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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Applesauce Oatmeal Cookies









A long time ago, I had a Home Ec teacher who explained there are three basic kinds of cookies: chewy, crisp, and cake-like. These old-fashioned oatmeal cookies are definitely in the cake-like group, soft and moist and full of flavor.



They are also relatively healthy (though still with enough sugar that they definitely should stay in the "special treat" category of your family's menus). This is an adaptation of a recipe I found in my mother's church cookbook from the early 1930s. Originally they called for one and a half cups of butter. Substituting unsweetened applesauce, cutting back the sugar,  and increasing the spices improved the nutrititive value without compromising flavor at all.
 
 Applesauce Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 c butter
3/4 c brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
2 eggs
3/4 c unsweetened applesauce
2 t vanilla
3 c flour
2 t baking powder
2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
2 1/2 c old-fashioned or regular oats (oatmeal, NOT the instant kind and NOT steel cut)
1 c dried cranberries
3/4 to 1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1.  Cream butter and sugars together. Stir in the eggs and then the applesauce and vanilla. Blend until very smooth and light.
2.  Sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together and add to the egg mixture. Stir until well blended.
3.  Mix in the cranberries and nuts and then add the oats gradually. Continue to stir until the oats are evenly blended in.
4.  Drop by spoonfuls on to a greased baking sheet and flatten lightly with the back of a spoon. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of your cookies.

Makes 3 1/2 to 5 dozen cookies, depending on the size you make. For those in the picture, I scooped out balls of dough a little bigger than a golf ball, with a yield of 40 cookies.

Variations:

Replace the dried cranberries with raisins or dates.

For a very different texture, put the oats and raisins in a processor and blend until quite fine. This works very well if you have family members not especially fond of raisins.



















Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tackling Those Hard-shelled Butternut Squashes



I'll admit it. For years, the only way I ever prepared butternut squash was to roast them whole and then scoop out the flesh from the finally softened peelings. Sometimes I would be so brave as to cut them in half, take out the seeds, and turn them upside down on a baking sheet to speed up the roasting a bit, but every push of the knife into those wobbly pear-shaped things raised my anxiety level to a fever pitch.

You do need to understand my history around sharp objects is not a really good one, and I have a string of anecdotes about kitchen mis-steps and subsequent stitches, so my fear was not entirely groundless. Still, as a result of my conservative approach, I was missing out on some really good recipes. Finally, when I came into a stash--an entire bushels-worth!--of deep yellow butternut squash one fall, I knew I needed to try some of the great recipes I had seen that called for diced or even shredded squash.

Now, several years later, my fingers all firmly intact and not even slightly gashed, I have some suggestions that might help you if you also fear these hard-shelled garden treasures.

(Scroll all the way to the end for a hint of how your microwave might be of help with this whole process. There are also some links there that include a few recipes to try with your cubed squash.)

To start, you need the right equipment. A large cutting board is important, preferably wood, as it is less likely to slide around than the thin plastic sheets, and a glass cutting board is too hard on your knives.




Next, you need to select the right knives. Contrary to what many cooking shows would have us believe, you don't always need great big knives. In fact, too large a knife for some tasks can be downright dangerous. On the other hand, you should have a large, relatively heavy bladed knife for doing the initial "hacking" up of your squash.

As you can see in these pictures, I use two different knives for getting my squash cut into cubes. The larger one has a serrated blade (reluctant admission: it is a "ginzu knife" I bought at a supermarket demonstration, one of the best bargains I have made in my cooking career). I like the serration because it seems to grip the flesh of the squash with less likelihood of slipping off the side of the squash. If you have a large "chef's knife" or even a heavy, serrated, bread knife, these can work well too.

Another advantage to serrated (or "granton edge," wavy bladed) knives is that they tend to keep their sharpness. It is not an old wives tale that dull knives can be more dangerous than sharp ones. When cutting into a squash, you want to start gently and push slowly, without too much pressure, so that the blade doesn't suddenly slip off the squash--and likely right on to the hand you are using to steady the thing!

For whatever reason, most of us seem to think of cutting squashes like these in half from top to bottom, and that is the way I first learned to cut them. However, a far easier, and safer, way to cut is to begin at the top of the squash and cut slices, as though you are cutting bread. Saw gently into the squash about an inch or so from the top and then continue slicing until you reach the seed "bowl" at the bottom.


When you reach this bottom part, you can either leave it as a "bowl," scooping out the seeds and baking it with a stuffing, much like you would stuff an acorn squash. However, if you just want to use this part of the squash along with the rest, cut the bowl in half (or if very large, in quarters) and scoop out the seeds. An ordinary tablespoon or a grapefruit spoon can be the best tool for this.



Now that you have the slices cut, you could just put them into a roasting pan coated with some oil, cover them with foil, and roast at anywhere from 375 to 450 (your choice) until they are soft, with the flesh easily pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and, as soon as cool enough to handle, slip the peelings off easily with a small knife.


If, however, you want to cube the squash for use in sautes, an Indian curry, etc., you now need to peel them. Remember when I mentioned having the right tools? Now is the time for a small knife, definitely nothing too big. You need a good paring knife--paring as in paring, removing the peel from something, right? Good.



Now here is the next step that I almost hesitate to share. The easiest way to peel these pretty rounds of squash is not to use a cutting board. Instead, you are going to use a time-honored and potentially dangerous method. You are going to take the round of squash in one hand and then gently take the small but sharp knife in the other hand and begin cutting the peeling off the squash slice, pulling the blade toward yourself.

Some key words: A sharp knife and a gentle cut. You don't want to push too hard with the knife or try to cut too fast. However, once you have tried this a few times, you will see that it is really not very difficult at all. In fact, it is much, much easier than slashing downward on the squash while it sits on a cutting board.



Once you have the slices peeled, you can now cut them into cubes. Maybe the better word is chunks, since the irregular shape of the squash is going to mean that the pieces are going to be only roughly the shape of a mathematically perfect cube, and that is perfectly okay. The key is to keep them uniform enough that they will be finished cooking at approximately the same time.



To cut the slices quickly, cut a slice (or oval from the bowl-shaped section) into long strips and then line the strips up next to each other on your cutting board. Use your large knife to cut through several of these strips at a time. Do NOT try to stack the slices on top of each other, as they are slippery and too easily slide off such a stack and, again, possibly right on to the fingers you are using to steady the slices. (Not that I have any experience with such an event of course!)


In no time at all, you will have a large supply of cubed squash ready for all kinds of cooking adventures. Even a medium squash will provide enough cubes for several recipes. Packed into a plastic bag, the uncooked cubes will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, so you can try out a couple of different dishes with your stash.

I don't recommend freezing the raw squash cubes. If you discover that your squash is going to yield way too many cubes to use right away, you might want to peel and cube just enough for what you need and roast the rest of the squash slices as noted above. Once the squash is roasted, it can be mashed or pureed and then frozen for recipes that call for this form.

A few recipes you can try using your cubed squash:

Barley with Butternut Squash and Apples

Braised Vegetables

My Daughter's Great Tree Hugger Chili
 
You Have to Try It to Believe It Soup

Now, the Microwave Hint

If you still find it very difficult to peel your recalcitrant squash, you may want to try this approach. Wash the squash and pierce it in several places, especially around the seed cavity section. Place the squash in the microwave and heat it on full power for one to three minutes, depending on the size of the squash. You are not trying to cook it, just getting it ever so slightly softer so it will be easier to cut. Take the squash out of the microwave and allow to cool just long enough to be comfortable handling it. Now, it should be just a little less hard as you proceed with the steps above.




Sweet and Simple Vegetable Soup



Sometimes, inspiration strikes and the results are even better than expected.

The story of how this soup came to be is far too long for a single blog post. Just know that I was looking to make a flavorful, comfort-food type soup using some of the vegetables I had on hand. If it was healthy and inexpensive as well, all the better.

My root-cellar-garage still held squash, onions, and cabbage, and this somewhat unlikely trio became the base of an amazing soup. Everyone I have shared this with has loved it, even those who didn't believe that they would like something using just these three vegetables. In fact, some of my testers have recommended that I avoid titles like Squash Cabbage Soup, since too many might be reluctant to even try it.

So here is an ungainly named soup that is likely to get compliments from even those most averse to one or more of these vegetables. Combined, they result in an unexpectedly sweet yet still savory flavor; just don't omit the herbs, since they are what is needed to bring this all together.

(Please note: there is a companion post here, in case you struggle with easily preparing butternut and other winter squashes:  Tackling That Hard Shelled Butternut Squash )

NOVEMBER UPDATE:

A friend has tried this soup and found it to be "missing something," so I looked back at it and realized I probably left out one of the most important things about making soup:  Be sure you use enough salt!

It is incredibly amazing how much salt soup sometimes requires. Because there can be great differences in the saltiness of bouillon powders (or stock if you use that instead of the bouillon and water), you may want to increase the amount of bouillon or add more salt. The key with any homemade soup is to taste and adjust, taste and adjust.

Other ideas if you end up with a soup that doesn't quite seem as flavorful as you'd like:
  • more salt, especially seasoning salt
  • more black pepper
  • a dash (or more ) of Worcestershire sauce
  • maybe a bit of hot sauce to liven the overall flavor
  • for some soups, a teaspoon of sugar or a tablespoon or two of applesauce might add the bit of sweetness needed to bring out the overall flavors
If you are worried about adding too much salt, put a tablespoon or so of the soup into a small bowl and sprinkle lightly with salt. If that brings up the flavor to what you like, then go ahead and salt the main batch of soup. For now, I have added "salt to taste" in the main ingredients list.

Any other thoughts on how you have been able to bring out the best in your soup flavors? Post a comment to share!

You Have to Try It to Believe It Soup

 canola or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 to 2 stalks celery, diced (about 1/2 cup)
2 c butternut squash, diced  (about 8-10 oz)
4 c coarsely shredded cabbage (about 10-12 oz)
2 to 4 c water
1 T chicken or vegetarian bouillon powder (or 2 bouillon cubes)
1 t dried basil
1 t dried oregano
salt and black pepper to taste

1.  Put just enough oil in a large skillet or soup pot to lightly cover the bottom. Heat over medium high and add the onion and celery. Saute until the onion is translucent and beginning to turn golden.

2.  Add the squash cubes and cover the pan. Continue to cook for about 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally.
 







3.  Add the cabbage and about two cups of water, along with the bouillon powder, basil and oregano. Cover and continue to simmer until the squash and cabbage are tender. As the soup cooks, you may add more water to reach the desired consistency.









4.  Taste to adjust for seasonings, adding salt and/or black pepper as desired.




Variation

Use chicken or vegetable stock in place of the water and bouillon powder. Add salt to taste.