25 October 2010

Family recipe Monday: more cookies

Cooler weather and increasing holiday parties mean that cookie baking is back in force. I'm pulling out all the recipes for good, sturdy, spicy cookies that go with drinks such as cocoa and cider. This one for oatmeal cookies, for example, is a winner. You can vary the spices to your taste--ginger and nutmeg work well--and the preparation is very simple. Just don't forget that you need to start this the day before so that the dough can chill and set up. Oh, and when they say "quick oats," they mean it. Steel cut oats do not work without some serious soaking. Don't ask me how I know this.

Oatmeal cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) melted butter or margarine
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
2 cups quick oats
1 T molasses
2/3 cups raisins
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts
2 cups flour
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Mix dry ingredients together and mix into wet ingredients. Let set overnight in refrigerator. Pinch off by tsp. Put on slightly greased pan and bake at 350* F for 12 minutes. Makes 6 dozen.
--Mary Johnson Jenkins, Big Spring

Here is a recipe for very festive cookies, especially daring for West Texas. Yes, you have to share them.

Melba’s rum cookies
3 cups flour, divided
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup butter or margarine
1 tsp. cloves
4 eggs, one at a time; mix well
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 T sweet milk
½ cup rum
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt

Blend 1 ½ cups of flour with remaining ingredients. Blend well together. Sift remaining 1 ½ cups flour over 1 ½ lb. pecans, ½ lb. chopped candied cherries, ½ lb. chopped candied pineapple, and ½ lb. white raisins. Mix well until fruit and nuts are well floured and add to first mix. Drop by tsp. onto greased cookie sheet and bake at 325* F or less for 20-30 minutes. Moisten cloth with rum and spread over top of cookies when they are stored.
--Melba Campbell Johnson

I love the name of these cookies, but I'm not sure where it arose. This is a very different recipe from the more widely known stone jar molasses cookies, relying instead on brown sugar. A lot of brown sugar. It's another crypto-classic in the instructions department.

One explanation I found is that a stoneware jar is supposed to be used to press small balls of cookie dough flat before baking. I've also heard that cooks used a sugared drinking glass bottom for flattening these. In any case, the directions are simple: cream together the butter and sugar, add eggs and mix in one at a time, add the milk and vanilla, then add the mixed dry ingredients. Let this rest for 10 minutes and then roll out small balls of the dough. Place on the greased cookie sheet and flatten gently. Baking time is about 10 minutes.

Stone jar cookies
1 cup butter
1 box brown sugar
3 eggs
3 ¼ cups flour
¼ cup milk
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
2 cups pecans
1 tsp. vanilla

Grease and flour cookie pan the first time. Bake at 375* F.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Finally, this is a real holiday classic. Gene prefers his mincemeat in pie form, but it makes great cookies, too. I would use a half-jar of mincemeat for this. For nutmeats, being Texan, I use fresh pecans, chopped. Roll the dough into small balls and press with a fork twice, crosswise, then bake for ~10 minutes.

Mincemeat cookies

½ cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs
3 ¼ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
1 cup nut meats
1 pkg. mincemeat
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ T hot water

Cream butter and sugar, add eggs, etc. Dissolve soda in hot water. Flour mincemeat with a fourth-cup flour. Press out with a fork on a sheet and bake at 350* F.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Happy Monday, happy fall.

24 October 2010

Out standing in the field

Cottonwood reverie

There are things that you can't teach in a classroom. For me, that list is growing enormously. In paleontology, for instance, nothing takes the place of taking the class to the site, rather than struggling to bring a simulation of the site into the classroom. This is an observational science, not an experimental one. If we want our students to be leaders in the field, I would argue that we have to take them into the field in the first place, to develop their skills as observers, documenters and problem-solvers.

We did just that again last week, visiting some key sites nearby and letting the students start working on an actual annual inventory of fossil resources. Because these sites have been poached, we were able to combine the inventory learning with an impromptu lecture on why this was CSI: South Dakota and what they should be looking for in terms of illegal removal and vandalism. It was a tremendous opportunity for all of us to learn in a half-day what would take me many more hours to explain in a classroom.

We all learn best by doing, by handling and manipulating, by seeing everything in situ and interconnected rather than separated and shorn of context. At some point, abstraction has to be linked back to the reality that first gave rise to the concept.

Om top of that, it was a perfect fall prairie day. Enjoy the scenery.

Moving up the hill from the cottonwoods

The group on the ridge in slanting morning light

Main hazard on this site: solitary male bison. This one was not much of a hazard, though. 

Fall colors on the hills and prairies

Subtle fall colors up close

Another bison, just as unimpressed.

18 October 2010

Family recipe Monday: autumn pies

Autumn light streams in
 Stained glass lends more beauty
Cat dreams in colors. 

Farmers' market ends
Gardens yield their last harvest--
October feasting.

It is a gloriously pretty time up here on the prairies, but it's obvious from the color and slant of the sunlight that fall is racing toward the cold times. The cranes have started returning in huge flocks, flying high and fast, headed for Texas and New Mexico and other warm refugia after summer in the Arctic. Their calls trail after them, sounding like soft questions. Where? Where?

The farmers' market is selling the last of the produce and more of the canned goods. All the pumpkins, squash and gourds are coming in nicely, unlike the apples and plums of summer. The root vegetables are also maturing rapidly.

Pies featuring autumn produce are different in texture and preparation from the fresh fruit pies of summer, less sweet and more at home with the warm spices. In general, both sweet potato and pumpkin/squash pies are based on a custard preparation, baked at a low temperature to allow the custard to set without cracking. They are single-crust (like most custard pies) and often are topped with a meringue or whipped cream layer.

I have moved away from cinnamon somewhat and more toward nutmeg and allspice. It's trickier to get the gentler cinnamon as opposed to the harsher cassia, and the latter can mask the flavor of a pie. Nutmeg and allspice let the flavor shine through. The following recipes from the Simple Gifts files tend to call for cinnamon because that was what was available in West Texas at the time. You can substitute spices and experiment until you hit the right combination.

Prize sweet potato pecan pie

 ½ cups mashed sweet potatoes
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ cups scalded milk
2 well-beaten eggs

Fill unbaked pie shell. Bake in moderate oven, 350* F, until nearly set, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with mixture of ½ cup butter, ½ cup brown sugar and ¾ cup pecans. Continue baking until custard is done (about 45 minutes in all). Serve with whipped cream.

Here is a recipe for a custard which is wholly cooked before being poured into the pie crust to set up.

Pumpkin chiffon pie

1 cup pumpkin (cook slowly in heavy stewer 10 minutes and cool)
½ tsp salt
3 beaten egg yolks
1 cup milk
½ cup sugar
1 T butter or margarine
¼ tsp ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon

Mix these ingredients and add to pumpkin, cook until thick. Then add one envelope gelatin that has been soaked in ¼ cup cold water, 1 tsp grated orange rind, and 1 T butter or margarine. When this mixture begins to thicken, add the 3 egg whites, beaten stiff, to which ½ cup of sugar has been added. Pour into baked pie shell. Top with whipped cream and nuts.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Mrs. Peters’s pumpkin pie

2 T butter or margarine
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
¼ tsp ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 cup mashed pumpkin or squash {cooked}
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 ¼ cups milk

Cream the butter. Add the sugar and eggs and mix well. Then add the remainder of the ingredients and mix. Pour into an unbaked pie shell and bake 1 hour at 375* F.

Finally, here is a custard pie that is a comfort food with no rival. I think that this is a Southern speciality. It's hard to find it anywhere else.

Buttermilk pie

8 T butter
2 cups sugar
3 T flour
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
Dash nutmeg
Unbaked 9” pie shell

Cream butter and sugar together well. Beat in flour and eggs. Stir in buttermilk, vanilla and nutmeg. Pour into pie shell. Bake in preheated 350* F oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the custard sets. Cool before serving.

Happy Monday. And for you math geeks....

Here is what I did with the apples in the second picture. There are so many ways to use extra pie crust dough decoratively.... 

13 October 2010

Cottonwood reflections

Cottonwoods turning, Vermillion

The one tree that defines the prairies is the cottonwood. It lines all available water sources, so that rivers from the air look like knotted green threads. It stabilizes the fragile prairie soils, survives fires, and provides wildlife habitat in life and in death. Blazing yellow cottonwoods lined our way home on the back roads from Vermillion to the Black Hills. Take a moment to enjoy the reflections and traces of fall.

Sumac, one of the few red touches out here

Cottonwood arch with a red-tailed hawk at a distance


...a thousand shades of gold and brown...

...glass-still water....

...beginning cottonwoods on the bank....

...and splendid old ones on the hill.

Milkweed pod, burst.

Perfect proportions.

Glowing colors...

...and distant waters.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel foraging

Rabbit cloud

Small toad seeking warmth

Cottonwood with rainbows at sunrise.

12 October 2010

"We beheld a most butifull landscape": Spirit Mound

Spirit Mound at sunrise

We travelled to Vermillion on Friday for the fall meeting of the South Dakota Ornithological Union. Short version: Gene is now on the board of directors for SDOU and we've added a couple of new sites for future visits.

One thing to bear in mind about birding trips is that you will become well acquainted with the endless colors and varities of sunrises. This may not seem to be a good thing when the alarm goes off, but I have yet to see a sunrise that wasn't worth it.


Distant thunderhead across the prairie

Barn at sunrise

The most impressive site was Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, a little rise of Niobrara chalk above the prairie, near the confluence on the Vermillion River and the wide Missouri. It's one of the few places where anyone can provably stand on a site where both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stood. They ventured up here on August 25, 1804. Tribes in the region considered this a bad spot, full of klittle bad spirits. In Clark's words:

"...droped down to the mouth of White Stone River where we left the Perogue with two men and at 200 yards we assended a riseing ground of about Sixty feet, from the top of this High land the Countrey is leavel & open as far as Can be Seen, except Some few rises at a Great Distance, and the Mound which the Indians Call Mountain of little people or Spirits.."

"...here we got Great quantities of the best largeset grapes I ever tasted, some Blue currents stil on the bushes, and two kinds of plumbs, one the Common wild Plumb the other a large Yellow Plumb…about double the Size of the Common and Deliscously flavoured-“
--W. Clark, August 25, 1804 

Queen Anne's lace in the fall

Fall flower heads

Fall flower heads

Tall grasses

Tall grasses, part of the prairie native plant restoration effort.

"...one evidence which the Inds give for believing this place to be the residence of Some unusisal Sperits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of Birds about this Mound is in my opinion a Sufficent proof to produce in the Indian mind a confident belief of all the properties which they ascribe it."
--W. Clark, August 25, 1804. There is a good chance that they were seeing flocks of swallows around the summit.

 LeConte's sparrow, profile. NB: The photographer is not this good. The camera is not quite this good. The bird was extremely cooperative.

LeConte's sparrow, other profile.

LeConte's sparrow, still posing.

"...from the top of this Mound we beheld a most butifull landscape; Numerous herds of buffalow were Seen feeding in various directions, the Plain to the N. W & N E extends without interuption as far as Can be Seen- … no woods except on the Missouri Points…if all the timber which is on the Stone Creek [Vermillion River] was on 100 a[c]res it would not be thickly timbered, the Soil of those Plains are delightfull."
---W. Clark, August 25, 1804

Barn from the summit of Spirit Mound

Shadow of Spirit Mound on the prairie

In addition to the LeConte's sparrows flocking at the base of Spirit Mound, we saw an American bittern fly by within 10 feet of us, close enough to see individual feathers. If the spirits of Spirit Mound were in fact birds and not evil beings, as has been suggested, we understand a bit of the awe.

11 October 2010

Family recipe Monday: lasagne

Autumn flower heads, Spirit Mound

We traveled to Vermillion, South Dakota, this past weekend for the state bird meetings (about which more later). It was late summer when we left and full-scale autumn when we returned two days later, if the temperature and the foliage are to be believed. The migratory birds are mostly gone, except for a few who were lulled into a false sense of security by the recent warmth.

It's time to bring out the fall and winter recipes. Lasagne is a popular feed-the-hordes preparation. We didn't know much about this in West Texas until the late 1960s, then, suddenly, it was everywhere. It is a little bit labor-intensive, but the results are worth it. This is another preparation that is better the second day after the flavors have a chance to bloom. Any good Italian will note that it didn't take long for West Texans to put their stamp on this in the form of ground beef rather than lamb and veal, and chopped bell peppers, for which good Italians have no use. This is good with garlic bread, for that double-starch postprandial stupor, and with a nice peasant red wine.


½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped bell pepper
3 T olive oil
1 lb. ground round
2 cloves garlic
½ tsp chili powder
1 ½ cups water
Salt to taste
1 cup Romano cheese, grated
1 lb. mozzarella cheese, grated
1 lb. ricotta or cottage cheese
12 oz lasagna noodles
1 tsp Italian seasoning
¼ tsp black pepper
3 6-oz cans tomato paste

Sauté onion and bell pepper in olive oil in a large saucepan. Add ground meat, separate well and cook till no red shows. Mash garlic with small pinch of salt and add to meat mixture. Add water, tomato paste, Italian seasoning, chili powder, pepper and salt. Mix well and simmer over low heat about ½ hour. (Sauce should be very thick.) While sauce cooks, prepare lasagna as directed on package. Leave noodles in water--cold water so you can handle them. In a 9x12x12” baking pan, spread ¼ of sauce. Add layer of noodles, layer of mozzarella, layer of cottage cheese and sprinkle with grated Romano. Repeat once more and top with remainder of sauce and sprinkle with grated Romano. Bake uncovered in preheated oven at 350o F for 45 minutes. Serves 8-10.


Mix in a large kettle:

1 large can tomato purée
2 cans tomato paste
2 cups water
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp sugar (optional)
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

Let the mixture simmer. Meanwhile, heat 2 T olive oil in a skillet. When the oil is hot, sauté 1 cup minced onion and 1 clove crushed garlic. When the onion is golden, add 1 ½ lb. ground beef and 1 tsp salt (optional). Cook until brown, then add to kettle mixture. Simmer for about 2 hours or until sauce is thick.

Cook ½ lb. (1 box) lasagna noodles as directed. Drain, rinse, and separate noodles on towel to dry. Cut 1 lb. mozzarella into thin slices. Have ready 1 lb. ricotta and ¼ lb. fresh grated Romano cheese.

Spoon some of the sauce into two large 8” square pans or one large casserole. Put in a layer of noodles, then a layer of mozzarella and a layer of ricotta. Put in another layer of noodles crosswise, then more sauce, and layers of noodles, mozzarella and ricotta. Top with a last layer of noodles and the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle generously with Romano. Bake at 375* F for 30 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 8 to 10.

Happy Monday to all. Mangia!

Happy anniversary, Gene! It's been magic.