Thursday, November 29, 2012

for when there is no refrigerator

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on November 7, 2012.

With Hurricane Sandy threatening our electrical stability, I fixed an enormous pot of red beans, just in case. I thought of the beans because when my husband and I lived in Nicaragua, I learned that cooked beans could be left at room temperature for days, even in the hottest weather. If the power went out and I’d have to keep the refrigerator door shut, at least we’d have beans to eat.

However, the storm hardly affected us at all. After a couple days of waiting for something to happen, we finally emptied our jars of water and righted the trampoline from where we had chained it, upside down, to the swing set. I stopped obsessively flushing toilets and keeping the sink dirty-dish free.

However, it looks like our family with be facing a steady diet of beans in the near future. Starting in January, we will be living in the Central American countryside. From our previous time in Nicaragua, my husband and I already know a little bit of what we’ll be getting into. We are excited to introduce our children the barebones lifestyle, the chicken buses, the colorful clothing, the plate-sized tortillas cooked over wood stoves.

It’s an impoverished area where we’re headed, up in the highlands. At the boarding school where my husband and I will be teaching, we’ve heard that some of the students are too poor to pay the admission fee; instead, they pay their way with beans and corn from their families’ farms.

Like I said, we’ll be eating a lot of beans.

Now we are scrambling to figure out insurances and plane tickets, raise funds, collaborate with the renters, gather a year’s worth of clothes, wrap up our current projects and commitments, and give the kids a crash course in Spanish. It’s wild and scary and wonderful, all at the same time.

Starting now, I will be taking a hiatus from this column. In the meantime, until we return home in October, whenever you cook up a big pot of beans, think of us. For from a thousand miles away, we’ll be doing the very same thing.

With love,

Pot of Red Beans

1-2 pounds of tiny red beans

Rinse the beans with cold water. Put them in a large pot and add enough water to cover by several inches. Bring to a boil, unlidded (or the water will boil over). Reduce heat, place the lid on sideways so some of the steam can escape, and simmer gently for several hours, adding more water as necessary.

When the beans are partially cooked, add the salt. When they are completely tender, taste and season. Serve hot with scrambled eggs, salty cheese, thick corn tortillas, and a cup of sweet coffee.

For when there is no refrigerator:
Boil the beans, eat what you want, remove the serving utensil and bring the pot of beans to a boil again to kill all the germs. Place a lid on the kettle and let it sit at room temperature until the next meal rolls around. By the third or fourth boiling, the bean broth gets thicker, richer, a bit saltier, and the beans become deliciously tender and flavorful.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

sweet popcorn

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on October 24, 2012.


Now that autumn is here, I find myself craving all sorts of cold-weather foods: apple cider, thick hard pretzels, hearty soups, and caramel popcorn. We eat the caramel popcorn any time of year, actually, but thanks to my grandmother, in my mind the treat will always and forevermore belong to October.

Every Halloween, my grandmother, a covering-wearing plain Mennonite, handed out little baggies of her caramel popcorn to neighbor kids brave enough to walk the driveway that curved through the spooky woods to her house.

My brothers and I weren’t allowed to go trick-or-treating, but one year, out of the blue, Mom suggested we dress up and surprise our grandparents. We were ecstatic.

I vaguely remember standing on the concrete stoop outside their front door, with a brown paper bag with cut-out holes for eyes jammed down over my head. We rang the bell. Grandpa threw open the door, and Grandma, peering over his shoulder, laughed heartily and declared, “Well, well! What have we here!”

“Trick-or-treat!” we hollered, reaching for our bags of golden popcorn. We pressed into the foyer, shucking our paper bag heads. So happy to see us, Grandma offered us her task. We spent the rest of the evening handing out her popcorn to the witches and princesses that showed up.

The recipe I’ve copied down is smudged and faded. I make the popcorn for church events and parties, and my older son likes to give the popcorn as a birthday gift to his friends. A few months back, he misread the recipe and used two tablespoons of butter instead of the called-for twelve. The next time I made the popcorn, I also misread things, except I added too much butter instead of too little. It turned out to be a fabulous mistake. Now I routinely add an extra pat of butter to the caramel sauce.

I am somewhat careful about how often I make this popcorn, mostly because I am completely helpless in its crunchy, buttery-sweet clutches. I do silly things, such as store the jar on the uppermost pantry shelf, like in the Frog and Toad story “Cookies,” in hopes that I might forget about the lurking temptation. I never do.

Grandma Baer’s Caramel Popcorn

12-14 tablespoons butter
2 cups brown sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 quarts popped popcorn, not salted

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, corn syrup, and baking soda and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium high and boil gently for five minutes, stirring steadily. Remove from heat and stir in the salt and vanilla. Immediately pour the sauce over the popped corn, tossing to coat evenly.

Divide the popcorn between two greased 9x13 pans. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Store in airtight containers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

party soup

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on October 10, 2012.


Every fall my aunt invites the women in our family for a soiree. For twenty-four hours, I luxuriate in the absence of dirty floors and fussy kids and throw all my energy into visiting, relaxing, and eating myself into a coma. It couldn’t be better.

The schedule is fixed. We arrive at her home at noon on Saturday and eat a many-coursed meal on the veranda. Entertainment is provided in the afternoon—one year there was an ooh-la-la belly dancer, another year we took oil painting lessons, and this year we received professional, full-body massages. In the evening, we eat out at a restaurant. The next morning there is coffee in the sunroom, a walk to the bakery, and a huge, leisurely brunch.

About a week before the event, my aunt starts sending us emails, saying things like, “The beds are made!” or “The delivery man just dropped off three big boxes!”  This year, she wrote, “I grated off the tip of a finger, made two things that totally flopped, and lost my cash card at the grocery store.” (Another aunt promptly shot back, “We'll eat flops as long as they don't have the tip of your finger in them.”)

Despite my aunt’s struggles, when we gathered around the table for the noontime meal a couple of weekends ago, there was nary a flop in sight. This first meal is always extra special because my aunt never tells us what any of the dishes are and she makes everything herself. It is our self-appointed job to guess the ingredients, rave wildly, and devour every morsel.

As we waited for my aunt to emerge from the kitchen, we sniffed the air for clues. When the first course arrived, we scrutinized the dish as though we were world-class connoisseurs. Dark red, with a swirl of sour cream in the middle, the soup smelled both musky and sweet. It had to be red peppers, we all agreed, but what else? Even before we took the first bite, we were already calling out possible ingredients.

Chicken broth! Tomatoes! Paprika! The guesses came rapid-fire.

I put a spoonful of the velvety, smoky soup into my mouth and shouted the first thing that popped into my mind, “Chipotle!”

My aunt, on her way back to the kitchen, turned and smiled at me. Bingo!

The rest of the meal was superb—pulled lamb, grilled broccoli, focaccia, greens with granola croutons, and lemon-blackberry-ginger parfaits—but it was the soup that impressed me most, and the recipe I recreated after I returned home. I’ve been sipping a mugful every lunch.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
I’ve adapted my aunt’s recipe. She had adapted hers from one she found on My Recipes.

4 large red bell peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
28-ounce can plum tomatoes (or 1 quart home-canned)
1-2 teaspoons minced chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons smoked (or plain) paprika
3 cups chicken broth
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper
sour cream, for garnish
chopped cilantro, for garnish

Cut the peppers in half, remove the seeds and white membrane, and place on a baking sheet, cut-side down. Broil for 15-18 minutes until the skins are blistered black. Put the roasted peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic. Allow them to steam-soften for about 10 minutes before peeling off and discarding the skins.

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil over medium high heat until translucent and soft. Add the roasted peppers, tomatoes, chipotle pepper, and paprika. Simmer for several minutes. Blend until creamy smooth.

Return the soup to the kettle, add the broth, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Heat through and taste to correct seasonings. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with dollops of sour cream and cilantro.

Yield: one-half gallon

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

making dinner easy

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on September 26, 2012.


Now that September is here, my days are filled to the brim with the children’s schooling. All the time I’d previously given to cooking vanished in a flurry of math problems, piano lessons, and geography games. In no time at all, we’d run clean out of prepared food. It got so bad that my husband gave up on packing his lunches and resorted to fast food. (And his wife writes a cooking column! Oh, the irony! The scandal!)

After three weeks of suppertime scrabbling, I’d had enough. I declared that the next Saturday would be my cooking day. I would cook food for the entire week ahead. I would cook until I ran out of supplies. I would cook until I dropped.

On Saturday morning, I tore around frenetically from stove to freezers to sink to counter to refrigerator. Pans of meats and veggies thawed on the table, big kettles cluttered the stove top, and wayward bits of chopped onion crunched underfoot. What a royal mess!

To make matters worse, my older daughter, invigorated by the flurry of kitchen activity, decided to give the refrigerator a much-needed dunging out. She emptied the shelves of their contents, and then the fridge of its shelves. And then, because empty space needs to be filled, she climbed into the fridge, just for the heck of it.

With the contents of my refrigerator sitting all over the kitchen floor, using things up became easier than ever. Into my soup pots went the good part of the tail end of a moldy piece of ginger, a solitary keilbasa sausage, a partially-filled jar of raw cream that was banging around the refrigerator freezer, some sour cream, the scrapings from a jar of applesauce.

The kitchen was trashed. The refrigerator crisper drawers perched precariously on kitchen stools. “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” blasted through the computer speakers. Bread flour covered the counters with a white film. The dirty dishes piled up higher and higher.

Early afternoon, exhaustion hit. I pushed through, bagging up the loaves of bread and putting the jars of prepared foods into the sparkly-clean refrigerator before collapsing on the sofa. The week’s meals were made, and the week hadn’t even started yet. Hallelujah.

We ate the curry on Tuesday night. All I had to do was cook a pot of brown rice, set out the condiments, and dinner was served. It couldn’t have been easier.

this picture is from another curry dinner - thus the white rice instead of brown

Golden Chicken Curry
Adapted from The Flavors of Bon Appetít 2000 cookbook.

1 chicken, cooked and deboned
2 tablespoons oil
3 large onions, chopped
1/4 cup minced, peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup tomato sauce
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup applesauce
1 pound (2-3 cups) packaged frozen peas
½ cup sour cream
½ cup coconut milk
salt, to taste

Sauté the onions in oil until tender. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté one minute. Add the curry, cumin, cinnamon, and flour and sauté briefly. Stir in the yogurt and tomato sauce and simmer for one minute. Add the broth and applesauce, bring to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes. Add peas and heat through.

Remove the kettle from the heat and stir in the chicken, sour cream, and coconut milk. You may continue to heat, as needed, but do not boil. Taste to adjust seasonings.

Serve the curry over rice, with a smattering of condiments such as cilantro, green onions, chutney, chopped bananas, raisins, chopped peanuts or cashews, and coconut.

Extra curry freezes well.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

to top the professionals

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on September 11, 2012.


A few weeks ago, on the way home from one of our last visits to the pool, the kids and I stopped by a local pizza shop to claim our free orders of cinnamon breadsticks, courtesy of the library’s summer reading program. When I exited the store with the four large boxes, the kids nearly bounced out of their seats with excitement.

“We’ll eat them at home, not in the car,” I said firmly. I’d borrowed  my brother’s car and wasn’t about to let them sticky it all up.

My husband arrived home the same time we did and joined us at the kitchen table. I poured glasses of milk and passed out napkins.

“Everybody has to give up one of their sticks,” I announced. “Three for your papa and one for me.”

I was acting all cool and aloof, but inside I was nearly as excited as the children. Soft bread! Sugar! Icing!

I took one bite and promptly deflated. The sticks were tough, and the icing, oh my. It tasted like melted plastic spoons. The children were doggedly munching away, scattering sugar hither and yon, but they didn’t seem quite as excited as before. I noticed my younger daughter scraping off the icing. Oh, so it wasn’t just me!

“I should go into business,” I huffed to my husband. I was talking off the top of my head. “To think that people pay good money for this stuff. It’s crazy!” 

“But you don’t make these,” he pointed out.

“Well, I could.” I already had a breadstick recipe I was in love with. The switch from savory to sweet wouldn’t be all that difficult, I thought.

The night before my baking experiment, I was so excited I had trouble sleeping. In the morning, the thought of butter and cinnamon propelled me out of bed.

It was nearly lunchtime when I pulled the breadsticks from the oven. The kids watched impatiently while I sampled one. Then I felt guilty for eating in front of them and gave them each a half. Their cries of delight were loud and unceasing.

“What do you think? Are these any good?” I asked.

“Yes, yes!” they cried, their mouths stuffed full with the sugary bread, their hands sticky.

After lunch, I let them eat their fill. They scarfed down every last one. They even, when they thought I wasn’t looking, polished the plates with their tongues like a pack of motherless waifs.

Cinnamon Sugar Breadsticks

2½ teaspoons yeast
1 cup warm water
3 cups bread flour
3 packed tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup oil
4 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup white sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
½ teaspoon vanilla
milk or half-and-half

In a small bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Set aside for five minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, and salt. Stir in yeast and oil. Knead until satiny smooth. Flour the bowl. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rise until doubled.

Grease a large, sided baking tray. Roll/press the dough so that it covers the bottom of the pan. Cut the dough down the middle lengthwise and then crosswise about 11 times, aiming for about 24 sticks. Cover the dough and let rise for 30-60 minutes.

Bake the breadsticks at 375 degrees for about 12 minutes. Brush the hot breadsticks with the melted butter and sprinkle generously with the cinnamon sugar (you will have some leftover).

Combine the confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and enough milk to make a runny icing. Drizzle it over the breadsticks. Serve warm.

Monday, September 3, 2012

a sauce to talk about

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on August 29, 2012.


The words for my next newspaper column weren’t falling into place. Tired of getting nowhere, I finally called up my mom. “I’m trying to write about a pizza sauce recipe, but I’m not sure what my point is.”

“Didn’t you just write about that in the last column?”

“No, that was a spaghetti sauce.”

“Pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, what’s the difference?” my mom asked.

“It’s totally different,” I said. “The spaghetti sauce was made with canned tomatoes. This pizza sauce is made with roasted tomatoes. Roasted garlic, too. A whole head. And it’s fast.”

“There’s nothing fast about roasting tomatoes. It takes hours!”

“No, no! These get roasted for just one hour!”

“Oh, really?” She was listening now.

“Yeah, they caramelize and get blistered black in places.”

“What? You put in black tomatoes?”

“When they’re blended up, they make the sauce look speckled. It’s gorgeous! And really, it couldn’t be easier.”

“Okay, okay,” Mom laughed. “You go to all this trouble and here I am just picking my jars of sauce off the grocery store shelves. I won’t get the mushroom kind and I try to choose something chunky—if you ask me, that’s easy. But your sauce does sound good.”

“It’s incredible!” I gushed. “So flavorful and rich. I get all sorts of traffic on my blog over that recipe—”

“All right,” she interrupted. “You have your column now.”

“Wha—?” I asked, bewildered.

“This phone conversation. Just write it down. That’s your column.”

“Mom, you duped me!” I shrieked. “You did this on purpose!”

“No, I did not! But now you have your column. Go write it.”

Roasted Tomato and Garlic Pizza Sauce
This recipe first appeared on Simple Bites.

12 pounds paste tomatoes, such as Roma
½ cup olive oil, plus extra as needed
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 head garlic
3/4 cup green pepper, rough dice
1 cup onion, rough dice
1 jalapeño, rough mince
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon each, dried basil and dried oregano
citric acid, bottled lemon juice, or vinegar

Cut off the top of the head of garlic, making sure that the tippy-top of each clove has been removed. Set the garlic, cut side up, on a piece of foil, drizzle it with a bit of olive oil, and wrap tightly.

Wash and core the tomatoes. Cut them in half lengthwise and toss with ½ cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, and the black pepper. Divide the tomatoes between two large, sided trays (put the foil-wrapped garlic on one of the trays) and roast at 400 degrees for 60-90 minutes, rotating as necessary. The tomatoes will blister and blacken a bit—this is good.

While the tomatoes are roasting, sauté the peppers and onion in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil until very soft.

Dump the roasted tomatoes into a large stockpot and add the sauteed veggies. Squeeze the garlic pulp out of the skins and add to the vegetables. Puree the mixture. Stir in the sugar, dried herbs, and more salt to taste—2 to 3 teaspoons.

Ladle the sauce into pint jars. To each jar add 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon vinegar. Screw on the lids and process the jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes at a gentle rolling boil.

Yield: approximately 5 pints.

Friday, August 17, 2012

with complete abandon

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on August 15, 2012. 

A few weeks ago, I ran down to the basement to take stock of my canning shelves. Among the sea of empty glass jars, I found a few of salsa, some of tomato juice and roasted tomato sauce, and a whole bunch of pints of chopped Roma tomatoes, some of which were from as long ago as 2007. The jars were caked with dust, the edges fuzzy with mold. I felt slightly embarrassed.

I contemplated tossing the Romas, but the seals were still firm so I crossed my fingers and decided to put them in a sauce. I had found a spaghetti sauce recipe that specifically called for canned tomatoes—it’d be perfect for using up my antiques. But could their age prove deadly?

All my life, my mother has obsessively worried about botulism and salmonella, and even though I am much more pragmatic (no one I know has ever gotten sick from eating home-canned food, and besides, acidic tomatoes are not botulism prone), at moments like these, her death and doom speeches return to haunt me.

“Let’s hope I don’t kill us all,” I thought to myself as I lugged the armful of jars upstairs.

I scrubbed the jars in hot soapy water, popped off the lids, and dumped the tomato chunks into my Dutch oven. They looked and smelled perfectly fine. “See, Mom?” I thought. “There’s no problem!”

One of my son’s visiting friend’s eyes lit up when he saw what we were having for supper. “Spaghetti, yes!” he cheered.

“Hold up your plate,” I said to the boy after we had finished our silent mealtime prayer. He positively glowed with excitement—almost giddy, was he—as I mounded the spaghetti high.

I was slightly anxious that he might turn up his nose at my sauce since it was sure to be different from what he was used to, but I needn’t have worried. He rapidly polished off three servings, maybe even four. By the time he swallowed his last bite, he was groaning.

“Did you see how much he ate?” my stunned husband whispered to me as we cleared the table. “That last serving alone would’ve been enough for an entire lunch for me!”

“That’s how spaghetti is supposed to be eaten—with complete abandon,” I gloated.

But the best part? No one died.

Garlicky Spaghetti Sauce
Inspired by a recipe found in the August 2012 issue of “Food and Wine” magazine.

Despite the emphasis on garlic, the sauce is not overly pungent. The long cooking softens the bite considerably.

3 quarts canned tomatoes
½ - 3/4 cup (1-3 heads) peeled garlic cloves
2/3 cup olive oil
black pepper
1 pound thin spaghetti
lots of freshly torn basil
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

For the sauce:
Bring the tomatoes to a simmer in a large pot.

Measure the oil into a smaller pot and add the garlic. Bring to a gentle boil and cook unlidded for about thirty minutes, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is golden brown and very tender.

Add the garlic and oil to the tomatoes. Using an immersion or regular blender, blend until smooth. Simmer for about an hour until the sauce has thickened a bit. Add plenty of salt and black pepper.

Set aside half of the sauce to freeze for a later batch of spaghetti or to use as pizza sauce.

For the spaghetti:
Cook one pound of spaghetti to al dente. Drain and return to the pot. Add two cups of the remaining hot sauce and cook for another minute. Serve the spaghetti, ladling more sauce over each portion. Garnish with basil and Parmesan cheese.