Amish Foodie

I just got back from a week-long trip to the Homeland.

I know most of you believe that I made up this mystical place where mashed potatoes are piled high with egg noodles and served on a slice of snowy white ‘Wonder Bread’, but I’ve been there. I have pictures. I brought back 10 pounds to prove it.

The family I stayed with are Amish. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Amish, they’re a religious order that practices simplicity and separation from the world in their day-to-day lifestyles. They reject being on ‘The Grid’ and power their machinery with propane, generators and dangerous looking patched-together systems of car batteries, jumper cables and tiny wires. The women wear dresses and head caps, the men have beards and use suspenders to keep their homemade trousers up.The don’t have cars but commute using bicycles or horse-drawn buggies.

I tried on their dresses, ironed with a terrifying butane iron (fire and cloth – ummm), washed my clothes in their outside washer/ringer set up and bathed my little bear in a large wash tub on the front porch. We took a dusky buggy ride along a few old back roads just as the lightning bugs were waking up and making their first appearance. I thought my heart was going to choke on itself; I had forgotten just how beautiful the sight of a thousand neon stars twinkling in the cornfields could be.

One delightful dish my friend prepared was Honey Mustard Swiss Chard. Chard is a tender-leafed green that has a mild, ‘earthy’ taste I find works well with strong flavors. Martha fried up a bit of bacon (of course) until it was crispy before adding honey, sugar, mustard, cream and Miracle Whip to make a sauce. The chard was chopped then simmered in the dressing until it was thoroughly cook and then it was served on top of – you guessed it – mashed potatoes.

Now, I had never heard of such a thing in my life, but it was pretty tasty. I decided right there and then to make a version of this when I got home – here’s the result.

Creamy Honey Mustard Chard

1 large bunch of cleaned swiss chard, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1/4 nitrite-free bacon diced into 1/4 inch pieces

2 Tbsp local honey (maple syrup could be substituted)

2 Tbsp prepared mustard (such as dijon)

4 Tbsp chèvre goat cheese or thick greek yogurt

1/4-1/2 cup water or broth

 

If you can’t get your hands on any nitrite-free, regular bacon will work just fine. You can adjust the amount of bacon if you want, I tend to be a bacon hog (pun fully intended!!).

In a large skillet, fry up your bacon over medium heat until it is crispy. Scoop out the bacon bits and add your honey and mustard and then the water/broth. Stir well until everything is mixed together. Add your swiss chard and lower the heat a bit to keep things from scorching. Depending on how big of a skillet you’ve got, you might be able to put all the chard in at once, otherwise, add a little at a time, stirring and waiting until the chard wilts until adding more. It’s going to seem like your sauce is never going to be enough, but the chard is going to cook down quite a bit. Let it simmer for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. When the chard is cooked and covered in sauce –  add the goat cheese or greek yogurt and the bacon bits and give it another good stir. I figured chèvre was a healthy swap for Miracle Whip since they’re both white and creamy and tangy. If you have dairy restrictions, this dish will be just as tasty without the cheese!

You can serve this however you want, over potatoes (I can see the look on your face, it’s actually really good), as a side for a meat dish, with scrambled eggs (another odd but delicious option) or just as it is!

Eat it on a warm summer night as the lightning bugs are just coming out and slow down, for pity’s sake. Sit around the table with your family or friends or enemies – doesn’t matter – and enjoy a little bit of life at buggy speed. Life isn’t a race, after all.  Enjoy!

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baby food for non-babies (aka adults)

The biggest development in our small world these past days are the two stubby teeth in the mouth of our seven month old. With these tiny pearls has come the desire to ‘taste and see’ with an emphasis on the ‘tasting’ part – our son is biting everything. Everything. If it’s a thing – be it his dearest mama’s finger or the head of his beloved stuffed cow – he’s biting it.

I try to stay ahead of the game and offer a variety of baby teeth-friendly items for him to chew on and sometimes I’m even on top of it enough to give him actual foods to chew. Yes indeed, lovely readers, we have entered the bewildering world of baby food. Once upon a time I thought it was going to be rather simple – you take food, you make it into a paste, you insert it into the infant’s mouth. Rinse and repeat.  Not so. Turns out that while my little one will *bite* anything, he is a little more particular about the things he will actually eat. Go figure.  Before he was born, I stocked up on organic baby food in those adorable jars, tucking them away in the very back of the pantry, hardly believing that I might have a little person someday to eat them. When the time came and I excitedly opened one of the mini jars, warmed it to the perfect temperature and then dumped a decent-sized spoonful into Bru’s open mouth. He acted as though I had forced him to eat dirt. The gagging, the eye twitching, the entire body convulsions that followed this and subsequent organic Gerber meals convinced me that jarred baby food – no matter how lovingly gathered and hopefully offered – were not his thing. He wants Big People Food. Lesson learned. The End.

Of all the Big People Food we’ve tried since, without a doubt his favorite is stewed apples with coconut cream and exotic spices. I know, right – I’ve unwittingly produced some sort of infant gourmet. Honestly though, I can’t blame him. I tried the baby peas and the word that stuck in my mind was, “Yuck”.

If sterile, one dimensional, Little People Foods are at the far side of the infant menu, this creamy concoction has brought us up close and personal with delightful Big People Food. It’s awake, it’s alive, it’s deep and reminiscent of apple pie filling…oh, so tasty

 

Little Bear’s Big People Stewed Apples

 

4 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples of your choice (can be substituted for 3 cups of readymade, unsweetened apple sauce)

1/2 cup water (omit if using applesauce)

1/2 cup coconut cream

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp  ground cardamom

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

optional maple syrup to taste

 

In a large saucepan, stew down the apple slices with the water on low heat until they reach the desired constancy. I like mine a little chunky and it doesn’t matter for Bru because they’re going to be pureed anyway, so I usually let them cook 15-20 minutes. If you are using applesauce, simply pour into a pan and warm on medium. Once the apple slices are softened and melting, or the sauce is warm, add the coconut cream, spices and maple syrup if you want it sweetened. Stir well and let simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Serve at the perfect temperature.

There are several variations that we’ve played around with and they’ve earned a full stamp of approval from everyone who’s tasted them. The first is to add 1/2 a cup or more of fresh cranberries cut in half to the apples while they are stewing down. This adds a delightful tang that makes the little bear pucker up but come back eager for more until the bowl is empty. Something the Big People enjoy is spooning the warm, stewy goodness over ice-cream after the Little Person has gone to bed. It’s a delightful reward after the sun has set… Enjoy!

 

 

smothered chicken… and I mean *really* smothered chicken, but not with gravy because I’m on a fancy diet

This is one of my all-time favorite recipes. Ever.

“Smothered in what?” I hear someone from the peanut gallery holler and I understand completely – it *does* sound rather violent. Let me explain; traditionally and in its simplest form, Smothered Chicken is chicken that has been simmered in and then served under or ‘smothered’ in a seasoned gravy. And when I say ‘smothered’ I mean, of course,  ‘comforted to death’. Isn’t that nicer? Let’s call my recipe “Comforted Chicken”.

I am a girl who loves her gravy and given free reign and unstoppable arteries I would consume it on everything from oatmeal to ice cream (eew). But, happily, I am reigned in by my vow of health and well-being and so am constantly on the look-out for delectable dishes that won’t comfort me to death. This is one of them. It’s my loose adaptation of Smothered Chicken; chicken simmered in a silky, tangy, lemony-oniony Sauce. It is easy, satisfying and tasty. And when I say ‘tasty’ I mean, of course, ‘lip-smacking, plate-licking, go-back-for-thirds GOOD”.

I like to serve this dish with a side of wilted spinach and maybe a whole-grain pilaf. YUM. I’ve got myself all worked up for it… good thing I’ve got some chicken in the fridge because I think I need some comforting…

 

Comforted Chicken

6 chicken thighs or an equal amount of breast meat

4 onions

2 cloves garlic

1 lemon

1 cup chicken stock

2-3 Tablespoons butter, olive oil, coconut oil or other cooking fat

salt and pepper to taste

We’ve discussed the slicing of onions in previous columns and decided that ‘thinly’ is one of the most vague cooking instructions available. All the same, I am going to ask you to do it. Slice your onions thinly. Use your own good sense and just get them into slices. We can do this. Tears will ensue, but it’ll be worth it in the end. Once the onions are dealt with, slice up your garlic and then put a large skillet on medium heat. Once the skillet has heated up, add your fat and the onions. Let them brown up a little, stirring frequently to avoid any burning. Throw the garlic in with its cousin and then lower the heat. You want the onions and garlic to simmer *without burning* until they are all very limp, very translucent and almost saucy on their own – just this side of caramelized. This will probably take about 5-6 minutes.

The chicken has been patiently waiting for its turn in the pan and now is the time. Squiggie the onions around so that you can fit the chicken pieces, skin down, in the skillet. Let the skin brown against the bottom of the pan before flipping them over and adding the chicken stock. Let it simmer for 10 minutes or so. Boneless pieces cook faster than bone-in so be aware of that if you’ve substituted. If you want to speed the process up, you can cover the skillet with a pot lid.

Now it’s time for the lemon. You thought I had forgotten, didn’t you? Lay the slices around in the skillet and then let the whole thing simmer for another 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. If it seems that the liquid is getting too low, you can always add a little more broth – but not too much! The goal is to have the sauce work itself out as the chicken is cooking. You may need to lower the heat and just be a little more patient.

When the chicken has cooked thoroughly (use a thermometer to check – I always have to) you are ready to serve your masterpiece. It’s going to smell like heaven… oh boy! The onions will have melted away into savory goodness that will blend with the lemon and make a sauce that you will lick off your plate. It makes even I, the Gravy Queen, say, “Gravy? Who needs gravy when you have a sauce like THIS?”  Enjoy…

 

none of the doors in my kitchen close on their own

None of the doors in my kitchen close on their own… except the refrigerator door, which always closes on its own, just seconds before I get there with whatever ‘over-full’ thing I happen to be carrying.  Like Jello. Boiling hot, slippery, liquid Jello, splashing up out of its shallow glass container and cascading to the linoleum below as I bump it into the suddenly sealed-shut fridge door.

It’s moments like these that remind me *why* the kitchen is my favorite room in the house- it has linoleum floors! No matter what I spill, I can always wipe it up and begin again more carefully, this time holding the door open with one foot while balancing on the other and slipping the pan into the bottom shelf where it will stay until all is solid and well.

I just made Jello from scratch for the first time using four packages of unflavored gelatin (obtained at the local grocery store, in the ‘Jello Aisle’) and four cups of white cranberry/peach juice (also found at the store, only in the “Juice Aisle”….)

That’s it. Two ingredients. It is idiotically simple, even though it took me forever to find the directions in the little box (I guess even idiotically simply just isn’t simple enough- woe is me). Come to find out the directions were inscribed on the individual packets of gelatin (duh)… I shall remember that for next time should this grand Jello experiment result in something even remotely Jello-like and we need to repeat the process.

One cup of cold juice gets poured over four packets of powdered gelatin. Three cups of  cold juice are heated over the stove until they are boiling. While the juice is working itself up to a boil, the gelatin is relaxing and swelling in the cold liquid- turning into a fascinating sort of gelatinous glob. Once the juice has boiled, the cold gelatin is stirred in until it is fully dissolved, then poured into a waiting 9×13 pan and sent to sit in the fridge until it is solid and ‘jiggly’. That is, of course, unless you spill it all trying to slip it in before the door violently and arbitrarily slams shut before you… In that case, I would suggest making something less tricky, like Pancakes Barbara.

(Convenient Literary Time Lapse Complete With Comfortable Bluegrass Music and Some Tea)

Here we are at the end of the day. The dishes are almost done, the laundry is almost folded and my child is almost asleep. I hear him in his little room at the end of the hall, murmuring his goodnight song to the stuffed woodland creatures dangling from the mobile over his crib. I’m exhausted and could really go for something cool and fruity.

Has the jello jelled? Yes it has. Hello there, my lovely, how charming you look, all glistening and gelatinous!

Ladies and Gentlemen – we have Jello, and not just any jello, but a perfect Homemade jello with no added sugars, colors, flavors or chemicals – just pure jiggly goodness. And while we are on the subject of jello’s goodness, let me say a few words about the health benefits of gelatin, the reason why jello is so adorably jello-like. Gelatin; it’s good for your aching knees, your brittle hair, your stubby nails, your lack-luster skin, your sluggish digestion and last but not least, your over-worked immune system.  Some studies suggest that the main constituents in gelatin may improve sleep quality and help regulate ones weight. I like those suggestions! It’s exceedingly low in fat and high in protein.  Sounds like much more than just a delicious snack! In accordance with our new year’s resolutions to eat more life-nourishing foods, I’m going to make jello… a lot… and eat it with abandon. The juice aisle is filled with flavors to be tried and I’m thinking chunks of fruit would be brilliant if stirred in before chilling. Oh boy, there is fun to be had here! Enjoy…

i promise to eat lunch

I do the same thing every year; sit down a couple of days before the new year begins and write out my resolutions. I completely ignore the fact that last year’s resolve got me about two weeks into January and set my sights on a three-week victory this time.

What am I resolving to do, you might ask? Probably the same sort of things that you are: eat healthier, get more exercise, read more,  dance like no one is watching, love like I never got hurt (wait, isn’t that a country song?), write a New York Time’s best-selling children’s book and retire to a farm on the coast of Maine… that last one may just be me. Other resolutions include getting a full night’s sleep and not forgetting to eat breakfast and lunch.

Speaking of eating, I do have some thoughts about that; I want to eat healthier. Not just follow some crazy health fad I read about in the doctor’s waiting room, but genuinely eat more nourishing, health-giving foods. You know what that means, don’t you? No more recipes for bacon chocolate chip cookies in your charming local newspaper! No siree, you’re getting the good stuff and only the good stuff from here on out. Foods that will have your innards glowing with health and vitality.  You might just explode with goodness (let’s just not and say we did, eh?).  We won’t be able to KEEP from succeeding in at least that one resolution.  Are you with me?  Here, I’ll say it for you, “Yes we are!”

Good deal, let’s start then, shall we? I don’t know about you, but I forget to eat lunch *almost* every day. It’s a terrible fault, but it’s one that I am working on. It’s so annoying to me to have to stop and make something to eat. It’s like going to the bathroom, a big fat bother and an interruption, I feel like I’m wasting time. Now, if I have to make lunch for Alex I’m fine – I don’t mind cooking for him, but if it’s just for me I get all huffy and red in the face and usually, conveniently, forget. Alas – no more! I’m resolving to eat lunch and a healthy lunch at that, every day if I can help it.  This recipe is one that I whipped up in a moment of red-faced huffiness the other day and then quickly devoured; it was so good I didn’t even mind that I had take time to eat it.

Chunky Tomato Bisque  – The Quick and Healthy Version

28 oz can of diced tomatoes

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp butter or olive oil

1 tsp fresh basil, chopped (you can use dried basil, too)

1/2 cup full fat coconut milk

salt and pepper to taste

That’s it! Round up the usual suspects and heat up a soup pot on low. Add the oil and then the garlic. You want to stir the garlic so that it doesn’t scorch. Scorched garlic equals nasty – remember that. Several precious minutes will pass, but that’s ok, it’s going to be worth it. Once the garlic is nicely browned but before it gets crunchy, open your can of tomatoes and pour them in along with the basil, coconut milk and some salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, let cook for 5-10 minutes and then – viola – lunch is served, preferably with a grilled cheese sandwich or a salad if you’re *really* resolved.

Let’s talk for a moment about the ingredients. By using organic ingredients, you can boost the soup’s health benefits to hulk-like proportions. Non-organic ingredients = weak and nerdy Dr. Bruce Banner; Organic ingredients = crazy big and green raging health machine – and nobody has to get angry. Don’t be tempted to go with skim coconut milk, either. Coconut fat is what is giving this soup staying power and another great dose of healthiness, plus it makes it nice and creamy and rich… yum.  We need fat, so long as it’s the right kind!

Well, my friends, we’re all in this together – here’s to another great year! Enjoy…

before he hits repeat

Someone – please stop my brother.

The youngest one of us (who is also usually the most jolly) has been needling us to anarchy for weeks now.

“Can I play Christmas Music?”

“Let’s turn on some… Christmas Music…”

“Who’s for a little bit of … Christmas Music!!?”

“Oh good – I’ll sweep the floor… andplaychristmasmusic…”

He thinks if he inserts these words quickly enough into a normal, every day, inconspicuous conversation that we the old ones will be duped into saying, “Oh sure – wonderful idea!”  He thinks wrong.

As my brother must learn, there are rules. There is protocol. There are expectations and reservations and limitations that keep time from happening all at once and becoming a Horrific Mess. The End. And since I am so much older and so much more experienced and so much wiser, I see that these boundaries are what give the holidays their extra glimmer. If we go around playing Christmas music all helter-skelter any ol’ time – we will wear it out and the world might end, or we might start another Black Plague, or at the very least we will all be sick of the sound of it by the time Christmas actually rolls around. We, the old ones, must preserve the sanctity of the holidays from they, the jolly ones. *steps off soap box*

At any rate, the fact is that the holidays are approaching at a frighteningly swift pace, and I can’t believe it. I’m still dawdling around wondering when the trees will reach peak color. How did I get so far behind? Keep up, Ann! In just a few days the Christmas music will start and reality will set in and I must be prepared.

A huge part of the holidays, for me at least, is the food. Yay food! The oldest brother said to me several weeks ago that he was planning on loosing something in the neighborhood of 20 pounds in preparation for the holidays. I have no idea how far he’s come towards that goal, but I admire his gumption. November and December have a cruel way with waistlines, and it’s terrifying and mystifying and wonderful all at once.

The recipe I’m going to share this week is a little secret weapon in the food-fight that will begin in mere hours. It’s a veritable bomb of comfort and joy that utilizes handy leftovers as well as several other ingredients that aren’t Holiday specific at all, just in case you need to call a time-out and recoup your losses.

 

Turkey Soup with Quinoa and Spinach

otherwise known as ‘Holiday Pause Soup’

You will need:

3-4 quarts of turkey (or chicken) broth

1/2 pound turkey meat (which could always be increased or decreased to your preference)

10 oz frozen spinach

1/2 cup quinoa

1/2 medium sized onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, diced

salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbsp butter or olive oil

Optional other leftover ingredients such as corn, chopped roasted veggies, etc.

 

Dice the onions and garlic and then sauté them in your butter or oil in a large soup pot. When the onions are translucent and limp, add your quinoa and let it brown for a minute or two. Then pour in the broth and cap it. Let the quinoa simmer in the broth for half an hour or so before adding the rest of the ingredients. I think a little pureed squash or sweet potatoes would add such great texture and taste fabulous! Let this boil until the spinach is cooked, about 10 – 15 additional minutes and then you are ready to serve. It’s a clever way to change the outfit of heavy holiday foods and add some much needed yule-tide greenery to your dish.

Well, gentle reader, so it begins. Are you ready? Make sure to double up on your vitamin C and get enough liquids in the midst of all the merry making. Honor the things that make this time of year precious and don’t be afraid to take a pause every now and then to reset and recharge. Have a bowl of soup, count your blessings and go forth and be merry!

 

Entertaining Angels

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have even entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

It was actually something my husband and I discussed quite a bit before we got married – hospitality. I was raised around a table that often had guests seated at it and I wanted to continue that practice in my own home. Alex took that a step further and said that we must always have a spare bedroom for the guests who needed a place to stay the night. He lives with the assurance that we could travel nearly anywhere in the United States and have a bed waiting for us, his friends and relations are scattered across the map and would welcome us. He wanted to be such a spot on the map, a place of promised welcome.

In the almost two years of our marriage, our little home has been pressed into service more times than I can count. There is an empty bed and several empty chairs waiting for company, and that’s exactly what how we want it.  We have had the privilege of entertaining friends, family and strange angels alike and hope to do the same for many more as long as we have a roof and food to share.

The meals are often far from perfect (like my soupy lasagna, or the lemon pie with the inedible cardboard crust) and the spare room isn’t always completely free from storage (guests can go to sleep after counting boxes of diapers and spare cookbooks), but I like to think that we make up for that in warmth and good conversation!

Our little son is turning into quite the host, giving our visitors his best grins and entertaining them with long stories about his morning bath or nap time woes before demonstrating the strength of his tiny lungs or the great size or his appetite.  I think his charm is going to go a long way towards smoothing over the rough edges of imperfect cooking! This past week we had one of Alex’s childhood friends over for dinner. Mike lives in California now and was back in the area visiting his family and we asked him over for the evening. We had baked chicken, wild rice pilaf, and roasted butternut squash and then ice cream for dessert. Alex said that the squash was one of the more delicious things I’ve made to date so I thought I would share that recipe.  Squash is a perfect side dish this time of year. You can get all different varieties of squash at the local markets, but our favorites are acorn and butternut.  I have used this recipe for sweet potatoes, too and found it quite delicious!

 

Roasted Butternut Squash

1 large or 2 small butternut squash

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 Tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon poultry seasoning

1/4 cup maple syrup

13″x9″ baking dish

350 degree oven

 

Peel and dice your squash into 2-3 inch chunks – seems like a simple enough task, but I’ve been trying for years to find an easy way to go about this. So far, the most tear-free way I’ve found is thus: peeling the squash with a sturdy veggie peeler then using my Big Knife to halve it and chop it into cubes after the ‘guts’ have been scooped out with a sturdy spoon.

Toss the cubes into the waiting baking dish and add the remaining ingredients. Give it all a good toss to mix it together before popping it in the oven for about an hour. It’s ready to serve when the cubes are easily pierced with a fork or knife.

This is a good season for opening our doors to family, friends and angels, even as the windows are closing and cold weather is setting in, you never know who is going to bring an unexpected blessing with them. The food doesn’t need to be complicated as long as the hearts are warm that offer it!  Enjoy…