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Friday, May 30, 2014

A Quick Vegetarian Supper



I've posted so many dessert and cookie recipes lately, this site is starting to seem out of balance...at least to me, since my preference is still for the more savory/veggie parts of the meal.

 While the rest of my garden is still more in the planning than growing stage, my tiny patch of asparagus is flourishing. This spear grew from nothing to a length too great for my camera in two days! (I didn't have a ruler handy so put the full sized dinner fork next to it for a sense of the size.)




Time for something with asparagus for sure. That said, I have to admit that I am still learning to like asparagus while all those around me others speak of their joy at finding these bright green spears at the farmers market, in their backyards, or even--as it was when I was growing up in the rural Midwest--along back country roadsides, ready for the eagle-eyed harvester to spot the wild clumps.


I have learned that a spear cut fresh from the garden and washed gently can be a great raw snack, but I still find that mixing asparagus into other dishes is a way to lessen that very distinctive flavor. Even if you enjoy the flavor, the dish in today's post can also stretch your supply.


The vegetables

Looking in the refrigerator revealed both a good variety of vegetables that immediately suggested a stir fry. This recipe reflects what was available right now. However, check out the variations for ideas on what you might want to add, based on what you have on hand.

Notice that I used sliced broccoli stems. This is one of those frugal ideas that can really stretch your budget and add some new texture to your vegetable dishes. When prepared in this way, the stems will often be mistaken for water chestnuts, at a much lower cost. If the stems on your broccoli are a little fibrous, you can peel them and still make use of what you might have formerly discarded. (And in our markets, buying the full broccoli head is usually quite a bit less per pound than the pre-cut flowerettes.)


The pan

As you can see in these photos, I use just an ordinary cast iron skillet for stir-frying. It heats well and is increasingly more non-stick the more I use it. Though I probably will never include it in a picture, I use a very old, very battered, pizza pan as a cover for those few minutes when a little moist cooking finishes the hardest of vegetables, without their losing their overall crispness.


Now for the tofu

I am still learning to cook with tofu; I used the "firm" kind today, but I think extra firm would have resulted in better looking pieces. I have also had better success in getting out the liquid by freezing the tofu and then thawing, but I didn't have time for that today.

Even after squeezing the liquid out, this cooked up with the consistency of firm scrambled eggs--and in fact, I think you might find the egg variation below worth trying if you don't ordinarily buy tofu. As you can see, my cutting into cubes also wasn't really "professional," but don't toss the crumbles; just stir them in with the more perfect pieces.

Oh, and "quick?

A stir fry supper can really be quick, even if it seems like there is way too much preparation to bother with. Since I have cut so many hundreds (thousands?) of onions in my life, I can peel and dice an onion in less than a minute. If you still need to take more time, you can always use some frozen onions--as well as frozen peppers and even broccoli flowerettes instead of the stems. Just have baby carrots? Cut some of these in half instead of taking the time to slice a carrot or two.

If you make the recipe as given below, you will probably find that the total preparation (even the squeezing of the tofu) will take just about as much time as cooking the rice--"regular," white rice, not instant that is. Total time elapsed even without any pre-prepped veggies was less than 25 minutes. Yes, there is a little more "kitchen time" than would be required with a frozen entree that needs 25 minutes to cook, but the cost is less, and the amount of "unwanted" ingredients that entree includes? Not at all included here.


Stir-fried Spring Vegetables with Tofu (Vegan)

olive oil; oil flavored with garlic or herbs is especially good here
4 oz firm or extra firm tofu, well-drained
1 to 2 T teriyaki sauce, or to taste
1 small to medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 to 2 c bell peppers, diced (if using mini-peppers, cut in rings for a nice appearance)
2 c broccoli stems, thinly sliced
1 c carrots, sliced
2 or 3 spears asparagus, diagonally cut into 2 inch chunks
1/2 t dried basil
1/2 t dried marjoram
seasoning salt to taste

1.  Remove the tofu from the liquid in which it came and place on a flat dinner plate. Put a doubled paper towel on top and then place a heavy pan on it, pressing down to remove as much liquid as possible. I pour off the liquid as I press it and then leave the pan on top while chopping the vegetables, occasionally giving the pan another push. Cut the tofu into about 1 inch cubes.

2.  Heat the olive oil over medium high to high heat until a bit of the tofu dropped into it sizzles. Add the drained tofu to the pan and saute for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom is quite golden brown. The less you turn it, the more it will hold its shape. Turn the pieces and brown the second side; you will probably need only a couple of minutes for the second side.Remove the tofu from the pan, sprinkle generously with the teriyaki sauce, and set aside.

3. Add the onions, broccoli, and carrots to the pan (along with a bit more oil only if needed), cover lightly, and cook at medium high heat until the broccoli and carrots are just beginning to soften. Stir occasionally, perhaps adding a teaspoon or so of water at times to keep the vegetables from getting too brown before they are done.Depending on how thinly you have sliced the broccoli and carrots, this step should take only about 5 to 8 minutes.



4.  When the first vegetables are almost cooked, add the pepper rings and asparagus, along with the basil and marjoram. Add a few more drops of water, stir, and cover the pan, cooking just long enough for the asparagus to tenderize slightly. Stir in the tofu, including the sauce that will now have formed with the teriyaki sauce, and taste, adding salt or seasoning salt as needed. Heat just long enough to re-warm the tofu.

Serve with rice or any of the far eastern noodles now available in many stores. Makes about two servings.

Variations:

The amounts and varieties of vegetables here are just what I had on hand today. You might want to add in sliced mushrooms, peas, celery, shredded cabbage, edamame, cauliflower, etc. If your family doesn't care much for peppers, cut back this amount (or eliminate entirely).

In the same way, you may choose to use a different blend of herbs and seasonings--maybe some cilantro and cumin, with corn stirred into the mix. If you choose to go this route, substitute a drizzle of taco sauce for the teriyaki sauce on the tofu.

If using frozen vegetables for any of the fresh ones here, no need to thaw. Just toss them in as called for in the basic recipe.

Scrambled Eggs and Vegetables (Vegetarian but Not Vegan)

The eggs in this version will end up much like the egg that is sometimes found in "fried rice" served at many Chinese restaurants. Prepare the eggs as noted below and then add them to the vegetables just a minute or two before serving.

2 to 3 eggs, beaten
oil enough to cover the base of the pan

1.  Using a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until a drop of water or small piece of bread sizzles. Stir in the beaten eggs. (The pan should be large enough that the egg mixture will cover the bottom quite thinly. For this many eggs, I'd use at least a 10 inch skillet.)

2.  Allow the eggs to cook without stirring for about 2 to 3 minutes. When  the edges begin to look set, carefully turn the eggs with a spatula, keeping them as intact as possible. This is NOT the time to be stirring them!

3.  Turn off the burner and allow the eggs to finish cooking on the second side, until they are very firm. When slightly cooled, cut into about 1 inch pieces. Add the eggs to your stir-fried vegetables just before serving. Avoid stirring too much, to avoid the pieces from breaking into tiny crumbles.





Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mayonnaise in Unexpected Places








As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had the good fortune to buy mayonnaise at a super-bargain price; since I don't usually use this for sandwiches, salads, or really anything else, I started exploring how else I might be able to use my purchase. The natural place for me to start was a chocolate mayonnaise cake, as I had memories of hearing about this in my childhood. My adaptation is here: http://frugalfastfun.blogspot.com/2014/05/an-old-fashioned-recipe-with-great.html

When the cake turned out to be a great success, I decided to try for more, related uses. First were these Double Chocolate Cookies (http://frugalfastfun.blogspot.com/2014/05/double-chocolate-cookies-made-with.html), a cake-like cookie that has received high praise from most of my "testing panel." However, for those prefer either chewy or crisp cookies, these still didn't fit the "must have" category. With lots of mayonnaise still in the jar (this was the two quart size after all), it was time for more experimentation.

As usual, I started with an internet search and, as usual, didn't find anything that exactly fit my thoughts. However a little tweaking and research on the chemistry of cookies and I ended up with a wonderful recipe for "Snickerdoodles" that could become a go-to activity for the grandkids this summer. I also adapted an old family recipe  to include mayo instead of oil, along with a few other adjustments for a new take on chocolate chip cookies. I'll be posting that recipe separately.

For now, here are a few of the reasons why I would encourage you to consider mayonnaise-based cookies:

  • Cost--the following recipe includes neither eggs nor butter. If you buy mayonnaise when it is on special (which is often the case during these summer-picnic-foods-weeks), it could come in at as little as half the cost of the original version.
  • Convenience--even if you are like me and don't keep prepared mayonnaise available for salads or sandwiches, having a jar on the shelf or in the refrigerator makes a good "emergency" ingredient when you are out of eggs or butter.
  • Food safety--okay, I will admit that I don't worry as much as I probably should about letting the kids taste the cookie or cake batter before it is cooked. However, with mayonnaise-based baked goods that don't have eggs, the cookie dough is fine for sampling without those raw egg worries.
  • Kid friendly--each of the recipes I have tried have been easily prepared, and these Snickerdoodles are especially recommended for kids. The dough is almost play-dough consistency, so the frustrations of sticky hands or crumbly plops of dough are non-existent.
  • Nutrition? Okay, let's remember: cookies are not on the menu as a basic high-nutrition food. That said, there is a little lower fat proportion in mayo when subbed for butter or oil, and the fats you should find in your "real mayo" ingredients list will be oils without any trans fats. 

There are, of course, some caveats:

  • Mayonnaise-based recipes are NOT egg-free! If you avoid eggs for allergies or vegan reasons, these recipes are not for you. "Eggless" in the recipe means just that you don't have to provide your own eggs.
  • If you are not crazy about soybean oil, you will either have to find a brand that doesn't include this (which my admittedly limited research has not found) or avoid these recipes.
  • Though I haven't been able to detect any "mayonnaise flavor" in finished cookies (nor have any of my tasters), I still like to include enough added flavor ingredients (cinnamon here, and spices and chocolate or chocolate chips in others) to be sure any off-flavor.

I have been using Costco's Kirkland brand in these recipes. Their ingredients list is pretty short, with few additives I would be uncomfortable with. While some of the other sites that have mayo-containing recipes do use low-fat or even fat-free mayo or Miracle Whip-type salad dressing, these usually have the kinds of ingredient lists I prefer to avoid. 

But enough of the kitchen-y talk. Let's get to the recipe. These little cookies are so easy to make and so uniformly desired by sweet-eaters, why not stir up a batch today!

Easy, Easy Snickerdoodles

1 c sugar
1 c mayonnaise
1 t vanilla
 2 c flour
1 t soda
1 t cinnamon
Topping 
1/3 c sugar
1 t cinnamon (or more if desired)

1.  Beat the sugar, mayonnaise, and vanilla together until completely mixed and smooth.
2.  Sift the flour, soda, and cinnamon together and add to the mayonnaise mixture. Stir just until well blended.
3.  Form the dough into balls about the size of large walnuts. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet.
4.  Mix the Topping ingredients together in a small bowl. Dip a flat-bottomed glass into the topping and then use the glass to flatten a cookie to about 1/3 inch or so. (The first time you dip the glass, you may need to moisten the glass VERY slightly, just to get the sugar and cinnamon to cling to the glass.) Repeat for each cookie, dipping the glass each time.











 5.  Bake the cookies for about 10 to 12 minutes at 350 degrees, until they are golden and pop back when touched lightly with a finger.
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen.

Quick update: One of my "testers" used a different brand of mayo and found the dough to be crumbly and dry. It may be that the moisture content may differ among mayonnaise brands. If you have the same problem, you can sprinkle a teaspoon or so of water over the dough and mix it in with your hands, adding just enough to get back to that "play dough" consistency. Would love to get other feedback on YOUR results--just add a comment below. Thanks


Variations:
  • Instead of using the glass to apply the Topping, you can roll each ball of dough in the Topping mixture before flattening. This will result in each cookie having a little more of the sugary coating.
  • For holidays--or just "for special"--use colored sugars instead of the sugar cinnamon mix for topping the cookies.




Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, with a Twist


As promised, here is one more in my "series" of mayonnaise-based baked goods. This is an adaptation of the oatmeal cookie recipe I found long ago in a very old church cookbook from my mother. That recipe, using raisins instead of chocolate chips, is here:  http://frugalfastfun.blogspot.com/2014/05/old-fashioned-oatmeal-raisin-cookies.html

As with the Double Chocolate cookies I entered here earlier, these are a little more cake-like than some oatmeal cookies, but they have been well-received even by those professing to like chewier cookies.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c real mayonnaise
2 eggs
2 t vanilla
3 c flour
2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/4 t ground ginger
2 t baking powder 
2 ½ c quick (not instant) or rolled oats
1 ½ c chocolate or butterscotch chips—or mixed half and half

1. Combine the butter, mayonnaise, and brown sugar and cream until well blended. Stir in the eggs and vanilla and continue beating until light and fluffy.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and spices, and gradually add to the sugar and butter mixture.

3. When well blended, stir in the chips and mix thoroughly.

4.  Add the oatmeal, a cup at a time, making sure the batter is evenly mixed.

5. These cookies are a "semi-drop" cookie. Using a spoon, scoop up about two tablespoons full of dough--about the size of a golf ball. Drop the balls of dough onto a greased baking sheet and use your fingers to flatten and shape the dough to a cookie about 2 inches across. Allow a small amount of space between the cookies as they will expand a little in the oven.

 







6.  Bake at 350 degrees about 9 to 11 minutes. Makes about 4 dozen.


Monday, May 19, 2014

No Knead Bread--A Nice Option for a Busy Day






Years and years ago--okay, decades and decades ago--I bought a cookbook that has been a great reference over the years. I haven't strictly followed any of the recipes in it for a long time--and in fact, based on the many notes I added to these pages, I wonder if I ever baked any of these breads exactly as given. Still, it has been a source of inspiration and guidance over time, and I pulled it out today when I wanted to make bread in only a few hours, and not a lot of working time to spare.


I remembered that author Casella included a section on "batter breads," so I made a variation on the variation I had developed on December 3, 1994. (If you use cookbooks, please be sure to write in them--include the date made, your rating of the results, and any changes you may have added. It will mean a lot when you pull that book out years later. And yes, you can do something similar with any recipes you capture online too.)

Batter breads are nice because they are quick and they don't require getting the counters messy. Still, it is best to make these shortly before serving as they don't keep as well as other breads. Because most of these recipes use more yeast than more standard breads, they will also have a stronger flavor of yeast--another good reason to add extra ingredients like the bacon here or grated cheese, herbs, onions, etc.

This particular recipe is nice because it yields a loaf with a sturdy crust, not always typical of faster doughs. Served warm with butter or a dish of seasoned olive oil for dipping, this is the ideal side for soup on a chilly night.

It would also make some great sandwiches, layered with lots of lettuce, tomatoes, etc. along with a slice or two of deli meat or good cheese. Toasted as part of a BLT? Wonderful!



Italian Pepper Bread, ala Casala

2 c warm water
1 t salt
3 T sugar
2 T bacon fat
2 pkg dry yeast (or about 5 t of yeast if using it in bulk)
1 egg
1 t freshly ground black pepper (may add up to 2 teaspoons if you like)
1 t dried basil
1/4 c crumbled bacon
1 c whole wheat flour
4 c bread flour

1.  Combine warm water, salt, sugar, bacon fat, pepper, basil, and whole wheat flour. Beat well.
2.  Stir in the yeast and the egg and beat until well-combined.
3.  Add the crumbled bacon and then the bread flour, a cup at a time. Beat well for 3 to 4 minutes. The dough should begin to look "stringy," as seen in the photos below.



This indicates that the gluten is developing the structure needed to support the rise of the bread. The dough will also be smooth and almost glossy.



4.  Cover the bowl loosely with a towel and set aside in a warm place for about an hour or so, until doubled.
5.  Stir the batter down and then beat for another 2 to 3 minutes. Pour into two very well greased (bottom and sides) 8 X 4 bread loaf pans. Let rise again until batter is just barely to the tops of the pans. Do not allow to rise too much, as this could cause the finished bread to "fall," ending up with a doughy middle. This rise will also take about an hour, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.
6.  Bake at 350 degrees about 30 to 35 minutes, until the bread is a deep golden brown. Remove from pans immediately after taking from the oven and brush the tops with melted butter.


Variations

Replace the bacon fat with canola oil and omit the bacon. (To be honest, I don't taste the bacon very specifically in this recipe, but the overall blend of flavors is good, so you may want to give it a try.) Add 1/2 to 1 cup of grated sharp cheese and reduce the bread flour to only 3 1/2 cups.

Other herbs--oregano, thyme, rosemary, or Italian seasoning, may be substituted for the basil, or a combination of herbs can be added.

Garlic or onion powder can be added with the dry ingredients, perhaps a teaspoon or so.










Rainy Day Soup Weather


Another beautiful day of rain, bringing all the green leaves out in their full glory. Perfect for making yet another pot of soup before warmer weather turns our thoughts to more summery menus.

As with the best of homemade soups, this recipe uses what I have on hand. I have been careful to measure what went into this batch, but you can--and must--adjust here and there to what your refrigerator and freezer contain. Even if you were to duplicate the ingredient list exactly as given, you would still have to do some tasting and adjusting of seasoning; no two batches of stock or broth are exactly the same in degree of richness and blend of seasonings. Maybe you will be using canned beans or beans that were cooked with salt, and every brand of crushed tomatoes will have its own level of salt and perhaps other seasonings.

While the version I made is not strictly vegetarian (because of the chicken stock and small amount of bacon fat), substituting vegetable broth and olive oil will allow vegans to enjoy the soup along with everyone else.

Now:  go ahead and use this recipe as an inspiration or guide, but feel free to then "fix" it to fit your day and your family.

Vegetable Soup with Mixed Beans

small amount of bacon fat or fat skimmed from the chicken stock 
2 c coarsely chopped onion (1 large or 2 medium)
1 c diced celery (about 2 ribs)
2 c carrots, sliced
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 quart chicken stock
1 c finely shredded cabbage
1/4 c diced red bell pepper (may use bottled peppers)
1/4 c chopped sundried tomatoes in oil
2 c cooked "soup" beans--a mix of 10 to 17 kinds of beans, depending on the brand (mine were cooked without salt)
1 1/2 c rotini or similar size of pasta
1/4 c finely chopped cilantro
1 t Italian seasoning 
2 c loosely packed baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped (about 4 oz)
6 to 8 cloves garlic, minced
1 T sugar (optional)
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
water as needed

1.   Saute the onion, celery, and carrots in a small amount of bacon fat, chicken fat skimmed from the top of the chilled stock or a mixture of the two. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots are barely tender.

2.  Meanwhile, combine the stock, tomatoes, cabbage, pepper, sundried tomatoes, and beans in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Stir in the onion mixture when done, and rinse the onion pan with a little water; add this to the soup. Return the soup to a boil and then reduce heat to medium low. Simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes.

3.  Stir in the pasta, spinach, cilantro, Italian seasoning, and garlic. Continue cooking for about 10 to 15 minutes and taste for seasonings. Add sugar, salt, and pepper as needed, along with more Italian seasoning and water to reach desired consistency. Simmer until the rotini is just tender.

4.  Serve with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper if desired. Reheats well and will taste even better the second day. Makes about 5 to 7 quarts soup.

Double Chocolate Cookies, Made with Mayonnaise



A few days ago I posted a recipe for a rich devils food cake made with mayonnaise. As I noted there (http://frugalfastfun.blogspot.com/2014/05/an-old-fashioned-recipe-with-great.html), I rarely have mayonnaise in the house, but I found a bargain price on a two quart jar of the stuff, so I have lots to experiment with. After making four of the cakes in a row, it was time to branch out, so I decided to try for cookies. Unlike the literally hundreds of recipes for that old chocolate cake, I found only one or two cookie recipes using mayonnaise.

Did that stop me? No. I just decided to do a little experimenting on my own and developed the following recipe that should satisfy anyone looking for a real homemade chocolate cookie, with a cake-like rather than crisp or chewy texture.

To make the cookies even more special, I decided to use chopped chocolate instead of chocolate chips. I had some "chocolate almond bark" left from some holiday baking that I wanted to use up. I have seen recipes that call for chopping chocolate that always seemed too messy, but the block of chocolate was waiting for such a time as this. As it turned out, these chunks were just the thing to make these "double chocolate" cookies perfect for snacking--and they met the frugal standard because the mayonnaise replaced more expensive fats and the chocolate block was much less per pound than ordinary chocolate chips.

Double Chocolate Cookies

1/2 c mayonnaise (I used Costco's Kirkland brand)
1/3 c cocoa
1 c brown sugar
2 eggs
2 t vanilla
2 1/4 c flour
1/2 t baking soda
1 c chocolate chunks (see Cutting Chocolate into Chunks, below)

1. Combine mayonnaise, cocoa, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a bowl and beat until smooth and satiny.
2.  Sift the flour and baking soda together and add to the first mixture. Stir until completely blended.
3.  Cut chocolate into small chunks and add to the cookie batter. Stir just enough to be sure the chocolate chunks are evenly distributed.
4.  Drop spoonfuls of batter about the size of a ping pong ball on a well-oiled baking sheet, allowing plenty of room for the cookies to spread.

5.  Bake at 325 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, until the center of a cookie springs back when touched lightly.
Allow to cool before storing in a tightly covered container. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

To Cut Chocolate into Chunks


This method works for all types of solid chocolate. Make sure the chocolate is quite cool, but not frozen.
Put a small cutting board into the bottom of a 9 X 13 or similar pan with high sides. Lay the chocolate on the cutting board and, using a heavy but not overly large knife, cut the chocolate with an up and down motion. Don't worry about the shapes of the chunks; they will be irregular and that is okay. Just try to make them quite similar in size.
When measuring the chocolate, scrape all the pieces into the measuring cup, including the small crumbs. These will melt into the batter and enhance the overall chocolate flavor.

Chocolate Almond Bark?

Many stores carry what is called "almond bark," even though there are no nuts at all in the product. The ingredients list on most of the chocolate (NOT "white chocolate") almond bark blocks mirror the ingredients list on most chocolate chips, so these can easily be substituted for chips. Since the almond bark blocks are most used for dipping pretzels, candy centers, etc., many stores carry these only around Christmas or Valentine's Day and mark them down drastically along with all the other holiday goods--nice find for frugal cooks!





Sunday, May 18, 2014

Old Fashioned Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, just a little updated



Over the years, I have come to rely less and less on cookbooks, using the internet for lots of my inspiration. Still, I cannot give up a huge collection of hand-written recipe cards that have overflowed from that little card file box I started out with to three, then four, then five, long file boxes purchased from a library when they stopped using card catalogs. There are also perhaps half a dozen or so cookbooks that I still occasionally reference, and almost all of these are decades old, their pages marked with all kinds of spills and the spines of many broken with pages falling out every time they are opened.

One of those most cherished is The Brick Church Cookbook, 1931 edition; my copy is the one that belonged to my great grandmother, including her handwritten additions in the back.  I rarely use it for recipes, but just bringing this little brown spiral bound book reminds me of my mother when she would pull her copy down to make a cake, a batch of cookies, or homemade fudge or divinity.

There is one recipe, however, that I go back to repeatedly, even though I have adapted it greatly: "Short Cookies," an old-fashioned oatmeal raisin cookie that brings back all kinds of nostalgic memories. Even with the changes I've made, I hope this will take you back to the days of home-baked goodies too.

Short Cookies 

1 c raisins or dried cranberries
water
1 1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c canola oil
2 large eggs
2 t vanilla
3 c flour
1 to 2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/4 t ground ginger
2 t baking powder
1 c chopped walnuts (optional)
3 c quick (not instant) or rolled oats

1. Press the raisins or dried cranberries lightly in a 2 cup measuring cup. Pour water over, just enough to barely cover the raisins. Place in the microwave on high for about 1 to 2 minutes, until the water is steaming and almost boiling. Set aside to cool.

2. Combine the butter, oil, and brown sugar and cream until well blended. Stir in the eggs and vanilla and continue beating until light and fluffy.

3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and spices, and gradually add to the sugar and butter mixture.

4. When well blended, stir in the nuts and raisins/cranberries, and mix thoroughly.

5.  Add the oatmeal, a cup at a time, making sure the batter is evenly mixed.

6. These cookies are a "semi-drop" cookie. Using a spoon, scoop up about two tablespoons full of dough--about the size of a golf ball. Drop this onto a greased baking sheet and use your fingers to flatten and shape the dough to a cookie about 2 inches across. Allow a small amount of space between the cookies as they will expand a little in the oven.


7.  Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes, until the center springs back when pressed lightly with your finger. Cool on racks before storing in an air tight container.

Makes about 4 to 5 dozen cookies*, depending on the size you make them. Smaller cookies may need only 8 to 10 minutes to bake.
 
* Or, if you are like me, when you get to that last small amount of dough, you just form it into one giant cookie and bake that all alone on the last pan. This could reduce the number of cookies by quite a few, but it is a nice "reward" for any child who may have been helping make the batch!









Variations:

  • Substitute a cup or so of bran flakes for a cup of the oatmeal.
  • Use dates instead of the raisins or dried cranberries or use any mixture of these dried fruits.
  • If preferred, skip step 1 and just add the raisins without soaking them. Reduce the amount of oatmeal to 2  1/2 cups.
  • A totally different texture can result (especially good for those picky kids who aren't sure about raisins!) if you put the un-soaked raisins and oatmeal in a processor or blender and process until the raisins are thoroughly chopped and the oatmeal is finer. Don't try to process the raisins alone, as they tend to just turn into a massive clump that is really hard to blend evenly into the batter. 
  • If brown sugar is quite a bit more expensive than white sugar, you can substitute up to a cup of white sugar for that much brown sugar; the result will be a paler, less "caramel-flavored" cookie, but it will still be good.
  • As with most cookies, up to a third of the flour can be replaced with whole wheat flour.

A Note on Using Oil in Cookies

The original recipe called for 1 1/2 cup "shortening" and only 2 cups oatmeal. The farm wives who were the main users of this Midwestern cookbook were likely to interpret this as butter, but I first made the recipe with margarine--remember when that was considered the most healthy choice? I quickly realized that the resulting cookies were very crisp but almost too greasy for our tastes. I soon began making the cookies with a cup of butter and kept upping the amount of oatmeal without loss of perceived quality on the part of my "taste-tester" family and friends.

A few years ago, I decided to try to move to oil for at least part of the fat in this favorite recipe.  I still wanted the nice buttery flavor but thought that at least a small amount of change to a "healthier" fat might be worth a try. The recipe above will provide a cookie that is more cake-like than crisp, but the flavor (especially with the added spices included) still comes through as buttery and rich.

















Saturday, May 10, 2014

An Old-Fashioned Recipe with Great Results






Do a web search for "chocolate mayonnaise cake" and you will find dozens of sites with very similar recipes, along with almost as many comments relating the cake to memories of those made by mothers and grandmothers and various other assorted relatives from the past. Few people can explain any source for the unexpected use of mayonnaise as a cake ingredient, but Hellman's includes a "classic" version on their site, giving it some kind of authenticity too.

Though I rarely have mayonnaise (or the Miracle Whip style salad dressing) in the house, I did take advantage of a recent, really, really good price on a 2 quart jar of "real" mayonnaise and decided to try this old classic. I remember my mother talking about it, but she had no recipe for it in the collection of clippings and cards and cookbooks that I inherited. As a result, I started my internet search, took the ones that looked most realistic, and ended up with the following version. It results in a fine-textured, rich devils food cake that is extremely easy.. And one of the best things about the batter for kids there is? There is no problem with licking the beaters because the batter contains no raw eggs!

Since most Americans seem to have mayo as a staple in their refrigerators, this can be a great recipe if you find yourself without eggs or butter but still want to make a cake. Without butter or eggs and with sale-priced mayo, this can be a relatively frugal dessert as well. Oh, and if you check most other cakes of this size, "only" a cup of sugar is unusual as well, especially when the result is as rich tasting as this.

While suggested toppings for the cake include peanut butter and chocolate frostings, I found that a basic powdered sugar icing is second best--second only to serving the cake warm with some vanilla or butter pecan ice cream scooped on top. The version here also has chocolate sprinkles added for one more source of chocolate for those who can't get enough!

 

(One important caveat: a couple of the sites I visited suggested this was a good cake for those with egg allergies--NO! Mayonnaise and even most, if not all, of the Miracle Whip dressings DO contain eggs, so don't take chances if you or your family have any problems with eggs.)


Mayonnaise Chocolate Cake

1 cup real mayonnaise (I used Costco's brand)
1 c sugar
1 c water or milk
1 t vanilla
2 c flour
1/2 c cocoa--or a bit more if you want this really chocolate-y
1 1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1 c chocolate chips (optional)
3/4 c coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

1.  Combine mayonnaise and sugar in a bowl and beat until smooth. Gradually stir in the water or milk and vanilla.
2.  Sift the flour, cocoa, soda, and baking powder together and add to the mayonnaise mixture. Blend just until completely mixed and smooth.
3.  Stir in the chocolate chips and/or walnuts if used.
4.  Pour batter into a well-oiled 9 X 12 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Be careful not to overbake. If a thin aluminum pan (disposable type) or glass pan is used, reduce the heat to 325.

While this can be stirred up with just a wood spoon or whisk  (and my 2 1/2 year old grandson was able to make the entire cake--other than measuring--in this way), I find that the mayonnaise is easier to blend with a mixer.


 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Black Bean and Barley Vegetable Soup



Homemade soup is something most of us really like, but it can often seem like just too much effort. If all that chopping and preparation intimidates you, this recipe might be a good one to try. Yes, there is some prep work but the end result of perhaps half an hour (and probably much less) of kitchen work will yield a huge batch of soup.

After serving the soup while the house is full of wonderful aromas, you will still have plenty to refrigerate for later microwaved bowls on busy evenings and more for taking to the office for quick lunches. Then freeze some meal-sized portions for later hectic weeknight dinners. A lot of wonderful meals for remarkably little preparation overall.

 This soup also provides a wide range of options, from using almost all "pre-made" ingredients--canned beans, frozen onions, etc.--to a completely "home-made" version; just use whatever your time and budget allow. If you have a food processor, this is a great time to use it too, for preparing everything from the onions to the cabbage.

Even the "long cook" ingredients--black beans and barley--can be made more "convenient." The beans of course can be from a can, but you can also make your own beans ahead for convenience. Buy a pound or two of dried beans and cook the entire amount according to directions on the bag. Then you can freeze the beans in 2 cup portions (approximately the amount in a 15 oz can).

Barley is not available in a can--at least not in any store I've ever been in--so you will need to cook this yourself. If you use pearl barley, the kind most often available, you could start it cooking while you are gathering all the other ingredients and getting the onions sauteed. Since the hulled form (which is healthier--hulled is to pearl for barley as brown rice is to white) will take longer to cook, you either will need to start it cooking it earlier OR you could prepare a large batch ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze just as with beans. In this approach, you'll no doubt cook the barley with water; in that case, just use the broth in place of the water in the recipe. 













Black Bean and Barley Vegetable Soup

1 c hulled or pearl barley
3 c turkey or chicken broth (OR substitute vegetable broth for a VEGAN soup)
olive oil
2 c chopped onion (may use frozen if desired)
1 c diced celery
approximately 6 c shredded cabbage (may use cole slaw mix)
2 to 3 c organic carrot juice
1 15 or 16 oz can or jar Italian seasoned diced tomatoes
2 c cooked black beans (or 15 oz can, undrained)
2 c frozen corn (no need to thaw before adding)
1/2 c chopped bell pepper (frozen diced or sliced peppers may be used)
1  1/2 c frozen chopped kale (no need to thaw before adding)
5 to 8 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 c sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1/4 c bottled red peppers, diced (use sweet or hot depending on your taste)
1 t basil
1 t Italian seasoning
1/2 t black pepper
4 to 5 c water, enough for desired consistency

1. In a large soup pot, bring the broth and barley to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer about 25 minutes for pearl barley, about 40 to 50 minutes for hulled. (This step can be done well ahead of time, with the barley refrigerated until ready to make soup.)
2. Meanwhile, saute the onion and celery in a small amount of olive oil over medium heat.

3. When the onions are light golden in color, stir in the cabbage, cover,  and continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the cabbage is starting to soften.
4.  Add the remaining ingredients except the water. Gradually add water to reach desired consistency.
5..  Bring mixture to a gentle boil and reduce heat to low. Continue to simmer for about 30 minutes and taste, adjusting for seasoning at that point.
6.  Add more water if desired and simmer for another 30 to 60 minutes. Serve immediately or refrigerate or freeze for later. As with most soups, this will be even better the second day.

Makes 5 to 6 quarts of soup, depending on the amount of water added. Allow 1 to 2 cups of soup per serving.







SUBSTITUTIONS:
  • If you don't have carrot juice, substitute additional broth for the carrot juice and add 2 to 3 c sliced or grated carrots with the other vegetables.
  • Fresh or frozen spinach, coarsely chopped, can be substituted for the kale.
  • An extra can or jar of diced tomatoes can be substituted for the sundried tomatoes.







Sweet and Savory Stratas








Egg main dishes are wonderfully versatile, serving well as a contribution to a breakfast or brunch potluck and taking on center stage for a quick weeknight dinner. This weekend I had the opportunity to make two stratas that demonstrate the wide range of dishes possible with eggs at the base. Our brunch would have fresh fruit and breakfast meats brought by others; rather than also serving the traditional bread choices--bagels, muffins, etc.--the main dish incorporated both protein and grain servings. To meet the tastes of all, I made both a sweet and a savory strata, demonstrating how the basic method can take on very different characteristics depending on the add-ons.

This weekend, I had an opportunity to provide the main dish for a brunch potluck. With others bringing fresh fruit and breakfast meats, making strata seemed a great way to provide main dish and bread all in one. So what is a "strata?" Wikipedia, everyone's favorite source of expertise, provides this definition: "Strata or stratta is a family of layered casserole dishes in American cuisine. The most common modern variant is a brunch dish, similar to a quiche or frittata, made from a mixture which mainly consists of bread, eggs and cheese." 

There are a few things to keep in mind when making strata:
  • Firm, hearty breads generally are best, since plain white sandwich loaves tend to dissolve into mush too quickly, making the overall texture of the final dish disappointing. 
  • Drying or toasting the bread first can help make sure the bread absorbs all the flavor of the custard ingredients. This is a great way to use up those ends of bread your family doesn't eat, the odd hard roll left over from a barbecue, etc. Just cube the bread, dry thoroughly and store (freezer is best, though thoroughly dried bread can be stored on the shelf for a week or two).
  • You can vary the amounts of custard (the egg mixture) and bread so that your final dish is much like a bread pudding all the way to a mostly egg frittata-like dish. The amounts in today's recipes lean toward the bread pudding side, so feel free to reduce the amount of bread or add another egg and some more milk if you want a softer final dish.

Now, to the recipes.

 

Maple, Apple, and Pecan Strata

8 eggs
approximately 8 to 10 oz dense bread, diced
1/3 c maple syrup, real or imitation acceptable 
1 t vanilla
2 t cinnamon
2 c milk; more may be needed

Topping
3 T butter
1/3 c sugar
1 1/2 c cored but not peeled apple, chopped (2 medium)
1 1/2 c pecan halves
1/2 t maple flavoring

1.  Spread the bread in a well-buttered 10 inch round casserole dish.
2.  Combine the eggs, syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon. Beat well.
3.  Gradually add the milk to the eggs and then pour over the bread. If there is not enough of the egg mixture to cover the bread, you may need to add a little more milk. (If you need to add more than another cup of milk, you may want to stir in an additional egg to the added milk.)
4.  Prepare the Topping:  Melt the butter and sugar over medium high heat and stir in the apples. Cook until the apples are translucent and the mixture has a nicely caramelized texture and color. Remove from heat and stir in the maple flavoring and pecans.
5.  Spread the Topping evenly over the egg and bread mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 4 to 5 hours or overnight.
6.  Remove the strata from the refrigerator. Preheat oven to 325. Uncover the strata and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 5 to 6. Serving suggestion: provide maple syrup and/or vanilla yogurt for toppings. 

Frugal hints:
  • The pecans can be cut back--to even 1/2 cup-- chopping the nuts coarsely to spread the pieces and flavor more evenly. 
  • While substitute "maple syrups" are never as good as the real thing, this recipe can easily use the imitation varieties, with less impact on overall flavor than you might expect.
  • Plan to make this, and other egg-based main dishes, when eggs are on sale. Many stores use eggs as "loss leaders," so stock up when you see an attractive price. Don't worry--eggs will keep in the refrigerator for weeks, well past the "best by" date stamped on the carton. Even the USDA says so!




Spinach and Mushroom Strata

9 eggs
approximately 12 oz bread cubes
approximately 4 c milk
1 T olive or canola oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 oz mushrooms, sliced or coarsely chopped
2 to 3 c fresh baby spinach leaves
1 T prepared yellow mustard
3/4 t dried basil
1/2 t garlic powder or to taste
1/2 t seasoning salt
black pepper to taste
2 c grated cheddar, Monterrey Jack or similar cheese

1.  Saute the onions and mushrooms in the oil. When the onions are just starting to turn golden and the mushrooms are softened, stir in the spinach and cook for about 1 more minute, just enough to wilt the spinach slightly. Remove from heat.
2.  Toss the bread with the vegetable mixture and spread in a well-buttered 10 to 12 inch casserole dish.
3.  Combine the eggs, mustard, basil, garlic powder and seasoning salt and beat well. 
4.  Stir in about three cups of the milk and 1 cup of the grated cheese. 
5.  Pour the eggs over the bread mixture. If the bread is not well covered, pour another cup or so of milk, until the bread is just covered. Spread the rest of the cheese over the top. 
6.  Cover tightly and refrigerate 4 to 5 hours or overnight. 
7.  When ready to bake, remove the strata from the refrigerator and then begin to preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake, uncovered, 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. 

NOTE: If the strata begins to brown too much before the center is set, cover lightly with foil while finishing baking.

Serves 5 to 6. Provide salsa and/or hot sauce if desired. 

Variations:

Many vegetables can be added in addition or in place of the spinach. Fresh broccoli or cauliflower, broken into small, bite-sized pieces, can be sauteed with the onions. Chopped bell pepper can be sauteed with the onions too. 

This is a good way to not just use up leftover bread. If you have leftover vegetables (corn, peas, mixed vegetables, etc.), stir these into the bread with the onion mixture.