27 December 2010

Family recipe Monday: New Year

Seeking warmth...

There are rules--no, make that laws--about New Year's Day cooking, especially if your family tree is full of Southerners swarming all over its branches, like ours. The most iron-clad, fundamental one of all is that you have to have black-eyed peas on the menu in large quantities. This is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity in the coming year. I was surprised to find out just how deep-rooted this tradition is. Here's one account:

"The 'good luck' traditions of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled ~500 CE), Horayot 12A: "Abaye [d. 339 CE] said, now that you have established that good-luck symbols avail, you should make it a habit to see qara (bottle gourd), rubiya (black-eyed peas, Arabic lubiya), kartei (leeks), silka (either beets or spinach), and tamrei (dates) on your table on the New Year." However, the custom may have resulted from an early mistranslation of the Aramaic word rubiya (fenugreek)....This custom is followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews to this day....In the United States, the first Sephardi Jews arrived in Georgia in the 1730s, and have lived there continuously since. The Jewish practice was apparently adopted by non-Jews around the time of the American Civil War."

I'm not so sure that it took that long. Black-eyed peas were themselves brought to the US from West Africa, and were very much present on the tables of African families. They were, however, considered a poverty food crop, suitable for the poor and for livestock only, until after the Civil War. They made it from West Africa to the West Indies by 1643 and made it to the continental US as the slave trade expanded. Black-eyed peas were, and are, a sturdy, dependable and nutritious food. They're the opposite of a luxury crop. Their place on the table expanded after the Civil War, when they were often all that was left in the Reconstruction South's fields. Today they are a Southern favorite across the board.

The tradition is to combine these with greens or cabbage (representing folding money) and cornbread (representing gold) to ensure maximum chances at luck and fortune. Southerners take this very seriously. Really, to do it right, you should eat 365 black-eyed peas to ensure that every day will be a success. Leave three peas on your plate for even better luck.

The problem arises with their taste and texture, which is a bit off-putting for some. Plain boiled black-eyed peas are earthy-tasting with a slightly gritty feel in the mouth, which I for one had trouble handling. Flavoring them with ham hocks did not help. I was happy to leave them all on my plate, but that was not an option. You'd think that would help with the luck thing. It was a source of consternation for all those Southern relatives, and it's a miracle I ever had any good luck or money at all, to hear them talk. Eventually I discovered the myriad recipes for Hoppin' John, and have never looked back. If you're up here on New Year's Day, this is what I'll be serving. Come on over.

Hoppin' John
West Indies rice and bean dishes and promptly spawned thousands of variations across the Caribbean, Central and South America, and eventually the United States and Mexico. If they have made it to Canada, all the better. It's easy to see why--these are solid, nutritious, tasty dishes that can be made in quantity very inexpensively. The name "Hoppin' John" has many explanations, the most likely being that it is an English mispronunciation of pois pigeons, or "pigeon peas," the name still used in the Caribbean for the many, many varieties of black-eyed peas. Leftover Hoppin' John served on January 2 is apparently called Skippin' Jenny, and is yet one more harbinger of good luck, representing your frugality. We will take all the luck we can get....

1 pound dried black-eyed peas (or two cans if you forgot to soak the dried ones)
5 T olive oil and/or butter (or enough to cover the bottom of a skillet, just)
1 lb. smoked sausage, sliced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 can (10 to 14.5 ounces) Ro-Tel tomatoes
2 sweet onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeno, minced
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 teaspoons Cajun or Creole seasoning (I am a Tony Chachere fan)
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt

This is best made the day before, so that the flavors have time to reach their peak. (You may not feel up to cooking on New Year's Day, either, so this can be a real plus.)

Soak the black-eyed peas for at least 4 hours in plain cold water, better yet overnight. Pick out the floaters and any other non-starters, drain  the water and replace it with fresh cold water just to cover. (I use a slow cooker for this.) In a skillet, heat the olive oil and butter, and saute the sausage, onion, garlic, peppers, and celery. Add the seasonings and continue to saute until the vegetables are cooked through but not limp. Transfer the vegetable mixture to the black-eyed peas. Check the cooker periodically to stir the mixture and adjust seasonings. The peas are done when you can see their skins start to peel back when you blow gently on a spoonful of them. Serve hot over cooked rice (or mix with cooked rice) with plenty of Tabasco (regular, green and/or chipotle, if you're not a purist) and Worcestershire sauce, cornbread and greens.

You can also use a Dutch oven or small lidded stockpot if you want this as a stovetop preparation. Keep the burner temperature low to medium, never high. I personally don't cook the black-eyed peas and rice in the same pot, but that is a popular approach. I just like serving the peas on top of the bed of rice. I've used long-grain white, brown, pecan, and wild rice in years past, all to great effect.

This recipe is great for additions and experimentations with ingredients, and can be doubled (or quadrupled) to feed a crowd. The one thing you cannot do on New Year's Day, unless you want to be swarmed by Southern ghosts, is to substitute any other bean variety for black-eyed peas. Not an option. You have the rest of the year for red and black beans.

I'm planning to use this cornbread recipe:

Texas Panhandle cornbread
1 cup blue or yellow cornmeal
1 T baking powder
1 ½ tsp salt
2/3 cup melted butter or bacon drippings
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream
2 cups whole-kernel corn
¼ lb. grated cheese
1 4-oz can chopped green chiles
½ cup bacon bits (very, very optional)

Grease a 9” square pan or large cast iron skillet. Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Blend the butter, eggs and sour cream with the dry ingredients. Fold in the corn kernels. Pour half of the batter into the pan or skillet. Cover with the cheese and chiles. Pour the remaining batter over the top and add the bacon bits. Bake in a preheated oven at 375* F for 30-40 minutes.

For the greens, I like to do a spinach salad, not having a ready source of fresh collard or turnip greens up here. Cabbage is also an option. I assume that it has to be green cabbage for green folding money, so red cabbage is out. This may annoy Gene's Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors, but, really, y'all, we can make up for it starting January 3. This version omits the hard-cooked eggs and bacon. I would use the artichoke oil as part of the dressing, myself.

Spinach salad
Fresh spinach, washed, torn
1 jar marinated artichoke hearts
Garlic salt
Onion powder
Mix all ingredients. Toss with 2 T oil and 2 T vinegar. Toast sesame seeds and mix.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

There are no New Year's Day dessert laws that I know of, so you can go wild there. We made pecan pie for Christmas and may just do it again for New Year's Day.

Pecan pie (Tidewater, Virginia)
Make pastry for 1 9” pie and line pan. Beat together 3 eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, 1/3 tsp salt, 1/3 cup butter (melted), 1 cup dark syrup. Mix in 1 cup pecan halves. Pour into pan. Bake at 375o for 40-50 minutes.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess, Gene K. Hess

Serve with iced tea (sweet if you're Southern) and possibly mimosas if you're up to them after the New Year's Eve party. Here are tips from the Simple Gifts files, if you're unsure about iced tea. Any time you have the option, sweeten tea when it is hot and then allow it to cool.

Three ways of looking at iced tea

  • Using loose tea or teabags and boiling water, bring 1 quart of freshly drawn cold water to a full rolling boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat and immediately add 1/3 cup of loose tea or 15 teabags. Stir, cover, and let stand 5 minutes. Stir again and strain into a pitcher holding another quart of cold water. Serve over ice. Yield 2 quarts.
  • Using teabags and cold water, fill a clean quart pitcher or container with cold tap water. Add 8-10 teabags without tags. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight. Remove teabags, squeezing against side of container. Pour into ice-filled glasses. Recipe may be doubled.
  • Using instant tea or iced tea mixes and cold water, follow directions on jar or envelope. In general, allow 2 rounded T of powder to each quart of cold water. Stir and add ice. If using flavored iced tea mix, use 2 small envelopes or ½ cup mix to each quart of cold water.

May the New Year be bright, bountiful, and just filled to overflowing with good luck for you and yours.

24 December 2010

Blessings of the season

Winter is here, Christmas is here, and half of us are isolated from the others by snow and ice. But the cardamom bread and holiday pies are baking, and the lights are bright. After the spectacular lunar eclipse four days ago, we have had the best light show of all.

This season's most eloquent message was sent in by Tartan Girl. There is no way to improve on it, except to add our favorite holiday song. From our homes to yours...

"Even though we're flung far from each other this year, I thought it might be good to share a story and a couple of carols that are particular favorites of mine. Perhaps I feel a little like Mole this year, but perhaps you'll forgive a sentimental girl whose child's heart has always looked more for the quiet hope and promise of Christmas Eve--perhaps you'll understand why you are the anchorage in my existence, a place all my own that I can turn to......"

"The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour. He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple—how narrow, even—it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome."
--Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows: Chapter V: Dulce Domum

Welcome, Christmas

Welcome, Christmas, come this way,
Welcome, Christmas, Christmas Day

Welcome, Christmas, bring your light,
Welcome, Christmas, in the cold, dark night

Welcome, Christmas, bring your cheer,
Cheer to all Whos far and near.

Christmas Day is in our grasp,
So long as we have hands to clasp.

Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

Welcome, Christmas, while we stand,
Heart to heart and hand in hand.

--Theodore Geisel

20 December 2010

Family recipe Monday: holiday mornings

Part of the teacake shipment to Afghanistan

Dozens of teacakes are winging their way to a dear friend of the family who is in Afghanistan. I made two full-size batches and wound up sending 5 dozen to the war zone, 1 1/2 dozen to work, and the rest for us here at home. That was a major baking day. If you are interested in doing this, use the sturdiest peasant cookie recipes you have. Delicate doesn't cut it. I bagged the teacakes by the dozen just in case they do get broken during shipment, but am hoping that they make it there and make his day a little bit better. What I really want is an end to this war. For all sides. Next year, I want to give this man teacakes in person.

We are approaching the winter solstice very soon, and all our senses tell us that it is time to slow down, take a break, stay warm, and stay close to our loved ones. I associate holiday mornings with decadent sweetrolls and coffees, and we have some terrific recipes in the Simple Gifts files. They're even better if you eat them while you are still in your pajamas. Extra points if they have feet in them. Triple points if you actually wear the pink bunny outfit. Double-dog dare ya. By this time next week, the days will be getting just barely perceptibly longer and many of the holiday celebrations will be over. 

Cinnamon rolls and breads are worth taking a little time and trouble to bake from scratch, one recipe from each side of the family. Once you do, you'll understand why friends don't let friends buy refrigerator aisle cinnamon rolls. I would bake the rolls from the first recipe at ~350*. These are very rich and yeasty. You can refrigerate them after the first rise if you are baking ahead of schedule.

Cinnamon rolls
4 T shortening
3 T sugar
1 ½ tsp salt

Mix and add 1 cup boiling water. Cool. Add 1 egg and 2 cakes yeast which have been dissolved in ¼ cup tepid water. Add 4 cups of flour. Mix. When the dough is formed pour over it 3 T cooled and melted shortening. Let rise until double in bulk, roll out to ¼ ” thick and spread on it 1 stick butter which has been melted and cooled. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, chopped nuts or raisins. Roll and cut in slices and let rise again. Bake until done.

¾ pkg. powdered sugar
½ stick butter
Enough milk to dissolve sugar
Heat until sugar is smooth and pour over rolls.

 --Vada Brooks Johnson

Quick cinnamon buns
Sift together 2 cups flour, 3 T baking powder, 1 tsp salt. Add 6 T soft shortening, cut in finely. Stir in to make soft dough 2/3 cup milk.

Roll into ¼” rectangle 7” x 16”. Spread with mixture of ¼ cup sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon and raisins. Roll up tightly from wide side and seal edge. Cut into 1” slices. Place cut side down on greased cookie sheet or in muffin tins. Bake at 425* for 15 minutes.

--Dolly Shaffner Hess

Cinnamon loaf
1 pkg. active dry yeast
2 T warm water (105-115* F)
2/3 cup milk, scalded
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
6 T butter or margarine
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
Melted butter or margarine

Sprinkle yeast into water. Let stand a few minutes, then stir until dissolved. Pout hot milk over ¼ cup sugar, salt, and 4 T butter. Cool to lukewarm. Add eggs, yeast, and half the flour. Beat with rotary beater or electric beater until smooth. Beat in remaining flour with spoon. Cover and let rise until doubled (about 1 hour). Punch down and knead lightly. Roll out on floured pastry cloth or board to a rectangle 18”x9”. Spread with 2 T butter. Sprinkle with ¼ cup sugar mixed with the cinnamon. Roll up tightly from the end and put in greased loaf pan. Brush with 2 T melted butter and let rise until doubled (about 45 minutes). Bake in moderate oven (350*F) about 30 minutes. Remove and cool.

This is another mix that is great to have on hand for visitors or lazy mornings.

Cinnamon coffee

1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup instant coffee granules
2/3 cup granulated sugar or equivalent sweetener
2/3 cup powdered milk or coffee creamer

Blend all ingredients in a blender until they form a fine powder, then store in a covered container at room temperature. To serve use 2 rounded tsp per cup of boiling water.

  • To ½ cup instant coffee granules, add ¾ cup sugar, 1 cup powdered milk and ½ tsp dried orange peel. Blend in blender until powdered.
  • To ½ cup instant coffee granules, add ½ cup sugar, 1 cup dry milk or coffee creamer, and 2 T cocoa.
If you are REALLY feeling decadent and don't need to drive anywhere, and the occasion is really festive, try this. Shirley is a Bailey's fan and we need to make this for her soon.

Bailey’s Irish Cream eggnog

12 eggs, separated
1 ½ cups superfine sugar
1 quart milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 bottle Bailey’s Irish Cream
4 cups (1 quart) heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks until thick and pale yellow in color. Gradually add sugar; mix with whisk or mixer. Beat in milk. Pour in 2 cups cream. Add Irish Cream, stirring constantly. Pour in large punch bowl. Just before serving, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into mixture. Whip remaining cream until stiff and fold in. Beat. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Serves 16.

Happy, merry, jolly, joyous, y'all!

19 December 2010

In the bleak midwinter: Christmas Bird Count

I have no explanation for this. Read on....

It was bitterly cold at 6:00 this morning, overcast and trying to snow. I know this because we were bundled up to the gills and out in it, participating in the annual 111th Christmas Bird Count. This is a winter census of birds in the Western Hemisphere, carried out by thousands upon thousands of volunteers. It's as wonderful an example of citizen science as you could wish for, and the data acquired help enormously in figuring out changes in bird populations, migration routes and habitats.

Try telling yourself that as you put on the sixth layer of cold-weather gear and head out before sunrise into a freezing-fog day. Even most self-respecting birds aren't out in these conditions.

But we managed to turn up 300+ birds representing 20 species, even in the fog. In the process, we also turned up evidence of a mad Christmas tree decorator in the wild. We love this part of the world--we never know what we will see next.  Now we are thawing out and going over the pictures. Enjoy.

Someone with an odd Christmas ornament fixation placed random decorations in the trees along Rapid Creek. Whoever you are, you're nuts and we love you.

Freezing fog coming in over Cowboy Hill.

If you look carefully, you'll spot yet another green Christmas tree ornament.

And here's another one. At least this one's in an evergreen.

Gene, the Bird Whisperer.

Yep, there's another one. Someone went to a LOT of trouble....

Flora on the frozen tiny wetland.

Canada geese coming in through the fog.

Geese heading to the north.

The hill is disappearing in the fog.

Rapid Creek turning icy even as we watch.

Not exactly wildlife, the mallards were clearly hoping that we could not read the signs forbidding the feeding of waterfowl.

Irate, or perhaps just cold, chickadee staring at us.

House on the prairie on a cold day.

Last and best bird sighting of the day: an adult bald eagle. This is the closest we could get to it.

13 December 2010

Family recipe Monday: biscuits

We missed the snowstorm that has blanketed everything up here east of the Missouri River. There was one night with high winds that blew old dry snow around, but so far that is all we have had, and that is fine with us. Nevertheless, it's cold out there, so we have stayed in except for a brief expedition to get baking needs and library books, not necessarily in that order of importance.

The result of a two-day kitchen weekend are as follows: two gallons of lemon- and garlic-infused chicken stock, 8 dozen teacakes, and a loaf of honey whole-wheat bread that is just now starting to bake. The place smells like home. At least 4 dozen of those teacakes will be on their way to Afghanistan as soon as they are ready to go, to bring a tiny bit of thanks to a group of heroes who don't need luggable things like quilts right now. It's so little. It's all we can do, sending food from home. All of us, whether we are part of one of the peace churches or not, wish that the holidays next year will be happier on this front, that everyone will be safely home with the people who love them. Instead of exchanging gifts, we are all pitching in for a contribution to the Wounded Warrior Project and to a project supporting teachers and classrooms in Afghanistan. We have so much, and so much is needed.

We'd send biscuits if we could. Biscuits are one of our all-time favorite comfort foods. We're not comfortable with anything from the refrigerator section of the grocery store, not when they're so easy to make from scratch. Here is a recipe for making a big stock of dry biscuit mix that will keep forever and be there when you need to have biscuits first thing in the morning. You can use buttermilk powder in place of the dry milk. All of these are rolled out and cut with a biscuit cutter or a smooth-rimmed water glass, and baked in a preheated hot oven. Don't let them burn on the bottom.

All-purpose baking mix

A true time-saver and the basis for several of our recipes for breads and cakes. Great for large groups, or for small groups that eat like large groups...like our family.

Large batch

5-lb. bag or 20 cups flour (all-purpose, whole wheat, or combination)
2½ cups nonfat dry milk
¾ cup baking powder
2 T salt
3¾ cups shortening

Combine dry ingredients in very large bowl. Sift. Using a pastry blender, cut shortening into mix until mix is consistency of cornmeal. Store in airtight container in cool, dry place. To measure, spoon lightly into cup and level off with spatula. Yield: 27 cups mix.

Small batch

8 cups flour (all-purpose, whole wheat, or combination)
1 cup nonfat dry milk
¼ cup plus 1 T baking powder
2 tsp. salt
1½ cups shortening

Use the same procedure as for large batch. Yield: 11 cups of mix.

Basic biscuits

For 6 biscuits:
1 cup All-Purpose Baking Mix (above)
¼ to 1/3 cup milk

For 12 biscuits:
2 cups All-Purpose Baking Mix (above)
½ to 2/3 cup milk

Gradually add milk, mixing with a fork, adding just enough to make a soft, nonsticky dough. Turn onto floured board and knead about 10 times. Roll or pat out to ½” thickness. Cut out with floured biscuit cutter. Bake on cookie sheet at 450* F 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned.

Southern raised biscuits

2¼ oz pkg. dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (105-115* F)
2 cups buttermilk
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1¼ tsp. salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup shortening or unsalted butter

Combine yeast and warm water; let stand 5 minutes or until bubbly. Add buttermilk and set aside. Combine dry ingredients. Cut in shortening. Add buttermilk and yeast mixture gradually, gently combining with a fork. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead lightly 4 or 5 times. Roll dough to ½” thickness. Cut out biscuits and place on greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise for 1 hour. Bake at 450* F for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned.

To freeze: Bake only about 6 minutes; cool, freeze, and wrap airtight. Finish baking on a greased baking sheet at 450* F for 6 more minutes, or until browned. Yield: 2 dozen.

Ranch biscuits

2 cups presifted flour
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ rounded cup shortening
¾ cup buttermilk

Sift together the dry ingredients and cut in the shortening until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Stir in the buttermilk slowly with a fork until a soft dough is formed. Scrape out onto a well-floured board and knead a few times. Roll dough about ½” thick and cut out the biscuits. Bake in preheated oven at 450* F until golden brown (8-10 minutes). Makes 10-12 2 ½” biscuits.

Happy Monday. Take a minute to think about everyone who is overseas for us.

06 December 2010

Family recipe Monday: holiday sweets

Downtown Rapid City lights

The holiday season is definitely upon us, ready or not. Mostly not, here, because it is also the end of the semester. Yesterday was the college's annual choir concert. We have attended this since we arrived here, because it seems that I have always had students singing in the performance and felt the need to be there. The productions are always excellent. Our attendance has not always been so.

Two years ago, we plowed through 2-foot snow drifts to get to the cathedral, and that caused snow and ice to work deep into the mechanism of Gene's power chair. That was the year that the choirs performed the Messiah. The whole thing. Sometime after the Hallelujah Chorus, in one of the achingly beautiful and very quiet solos, the chair started audibly sparking and smoking. It caused a great perturbation in the rows behind us. We were seated in the front row, so about the only good thing anyone could say was that it did not interrupt the performance.

1. Every retired engineer in the audience (and in Rapid City there are tons and heaps of retired engineers) mobbed us after the performance to offer help with the chair problems.
2. My respect for the music director soared to the ceiling and has stayed there ever since.
3. There are still a few people, including my mother, who call Gene "Sparky" to this day.
4. Great music cannot be impaired by awkward moments.
5. Astonishingly, we are still allowed to attend the concerts.

Ah, December. This is a time of year for inclusion, empathy, affection, and large quantities of sweet treats that you would not touch the rest of the year. Here are a few from the Simple Gifts files.

Divinity is a great example of a super-sweet holiday treat that is never made, seen or heard of the rest of the year. For those of you worried about the raw egg whites: they are thoroughly cooked by the addition of the boiling sugar solution. You can either drop it by spoonfuls onto wax paper, or pour it into a wax-paper-lined pan and leave it to cool before cutting. It does not work nearly as well in a humid atmosphere. Be careful--boiling sugar solutions cause nasty burns.


4 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 cup Karo syrup
3 egg whites
2 tsp vanilla

Cook sugar, water and Karo to hard-boil stage. Pour into beaten egg whites, slowly at first. When candy begins to harden, beat with spoon until ready to pour out.
--Bonnie Hall

Not everyone cares for candied fruit, but you can substitute good-quality dried fruit of your choice in the following recipe. I am particularly partial to dried cherries, papayas, mangoes and pineapples in combination, diced to about the same size.

 Holiday fruit drops

1 cup shortening
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 eggs
½ cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ cups pecans
2 cups candied fruit
2 cups cut-up dates

Mix shortening, sugar and eggs well. Stir in buttermilk. Measure flour by dipping method by sifting. Blend dry ingredients and stir in. Stir in pecans, fruit and dates. Chill at least 1 hour. Heat oven to 400o F. Drop rounded tsp. of dough 2” apart on lightly greased baking sheet. Place pecan half on each cookie. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until almost no imprint remains when touched lightly. Yield 8 dozen.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Everyone seems to have a recipe for the world's best fudge. This one is ours. I would use butter instead of margarine, honestly.

Million dollar fudge

4 ½ cups sugar
1 tall can milk
2 sticks oleo
18 oz chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla

Bring sugar and milk to a boil and boil 10 minutes. Put 2 sticks oleo and chocolate chips into large bowl. Pour milk mixture over and beat with mixer until thick and creamy. Add vanilla and nuts and pout in buttered pan.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Happy Monday. Please keep the sparkles in your eyes.

29 November 2010

Family recipe Monday: comfort foods

Small quilt in honor of a big anniversary

It's been an odd couple of weeks, with days of high activity interspersed with a few quiet moments. I really am not ready for the holidays to be upon us, but, like everyone else, I am ready for the end of the semester. Just wish that we could have a couple of months of paid leave before the next semester starts. Since no one asked me, however, I'll make do with a couple of weeks off. I have a pile of quilting and sewing projects, some of which are badly overdue, to work on.

Next month is an important anniversary for a group that is very dear to me, and that I miss out here in Dakota Territory. Quilts for Comfort is celebrating its 10th year of providing quilts for those in need in the Delaware area. Its founder, Edna Kotrola, organized hundreds of bees (with potluck lunches) and thousands of volunteer workers in the effort. They claim that 7284 quilts have been delivered to at-risk children in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as to adults receiving dialysis and cancer care in Delaware. I helped with about 50 of these, starting literally the day before I had major surgery myself and needed something calming to do with my mother, who was up to help. We went to a bee in Newark, DE, and I was hooked. And calmed. And the surgery went very well.

Edna gave me the last quilt I worked on with her when I moved out here, as a surprise gift. It was and is indeed a comfort. I miss the bees and am looking for a local equivalent, but it won't be quite the same. I decided to do some quilting for the anniversary.

So I dragged out the fabric stash (which needed reorganizing anyway) and my grandmother's Singer Featherweight (which I only use for quilt piecing, because it is the best machine ever) and took a square from each of 48 different fabrics. I wanted it to be colorful and cheerful for the person who receives it, and reasonably well-made so that Edna does not think she wasted her time on me. If you are looking for a cause to support, you couldn't do better than hers.

It's the right time of year for thinking about warmth and comfort. Here are a couple of classics which I would take to a quilting bee potluck.


1 ½ lb. ground beef
1 ½ tsp salt
1 cup fresh bread crumbs or oats
¼ tsp pepper
1 beaten egg
½ can tomato sauce
1 medium sized onion, chopped

Lightly mix ingredients and form a loaf. Place in shallow pan in moderate (350* F) oven. While it is starting to bake, combine the following to make a tart-sweet sauce:

½ can tomato sauce
2 T brown sugar or molasses
2 T vinegar
1 cup water
2 T prepared mustard

Pour over meatloaf in oven. Continue baking for 1 ½ hours, basting occasionally.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Note: Shirley never uses the fresh breadcrumbs, but always uses the oats and adds bell pepper.

For this next one, I would only use corn tortillas. It could also be made with chicken instead of ground beef. I would use a good white cheese instead of Velveeta, personally. This recipe can be adapted easily and enlarged to make enough for a whole roomful of busy, hungry quilters. It can be prepared in advance and reheated beautifully--that is, if you didn't use Velveeta.

Green chili enchiladas
Brown 1 lb. meat with small chopped onion--add 8 oz grated longhorn cheese and simmer. In double boiler, heat 1 can cream of chicken soup, 1 can chopped green chilis, 1 small jar chopped pimientos, 1 small can evaporated milk, and 8 oz Velveeta cheese. Heat until cheese is melted. Roll meat mixture in tortillas. Place in pan and pour green chili mixture over enchiladas. Cover with foil and cook at 400* F until mixture is bubbly.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Happy Monday. Go make someone happy today.

27 November 2010

Lights. Camera. Brontothere.

What the...???? Read on....

I made it through high school and college without ever having to participate in making a parade float or even being in a parade. In the last 14 months, though, we have been in three parades, two of them involving a float, the most recent being tonight. This didn't involve the dreaded chicken wire and tissue paper, though. No, this involved a modified rhinoceros taxidermy form and a lot of talent and energy from our faculty, staff and students.

Remember this guy from September?

The brontothere we entered as our float in the university parade in September so charmed our administration that they asked us to re-enter it in the city's annual Parade of Lights, held to kick off the holiday season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Obviously, this is a night-time parade and  lighting is critically important. Our curator agreed to take this on.

Sometime after that, we found that our brontothere would be not only the university's representative, but actually the Grand Marshal float leading the parade, with the university president and his wife riding on the float along with the university mascot. No pressure at all, right? Oh, and the lights had to be (we were told) LEDs. And we found out less than two weeks before the event.

Here's what we did.

First things first. By a unanimous vote, the brontothere's nose horns got red lights in honor of Rudolph. Everything else was negotiable. This was not.  

Then he was lifted onto the trailer once again, gently. The platform makes it possible for us to strap him securely to the trailer.

Net lights helped us negotiate his difficult shape rather ingeniously.

Don't you think the net lights give him a strong resemblance to Durer's rhinoceros?

They used lights to outline a panel on each side for the school banners.

And they used string lights to outline his head and legs.

Rudolph had NOTHIN' on our guy. THIS is a red nose.

Front half is lit.

Adding more lights to the rear.

Pointillistic brontothere.

Brontothere reflected in the overhead door.

The artistic Michelle replaced a white bulb with a green one at each eye, to give him the laser-eyed effect.

Full body lights are working.

Room lights back on for phase II of the work.

White tarps plus multi-colored net lights = a winter snowy wonderland effect. Or so we say.

It all comes together.

Lights and sound system ready to go. Needless to say, he was a hit.

And also needless to say, we are chilled, exhausted and exhilarated after watching him move regally downtown. He was the star of a lovely and joyous hometown parade. You wouldn't see him in the Macy's parade, just as you wouldn't see the decorated horses, Harleys, rescue dogs, Lakota drummers and singing toilets we saw tonight, but I'll take this over Macy's any day.

Let the holiday season begin.

25 November 2010

Thanksgiving recipe: Texas cream pie

We were braced for a major storm the past two days, but it missed us. Thanksgiving is snow-covered under a blazing blue sky. From a low of -8*F, we have come up to 22*F. It is a glorious day to be indoors looking out. Hot tea and a warm and busy kitchen make it even better.

Thanksgiving dinner starts as soon as Gene finishes the glazed carrots, made with some truly incredible carrots from a friend's garden. Everything else is ready to go--turkey, whole-berry cranberry relish, sage-cornbread dressing, other assorted sides, and a trio of pies. We went with sweet potato, buttermilk and mincemeat pies, and everything smells wonderful up here.

In a hectic year and a tough economy, we are thankful for our supportive network of friends and family, and are grateful for everyone who is healthy, happy and safe. We cherish both the long-term friends who have put up with us for years, and the people we have met in the past three years or so up here who have become good friends as well. I am personally thankful for having the opportunity to live in this wild, beautiful and deep-rooted part of the world, and to be in a position to learn and document, and maybe even to help protect, its history.

Today's recipe is the one that my grandmother cherished most deeply and protected most fiercely. She was reluctant to give it out at all, even in her last years. As you know, I'm not sure that recipes can or should be as secret as all that; nevertheless, I had some pangs about publishing this one. Consider it a gift, our thanks for your being here.

There are two very slightly different versions of this. Texas Cream Pie is nothing like Boston Cream Pie, which is a cake, anyway. It is a gelatin-enhanced vanilla-perfumed custard with a slightly extravagant whipped topping and chocolate shavings as the final garnish.

Texas cream pie

The all-time winner for a perfect dessert. This was taken from a commercial recipe and it was years before Vada felt that she could share it. Her note reads “This is a prize winning $1,000 recipe. Guard it carefully.”

For 2 pies have ready 2 baked pie shells.

Sift together

½ cup sugar
1 heaping T flour

Add 2 cups milk. Cook slightly in double boiler. Add ¼ of this mixture to 5 egg yolks, slightly beaten. Then add yolk mixture to rest of custard. Return to double boiler and cook 3 minutes. Soften 1½ envelopes gelatin in ¼ cup cold water. When custard has cooked 3 minutes, remove from heat and stir in gelatin and 2 tsp vanilla. Cool thoroughly. Beat 4 egg whites with ¼ tsp cream of tartar and add ½ cup sugar. Fold in custard mix gently and put in baked pie shells. Set in refrigerator. Whip ½ cup cream and add 2 T powdered sugar. Spread on top of pie and decorate with grated semi-sweet chocolate over top.

There are two versions of this recipe: the older one adds 1 extra egg, ½ stick of real butter, and an extra ½ envelope of gelatin. This is the version Vada and Gladys came up with and preferred.
--Vada Brooks Johnson, Gladys Brooks Strickland

It's worth the trouble, is all I can say. Happy Thanksgiving. Squeeze your loved ones and don't be afraid to have seconds of anything.