Thursday, April 28, 2011

Knit Twelve - A Lesson To Carry With You and A Recipe

A work in progress.

My first knitting project that is not a square or a rectangle!

I mastered new tools beyond my favorite fat needles, like ... circular needles ... double pointed needles ... and stitch markers.

There were all manner of new lessons learned like ... increases ... decreases.

Here it is! At l-o-n-g last!

And new techniques with amazing results like ... yarnover ... yarn forward ... and yarn back.

I learned the difference between ... knitwise and purlwise ... right side and wrong side.

And I was challenged to remember the meaning of abbreviations like ... K2 tog ... SSK ... and KFB.

The felting process.

And, perhaps the best lesson learned ... washing wool is a useful knitting process ... it makes wool yarn dense and strong ... and it mats a multitude of sins ... into one really sturdy, beautiful tote bag.

A drum roll please!

Love, love, love it!

BTW ... the three stripes are my own element ... the pattern only had one.

I may be a novice knitter ... but I am a creative crafter from way back ... always needing to give my work my own personal touch.

Thanks to Susan and Greg for providing our area The Yarn Shoppe ... a place to learn ... and buy lovely yarn ... and spend time ... with a very nice group of knitters ... who are always happy to help beginners.

And now ... the recipe.

I made this casserole for Easter dinner and got several compliments, which came as somewhat of a surprise.

I mean, we like it, but it's nothing fancy. Easy, colorful, sweet and simple -- but not sophisticated or worldly. A great recipe to pull out at the last minute, or to fill out a menu.

But I love it. And other people like it.

A handy little recipe with a great reputation.

I like LOVE that in a recipe! And I like love compliments too.

2 16-oz. cans diced tomatoes with liquid
1 cup chopped onions
2 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 - 3 slices good bread, toasted and cubed (white or whole wheat)

Melt butter is a skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Stir in tomatoes and sugars and continue cooking for about 10 minutes. Stir in the toasted bread cubes. Pour into a shallow casserole dish and bake at 300 degrees for 50 - 60 minutes.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Batter Roll Redux - or - A Bit of Butter in the Batter Makes the Batter Better!

Mmmmm ...
This morning I got a comment from Bre in KY about the roll recipe I posted the other day. Bre wrote in to say she liked the rolls and thought I would like to know about a couple of adjustments she'd made when she baked them.

Of course, I did! In fact, I welcome any information you want to share about a recipe - when it works, and when it doesn't. 

As it happened, I made the rolls for our Easter dinner too, incorporating my own little changes. It turned out Bre and I both lowered the baking temperature to 400 degrees, down from 500. We both increased the salt amount slightly. Bre also added some butter to the batter, which was the one additional note I made to myself after tasting my second batch.

Now, I'm happy to report I feel like I've made the best, most delicious dinner rolls I've ever tasted - right here in my own kitchen! That bit of butter in the batter made the batter better! This batch was light, yeasty, buttery and just sweet enough, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

For testing purposes, I cut the recipe in half this time. Well, that and I only had one egg left after cooking for a couple of day's worth of non-stop cooking. And there was simply no way I was risking life and limb in our never-ending rain, lightning, thunder, gale force winds, floods and tornado warning for one stinkin' egg!

Turns out a half recipe is the perfect size for 10 people to have two rolls apiece. That's good! Really good! I can't be trusted home alone with a full batch of these babies!

If you like rolls and you like baking - but even if you like rolls but don't like baking - I hope you will give this recipe a try when you want a fast and easy dinner roll that borders on roll perfection.

After all, I've sacrificed a lot to do all this research and tasting just for you.

Sticky, gooey batter really works!
scant 1 tbsp. yeast (I use SAF instant yeast)
1 whole egg
¼ cup light olive oil
¼ cup melted salted butter
1 cup warm water
¼ cup white sugar
¾ tsp. salt
2 ½  - 3 cups all-purpose flour

Roll batter may be made with a stand or hand mixer, or stirred by hand. Place all ingredients, except flour, in a large mixing bowl and blend. Add flour and mix to form a thick, sticky batter. Cover the bowl with a towel and let stand at room temperature for one hour. Grease baking pan with shortening and/or butter. (I use both, to keep the butter from burning.) Pinch off small pieces of the dough and tuck under all around to smooth tops. Place dough in greased baking pan, leaving space between for rolls to expand. Brush tops of rolls with melted butter. Cover pan with a towel and let stand another hour. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until golden brown on top. Serve warm, or bake ahead of time and reheat to serve. Makes about 18 rolls, depending on size.

For individual rolls, use a scoop to put batter into a greased muffin tin, fill about ¾ full. Brush tops with butter and bake at 400 degrees until golden brown.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Good Week Ends With A Delicious Brunch Dish

It was a very good week -- if you don't count the crazy weather -- and, as usual, delicious food played its part.

#1  -  My BFL*, Robin, called to say she and Dan were coming to town this weekend to visit her parents and me! Robin's parents invited us to join them for dinner at Chili's on Saturday night. I had Classic Nachos and brought some home to make ... keep reading! 

#2  -  My workout buddy, DR, and I finally managed a 3-workout week. It's been a while since our schedules, travels and other factors allowed us to fit in all three workout days in a week -- and it was beginning to show on me! A good reason for eating healthy at Friday night's dinner with Phyllis and Kenny -- I had pan seared grouper with a saute of potatoes, mushrooms and green beans at Walt's in Marion.

#3  -  My latest and greatest knitting project is nearing completion and I can't wait to see the finished product! Another good thing -- it is difficult to eat while knitting, but we did have a nice bottle of MacMurray Pinot Noir during our knitting class last week. Oh, yeah! I love knitting!

#4  -  My Favorite Son, Grant, texted me pictures of dinner he made Tuesday night. He googled the ingredients he wanted to use, found a recipe that looked good and then prepared it. Double validation in that one! Me, as a mother raising a son who cooks with confidence and creativity, and he, as a guy who likes to make dinner for his wife! He made chicken breasts with garlic, paprika, brown sugar and red wine. I love getting food texts! 

#5  -  My busiest social week for the month -- Tuesday night knitting class, 2nd Wednesday meeting day and lunch with a group I recently joined, and 2nd Thursday dinner with my birthday/dinner group. Dinner was at a new local Italian restaurant and it was very good -- I had build-your-own-spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, spinach, artichoke hearts and Parmesan.

#6  -  My friend, Ree aka Pioneer Woman, announced she has her own Food Network show debuting in August! I am so excited for her -- and for everyone who will get to see her up close and personal.

#7  -  And in honor of Ree's exciting news, I made a yummy brunch dish today, taking her Migas recipe as my inspiration and turning it into a streamlined Migas Frittata, made completely from leftovers! It was delicious! See below.

An old friend, some new friends, time well spent learning new skills, a job well done, and new recipe -- it doesn't take much and less really is more.

Let the little things make your day and the weeks will take care of themselves.

This frittata is good while it's hot, better when allowed to cool just a bit, but best when served at room temperature after the flavors have had a little chance to mingle.

"Mingle, mingle."
             ~ Ann Marie

Please tell me you remember that girl! :D

2 tbsp. salted butter
1/2 cup leftover whole kernel corn
2 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup leftover cooked and crumbled
ground beef
6 eggs
2 tbsp. half-and-half
salt & pepper
1/2 tsp. finely diced jalapenos
leftover nachos from Chili's diced in 1" pieces
(corn tortillas with melted cheese,
beans, queso and a little
seasoned ground beef)
Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
Cholula Hot Sauce

Turn on oven broiler. Melt butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add corn, onions and ground beef crumbles and cook for 3-4 minutes to heat through. Break eggs in a medium bowl, add half-and-half and salt & pepper. Beat eggs until blended and add diced jalapenos and leftover nachos. Pour egg mixture over corn, onion, ground beef mixture; stir and lift egg mixture from bottom of pan until eggs begin to cook and start to set. Sprinkle cheeses over top of egg mixture and place under broiler in oven. Broil until eggs are set and cheeses on top are melted. Remove from oven, cool slightly and cut into wedges. Serve with salsa, hot sauce, sour cream and guacamole or sliced avocados.

*BFL - Best Friend for Life

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quick and Easy Batter Dinner Rolls - So Close to Perfect, I Can Taste It!

I have no idea what led me to make these rolls the other day. Absolutely none. But they were soooo good!

Really good yeast rolls are something I truly love, which is why they fall into a very special category in my cookbook - Don't Even Get Me Started Eating Just One.

The flavor ... and texture ... and warmth ... and butter ... make me want more and more of their comforting goodness.

Whatever the reason, I was most encouraged by how well this batch turned out ... and with simple pantry ingredients that did not require a trip to the market. Spontaneous satisfaction ... instant gratification.

This recipe has been in my file for years, though I don't think I've ever used it. There are no notes as to the origin, but a cyber-search located hundreds of essentially the same recipe. I suspect it is one that has been around since time the first grandmother stepped into the cave kitchen to make dinner.

A true testimony to it's goodness is the minimal number of variations in the recipe from cook to cook. A little more sugar. A little less sugar. Shortening, margarine or butter in place of the oil. Otherwise, it is the same list of ingredients and similar amounts.

The batter is sometimes referred to as a dough. Often the instructions say to use a hand or stand mixer, rather than stirring with a spoon ... hence the term "batter."

Whatever it was that made me jump up and make these rolls is now leading me to experiment a little with the measurements and technique. Especially since it is so similar to a recipe I've used many times to make rolls. That one came from the cooks at a college where I used to work. They were simply the best ... at least I thought they were, until I discovered the lightness of these batter rolls.

Now I want to merge the rich, buttery flavor of the college yeast rolls with the light, airy texture of the batter rolls ... and make my own perfect recipe. And I definitely want to adjust the oven temperature and baking time. The batter rolls were just a little bit beyond brown when baked according to the recipe.

Help! Any suggestions you might have to shortcut the number of rolls I'll need to eat in my search for the perfect recipe ... all in the interest of science, of course ... are greatly appreciated!

Quick and easy is not necessarily a good thing, no matter how delicious!

2 pkg. yeast
2 whole eggs
½ cup oil
2 cups lukewarm water
½ cup white sugar
1 tsp. salt
5 cups all-purpose flour (+/-)

Roll batter may be made in a stand or hand mixer, or mixed by hand. Place all ingredients except flour in a large mixing bowl and blend. Add flour, 1 or 2 cups at a time, and mix to form a thick, sticky batter. Cover the bowl with a towel and let stand at room temperature for one hour. Pour dough onto floured surface; shape into rolls and place in a baking pan, leaving space between for rolls to expand. Cover roll pan with a towel and let the rolls stand another hour. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Brush rolls with melted butter and bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown on top. Serve warm.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Homemaker’s Guide to Planting a Quick Herb or Kitchen Garden

(My food column for Heartland Women
a free, monthly newspaper published for 
women in Southern Illinois)

March 2011

My first adventure in gardening was a small plot of dirt in the backyard of our first on-base Air Force housing. One day, as we enjoyed our first spring in North Carolina, I decided to grow tomatoes. Without a clue about what we were doing, My Favorite Husband and I dug some holes in the grass behind our little privacy fence and plopped a dozen tomato plants into the ground.

No kidding! Just like that! Twelve tomato plants!

Our neighbors, who spent the entire weekend shoveling, hoeing, raking, spreading compost and adding fertilizer to their meticulously designed gardens, seemed incredulous. I was crazy, they said, if I thought those tomatoes would grow! That was no way to plant a garden.

Nevertheless, by mid-July, I was the one filling big brown paper grocery bags with red ripe tomatoes almost daily and handing them out to anyone who would take them, including the neighbors. The bountiful harvest continued until Thanksgiving. I was a grateful gardener!

Our next gardening project was a little more involved. This time we were transferred to California and had purchased a one-year-old house in a neighborhood straight out of the movie ET. There we were, in our 2-story stucco with the garage on the front, sitting on the coveted corner lot. We were ready to enjoy the California lifestyle!

An 8 ft. tall wooden fence enclosed our backyard, so even though we were on that corner lot, we had some privacy. From the family room, we stepped out onto a salt-finished cement patio with a walkway around the heated pool and spa. Raised beds were built between the fence and the walkway around the pool, and a stand of bamboo created a little extra privacy along the fence we shared with our only next-door neighbors. The previous owners had planted the raised beds. Inside the fence along the street side of the house was an E-shaped raised bed for a vegetable garden, complete with built-in sprinklers. Around the pool area, the beds were filled with beautiful native flowering plants, a lemon tree here, a lime tree there, an orange tree in the corner and a strawberry patch at the perfect height for sitting to pick the berries. We had a vegetable patch and our own backyard orchard -- we were California fruit growers!

The front yard was another matter entirely, and maybe even the cause of the previous owners’ divorce. It was a dense jungle of 6 ft. tall weeds. A whole new plant classification was needed for these weeds. Weeds with trunks! Weed trees! The situation demanded our immediate attention. Thank goodness this was pre-Internet, or I’m sure the neighbors would have already googled Agent Orange and staged their own attack on our weed jungle.

Ah, but we were young and strong Midwesterners in this strange land. Homeowner chores, like installing sprinklers and planting grass, were made for thrifty weekend do-it-yourselfers like us, so we dug right in!

Day One – My Favorite Husband scraped the surface of the hard sun-baked dirt with the blade edge of a shovel and cut the weeds off at ground level. Day Two – He used a rented machine to dig trenches and laid out PVC pipe and sprinkler heads, all of which he connected to the timer system previously installed in the backyard. Day Three – He scattered grass seed over the entire 350 square feet of our front yard, set the timer, turned on the new sprinklers and his job was done! Two weeks later, we had a beautiful thick carpet of grass and nary a weed to be found. Every week, 52 weeks a year, it took us a total of 11 minutes to cut the grass in the front yard, including edging along the street, sidewalk and front walkway. No wonder people love California so much – they have oodles of free time to jam up the freeways and enjoy the weather!

When we awoke from our California dream life, we found ourselves back in North Carolina for our last Air Force assignment. We purchased another house on a nice corner lot with plenty of pines and deciduous trees of our own, and behind us was a 3-acre undeveloped and heavily wooded lot. There were so many trees, in fact, that it took a few hurricanes to clear out a spot with enough sunlight for a small garden. It was the only upside to hurricanes, to my way of thinking! In the years that we waited for Mother Nature to bring the sun to come to the back yard, I had read a book about “lasagna gardening” and was convinced it would be perfect for a fast and easy vegetable and herb garden. And why not? After all, gardening was a snap for us!

So, not long after I decided we definitely needed a garden, I asked Grant to drive me, in his truck, to the garden center. I explained to him we were going to plant a lasagna garden. He likes gardening, but he looked puzzled until I explained the lasagna gardening method. The term is one used when a garden plot is prepared by setting down a natural barrier right on top of any existing grass and weeds, followed by layers of peat moss, compost and natural fertilizer. With a biodegradable barrier for weed control, nutrients for the plants, and no need for tedious roto-tilling and soil preparation, it was the perfect method for gardeners like me – who love a garden, but not so much the gardening part of the process.

Back at the sunny sight of our new lasagna garden, we took a lesson from our California gardens and created a slightly raised bed using landscape timbers – grass outside, garden inside! To access the garden for watering and harvesting, we borrowed the E-shape  from our California garden as well.

The first layer in our lasagna garden was to be either flattened cardboard or several layers of newspaper spread right on top of the grass and then sprayed down with the hose to fix them in place. After that, we added bags of peat moss, compost and fertilizer to a thickness of about 4 inches. We chose some herbs and vegetables purchased from the garden center to plant. Summer rain is never a problem in eastern North Carolina, so we saved money on the underground sprinkler system. Our lasagna kitchen garden soon bore maximum fruit for our minimal labor. And that’s a good thing!

When we bought our present home and moved back to Illinois, there were so many amazing features, inside and out, to appeal to a cook that I was almost overwhelmed. This time around, we had tiered, raised beds that bordered one side of the pool. These garden beds have proven to be the perfect place for my kitchen garden, but the critters that share our space are quick to eat the few fruits and vegetables we have attempted to grow. What we need now is a fenced-in garden compound, off somewhere in a corner of the yard that gets sunlight, has access to water and can be fenced to ward off four-footed garden poachers!

All things considered, lasagna gardening makes the perfect solution for small-time gardeners - or reluctant gardeners – like me! The principles can be applied to a vegetable patch, raised beds, or even container gardens. Find more online at or purchase the book, by Patricia Lanza - Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!

Listed below are the key things to keep in mind when planning and planting your own garden. It’s not too late to get one started for this year, especially if you use the fast and easy lasagna gardening method. Whether you want a pot of herbs growing out on your deck or a vegetable patch on the south 40 acres, I think you’ll find a garden is an easy and useful project for anyone interested in the source and quality of their food, self-sufficiency and good nutrition. Remember, too, kids are more willing to try foods they have grown themselves.

I have included some recipes here that I’ll be making with herbs and vegetables from my own garden this year. But rest assured, if the critters get to the good stuff before I do again this year, I’ll be foraging at the Farmers’ Market and local farm stands for my favorite seasonal fruits and vegetables. Isn’t it great to have so many locally grown options!

Making Your Garden Grow

How: Start small, choose a location convenient to your house with good or amendable soil, use available resources from garden centers, garden mentors, garden websites, or gardening and plant manuals. Growing herbs and vegetables in containers is the perfect gardening solution for those who may have health or physical limitations, limited space available or limited time.

What: Grow what you like to eat or whatever you would like to try. Research the plants to find the varieties best suited for our area. Grow a little extra to share with friends and neighbors who will welcome your abundance.

When: Now is the perfect time to plan your garden! Many vegetables can be set out now and will tolerate cooler temperatures. Some vegetables are also suitable for what is known as a “second season” and can be planted again in the late summer for harvesting in the fall.

Where: Make it easy on yourself and plant the garden close enough to house to visit every day to check for pests, remove dead leaves, water and, best of all, harvest. All of this should take just a few minutes each day. Families can take turns or assign specific tasks.

Why: Fresh food is better. Pesticides and fertilizers are your choice. Know the source of the food you eat. Know how your food was grown. Your kids will learn where food comes from. Homegrown is economical.

My garden is relatively small these days, but the satisfaction is great. My fresh herbs are very easy to grow in a garden or a pot, and are so handy to have on hand. Small plants are available in the early spring and usually cost less that one package of fresh herbs from the supermarket. Most herbs will thrive all summer long with sun and water and many will last until the first heavy frost. And I am always pleasantly surprised to find a few of them will winter over every year! To preserve a bumper crop of fresh herbs, they should be washed and dried before drying or freezing. All winter long, you'll have the perfect seasonings for sauces, stews and salad dressings.

If you are eager to try a small garden this year, think salads. Lettuces and spinach are easy and economical to grow from seeds and they also work quite well in either pots or gardens. Lettuces are a cool season crop, so plant them right now and you will have fresh salad greens until the weather gets really warm. A second crop of lettuces can be planted toward the end of summer and will produce until heavy frost.

1 large bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley (or a mix of fresh parsley and cilantro)
2 - 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
4 tbsp. sherry or red wine vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ - 1 tsp. red pepper flakes, optional or to taste
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Rough chop the parsley, cilantro and garlic and place in a small bowl. Add vinegar, salt, black pepper, oregano and red pepper flakes to the bowl. Slowly drizzle olive oil into bowl with one hand while stirring constantly with the other until the mixture is blended and is liquid, rather than like a paste. Allow chimichurri to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours before using. Serve with grilled meats, poultry or seafood. Options: Use as a marinade before grilling. Add to simple vinaigrette to create a delicious dressing for salads or grilled vegetables.

Spring Salad of Baby Lettuces with Baked Goat Cheese and Strawberry Vinaigrette
4 oz. pecans, toasted and chopped
8 oz. log of goat cheese, sliced into 4 round discs
1 lb. fresh baby lettuce mix and/or baby spinach, washed and dried
Strawberry Vinaigrette – see recipe below

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place toasted and chopped pecans on a small plate and press pecans into the goat cheese rounds on all sides. Place the cheese rounds on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for a couple of minutes while you prepare the salad plates. Place baby lettuces in a mixing bowl and drizzle with a small amount of Strawberry Vinaigrette; toss lightly to mix. Place lettuces on four salad plates and top with baked goat cheese rounds. Drizzle a small amount of the dressing over the goat cheese an around the edge of the plate. Serve salad immediately.

Strawberry Vinaigrette
2-4 tbsp. sugar
¼ cup raspberry vinegar
½ cup light olive oil
2 cups fresh (or frozen) strawberries*

Stir together sugar and vinegar until the sugar is dissolved. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the mixture while stirring with a wire whisk; mix until well blended. Add the strawberry puree and whisk until blended. Leftovers may be refrigerated for a day or two. *May substitute raspberries or blueberries, fresh or frozen.

Pasta with Chicken, Asparagus and Fresh Herbs
12 oz. pasta – spaghetti, bow ties or penne
olive oil
juice of two lemons
1 bunch fresh asparagus, cut into 2-in. pieces
2 boneless chicken breasts, sliced into bite-size pieces
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped fresh herbs – any combination of thyme, chives, dill, basil, flat leaf parsley, oregano, etc.

Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions; drain and return to pot. Mix olive oil with lemon juice and stir into pasta; cover pot to keep warm. In a large skillet, heat some olive oil and butter together and sauté asparagus until bright green and tender; remove from skillet and to pasta. Season sliced chicken with salt and pepper; add to same skillet, with a little more olive oil and butter, if necessary. Sauté until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from skillet and add to pot with pasta. Add Parmesan cheese, salt, freshly ground black pepper and herbs to pasta, asparagus and chicken; toss to blend. Serve in pasta bowls, along with extra Parmesan cheese.
Serves 2 – 4.