Two Recipes from my Kitchen for Comfort Food

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As I have said before, I did not learn to cook from my mother. She did not think me responsible enough to deal appropriately with food, something that to her was a precious substance and not to be wasted. After I got married I learned how to cook from a cookbook. I made some funny mistakes and we ate them anyway because we were on a rather limited budget. Back in the 50’s you could actually live on $30.00 a month for food. To be sure, we ate a lot of hot dogs.

Over the years I have enjoyed experimenting with different recipes and learning what works and what does not. For instance, it might be just fine not to use a recipe for a vegetable casserole but under no circumstances try to make cookies without one. Of all the many recipe collections I possess, my old Fanny Farmers cookbook is my got-to for recipes. I look there first when doing research. There is something tried and true about a book that has been around so many years.

In addition, I am what you might call an old fashioned cook. I do not use nor do I possess a microwave oven and I hope never to have to have one. I know many people love them and find them convenient. No doubt they are. However, I feel no need to hurry my food along that way. By definition comfort food need not be cooked quickly. Sometimes the very best food is some that takes its time and lets he flavors develop.

Here are two of my favorite comfort food recipes: Onion soup and Bread pudding. The onion soup recipe is one I devised from trying different ways to make it. The Bread pudding has evolved from several recipes, my favorite being from The Cat Who Cookbook by Julie Murphy and Sally Abney Stempinski created from dishes in the “Cat Who” series by Lillian Jackson Braun.

Onion Soup Tasha: To serve 4 to 6, thinly slice two medium to large onions to make 1½ to 2 cups. In a heavy bottomed pot melt 2 Tbs butter and 2 Tbs olive oil. Add and sauté the onion, stirring frequently over medium heat. When onion is transparent, reduce heat and continue to cook uncovered over relatively low heat for an hour, stirring occasionally. Add 4 to 6 cups beef broth. Low sodium is best. Cook 15 more minutes and serve with garlic bread, or melt some cheese on toasted bread and float it on top for the French version.

Pleasing Bread Pudding: Depending on appetites, serves 4 to 8. Butter a 1½ quart casserole. Remove the crusts from 4 slices of firm, not soft bread. Cut or tear into smaller pieces. Place in casserole. Measure 1 cup any kind of milk, beat in two eggs, pour over bread. Sprinkle on 1 cup dried fruit—black and/or white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries etc. Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ cup sugar. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir well. Add another cup of milk to make 2 cups. Stir again. Place casserole in a shallow pan filled with water. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until nicely browned on top.  Tasha Halpert

Muffins for Fall Munching

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I once attended a weekend Renaissance Fair with some friends. Wearing a costume of a mobcap, a full skirt, blouse and a vest, with my similarly garbed friends I was having breakfast in the restaurant of the motel where we were staying. As I perused the buffet table a man came up to me. “There are no more muffins,” he said. I shook my head and assured him I wasn’t a waitress. “We need more muffins,” he said loudly. My similarity to the waitress’ colonial garb was too convincing. My friends were helpless with laughter. I giggled and joined them. To this day Stephen kids me about the incident.

While I like making muffins now, I didn’t learn to make them in my mother’s kitchen. She didn’t bake from scratch or even at all, and I was not encouraged to do so. Once married I tried to make them but my muffins were invariably heavy, flat and dense in texture. Though edible, they were not how I thought muffins ought to be. When I sought inspiration from more experienced cooks, I found out what I was doing wrong. Voila, my muffins rose nicely.

I discovered that muffins, unlike cakes, cookies and other baked goods did not need to be well beaten. Once I learned to fold the wet ingredients lightly into the dry ingredients my troubles were over. The source of my information was a column in the Boston Globe called the Confidential Chat. It ran several times weekly and was a wonderful source of recipes, advice and help as well as an opportunity to share for those of us who wished to do so. At the peak of my participation I wrote around fifteen or so letters a week, many of which were published, and in the process I learned to write succinctly.

Writers to the column used pen names, so publication was anonymous. However, letters answering you that were not published were forwarded bundled in an envelope you provided, and you could choose to answer any of them if you wished. In certain ways the Confidential Chat was part of the foundation for this column because it helped me learn to write precisely and convey information clearly. Long-winded or unclear letters simply were not published. Since I enjoyed seeing mine in the paper, I worked hard to write well. I also loved the recipes and shared many.

Here is a recipe I use a lot for Banana Chunk Muffins. You may substitute melted butter for the oil. If you do, be very sure to mix lightly. Ingredients: 2 eggs, 1/3 cup oil, ¾ cup any milk, 1 tsp vanilla, ½ cup sugar, 1½ cups flour, 1 tsp baking soda, ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp cinnamon, 2 or 3 bananas cut into ½ to 1 inch squares, ½ to 1 cup optional chopped walnuts, ½ to 1 cup optional chopped dates. Method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees, Mix fruit, nuts with dry ingredients, beat wet ingredients together well and lightly mix into dry. Use liners or grease 1½ dozen muffin cups or 1 8″ square pan. Fill ¾ full and bake for 30 minutes for muffins, 35 to 40 for pan. Enjoy!

Tasha Halpert

Goodness of the Local Harvest

plums-1My mother grew vegetables and fruit and canned them for use during the winter and spring. I remember her on the hot days in August and September, lifting the glass jars out of their steaming water bath in the large canning pot in our small kitchen. Once cooled, the jars went to line shelves in the basement. During winter and spring she had all kinds of vegetables and fruit to choose from. Eating locally was common in those days because food that grew in faraway places was not available. Canning diminished with the advent of freezer chests. Consuming food in New England that was grown in Mexico, China or other distant countries was unheard of.

It is such a treat to eat locally. There is no comparison between food that is grown near where I live and that which has traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to reach the market where I shop. Fresher, healthier, and minimally processed, locally grown food is better for me and for those I love. It tastes better too, though I am happy that my year round diet is not restricted to it. I am no purist, and I am grateful for fresh produce available all year round.

I love eating local fruit during the summer. Sadly, the frost in February decimated the local peaches as well as most of the plums. I look forward every year to purchasing them at our local farm stand, eating them whole, and occasionally baking with them. Now, provided they survive any difficult winter weather, I must wait another twelve months until they are available. The ones in the supermarket look good, yet I pass them by. Eating whatever nature has to offer locally at the time is it is offered is important to me. However I cherish the opportunity to be a locavore, as it is called, in season.

That is why when I spotted the very special small prune plums at the farm stand. I exclaimed aloud in my happiness. The kind proprietor said they were a special lot, rare and most likely all she would get. I bought a couple of pounds on the spot, then later in the week at another visit I bought all that was left of the rest. They tasted wonderful. I was reminded of the use of the word “plum” to describe something rich and/or desirable. These were “plum” good, and I received a “plum” when I discovered them.

All too soon the season of harvest bounty will draw to a close. According to the owner of the farm stand, the yellow squash is almost done. We enjoyed some of the last of it recently this way: I peeled and finely chopped some ginger and half a large onion. I sautéed these gently in light olive oil until onions were fragrant and transparent, added some garlic sliced thin, and then the young, thin skinned squash, sliced very thin cut in three or four inch lengths. This cooks quickly, maybe in ten minutes more. You can mix some thinly sliced zucchini with the yellow squash to good effect. Add basil leaves if available, or thyme. I have given no quantities because this is best made to suit your own taste.

Delicious Nutritious Recycling

Deb's party food 2          I can’t help it. I save too much. Periodically I have to prune away the overage and find a home for it if I can. I get my saving instincts from both sides of my family. My mother didn’t throw out anything that could be reused, recycled or repurposed. Neither did my Yankee ancestors on my father’s side. I find it difficult to discard any containers that seem to have a potential for good storage. I was saddened when my honey lady could no longer use my glass jars.

The elastics that come on vegetables are saved in a special place. I reuse twisty ties until they become too twisted to reuse, and I have several collections of bags of different sizes and shapes, some of which say Merry Christmas, some Happy Birthday and some nothing at all. There is a place where I keep small boxes and another where I keep large ones. In my efficient apartment this can become a problem.

My mother spent her childhood years in war torn Germany with very little food to be had, during and after the First World War. The early years of her marriage to my dad occurred during the rationing of World War II. Furthermore, in those days food transportation was minimal, and the markets did not have the variety or the abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit we have now. She grew and canned many of the vegetables and even some of the fruit we ate in the winter. To her wasting food was tantamount to committing a mortal sin.

I too dislike wasting food. Something that until very recently I found frustrating in the extreme was overripe avocados. It is impossible to know what the inside of one looks like when looking at the outside. Also, mysteriously they seem to ripen at different rates of speed. Thus all too often I would open one only to discover it was too far past its prime to use. However, all that has changed. I recently discovered a wonderful way to recycle even the most unappealingly overripe fruit in a most delicious and nutritious way. I altered this recipe from one I found the Internet, referenced in Spry Living, a magazine put out by the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

Even if you don’t believe me, please try the recipe anyway. You will be very surprised. It helps to have a food processor, otherwise you could make it in a blender, or even an electric mixer. Use what you have, as many or as few avocados. My recipe is per avocado: peel and scoop out 1 overripe avocado, add 2 Tablespoons maple syrup, 11/2 teaspoons vanilla, a pinch of salt, and 3 tablespoons powdered baking chocolate. Place all in a food processor, blender or mixer and process until smooth. Taste and appreciate! As an optional treat you can add (per avocado) half a ripe banana, 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts or pecans, or 1/4 cup strawberries or raspberries, or experiment for yourself.

 

Recipes for Summer Celebration

Beach Reflections

While I was growing up, I don’t remember my dad cooking out or grilling food. It wasn’t as popular when I was growing up as it is today. One reason may have been that the average husband usually didn’t cook anything. It is also true at least according to my mother that my father burnt everything he tried to cook. Having grown up in post World War I Germany when food was scarce and precious, she was rather fierce about not wasting food.

While I appreciate others’ barbecues, I am not one to cook out. My parents didn’t go camping, and I was never part of any organization that did so I didn’t grow up with it. When I had one, I used to make hamburgers on the outdoor grill but then I read that charred meat wasn’t all that healthy, so I bought an indoor grill and have been perfectly satisfied to use it.

The 4th of July and other summer celebrations are traditionally organized around salads, grilled meats or fish and fruit, baked, or frozen desserts. Central to many of these feasts are potato salad and coleslaw. While it is easy to purchase these from the deli counter, it is also quite simple to make them. I enjoy preparing my own food, and it is my pleasure to create meals for friends. Also I confess to being fond of my own cooking. Over time, I have perfected certain useful recipes.

One of these is an easy to make dressing that is a wonderful substitute for mayonnaise. Not only tasty, it is also, for those of us who are watching them, lower in calories. The recipe, adapted from my 1945 Fanny Farmer Cookbook’ Boiled Dressing, is simple. I call it Instead of Mayonnaise. Mix these dry ingredients: 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 Tablespoons flour, 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt. Combine and beat together these liquid ingredients: 1 egg, 2 Tablespoons (good) olive oil, 3/4 cup dairy or non dairy milk, 2 Tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice.

Combine everything in a small pot and stir together, then whisk until well blended without lumps. Cook and stir over medium heat until it thickens nicely. This should take about 5 to 8 minutes at most. Cool before using. If stored for any length of time it may separate. Simply stir well and it will be fine. It is excellent with coleslaw. My recipe to serve 4 to 6 is 6 cups shredded cabbage, 1 1/2 cups shredded carrot, 1/4 minced or shredded medium onion, and if you want a colorful salad, add 1 or two cups shredded red cabbage.

Mix all together well, add salt, pepper, and either stop there or add any of these: 2 Tablespoons poppy seeds, 1/2 to 1 cup white or dark raisins, 1/2 cup dried or fresh or canned pineapple, 2 Tablespoons caraway seeds, 1 Tablespoon or more fresh dill 1 Tablespoon ground garlic. Mix with sufficient dressing and serve. I usually add 2 Tablespoons honey mustard dressing and 1 Tablespoon horseradish sauce. This dressing also works well for potato salad, in which case combine with chopped cooked potato, freshly chopped celery and onion, and chopped parsley. Potato salad is also tasty combined warm with olive oil and vinegar and your choice of the above. Serve warm or cold. Bon Appetite!

Tasha Halpert

 

 

Dandelion Days

dandilionforwishingThe first flowers I remember picking were dandelions. Proudly I brought them to my mother, who lovingly thanked me. I have memories of making dandelion flower crowns with her. We’d slit the stems, slide a flower through, and repeat until the crown or wreath was large enough to wear. Dandelions are the first flowers many children are allowed to pick. They are such pretty little bright spots, and unbeknownst to many, such good medicine It seems a pity that people feel they have to eliminate them.

Those who want pristine green lawns eradicate dandelions, never realizing that instead of poisoning these cheerful yellow suns, they could pick them and make a wine that tastes of summer, a bread, or other baked goods, or use the leaves in a salad, a stir fry or combined with other greens in a juicer. Dandelion leaves have excellent food value, and are a healthy, desirable spring vegetable. The roasted, ground roots make a coffee like drink.

Children love the yellow flowers; parents faced with eliminating stains from the milky juice, not so much. Homeowners might like to know the long roots actually benefit the lawn: they aerate the soil, keeping it from becoming compacted and unable to absorb nutrients. Susun Weed says there is enough vitamin A in a dandelion leaf to rival store supplements. As well there is vitamin C and many helpful minerals. It is also a mild, effective natural diuretic. If your lawn is away from the road, you can safely use your dandelions many ways.

Here is my recipe for Dandelion Deluxe: Ingredients: ½ cup chopped onion, 4 cloves of garlic minced or chopped fine, 1 small summer squash chopped small, 4 cups dandelion greens, olive oil. Method: Prepare greens while you sauté onion, garlic and summer squash in a olive oil. Remove roots and tough bottom stems. Wash very well. Cut up with scissors. Steam in a small amount of water until they wilt down. Strain water and set aside. Add chopped greens to sautéed vegetables and cook until stems are tender. You serve as is or you can mingle into your food processor for a different taste. Drink the healthy cooking water, your body will thank you.

Dandelion Wine: Age for at least 6 months. It will continue to mellow. Ingredients: 1 Qt Dandelions, yellow part only. 4 Qts. boiling water, 3 Lemons, 3 oranges, 4 Lbs sugar, 1 Pkg. yeast. Method: Pour boiling water over blossoms, set for 24 hours in a warm place. Slice fruit and remove seeds. Cover with sugar; set for 24 hrs also. Then strain blossoms and pour liquid over oranges and lemons. Add 1 package any yeast. Pour into ceramic or stainless steel. Let stand 4 or 5 days. Strain, let stand one more day. Bottle, then cap with small balloons. Leave until the wine stops “working” and balloons collapse. Cork and store 6 months or more. Then sip. It tastes like summer. Recipe makes 5 bottles.

Tasha Halpert

An Excellent Seafood Chowder by Tasha Halpert

CA Mural          As a child I loved to play with and rearrange the contents of my mother’s pantry, especially the bowls, utensils, and such. As an adult, I truly enjoy finding the perfect implements and utensils for my own food preparation and cooking. In the many years I have been doing it, I have accumulated a nice variety of cooking tools and containers. Because I truly enjoy working with food, I’m always looking for new items I can use. When someone left a cute little orange bowl here after a party, I fell in love with it. However, not wanting to be selfish, I set it aside in case the owner could be found. When after more than six months of inquiry had passed, I decided it was mine.

It sits cheerfully on my kitchen counter, washed and replaced immediately after use because once something fell on it in the dish drainer and took a chip out of the edge. It is a useful size, perfect to contain the ingredients for so many of the dishes I create. Recently, my orange bowl held the onions and celery I chopped up for a seafood chowder.

Since I have worked so hard to perfect this recipe I thought it might be fun to share it with my readers. One of my challenges was to create it without milk for my lactose intolerant husband and to thicken it without cream. Another was to cook it in such a way that the fish, clams or other seafood did not get tough. It shortens the time if you want to omit the thickening, however, it does wonders for the texture.

My basic seafood chowder with fish, clams, and/or other seafood begins with about 3/4 of a cup each of chopped onion and chopped celery, and 2 tablespoons each of butter and olive oil. Sauté until they are nice and tender. Add two medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into half inch pieces. I think large chunks of potato overtake the taste, and they do swell up in the broth. Add 4 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and an optional teaspoon of thyme. Bring to a boil then simmer covered until potatoes are cooked through.

If all you want is a simple fish stew, add 3/4 of a pound of cod and whatever else you like (chopped clams, shrimp, scallops–bay or large, etc.) Cover pot and turn off the heat. Fish will cook in the cooling broth and not get tough when carefully reheated. However, if you take the trouble for the next step you will have a very special dish.

To make a chowder instead of a simple fish stew, you must have a thickening agent. In which case, before you put in the fish, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small pot. Add 1/4 cup any flour–gluten free is fine. mix well, then slowly add 1 cup any kind of unflavored milk, whisking constantly to make a very thick blend. Add this to the vegetables and broth, stir well and bring to a boil. Now add whatever fish you are using, turn off the heat, cover and let sit until fish is cooked through. Reheat gently to serve or refrigerate. It tastes even better the next day and will serve 4 nicely.

Apples by Tasha Halpert

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Apples

When we moved to Grafton in 1989, one of the first joys I discovered was the wonderful apple orchard on Creeper Hill. The owners grew many of the old fashioned apple varieties and I went there each fall to purchase the different kinds they sold. Sometimes they would talk to me about their varieties and I enjoyed learning from them. In the spring I looked forward to seeing the orchard of pink apple blossoms that filled the air with their scent.

Then one year I went to see them, only to discover that the trees had been cut down. Houses were being built where the trees had been. I cried. Part of me grieved the loss of the precious old trees. Another part remembered the orchard I had played in as a child. My great grandfather delighted in planting different varieties of fruit trees. As well as apple, there were several varieties of pear trees. There were also quince trees with hard fuzzy green fruit. They could not be eaten raw but were delicious stewed or made into jelly.

Every year I look forward to the fresh apples of the fall. I love making applesauce, apple crisp, and what I call Sauce of Apples. This is not applesauce. For one thing I peel the apples, cooking them only long enough to be cooked through but still more or less keep their shape. For another I add vanilla for flavor and enough raisins to make them nice and sweet. They can be served over cake, pudding, ice cream or simply as a low calorie dessert.

My old Fanny Farmer Cooking School Cookbook–10th edition 1959 has apple desserts that most may not have ever heard of, let alone eaten. it is rare for these recipes to be found in modern cookbooks: Apple Brown Betty, Apple Gingerbread Upside Down Cake, Apple Cobbler, Apple crisp, Apple Kuchen, Apple Pan Dowdy, and Apple Indian Pudding. There are also several recipes for apple pie, one with cranberries and raisins. I just found a tasty looking bread pudding made with applesauce I want to try.

The apple crisp I made tonight is sitting on the stove for tomorrow’s enjoyment. I think it tastes even better the next day. A food processor simplifies the topping. I peel and slice enough apples to fill an eight inch square pan, pour a little maple syrup over them, sprinkle with cinnamon and stir well. Then I cut up a stick of butter and put it in my food processor with a half cup brown sugar and a half cup flour. Whirl until they are nicely mingled, then add a half cup of old fashioned rolled oats. Whirl briefly to combine then distribute the mixture over the apples and bake for an hour in a 350 degree oven. Yummy!

Hereabouts there are multiple farm stands throughout the area that sell a wide variety of apples. There are also opportunities to pick your own. My great grandfather planted his small orchard with many varieties of apples. I played there often, picking up fallen apples from Late August until November. The trees he planted bore fruit all throughout the fall. It was most likely there that my love affair with apples began.