Home Comforts

Room in a historical Bohemian village

Whether or not you homeschool, your children are watching and learning your attitude about homemaking.  If you’re like most moms, things get a bit messy at times, especially in our minds!  We need a bit of decluttering, a little refurbishing, direction, and refreshment.  I give you the beyond-anything book, Home Comforts.

Home Comforts, by Cheryl Mendelson, is one of my two favorite books on making home a haven (the other is Alexandra Stoddard’s Creating a Beautiful Home). Cheryl (she is a friend even though we’ve never met) has done her homework. A former attorney, she’s very diligent and disciplined, and has the intelligence required to make a good job of homemaking.

As this book is over 800 pages long, and covers anything and everything you can think of, I can’t begin to do it justice here. But as an example here’s a quote from the chapter on home cooking: “Good meals at home satisfy emotional hunger as real as hunger in the belly, and nothing else does so in the same way.”

Cheryl goes on to discuss how and why not to use cookbooks–I am vindicated! I believe a recipe is only someone else’s creation, certainly nothing written in stone. Of course, if Julia Child wrote it I will pay attention. But someone telling me to make pumpkin cake without salt, or that you don’t need all those walnuts in your oatmeal raisin cookies? I don’t think so.

As usual, I am loving the sound of my own horn tooting, and it’s time to get back to the marvelous book at hand. Home Comforts covers anything and everything you might ever want to know about homemaking.  You will be sorry when you’ve turned the last page, and if you’re like me, determined to read it again.

And to share it with others, especially family.

Do you want to excel at the high and highly rewarding calling of homemaking?  This book, so aptly named, will inspire and gladden your heart, and perhaps best of all, it will convince you that what you do at home truly matters.

Is it Cocoa or is it Hot Chocolate? No, it’s Pudding!

IMG_3722Actually, it’s none of the three if it’s a store bought mix.  After you follow and hopefully tweak, my recipe for hot chocolate (which I’ll show you how to turn to pudding), you’ll never use a mix again.

You begin with 1/2 to 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa in a sauce pan (amount depends on how dark you like it).  Hershey’s is fine, but I prefer bulk cocoa from Sprouts.  Stir in about half as much sugar (if 1/2 cup of cocoa, then 1/4 cup of  sugar).  I use organic evaporated cane juice and/or organic coconut sugar.  Next add about 1 scant teaspoon of sea salt (or a little less if you’re using regular salt) and stir all together.

Stir in any workable (depends on what’s on hand) combination of milk, cream, half-n-half, evaporated milk, or even powdered milk.  I recommend about 4 cups of whole milk, one cup of half-n-half, and a half cup of heavy whipping cream.  You can double this without any complaints by using water to stretch the recipe, even half whole milk and half water makes a delicious outcome.  You can also hold the whipping cream and have it on top (recipe following near the end of the post).

As the cocoa tends to adhere to itself, and be a bit mix-resistant, I find the pictured potato masher works well to solve this problem.

On medium heat, heat to steaming, stirring frequently, then taste test for sweetness and chocolatey-ness.  I like mine a little bitter, but still at this point I add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of honey.  Note:  you can make this with white sugar (not as healthy) or sweeten entirely with honey.  Just take it slowly with honey, as it’s easy to get too much.

Tip:  butter or oil in your measuring cup will cause the honey to slide right out, or you can just eyeball it and pour it right out of the honey jug.

Now it’s time to add your choice of either vanilla (homemade is best-see the net for ideas/recipes) or almond flavoring.

Now taste test again.  If it seems to be lacking, you might try coffee, orange flavoring, nutmeg, cinnamon, or some combination thereof.  For coffee flavoring you can simply stir in a little Taster’s Choice instant, or, as I show in the picture, put some regular ground (I use about a tablespoon) in a tea ball and let it steep a bit.  This is really delicious!

Note:  A fine mesh tea strainer for your coffee infusion gives a better result than does the pictured tea ball, as it eliminates most of the coffee dregs.

AND NOW AND YAY FOR PUDDING!

Per my kids’ request, I turned the above into pudding by simply:

Adding butter and peanut butter and coconut and walnuts:  a tablespoon of butter, 1/4 cup of peanut butter, 1/2 cup of organic unsweetened flake coconut, chopped walnuts on top upon serving;

Then . . . thicken by simply sprinkling organic whole wheat flour over the top and stirring it in.  Since I don’t measure and got a bit too much, I added more milk.  How much flour did I use?  About 4 tablespoons I think.

However, start slowly as your flour, especially if it’s white flour, will thicken differently than did mine.  Also, if you’re using cornstarch, just follow the directions on the box which will tell you the ratios between corn starch and flour.

I have stopped using cornstarch for two reasons:  first, I was out of it and found out by accident that I liked the taste of whole wheat flour, and that it didn’t tend to lump as does cornstarch at times; second, I am leery of corn products which don’t staunchly proclaim their non-GMO status.

So, back to your pudding.  Stir almost constantly to avoid sticking and scorching–a very disappointing outcome–and let it boil and bubble a bit to cook your thickener.

Now for taste testing, at which time other humans will miraculously appear:  If it doesn’t really thrill the taster(s), try more vanilla or almond flavoring.  Or perhaps orange (I like this VERY much, my family not so much).  Or maybe any combination.  You can take a  bit out for yourself and be your own guinea pig before flavoring the entire batch.

Also, if you have stick-tending cookware, just create a makeshift double boiler by tucking your pan into a larger pan, with water in the bottom pan.

Now for some really good news:  Eat this pudding in beautiful bowls with perhaps an English Digestive or some ripe strawberries and you’ve got a meal.  No kidding.

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I have also used the leftover pudding or hot chocolate (make sure you keep a bit back) to wake up the child of the day.  What is the child of the day?  That’s for another post.

One last thought:  Leave the cocoa out entirely, for a lovely orange vanilla pudding, or, and this is one of my very favorites, use crushed pineapple and vanilla for your flavorings, and put toasted pecans on top.  Oh my!

The bottom line is that pudding is lovely and brilliant and you should go make some.

AND NOW FOR THE WHIPPED CREAM!!!

Put your bowl and mixing beaters in the freezer and your heavy whipping cream in the back of the fridge (where it’s coldest) for at least 15 minutes.

Add a tablespoon or two of sweetener (your choice) and a bit of salt to your whipping cream (and flavoring if that sounds good to you–vanilla almost always works) and just mix away until peaks form.  They don’t have to be stiff as there is reportedly such a thing as whipping the cream too long and causing it to begin softening.

If you like, you can forget the pudding or hot chocolate and can make whipped cream all by itself for dessert.  Simply serve it with a bit of nutmeg on top, and perhaps a pecan, or some berries, or all by its own marvelous self.  People will love it!  Everyone wants all the whipped cream they can get.

Homemade whipped cream is also, in my opinion, much better with cake or brownies, than is vanilla ice cream.  I know most people disagree, but you can tuck that thought away and try it some time.

We make domino, card, and board games enticing, and being snowed in during late May palatable, simply by adding hot chocolate or pudding to the evening.

Would a skinny hot chocolate packet or a pudding mix do the same thing?  Not even close.

Tea Cozy?

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You may think a tea cozy is a quilted teapot cover, and if so, may I recommend the knitted pineapple cozy found in Jane Brocket’s inimitable The Gentle Art of DomesticityBut I’d like to introduce the idea that a tea cozy is also a gathering of bliss wherein tea plays a part.
My first tea party was at friend’s house, and it was given in honor of our dolls, with a tiny painted metal tea set.  The dolls had tea (water) and raisins, and were quite happy with their fare.  After all, they got to sit at a little red wooden table in matching chairs, and be served. To this day, that is one of my all-time favorite teas cozies.
Such cozies may occur on quilts in the backyard with toddlers, peanut butter and crackers, a great book(s), and of course, tea.  Tea may be nice and hot in a thermos if fall is hinting at winter, or it may be iced to be enjoyed with berries picked alongside the road as you hike to a clearing under a nice big oak tree.

Other lovely tea cozy ideas include but are not limited to::  making breakfast special with tea, history teas, tea parties on a budget, literary teas, dress-up teas, teas on the balcony amid falling snow, slumber party teas, If-I-Could-Travel-Anywhere teas, Christmas teas, and tea parties for no particular reason (I think of these as conversation teas).

The only rule for a tea party is:  Conversation must be kind and intelligent.  Tea is a most excellent place to teach etiquette, and in fact when the kids were small I often brought a favorite etiquette book to our gatherings, Manners Matter by Hermine Hartley.

Now if you don’t have etiquette books, tea sets, knitted tea cozies, and a variety of gourmet teas, don’t be discouraged.  Have a coffee cozy (I use swiss water decaf mostly when having coffee with kids), or serve milk and cookies and call it a milk.  A milk?  Maybe a milk cozy.  If it’s cool outside, heat the milk and add honey and maybe some cinnamon and nutmeg.

There are endless possibilities, but the bottom line is simply this:  always be on the lookout for a tea cozy opportunity.  Bliss!

Breakfast Breads

IMG_3706Breakfast breads are lifesavers for me.  They are healthy, easy, filling, economical, versatile, and delicious.  I begin with a baking mix of sorts (NEVER buy these).  In other words, I mix and match flours, leavenings, dairy, nuts, spices, and dried fruits–depending on what I have on hand.  All you really need to know is that something close to three cups of flour and three teaspoons of baking powder (or ONE teaspoon of baking soda) and one teaspoon of salt equals a baking mix.  You can use powdered milk and then add water, instead of liquid dairy (or your liquid of choice) for a surprisingly good (sometimes superior) result.

So, when recently John left at 5:00 a.m. intending to pick up his breakfast on the road, and the kids were asleep, and I was hungry, I asked the question, What can I cook that will be good when the kids wake up, but delicious for me to eat ahead beforehand .  Breakfast bread!

On this particular morning I had only two cups of whole wheat flour left, (usually I have flax and almond and coconut flours), one cup of quick cooking oats, some rice cereal, and about a cup of unbleached white flour (time to get groceries).  I stirred these together with sea salt (always use more than the salt-stingy baking recipes call for, especially at high altitude where increased salt helps with rising), baking powder (the baking soda canister was empty and the baking soda boxes were in the laundry and bathrooms, or so I figured) so I added a third egg, figuring that would also help with the rising (always a concern at 8,000 feet above sea level).

The fruit going bad was apples, so I chopped a couple of those and added spices as though it was apple pie (if you haven’t ground your nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, cloves and allspice in the coffee grinder yet, you haven’t tasted spices–I’ll tell you a cautionary tale about this at the bottom of the post – see the P.S.).

Now for melted butter and/or coconut oil, vanilla flavoring (look into making your own–so very elegant you will be) honey and real maple syrup (molasses would have been good), evaporated milk and water (out of milk).

Finally, for the “optional” (per many recipes) ingredient which I consider essential for good breakfast bread:  Nuts.  In this case I used walnuts, but ordinarily I would have also added sunflower seeds, which are cheap and healthy (surprise, I was out of sunflower seeds, too).

If I had chosen crushed pineapple rather than apples, pecans would have been good, with maybe some orange juice concentrate and lemon flavoring.

A peanut butter bread is delicious (substitute for some or all of the butter).  I love this with a glaze made of still more peanut butter, honey (or sweetener of choice/availability) and a drop or two of orange essential oil.

If John were home I would have made pumpkin bread to have with cream cheese, scrambled eggs and vanilla almond tea (I recommend Republic of Tea).

I always make a small bundt bread with this batter, leaving enough for a loaf pan or muffins, some of which goes into the freezer for those days when I just don’t want to cook breakfast, or for when the kids want tea party goodies.

Have your breakfast bread with coffee, tea, or milk.  And joy.

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P.S.  The picture at the top of the post is from another day, another breakfast bread, and as you can see, I don’t always grind my spices.  As for my caution:  You must hammer up your cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, etc, inside a baggie or other enclosure before putting them in your coffee grinder.  Ask me how I know that if you don’t do so, you will soon be buying a new coffee grinder.  As for that bit of leftover spice in the coffee grinder?  Not a problem – it just makes your next cup of coffee extra good.

You don’t have a bulk spice source in your town?  Look on the net for bulk spice distributors.  Just know that you’ll be getting LOTS of spices (great savings).  I double bag mine and store them in the fridge (used often) and the freezer.  And remember, bulk spice distributors also carry vanilla beans for that homemade (divine) vanilla flavoring.

Café Home

 

There is so much more to cooking than following a recipe.  Cooking is about people – what they like, love, and need.  And cooking, like many things, is best done at home by someone who loves those for whom she or he cooks.  Becoming adept in the kitchen is a key to quality living for large families, couples, and for those who live alone.

This is true for trained chefs and for people who loathe the very sight of a kitchen.  Think of it this way:  Just because you live in New York is not to say you need never learn to drive a car.  The ability to drive a car is a handy skill.  Just because you don’t particularly enjoy doing laundry is no excuse for taking everything to the cleaners.  Knowing how to pull and turn a few knobs and separate the whites from the colors is a basic life skill.  Just so being able to feed yourself.

Being unable to scramble eggs, make biscuits from scratch, or whip up a mean spaghetti sauce is just plain dumb.  The idea that it’s fine to go around practically bragging about not cooking is childish.  Not being able to cook is only fine if you are a child.  Let’s all do our friends, parents, kids and their spouses, and our grandkids a great favor:  let’s lead by example and cook!

It doesn’t matter who you are, the time will come when you need to cook.  My mother-in-law, bless her forever and ever, taught my husband to cook, clean, can, and that no job was beneath him.  So, when our last child was born Cesarean and I was a bit under the weather – no sweat.  From the time John brought the older three to the hospital looking ready for portraits, until I no longer needed his help, he took care of things – including the cooking.  When the hospital nurses remarked on the kids’ neatly parted hair, clean fingernails and starched little Levis, I was at a loss.  Did other dads actually drag dirty, unkempt kids to the hospital to see their mother and new sibling?  Apparently so.

At our house it works best for me to be the Kitchen Master.  Because of my proficiency, it’s easier to do most of the cooking myself.  But easier is not always better.  I need breaks, John enjoys weekend cooking, and cooking with the kids (especially if the grill and beef are involved), and the kids need to learn to cook.

So, you’ve taken the first step.  You’re convinced (or almost) you do need to know your way around the kitchen.  Stay with me and you’ll learn so much more than that.

Slow But Sure – Cooking with and for a man

 

“Give me (said she) a well-cooked, well-served meal, a bouquet and a sunset and I can do more for a man’s soul than all the cant ever preached.  I can even do it without a sunset!” – Anne Ellis, in The Life of an Ordinary Woman

 Balance – is anything harder to achieve?  You may think sliced garden tomatoes and fried yellow crookneck squash are the very thing for lunch.  Your husband says, “Where’s the beef?” and your kids just get bug-eyed and wonder what has possessed you to think yellow slimy vegetables are actually edible, and more to the point, why you want to torture them?

When John and I married he was so happy to be free of convenience store burritos three times a day (he still says they saved his sorry single life) that he would eat whatever I put in front of him.  As long as there was a healthy serving of “protein” that is.  Any red-blooded American male worth his salt will tell you red blooded American males need both red-blooded meat and plenty of salt.

John actually wooed me with the very worst of (in my minority opinion – he has since corrupted our children) red meat.  “If a strong wind comes along you’ll regret it,” he’d say, regarding my skinniness and disinclination to eat during lunch in favor of getting more work done (yes, I’ve grown in many ways since those days).  I ignored him, so he took matters into his own hands.  Thinking store-bought burritos weren’t evidence of true love, he made his signature sandwich:

My Own True Love Bologna Sandwich (MOTLBS)

 Two slices of fake wheat bread – you know the stuff – with the split (wow!)  “butter” top

Slathered, and I do mean slathered on both sides with Miracle Whip (John claimed God prefers Miracle Whip – I laughed and it only encouraged him)

THICK sliced bologna – the tasty cheap stuff with all the chicken tongues and pigs feet

Iceberg (what else would God eat?) lettuce and plenty of it

And here’s the best part“pasteurized processed American cheese” (at least they didn’t add ‘food’ to the description).

You, oh discerning reader, have likely determined two things, but you may only be right about one of them.  If you think I loathe every ingredient in MOTLBS you’re quite right.  But if you think it follows I didn’t eat, or certainly didn’t enjoy eating this concoction, you’d be mistaken.  Maybe there was love all over it, maybe it was just the melding (can you say “melding” about such things as iceberg lettuce and American cheese?) of the flavors.  Or, and this is likely, it’s the fact that I was hungry all the time in those days. Whatever the reason, the MOTLBS was delicious.  Simply and utterly delicious.  Healthy, well, no, not so much.  But then, I always say when something is off-the-charts delicious, “Isn’t there health value in food that makes you so very happy?”

Balance, ladies and gentlemen.  That’s the trick.  How does a girl keep herself trim and healthy even as she keeps her husband happy.  She gets tricky.  Once in a blue moon (It didn’t take John long to learn I detested most of what he loved) when I’m way too busy and tired to cook, I bring home MOTLBS ingredients.  Ecstatic John happily makes his own sandwich(es), those for the kids, and lovingly prepares one for me, adding his concession to my healthy ways – lots of sweet onion.  So, rather than thinking he’s dead on his feet and wishing he didn’t have to cook, he’s thinking what a sweet dear wife am I.

Now, just in case you’re wondering why John’s tired feet are more relevant than mine, let me assure you there are number of reasons why it’s better for me to be the Great Kitchen Master.  You’ve already seen what our health might look like if John were in charge, and later we’ll talk about the money savings due to my Kitchen Master-ness.  That’s right, I’m the Kitchen Master.  I’m no lowly slave, nor will you be if you stay with me. You’ll be living in Kitchen Rhythms and Graces, and lovin’ it.

So, back to cooking for a husband (or anyone else with lesser culinary tastes than those possessed by your inimitable self).  Here’s my mantra, regardless of the issue:  “A smart girl like you oughtta be able to figure this out.”

A smart girl knows it is unwise and unkind to say, or to illustrate with your deeds, “Your mama sure raised an idiot child.  I think I’ll slap her next time I see her.  What was she thinking letting you put ketchup on steak?”  That’s right.  True story, ketchup on steak and just about anything else.  (The other side of that is that my mother-in-law taught John to be appreciative and considerate, perhaps moreso than his wife ever learned to be.)

Are you getting the feeling here that my healthy habits might have been as hard for John to take as was his SAD for me?  I began to search for foods we both liked, and ways to make his diet a bit more healthy.  Another key:  I began slowly, improving John’s salads as follows.

John’s Favorite Salad (JFS)

Iceberg lettuce (of course!)

Gobs of shredded cheapo cheese

Fake bacon bits – gobs again

Those stale chemicalish croutons

And why not drown it all in Thousand Island Dressing?

I will not insult your intelligence by attempting to convince you that this salad is, well, edible.

My solution began as follows:

Mix iceberg lettuce half and half with Romaine (now he eats what he calls “weeds” with only an obligatory grumble).

Add sweet yellow or red onion slices (as time went by I added more and more goodies until now he’ll eat anything called salad.)

Use real bacon bits – just put bacon (nitrate and nitrite-free) in the oven all nicely spread out on a cookie sheet, bake nice and crispy, and crumble it up.  Of course, the cook gets samples, and if she wants to be in good with her man, she gives him a slice or two as well.

Buy that ridiculously expensive Thousand Island dressing in the refrigerator section- at least it’s free of the chemical plethora/extravaganza found in most store-bought salad dressings.

Now for John’s New and Improved Salad

Any and all organic salad greens you like

Any and all other veges – I like radishes, sweet green peas, sweet onions, scallions, homemade croutons, home grown tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon bits or ham or turkey, and a homemade white dressing or Thousand Island!  If you prefer an Italian dressing (just use lemon juice or your favorite vinegar, olive oil, a little honey, salt, pepper and additional herbs if you like) add your choice of cheese – I recommend herbed goat or sheep cheese.  John says he hates any and all things sheep or goat, but he likes herbed goat and sheep cheeses if they’re done lightly and in salad.  Parmesan and Feta are more palatable to the unadventurous palate, however.

One easy way to eat with the “sensitive” palate (doesn’t that sound better than “oafish and boorish”?) is to simply separate their food before adding herbs and extra spices and seasonings (extra being those things other than black pepper and salt).  While some dislikes may seem unreasonable and be quite exasperating, in many cases there are physical reasons for such preferences.  While I can never have too much cilantro in my salsa, John is actually nauseated by it.  So, I just separate the salsa into separate containers before adding cilantro.

Mexican food is a great food to make at home for a man, and other unadventurous eaters.  You can hardly go wrong, whether feeding a husband, kids, or company, and it’s easy to make it healthy and delicious for yourself as well.  This is a great recipe for delegation.  Give the kids chopping and cheese shredding assignments, as well as a lesson on proper handling and cooking of raw meat.  We always use colorful and festive dishes witb Mexcian food – green plates and glasses garnished with lemons and graced with bendable straws.  A fruity herbal tea makes an inexpensive and refreshing drink.

You have no need to apologize to guests if you simply serve water.  We all need more of it and it saves the confusion over who likes what when you have a large group.  If your guests insist on contributing something, here’s a great opportunity.  Tell them you’ve got it all covered, unless they need desserts or drinks other than water (or whatever you have planned).  This way they can bring something without getting under your feet.

One of my favorite recipes, which is excellent when company includes kids, is a buffet dish we call Brush Piles.  Basically Brush Piles are simply tacos in a pile.

Brush Piles

 Ground beef, cooked and seasoned ahead, even the day before,

Season beef with dried onion powder (kids often detest cooked onions), garlic both fresh and dried, chili powder of choice, cumin, and cayenne (go easy and consider your guests’ tastes when cooking for a crowd).

Shred cheese ahead of time and set out to reach room temperature.  Raw white cheddar is an excellent choice, but in case of budget constraints I also like Tillamook cheeses.

Chop onions ahead (same day),  cover and refrigerate.

Chop tomatoes and lettuce same day – leave tomatoes out, refrigerate lettuce until about an hour ahead.  The lettuce may wilt if left out too long.  The reason for getting things out is we don’t want to put cold veggies on hot meat and get that not-so-attractive brilliant orange grease effect.

Pace Mild or Medium Picante Sauce (as all other ingredients, put in serving bowl with serving utensil) or make your own salsa with all your favorite salsa ingredients.

Corn chips – I heartily recommend organic, non-gmo chips.

Arrange the above as you want people to put on plates.  We put the chips on first, then the beef (very hot) then the cheese so it melts, then the onions, tomatoes and lettuce, topped by salsa.

Options:  Sour cream, Guacamole, Bean Dip

Easy and Delicious Guacamole

Avocadoes – I like to use one per person – all smashed up.  We’ll pretend you have five diners.

Freshly squeezed lemon juice (the stuff in the plastic lemon will do in a pinch).  Simply cut a lemon in half, then ream it out by squeezing it around a fork as you twist and turn the fork (I put a colander over a bowl to catch the seeds).  One lemon should be about right, but if you’re not a lemon lover, or if the lemon is extra juicy, start with ½ and then taste test.

Lime juice is optional (just a teaspoon for starters).

Garlic powder – I put in a couple of teaspoons, but that’s a bit much for most people.  Again, try one teaspoon and taste test.

Pace Picante sauce – just pour in about half a cup (less if you’re nervous about so much, and as always, taste test).

Now, stir it up and keep the plastic right on top of the guacamole until serving time, and stir if it’s dark on top.  This will be fine left unrefrigerated for a few hours before serving.

Another possibility for guests who are contributing to the meal is suggesting they bring the chips, salsa, bean dip, queso, or guacamole.  But be warned – theirs probably won’t be as good as yours.

Soup is Your Friend

News flash:  Soup is not the stuff that comes in a can.  Soup is the Kitchen Master’s bestest friend, the crisper cleaner-outer, the creativity outlet, and the soul-satisfier.  To quote those guys who shall not be named, “Soup is good food.”

In order to be a Kitchen Master, to satisfy the masses, to feed the hungry, you must make good soup.  And for most men, good soup includes meat and some form of homemade bread, or at least crackers and cheese.  But let’s notice that excellent, healthy, aromatic soup can be made from the humblest of ingredients, ingredients you really should have on hand, as they are useful for any number of easy, healthy, budget- and family-friendly dishes.

Soup’s Ready!

 “Crackers and water.”  That’s what my mom used to say with a smirk which irritated me a little bit.  Oh, but now I understand.  “What’s for dinner?” is an aggravating question when you don’t know the answer, and frankly, don’t want to know.

But when you have it all under control with a delicious pot of soup . . . now that’s when you can say, “Soup!”

Friday was soup day at my high school, no doubt because it’s a great way to use things up, and because the cooks were tired by Friday.  Most of the kids hated (or so they said) soup day, but it was my favorite, and I was one of the cooks’ favorites.  I always came back for seconds with a big grin, and any cook will tell you it’s nice to be appreciated.

At my house soup can mean something they all love, like creamy bacon mushroom, potato, clam chowder, or beef stew, or it can mean something with a few too many vegetables, which they have finally come to love (OK, tolerate), maybe because they figured it was better than peanut butter.

I don’t do picky eaters.  If they don’t like what I cook, they’re free to make a PBJ, but not to complain.  As I told them all once in a fit of pique over complaining and picky kids, “God made it, so it’s good.  If you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.”  That may sound mean, but I will not be guilty of foisting onto the world thankless, persnickety children.

Back to soup.  I make it out of what I have, so no two pots are the same, but here’s a basic recipe that always turns out.

INGREDIENTS:

Meat of choice – I like chicken or hamburger.  With hamburger I go with Mexican seasonings, with chicken it’s Italian.  If you choose chicken, boil it the day before, cool and have kids debone.  Or just chop up the half  a breast you have leftover in the back of the fridge.  Hamburger is also nice to have cooked ahead of time.

Fresh vegetables – carrots, celery, onions, garlic and potatoes (optional) and as many as you want.  If you love carrots, put in the entire bag (if you have a big pan – this soup has a way of growing large).  If you only have one carrot, cut it up small to spread the color.  If you’re out of celery and potatoes, that’s not such a big deal unless you’re making potato soup.  If you’re out of onions and garlic, well, you just need to go to the grocery store.

Canned and/or frozen:  Tomatoes (in any form – tomato sauce or paste, diced, chili-ready or Italian depending on what sounds good, the last of the Pace Picante sauce), okra and japalenos (optional for you, but not for me) corn, green beans (frozen or canned).

Here We Go!

Begin with carrots – they take longest to cook.  Peel (or not), slice, cover with water and cook on medium high heat.  Add cubes of celery next, then chopped onions and garlic (dried and/or fresh – I use dried onion flakes, fresh chopped onions and freshly minced garlic) and bay leaf (I always add oregano before serving).  I’ll leave it up to you if you want potatoes in your soup.  If so, cube and put them in right after the carrots.  How to decide?  Do you have and love potatoes?  Are they about to go bad?  Then put them in!  Soup is a creative and money-saving endeavor.

Now brown hamburger meat if you aren’t on top of your game with this chore already completed, or debone the chicken you cooked the night before.  You forgot!!!  Well, then, put that baby on right now to boil – you’ll need to turn off your veges until the chicken’s ready to go.  It’s frozen?  That never stops me, and I don’t have a microwave.  Just put it in the water and turn on the burner (only be sure to pull out the bag of giblets just as soon as the chicken is thawed enough to do so).  Now, make some cornbread and put out some butter to soften.  You can snack on hot buttered, cheesey japaleno cornbread while you wait.

Oh, it sounds fattening?  Then don’t eat three pieces!  Just eat two and save one for the soup.  Yay!

Back to the hamburger.  You can put in lots or a little, or just serve your soup with cheese and bread to make up for a lack of meat

Brown the hamburger with still more onions and garlic, and sometimes oregano and/or chili powder and as always, salt and pepper.  If I have it, I use sea salt.  If I’m lazy or in a hurry I put the peppercorns in whole  (yes, you’re allowed to use that cheapo Wal-Mart pepper – we’ve all done it, and speaking of that, I’ve found Wal-Mart is an inexpensive place to get dried onion flakes).

The carrots should be almost tender, and that’s all you want.  Put your vegetables along with the meat into your big soup pan, including the cooking water and the meat drippings.  Once the soup is refrigerated you can easily peel the fat off, although if you’re using organic meat there’s no reason to do so.  The soup will be even better once it’s leftover.

Now for the fun and easy stuff:  sliced okra, tomatoes, corn and green beans (frozen or canned) and enough water to cover everything with extra on top.

Once it’s hot, taste and add seasonings as preferred.

That’s it.  Serve it with or without crackers, cornbread, or artisan bread. And may I suggest some thinly sliced sweet onions?   Oh, and remember this soup is even better leftover.

P.S.  Cabbage is also good in this soup – cook it ahead with the carrots and potatoes.

AND SPEAKING OF CABBAGE . . .

I had this big beautiful Chinese cabbage and not much else and it was snowing.  Definitely souptime.  I peeled and sliced three potatoes, chopped onion and garlic, and began simmering them in water as I chopped the cabbage.

Adding the cabbage along with the little heavy cream I had (about ¼ cup) and a quart or so of milk, I went flavor hunting.  Ah ha!  Bacon ends and pieces – so beautiful.  There was no danger of anyone thinking this was merely cabbage soup.  This was soup with bacon!  About a cup sizzled as I added sea salt and cream cheese (celery would be good, but I was out).

When the bacon was crispy I chopped it and added it along with some of the drippings (matter of taste here and I’m not admitting how much I use) and a stick of organic Humboldt butter.

I got rave reviews on this soup!

Rave reviews are practically a given if bacon is involved.  Here’s a soup that was a happy accident due to my need to use up several Crimini mushrooms:

 

Creamy Bacon Mushroom Soup

Begin by frying your bacon nice and crispy.  I usually use about one slice of bacon per cup of liquid, so six to eight slices in this case.  I prefer putting bacon on a cookie sheet and cooking at around 400 degrees (keep a close watch as it’s a sin to burn bacon) in the oven until nice and crispy.  Remove promptly when finished.

Now chop (in all chopping look for kids with idle hands) the mushrooms (any kind you have on hand) – I first used about ten mushrooms, but I’ve made this with only three.  Saute for a few minutes on low heat in an oil or oil mixture.  I do almost everything with some combination of butter/coconut oil/olive oil.  NEVER USE MARGARINE OR ANY OTHER KIND OF BUTTER ADULTERATION/ABOMINATION.  How much oil?  This is your soup – you decide!  (I’m also not admitting how much butter I use.)

Now add milk, heavy whipping cream, half and half, or any combination thereof.  I always use mostly whole milk with a little cream or half and half.  Why can’t I be specific?  Because I don’t want you thinking you can’t make this because you don’t have the exact ingredients.  Again, soup is a creative endeavor, and as this particular soup contains bacon, you really can’t lose.

OK, I”ll get a little bit helpful.  Let’s say you have a big group of healthy eaters and you want about six to eight good servings of soup.  Use about eight cups of liquid, roughly half milk, ¼ cream, and ¼ half and half.  It will be delicious using all milk, so long as it’s whole milk.  So in this case it would be four cups of milk, two of cream and two of half-n-half.

As the soup cooks on medium/low heat, chop the bacon and prepare a thickener.  I like to use a couple of heating tablespoons of cornstarch stirred first into a cup of warm water (or you could try using a roué of wholewheat flour and butter). When the soup is hot pour in the cornstarch and water mixture, stirring until creamy and well incorporated.

Continue to cook, stirring often, until the soup has bubbled for a few minutes.  Turn off and test for saltiness, adding sea salt a little at a time until just barely salty.  Depending on your preference for thickness, you can add more cornstarch/water mixture, and cook a few minutes more.  You will love the taste, but it’s best if you serve this soup later.  It’s going to be even better after refrigeration and re-heating (on medium low with stirring).

Variations:  A couple cans of tuna or clams make this soup a delicious and even heartier meal.  You might call it Southern Clam Chowder or Granny’s Cream of Tuna with Bacon.  Also, Mushroom broths from the grocery store are delicious in this soup, as is chopped garlic.  You can dress it up with a little parsley on top, and serve it with crackers and cream cheese.  But really, it doesn’t need any help.  After all, it’s made of mushrooms, cream, and bacon.

Tip for kids who don’t like the texture of mushrooms:  Put the mushrooms in the blender or food processor and they won’t know they’re in there if you don’t tell.

Budget tip:  Use only one or two slices of bacon, or just leftover bacon drippings, or even a little chopped ham or Spam.  If none of this works for you, just up the butter a little.

Man-pleaser tip:  This soup has bacon.  Nuff said.  But if you really wanna lay it on thick, make bread.