’m restored and renewed. I drew deep from the well.  I look back on that experience and happily savor it. That is why for me COVID was pleasurable. And yes, I just might be crazy!

The Feel So Good Turkey

Last week, I described my envy of the 35 pound pasture-raised turkey that my friend Rachel cooked for Thanksgiving last fall. I wanted a big-pasture raised turkey too! So I found a turkey at Oregon Valley Farms and they shipped it to me. Into the freezer it went until Christmas Day. Then I was curious. Was this big, beautiful, pale brown, pasture-raised turkey going to be noticeably different than its bland, factory-raised cousin with the bleached white skin? The one I could buy at the grocery store?

A while back, I read a fascinating book published by National Geographic titled “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats”. The book enlightened me and totally grossed me out all at the same time. The exposeʹ had me on the edge of my seat and by the end of the book, I understood the phrase “Ignorance is bliss”. I wanted to un-know what I now knew. Because of this, I saw the turkey sitting in my freezer in a new light.

Christmas finally came and I roasted the turkey to perfection, thanks to a probe thermometer that took out all the guesswork. The aroma that filled the room was intoxicating.

I sampled a taste of the crispy, bronze turkey. The flavor burst all over the inside of my mouth and was followed by a moment of silence. Springy like a firm pillow, it was the juiciest, most tender turkey I had ever eaten. The flavor had an indescribable depth. The turkey not only tasted delicious, each bite seemed to be infused with a feeling consciousness . . . like friends, sunshine, exercise, slugs and bugs. The turkey felt true to eat. It had integrity. This was a subtle discernment but the vibe was definitely there. I was free from the back-of-mind worry that this living being was raised in a shadowy barn with no windows and killed inhumanely.

I don’t think this is my imagination, but seems to me our turkey tasted and felt different than one raised in harsh conditions. Much of what we sense in our world is invisible and can’t be validated by our external senses. Happy food just feels better and it doesn’t need an explanation to be true, felt, or understood.

The turkey was scrumptious with the traditional stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy, and cranberry sauce. After the last tender morsel was gone, I described that beautiful big bird as “the feel good turkey”. Eating food that is grown or raised in harmony with the earth elevates the whole culinary experience. That’s soul food at its best. A happy turkey just feels better. I wonder if Rachel thinks so too.

The Christmas Turkey

A while back, my friend Rachel who lives on a small farm in the Willamette valley sent me a picture of a thirty-five pound turkey that she roasted for Thanksgiving. Yes, that’s right, 35 pounds. I had no idea that such a big turkey even existed. The picture was so beautiful it could have been a centerfold in a poultry trade magazine. The turkey was festive and grand: it was quite plump and had a lovely golden brown color that made my mouth water. Rachel’s neighbor raised it in a flock of 35 turkeys, so she saw the turkey often before it ended up in her oven on Thanksgiving Day.

I was mesmerized and looked often at the pictures of this majestic turkey on my phone. This turkey lived its life as a proper turkey should – scratching around in the grass of a barnyard for slugs, bugs, and other tender morsels that turkeys like to eat. It was able to socialize and bask in the warm sunshine. I’m not the envious type, but I found myself coveting Rachel’s turkey. I wanted a big pasture-raised turkey too!

But then I remembered . . .  in my lifetime, I had cooked only one turkey. When I was in my early twenties and had only rudimentary cooking skills, I bought a turkey with a built-in pop-up timer. Well, the timer did not pop-up and the turkey got way overcooked, like cardboard. There wasn’t anything juicy about it. Decades later, I was still gun-shy to cook a turkey.

My friend Dave suggested that I find a pasture-raised turkey of my own and then buy an oven thermometer with a probe. I could insert the probe into the turkey and an alarm would sound when the correct temperature was reached. Ah! No more guesswork. No more cardboard.

I found a place ‒Oregon Valley Farms‒ that could ship a frozen turkey. I looked at the company’s website and was pleased to learn that they carefully raise their turkeys in pastures. With great excitement, I ordered a 22 pound bird.

Three days later, FedEx delivered the turkey to my doorstep. I unpacked it and was surprised to see it was still frozen rock solid. Every time I opened the freezer, I was filled with joyous anticipation of a holiday feast.

Finally it was Christmas morning. I made a triple batch of stuffing, inserted the thermometer, and waited for the results. I felt curious. Was this beautiful pale-brown big bird going to be any different than its factory raised cousin with the bleached white skin? Stay tuned next week to hear the rest of the story! I’ll be sure to tell Rachel, too.