How to Get Rave Reviews: Start with Homemade (Chicken, or other) Stock

I started this blogpost last night, first drafting the recipe and then deciding the lead-in (narrative) part would have to wait until today. Since I was scheduled to attend a workshop at East Line Books in Clifton Park, NY this morning on Food and Travel Writing, led by Alison Stein Wellner, I knew it would be later in the day that I’d get back to it. I am now glad it happened that way. As I’d hoped, the info-packed session “pumped me up” again for writing. Not only the foodblog, but for other food-related literature as well. And maybe, just maybe, I might find myself returning to a get-published (as in other-than-self-published) frame of mind.

It’s been a long time since potential acceptance by magazines and journals held any allure for me. I simply want to write. And cook. And do art. And spend time with family and good friends. Alison, however, through one of her short writing exercises, managed to tease out of me an idea for a series of articles that I not only want to write but feel compelled to share with anyone who’ll listen/read. Seeking publication in a relevant magazine might be the best way to do that.

One simple question from Alison, “What fascinates you about food and travel?” – with ensuing suggestions about possible directions our pens might take us in from there – set everyone in the room scribbling. Her best advice: “Write about what fascinates you,” because to do otherwise means you’ll begin to hate it. It will become as much drudgery as any of the worst 9-to-5 jobs you’ve ever held.

This “new” topic fascinates me. Unfortunately, I can’t share it with blog readers right now. It requires nurturing, planning and lots of time (and work) to come to fruition. (If I had time, I’d be signed up for Alison’s workshop at the Capital Region Arts Center next weekend, June 2nd. She’ll be covering The Business of Freelance Writing!)

In the meantime, now that I’ve worked up your curiosity, how about a return to Chicken Stock?
++++++++++

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months, you’ve probably noticed that I mention the use of boxed stocks in cooking up batches of my soups (and I do love making soup!). I’ve discovered a couple brands that I like. They’re not high in sodium (some sodium-free), plus they’re pretty tasty. So I wasn’t necessarily gung-ho for stirring up a pot o’ the homemade stuff. But reading a relatively new, food-related book changed my mind.

Here’s what I wrote about An Everlasting Meal in my “journal” of books I’ve read (yes, I have a list of every book I’ve read, i.e., completely finished, since 1995; had to do it since I found I couldn’t remember which I’d read and sometimes would begin to read something, only to realize I’d read it a year or two before!):

Adler, Tamar. AN EVERLASTING MEAL: COOKING WITH ECONOMY AND GRACE. Scribner, 2011. Essays on food. Beginning with “How to Boil Water,” Adler caught me up in her beautiful prose. Which often reads like poetry. How about the title of the next chapter, “How to Teach an Egg to Fly”? In which she says to the reader, “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.” There are recipes too but not always in a real recipe format. She wants her readers to learn what to do with foods without need of a cookbook. She wants us to love food; not waste it; share it with others because it’s about nourishment and, thus, relationships. A truly wonderful book. Highly recommended, whether you like to cook or not.

A small part of Adler’s desire not to waste the gifts of the earth includes saving the ends, peels and odd chunks of aromatics, as well as bones of fish and fowl and animals, for stocks that add gusto to future meals. I now freeze many of these bits of leftovers and otherwise not usable veggies (except maybe in compost), later to stew up the most delicious stock! Below is the chicken one (to be followed by a future post, with pictures, for a soup that was a mega-hit at the Women Writers and Artists Matrix Weekend in Saratoga earlier this month), but it’s not the only stock I’ve created since reading this exquisite book.

After serving a seldom-seen dinner on our table (lamb), I managed to find time to toss the bones, aromatics and water into a pot, then strain and freeze the results. Last week, I made one of my hubby’s favorite meals, Braised Stew Beef (it makes its own gravy) over noodles. Instead of cooking it down with water added to the extra-large frying pan, I poured in one of the thawed containers of lamb stock. Rave reviews ensued.

You too could get rave reviews. Not from the New York Times food critic, but from someone whose opinion matters more to you. Start with homemade stock.

MARILYN’S HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
Yields one really, really large stockpot full of delicious liquid!

Prelude to Ingredients: Collect & freeze, over a few weeks or a month, the following –

  • Chicken bones, with any amount of meat still stuck to them (or none at all)
  • Ends cut away from onions, shallots, leeks, carrots, celery, garlic (and maybe more, depending upon your own taste and judgment)
  • Onion, carrot, celery and garlic peelings, pieces and leaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil, with a dab of butter added
  • 2 carrots, unpeeled, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 2 small celery stalks, unpeeled, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 1 to 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 3 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • all of “Prelude” ingredients listed above – minimum of a 1 gallon zip-lock bag of the veggies; plus at least bones equivalent to 2 chickens, whether chicken parts or whole birds (it’s good to include some bones with bits of dark meat on them, for good flavor)
  • a few grape (or cherry) tomatoes (but only if you have them and wish to include them), halved
  • water to cover all ingredients, and then some… (filtered water is better than tap water, especially if you’re on public water that’s chemically treated – but it’s not required)
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt (or kosher, if preferred; but you can use table salt, just not the whole 2 teaspoons in the latter case)
  • 3 or 4 small sprigs of dried thyme
  • 2 small sprigs of dried rosemary
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried parsley
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest (optional, but a nice touch)

Process:

  1. Sauté the carrots, celery and onion in the oil/butter for about 2 minutes – in a large stockpot. (I lightly salt these at this time too.)
  2. Add garlic to pan; continue to sauté for about a minute more (do not burn the garlic or you’ll have to start over!).
  3. Add the rest of the vegetable items (peels, ends, etc.), along with the grape (or cherry) tomatoes, if using, and the batch of chicken bones. Cover with water – enough to bring it to at least three inches over the ingredients.
  4. Toss in peppercorns, salt, thyme, rosemary, parsley and lemon zest (if using).
  5. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  6. Allow to simmer for a minimum of 2 to 3 hours. You’ll want water to reduce gradually as flavor intensifies.
  7. When the stock meets your own taste-bud test, turn off the heat and let sit for a bit.
  8. After about 20 minutes, strain through a sieve and distribute stock amongst containers in which to freeze – perhaps retaining some to make soup immediately, or use for braising a chicken or other dish.
  9. When cool enough (it’s wise to sit containers in ice bath to get it there- much safer, foodwise), place in freezer for future use. Make sure you’ve marked containers (with labels) with info about what’s in it and date it was frozen!

Sorry – didn’t think to take a picture of the strained stock. Besides, I’m sure all my readers have an idea of what that looks like! Stay tuned, however, for the next post – in which this stock helps to transform butternut squash, pumpkin puree and sweet potato into a thick, savory soup that you’ll want to inhale (it’s that good).

Advertisements

ALMOST-IRISH STEW for the Slow-Cooker, with SHAMROCK IRISH SODA BREAD

This year’s St. Patrick’s Day dawned sunny and warm. We’ve been breaking records this March with temperatures reaching into the high 60s and low 70s. That continuing trend, into yesterday, made for a huge turnout for Albany’s annual St. Pat’s Day parade – an event which we missed but were well-informed about by my Aunt Pat later in the day (the crowd, we were advised, was 8-to-10-deep along the parade route).

After my spending a good deal of the day writing for and posting to KitchenCauldron (the latter with some difficulty – for some reason, WordPress wasn’t taking some pictures), and Bill’s working on staining some furniture to go with the new hardwood floor he installed in Adrian’s room, the hubby popped his head into my office and asked, “Were you going to get outside today, go anywhere?”

“You suggesting something?” I asked.

“Well, I passed Kurver’s yesterday and it looked like it’s open.” Kurver’s Kreme happens to be my favorite spot for soft ice cream. Especially when it’s vanilla twisted with some sort of sherbert that I love (orange, watermelon, raspberry…). Besides, I consider the re-opening of Kurver’s each spring to be the first sign of spring’s return!

My answer: “YES!”

I had lamb in the fridge that had been thawing for Irish Stew, which I planned to make on St. Patrick’s Day the “regular” way (sans slow-cooker). If we went out somewhere, it wasn’t likely I was going to start cooking upon returning home at, say, five or six o’clock with a target of eating dinner at around 9 p.m. (and dishes not done ’til close to midnight). Luckily, there was a solution to this quandary.

“How about we head over to the North Albany American Legion Post, where Aunt Pat told me she’d be going after riding in the parade? Open to the public – and corned beef and cabbage at a really reasonable price!” I knew my aunt would be thrilled to see us turn up, and she was. We also got to meet two of her nieces from her Irish clan, as well as a nephew and his wife.

The corned beef and cabbage dinner was superb. Meat done so well it was falling apart. Cabbage and potatoes perfectly tender, and delish when topped with butter and pepper. And then off to Kurver’s for dessert (we both went for the vanilla-pistachio twist on a cone).

Marilyn & Bill, 35th anniversary, reading "re-commitment vows" to each other.

Now I should mention that St. Patrick’s Day is a sort of anniversary for my husband and me. Or maybe I shouldn’t, but I am mentioning it anyway. Our 40th wedding anniversary is at the end of next month, but this one dates back a few years before we married. Not exactly a fairy tale though.

Once upon a time, in a city eked out by the Dutch but home to myriad immigrant groups in the years since colonial times, a young Irish-American man went out merry-making on St. Patrick’s Day. The green-eyed, curly-haired twenty-something visited several establishments at which the Wearing o’ the Green was being celebrated on that day (and into the night and wee hours of the morning), indulging perhaps in corned beef and cabbage and soda bread, and definitely in plenty of green beer. He himself proudly sported a lovely green-tinted carnation boutonniere – but anyone would’ve known he owned an Irish heritage without such a token sign of the Green Isle. You only had to glance at the pale skin, the freckles and that slightly pug nose. He might as well have had the map of Ireland tattooed on his forehead.

Not far from the young man’s St. Pat’s Day rovings, a young woman of his acquaintance had pretty much settled into a quiet evening in the apartment she shared with one other woman. She wasn’t Irish or Irish-American and, while she’d often celebrated the holiday over the years, she hadn’t “done the bars” for this year’s big day. Instead, she found herself reading a good book and retiring to bed reasonably early (considering that it was a very good book and she could hardly put it down).

The young not-Irish woman awoke an hour or two later, to the ringing of the doorbell. Now we’re talking the late ’60s, so most of us weren’t scared-out-of-our-wits to open the door without looking out a peephole or shouting down from a window to determine who dared show up at such an ungodly hour. This is what she did, just went downstairs to answer the ring. And found the green-eyed, green-boutonniered guy at her doorstep.

It happened that this young lady, of mixed immigrant stock (some of the Dutch; a little German and Russian; and more recently on the paternal side, Polish), already had a wicked crush on the inebriated Irish-American who had just appeared at her apartment. She welcomed him into her place. They talked for a while. He left the next morning, most likely hung over, leaving the green carnation with the sleepy-eyed girl.

The gods of their childhood religion did not send lightning bolts down upon the young man, nor on the young woman either. Neither of them believed they were doomed to an inferno. It was, after all, the ’60s. They were not hippies but they still listened to the voices of their generation. OK, no lightning bolts, but one of The Gods of Albany’s Streets had managed to leave a parking ticket on the poor guy’s car before he stumbled out into the sunlight on the day after St. Paddy’s Day.

And they didn’t live happily ever after either. It was touch and go for a few years. Three, if you must know. After which they made a pretty nice life together, having two anniversaries to celebrate each year.

+++++

What can follow such a tale? I guess it just has to be about the recipes – so here are a few notes about the two recipe in this post (a double-header, if you’re into baseball terminology!). And then will come the how-to if you’re interested in trying them yourself.

My Irish Stew originated out of an old cookbook that I still hold onto because it’s been good to me. It’s called The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors: Recipes you should have gotten from your grandmother, by Jeff Smith (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990). I also have two other cookbooks by Smith – his original one and a book on Italian cooking. From just The Irish Immigrants chapter of Our Immigrant Ancestors alone, I’ve made the Lamb Stew (the original source for this recipe) plus Colcannon and Dublin Coddle. (Unfortunately, I can’t ever pick up one of his books without recalling the big scandal that befell him later in his career, with charges that he was a pedophile. But that’s nothing to do with the fact that he was a food genius.) I changed my basic stovetop recipe slightly from the Frugal Gourmet’s, but this slowcooker version is considerably different. Here’s how:

  • First off, I used less lamb. Also, as it turned out this (first) time around with the slowcooker recipe, the lamb I had defrosted for the stew was not the already-cut-for-stew version. Two of the three packages were chops, with bones, so I found myself taking time to cut the meat away. (Not to waste those good bones, I put them in a sauce pan with some onion, carrot, garlic and water and boiled them down to make some lamb stock.)
  • Next change: the Gourmet’s recipe calls for “thickly sliced bacon.” I went for Canadian style bacon instead this time, cutting the fat a bit. (Great decision, it turns out – tasted much the same, which is to say, “Great!” If you decide you’d like to opt for the “regular” bacon, then you’d be better off frying the bacon first and then browning the lamb in bacon fat – in which case, you probably won’t need the oil and butter).
  • Jeff Smith deglazed his frying pan with ½ cup water. I used some of the beef stock, while the Canadian bacon and garlic were still in the pan.
  • I also used less beef stock overall, since moisture in a slowcooker is completely retained. I didn’t want to waterlog the whole stew, so to speak.
  • I cut the sugar in half.
  • I added a twig of dried rosemary (figuring it would go well not only with lamb, but also with thyme).
  • I never cook with wine or alcohol of any kind, and the Frugal Gourmet did not offer another option (and didn’t say the wine was optional either). I substituted with extra beef stock – ½ cup.
  • Incidentally, the cookbook calls it Lamb Stew. I used to call it Irish Stew, but the Irish Stew we once ingested that was cooked by an honest-to-god Irishman (our landlord over three decades ago) was quite bland, as I think the authentic stuff tends to be. So I’ve renamed it Almost-Irish Stew. With bacon in it, along with a couple spices no poverty-stricken Irishman “back in the day” would’ve been able to afford (and might not have even heard of), it’s more like a concoction contrived after that poor Irishman had discovered the leprechaun and his pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow!

As for the Soda Bread, that recipe came from a woman I worked with during the six looonnng years I spent as a Sr. Personnel Administrator with the New York State Department of Social Services. I wasn’t crazy about the work atmosphere, but I did meet some good people and I do have to say I organized some great holiday bring-a-dish lunchtime parties. I think a St. Patrick’s Day one was the first of them. Many a good recipe came home with me from those events. I have no idea where the “Shamrock” portion of the Soda Bread’s title came from, but it sounds festive. Only three changes to that original recipe:

  • I didn’t use only raisins for the fruit. Cut-up dried apricots, I decided, would add color and a little bit of sweetness to the bread.
  • I soaked the fruit before adding it to the mixture – not just in water. A bit of apple cider sounded good to me!
  • The recipe below simply gives “buttermilk” as an ingredient. I didn’t have fresh buttermilk in the refrigerator. The last “leftover” buttermilk had been tossed out a few days before, about 2 weeks past its supposed expiration date. I do keep what’s called “cultured buttermilk blend” by SACO in our fridge. SACO’s instructions say to mix their powder with the dry ingredients and then add their directed amount of water (according to how much buttermilk is required for the recipe) with the liquid ingredients. I figured it would be even richer if I used milk instead of water. In fact, we stock only 1% or 2% milk, so I included a little bit of light cream in part of the liquid.

And now on to the recipes for tonight’s dinner. No green carnations adorned the table (although Bill did look for some at the market earlier in the day). Just a couple plastic shamrocks. But the meal was oh-so-good!

ALMOST-IRISH STEW, converted to slow-cooker status
Yields enough stew to serve at least 6 to 8,
perhaps with leftovers (which taste even better than Day 1!)

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 lbs. boneless lamb (possibly lamb shoulder), cut into ½ to 2 inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon of fresh ground pepper (or to taste)
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil (possibly more, as needed)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (ditto to above, maybe more)
  • 4 to 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 to 1½” pieces
  • 2 large onions, peeled & quartered, somewhat pulled apart by layers
  • 6 or 7 potatoes, peeled & quartered (should be fairly uniform in size
  • 8 to 10 round slabs of Canadian Bacon (or use regular bacon, but see note above re changes I made to recipe) – cut into small pieces (or into strips, if you prefer)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled & finely chopped
  • 2 to 2½ cups Beef Stock
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a sprig of fresh or dried rosemary
  • ½ cup of dry white wine, or substitute additional beef stock
  • additional salt & pepper, to taste
  • Chopped parsley to garnish (optional)

Process

  1. Position your slow-cooker, or crockpot (or however you refer to it), on the counter or table near where you will be prepping your stew ingredients. Ideally, it’s also where you’ll be plugging it in to cook – but then one’s kitchen is not usually set up to accommodate every single adventure into cooking or baking! Take the cover off and set aside, so it’s ready to receive the ingredients as you prep them.
  2. Ensure your cut-up lamb is of uniform size so that they will cook evenly.
  3. In a large zip-lock plastic bag (or in a large mixing bowl), place the flour, salt and pepper. Shake it to blend.
  4. Add lamb chunks to bag, zip it up, and shake until they are coated with flour mixture.
  5. In a large frying pan (12”, if you have one), melt the butter in the oil over medium heat. Then add the flour-coated lamb to the pan, hopefully in one layer. Brown lamb over medium-to-medium-high heat until it’s got a little color (slow-cookers don’t brown meat). Do not cook all the way through. Do not put that pan into the dishpan after it’s browned enough, and do not toss out any drippings that might be left!
  6. While the lamb is browning, place carrots and potatoes in the bottom of the slow-cooker. Top with most of the onion (save a little to go atop the lamb, which will be the last layer).
  7. Scoop the lamb into the slow-cooker, distributing it evenly atop the vegetables. Sprinkle remaining onion atop.
  8. If needed, add a little more oil and/or butter to the frying pan. Then add the Canadian bacon, just leaving it to sauté for about a minute, so it can soak up more flavor. Add the garlic, stir and sauté for an additional minute.
  9. Add a little of the beef stock to the pan and stir, deglazing while bacon and garlic remain in pan.
  10. Distribute contents of the pan (bacon, garlic and stock) over the lamb.
  11. Sprinkle the sugar and thyme over top of the slow-cooker ingredients.
  12. Pour the remaining beef stock over everything.
  13. Tuck the bay leaf into the middle of the lamb mixture, pushed down a bit into the rest of the mixture.
  14. Place the rosemary sprig on top.
  15. Pour the wine, if using, or the extra beef stock over the mixture.
  16. Secure slow-cooker cover in place, set it for LOW cooking and expect it will take 7 to 8 HOURS at that temp. Make sure it’s plugged in too (yet another kitchen faux pas in Marilyn’s past!) You might check it at 7 or 7½ hours but be aware that, once you take the cover off a slow-cooker it means you’ll have to add 20 minutes to the remaining anticipated cooktime.
  17. When the stew is done to perfection, remove the bay leaf and the rosemary twig (if some of the leaves remain in the stew, it’s all to the good).
  18. Stir the mixture to re-distribute ingredients, then adjust seasoning if necessary (salt/pepper).
  19. Sprinkle with parsley (optional).
  20. Accompany with Irish Soda Bread, just for authenticity! OK, for deliciousness too. And, of course, I happen to have the best recipe ever for Soda Bread too…

SHAMROCK IRISH SODA BREAD
Yields one (1) “loaf” (baked in a 9” round cake pan)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dark seedless raisins
  • ½ cup chopped dried apricots (optional; if not using, you might add a little extra raisins, if you like)
  • ½ cup apple cider (optional)
  • water, to cover raisins & apricots
  • 4 cups unbleached, unsifted all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespooons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups buttermilk (see note in narrative above for my substitution)
  • butter, melted (for drizzling top after baking – about 2 tablespoons)
  • sugar, for sprinkling top

Process

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place raisins and apricots in a small, microwave-proof glass or ceramic bowl. Pour apple cider over the fruit. Add water enough to cover all the fruit. Microwave for about 1 ½ to 2 minutes, to heat the water to warm. Set aside to allow raisins and apricots to soak for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, caraway seeds, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
  4. Drain the raisins and apricots.
  5. Stir the fruit into the flour mix, ensuring it distributes well.
  6. Pour the buttermilk into the mixture and mix with a fork until the dough is formed, with no bits of dusty flour hiding beneath the dough.
  7. Bake in either a 9” x 9” square pan or a 9” round cake pan for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or knife slipped into its center comes out clean.
  8. Drizzle melted butter over the entire bread.
  9. Sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar (or raw sugar, if you choose).
  10. Cool for about 15 minutes before removing from pan to serving platter.
  11. Serve warm or save for later!

 

“MEN LOVE THIS,” LAURA SAID: ROASTED ITALIAN SAUSAGES & VEGETABLES; plus, what to do with the leftovers…

For this blogpost, I’m heading right for the food-witchy stuff – but not like you’d think. I’m not getting into the symbolism, at least not right away. I wanted to honor a special woman, a dear friend and former co-worker who’s always with me even though she passed away years ago. She was a “foodie” before the term was fashionable in this country. And what has this to do with witchy-ness? Well, as I was contemplating how to introduce the recipe, I remembered that I’d written the following short essay a couple years ago, although I couldn’t have told you the specifics of its content before re-visiting it today…  and, wow, this was before KitchenCauldron was even a flash in my brain:

**********

Laura

     “My kids say I must be a witch.” My dark-haired coworker grinned at me as we enjoyed a rare lunch away from the office. I already knew this would take some time because Laura Kurner was the slowest diner with whom I’d ever noshed. She savored every bite, often listing aloud ingredients detected in a particularly delicious dish. Now it sounded like some intriguing talk could delay us further.

     “Why is that?” I asked, expecting to hear about rebellious reactions to parental discipline.

     “Well, I seem to know things, they think, before other people do. Probably just women’s intuition.”

     It’s been over forty years since that conversation and well over two decades since cancer took my friend from this earth, yet I still ponder its content. I’ve come to believe that, at least for me, Laura’s witchy aura translates into a metaphor of a cauldron: cauldron equals cookware, and everything connected with kitchen activities.

     Laura and I sat across from each other at one of my first permanent state jobs – she, the widowed mother of three older children; me, the college dropout not sure where life would take me. Close to my mother’s age, she couldn’t be more different than Mom. This short-haired, big-hipped woman (“better for child-bearing” she boasted) possessed the most infectious laugh I’d ever heard, and I heard it often. But this wasn’t the only difference.

     Mom’s cooking was good basic stuff (she got raves over her creamy mashed potatoes and everyone loved Dolly’s rendition of her Polish mother-in-law’s stuffed cabbage). But Laura’s culinary craft felt magical to me. My mother’s repertoire of spices pretty much encompassed things like salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic salt, factory-mixed poultry seasoning and sometimes cinnamon and nutmeg. Laura, on the other hand, uttered exotic terms like tarragon, rosemary and cilantro. Since she was Italian, basil, oregano and olive oil also rated high on her list of essentials. “You have to try out the spices,” she’d tell me. “Taste them, let your tongue get acquainted.” Then, I was assured, I’d begin to know them, understand which ones enhanced which foods.

     One late fall afternoon Laura, another coworker and I were enjoying an after-work drink at a local piano bar half-a-block from my new apartment. Glancing out the window, I noticed two guys crossing Washington Avenue, headed toward The Lamp Post. “That’s Dave,” I said, pointing to the straight-haired one on the left, no-hipped with a slight swagger. Both Laura and Nancy knew I still had a crush on Dave, who’d dated me once or twice. “And the other guy, the curly-haired one with freckles, is Sam, real name Bill.” Sam and Dave were best friends.

     Staring out the window as the two approached, Laura squinted her eyes at these two young men she’d never met but had heard snippets about for months. Before they came through the front door, she turned to me and said, “Forget that Dave. He’s a little arrogant. Marry the other one. Sam.” She proceeded to tell me to invite him to dinner that night and dictated the entire menu: Italian sausage, peppers, onions, potatoes. “Men love this meal,” she instructed. “Wine is good,” she said, “but you probably don’t want to sleep with him this time. Let him wonder…”

     A couple years later, upon returning from our honeymoon, one of our first visits as a married couple to someone’s home was to Laura’s in Coxsackie, NY. While we chatted away about what we’d seen and done on Cape Cod and how the new apartment was shaping up, Laura created a scrumptious feast. Our spur-of-the-moment arrival didn’t phase her a bit. She pulled a small roast from the freezer and introduced us to the pressure cooker (this was before microwaves graced 95% of American kitchens). In what seemed like no time, we were chowing down and offering up compliment after compliment.

     I treasure the few recipes I have from Laura, although I’ve never had courage enough to try a pressure cooker. More important than actual recipes, however, was another gift. Her kitchen was a place of joy, of adventure. I will never be a gourmet chef or master baker but, thanks to Good Witch Laura, I know things. My newly renovated kitchen boasts a whole cabinet of spices, and I know how to use them. And if there’s one I’m not sure about adding, I consult my shelves of cookbooks… or I can taste them, get to know them intimately, add them to my cauldron of kitchen spells.
**********

Just last year, while reading a novel titled Feeding Christine by Barbara Chepaitis (Bantam Books, 2000), I learned about an Italian “Witch of the Epiphany” named La Befana – and of course I had to research her further. At the time, I was creating what I called “Goddess Journal Entries” and sharing them with several friends via e-mail. I knew Befana would show up as an entry because I was intrigued. The internet offered much info, including a site eminating from Abruzzo, Italy – where Befana is quite “real” to the children who might receive her gifts on the eve of the Epiphany in early January.

Through my searches, I discovered that artist/writer Tomie dePaola wrote a children’s book called The Legend of Old Befana (Voyager Books, Harcourt Inc., 1980), and I ordered it from Amazon.com (then I ordered a couple more, for the grandnieces for Christmas). In it, as La Befana finally gets ready to seek out the Christ child (having earlier turned down an invitation to travel with the Three Wise Men because she was too busy sweeping – according to other sources I found, she sweeps in the new year). She decides to bake cookies to take along as a gift for the new babe.

Of course there’s more to the story, but perhaps you’ll buy dePaola’s book or take it out of the library (under the pretense of wanting to read it to a child, of course). My point here is that the legend of Befana joins both Pagan and Christian traditions. In fact, in some places in Italy both Santa Claus and La Befana appear at the same festivals. And always there are cookies. But when he’s not “on the road” delivering gifts on December 24th, maybe Befana roasts him some sausages with vegetables, á la Laura Kurner, insisting that he partake of “What Men Love” before he turns to “What Everybody Loves,” which would be the sweets.

ROASTED ITALIAN SAUSAGE AND VEGETABLES, LAURA’S WAY
Serves 4 to 6 or, in our case, serves 2, with great leftovers for a couple days, a couple ways

Ingredients

  • 5 to 8 good Italian sausages, depending upon how many you think you’ll consume (I prefer sweet sausages, but the hot stuff might be your preference)
  • dried spices:
    1 tablespoon parsley
    1 tablespoon basil
    1 teaspoon oregano
    dash of salt (optional)
  • 3 to 4 medium potatoes, skins on, cut into chunks about 1½ to 2 inches in size, soaked in water for about 15-20 minutes (while you’re getting the other veggies prepped!)
  • 1 basket of baby bella mushrooms, about 20 to 25 small ’shrooms (you can use white button mushroom variety, but bellas have so much more flavor!)
  • 3 to 4 bell peppers, various colors (red, yellow, orange, green), seeded, cut into large chunks (each of my 3 peppers were cut into 3 section)
  • 3 to 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into long pieces approximately the same in size
  • 2 large onions, skins removed, cut in half vertically, then each half cut into 3 large chunks
  • 1 zucchini, halved horizontally, then halved the other “horizontal” way as well; then cut each segment into lengths about 3 inches or so long.
  • olive oil: 1- 2 tablespoons to coat the pan; about 2 or 3 tablespoons to drizzle over vegetables before going into oven (I drizzle straight from the bottle)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped (optional, but a plus)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (optional, but a plus)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Brush a small amount of olive oil over the entire inside-bottom of a large roasting pan.
  3. Place the sausage in the pan, spread apart to allow for vegetables to surround them.
  4. Add the dry spices and salt, if using it, to a large zip-lock plastic bag and shake them to mix.
  5. Drain water from potatoes and put them into the zip-lock bag, zipping it shut. Shake the potatoes until spices appear to have “stuck” to all chunks, at least to some degree.
  6. Distribute potatoes around the sausages in the roasting pan.
  7. Distribute peppers, carrots and onions throughout the roasting pan.
  8. At this point, you can choose to add the zucchini as well, although you have the option of waiting for about half-an-hour before doing so since they might soften beyond your taste preference if put in at the start of roasting time. (I add them at the beginning because I’m always afraid I’ll forget to put them in later!)
  9. Drizzle olive oil lightly over everything in the pan.
  10. If there’s any spice left in that zip-lock bag, top veggies with it. Then sprinkle the freshly chopped parsley and basil atop of it all.
  11. Roast until sausage is cooked thoroughly and fork pokes easily into potatoes. (This usually takes about an hour-and-a-quarter to an hour-and-a-half.)  A couple times during the process, open oven and stir sausage and vegetables around, to promote even cooking.
  12. Great served with applesauce on the side. And maybe Italian bread.

NEXT DAY:   Heat it up in the microwave, slicing sausage so it warms up thoroughly at about the same rate as the veggies.

DAY AFTER THAT (if there’s still some left):  We had no sausages left, but plenty of vegetables; so I decided to make a frittata with them (then figured I’d add some diced-up Polish ham too). Diced veggies up a bit smaller in some cases (like the potatoes), warmed them for about 10 minutes over medium heat in a large pan while prepping egg mixture. Beat up 6 eggs, adding dried parsley and a little pepper, as well as about a tablespoon of half-n-half. Poured it over warmed vegetables and let it cook for no more than a minute. Then put entire ovenproof pan into a PRE-HEATED (to 350 degrees) oven for about 15 minutes. Opened up oven, topped frittata with cheddar cheese slices, and closed oven for another minute or two – until cheese melted. Removed from oven and allowed to sit – while I took pictures! Served with sliced cantaloupe melon and blueberries, with a touch of raw sugar. And whatever “bread” on hand to toast (for us, I had one plain bagel and some rye). Incidentally, it tasted great with a little sour cream on top.

Split Pea and Ham Soup – So Delish Even I Liked It!

This one’s especially for Pat Gilmore, who now lives in California but resided in Windsor, Ontario (Canada) when I first met her at an IWWG (International Women’s Writing Guild) “Remember the Magic” summer conference in 1995. We were “suite mates” in the dorm and took the same playwriting class every day of that magical week at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Upon reading a mention of my making this soup – either in an e-mail or on this blog – Pat wrote that she was looking forward to the post about split pea soup because it’s one of her favorites. She’s not particularly into cooking but loves reading my blog “stories.” Perhaps, however, this recipe might tempt her into her kitchen, a bag of split peas in hand.

If you’re wondering why I’d be crazy enough to include the words, “…Even I Liked It” in the title of a foodblog post, I’d be willing to admit it doesn’t exactly sound like an invitation to try this recipe. Not until you realize – as I am now telling you – that I never liked pea soup. So for me to say Even I Liked It is a big deal.

"Memory's Garden (Losing Ground)" Artist Trading Card by MariLyn; original photo of Mom by Kristen Day

Granted, I did not have a lot of exposure to pea soup, with or without ham, growing up. Mom didn’t make it, nor did she buy it in cans (if it was even available canned in the 50s and 60s at all?). In fact, thinking back I don’t believe any “from scratch” soups were made in our house other than the beef-vegetable soup Dad made on occasion (which was also his clam chowder, minus the clams, plus the beef). I don’t think our chicken soup was ever created from real foods; it always seemed to come in care of the Campbell Soup Company, mushy noodles and all.

My first taste of pea soup (and I believe it included ham) was delivered to our house in the late 80s, after I’d had surgery and was on leave from work for six weeks. A co-worker (she was a parole officer who worked down the hall, not in Counsel’s Office with me), who happened to live only a few blocks away from us, was kind enough to make a batch of the stuff and drive it over to our home. This was when I learned that my husband l-o-v-e-s split pea soup. Slurping my first taste, I decided it was okay but nothing I’d indulge in often. I ate a small bowl and left the rest for Bill to finish off over the next couple of days. I much preferred the raisin bran muffins Jean (the P.O.) had gifted us with a few days beforehand, indicating that the fiber was much needed “to get the system going again” after the surgery, a tactful suggestion!

Late last year (sometime in December?), I sighted a small bag of split peas in a local supermarket and – for some unfathomable reason – decided it might be nice to try making split pea soup as a nice surprise for Bill. Perhaps it was one of Bob’s Red Mill products, a favorite source of flours and grains for me. I don’t remember. Whatever the product name, I noticed an easy-sounding recipe on the back of the package so I threw the bag into my shopping cart, carried it home with the rest of the groceries and stored it in a cabinet on the shelf partially designated for soups and broths – where it sat for at least a couple of months. That’s the nice thing about dried grains: they can do that, wait for the cook to get re-inspired… or to simply realize they have to DO something with that bag of beans because otherwise it will keep making her feel guilty that she spent that money and it’s still freakin’ sitting there, staring at her every time she opens the cabinet!

I’m afraid the latter explanation was my kick-in-the-butt to do something with those split peas. That, plus the fact that I’d finally baked the small ham up I’d bought a few weeks earlier, serving it with sauerkraut (with caraway seeds and brown sugar), buttered carrots and baked potato – and the leftover ham was now calling to me too (geez, food ganging up on me – a losing battle?). What to do with it, other than slipping bits of ham into an omelet? That bag of green split peas stared out at me as I opened the cabinet, and that was that.

I glanced at the recipe on the back of the bag, noted what I liked about it, and then headed straight to my best soup reference (already mentioned a few times on this blog), A Celebration of Soups by Robert Ackart. Sure enough, with several adjustments (including deleting a ham bone from the list of ingredients), I created the soup pictured in this post, recipe below. Topped with a bit of sour cream and a few large croutons, I discovered that I could, in fact, love split pea soup with ham. So much so that I enjoyed leftovers the next day even more.

Before gifting readers with the recipe, how about some witchy/goddessy info about its main ingredient? Flecked, perhaps, with a bit of nutrition. And even a bit of food history. (You can skip this part if it bores you, or if you really want the basics of making the soup, like now!)

Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (2003 edition, Llewellyn Publications) lists the “Energies” of the pea as Love. Cunningham states that peas have always been sacred to the Mother Goddess and that, during the Inquisition, peas were thought to be standard food of “Witches.” (Let’s get this straight: those who were hung, drowned or burned at the stake as witches during The Burning Times, i.e., especially Middle Ages, were generally women who followed the old ways of healing and may have owned their own property, both of which were frowned upon by the increasingly powerful and patriarchal Church; and they were often accused out of fear, ignorance, greed or just plain envy.) Under “Magical Uses,” Cunningham suggests cooking peas with basil, coriander, dill or marjoram – and visualizing the dish as “a powerful love attractant” while doing so. Then, of course, you must eat them.

Something was missing from the above, I thought, as I researched the “magical” aspects of peas. They’re green, so surely there must be some association with money, abundance. After all, the roots of magic are partly in visualizing what you wish for, and color plays a huge part in that. I started Googling and found “Peas” listed in an “Herb Grimoire” at a site called The Magickal Cat and, yup, under the “Magickal Uses” column it reads, “Money and Love.” I imagine one might even burn a green candle while supping on pea soup, just to strengthen the desire and plea for money or abundance (in all areas, perhaps, such as creativity, friendships, etc.). Keep in mind, however, that one never asks for something from the Universe at the expense of someone else’s safety or happiness. “Whatsoever you send out into the Universe returns to you threefold.” (Just as Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Send out evil, expect it to return to you in a really unhealthy dose. (I know this is hard to believe when you see the bad guys screwing up the world, or your little section of it, but I continue to hope it’s true.)

My next stop on the pea-research tour was another book on my shelf: 100 Best Health Foods: The Ultimate Superfoods for Healthy Living Including 100 Nutritious Recipes (Love Food, an imprint of Paragon Books Ltd, 2009). I’m not so naïve as to be unaware that the “Top 100” (or “Top 50” or “Top AnyNumber”) of healthiest foods changes as more scientific research uncovers evidence of different nutrients and what they do for the body when ingested. In fact, it’s being found that whether or not you cook them, and what you eat along with them, also affects its impact on your health. But this book specifically lists nutrients and their potential effects upon this poor l’il ol’ bod of mine – so I like it. Here’s a little of what it has to offer re Peas, which incidentally is listed as #34 amongst the 100:

  • Very high in both lutein and zeaxanthin content, which translates to helping protect eyes against macular degeneration
  • Rich source of Vitamin C, fiber, and protein, also helpful for the eyes
  • Rich in carotenes (benefits the eyes as well)
  • B Vitamins helpful toward protection against osteoporosis and possibly against strokes
  • For vegetarians, helpful as a source of protein (which, for meat-eaters, would be easily acquired through meat and poultry consumption)
  • Fiber also helps to lower “bad” cholesterol and might help prevent heart disease
  • Frozen peas often contain more Vitamin C and other nutrients than fresh peas (even those still in their pods) because they’re usually frozen within hours of harvesting, whereas the “fresh” ones could be several days old.

The page containing the above info, I noticed, is opposite one headed “Chilled Pea Soup.” I’m wondering what the chances are that, since I’ve acquired a taste for the hot dish, ingredients listed on that page might find its way into my “cauldron” on some over-warm summer day.

One last shot before the recipe:

When I trekked upstairs to the kitchen to grab a book to check out health benefits of peas, I pulled down The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz (Adams Media, 2010). Witchy-wizardy enough to merit a glance, I figured. No mention of “Peas” in the index but then there was “Pease Pudding,” supposedly inspired by a passage out of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Could it be… Yes! Made with either yellow or green split peas!

Bill happened to be coming through the door from the garage as I walked downstairs with the book and I couldn’t resist asking him, “Do you remember the nursery rhyme that went, Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old?” Of course, he did. “Well,” I continued, “ it says in here [pointing to the cover of the book] that the rhyme “was inspired by pease pudding (which used to be called pease pottage in the Middle Ages) or pease porridge.” It’s an old dish that’s still consumed today, alongside bacon or sausages (possibly roast beef or chicken too). Bill said he wouldn’t mind trying it someday, although I have a feeling that the promise of the addition of bacon or sausages to the meal made the menu item sound infinitely more appealing to him!

SPLIT PEA AND HAM SOUP, MARILYN’S VERSION
Yield: 12-14 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 cups split green peas
  • 1 medium-size carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large rib celery, chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 8 cups vegetable or chicken broth, or water (broth is my preference)
  • a “dash” of Worcestershire sauce (no more than 1 teaspoon)
  • leftover ham, chopped – 1 cup, more or less (some to be added before pureeing, bulk added afterward)
  • sea salt or kosher salt
  • fresh-ground pepper
  • milk or light cream (latter is my preference), to taste (usually not more than a few tablespoonsful)
  • sour cream or Greek yogurt for topping (optional)
  • croutons for topping (optional)

Process

  1. In the bottom of a soup kettle, sauté: carrot, celery and onion – for about 2 minutes, salting lightly. Add a dash of pepper too, if you like.
  2. Add split peas, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, broth (or water, if using that – or a combo of broth and water), and the “dash” of Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Bring liquid to a boil, reduce heat and simmer mixture (covered) until the peas are tender.
  4. About 30 minutes before the peas are expected to become tender, heat up the ham a bit, to avoid adding cold meat to the soup mix. (I stir-fried mine in a minimal amount of oil, to give it a bit of added flavor.)
  5. When the peas are tender, remove the bay leaves from the soup kettle.
  6. Add a small portion of the ham, reserving the largest portion to add to the kettle after the mixture has been puréed.
  7. With an immersion blender (or food processor or blender), purée the soup mixture to your desired texture (I like mine a little lumpy).
  8. Stir in the reserved portion of chopped ham.
  9. Add light cream (or milk, if you prefer – or leave it without dairy, if you like it that way) and heat for a couple minutes more.
  10. Adjust seasonings (more salt? pepper?).
  11. Serve with a dab of sour cream or Greek yogurt, topped with your favorite croutons (both of which are optional).

And here is where I offer my apology: given its “witchy” energies, shouldn’t I have posted this a couple of days ago, on Valentine’s Day? Well, I’m sending this out with Love anyway – may all of you always receive it in abundance!

"Magic Happens," Artist Trading Card by MariLyn