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!

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…

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…

 

spinach and basil pesto with almonds

Well, I do believe I have done everything within my power to put off having to write.

I have washed the dishes (something of a chore when you’re nine months pregnant and the kitchen is about nine hundred degrees),  I have dried the dishes. I have filled my water bottle, drank the contents and refilled it – several times. I have meticulously removed the pregnancy beard from my pregnant double-chin and watered all the house plants.

It’s hard to write about food when any day, any hour you might be launched into labor and find yourself giving birth to a tiny human being. In all honesty, it’s rather hard to do anything but fidget around and… wait.

Fortunately, the need for sustenance has not disappeared with my interest in the world at large – we still need to eat, and in spite of the fact that my mom has been invaluable in the area of preparing and providing meals for us, there are times when I find myself needing to actually cook something on my own. Yesterday afternoon was one of those times. I made pasta with fresh spinach pesto sauce that I whipped up in my little blender contraption and it was actually quite good.

I used the last of the spinach harvest that had been stashed away in the fridge as well as the leaves from the basil plant that lives on the kitchen window sill. Mixed with some parmesan cheese, almonds (since I didn’t have pine nuts), garlic and olive oil, it made a delicious sauce for the pasta and the extra will no doubt be used as a spread, dip or topping for homemade pizza.

Spinach and Basil Pesto

makes roughly 1 pint of sauce

1 large handful of fresh spinach leaves, torn

1 equally large handful of fresh basil leaves

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 handful of unsalted almonds

3 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (since the oil is a big part of the recipe, don’t skimp – use the good stuff, you won’t regret it!)

1/4- 1/2 lb pasta, cooked and strained

The actual production of this sauce is ridiculously simple, everything gets thrown into the blender or food processor and then blended or processed until it’s a creamy, delicious sort of mess one wants to eat by the spoonful. You might find yourself ripping off hunks of bread and sopping up the pesto right there and then and making boxed macaroni and cheese for the rest of your family (who will never know what they’ve missed). I will warn you that the possibility of having small bits of spinach and basil cling to your teeth exists and that you should plan accordingly lest the rest of the family get an inkling about the sudden menu change.  This is one of the many reasons why I advocate having a mirror somewhere in the kitchen to use for last minute face checks so that one doesn’t head into the fray with, say, chocolate cake batter smeared on the corner of one’s mouth, or the remains of devoured pesto crying out from the in-betweens of one’s teeth.

In the end, who ever ends up eating this will not only get a shot of heart-healthy, iron-fortified, garden-fresh spinach, but a good dose of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory power from the basil and garlic. Almonds add satisfying textural interest as well as a bit of protein. This is a healthy green food that makes the fact that you’ve eaten two servings of pasta a little less reprehensible, at least in my book!  You can toss the pasta with as much pesto sauce as you like then top it with cheese and – viola, lunch or dinner is served.

If you do happen to have any remaining when all is said and done simply store in a jar in the fridge. The oil may thicken up a bit but a few minutes left on the counter will return the pesto to it’s former, creamy state. Enjoy!

Cooking with Quinoa

There has been a lot of talk about Quinoa. It first appeared as a food that would put those who ate it in the “Health Nut” camp but has recently become more of a mainstream curiosity.

Quinoa (pronounced ‘Keen-wah’) is a funny little food – at first glance people are tempted to call it a “grain” when indeed it is a “seed”. A very small seed and prominent member of the Goosefoot species of plants. I’m sure most of you have fought valiant battles against quinoa relatives who love to pop up in the fertile soil of your garden year after year. Back home we called them ‘ironweeds’ or ‘pigweeds’ or even ‘lambs’ quarters’ and when young they actually make a tasty and nutritious substitute for spinach at the dinner table – but that’s beside the point.

Quinoa is an ancient food from Peru and surrounding areas. The Incas considered it to be a sacred crop which caused their new Spanish neighbors to hold quinoa in distain. It was even outlawed for a time and the natives were forced to grow the more European wheat. What the Spanish didn’t know and what we are now finding out is that the Incas had good reason to hold their quinoa dear. Though it be tiny and a relative of plaguing weeds, quinoa has an impressive resume. Full of fiber, magnesium, iron, calcium, as well as being a complete protein in its own right, quinoa is gluten free and easy to digest. It’s also a smart plant, having a built-in defense system which causes it to be distasteful and even gastrically upsetting when eaten before the outer coating has been removed. The crop is easier to protect from critters that would sneak in and steal it before harvest. Most quinoa sold in the grocery stores has already been processed to remove the coating so when you purchase it (which I sincerely hope you do!!) it’s ready to be cooked and enjoyed.

How do we enjoy it, you ask? I have read that it can be considered ‘an acceptable substitute for rice’, but other than giving you a good idea of the broad range uses, I don’t think it does quinoa justice. I have found it to be so much more than ‘acceptable’ and so much more than a ‘substitute’!

My mom taught me to cook quinoa with a basic ratio of two parts liquid to one part quinoa and I have never had that fail me. Adding one cup of quinoa to two cups of slightly salted boiling water or stock, letting it cook until the water has boiled down to the level of the quinoa (8-10 minutes) and then putting the heat to low and covering it to ‘steam’ for 10 or so minutes more will give you a delightful, 2 cups (roughly) of cooked quinoa to serve plain as a side dish or to use in another recipe. The portions I just described will serve about 4 people.

Cooked quinoa is tender but still has a nice texture to it. It isn’t lumpy or soupy or mushy but can be ‘fluffed’ with a fork and the seeds will be separate. Another way you can tell is that the slim white ‘tail’ on each seed becomes loose, giving them an artsy look, as if they are wearing hats adorned with long feathers.

Once you have the basic recipe down and are ready to have some fun with it, there is certainly fun to be had! My latest quinoa craving has been satisfied by adding sautéed onions and chopped raw kale to the quinoa as it is cooking. So easy, so healthy, so very delicious. Another favorite method in my house is to start out by sautéing fat slices of sweet leeks in a bit of olive oil before adding chicken stock and then the quinoa. Oh. My. Word.

Add quinoa to soups instead of noodles or rice, use plain cooked quinoa in casseroles and and quiches. You can even cool it and sprinkle the seeds on salads. Your possibilities boarder on being endless and you will certainly not be doing any harm to incorporate this amazing food into your diet!  So go forth and enjoy…

 

because it’s the right thing to do

There is something so *Right* about family traditions.

Every family has its own web of traditions that is uniquely their own. No one really knows how they start but we all think that ours are the best and *most* unique and relish in the annual opportunity to drag them out, dust them off and use them as the foundation of our festivities.

Cranberry Molded Salad is such a tradition for my family. It seems a really common sort of tradition when you first look at it, but when you remember that no two families ever make their cranberry salads alike, it becomes something reminiscent of the ancient clans of Scotland with their intricate family tartans. You bind yourself to your family’s recipe with a fierce and nearly blind loyalty – nothing will EVER taste as good as what you had growing up. It’s a bit of an unspoken rule we whisper to our babies on their first Thanksgivings, cementing the truth that this is the Only Legitimate Cranberry Salad on Earth, accept no substitutes.

I’ve been at family gatherings where a tart jelly is served in a ridged roll, slid from out of a can. It’s tradition for them and their mouths water at the sight of it’s crimson self, quivering and glistening in the holiday lighting. I’ve seen it made with jello and chopped carrots and even marshmallows, I’ve seen it scoop-able and pour-able and even non-existent.

Every year I can remember, I have eaten my mother’s cranberry molded salad at Thanksgiving – not really a relish, definitely not a sauce but absolutely the perfect foil to the rich line up of foods that tradition orders on that holiday. We never vary, we never waver, we never subtract or substitute. There must be cranberry molded salad, we must all have a hand in making it and it must be eaten almost as an after thought. We eat it with seconds and for days thereafter in sandwiches and with leftovers. It is the last dish to be scraped clean, after we have been thoroughly saturated with Thanksgiving goodness.

Every year, without fail, my mother says something to the effect of, “Why don’t we ever make this any other time of the year, we like it so much…” and every year we all wonder for a minute about what would happen if one of our holiday foods were to escape and wander into July or March and we realize that it would be Wrong. We eat cranberry molded salad at Thanksgiving. It’s our tradition and it’s a good one. Let’s not tamper with it.

 

The Best Cranberry Molded Salad Ever

2 bags fresh cranberries, washed

2 whole oranges, washed

4 apples, cored

4 packages unflavored gelatin

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup cold water

1 cup boiled water

1/4 cup lime juice

 

This makes enough to feed a small army.

We like *our* recipe because it’s actually rather healthy for you. The fruits aren’t cooked and that means they are still in possession of their enzymes, making it the perfect thing to finish that incredibly filling meal with. That’s why we eat it last. Aha.

In a food processor, you are going to grind the cranberries, apples and oranges ( skin and all, folks!) together then dump the whole lot into a big mixing bowl. In a small bowl, add the cold water to your gelatin and let it soften. Stir the sugar into the ground fruit *well*  and add the lime juice. Once the gelatin is soft, add the boiled water and dissolve completely. Add this to the fruit blend and stir again. Cover and put in the fridge to ‘set’. This can be made a day or more in advance, it will keep quite nicely!

I’m not sharing this recipe with the suggestion that anyone should try it in lieu of their own, perhaps this could be your Fourth of July side dish and it will see other parts of the year, something it never would be able to do in our house.

At any rate, enjoy your festivities this week – eat heartily and be at peace!

 

flat bread veggie pizza

It’s what’s for dinner.

Making flat bread involves a couple more steps than the ones used to make a plain old pizza – but boy is it worth it! I started with the Plain Old Pizza Dough recipe and after letting it rise, I simply rolled it out as flat as I could and placed it on a greased baking sheet. Then, I pricked the surface with a fork – all over – and brushed on some olive oil.  After a sprinkling of garlic powder and sea salt, the flat bread went into the oven (preheated to 375 degrees) for about 15 minutes, or until the crust was lightly browned.

While it was baking, I chopped up and sauteed some onions, sweet red peppers, yellow crooked neck squash, fresh tomatoes, garlic and spinach. When the crust came out of the oven, the veggies got spread around on top and then lightly blanketed with slices of fresh mozzarella. I turned the oven onto Broil and popped the whole thing back in the oven for another five minutes or so, just until the cheese had melted and begun to bubble.

It was incredible.

Incredible, I say. The crust was thin and firm and the veggies were tasty mellow and the whole thing was garlicky and cheesy and yet rather healthy and quick, especially if you make the dough ahead of time. This meal is definitely going to be repeated in the near future!