Giving Love at Christmas

Love for Christmas Giving

My mother wasn’t much for cooking, though she considered it her duty to serve us good, nourishing food. I don’t remember her ever baking anything sweet. She didn’t care for desserts; she considered them unnecessary and fattening. When I was old enough for her to trust me in the kitchen, she encouraged me to bake simple items like brownies or other easy recipes. Unlike her I truly enjoyed cooking and was happy to make what she permitted me to.

Once I had a family to bake for I broadened my repertoire and learned to make pies and cakes as well as cookies. However cookies were my favorite to make because they went farther. I used to count and divide up the cookies and each child knew what they could have. Because I was home with the children anyway, it was fun to try different recipes. Eventually I created a small Cookie Cookbook with my favorites that I still use today.

Although my family is grown and I no longer bake cookies regularly, every Christmas I make up several batches and create plates to give people who have been helpful or kind to Stephen and me in the past year. The newspaper delivery people who bring the newspaper to our floor, the ladies of the library where we take advantage of their services all year long, the fine gentlemen of the garage where we take our car for repairs and upkeep, and a few others I want to acknowledge for their kindness.

Favorite cookie recipes I usually make include my Disappearing Caramel Brownies, Jiffy Jam Delights, and Unexpected Company Bars, all reliable and relatively easy to make recipes. This time of year there are cookie recipes everywhere to be found, and while these are my personal favorites for giving, those with more time and energy than yours truly might make cut out cookies to decorate or even more fancy treats. If you want one of my recipes, please let me know which, and I will email it. To my way of thinking however one wishes to express love is valid. Spending time on a gift is one of my favorite ways.

While feeding people is one of the ways I use to express my love, I also appreciate recipes that take less rather than more time, yet still provide delicious tasting healthy food. I also collect recipes from others when they have something unique and special to share. Sometimes they even write them out for me. I have loose leaf notebook where I keep these, along with others. Within its plastic sheeted pages are pressed their treasured, handwritten pieces of paper.

The following recipe wasn’t written out by my late friend because it was so simple. Avocado and Grapefruit salad requires one grapefruit and one avocado per two people, so if you are serving a family you need to double or triple, depending. Think kind thoughts as you peel and section grapefruit, removing membrane and preserving juice. Cut in half, remove seed and section one avocado into slices. Combine all, add a tablespoon or two of a good tasting olive oil, stir well, chill slightly, and serve with love for the holidays or at any time at all.

 

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Pleasure Can Take Many Forms

As regular readers of my column know by now, my mother really did not like to cook. She did what she had to do to feed her family. However, at least as far as I can remember preparing meals gave her no pleasure. Nor did she want my father to cook because, she said, he burnt everything. Perhaps he was impatient or perhaps he wasn’t watchful. I don’t know because I never saw him in the kitchen except to mix cocktails.

The only household chore I ever knew him to do was to polish the silver. My mother refused to do that and I do not blame her in the least. It is a dirty, tedious job. My father however seemed to enjoy it. I have a memory of him in an apron made from black and white striped mattress ticking material, vigorously polishing some of the lovely silver items he had inherited or been given by family members.

I on the other hand have always derived great pleasure from preparing food, baking, and providing meals for loved ones. For years I collected recipes. In the 80’s I wrote a cookie cookbook as well as a completely refined sugar free general cookbook with many recipes I had created. In those desserts I used only honey or maple syrup. Now even that kind of baking, along with a lot of other recipes I enjoyed making over the years, is history.

Recently I was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires severely restricting my carbohydrate intake. This has resulted in a major upheaval in both my eating and my cooking. In addition to sugars I have had to stop eating rice, pasta and potatoes. Thus I have had to eliminate many favorite comfort food recipes. I can no longer eat the Chinese fried rice I specialized in, the home fried potatoes or the shrimp scampi I enjoyed making as well as eating.

Then along came some difficult news. This caused a reaction I did not expect. I found myself in a depressed state and developed new aches and pains. I kept asking myself why was this happening? Then I realized I had been limiting most of my pleasure to cooking and eating. This is not to say I wasn’t doing fun things or having enjoyable experiences other than with food, however, I had concentrated principally on food related pleasure. I no longer regularly practiced other experiences I found pleasurable, like playing my harp or coloring.

Pleasure can rebalance the body’s ph and help keep us healthy. So now I am working to discover ways besides eating and cooking to give myself pleasure. In so doing I have rediscovered hobbies from the past like embroidery and begun to watch favorite old TV shows we have on DVD. I am spending more time with my harp, simply playing for the pleasure of it rather than working to learn tunes. I got out my coloring books and blank paper pads and began to color and as well as to draw. As time goes by I expect to enjoy new pleasures as well and look forward to discovering them. Meanwhile I already feel better.

Easy, Healthy Spring Recipes

TashasSpiralGardenEven though I love to cook, in the good weather I’m happy not to have to   labor in the kitchen or spend time fussing with complicated recipes when I would rather be doing things out of doors and elsewhere. In addition, local fresh green vegetables are more and more often available as farm stands open and crops are harvested. It is such a treat when local asparagus as well as rhubarb become available. Both are helpful for the bodily cleansing that helps make for a healthful change of season.

This first recipe is win/win in that it goes together quickly, will please just about anyone, and is inexpensive to make. Gluten free or intolerant diners can make and eat it confidently using one of the many good gluten free pastas available in the local supermarkets. Asparagus Pesto and Pasta : Ingredients:1 Lb. Fresh Asparagus (The equivalent of 2 cups) 3 fresh basil leaves or 1 tsp dried—more is fine. ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, ¼ cup chopped pecans, walnuts or cashews, whatever you like is fine; 1 small clove raw garlic, ¼ tsp salt, 3 Tbs olive oil, 8 Oz fine spaghetti or fettuccine.

Method: Cook spaghetti to taste and drain. Add 1 Tbs olive oil and stir well. Place remaining oil, asparagus and all other ingredients in blender. Blend until smooth, pour over spaghetti, stir and serve with a side salad and some fruit for a complete meal. This is also a good recipe to have fun with: try other green vegetables and/or vary the herb as desired. The addition of Parsley would be a natural. Or combine say half a cup of parsley and any green fresh or lightly steamed and still bright green vegetable.

If you have access to rhubarb leaves, you might be tempted to think they are edible. However, they are poisonous for humans, so under no circumstances ought you to consume them. There is a simple recipe for an insecticide on Google so I won’t repeat it. But don’t spray the leaves of your lettuce with it. It’s poisonous and potentially dangerous.Use caution on vegetables, a simple onion garlic spray is better there.

Rhubarb is technically a vegetable and yet we generally serve it as a dessert. There are many ways to prepare it—pies, cakes, puddings and so forth. However, I have always preferred it steamed and eaten plain with honey. To enjoy rhubarb easily, simply purchase fresh, young stems at the market or if you are lucky, pick them from a friend’s rhubarb patch. Snip them into inch or so sections with a pair of sharp scissors. Put them into the top half of a double boiler or a bowl that will fit into a pot with some water in the bottom.

Another interesting thing about rhubarb is that it has so much liquid in it already you really don’t need to add any when you cook it the way I do in a double boiler. Cover and steam for about 45 minutes. Add ½ to ¾ cups honey or sugar, to taste. Stir well and chill. Serve any time of day for a refreshing treat as well as good cleansing for your system. Let your food be your medicine, especially in the spring!

Easter Eggs are More than Just Food

A favorite memory I have of Easter is of dying my eggs using onion skins. For weeks I saved up the papery wrappings of the outside of the onions. Now it was time to put them to use. Using string I secured the onion skins to my eggs and set them on to boil. The results were quite lovely and I was grateful to my friend Maggie for sharing her knowledge of how eggs were originally colored in her native homeland.

Eggs have always had mythological significance. The oldest recorded writings the Vedas of India, say the world evolved from a cosmic egg. According to Wikepedia other mythologies featuring creation and eggs include the Egyptian, the Phoenician, the Greek, the Chinese and the Finnish. As all life hatches from eggs—whether those of mammals or of egg layers, it make perfect sense that a holiday that began as a fertility celebration would feature them.

Easter is essentially a spring festival. The Christian expression of it also relates to life and generation of which eggs are a symbol. Red dyed eggs have been found buried at Bronze Age sites. These were surely connected to the worship of the pre-Christian deity, the goddess in charge of spring farm and field fertility. The name Easter derives from the name Eostre, the Anglo Saxon goddess of spring or Ostara the Germanic version of the goddess’s name.

How the rabbit came to be associated with Easter and eggs is another story. A rabbit relative associated with the goddess, the hare a strong, somewhat fierce animal is nocturnal and its babies unlike those of rabbits are born with eyes open. Some say the figure on the surface of the moon is that of a hare. The hare has also been associated with the moon because its gestation period is the same 28 days. Thus the goddess’s sacred animal came to be part of Easter.

Despite their differences, the hare became a rabbit when Germans immigrated to the United States in the 1600s and settled in Pennsylvania, spreading out from there to the surrounding states. Their Easter celebrations did not catch on right away, however, because of the stronger puritan influence that suppressed what was thought to be essentially too pagan in its expression. It is most likely that children envious of Easter goodies and fun influenced the universality of the celebration so that eventually it spread everywhere.

Easter eggs continue to be important and many households will overflow with them after the holidays. My favorite way to use hard boiled Easter eggs is in egg salad sandwiches. This recipe is for 6 eggs. I don’t peel them but instead break them in half and scoop out the insides. Chop and mash with ½ cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon tarragon, Salt, pepper, a tablespoon or more of horseradish sauce and ½ teaspoon of dry mustard. Add ¼ cup finely chopped celery, and ¼ cup finely chopped onion. If you like curry flavor, add a teaspoon or so to taste.

Thoughts from a Thrifty Cook

Tasha's Fridge 1My mother felt strongly that food was precious and not to be wasted. She had been a young child during World War I in Germany, and the experience of scarcity had shaped her attitude. To her way of thinking, all food was to be used up one way or another. Then came World War II and rationing. I too was very young, yet this also gave me lessons in thrifty use of food. Fortunately I have been able to put my early lessons to good use in learning how to create meals from whatever I have left over even if I hadn’t already planned ahead.

A chicken, for instance normally provides two people at least three meals: hot, cold, and soup. That’s easy, but what about the bits and pieces of vegetables, meat, fish, or even pasta that might otherwise molder in the back of the ‘fridge. Why not make a soup, or combine them in a quick stirfry? If your family is fussy about food you probably can’t do that, however a retired couple like us, or even a single person may find it fun to experiment. One warning: it is important for the leftovers from the originals to make good combinations. A curry and a chili won’t mix well.

To use up most leftover vegetables, sauté half an onion until soft and then tip in whatever you have. This freshens the taste and makes them seem like a different dish. Add half a box of chicken or beef broth and serve this as a soup with a salad for supper. Throw in a handful of uncooked pasta of your choice and simmer or add leftover rice for a heartier dish. Or combine the vegetables and the rice or cooked pasta, sprinkle on curry powder, voila, another meal. Cook any leftover hamburger or some other chopped up cooked meat and add to the simple stirfry for a more filling lunch or supper. You can also cover it with leftover mashed potato, pop into the oven and have a shepherd’s pie.

I often use some of that convenient boxed coconut milk to season my leftover vegetables. Or in the summer I may add some salad dressing and toss them with lettuce, chopped sweet onion, and whatever else you like for a cold meal. Adding some canned salmon or tuna makes a more filling meal. The coconut milk is also very tasty with leftover chicken stirfry or soup. Simply chop up what you have, add whatever vegetables you like and warm them all up together with either leftover or freshly cooked rice. For soup, add chicken broth.

Whenever I make rice I make enough so I have some left over. I like to use it to make what I call Pudding As Rice: Per person use ½ cup rice, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs brown sugar, about a half cup or so mixed dried fruit of your choice—brown and white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries, dried pineapple, or whatever else you fancy. Mix and cook together over low heat 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until all is mingled into a tasty mix and serve with almond, coconut or dairy cream poured over it. Or instead, combine it with fresh or canned fruit. This simple dessert pleases almost everyone.

 

Two Recipes from my Kitchen for Comfort Food

woodenspoon1

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

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