Wintery Day Is Just Right To Stay Inside and “Chill”

Morning greetings of winter white out the door--Lyons, Kansas.

Morning greetings of winter white out the door–Lyons, Kansas.

Just like family get-togethers and exchanging presents, snowstorms seem to be a tradition of every Christmas holiday visit I make back to my home state of Kansas.  This morning we woke up to a couple inches of the white stuff on the ground, with even more swirling around in the air.  The snow itself made for a pretty scene outside, but the cold blast of 7 degrees when I opened the door was more than what I’d call “brisk.”

The first thing I had to do was sweep a path on my sister’s patio and then out on the grass for Annie to take a “go.” Finally, she did, at lightning speed.

With the snow still coming down most of the day and the cold wind zipping at the skin, other than re-sweeping the doggy paths, I haven’t wanted to venture out.  It was just the kind of day to keep the house cozy by using the oven to cook up the pork roast and sauerkraut we got yesterday in preparation of a cold day.

Tonight the forecast is for 5 degrees, but I’m sure that the blankets and quilts on the bed will keep me–and Annie–warm.

Swept paths for a little dog to make a quick run outside.

Swept paths for a little dog to make a quick run outside.

Annie stays near--or on--a warm lap on these cold days.

Annie stays near–or on–a warm lap on these cold days.

Even Without Much Rain, Delicious Veggies Coming from the Garden

Another evening's garden pickings: lettuce, peas, turnips, and a few green onions.

Another evening’s garden pickings: lettuce, peas, turnips, and a few green onions.

On this last day of the month, another front came through this afternoon bringing in a cool spring wind from the north, but March is hardly “going out like a lion.”  Though we’ve had other storms come through, not much precipitation has come with the wind.

Despite the lack of much rain, the little garden behind the garage has been producing fresh vegetables for supper.  The turnips, especially, have been delicious, whether raw or cooked.

The beans I’ve planted haven’t come in very well, and i don’t know whether I will fill in with more.  In reality, fresh, store-bought beans taste pretty good, and there’s no bending over to pick them.

Green peas and turnips sautéed with some bits of green onion, all fresh from the garden, make for a delicious veggie dish for supper.

Green peas and turnips sautéed with some bits of green onion, all fresh from the garden, make for a delicious veggie dish for supper.

A Couple of Tricks Help Make for a Delicious Sunday Breakfast

Here's Sunday Breakfast!  An easy omelet made with leftover Mexican rice and crunchy wheat tortillas.

Here’s Sunday Breakfast! An easy omelet made with leftover Mexican rice and crunchy wheat tortillas.

Heloise I ain’t.  But along the way, I’ve learned a number of tricks that help make cooking faster and easier.

The weekend is the only time I can make a real breakfast.  On most weekdays, the first meal of the day is a couple of toaster waffles snarfed down on the main road between my neighborhood streets and the freeway.

On Saturday and Sunday, when I finally rouse myself enough to want something to eat, I’ve already drowsily completed a few other tasks such as pulling out chunks of chickweed from the garden, or like this morning, repotting a couple of African violets.

I rarely disappoint myself with home-cooked breakfast; this morning it was an omelet made with bacon and Mexican rice left over from yesterday’s takeout.  Alongside came a couple of wheat tortillas.

If you re-package bacon and store in the freezer, it won't spoil and go to waste.

If you re-package bacon and store in the freezer, it won’t spoil and go to waste.

Trick 1:  I used to never be able to finish a package of bacon before it began to spoil in the refrigerator, but from my sister, I learned how to keep ready-to-cook bacon on hand.  Just freeze it!  After you get the bacon home from the store, open the package.  Separate the slices of bacon and lay the individual slices on sheets of non-stick aluminum foil (or wax paper).  Layer the foil sheets, being sure to cover the bacon on the top with another sheet of foil.  Put the foil layers of bacon in a freezer bag, folding the foil to fit into the bag, if necessary.  Then whenever you want bacon, just take the bag out of the freezer and easily pull off as many slices as you want.  No more spoiled bacon!

Trick 2:  Heat up wheat tortillas in a regular toaster.  Just fold the tortilla in half and ease one end into the bread slot of the toaster.  Gently  push it down while you push the toaster lever down.  Set it for about medium time.  When it pops up, turn the folded tortilla around and do the same to the other end.  To me, the resulting crunchy tortilla tastes much better than one heated in the microwave.  It’s just perfect for filling with scrambled eggs!

Starting Off with Some Jamaica Tea Can Make for a Good Day

The cup says "Coffee" but inside is filled with freshly brewed jamaica tea, made from hibiscus flowers.

The side of the cup says “Coffee” but the inside is filled with freshly brewed jamaica tea, made from hibiscus flowers.

Having been ambulanced to the emergency room due to severe pain from kidney stones a couple of years ago, I now have a greater sense of what’s going on inside my body even though I can’t see in there.  I have not experienced such a bout of pain since then, but I do know when some small piece of calcium (or whatever the makeup of those miniscule stones is) wants to work its way out through my internal plumbing.  I’ve found that adding extra vinegar to my salad after the first sensation of a stone beginning its journey usually does the trick.  My guess is that the acidic vinegar gets to the stone and breaks it up.

However, since the first of the year. I’ve been drinking jamaica tea, which one of my colleagues had recommended as a way to lower high blood pressure.  Based on my personal experience (and what a Fiesta sales clerk told me), it’s good for the kidneys as well.  I usually drink a large cup of the hot jamaica tea in the morning and another with my supper, and for about this past month and a half, I haven’t felt even a tinge of the sensation of a kidney stone starting its trek.

Jamaica (pronounced huh-mIcah in Spanish) actually is dried hibiscus flower petals and is often sold as one of several traditional cold beverages in taquerias.  After my co-worker recommended it, I tried to make an iced tea with it but wasn’t crazy about the taste, so the bag I had bought stayed stuffed into one of the canister jars on the counter.  When I returned to a cold house from a Christmas trip, I thought hot tea would hit the spot and decided to give the jamaica another shot.  Some people describe the taste as akin to cranberry juice.  There’s a tartness to the drink, but I don’t use sugar in any tea, hot or cold.  Now I prefer it to orange pekoe, a “regular” tea I like.  Some people add sugar or honey, but I drink any tea “plain”.

I find my cup of jamaica tea really gets my day started, without the caffeine jolt of coffee.  I’ve already used up the batch I bought last fall.  I can’t find it in bulk at my neighborhood store, so the pre-bagged version will have to do.  I’ve also seen it sold in boxes of individual tea bags.  However, I’ve got an adapter for my Keurig one-cup, and that works great to make any loose leaf tea.

Whether for its health benefits or a good way to start off the day, jamaica tea (hibiscus tea) might be something that you want to try.

Nothing Like Mom’s Noodle Recipe and Old Breadboard To Warm Up a Chilly Day and Evoke Memories

Cut homemade noodles sprinkled out on Mom's old breadboard to dry--though because of the humidity, they never really dried, once cooked they were no less delicious.

Cut homemade noodles sprinkled out on Mom’s old breadboard to dry–though because of the humidity, they never really dried, once cooked they were no less delicious.

A whole chicken slow cooks with onion, carrots, celery, and garlic to produce the broth for the chicken noodle soup.

A whole chicken slow cooks with onion, carrots, celery, and garlic to produce the broth for the chicken noodle soup.

(This is my first blog post in a long time and the first one that I’ve written on my MacBook Air.  It wasn’t as much of a problem as I had anticipated.  Actually, it was no problem at all.  Photos load from my camera to the Air easily and working with the WordPress template was very intuitive.  I can’t say the same about trying to post from my Acer netbook.)

Cool, grey days with dampness that demands fuzzy slippers–this is about as wintery as it gets here in southeast Texas, but it’s just the weather to cozy up the house with the smell of homemade soup.

To make the broth, I chopped up onion, celery, carrots, and garlic and dumped it all in the bottom of a crockpot.  Then I placed a whole chicken in on top of the veggies, sprinkled on some poultry seasoning, finally pouring about half a cup of brine from the jar of Greek olives (no other salt), and set the pot to slow cook.

Later in the day, I dug out my mom’s noodle recipe.  I remember watching my mom roll out the wide, thin circles of noodle dough, then hanging them over the tea-towel covered backs of the kitchen chairs to dry for awhile.  Then she’d layer the noodle circles, roll them into a tight cylinder, and begin slicing off the noodles with a big knife.  After the noodles were all cut, Mom would sprinkle them loosely all over the breadboard, which she had already used to roll out and slice off the noodles.

One of the treasures that made it to my house after my mom passed away was that breadboard.  It had set in my sister’s garage for some time, and nobody else wanted it.  I dig it out every time I make bread or roll out pie dough even though the counter would work just as well.  Thus, the breadboard is just the thing to bring together memories and the aroma of cooking chicken.

Probably because of the Houston humidity (unlike dry Kansas air), even with hanging them over chairbacks, my noodles never dried very much.  Consequently, once rolled up, they were difficult to slice very thinly, so after I put them in the bubbling broth, they swelled much wider than those my mom always made, which was usually just about a quarter-inch wide.  Nevertheless, the resulting tasty chicken noodle soup brings both warmth and memories to the kitchen and more than satisfies my tongue and tummy.

Noodles (Mom’s recipe)

4 egg yolks

1 whole egg

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. water

1 tbsp. oil

1 3/4 cup flour

Knead & let stand 20 to 30 minutes.  Roll on floured board. Cut into strips. 

Mystery Mocha Cake and Apple Pan Dowdy–A Couple of Easy Recipes That Make Me Remember Grandma

Getting started with the first cake–I love the wide peninsula in my kitchen that allows me to have all the utensils and ingredients right at hand.

Now that the new AC is in and working extremely well, the house is so comfortable that I decided to do a little baking, knowing that the oven’s heat couldn’t compete with the consistent coolness throughout the house.

Tomorrow is the last day for one of the people at work.  Though she hasn’t been with us all that long, a couple of us decided to do a little something to show our appreciation.  On Friday, I promised to bring an upside-down cake, but after looking at my recipes, I decided to make a couple of old-fashioned cakes, both of which are of the upside-down cake style, because when the cake is baked, the sweet, gooey part is on the bottom.

Mystery Mocha Cake and Apple Pan Dowdy are recipes passed down, at least from my grandma, but they might go back further.  Both of these take very basic ingredients, most of which can already be found in the pantry.  They are delicious on their own, warm or cold, but adding a scoop of ice cream or dab of whipped cream won’t hurt!

I’m never afraid to substitute or experiment with a recipe, so this morning I used cake flour for both recipes, put in half and half instead of milk, and added all-spice, cinnimon, and a splash of orange liqueur to the Appla Pan Dowdy.  Learning how your particular oven bakes is also important.  Though the Mystery Mocha Cake needed just about the time suggested on the recipe, the Apply Pan Dowdy took almost double the 30 minutes, maybe because of the extra liquid and that I had used a silicon pan.

Grandma’s Apple Pan Dowdy

4 apples peeled and sliced

1/4 c. brown sugar or maple syrup

1 cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup melted butter or margerine

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Heat oven to 350F.  Grease a round or square cake pan.  Place apples in pan and sprinkle with brown sugar.  Mix rest into batter and pour over apples and bake for 30 minutes.   This recipe makes about 9-12 servings.

Mystery Mocha Cake

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup sifted flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

scant 1/4 teaspoon salt

1 square (1 oz.) unsweeted chocolate (or equivelent amount of chocolate chips)

2 tablespoons butter or margerine

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons cocoa

1 cup cold, double-strength coffee

Sift first four ingredients together into a mixing bowl.  Melt chocolate and butter together in the microwave about 30 seconds.  Blend butter-chocolate mixture into dry ingredients with an electric mixer.  Add the vanilla to the milk and mix into the batter.  Pour the batter into a greased pan.  Combine the brown sugar, white sugar, and cocoa; then sprinkle over the batter.  Pour the coffee over the top.  Bake at 350F for 40 minutes.  This recipe makes 9-12 servings. 

Mystery Mocha Cake and Apple Pan Dowdy look so tempting right out of the oven. I’m not sure I can hold off trying some before I take them to work.

Early Days of Spring–When You Can Say, “This is what it’s all about.”

Homemade meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, and a salad with lettuce, arugula, and green onion straight from the garden. Can you beat this for Sunday lunch?

Today is one of those nearly perfect days that we get here in southeast Texas, usually in early spring.  The blue sky is filled with puffy clouds that keep the temperature mild as they intersperse shade onto the St. Augustine grass of the back yard.  With all the good rains we’ve had, the vegetable garden, the flowers in the pots and beds, and lawn are all trying their hardest to grow, even though the chickweed is fighting to outdo them.

After attempting to thwart some of the chickweed’s successes, I came back into the house and put together one of those old Sunday favorite meals:  meatloaf and scalloped potatoes.  I should have invited someone to share it all with, but I hadn’t thought far enough in advance to do that.  When it was time to eat,  I went back to the garden and cut some lettuce, arugula, and a green onion to go into a salad.  I’ll make lunches to take to work with all the leftover meatloaf and potatoes;  Marie Callender would be jealous.

Now that I’ve found all the various documents, this might be the day to set myself to doing my taxes.  Notice that I did say “might.”  (I hope you enjoy the tour that follows.)

Peas, lettuce, arugula, green onion, pole beans fill this end of my little garden behind the garage. At the other end are about 10 tomato plants and a holdover from last year, a hot Italian pepper. On the sunny side of the garage I have four more tomatoes in containers. The dog is not planted, but does like to be in photos.

The peas that I planted in mid-January are just starting to produce.

This ruellia and wandering jew require little care but add a lot of color to a corner of the patio.

My lack of patience is to blame for there not being a buzzing honey bee looking for nectar in this blossom of a large salvia that I planted last year and which withstood the drought.

This burst of color comes from a cleome that seeded itself right at the edge of the patio.

Hurricane Irene Whets the Appetite for Tin Roof Ice Cream

Having participated in the snarl of freeway madness along with millions of other Houstonians to avoid Hurricane Rita in 2005 , three years later I decided not to evacuate during Hurricane Ike, thus, spending a mostlysleepless night listening to the winds and rain.  After the electricity went out, I was able to keep up with the local broadcasts with a small hand-held TV.  Therefore,  I feel fortunate now just to be glued to  the unfolding events of Hurricane Irene as it moves up the East Coast.  The AC is humming, but I’m comfortable and relaxed on the sofa.

Here in Houston, it may have been the hottest day of the year.  The thermometer on the back fence goes sky high out in the sun so is not very reliable, but I think the temperature may have been higher than the 105 that gave for my zip code.

It’s still in the high 90s here nearing 10 PM.  The heat was still suffocating when I went out to the super market in search of that summer treat–Blue Bell’s Tin Roof Ice Cream.  (Blue Bell ice cream is made in Brenham, Texas about 50 miles up the road from where I live.  Tin Roof is vanilla ice cream laced with chocolate covered peanuts and chocolate syrup.)

To my good fortune, Blue Bell was on sale if you bought $10 of groceries.  I had already picked up a few other items, never thinking that total would be less than even $15.  I guess I had a lot of bargains because when it came to the ice cream, the cashier said, “You have to buy $10 worth to get the ice cream.”  When I told her just to charge me the regular price (because that was my real reason for going to the super market), she seemed to be perplexed and had to call a manager over to finish out the transaction, charging me the sale price.

I exited the store out into the heat radiating from the parking lot, wondering what would have happened if I’d brought just the ice cream up to the counter.

A Saturday Morning Adventure To One of Houston’s Well-kept Secrets

Passion Flower--Is there anything other to say than "Wow"?

Because Houston is a city that has experienced most of its growth in the last several decades, it feels pretty much the same, no matter which part of the city that you find yourself in.  Despite the ubiquitous strip centers, fast food restaurants, and housing developments, tucked away here and there are a number of unique places that can make for a fun outing.

Part of the grounds of Jerry's Garden, ready for the 4th of July.

Yesterday morning, a friend and I took a Saturday morning adventure to one of Houston’s best-kept secret’s, Jerry’s Jungle.  No more appropriate name could have been given to this plant menagerie, which is open to the public just a few times a year.  This private garden-cum-nursery is about a 15-minute drive north of downtown off of I-45.  Taking the exit onto Gulf Bank, then Airline, and finally Hill Street, one might feel a bit like they are somewhere in Mexico (as my friend said).

The grounds, very densely covered with all types of flowering plants and trees, occupy, what seems to be, several lots.  Most of the plants are growing in the ground, but when Jerry’s Jungle is open, there are many varieties of unusual plants for sale.  (Check out the Jerry’s Jungle website for the calendar and other offerings.)

This red clerodendron is ahowy plant. There are many other varieties. I wonder if I will be able to recognize them.

I am not good at recognizing nor naming even the more common yard and garden foliage, so I was far out of my league with the myriad of plants yesterday.  However, the beauty and variety were amazing.  Seeing everything that Jerry grows, I realized that the range of plants that we can have in our yards and gardens here in Houston is far greater than I had ever imagined.

Some of the many hardy, acclimated plants available for sale at Jerry's Jungle.

I’ll go back in October when Jerry’s Jungle is open to the public again.  By that time, I will have a better idea about some new beds I want to make in my yard, and the relentless heat should be a bit more forgiving.

After a wonderful time of encountering many different plants, when the Saturday morning heat intensified, despite the shade, my friend and I decided to take a respite at another place she knew of:  My Dee Dee’s Pie Shoppe and Deli.   Just a few blocks from Jerry’s Jungle, this is another business that seems a bit out of place.  Located in an old Victorian house with antique decorations inside to match, My Dee Dee’s was an interesting stop to get inside from the sun.  The lemon chess pie had a nice citrus tang, but was so empalagoso, that a sliver would have been enough to satisfy a sweet tooth.

What a very pleasant way to spend the first morning of a 3-day weekend, a lot more fun than a trip to Lowe’s and stopping at McDonald’s afterward.

Seeing passion fruit actually growing--another first for me.

Like so many others, the name of this beautiful flower is unknown to me. That will be the challenge if I want one to put in my flower beds.

Starting the Canning Season–Just a Couple of Pints, But Definitely Satisfaction in the Doing

Pickled beans and canned tomatoes--today's fruits of the garden and the joy of remembering and doing.

I’ve been itching to do some canning.  I have been waiting since last summer, when I found how much I enjoy the entire process, from the picking of the vegetables to having them sealed tight in the jars.  There’s a pleasure in the skill (or art) of doing each step that finishes with the colorful beans, okra, cucumbers, or tomatoes glowing brightly through the shiny glass.

I grew up helping my mom canning the beans and tomatoes and other vegetables we grew in the garden on the farm.  She also “put away” pears, peaches, and apricots that came home from the store in bushel baskets as well as the tart cherries from our trees.  I can’t say as I remember it being all that pleasurable in those days.  Canning was done in the summertime, either in the kitchen with the windows open–no A.C. in those days, or out in the washhouse, which was really an enclosed part of our front porch, where my mom had an open 2-burner cooker, which she used to heat water to sterilize the jars and scald the tomatoes and fruit, and which she used other times for dyeing clothes and making lye soap.  It might sound as if I’m as old as the hills to have those kinds of memories, but that was just the way people lived, especially farm people, back in the 1950s and 60s.  I do think in those days we appreciated what we had–like the food on our plates–because we knew where it came from and all the work it took to get it to the table.  (It’s also possible that I just appreciate it now as I’m remembering.)

So today was just the day to do some canning–really not so unlike those summer days on the farm–with a blustery south wind blowing and the thermometer reading in the 90s.  My beans have been doing well, even though I wish I had planted another row.  I can pick some every day, but I do have to save up to have a mess to cook.  The tomatoes are starting to ripen at a rate faster than I can eat them fresh.  This morning I had more than enough beans and tomatoes to can a pint of pickled beans and a pint of tomatoes.  By the looks of the garden, I’ll be able to do more of the tomates soon, but it really doesn’t matter how many jars I can make at one time because for me, there’s joy in the just the doing.

Part of that pleasure is that I always have to go through my recipe box.  I don’t have much organization to it, so every time I’m looking for a particular recipe, I have to shuffle through them all.  But that’s part of the fun too.  It always a nostalgic journey.  Some are for cookies or cakes I made when I was a kid in 4-H.  Some cards have recipes cut from the newspaper and taped on the cards.  Some are in the handwriting of friends or family members for some dish they had made that was so good that I had asked for the recipe.  Quite a number, like that for canned tomatoes, were written down for me by my Mom.  Just to have that recipe in her own handwriting is something pretty special, now that she’s no longer around to talk to or write down anything.

My canning this morning went without mishap.  I bought a new pot for the water bath process.  It’s deeper, but not as wide as the one I used last year; consequently, it heats faster and the jars are easily covered by the bubbling water.  I’m hoping the garden keeps producing so that I can add more pickled beans and tomatoes to these couple of jars.

Pickled Beans (recipe for 1 pint)

Fresh yellow wax beans (about 1/2 pound)

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 tablespoon salt

1 small clove garlic peeled

1 spring fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon each red pepper flakes and mixed peppercorns

Clip the stem ends from the beans, which have been washed.  Try to use the straightest beans that you have for pickled beans.

Fill a heavy kettle with enough water so that jars will be covered by about 1 inch of water when placed standing in the water.  Heat the water to boiling.  Meanwhile sterilize the jars in another kettle with a couple of inches of boiling water in the bottom.  Place the jar lids and the jars in the boiling water.  Remove the clean jars and place on a clean towel near where they will be filled.  Leave the lids in the hot water until you are ready to seal the jars.  At the same time, heat the vinegar, water and salt to boiling in a saucepan.

Put the fresh dill, red pepper flakes, peppercorns, and garlic in the jar.  Then start to pack the beans into the jar by holding the jar on its side and placing the beans parallel to each other lengthwise from the bottom to the top of the jar.  Carefully pack the beans as tightly as possible into the jar, making sure that the end of each is at least 1/2 below the mouth of the jar.

Once the jar is packed, pour the hot brine over the beans to 1/2 inch of the top of the jar.  If you don’t have enough liquid to cover all the beans, just top it off with more vinegar.  Make sure the mouth of the jar is still clean and dry; then place the hot lid on it.  Then screw on the ring.  I screw on the ring tight, and then ease it back just a tad, because during the canning process, bubbles of air will be released from the jars in order to make the vacuum seal.  (That means you don’t have to find a muscle queen to to tighten the jar rings!)

Place the jars in the boiling water.  At this point you will need to adjust the heat because the cooler jars may stop the water from boiling.  Once the water begins to boil again, adjust to just a good simmer and cook the beans for 10 minutes.  Take the jar out of the water and place on a towel to cool.  When the jar has cooled, check to see if the lid has sealed by gently pushing down on the lid with your finger.  If the jar is sealed, there will be no “give”.  If there is an up-down movement, then the jar has not sealed.  I have sometimes sealed jars by sterilizing a fresh lid, making sure the mouth of the jar is absolutely clean, and placing the jar backing into the boiling canning kettle.  However, with more experience, it is a rarity to have a jar not seal.  Therefore, in order not to overcook pickles, it is better just to put any unsealed jar with the lid and ring hand-tightened in the fridge for a couple of weeks and then try them!  Stored jars of pickles and other canned items on a cool dark shelf.

Canning tomatoes is really very easy.  Follow the sterilization and preparation of the canning water as for the pickled beans.  Here is Mom’s recipe that I used.  We always got the best use of everything.  On the backside of the paper it was written on, someone (probably me) had practiced typing on the old portable typewriter we had. Over and over are the lines:  “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.”

Mom's recipe for canned tomatoes--nostalgic and delicious.

If you can’t make out the writing, here it is:

Canned Tomato

“Scald tomatoes for a few minutes, then put in cold water.  Peel & pack tight in jars.  Add 1/2 tsp. salt for pints, 1 tsp. for quarts.

Place jars in hot water–bring to a boil–then simmer 20 minutes for pints & 30 minutes for quarts.  I usually put a cloth under the jars.”  (She means put a cloth in the bottom of the canning kettle so that the jars don’t move around too much and possibly break.)