Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Two Questions to Ask When Decluttering

From Joshua Becker's Becoming Minimalist To Declutter Any Room, Ask These Two Questions
Those two questions: “Do I need it?” and “Why do I have it?” form the basis for your best decluttering efforts going forward. They will prove to be enlightening and will open up new ideas about what items to keep and what items to remove.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey and gravy

So look. The things people express the most fear and bewilderment about, when it comes to big roasted dinners, is the bird and the gravy. It doesn’t really even matter very much if your turkey is a little dry, if you make gravy that’s a religious experience. And you can DO that.

This is dead easy, folks. Stop thinking about it as some sort of dark culinary magic, and just think about that roasting that turkey like you were a baking really big chicken.

You got this.

Let go of the brining, basting, smoking, deep-frying fads, and just drop your oven rack to the bottom shelf. Preheat to 500 degrees, Fahrenheit.

If your bird is still frozen solid, send someone out for a few bottles of holiday cheer, and stick it in a bathtub full of hot water. I can’t help you until it's thawed enough to pull the giblets bag out of the cavity.

Assuming it’s actually NOT still frozen, prep your bird by massaging butter and the herbs of your choice all over it, on top of the skin and beneath it, and stuff the cavity loosely with quartered apples, oranges, onions, sage, and rosemary. Use real butter. It tastes better. And it’s French. It’s fashionable to be French, again. Pop the bird into that 500 degree oven. Wait a half hour. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, and relax. Speaking of the Europeans, have a little Irish Whiskey in your morning coffee, with a splat of whipped cream. I'm a big fan of Jameson's Black Barrel. But hey, use the tipple of your choice. A dollop of rum or Bailey's Irish Cream isn't bad, either. Don’t drizzle creme de menthe on top, though, because that's just nasty. Now that the bird is in the oven, dump a quart or two of low-sodium chicken or turkey broth into a two-or-three quart saucepan, and toss in the giblets from that little paper bag that was inside the bird, too. What? You didn’t find a little paper bag inside your bird? QUICK! Pull that bird back out of the oven and check the big flap of skin over the neck area. It’s there, somewhere. It’s gotten weirdly fashionable for producers to hide the giblets, in recent years. Consider it a challenge.

Toss the giblets — all of ’em — into the pan of stock, put it to simmer on medium-low, and forget about it for a while. You're using low-sodium because you're going to let it simmer until it's about half or even less of its original volume. This concentrates the flavors. If you’re bored, rough-chop a stalk or three of celery and an onion, and throw those into the pan, too.

Have a little more coffee. Add another splash of whiskey. You deserve it. Everyone else is watching the Macy’s Day parade on TV, and making churlish noises about breakfast. Let 'em wait. You're Cooking the Turkey. Work it for a little extra mileage, whenever you can. Your turkey is going to need approximately 20 minutes per pound, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Don’t screw around with the oven, that just dries things out and makes the whole process take longer.

Your stock and chopped veg and giblets are all reduced down to half or less of their original volume? Terrific! When you remove the bird from the oven to let it rest for 20 minutes (tented with heavy-duty foil, so it doesn't get cold) while you frantically get everything else ready to serve, strain that delicious reduced stock then pour it into the turkey pan over medium heat, and stir -- this is to deglaze all the delicious bird drippings and preserve their yummy essence in your gravy.

Pour the whole mess back into a pan you can deal with, and bring it to just under a boil. Have a glass of wine. You've earned it.

This is the point where a lot of people will tell you to make a slurry out of flour and water.

Don’t do that.

Use three or four tablespoons of corn starch, instead of flour, in that slurry. It's not nearly as prone to lumping, and doesn't have that weird raw-flour taste, if you mess up.  Call a dependable kid who is old enough to have health insurance into the kitchen to help. Have the kid use a wire whisk to keep the reduced stock and drippings moving constantly, while you add the corn-starch slurry a bit at a time, waiting to see how it thickens, until your gravy is the desired consistency.

Presto. Terrific bird, amazing gravy. That’s what counts the most — no one ever raves about the sweet potatoes or the green beans, right?

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. May it be a day of festivity, brightness, and laughter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Soda Bread

Wheat Arán Sóide
Image Credit: Heather "Moria"
Irish Soda Bread, or Arán Sóide, is named after it's primary leavening ingredient, baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). In other words, it's a quick bread, one that doesn't depend on yeast to rise. Irish Soda Bread is as common on Irish tables, whether at home or at the local, as corn bread and biscuits (also traditionally made with baking soda as a leavening ingredient) are in the American South. Historically speaking, however, soda bread may have originated outside of Ireland, but it was very quickly popularized there in the 1800s. It was popular in the U.S. because as a leavening agent baking soda was readily portable and simple to use as the American West expansion meant wagon trains, campfire cooking, and sod houses.

Soda bread is very easy to make, super quick and a fun recipe to make with kids because it's simple and doesn't require hours of waiting as yeast based breads do. The basic ingredients of soda bread are flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk is absolutely crucial in terms of the leavening chemistry between baking soda and the the acid in the milk, and the flavor. If you don't have buttermilk, you can make an ok substitute by adding a little lemon juice or vinegar to regular milk.

Don't mix, handle or knead soda bread dough past the point of being mixed. If you over-knead or over-handle your soda bread, it will be tough, unpleasant and even flat. Soda bread is also traditionally a hand-shaped loaf, rather than one cooked in a loaf pan. Bake your soda bread in a greased cast iron pan with a lid or a cast iron dutch oven (much the best way!) or as a flat roundish loaf on a cookie sheet that you've greased and sprinkled with corn meal (you can cover the round loaf with a cake pan during the first stage of cooking). If you don't have a cast iron pot or pan with a lid, you're missing out on one of the most useful pieces of cooking equipment ever.

Soda bread is best enjoyed when it's fresh from the oven, or toasted for breakfast the next day. This is not a time to be frugal with butter; good fresh butter makes this amazing bread even better—but having said that, it's also startlingly good with high quality olive oil.

In parts of Ireland, notably Ulster, the same basic bread is quartered before cooking, and cooked on a griddle or skillet. Prepared this way, it's called farls, ostensibly derived from the Irish word fardel, or "fourths."

If you add raisins or even caraway seeds, it's not traditional soda bread; it's Spotted Dog, a sweet bread, or in Irish, báirín breac, "speckled bread," cognate with the traditional name for Welsh sweet bread or "tea loaf" made with raisins, spices, and tea, bara brith.

I have been known to stray beyond the basic additives of caraway seeds and raisins, and added dried tomatoes (soak them for a few minutes in warm water, then drain and chop, or microwave them in a mostly covered dish with a few tablespoons of water to steam and soften them), dried cranberries (I highly recommend the orange-infused cranberries), and grated lemon or orange rind.

Make two loaves, pull one out of the oven just before it's perfect, cool it, and freeze it for later.

Irish Soda Bread (via The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread)

  • 4 cups (16 oz) of all purpose flour.
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 14 oz of buttermilk (or 14 ounces of sour milk)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees. Lightly oil and flour a cast iron pan with a lid (or a dutch oven).
  2. Combine all the dry ingredients; sifting won't hurt but it isn't required.
  3. Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. Place on floured surface and lightly knead. Knead just until the dough is shapeable; do not over mix or over knead.
  4. Shape into a round flat loaf. Cut a cross in the top of the dough (drag the knife part way through, don't cut all the way).
  5. Cover the pan with the lid and bake for 30 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
  7. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped, if it is done.
  8. Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.

You can sour the milk by adding two tablespoons or so of lemon juice or vinegar. to the milk and letting it sit for a few minutes. It will thicken and become bubbly. The sour milk or buttermilk are crucial because, in conjunction with the soda, they act as leavening agents and cause the bread to rise. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Roasted Red Potatoes with Lemon, Parsley, and Olives

This is simple, savory, and inexpensive, especially if you have a pot of parsley growing in your kitchen garden. You can do all the prep a day or a few hours before, and it's even better.


 2 pounds of red potatoes
1 lemon
3 tablespoons Olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh Parsley
Several cloves of Garlic
1/3 cup olives, pitted
Salt to taste

  1. Slice the potatoes, unpeeled. They should not be sliced too thinly.
  2. Thinly slice the lemon, peel and all, being careful to discard the seeds.
  3. Mince the garlic.
  4. Chop the Parsley
  5. Toss everything except the olives, with the olive oil, then spread evenly in the x 13 pan.
  6. Bake at 425F for an hour, stirring everything two or three times.
  7. Add the olives during the last five minutes of cooking.

The recipe is from T. Carter who found it in Fine Cooking March, 2004 and posted it here, and wrote:
The recipe called for oil-cured olives . . . The potatoes are supposed to crisp while the lemons caramelize.
The thinner you slice the lemons, the happier you'll be. I've found a knife with a serated edge works best. Do try lemon varieties; they all taste slightly different. The recipe doesn't call for it, but when you add the olives, a sprinkle of salt and pepper won't go amiss.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chocolate Mousse Pie

My mother, after years of diligent research, came up with what I think is not only the easiest Chocolate Mousse Pie recipe, it's the best. It is, however, incredibly rich, so you'll likely want to serve rather slender pieces. It's especially lovely if you garnish it with whipped cream, slivered almonds, and or fresh berries, and it works well as a mousse sans pie shell.


Baked and cooled pastry (shortbread, chocolate or plain)
1 12 ounce package semi-sweet chocolate morsels (like Ghirardelli)
2 1/2 c. cream, divided into 2 cups and 1/2 cup
1 t. vanilla
1 T. Rum, Bourbon, Grand Marnier, Cointrieau, or Peach Schnapps or Raspberry Liquor (double or triple this according to taste)


  1. Beat 2 cups cream till soft peaks form. Place in refrigerator to keep cool while you do the following: 
  2. Microwave chocolate and 1/2 cup cream about 1 1/2 minutes till melted, stirring twice. 
  3. Add liquor and vanilla, mix well. 
  4. Cool about 5 minutes. The chocolate needs to soft enough to blend. 
  5. Fold whipped cream into chocolate. 
  6. Pour into shell. Chill at least 2 hours. 
  7. Garnish with whipped cream and/or sliced almonds or grated chocolate. 
  8. Dip a warm knife in hot water before slicing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Pecan Pie

Pecan pie
This is another of my mother's recipes, one that I suspect she was making before I was born. We usually had Pecan Pie at Christmas and Thanksgiving. It's a very Southern recipe (you don't see much call for Pecans in Yankee cooking). My mother always sorts out the pecans, reserving the best looking pecan halves to place in an elaborate pattern.

I confess to using a dollop of bourbon on occasion. I once forgot the salt until the pie was ready to pop into the oven, and sprinkled salt on top of the nuts just before the pie went into the oven. The salt looked quite pretty on the cooked pie, and it was slightly different in taste, and quite good.

1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon vinegar
3/4 cup Karo syrup (clear syrup)
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup plus of pecans (you'll want 3/4 or so additional pecans halves for the top)
pastry shell

  1. Cream sugar and butter.
  2. Beat in eggs, syrup, vanilla, salt and vinegar.
  3. Mix well, and add nuts.
  4. Pour into 8 inch pie shell.
  5. Bake at 350 F. for 55-60 minutes or until center is "set" when the pie is gently shaken.

Lena R. Spangenberg

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Brandied Sweet Cherries

Right now, "sweet cherries," the Bings, Lapins, Rainiers, and other varieties of edible cherries, are appearing in grocery stores all over the U.S. These are cherries that are usually eaten as is, by the handfull, or pitted and used in fruit salads and jello molds. But sweet cherries also work very well as brandied fruit. Pick or purchase sweet cherries as fresh as possible, and then brandy them, preserving them in sealed jars. Later, say during the holidays in December and January, brandied cherries as make lovely gifts. I've found that Rainiers by themselves don't really work as well as the darker sweet cherry varieties. Chelans and Lapins work especially well as brandied cherries. To make your own brandied cherries, you want the to use the freshest cherries possible, and the good quality brandy. I'd suggest something like Christian Brothers Brandy, at the very least, keepin in mind that if you wouldn't drink the brandy, you shouldn't use it to cook with. You might try the recipe below as is first, but many people add spices to their syrup; cloves, are very popular. I like to split a vanilla bean the long way, scrape the center, chop the bean up, and add all of it to the syrup mixture just before I turn off the heat.

Brandied Cherries


  • 6 pounds fresh sweet cherries
  • 6 glass clean canning jars
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1-1/3 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1-1/2 cups brandy


  1. Wash, stem and pit cherries.
  2. Sterilize 6 pint jars and lids for a boiling water bath.
  3. Combine the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan.
  4. Boil, stirring gently until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove the syrup from heat.
  5. pour 1/4 cup of the hot syrup over cherries that are tightly packed to about an inch from the top of the freshly sterilized hot jars.
  6. Add 1/4 cup or so of the brandy, and more syrup if necessary, to each jar so that the cherries are covered.
  7. Gently shake the open jar to release any air bubbles then wipe the jar rim with a clean damp cloth to remove any sticky syrup residue.
  8. Close each jar tightly with the lid.
  9. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. (Follow the manufacturer's instructions for the proper canning procedure.)

Brandied cherries are lovely over vanilla ice cream, or warm fudgey brownies, or pound cake or chocolate cake, or used as flambé, or added to a winter mix of dried stewed fruit. The dark red of the cherries looks lovely in the jars, and the brandy-and-syrup mixture is a wonderful flavoring on its own. You need to let the cherries "set" for a while, at least a few weeks, before trying them. They make a lovely holiday present; just stick a ribbon on the lid and you're good to go.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Easy Corn Bread

My mother is from South Carolina. I grew up in New Hampshire. That means that not only do I occasionally have an intrusive R, I also have been known to remove Rs that are purely ornamental.

But while I am my mother's only Yankee child, and I loathe grits unaccompanied by butter, shrimp, green onions, garlic and cheese, I love Southern style cornbread. You will have noted the key phrase; Southern style cornbread. In New England, cornbread often approaches cake in taste and consistency, because sugar and white flour overwhelm the corn meal.

My mom's standard corn bread recipe is derived from the one on the Quaker Yellow Corn meal box. I say derived because my mom, bless her heart, alters recipes for the better. Here then is the Official Back-Of-The-Box Recipe:


1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 yellow corn meal
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten


  1. Heat oven to 400 F.
  2. Grease an 8 or 9 inch pan.
  3. Combine dry ingredients.
  4. Stir in mil, oil, and egg, mixing just until dry ingredients are moistened.
  5. Port batter into prepared pan.
  6. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until light golden brown and wooen pick inserted in center comes out clean.
  7. Serve warm.
My mom uses two eggs, thank-you-very-much, and would be scandalized at the idea of cooking corn bread in a pan; all right-thinking people use cast iron to cook corn bread. Buttermilk makes good cornbread, so does sour milk. When I was a kid, my mom would also add a little powdered milk. You want corn meal muffins? Just pour the batter in an oiled cast iron muffin pan. Mom used to give us corn bread from the day before in milk as an after school snack. It's less filling than Mac's mom's Mexican Cornbread, but makes a fast side dish with chili, or chowder.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns! Hot cross Buns!
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters
Give them to your sons
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns!

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
If you haven't got a penny
A ha'penny will do.
If you haven't got a ha'penny,
Well God bless you.

One of my very favorite childhood members around with Easter is that my mother would make Hot Cross buns a few days before; we would often have them on Good Friday, and we almost always had them for breakfast on Easter morning.

Strictly speaking, they're actually Cross Buns, meant to be served "hot." Cross buns are a sweet bread, with a sweet yeast dough made with currants and cinnamon; sometimes cloves or other spices, or candied orange peel are used. The round bun is is marked on the top with a knife, creating a cross after it's risen, but before it is baked. Afterwards (or in stead of) the bun is decorated with a white sugar-based glaze drizzled on the top of the warm-from-the-oven bun in the shape of a cross. Traditionally, hot cross buns were sold hot, fresh from the bakery, or sometimes, from street vendors.

Despite a fair number of assertions that Hot Cross Buns are pagan, the limited verifiable data we have about the origins of hot cross buns associates them very firmly with England, Christianity, and the season of Lent, or more accurately, with Good Friday. The earliest specific reference we have is from 1733, when, according to the OED, Poor Robin's Almanack asserts that "Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns," offering an alternate version of the nursery rhyme at the top of this post. In Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791), Boswell notes: "9 Apr. An. 1773 Being Good Friday I breakfasted with him and cross-buns," another likely reference to the proverbial Hot Cross bun.

In the Elizabethan era, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law forbidding bakers to make spiced breads and buns and sell thm on days other than those specified in the statute of 1592, which reads:

That no bakers, etc, at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen's subject any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread (being bread out of size and not by law allowed) except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain or forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor

People would be free to make cross buns at home, for personal consumption; they just couldn't sell them. I don't know the reason behind the statute, except perhaps, that because of the cross and the tradition of serving them on Good Friday that the buns had a strong association in the popular mind with Catholicism, something that Elizabeth I, as a Protestant monarch, was understandably touchy about. The statute didn't last long; by the time James I took the throne it was already proving difficult to enforce, and the crown soon abandoned the attempt, and the law. In addition to the tradition of only preparing them on Good Friday, for many Catholics there's a parallel tradition that that is all that they may eat.

There's some suggestion of a tradition that called for using the same dough for the Sunday communion wafer to make the buns; though I'm finding many references to this as practice, none of the references, printed or digital, cite a primary source for the pracctice, and frankly it sounds a little suspect to me.

There are a number of recipes for cross buns online. This one calls for cinnamon, allspice, currants and orange rind, and is likely much closer to the "authentic" eighteenth century (and presumably older) versions. This one, using British measuring units also uses orange, and lime. This is a very straight-forward cinnamon and currants version. This is the recipe my mother used, and the one I still favor.


3 3/4 to 4 cups all purpose flour
2 packages active dry yeast
1 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup dried currants or raisins
1/2 cup cooking oil
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs


  1. In large mixer bowl, thoroughly stir together 1 1/2 cups of the flour, the yeast, and the cinnamon.
  2. In a saucepan, heat together milk, oil, sugar, and salt just till warm (115 to 120 F.). Add to dry mixture in mixer bowl; add eggs. Beat at low speed of electric mixer for 1/2 minute, scraping sides of bowl constantly. Beat 3 minutes at high speed.
  3. By hand, stir in currants and enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough. Cover and let rise till double, 1 to 1/2 hours.
  4. 4. Stir dough down. Shape dough into 14 balls. Place on greased baking sheet, 1 1/2 inches apart. Cover and let rise till dough is nearly double, 30 to 45 minutes.
  5. Bake in 375 oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Cool slightly; pipe crosses through pastry tube or bag with using white icing or a powedered sugar glaze.


This is my mom approved version of a recipe that is originally from Better Homes and Gardens, March 1973. The original recipe suggests making 24 buns; I like them slightly larger, so I usually make 16 to 18. I tend to use a candy thermometer to check the temperature of the milk and oil solution, and I use a generous 1 and a half teaspoons of cinnamon. I also use more currants; the original called for 1/3 cup. If you're making these for the raisin phobic, try dried orange-infused cranberries, or candied citrus peel. The original recipes also calls for brushing the buns with a beaten egg white before baking; I don't bother. These freeze quite well; just remove them from the oven three to five minutes before they're done, and let them cool before wrapping them to freeze.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

VP Corn and Black Bean Salad

I recently got home from Viable Paradise, where I go as part of the workshop staff every year. Part of my staff duties include cooking for a whole bunch of people, all week.

The kitchens are tiny, the workshop is on an island (lovely and idyllic Martha's Vineyard), and ingredients may or may not be available from one day to the next; as a result, I especially prize recipes that have the inherent flexibility not only to scale-up well, but to adapt to missing or substituted ingredients gracefully.

This is one of those recipes.

Mac's VP Corn and Black Bean Salad

  • 4-6 ears of fresh corn It was the tail-end of the season, but we got our fresh corn at Morning Glory Farm, and were very happy -- but if good fresh corn isn't available, frozen will do, or even canned)
  • 1 16 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed (I usually use about half-pound of dried black beans, though, soaked overnight then simmered in chicken or veg stock until tender)
  • 1 medium-to-large sweet onion
  • 1 large red bell pepper
  • 1 large bunch fresh cilantro (I've made this recipe with curly parsley, too -- it's that flexible)
  • 1 large ripe mango (frozen will work, too, though - you want the amounts of corn, black beans, and mango to be roughly equivalent to one another)
Peel, clean, husk ingredients as needed, small-to-medium dice, so everything is about corn-kernel or black-bean sized.

  • 4-6 fresh limes, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic (you can use granulated or powdered, if fresh is too strong for you)
  • 1-2 tablespoons sugar (I like sugar-in-the-raw)
  • 1 tablespoon or so each of Oregano, Thyme, Parsley, Sweet Basil, to taste (fresh is best, dried is fine too, though)
Throw all the ingredients in a big bowl, dump the dressing over top, stir gently, let marinate as time permits (a couple of hours, at least, for best results) -- Stir again, right before serving.