Sunday, May 29, 2011

Peanut Pork

It's a scorcher today in Bristol, so I am putting my slow cooker to good use. I have fallen so deeply in love with a new Peanut Chicken recipe (I've made it three times in the last month) that I decided to try it again today, but this time using pork as the meat.

I sliced up three boneless pork chops and added them to the slow cooker with about 2 cups of baby carrots and half of a large, white onion, cut in chunks. I did not use bell pepper this time. I made a sauce similar to the Peanut Chicken sauce -- soy sauce, curry paste, peanut butter (today I used chunky, not smooth). Instead of using lime juice and lime zest, I used orange juice and orange zest (that's what I had on hand!)

I also added a 4 ounce can of tomato sauce to the dish. The sauce seemed like it needed something and the tomato sauce seemed a good match. The house smells terrific. I am going to add peas and coconut milk about 30 minutes before the dish is finished, just like the Peanut Chicken recipe. I plan to serve this over rice and top each serving with roasted cashews (my husband prefers them to peanuts) and chopped cilantro from the herb garden outside.

Happy weekend, all. Enjoy the Memorial Day holiday tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Best of the Best from Virginia

I recently pulled this old favorite off the shelf and started digging in. I received a copy of the Best of the Best from Virginia Cookbook from a lifelong friend and her mother back in 1993. I looked it up online this week and was surprised to see you could order a copy for five bucks.

Reading this book lets you take a mini-vacation across the commonwealth, since it features recipes from Norfolk and Virginia Beach, to Arlington and Abingdon. One of my favorite contributors is Tidewater on the Halfshell from the Junior League of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. For years this was my mother’s go-to gift. The recipes are triple tested and give a real flavor for that region of Virginia. I also enjoyed reading some offerings from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon, Va.

The Best of the Best from Virginia Cookbook includes a terrific
Brunswick stew recipe. It is a bit of work, but if the weather stays as rainy and cool as it has recently, I plan to make it soon. Happy cooking, friends!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Grilled porkchops and au gratin potatoes

This is one of my favorite storebought marinades: KC Masterpiece Chipotle and Lime. After a couple of months of enjoying this marinade on beef, chicken and shrimp, I finished the bottle on Saturday. Its final gift was to season some boneless pork chops that then made their way onto the gas grill. My husband raved about the flavor; it was the best use yet for this versatile marinade.

I served the chops with some au gratin potatoes that I mixed up before heading outside to grill. This was an excellent pairing – cheesy, creamy potatoes with the spicy pork. And since the potatoes need about an hour to cook, I could focus on cooking outside for a bit.

Au gratin potatoes was one of my mother’s favorite and most common side dishes. They are easy, delicious and pair well with just about any meat or vegetable. As a kid, we jokingly called au gratin potatoes “old rotten potatoes.” OK, an old tired joke. But now, as back then, the recipe was devoured.

Au Gratin Potatoes

3-4 medium sized potatoes (I used three Russet and one Yukon gold), scrubbed and cut into thin slices
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the sliced potatoes in a 2 quart casserole dish that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Arrange the potatoes evenly – sometimes I even fan them out in circles. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and blend in the flour. Using a whisk, blend in the milk. I usually add about half the milk, blend completely and wait for the sauce to thicken slightly, before adding the remaining milk. Add half the cheese and stir until melted completely. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the cheese sauce over the potatoes, covering completely. Top with the remaining grated cheese. Cover the casserole dish with foil and bake in the 350 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the foil for the last 10-15 minutes so the top will brown.

After I grilled the pork chops and brought them inside, the potatoes still needed to tighten up and brown. I bumped the oven temp up to 400 for about 10 minutes and they were perfect. My husband is a huge fan. Making this dish is super simple and guaranteed to win raves. Add ham or leftover vegetables for a one-pot supper.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If you want to can, read this first

Many cookbooks include sections on food preservation -- home canning, freezing and drying. But if you aim to can food, you must start by reading this book: the Ball Blue Book, the complete book of home preserving. I cannot recommend this resource highly enough. It explains the steps for water bath canning (used for foods like tomatoes, fruits, pickles, jam, jelly and salsa) and for pressure canning (used for low acid foods, like green beans or meals you might want to can, like soups and stews).

I am likely to buy a new canner this year -- it has been 12 years, after all. But well maintained a cannner can last for a long time. And replacement seals for pressure canners are available.

For either method, you need canning jars, lids and rings; tongs and a jar lifter. I will describe the process for canning in future posts. Whether you are new to home canning, or a seasoned pro, take time to read up on canning basics in the Ball Blue Book, or with resources from your Cooperative Extension office. Proper technique will yield excellent results and guarantee safe eating of your creations.

Another Navy Bean Soup

The rain won't seem to quit in Bristol. So despite my excitement over farmers markets and fresh produce, I am making some cool weather comfort food to chase away the cold. I whipped this up this morning with ingredients I already had on hand.

Navy beans are one of my favorites for recipes in the slow cooker. They keep their shape over long, slow cooking and have a mild flavor that even the pickiest eaters (yes, I am talking about my youngest son) will enjoy.

Navy beans are commonly used to make baked beans or in cassoulet. This version of cassoulet calls for another white bean (Great Northern) but any white bean would do – navy, cannellini or others. Navy beans have long fed sailors -- they are inexpensive, easy to transport and can feed a crowd. Here is a Navy Bean Soup recipe from the Department of the Navy. And navy beans are the star of Senate Bean Soup, the dish offered daily at the Senate restaurant in Washington, D.C. The recipe is so simple and satisfying -- and only five ingredients -- that it’s no wonder that it is a perennial favorite.

Navy beans are a great source of protein and fiber and have been shown to help lower cholesterol. They have a high level of saponin, which are antibacterial and antifungal. In some tests, saponion has been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth.

I turn to navy beans for various soups and stews, including a creation I whipped up this morning in my slow cooker. It is an offshoot of a typical ham and navy bean soup, but I added Cajun sausage that I had in the freezer.

Another Navy Bean Soup

1 ½ cups navy beans; soak overnight and drain in morning
½ pound Cajun sausage, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 cup diced ham
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes with chipotle pepper
1 cup diced carrots
½ teaspoon dried oregano
6 cups water

Add the soaked and drained beans to a 6 quart slow cooker. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. You could add some diced onion, but I did not have any on hand this morning. Set cooker to low and cook for 8 hours.

Almost always, I serve hearty soups with rice. Cook one cup rice in two cups water. Yield is 3 cups (Remember 1+2=3)

Friday, May 13, 2011

State Street Farmers Market

I'm excited to visit the State Street Farmers Market tomorrow. It is located in Bristol (on the Tennessee side, near Kiln Time pottery) and offers an abundance of local produce, flowers, jams, honey, milk, meat and more.

Last year, I tried to visit at least once a week -- the market is open on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. Most towns have vibrant and interesting farmers markets; the one in Abingdon, Va. is especially good. And consider visiting smaller ones like the Norton Friends and Farmers Market (Tuesday afternoons) or the one in Glade Spring (Saturday morning at the town square).

For anyone who needs convincing, here are some benefits to buying produce at a local farmers market. Check it out -- and look for me at a local farmers market soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A hydrangea for Hannah

On a trip to a garden center over the weekend, my daughter spied a cluster of hydrangeas – most of them blooming. She was drawn to their bluish color and intrigued when I told her that they vary in color based on the composition of their soil. More acidic soil produces blooms that are blue (pH 5.5 and lower). A more alkaline soil produces blooms that are pink (pH 6.5 and higher). Soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5 will produce flowers that are purplish. (Yes, I had to look that up in my old Master Gardener book!)

Growing up in Norfolk, my parents planted hydrangeas in a row between the house and the driveway. They made a glorious bluish-purple display along the driveway, where we enjoyed them while roller skating. And once the blooms were spent and the plants died back, my dad would use lopers and cut them nearly to the ground. His actions taught me not to be afraid to perform serious pruning. Those hydrangeas always came back with robust foliage at least four feet tall.

On Mother’s Day, we bought one hydrangea plant, hydrangea macrophylla “bailmer,” and planted it at one corner of the house. Hannah was eager to dig the hole and slip the plant into the ground. It will get sun and shade from this spot -- a good location since many hydrangeas need partial shade to thrive.

There are many types of hydrangeas – they can produce large, rounded blooms; smaller, pom-pom sized blooms; elongated “spikes” (called panicles) and range in color from green, to white, to pink, blue and purple. One of my favorites is this white "oakleaf" variety.

Hydrangeas are generally reliable in zones 4-9, making them a gorgeous addition to most gardens. A great resource for hydrangeas, including blooms, climate, diseases and more, is the United States National Arboretum.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Giving chicken a turn

I’ve had such success with using pork to make a filling for burritos or quesadillas that I thought I would try the same technique using chicken. My children all love Mexican food, but making it at home is so much less expensive. And this method is simple and delicious.

Take a pound of boneless chicken and put it in a 2 quart pan. Slice an onion into wedges. Sprinkle the chicken and onions lightly with salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper and sugar. Cover the pan with foil and bake in a 300 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven, top with 2/3 to 1 cup of salsa. Cover with foil and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, let rest about 15 minutes, then shred with two forks.

I served the onions separately.

I also made a cheese sauce. In a medium sauce pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Blend flour into butter and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add 1½ cups milk, blending with a whisk to prevent lumps. Cook for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup shredded cheese (I used a Colby/Jack blend) and stir to melt completely. Add 2 tablespoons of salsa and stir to blend.

We made burritos with this filling and sauce, adding lettuce, salsa and rice – a delicious, easy meal.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spectacular strawberries

The strawberries are coming in like gangbusters from patches all over the South. If you live in a place where you can pick your own, you must make a trip to the farm. Growing up in Norfolk, Va., I have fond memories of strawberry picking at various farms in Princess Anne County (many of those farms no longer exist, as the city of Virginia Beach has expanded and developed). Going to the Pungo Strawberry Festival is a special joy and a reason to celebrate agriculture, small towns and this delectable berry.

The truth about strawberries in my household: My husband cannot eat them. My children dearly love them in all variations: pies, jam, fruit salad or rinsed and popped in their mouths. My mother-in-law has been known to eat an entire jar of my strawberry-banana jam, given a quiet afternoon and a spoon.

When I learned to can in 1999, I started out using powdered pectin to thicken my jams and jellies. Pectin is naturally occurring in fruit, especially apples. If cooked slow and long, fruits will thicken on their own, but the added pectin gives jams and jellies a hand. I later switched to liquid pectin, which comes in foil pouches. I love the softer set jams and jellies get from the liquid pectin.

There are countless variations for strawberry jam, but I have always used the Sure-Jell recipe that comes with the pectin pouch. Here are the basics:

What You Need
5 cups prepared fruit (about 2 quarts fully ripe strawberries)
1 box SURE.JELL Fruit Pectin
1/2 tsp. butter or margarine (optional)
7 cups sugar, measured into separate bowl

Make It
BRING boiling-water canner, half full with water, to simmer. Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water; rinse with warm water. Pour boiling water over flat lids in saucepan off the heat. Let stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain well before filling.

STEM and crush strawberries thoroughly, one layer at a time. Measure exactly 5 cups prepared fruit into 6- or 8-quart saucepot.

STIR pectin into prepared fruit in saucepot. Add butter to reduce foaming, if desired. Bring mixture to full rolling boil (a boil that doesn't stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar. Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with metal spoon.

LADLE immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of tops. Wipe jar rims and threads. Cover with 2-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into canner. (Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water, if necessary.) Cover; bring water to gentle boil. Process 10 minutes. Remove jars and place upright on a towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middle of lid with finger. (If lid springs back, lid is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.)

Complete recipe information and photos are here.

Delicious Peanut Chicken

This recipe is so delicious that you must stop what you are doing, go to the store, buy these ingredients and make this for yourself and/or your family tonight. OK, you have my permission to read the recipe once through, then get moving to the store. This recipe is fantastic, out of the norm and so delicious you will want to make it (and eat it) again and again.

Its flavors are reminiscent of Indian and Thai cooking (two of my favorites). It has hot, sour, salty,and sweet flavors from a combination of curry paste, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, lime juice and peanut butter. And I love the contrast of textures – crunchy peanuts, creamy sauce (thickened with coconut milk), sweet green peas and the sharpness of fresh cilantro.

This recipe sounds complicated because it includes a lot of ingredients. Don’t let that stop you. It’s easy and simple and the ingredients are readily available in most any grocery store. Just chop and drop the vegetables, add the raw chicken, then mix and pour the sauce ingredients over all. You add the coconut milk and peas at the end of cooking, then top it with the crunchy nuts and cilantro to serve. I ate the leftovers the following day for lunch and they were as good, or better, as the original meal.

Peanut chicken

Two onions, cut in wedges
3 carrots, sliced
1 green bell pepper, cut in slices (The recipe called for a red bell pepper, but I used green because the red ones are ridiculously expensive)
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken, cut in 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon shredded lime peel
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2-3 teaspoons red curry paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup frozen peas
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
To serve: 3 cups cooked rice, roasted peanuts, chopped cilantro

Cut the onions, carrots and pepper and place in a 6-quart slow cooker. Top with the chicken. In a medium bowl, combine the sauce ingredients: chicken broth, peanut butter, lime peel, lime juice, soy sauce, ginger, curry paste and garlic. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and chicken. Cook on low for 7 hours. Add frozen peas and coconut milk, stir to combine. Let cook another 30 minutes. Serve over cooked rice and garnish with roasted peanuts and chopped cilantro.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Out with the ancient ramen noodles

So, I already told you how my weekend was full of hauling wash to the laundromat, raking leaves and picking up limbs, replanting after storm damage and plenty of cooking. I did something else on Sunday that I typically dread, but it had to be done.

I pulled out every item from our kitchen cabinets. Yes, down to ancient ramen noodles and caked-up hot cocoa mix. I filled a box for the food pantry at my son's school (items that are still good, but we are not going to eat); and dumped the opened stuff that was never going to get finished. All the boxed cereals are put away. The coffee, filters, creamer and sweetener are together. I actually know what vegetables I have and where to find the rice. I expect it to stay this way for a few more days...

After pulling everything out and cleaning the shelves, I had to put down new liner paper. I mean, it may be years before I get this inspired again. I chose a pattern called waterdance. It's green and white and similar to the background for my blog. I realize no one is going to see it, except me (on the lowest shelves). Still, getting the cabinets clean and organized made me feel great.

I also gave the dog a bath, with my youngest son's help. Jake (the dog) is either too old to fight or resigned to what is happening.

On Sunday afternoon he actually got into the tub when I asked. Now that is cooperation.

Cheeseburger soup

I love using my slow cooker for all kinds of obvious reasons – it uses little electricity, it lets me get other things done during the day, it produces great meals for little cost. But sometimes I find recipes that are just plain fun. I got this one for cheeseburger soup from my mother and it was a profound hit with my family. With the addition of potatoes, I suppose it could be called cheeseburger and fries soup.

The recipe includes various burger toppings: Onions, ketchup, mustard and hot peppers. The original recipe called for one Serrano pepper, but I could not find one at my local grocery store. The jalapenos looked elderly, so I chose one of those small, red bird peppers. Not sure how hot it would really be, I added it whole to the pot – like you would use a habenero pepper.

This soup was delicious and quickly devoured. The addition of cheese soup gives a silky texture.

In a medium skillet, cook beef with onions and garlic. Drain excess fat.

Combine the potatoes, ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper and hot pepper in a 5-6 quart slow cooker.

Can you tell where I went to the grocery store this week? Add the broth, cheese soup and hamburger meat.

Cook on low for 10 hours. Top each serving with a sprinkle of cheese and a couple of slices of dill pickle.

The cold dill pickle on the hot soup is terrific.

Cheeseburger soup

1 pound ground beef
½ cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
2 cups diced potatoes
1 shredded carrot
¼ cup ketchup
2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
1 tablespoon Serrano pepper, diced (I used a whole red bird pepper, uncut)
¼ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Two 14 ounce cans beef broth
10.75 ounce can cheddar cheese soup
To garnish: ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese, dill pickles

In a medium skillet, cook beef with onions and garlic. Drain excess fat. Combine the meat and all other ingredients, except garnishes, in a 5-6 quart slow cooker. Cook on low for 10 hours. Top each serving with a sprinkle of cheese and a couple of slices of dill pickle. Serves 8.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Laundry, raking, hauling limbs, more laundry

It’s been a whirlwind weekend – the kind when you work so much you are grateful for Monday to come around again. We are fortunate to be safe after Thursday’s storms that brought hail, strong wind and lightning to our corner of the world. A tornado touched down in the nearby town of Glade Spring, Va. In Bristol, Tenn., our neighbors a little more than a block away saw 60-foot tall trees toppled like sticks, power outages and serious damage to their homes.

Our problems seemed minor in comparison – a yard full of limbs and leaves and a washing machine on its way out. I hit the ground running Saturday morning with a trip to the laundry. So I dragged four bags of dirty clothes to the Washteria in Bristol, Va., and set to work. If you live nearby and you need to go to a laundromat, go here. Even on a Saturday morning, I was in and out in a little more than an hour. Thank goodness for a huge number of washers and dryers – and a change machine that will take a $20 bill.

I hit the nearby Kroger and dragged home groceries, some hanging baskets and a carful of laundry. My husband and youngest son were hard at work in the yard clearing leaves, limbs and sticks that rained on our yard during Thursday’s storm. The cleanup took us more than two full days, but we are ready for pickup in the morning. The edge of our yard is lined with limbs and brush about 3 feet deep, and about six bags of leaves and twigs. (My husband has decided that being a lumberjack will not be his next career. He chopped all the large limbs with an axe, resulting in an enormous pile of potential firewood.)

I also replanted cucumbers, parsley, cilantro and zinnias to make up for the ones damaged by the hail. And by damaged I mean leaves striped away and beaten to death. I also tried two new slow cooker recipes this weekend. Posts to come soon. Gotta put more laundry in the new washing machine, which thankfully was delivered on Sunday.

(And did I mention we got a new dishwasher this weekend, too? Lowes was bringing the deals, folks!)

The tree photo with this post is from the campus of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn. After all our tree damage, I wanted to share a beautiful tree photo from the region. Enjoy the last moments of the weekend, friends!