OH, Sugar, Sugar!

OH, Sugar, Sugar!

It didn’t start with us, our parents, or even their parents. An audiobook I heard this week said it might have started with the ancient Egyptians, if not before. “It”, in this case, being the love-affair our taste buds have been having under our very noses with sugar.

The book is called The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes, and it sounded like he’d done a lot of research for his writing. There were plenty of facts and figures, and the author made some very good points about one of the most common food addictions of the current times. He wrote: “Sugar does induce the same responses in the region of the brain known as the reward center as do nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol”.  So we eat sweet stuff to make ourselves feel good, and then we get addicted; I’ll admit to that readily enough. But then I heard:  “The more we use these substances, the less dopamine we produce naturally in the brain.” That didn’t sound so good.

Now just think for a moment about our typical terms of endearment:  Sugar, Sweetie, Honey, Sweetheart . . . never once have I heard someone lovingly refer to their significant other as Brussel Sprout, or Cauliflower, have you? And if you did, wouldn’t you wonder, just a little? We’re raised to view desserts as a reward. . . no pie if you don’t eat your supper, right? So is it any wonder if we dive into the chocolate marshmallow ice cream after a rough day at work? I don’t think so!

Last year my family doctor took a look at the lab results from my previous visit and made a dubious remark about the nearly borderline glucose level in the chart.

“I’m watching it” I assured him.

“Watching it . . . what’s that mean, exactly?  You’re watching the sugar spoon so it doesn’t overflow on its way from the bowl to your coffee cup?” he chuckled.

“I don’t put sugar in my coffee.” I told him. “And I fix my oatmeal with a pinch of salt and a smidgen of butter. And I make my own yogurt with fresh milk, instead of buying the sweetened stuff at the store. And I rarely ever have more than one Pepsi a week.”

All true statements, but I don’t think he bought it, which only served to bring out my righteous indignation all the more. Poor guy, he’d probably heard every version in the book, and then some.

But it’s just as well he retired before I listened to this book. All that talk about sugar and the potential side effects that overindulging can have on us got me all stressed out. And you know what they say about “stressed” being “desserts” spelled backward? Good thing I had that big bag of Halloween candy to fall back on.

Bindi the Very Good Dog doesn’t get to sample the chocolate, but she LOVES Angel Food cake!

Comfort Food

Comfort Food

Chocolate Galas not withstanding, sometimes we just need a little Comfort Food. While the exact types and recipes can vary from sweet to salty, savory to spice, I think it’s probably more the memory or emotion a particular food evokes that is most meaningful.

For instance, back in the Dark Ages after I attended the morning session of kindergarten (yes, it was just half days back then!), Mother would often fix a grilled cheese sandwich for my lunch. White bread, with just enough butter to brown the bread, but not enough to make it soggy, American or Velveeta cheese, all nicely toasted in a cast-iron skillet.  Mmmm! This is still one of my favorite sandwiches, especially when paired with tomato or chicken noodle soup. Not the chicken soup from a can, mind you, but the Lipton kind from the packet with the little skinny noodles. Isn’t it funny to be so picky about such a simple thing as chicken noodle soup? Stir up a beaten egg with a little salt and pepper and add enough flour to make a thick paste, then drop tiny dumplings from the tip of a teaspoon into the simmering broth . . . oh my. That’s comfort food.

Another basic meal on the list is poached eggs on toast. Last weekend, while visiting Daddy, we had this for breakfast on Sunday. I told him how I recalled this as being one of the things Mother might make for me if I had to stay home from school due to sickness. Was it the protein she thought I needed?  The comparable blandness that would go easy on my stomach? The soft texture of the damp toast and the smooth egg that wouldn’t irritate a sore throat? The answer eludes me, but the memory remains, just like the times Dad would warm up milk in a pan on the stove and drizzle in some honey, stirring until it dissolved, and serve it in steaming mugs. That, too, was comfort food.

Custard pie and homemade ice cream make me think of my Grandpa Charlie and his siblings. Chinese food reminds me of my sister and her husband, because the first time I met him (before they were even engaged!) he took us to an excellent Chinese buffet for lunch in Tulsa. Chicken mole, first prepared for me by my dear sister-in-law, has become a favorite, and I never order it without thinking of her and my brother. And how can I possibly look at barbeque beef brisket without a fond remembrance of my Uncle Stan and cousin Dan, or see smoked salmon and not call to mind cousin Greg?

So, now it’s your turn. Leave a comment, if you will, and share your favorite comfort food, and why.  Then, get comfortable!

Chocolate Gala

Chocolate Gala

Cole Camp is a small, historic Missouri town on Highway 52 with strong German roots. It boasts several good restaurants and antique shops, it’s not far from the Lake of the Ozarks, and the folks there really know how to throw a party.

Last week I saw an advertisement for the annual Chocolate Gala to be held at their American Legion Hall, with proceeds to be going toward a new Community Building.  It sounded interesting (they had me at “chocolate”), but this Sunday was going to be my one day of the week to just relax at home, maybe put my feet up and read a good book. Last night, however, I saw a post on social media from Thaney Brockman–a lovely business owner of my acquaintance who lives and works in Cole Camp–stating that tickets were still available.  A quick telephone call to one friend, a text to another, and I was able to message Thaney that she could consider three of those tickets sold.

Not knowing quite what to expect ahead of time, the gals and I were blown away.  The Hall was decorated with white, silver and blue, the banquet tables were beautifully set, the background music was festive, and the folks working the event were warm and welcoming. Excited voices hummed like a busy hive of happy bees. There were display tables of door prizes and raffle items, wine tasting tables and bottles available for purchase, cream pies with mile-high meringue for auction, and even a classy drawing of the much longed-for Community Building to remind us of the purpose of the event. And, of course, there was the food. OH, MY, there was food!

With great wisdom and forethought, a long buffet table in the middle of the room held platters of thin-sliced meats and cheeses, savory appetizers, chicken salad and crackers, along with large chilled water dispensers at each end. These items presented a perfect counterpoint to the round tables before and behind, which were loaded with dozens of various sweet treats, all featuring some form of chocolate. From truffles to brownies, pretzels to green grapes, marshmallows to mint, there was chocolate galore!  It was all so good, I’m fairly sure I foundered myself.

Throughout the event, the buzz of conversation would lower occasionally as the master of ceremonies would hold up and describe a door prize or two, and announce the winning number for the drawing. Everyone present would check their ticket and then a cheerful exclamation would erupt from one corner or another, whereupon we’d all applaud our congratulations. My friend Karen won a gift certificate from a local restaurant, and then Michelle won a big basket with several goodies in it. And me?  I basked in the glow of fun, the prize of long-term friendships, the pleasure of helping out a Big Cause in a Small Town, and the sugar rush from all that chocolate. It was an incredibly good time.

If you haven’t been to Cole Camp, and would like to check it out, a good website is here:  http://www.colecampmo.com/    Just be sure to take your appetite!

Pumpkin Time

Pumpkin Time

If you bought a pumpkin before Halloween, but ran out of time to carve it for a Jack-o-lantern, be not dismayed.  A better use for it–in my opinion–is to cut it up and cook it, and then to use it in your favorite recipes for the season, such as pumpkin pie, bread, or cake.  Yes, you read that correctly.  You do not have to buy pumpkin in a can.  In fact, I can honestly state that I have never done so.

The scariest part of cooking a pumpkin is the dissection process; especially making that first equatorial cut to split the thing in half.  A sharp, heavy knife works best for this job, along with a large cutting board.  This is probably the part where Mother would want me to add a disclaimer of some sort about being particularly careful with knives of all types, so here it is.  Know your tools, and proceed with caution.  If you’ve ever tried this project with an electric knife, I’d like to hear from you about how well that works, because that is one of the few handy-dandy little cooking gadgets that is not yet in my kitchen!

After the pumpkin is split open and the seeds and stringy stuff scooped out, the halves can be placed on a cookie sheet and baked, or the pumpkin can be cut into chunks, placed in a stockpot with about an inch of water in the bottom, and simmered on the stove until tender.  Today I used the latter method, bringing the water to a boil to get things started, then turning the heat down to low and covering the pot with a lid.  After about 40-45 minutes, when the flesh of the pumpkin was easily pierced by a paring knife blade, I turned the heat off, but put the lid back on and left the pan on the stove for another 15 minutes.  After that you might want to remove the pieces to a bowl or platter to let them cool a bit, before removing the thin layer of rind from the outside.  Peeling the outer layer off is extremely easy after the pumpkin has been cooked, and the photo above shows the cooked chunks, the peelings in my compost bucket, and the “meat” of the pumpkin.  A few simple squishes with a potato masher makes it looks like this:

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This particular pumpkin weighed about 11 pounds before it was cut, and was slightly larger than a basketball in diameter.  It yielded 12 cups of the good stuff, which is enough for 6 pies.  I put 2 cups of cooked, mashed pumpkin into each of 5 freezer bags for later, and used the rest for some yummy pumpkin bread.  Here’s the recipe:

PUMPKIN BREAD

3 1/2 cups flour

3 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

a dash each of ground ginger and allspice

Sift the dry ingredients together into a medium large bowl.

In a large bowl, mix the following:

2 cups cooked, mashed pumpkin (OK, use the canned stuff if you must)

1 cup cooking oil

4 eggs

1/3 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir in the dry ingredients just until moistened, then pour the batter into greased loaf pans.  My stoneware pans are fairly large, so I used two, but you could use three smaller ones, or a combination of regular size and mini-loaf pans; just shoot for filling them about half full with the batter.  Bake at 350 degrees, about an hour for the larger loaves.  Cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pans to finish cooling on a rack. . . unless you can’t wait, and choose to eat it warm, like this:

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Enjoy!

A Bountiful Harvest

A Bountiful Harvest

If you read the post on this site last Spring regarding all the blossoms on my apple trees, you might appreciate this update on the results.  (If you missed that one, check the Archives, or follow this link:  http://jcrainbooks.com/?p=444.)  I am happy to report that the heavenly scent of those blooms might just be trumped by the odors that wafted from the big stock pots that were on top of my kitchen stove yesterday.  The idea of cooking apples with cinnamon, cloves, a pinch of ginger and another of allspice was a moment of genius for someone, once upon a time.

Thanks to the priceless assistance of my friend Michelle Furnell, a great number of those apples have now fulfilled their destiny in the making of vast quantities of apple butter.  By vast quantities, I mean almost five gallons worth!  In addition to that, there’s a gallon of applesauce that needs to be divided into smaller containers, but I need to get more rings and lids for the jars, or succumb once again to the convenience of the deep freezer.  Plus, the smaller tree with the red apples still holds plenty of fruit for eating fresh, or making cakes and pies and caramel apples.

As a bonus, (again, with full credit to Michelle for washing, cutting, and soaking), I managed to put up one last batch of pickles this morning, so that four and a half quart jars of dill spears are now ready to take their place on the shelf next to the dill slices and the triple-recipe of bread and butter pickles.  Those cucumbers really produced well this year!

Autumn can be difficult sometimes.  The dwindling hours of sunlight per day, the many trees now starting to shed their leaves, and the cooler temperatures that signal the end of Summer can lead to the doldrums.  And if you were rooting for the same football team that I was during the afternoon game today–well, let’s just say they weren’t at their best.  I think I’ll go out to the pantry and rearrange the items on a shelf or two.  Then, I’m going to line up all those pretty glass jars and bask in the pleasure of a Bountiful Harvest.  Oh, yes, and then eat an apple.

Happy Fall, y’all!

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A Garden Experiment

A Garden Experiment

Are you a hunter or a gatherer, or both? How about a gardener or a farmer, either by nature or nurture, or maybe a combination thereof?  Whatever the reason(s), I think at least a smidgen of all of those names would apply to me, in addition to several others, some of which are even printable.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of planting and tending gardens with my mother and other relatives.  Uncle D. wanted his potatoes in the ground by St Patrick’s day, weather permitting.  Aunt C. told me the sweet corn should be tasseling by the 4th of July.  A distant cousin whose name I don’t even recall taught me that one of the sweetest vegetables in the world is the garden-fresh pea, popped out of the pod and straight into a 10-year-old’s mouth, right off the vine . . . and I didn’t even like peas!

After several years of hiatus from the hobby, I’m thankful to have a garden growing out back of my house again.  The weather’s been so wet that it’s not as far along as I would have liked, but I’m experimenting with a new system this season. With rare foresight, I’ve been saving the triple-layered paper sacks that formerly surrounded 50 pounds of feed for my chickens.  With a stout pair of scissors, I nipped the folded-in bottom corners and made long cuts up the sides, then placed the opened flat bags end-to-end between the rows of squash, cucumbers, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, etc. The paper was then covered with thick flakes of last-year’s hay.  Straw would probably be better for this, but hay is what I have available.  Additional tufts of hay were tamped down between the plants within the rows of the larger items.  I’ll still have to weed the lettuce row, for instance, but in a large part of the garden this method should (hopefully) block the weeds, hold in the moisture, give me clean material on which to walk, and add the bonus of being biodegradable.

I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes.  Feel free to leave a comment with your garden solutions if you like, and if you have any ideas on what is eating holes in the leaves of my eggplant, and what I can (organically) do about it, let me know.  Happy Gardening!

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Strawberry Pie Recipe

Strawberry Pie Recipe

This week I heard something that caught me by surprise:  a strawberry isn’t truly a berry.  What?! This sounded like one of those urban myths you read about, so I did a tiny bit of research. True enough, the botanical definition of a berry is “a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced from a single ovary.” Conversely, our friend the strawberry is termed an “aggregate accessory fruit”, as is the dewberry, the raspberry and the blackberry. Weird, huh?

But berry or not, the unmistakably lush flavor of a sun-ripened, locally grown, freshly picked strawberry ranks fairly high on my list of Favorite Things in Springtime. And years ago, while living in Springfield, Missouri, the following recipe for Strawberry Pie was given to me by my neighbor, a dear, kind lady from Galesburg, Illinois named Jeanne Wallace.  If you’ve ever had a better strawberry pie than this one, I’d sure like to know about it, because Jeanne’s version (like all of her recipes that I ever tasted) is really top notch!

Here’s the recipe, in my own words:

1 prebaked pie shell (I prefer homemade, but suit yourself)

4 cups strawberries, washed & decapitated (you know, cut off the green stuff at the top)

3/4 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 cups cold water

1 small box strawberry gelatin

Stir sugar and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan. Slowly add cold water, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch. Begin cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, and when it gets hot, add the gelatin. Cook and stir until thick and clear. Cool syrup, then pour over the strawberries you’ve placed in the baked pie shell. Chill a few hours to set. Serve with whipped cream if you like.

As you can see in the photos below, I placed some of the berries upside down in the pie shell first.  This looks nifty, but it didn’t seem full enough, so I quartered more strawberries and sprinkled them over the top of the arrangement before adding the glaze. Another option is to halve or quarter all the berries, and just pile them in, which tastes just as good. And don’t worry if the glaze seems thinner than you expect when cooked or even cooled; a few hours in the refrigerator will set the gelatin nicely.

Enjoy!

Decapitating the berries strawberry pie 1 strawberry pie 3strawberry pie 4

It’s All the Buzz

It’s All the Buzz

Amid the Springtime rituals of planning and planting a garden, oohing and ahhing over the procession of crocus, hyacinth, daffodil, jonquil and tulip blooms making their brief but spectacular showings, and possibly cussing over the mower and the tiller and the trimmer that aren’t sure they’re ready to emerge from their winter hibernation, arrive those perfectly pleasurable days when the fruit trees are blooming.  A good year means that no late ice storm or deep freeze or wind so strong that the blossoms get literally “nipped in the bud” occurs.  Thankfully, this appears to be one of those years.

Yesterday my friend Michelle was here.  We set metal t-posts in a 20 x 30 perimeter, stretched and secured 4′ high woven wire around it to keep the varmints out, and hung an old gate for the entryway to my new garden.  It has been several years since I’ve had a garden, and the truth is, I’m so excited about it I can barely contain myself!  Maybe it’s the strong farmer influence in my genetic history manifesting itself, but I’ve always felt somehow incomplete during those years without a vegetable patch.  Witnessing the growth cycle of the plants and enjoying the bounty of the produce is such an elemental pleasure, but a strong one that pulls me in, year after year, just as the orchard does.

After the garden perimeter preparations, we worked on refreshing the mulched areas underneath the two apple trees near the garden.  Both of these trees were here when I moved to the farm, and I’ve never figured out the specific types.  I just know that one gets yellow apples that stay fairly crisp and somewhat tart when ripened, while the other produces red apples with a softer texture and a juicy, sweet flavor.  It was interesting to note that the blooms of the “yellow” apple tree had more pink tint to them than the ones for the “red” variety.  What made the task of mulching so much less like work, however, was the amazing aroma of those apple blossoms.  The air around their branches was perfumed with a lilac-like sweetness, one of those smells it seems I can almost taste.  The honeybees were tasting it, or at least giving the impression that they were.  Michelle and I were careful not to disturb them, knowing that they were doing a more important job than we were.  After all, the mulch just makes it easier to mow around the trees, and helps to hold in some moisture underneath.  The bees, though, help in the pollination process that allow those blossoms to become the fruit for next Fall’s harvest, which is what it’s all about anyway.

So, here’s to the Buzz!  Do you have an orchard?  And what’s in your garden?

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Here’s to Your Health!

Here’s to Your Health!

 

Recently I mentioned homemade yogurt and how much I am enjoying making that from local-sourced raw milk.  One popular add-in for yogurt is granola, and thanks to my friend Karen N., I can now make that myself, too!  Top off that combination with some apple butter, or a handful of blueberries, and you’ve got a great way to start the day that is as healthy as it is pleasing to your palate.

Here’s the recipe I used this evening:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

5 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups chopped nuts (I used 2/3 cup each of pecans, almonds & cashews)

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. cinnamon

a dash each of ground nutmeg and ground cloves

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

       Place all these dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir well to mix and break up the brown sugar.

       Then combine these in a measuring cup:

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 Tbsp. honey

1-2 Tbsp. maple syrup

1 tsp. vanilla

     Drizzle these mixed liquids over the dry stuff, then stir & turn to coat.  Pour the granola onto a large cookie sheet with sides, and pack it down with a spoon or spatula.  Bake 10 minutes, remove the sheet, and use a pancake turner to flip the mix over in sections; pack it down again and return to the oven for another 10-12 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool just a few minutes before removing from the pan.  Store in an airtight container.

This recipe is not exactly like the one from Karen, but I think it’s close.  The neat thing about granola is that you can adjust the taste to suit your own liking.  Don’t like cinnamon?  Leave it out, or decrease the amount.  You can even add dried fruits after it’s baked, such as raisins or chopped dates.  The possibilities are endless.  But you’ll know what’s in there, and it’ll be fresh and really, really good, with very little effort.

Wishing you good health and much happiness in the New Year.  Enjoy!

Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

It must’ve been a sign.  The first song to play when I hit the “shuffle” button in the music app on my cell phone this morning was Lessons Learned by Aaron Lewis.  It’s a great tune, nice music, and showcases the rich, smooth lower range of Aaron’s singing voice very well.  A big thanks is due to my cousin Brian for introducing me to this guy’s music.  If you’d like to hear the song, one of the YouTube links is here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BqSYUQI4Ck

While my day hasn’t turned out as rough as some of the things mentioned in the song, it is what came to mind just a few minutes ago, and I had to laugh.  You see, for the past year and a half, I’ve been buying fresh milk from a local Amish farm, and lately started using some of it to make my own yogurt in a crockpot.  This week’s batch didn’t set up as it should have.  Not wanting to waste the protein-rich yogurt-flavored milk (buttermilk?  not sure . . . never bought any), it seemed that using it in a fruit smoothie would be the next logical step.

My hand blender has a canister attachment for chopping small quantities of nuts and fruits and the like, so in went the frozen mixed berries, some flaxseed meal, a few chopped dates from one bag and the last few pitted dates from another.  I fit the lid on top with the connected handle that encloses a powerful mini-motor, and pressed the button a few times.  The contents were looking roughly pulverized.  But hey, wouldn’t they be easier to pour out if there was liquid mixed in?  (Yes, you can close your eyes and shake your head, here; this is indeed where it gets ugly).  I ladled in a bit of the liquid yogurt and quickly discovered why the canister is touted as good for dry ingredients . . . the lid is most definitely not of the tight seal variety.

OK, then, Plan B.  I grabbed a small mixing bowl from the lower cabinet by my knee, poured the remaining contents of the canister into it, and swapped to the wand attachment of the hand blender.  After all, it’s just like a regular blender, just smaller, right?  WRONG! Maybe one of the pitted dates got wedged underneath the edge of the blade guard and left too much space between the blade and the bottom of the bowl, I don’t know, but the resulting mess looked like an eruption of Mount Smoothie had taken place in the southeast corner of my kitchen.  Splotches and bits of smoothie ingredients were everywhere.  Why hadn’t I just gotten out the old reliable Oster blender in the first place?!

Suffice it say that after K.P. duty was complete, the real blender did a fine job.  The smoothie tasted good, was filling, and probably nutritious.  And maybe–just maybe–I learned a little something in the process.