October 14, 2010

Good Food, Old Friends and Memories

SEASON TO TASTE
(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
 October 2010

Left to Right - Rodney's Raspberry-Jalapeno Jelly and Homemade Horseradish and Charlie's Chasmo Pesto

For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a group of my high school classmates to plan our 40th high school reunion for the Carbondale Community High School Class of 1970.

Throughout the process, I’ve rekindled some friendships, made new friends, “friended” 79 classmates on Facebook, cooked dinner for weekly reunion committee meetings, and discovered the guys on the committee read this column!

Our committee started with a small group who began meeting about once a month at a local restaurant. It was convenient for both working and non-working members, but eventually, we had a dozen regular members and needed to be able to spread out and work on projects. Nancy invited everyone to her house for a meeting and our little group seemed to find its momentum.

Since I have a table big enough for twelve, we changed our base of operations to my dining room. I prepared dinner for us every week and the meetings became a lively exchange of ideas. Our hands-on projects were quickly accomplished.

My house. My kitchen. My table. My food! I was in my element and playing to my own personal joy – cooking for hungry people! The greatest pleasure for me was the camaraderie that developed as we talked, laughed and joked with each other over dinner.

Say what you will about simple homemade food, but the children of the 50’s and 60’s still have a place in their hearts for those meals like our mothers made. Give us wholesome ingredients enhanced with a little mid-century, post-war convenience food and we’re happy. Comfort food is a part of who we are. Even if we don’t cook much for ourselves anymore, we still enjoy the comfort of someone serving us a home cooked meal.

The simple act of sharing food at those meetings melted away the years and we were teenagers once again – eating together at our favorite hangouts. Lincoln Junior High School had open lunch back in the late 1960’s – crazy, but true! So long before we could drive, we were frequent diners at places like Moo and Cackle on the island, Spudnuts, Plaza Grill, Crazy Horse, and especially the closest place to the school, good ol’ Italian Village.

For the first dinner meeting at my house, I took the best from both worlds and served up a double dose of homemade comfort and the first taste of freedom we experienced in junior high school – Italian Beef sandwiches. Good idea! Big hit! There were even a few comments made that it was as good as Italian Village was in the “old days.” I’m not sure that’s true, but I accepted the praise anyway!

Every week we met, I tried to create a simple menu with something everyone would like, including a big salad, a vegetable and some sort of bread or roll. I got plenty of help with desserts and expenses. It was so much fun for me to cook for an appreciative crowd, and we all looked forward to the dinner part of our meeting.

It hasn’t been a full week yet since we last met, but I won’t be surprised if some of my friends begin to show up around 5:30 on Thursday, looking for dinner and some envelopes to stuff.

Now back to the guys who read my column. One night, Rodney showed up with a jar of Raspberry-Jalapeno Jelly and another with homemade Horseradish, both of which he prepared and canned himself! Another time, he baked a delicious Carrot Cake from scratch for our dessert. I loved it!

I didn’t know Rodney very well in high school, but we’ve become cooking buddies and I hope we continue to share recipes until we just can’t cook anymore. He gave me the Raspberry-Jalapeno Jelly recipe but, sadly, his Horseradish recipe is a closely held secret that he had promised he would never tell another living soul. That’s OK. I respect special family recipes. But if you’d like to try the horseradish potato recipe below, just use the best horseradish you can find, but not the creamy kind!

And apparently Charlie, whom I’ve known since junior high, knows his way around the kitchen too. He read my recent column about pesto and after some discussion, he declared his intention to make it with a big bunch of basil he had on hand. The following week he brought me a jar of his very first batch, complete with a label that read Chasmo Pesto. Even without a food processor and less basil than he thought he needed for the full recipe, I’m here to tell you that Chasmo knows pesto -- it was excellent!

It took our group a whole year to make our 40th reunion happen, but we wanted it to be special. We even had help from faraway classmates, thanks to computers and email. Charles created awesome designs for t-shirts, a 60’s-style poster and the directory cover. Stan jumped in to design and print a save-the-date mailing. Chanda scanned yearbook pictures for nametags.

Here in town, Nancy turned into a tenacious detective and found all but a few of the 300 people in our graduating class. Nikki worked closely with the Holiday Inn staff to have everything just perfect for the dinner-dance on Saturday. Mike helped us with the supplies and materials for mailings, etc. Janet copied CD’s for everyone with the directory information, Nancy’s incredible list of 60’s music and all the photos from the slide show.

Kathy and Gina saw to it that everyone was warmly greeted with nametags and a personalized bag full of reunion mementos. Karen and Karen managed to squeeze everyone into a packed room for the mixer on Friday night. Bonnie and Steve took us back to the 60’s with a slide show and nostalgic displays of high school memorabilia. Charlie spun the iPod dial and had everyone dancing. And Rodney and Rodney, or Rodney x 2, were the best MC’s any reunion ever had.

In real life, Charlie is the drummer for the Ivas John Band, so we all packed the house at Rustle Hill Winery on Sunday afternoon to hear them play. As a special bonus, two more of our musically talented classmates were able to sit in with the band for a set or two. Chuck and Larry played their guitars as the band played to a standing room only crowd all afternoon and took us out on a high note!

We had the best reunion ever! And what a pleasure and a privilege it has been to work with the entire committee and to make them dinner every week for the last two months. All of our efforts were rewarded x 10 with four days of non-stop fun and merriment. We relived our old memories with old friends and made new memories in the process.

None of us can wait for our next reunion! That won’t be until 2015, but I think it’s going to take something really special to top this one. Not to worry though, the whole committee has promised to meet at least once a month for dinner at my house just to make sure we get it right – so we’ve got five years to think of something!

I am a happy cook, and I am richer for my many friends and wonderful memories of our times together, both then and now. Happy trails to you, Class of ’70, until we meet again!


RODNEY’S RASPBERRY-JALAPENO JELLY
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
¼ cup chopped jalapeno pepper
3 cups white sugar
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 container liquid pectin

Sterilize jars and lids by immersing in boiling water for at least 5 minutes. In a saucepan, combine the raspberries, bell pepper, and jalapeno pepper with the sugar and cider vinegar. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and boil rapidly for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in liquid pectin, and run the mixture through a strainer to remove bits of peppers. Pour the strained liquid into sterilized jars and refrigerate after opening.
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CHEESY SCALLOPED POTATOES WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS AND HORSERADISH
3 ½ cups half-and-half
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
3-4 tbsp. prepared horseradish (more or less to taste)
1 tbsp. butter
3-4 lbs. Idaho potatoes peeled and very thinly sliced
1 cup caramelized sliced onions
2 cups Cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cups Swiss cheese, shredded
1/4 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the half-and-half, garlic, salt and pepper. Gradually stir in the horseradish, tasting for strength. Butter the bottom and sides of a 13 x 9-inch non-reactive baking dish. Layer the potatoes in rows to cover the bottom of the dish, overlapping them slightly. Pour the horseradish mixture over the potatoes. Place 1/3 of the caramelized onions over the potatoes. Sprinkle 1/3 of the Cheddar cheese and 1/3 of the Swiss cheese over the potatoes and onions. Repeat with another layer of potatoes, more horseradish mixture, caramelized onions, Cheddar cheese and Swiss cheese. Repeat with a third layer in the same order as the first two. Bake in the upper third of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until bubbling. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for about 15-20 minutes longer, or until the potatoes are tender and the top is lightly browned. Cover the dish with foil and let stand in a warm place for about 10 minutes before serving.
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CORA’S BEST-EVER ITALIAN BEEF
1 6-7 lb. rump roast (leave fat on for cooking)
Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
14 oz. beef stock
½ can beer
8 oz. jar chopped pepperoncini, with juice
½ pkg. Good Seasons Italian Salad Dressing Mix
2 tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. Italian herb blend
Italian Sub Rolls

Place rump roast in slow cooker, fat side up. Sprinkle with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. Pour beef stock, beer and pepperonicini with juice around the roast. Stir in salad dressing mix, minced garlic and Italian herb blend. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Turn slow cooker down to low and cook for 8 hours. At the end of cooking time, turn off slow cooker and allow meat to cool. Remove meat from slow cooker and discard any pieces of fat. Slice meat across the grain into 1 to 2-inch thick slices. Meat should then shred apart with fingers. Strain the meat juices to remove the pepperoncinis and return juices to slow cooker. After all meat is shredded, add it back into stock in the slow cooker and set on low to heat. Serve on lightly toasted Italian sub rolls (I like warmed Cobblestone Mills White Sub Rolls for the slightly crispy crust) with additional meat juices and more pepperoncini on the side. Makes 10 to 12 sandwiches.
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RODNEY’S BLACK-EYED PEA GUMBO
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
5 stalks celery, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup brown rice, uncooked
4 (15 oz.) cans black-eyed peas with liquid
1 (10 oz.) can diced tomatoes and green chiles
1 (14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pkg. skinless smoked turkey sausage, sliced - optional
dry red pepper flakes – optional for extra spiciness
2 finely diced fresh jalapeno peppers - optional

Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Cook onion, bell pepper and celery until tender. Pour in chicken stock and mix in rice, black-eyed peas with liquid, diced tomatoes and green chiles, diced tomatoes, garlic and sausage slices, if desired. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes, or until rice is tender. Add water if soup is too thick. Serve with diced jalapeno peppers on the side, if desired.
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NANCY’S APPLE CAKE
2 eggs, well beaten
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3 cups peeled and diced apples
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl, cream together the eggs, sugar, vegetable oil and vanilla; set aside. In another bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Stir diced apples and chopped pecans into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Mix contents of both bowls together. Bake in greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish or jellyroll pan for approximately 30 minutes. May take several minutes longer in the jellyroll pan and the texture will be like brownies.
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October 5, 2010

Apple Cake - An Easy A+ for Autumn Baking


The temperatures have taken a dip around here and Autumn is in the air -- a very welcome change of pace from the stifling heat of this summer. Tonight there is even talk of a light frost, which seems a little early for us, but we'll take it. And add some rain to our order please!

Our pond, which we really and truly want to call a lake, is shrinking before our eyes. Definitely a pond now! Not quite down to puddle size yet, but alarmingly low. I don't doubt that the fish are beginning to panic a bit too, as they swim in smaller and deeper circles to find food.

Up here on dry land though, we are thinking about apples. The trees in the orchards of Southern Illinois are loaded with them this year! I have never seen the branches so heavy with fruit as they were when I saw them just as harvesting was beginning.

With our reunions behind us and the next wave of house guests not due until next week, we spent a little time yesterday with friends out at their country cabin. The distinction between country, as in sparsely populated, and "out in the" country, is one appreciated by natives to this area. Out-of-towners would think of this whole area at the bottom of a flyover state as country, and that's OK with us!

But I digress!

We road all around the fields and woods in the golf-carts-on-steroids that so many people with some acreage seem to have. Very handy if you have a few hundred acres and need to survey the land occasionally. Or find the best spots for foraging. Another sure sign that summer is behind us -- gathering nuts and berries for winter.  We scored a big bucket of hickory nuts, so I'll be foraging for recipes next.

In the meantime, my friend Nancy made this delicious and very easy apple cake for the last dinner meeting for our reunion committee. We all hoovered it up and licked the crumbs off the plates, so I thought it would be perfect to bake and share with our friends yesterday. The cool, clear, windy day in the country was just perfect for apple something.

The cake, exactly as Nancy made it, was wonderful, but I added a bit more vanilla and cinnamon -- just because I could, I guess. Bake it in a 13 x 9-in. pan and cut it into generous squares. The texture is kind of like a thick, chewy brownie -- dense and moist and studded with chunks of pecans and apples. Serve it with ice cream or whipped cream. Next time I'm going try it with a dollop of my favorite thick and creamy Greek Gods Honey Yogurt!  

How nice to find a dessert that is simple to make and so perfectly seasonal for this time of year.

I give it an A+ for apple-y autumn-y goodness.

Bonus points for anyone who can identify the variety of apples in the picture! 


APPLE CAKE
(Inspired by a recipe from my friend Nancy)

2 eggs, well beaten
2 cups sugar
1½ cups vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3 cups peeled and diced apples
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, cream together the eggs, sugar, vegetable oil and vanilla; set aside. In another bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Stir diced apples and chopped pecans into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Mix contents of both bowls together. Bake in greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish or jellyroll pan for approximately 45 minutes. May take several minutes longer in the jellyroll pan and the texture will be like brownies.
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