Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chainsaws and Pies

Four years ago next week, we moved into this wonderful house. I should say, we took over the care of this house, for there is always something that needs to be done - but we love it! But then, when the work is done for the day, there are lots of places and opportunities to sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Like this spot in the front yard, looking out toward the pond. I just love this elm tree stump table/ottoman we were left with when the elm tree was cut down. Every time I come up the driveway, it reminds me to slow down, take a breath, put my feet up and enjoy the scenery. Even when I don't have the time to stop, it's also a lovely reminder that this house is a haven for me.

One of the very best things that came with this house, though, was the neighbors. Almost as soon as we moved in, we were faced with a dilemma -- how to get the huge moving van down the narrow tree-lined country lanes and then through the trees surrounding our house. Our chainsaw was in the moving van.

Cancel that emergency! Down the driveway and through the trees, Kenny appeared from across the street, as if on cue, with his chainsaw. In no time at all, with Kenny's help, Dean was able to remove branches and other obstacles, so that the van driver could craftily maneuver his way to our door.

We still have more than enough trees left around here to enclose and define our property, something we really loved about this place when we found it. Rather than work as a barrier though, our trees seem to draw people in, especially our neighbors. When we were working against the clock to get everything ready for Grant and Kristen's wedding in our yard, we absolutely could not have done it without help. We had lots of help from family -- Steve came down from Chicago and made quick work of several projects on my list. Denise labored for weeks in the gardens, turning them into dazzling displays of color. Gail and Megan were willing workers when I needed extra hands for window washing and craft projects. Jeff hauled and spread a mountain of mulch (his least favorite project for four years running!) and felled the elm tree whose stump now serves so well.

All at once though, as the day of the wedding all too rapidly approached, all of our neighbors showed up spontaneously to help us, and each other, finish up the tasks that were behind schedule due to the endless winter and spring rains.

Jake and Aina, who live on the other side of our pond with their two adorable kids and a menagerie of cats, dogs and horses, loaned us their tractor to move dirt to fill in holes.

Dan, our over-the-creek-and-through-the-woods neighbor, and a former 4-H championship tractor driver, came to demonstrate his skills by scooping dirt and delivering it to the holes and ruts left by tree-cutters and dock-builders .

Jim, the Gate-Keeper at the entrance of our little street, was here to drive his lawn roller around the whole yard to stabilize the acres of marsh-like soil and settle some chunks of zoysia sod that Kenny, the Game-Keeper/Master-Gardener, who keeps an eye on the wildlife in our woods across from his house, had donated from his new patio/gazebo project. Jim broke the hitch when he tried to pull up a stump in the yard. Not to worry though! Kenny came to his rescue and completed the stump job. Next thing we knew, Jim was mowing Kenny's grass. The two of them take great pleasure in a cooperative effort maintaining their own beautiful lawns, and the large lot between their houses, with the velvety perfection of a golf course.

Oh yeah -- where was Tom Sawyer, while the all the neighbors were doing his work? Dean was working with yet another neighbor, Scott-the-Electrician, who was here to run miles of electrical wire from the front corner of our yard, through some woods, around the house, behind the pool, and out to the area where the caterers were setting up the reception tent.

While this may not have been a typical day on our little country lane, it was typical of the generous spirit of those who live here, just outside the trees that surround us. These people, who began as our neighbors by the proximity of our house to theirs, are now our close friends. They have been from the very beginning -- the day we moved in and Kenny showed up with a chainsaw, just when we needed him.

Oh! Did I mention that Kenny also baked a pie for us that first day too? Isn't this place just a goldmine of talented neighbors -- and friends!

Here's the recipe for Kenny's latest culinary accomplishment - the Rhubarb Bread Pudding he made for dessert the other night when we had our Friends of Alaska Dinner at Dan and Dianna's.


1 1/2 c. milk
2 eggs slightly beaten
4 slices Oat Nut Bread, toasted and cubed
1 1/2 - 2 c. rhubarb
1 c. sugar
1/2 - 1 tsp. cinnamon

Mix eggs and milk. Add toast cubes, rhubarb, sugar, and cinnamon. Pour into buttered casserole dish. Bake in oven at 350 degrees for one hour, or until custard is set. Serve with cream, whipped cream, or ice cream, if desired -- my idea, though it is perfectly delicious without any embellishment.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Herbs Gone Wild!

After months of rain and cold, we found many of last season's herbs had wintered over. Now they appear to have gone wild!

As a cook, it makes me feel rich to know that I have a garden full of herbs. It's like money in the bank! Grilled salmon with dill sauce. Roast chicken with lemon and rosemary. Panzanella with fresh basil. Pasta with pesto. Scrambled eggs with fresh chives. Tabbouleh with fresh parsley. Chilled mint tea or a mojito. What would summer be without a garden full of herbs, right outside the kitchen door?

1/2 c. fine bulgur
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. boiling-hot water
2 c. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 c. finely chopped fresh mint
2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 cucumber, peeled, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/4-in. pieces
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Stir together bulgur and 1 tbsp. oil in a heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over, then cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand 15 minutes. Drain in a sieve, pressing on bulgur to remove any excess liquid. Transfer bulgur to a bowl and toss with remaining ingredients, including 2 tbsp. oil, until combined well. Makes 4 - 6 servings.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Alaskan Salmon Season

June is the season for the best of the fresh wild -caught salmon. And, if you've just returned from your first trip to Alaska, sharing your experiences, photos, and some salmon is a great way to extend the memories. That's just what Dan and Dianna did when they invited us for dinner on Saturday, along with our other neighbors, Kenny and Phyllis. Turns out all of us have been to Alaska, so we all took turns sharing our impressions of the magnificence of the faraway American frontier.

We had the perfect evening for dining outside, something that doesn't happen often in southern Illinois. The setting was so inviting that I insisted we take pictures of Dianna's table that was definitely worthy of a magazine cover. Dan smoked the salmon on his Weber with charcoal, low heat, and wood from his own apple tree -- outstanding job! There was also potato salad from Emeril Lagasse that was also photo worthy and delicious. Phyllis made marinated cucumbers, always a sign of summer, as are the fruits in the gorgeous fruit salad. The virtues of eating fish and fresh fruits and vegetables paid off in big rewards at dessert time -- we had room for Dianna's brownies and Kenny's rhubarb bread pudding.

I just love it when my friends go to Alaska!

14 small boiling potatoes, such as red bliss, about 2 1/2 pounds, scrubbed well
6 slices crisp cooked bacon, crumbled
6 hard-boiled eggs, roughly chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
1/3 cup finely chopped celery
1 cup ranch dressing
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover by 1-inch. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain, cool, then cut the potatoes into halves.

In a large mixing bowl combine potatoes with all remaining ingredients and gently toss to combine. Refrigerate the salad several hours before serving to allow flavors to blend.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Adventures In The Great Outdoors

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
June 2008

This past winter and spring were the rainiest I can ever remember. Last fall after Grant and Kristen decided they wanted their wedding to be outside at our house, May 24, 2008, seemed a long way off. And then the rains began, and every week we would think “things will dry out soon and we can get to work in the yard.” It always seemed like there would be plenty of time to get it all done before the wedding.

In February, we were caught up in planning things like invitations and booking blocks of hotel rooms and such. Important details needed to be decided before the rain and snow stopped and temperatures warmed up anyway. We were not worried.

March rolled around and we began to wonder when there would be enough dry days to clean up the last of the fall leaves and start trimming limbs and cutting down trees for parking and tents. And there was the small matter of building a new and bigger dock for the ceremony, even as the water level in the lake continued to rise and submerge the old dock.

By mid-April there were occasional days without rain, but never enough to dry up the mud and make way for the heavy equipment to roll in. Still there was time for bridal showers, shopping, fittings and all manner of important projects.

With only weeks to go, it was full speed ahead from late-April and on into May. Planting became priority number one, even on damp cool days. We touched base often with the wedding planners, caterers, cake bakers, and rental companies, all of whom seemed to be right on schedule. The dock builders kept assuring us we would have a dock for the big day. Tree cutting was still out of the question without major lawn damage, so we bought a bigger chainsaw and began to trim the unsightly limbs ourselves. For days there were chainsaws and wood chippers going non-stop during the increasing daylight hours. Work in the gardens was intense and time-consuming, but we were rewarded with lots of buds and an especially promising peony season.

Finally, the track hoe was able to get into the yard and the dock builders all converged to tear out the old dock and put in the new one, in just a day and a half. Their efforts were poetry in motion – the track hoe, two guys in chest waders and two more in a small boat where the water was too deep for waders. As an added bonus, they took the time to knock down a tree, trim some limbs, and push over a stump with the track hoe on the way out! What? Me worry? We had days to spare!

The week of the wedding was a little frantic – spreading mulch, cutting grass, trimming brush, potting ferns, repairing cracks from the earthquake, and a million other things. The flowers bloomed and the peonies were magnificent. When the tent was set-up and the chairs set in rows by the new dock, we were awestruck. Everything was just right, including the forecast for the weekend. It was the longest stretch of dry days since last summer’s drought! On May 24th, everything was perfect, thanks to dear neighbors, family and friends, who all pitched in for the finishing touches.

By 5 p.m. on wedding day, guests arrived to a magical setting that didn’t even seem like our yard anymore. Everything seemed to be just as it was planned and the parents of the bride and groom were pleased to see everyone enjoy themselves, especially the bride and groom. And yes, before the evening was over, the groom was thrown into the pool by the groomsmen – but happily, the bride was spared!

David and Cindy and Dean and I have spent twenty-four years raising our kids to be ready for the day they begin life on their own. I know that what we all hope Grant and Kristen have learned in those twenty-four years, and will remember from their wedding day forward, is how much in life can be accomplished with love, patience, hard work, and the support of family and friends.

For your own adventures in the great outdoors this summer, Grant and Kristen share some of these recipes from their new cookbook, printed just for them by my book club friends from North Carolina. I’ve mentioned before that as each of our children marries, we create a cookbook around a theme chosen just for her/him and include recipes from family and friends. A Field Guide to Adventures in Outdoor Cooking honors Grant’s love of the outdoors and commemorates their outdoor wedding day.

So haul out the grill, call in the neighbors, and enjoy your own summertime meals in the great outdoors!

Ya’ take a can of Kroger limeade, a splash of milk, bottle of rum, a bunch of ice, a blender, and an extension cord and ya' go outside...

2 oz. vodka
4 oz. Bloody Mary mix or tomato juice
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Dash celery salt
Dash Worcestershire sauce
2 drops hot saucE

Blend all ingredients and garnish with a lemon wedge, spicy green bean, two jalapeno-stuffed olives, a Mt. Olive Kosher Petite Dill Pickle, and fresh cracked pepper.

COSMO – Dwight Smith
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. Cran-Grape juice
1/4 oz. lime juice

Shake with crushed ice. Strain. Serve in chilled martini glass.

2 shots of Tequila Reserva 1800
1 shot of El Presidente Brandy
1 shot Mohawke Triple Sec
1 shot sweetened lime juice
2 - 2 1/2 shots of water
2 pkgs. Bartender's Whisky Sour Mix (dry, not liquid)

Blend ingredients and serve over ice.

1 Bottle of Beefamato - Tomato Cocktail
1 bottle of Sgt. Major Peters Spicy Bloody Mary Mix

Combine both in a jar and blend well. In a glass of ice, add 1 oz. of vodka, gin or tequila (remember I said OR not AND) and fill with tomato juice mixture. Garnish with a wedge of lime.

6 oz. orange juice concentrate, undiluted
6 oz. lemonade concentrate, undiluted
6 oz. limeade concentrate, undiluted
4 1/3 c. water
2 c. bourbon
1 bottle chilled club soda

Combine all ingredients, except club soda, and freeze. Remove 30 minutes before serving, break into chunks; add soda and stir. Makes 3 qts.

SEASONED PRETZELS – Crystal Reynolds
1 large box (not bag) of Snyder’s large sourdough pretzels
1 c. light olive oil
1 packet Hidden Valley Ranch Party Dip (dry)

Preheat oven to 350. Break pretzels into chunks into a large mixing bowl. Coat with olive oil. Add ranch dip. Mix until each pretzel is evenly coated. Place pieces in a single layer on cookie sheet. Bake in oven for 5 mins. Remove from over, stir and turn pretzels and return to bake for 4 mins. Longer. DO NOT OVER BAKE! Remove pretzels from oven and cool on a platter. Store in a zip loc bag until ready to serve.

Boneless Chicken Breasts
Barbecue Sauce
Swiss Cheese

Grill chicken breasts; baste with barbeque sauce. Prepare one slice of bacon for each chicken breast - cooked on the grill or in the microwave. When the chicken is almost ready, place a slice of Swiss cheese and one slice of bacon on each breast. Allow the cheese to melt. Serve warm. Leftover chicken tastes great as a sandwich.

Rib Eye or New York Strip Steak
Montreal Steak Seasoning
Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce

Put steaks in dish to marinate. Pour Worcestershire sauce over and turn them to saturate. Coat both sides of steak with seasoning, pressing it on to make it stick. Marinate at room temperature 2 – 3 hours. When ready to cook, take steaks out of marinade and scrape off most of the seasoning. Grill to desired doneness.

– Linda Gwatney
1 c. frozen margarita mix, thawed
1 tsp. ground coriander
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp. grated lime rind
1 lb. pork tenderloin, cut into cubes
3 ears fresh corn
1 tbsp. water
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
1 large red and green bell pepper, cut into 1-in. pieces

Combine first 4 ingredients in a zip top bag; add pork. Chill at least 30 mins., turning occasionally. Cut ears of corn into four pieces. Place corn and 1 tbsp. water in 8-in. square dish; cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high 4 mins., turning after 2 mins. Remove pork from marinade; discard marinade. Thread pork and vegetables on skewers. Grill 5 mins. on each side until done.

JONATHAN’S RIBS – Jonathan Smith
3 tbsp. kosher salt
2 tbsp. paprika
1 1/2 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. oregano
2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3 to 4 slabs pork ribs

In a small bowl combine salt, paprika, cumin, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, allspice, and cinnamon. Rub seasoning mix onto the ribs, pressing into the surface. Place ribs in jumbo re-sealable plastic bag. Close bag and marinate in refrigerator 2 hours. Place ribs in the center of the cooking grate. Grill 1- 1 1/2 hrs. or until tender.

1/2 c. chopped celery
3 tbsp. chopped onion
2 tbsp. butter
1 c. ketchup
1/4 c. lemon juice
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. vinegar
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. dry mustard
Dash pepper

In a skillet cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Cover and simmer 15 mins. Brush ribs with the sauce during the last 20 min. of grilling time. Cut into 2 or 3 rib portions. Serve with the remaining heated sauce, if desired.

GRILLED FISH – Sally Carver
Fish fillets or steaks
Salt & pepper to taste
2 fresh lemons

Select fresh or flash-frozen fish to be thawed in advance of cooking. Rinse fish and pat dry. Place fish is a large flat glass dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and then squeeze lemon juice on both sides. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or so before cooking. When ready to grill fish, fill separate small bowl with mayonnaise. Generously brush mayonnaise on both sides of fish – discard any mayonnaise left in bowl! Lay fish on grill and turn carefully after first side is cooked. Continue to cook until fish is just cooked through. Remove and serve.

(From the W.I.N.O.'s Cookbook: Women in Need of Sanity)
4 swordfish or salmon steaks, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-in. thick
1 1/3 c. light soy sauce
2/3 c. sherry
2 tsp. sugar
4 tsp. freshly-grated ginger root
2 cloves garlic, crushed

Place fish in one or two low, flat dishes that will hold them in one layer, without crowding. In a small saucepan, bring soy sauce, sherry, sugar, ginger root and garlic to a boil over medium heat. Strain marinade and pour over fish steaks. Cover lightly and refrigerate for a least 2 hrs. Heat gas or charcoal grill. Grill fish steaks 5-6 mins. per side. Baste with marinade several times while grilling. Serve immediately. Serves 6-8.

CASHEW SLAW – Dianne Finan
1 pkg. coleslaw mix (or broccoli slaw mix)
1 c. cashews
1 small can chow mein noodles
1/2 c. oil
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/3 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate until serving.

– Dave Paradise
2 – 4 sweet potatoes
Vegetable Oil
Parmesan cheese

Wash the potatoes in cold water. Slice the potatoes into thin circles and place them into a large bowl of salted water. Let the potatoes soak for about ten to fifteen minutes.
Heat up veggie oil in a deep fryer or deep pot. Maintain approximately 325 degrees for the oil. Drain the potatoes so that they are not sitting in water. Add the sweet potatoes, in small amounts, to the hot oil. Stir the potatoes while they fry. They should be golden brown and floating when done. You may want to test a few individual chips before doing full batches. Place fried potatoes on paper towels to remove excess oil. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over chips and serve.
Instead of using a mandolin to slice the potatoes use a potato peeler to make thin strips. You can arrange these on a plate like a nest OR substitute the Parmesan cheese with a little sugar and cinnamon.

– Debbie Smith
1/2 c. olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1 1/4 lbs asparagus

In a shallow glass bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, bay leaves and white pepper. Trim off tough ends of asparagus. Add asparagus to the marinade and turn to coat. Marinate at room temperature for 1-2 hrs., turning once. Prepare the grill for direct grilling over medium-high heat. Oil the grill rack or the vegetable-grilling basket.
Arrange the asparagus spears on the rack or in the basket over the heat elements. Cook, turning once, until tender crisp, 2-4 mins. per side. Put the asparagus on a warm platter, sprinkle with the pine nuts and lemon zest, and serve hot. Pass the lemon butter at the table.

Lemon butter:
1/2 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tbsp. grated lemon zest, plus 1 tsp. for garnish
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp. minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
Dash of Tabasco
1/3 c. pine nuts or slivered blanched almonds

In a small bowl, mix together the butter, lemon zest and juice, parsley, and Tabasco sauce until well blended. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Bring to room temperature before serving with asparagus.

S'MORE SQUARES – Dannie Brewer
24 Graham Cracker Squares
1- 20 oz. pkg. Low-Fat Brownie Mix
1/3 c. water
2 egg whites
3 c. miniature marshmallows
1/2 c. milk chocolate chips
1/2 tsp. shortening

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 13 x 9 x 1-in. baking pan. Line bottom of greased pan with graham crackers. In a large bowl, combine brownie mix, water and egg whites until moistened. Beat 50 strokes by hand. Spread batter evenly over graham crackers. Bake at 375 for 15-18 mins. Remove brownies from oven. Immediately sprinkle with marshmallows. Gently press into brownies. Bake an additional 2 mins., or until marshmallows are puffed. Meanwhile, in small saucepan, combine chocolate chips and shortening. Stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Spread over marshmallow layer. Cool completely. Using a knife dipped in hot water, cut into bars. Makes 48 bars.

This is one of Kristen’s favorites from her mother.
3/4 c. (18 cookies) vanilla wafer crumbs OR
graham cracker crumbs (12 squares) OR
prepared graham cracker pie shell
3 eggs, separated
1 tbsp. grated lemon peel
1/4 c. lemon juice
1/4 c. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 c. sugar
2 c. frozen whipped topping, thawed

In medium saucepan, combine egg yolks (reserve whites in small mixing bowl), lemon peel, lemon juice, 1/4 c. sugar and salt; mix thoroughly. Cook over medium heat until mixture just bubbles, stirring constantly. Cool. Beat egg whites until frothy. Add 1/4 c. sugar, beating until mixture forms stiff peaks. Fold in lemon mixture and whipped cream. Pour into pie shell. Top with remaining crumbs. Freeze at least 4 hrs. or until served.