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The green mile.

As I’ve started cooking everything from scratch, I’ve ended up with a lot more vegetable scraps.  Rather than condemning my onion skins to a soupy, worthless methane death sealed inside a kitchen trash bag, I’ve decided to give the worms, fungi and rolly-pollys a feast.

Well, this is it people. This is a compost pile.  A system, a plan, a design, an effort, a book-studied project it is not.

It is a pile.

Here is my free recipe for my free compost pile.

Take kitchen scraps outside and dump on the ground.  Rake up some leaves and dump on top.

Every now and then, stir it up with a shovel.

You might ask, “Is walking out to the compost pile to dump your kitchen scraps kind of a pain?”

No.  It isn’t.

Often, my kitchen looks like this:

and so, you see, I think it is rather nice to “step outside” for a moment and take a nice, quiet walk to the compost pile.

Sometimes, I even suggest to one of the children that he would like to take the scraps out.  The child skips to the pile to see if the turtles have come to look for goodies and I am left with a quiet kitchen.  The quiet is shattered, of course, when he comes in excitedly screaming about the “BIG BOXER TURTLE ON THE COMPOST PILE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” but I still had that 30 seconds to take a deep breath.

For the good of worms and bugs, for the health of the soil, for the fun of discovery for the children, for the peace of the mothers, I suggest:  A compost pile.

Whole roast chicken, taters, gravy, chicken stock. And Next Day Chicken soup.

I left home not knowing how to roast a whole chicken.  Nor how to make mashed potatoes.  Or gravy.

Let’s chalk that idiocy up to me not asking.   But I did humble myself in my 20s and 30s, finally consulting the Fanny Farmer cookbook my mom wisely gave me, “Cooks Illustrated,” the publication of the 1,000 step recipes of American’s Test Kitchen, numerous unreliable internet recipes for roasting poultry at high heat for the express purpose of testing out the home smoke alarm, Kathleen Flinn of “Kitchen Counter Cooking School,” and Mark Bittman of “How to Cook Everything“.

At some point along the way, from someone, I learned this most important piece of wisdom. This is given to you in paraphrase, as I did not commit the sentence  to memory:

After you roast about 30 or 40 chickens, you’ll be able to tell when the bird is done by looking at it and poking it a bit. 

And that’s it.  Just start roasting chickens and keep doing it until you get it the way you like it.  Honest to Pete, I don’t think there is any other way to learn to roast a chicken proficiently.  No Walmart temp tester is going to save you from Salmonella without giving you dried out cardboard chicken.  No recipe, no oven, no timer can give you the exact time and heat you need to roast that chicken.

I am currently enjoying Mark Bittman’s suggestions for roasting a chicken, in high heat, in a pre-heated iron skillet.

  I present to you now, the general process for making roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, chicken stock and on the following day, chicken soup.  In pictures.


So, here it is:  Send child out to snip herbs.  Herbs currently available at our house are sage, rosemary and thyme.  Dress the bird and lovingly place in hot oven.  Take bird out when you think it is done.  Put it back in if it isn’t.  Meanwhile, peel potatoes and boil.  Take out chicken for the second time and transfer to plate.  Cover and let rest.  Observe that the temperature in the kitchen is now 85.  Ask son to make gravy for the first time.  Receive dire warning information from son that his carpool ride has vaporized and he now needs an emergency trip across town in less than 20 minutes.  Give him too much flour (we should have stuck with 1/4 c.), make a roux of the lovely chicken drippings, pour in hot milk.  Stir.  Drain taters.  Mash with milk and sour cream, season with salt and pepper.   Serve the potatoes in a bowl and put the pot in the sink to soak.  Why?  Because that’s what Grandma Helen did.  Take another phone call explaining to the other parent the new carpooling emergency.  Interrupt that call to receive call that carpool ride is back on track.  Serve dinner to hungry children.  Listen to children offer thanks.  Beg them to save some for Dad who will be home late.  Send lad out the door to catch his ride.  Send the troops in to wash the dishes.  Send some troops back out again because that is too many kids in the kitchen.  Tell the five year old I am going to make chicken stock and I will have to have the bones.  Look at him and see him nearly start to cry over losing his chicken bones.  Promise to him that I will save the bones for him.  Place chicken carcass in the cleaned tater pot, fill with water, simmer for 2 or 3 hours.  Don’t add carrots, celery and onion, I want to,  but I can’t spare the veggies for stock making this week.  Know that it will taste wonderful anyway.  Strain the broth through a tea towel and strainer.  Pour the golden broth into wide-mouth glass jars.  Save bones for the boy who wants to be an archeologist.  Sleep.  Next day make homemade noodles and use the fabulous chicken stock to make great chicken soup, even if there isn’t any actual chicken in the soup.

The End.  The End of That Chicken.

Let’s chat about marinara.

Let’s chat about saucicus marinaricus.
My folks know it by its common table name, spaghetti sauce.
Others affectionately call it red gravy.

Whatever we call it, I think we should ask why we are buying this basic recipe starter premade and hauled across the country in heavy glass jars.
I started asking myself that question after often enjoying my friend’s homemade sauce.
Once upon a time, I took it upon myself and our budget to buy the “premium label sauce” made with olive oil. When couponing failures and budget demands picked for me a cheaper sauce, I turned to ‘ole stand-by: Kroger Traditional Spaghetti Sauce. It has all the tomato, soy oil and cornsyrup a gal could ever want poured on her $1.00 a bag rotini.

But I had tasted another way, and I was determined to follow it.

For our family, I’ve been making a batch that yields a little more than 3 1/2 quarts.  I use it right away for pasta sauce and save some to use for pizza sauce on our every-Friday-pizza-night.  The rest can be happily frozen and used next week.

The original inspiration came from Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe.  The following is my spicier and smoother textured version.

Chop 3 carrots, 3 stalks celery, a couple of onions and 3-4 cloves of garlic.  I aim for roughly 2 cups each of the carrots, celery and onion, but I am not going to take the time to measure if I went over by 1/4 c. of carrots.

Saute veggies in 1/2 c. olive oil until tender; you can put on the pot lid, leaving it just a bit askew and the vegetables will steam up.  I love how this method of cooking brings out the sweetness of the carrot and onion.

Now pour in three big 28oz. cans of crushed tomatoes.  Over the past months I’ve experimented with 3 different brands:  Walmart Crushed Tomatoes (too watery),  premium Cento tomatoes from Italy (the taste didn’t justify the expense and the sauce was so thick it would explode tomato bubble bombs all over the stove–adding a cup or more of water helped hold down the explosions) and Kroger Crushed Tomatoes (great consistency.)

If you have them, toss in a few bay leaves.  Also add salt (about a tsp of coarse salt works for us) and 1/4 tsp of crushed red pepper.   Tonight, though, I am out of red pepper, so I squeezed in some Harissa paste, a gift from my friends sojourning in North Africa.

Simmer.  How long?

I don’t know.  Honestly, I just let it go until the whole house smells like marinara or people start crying for supper.

Last step:  puree with my handy-dandy stick blender, which I think is the best electric kitchen appliance I own.

This sauce is great on pasta.  It’s great for pizza.

The cost:

At the most expensive price, I pay $1.39/can for Kroger tomatoes.  That adds up to $4.17.  I use 1/2 c. olive oil (.76), let’s guess about 12 oz of carrots (.56), 4 oz celery (.44), onion (.99) and garlic (.25).  Spices? Let’s not dicker over pennies here.  At the MOST expensive, I think my sauce costs about $2.04 for a quart jar.

That is, in fact, more expensive than paying $1 for Kroger sauce on Super Sale. Of course, there’s also my time and the gas for the stove.

But now that we’ve tasted and enjoyed our own sauce, now that I can make our own sauce without soybean oil, corn syrup and “natural flavorings,” I’m quite happy to pay a bit more and spend a bit more time at the stove.

I would love to hear your thoughts on homemade sauce.  Would you try it?  What’s your recipe?

Butternut Squash: No, I won’t make you eat it because I’m happy to have it all for myself.

Do you know what grows well in Kansas?
acorn, butternut, yellow, spaghetti……..
Oh squash, how I love you, but there is something here, in the ground, in the air of Arkansas that does not love you. How can I grow you on this north-facing, rocky, forested, sled-sliding hill I call a yard?
Can we ever find a way to get together on reasonable financial terms?
Are there people out there trying to get rid of you?
Please, please, come to me…
I will eat you. With butter.

The basics.

I have not written to you all in a while. We have mourned, are mourning, the loss of my infant niece in August.

In this sadness, love has comforted us in meeting our most basic needs–companionship and food.

On the first day when the news was still raw and fearful, I found myself going to the grocery store.  I starting sobbing at the checkout counter and got a hug from a cashier I’ve now come to know as a friend. In a day cut off from physical contact with any other dear friends, her hug helped me so much.

When we drug ourselves back to Little Rock from the long funeral journey, waiting at home for us in the fridge was a meal from friends. Sometimes love is a quiche. And love is most certainly a quiche with homemade butter crust.

There isn’t any magic potion to cure the hurt.

But if people are going to live, to heal, to thrive, they need love and they need food.  What a comfort when love and food are gently combined in a medium sized mixing bowl.

Mapleine. She deserves her very own song.

There are three ways to avoid dependence on high-fructose-corn-syrup-pancake syrup.

1) Enjoy expensive, tapped from the tree maple syrup, naturally fortified with iron and other vitamins.

2) Top pancakes with applesauce and peanut butter instead.

3) Put on your apron and pearls and take a two-step back in time to….

A few times I remember my mother making Mapleine pancake syrup.  She’d say, “We’re out of syrup, so I’ll just make some.”  I thought she was just amazing, stirring up syrup out of nothing.   I think I can also picture a bottle very much like this one up in my Grandmother Helen’s spice cabinet, right next to the milk glass, red metal lid spice jars.  Perhaps it’s the nostalgia that’s flavoring my Mapleine, but nonetheless, I wanted to share the wonder of it with you.

Mapleine is inexpensive.  I bought this bottle at a Walmart for just over $2.38.  Following the instructions printed on the label, I can make 3 gallons of syrup.  The end cost will be lower than purchasing even the lowest cost HFCS pancake syrup.  Plus, if I can make my own syrup right there at home, I don’t have to say, “Sorry, kids, no pancakes this morning because we’re out of syrup.”

And this is a child, herself, making the syrup.

Mapeleine doesn’t taste like real maple syrup.  Mapeleine doesn’t taste like Kroger corn-syrup-pancake-syrup-with-imitation-butter-flavor.  Mapleine is Mapleine.  You’ll have to try it to see.  Let me know if you do, and what you think of it.

Whole wheat pancakes, every Saturday morning

If you’ve ever visited our house on Saturday morning, chances are you’ve eaten pancakes with us. We like this whole wheat version very much. I began trying out whole wheat recipes 15 years ago as we weaned ourselves away from Bisquick dependence. My husband, Ed, though has become the true pancake master and this recipe is his creation. I’m offering it to you again, this time with a small improvement in the amount of leavening. Too much baking powder will give off a metallic taste, not enough and the pancakes will be flat.

Two things now, about syrup: Why not top your pancakes with unsweetened applesauce, instead? Applesauce is really quite tasty on pancakes. It is sweet, but not crazy sweet. It’s also much, much better for you.

Of course, special occasions call for special sweetness. Maple syrup is pricey, but nothing, nothing compares with maple syrup.   It is very thin and even sweeter per measure than corn-syrup-pancake-syrup.  As we tell the kids, “A little goes a long way!” The stores I go to generally sell Grade A syrup, but foodies will tell you that Grade B syrup actually has more flavor; it’s also a bit cheaper. Go for Grade B if you can get it.

But enough about that. Here is the pancake recipe.

1 cup white flour

1 cup wheat flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 T. baking powder

1 T. sugar (optional.  Ed puts in it.  I leave it out.)

2 eggs

5 T. yogurt (or melted butter or oil)

2 c. milk plus 1 T. vinegar

First step: measure out your milk and add the vinegar.  Let stand.  The acid in the vinegar will work on the milk a bit to make a hurry-up buttermilk.  Stir together dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Add in milk mixture, eggs and yogurt (or butter or oil).  Stir.

Pour batter onto a heated, buttered griddle.  Cook and flip.  Flip and eat.

Have a great morning!


P.S.  Here is the link to the pancake recipe we shared a couple years back.

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