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Some Foods Don’t Go Together

Some foods naturally go together.  Peanut butter and jelly.  Dried beans and cornbread.  Bacon and eggs.  Hamburgers and French fries.  Red beans and rice.  And one of my favorite combos is baked beans and cole slaw.

            But there are some food combinations that create flavors and appearances that aren’t to my liking.  Recently, I was served salty, savory sweet potato fries with a white dipping sauce.  Assuming it was ranch dressing, I dipped a fry into the sauce.  The flavor wasn’t what I had excepted. A second bite confirmed that the sauce tasted like marshmallows.  To be sure my taste buds weren’t tricking me, I asked the waiter, and he said, “We just discovered warm marshmallow cream is the perfect dipping sauce for savory sweet potatoes.  Isn’t it great!” I tell my Grands that they should try a food they don’t like at least ten times, so maybe after nine more times I’ll agree with the waiter.

            Following a recipe for a simple warm fruit casserole, I dumped several cans of drained fruits into a dish, added a dash of cinnamon and thought it would be a delicious side dish for baked ham at a big family meal. If I’d closed my eyes while eating, the fruit might have tasted good, but the cherries colored the sauce and pears pink. The peaches and apricots took on a color that would be beautiful in a sunset, but wasn’t appealing on a plate. 

            Food shouldn’t be pink, except for strawberry fluff, a combination of strawberry gelatin and Cool Whip, and strawberry ice cream and yogurt.  Ketchup belongs on French fries – not stirred into mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs.  Even green eggs as in Dr. Seuss’s book, Green Eggs and Ham, are more appealing than pink eggs.

            Everyone ate unusual food combinations as a child.  My children dipped chips and French fries in orange ketchup, aka French dressing.  A friend said that she and her mother ate a special salad they made by layering lettuce, chopped dill pickles, sliced hot dogs, a serving of cottage cheese and then topped it with Catalina dressing.  I’ve never seen that on a menu. How about hot dog slices in potato soup?  Reddish-pink blobs in white soup doesn’t fire up my appetite.

            Do you remember the first time you were offered pineapple and ham pizza?  I thought, ‘That’s just not right.’  After watching Daughter eat it several times, I tried it and agree it’s good, but I prefer veggies and Canadian ham pizza.

            What’s better than popcorn with melted butter?  Some have tried to convince me to season popcorn with soy sauce or hot pepper sauce or chili sauce, and I expect to hear about mustard or ketchup drizzled on popcorn. 

            Husband and I both like a good peanut butter sandwich.  He makes his with sweet pickles, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a generous slathering of Miracle Whip.  Like I said, some foods naturally go together and topping the list is peanut butter and jelly.  Make my grape jelly.

What’s the Best Strawberry Shortcake?

“How about strawberry shortcake?” my friend Diane asked. Strawberry shortcake, a perfect springtime dessert. My mouth watered remembering how Mom made it. A square serving of a one layer yellow cake, cut in half. The bottom half covered with fresh sliced strawberries that had been mixed with sugar and refrigerated to make syrup. The other cake half placed on top, then more strawberries and extra juice drizzled to saturate the cake. And topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream.

I reminded myself that everyone didn’t make this dessert like Mom did when Diane served her mother’s version. A sweet biscuit sliced in half, served side by side. Topped with slice sweetened strawberries and Cool Whip and garnished with a big berry. It was good. Diane and I discussed and laughed about how we cook like our mothers.

One time I took shortcuts and served sweetened strawberries piled onto dessert shells, those round yellow store-bought cakes packaged in cellophane. I squirted whipped topping and put a berry on top. It wasn’t what my taste buds were trained to expect when my ears hear the words strawberry shortcake.

I’ve seen and eaten many variations of this dessert. Trifle bowls layered with cubes of angel food cake, dry sliced strawberries, and whipped topping. Meringue shells filled with berries. A two layer white or yellow cake with crushed sweet berries and whipped cream between layers and on top. Even pound cake, vanilla ice cream, and sweeten sliced berries.

With so many variables no wonder there are many recipes. Cake or biscuit or shortcake or meringue? Sliced or whole berries? Sweeten or not? Juicy berries or not? Whipped cream or whipped topping or ice cream?

I googled strawberry shortcake recipes and about 9,900,000 results are available. The very first one was a combination of Diane and my mothers’ recipes. Mom’s sliced sweetened berries with juice and real whipped cream, and Diane’s mother’s sweet biscuit. And I learned the definition of shortcake is a sweetened biscuit.

The first known recipe for strawberry cakes was published in an 1845 Columbus, Ohio newspaper. It was a British version with an unleavened biscuit, layered with strawberries, covered with a hard icing, and topped with more strawberries.  The addition of whipped cream came much later. And the recipe for strawberry shortcake with a sweet biscuit or cake, berries, and whipped cream is an American creation, first published in1862 in Rochester, New York.

Classic strawberry shortcake is made with sliced and sweetened strawberries. According to Betty Crocker, macerated berries. Macerating infuses flavor into food, usually fruit, by soaking it in a liquid. So when berries are tossed with sugar, the juices are drawn out and their flavor enhanced. Toss the berries with sugar an hour or two before serving for juicy firm berries.

While strawberries are in season, maybe I’ll try the recipe with traditional sweet biscuits, sliced juicy berries, and real whipped cream. But it won’t be like Mom’s strawberry shortcake, the world’s best strawberry shortcake.

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All Deviled Eggs Aren’t the Same

What a spread! Tell the members of a southern Sunday school class to come to a party and bring a finger food and the dining room table will be full. Pork slider sandwiches. Ham on rolls, Meatballs. Veggies and dip. Cheese and crackers. Cupcakes. Brownies. Pimento cheese sandwiches – some on deli wheat bread, some on thin white bread cut in triangles. Four platters of deviled eggs – some garnished with pimento, some with paprika dusting, and some square shaped.

Yes, square deviled eggs. The conversations about those eggs were lively. I’ve never seen a square egg. How was that done? I never knew a hen could lay a square egg. Who brought these? Are these real eggs? Does a square egg taste like other eggs?

There were many guesses of how an oval egg (actually an ovoid shape since that’s the word to describe a three-dimensional egg shape) could become a cube. Eggs could be broken and the insides placed in a cube shape and then boiled. Rare chickens laid cube eggs. Peel a boiled egg and trim the white to make a cube.

Finally, when someone asked, “Who brought these?” in MaryDell’s hearing, she took credit, but she didn’t immediately explain how she turned an egg into a cube. Several of us guessed and she just smiled and shook her head. “There’s a little plastic cube to put boiled eggs in. I’ll bring it to Sunday school and show you,” she said.

MaryDell held her Egg Cuber, aka Square Egg Maker, in hand and explained. Boil an egg and peel it immediately. While it’s warm, place it in the cube, put the top on and gently turn the top which forces a square insert to press the egg into a cube. Then put the cuber in the refrigerator for about an hour, remove the egg from the plastic cuber, and refrigerate the square egg. “Since boiled eggs are good in the refrigerator for a week, you can make them ahead and then devil them all at the same time,” MaryDell said.

“Wait.” I said, “Did you say boil an egg? Can you only do one at a time?” MaryDell nodded. “You brought two platters of eggs. I can’t imagine how long that took,” I said.

Turns out MaryDell owns two Egg Cubers so she did two eggs at a time over several days. I admitted that I had hurriedly slapped store-bought pimento cheese between slices of sandwich bread, trimmed the crusts, and cut sandwiches in triangles. “Just hearing everyone talk about square eggs made it worthwhile. Your Grands would love them,” MaryDell said. Her deviled eggs were unique and delicious. None were left on her platter; I can’t say the same for my sandwiches.

Egg Cubers are available online and probably in kitchen stores, but I’m not buying one yet. MaryDell loaned me one of hers. I appreciate my friend’s time and effort to make two platters of square deviled eggs, but at my house we’ll make a square egg and eat it as soon as it chills. The Grands will love it.

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Saving Food

My freezer is full of this and that. Two small baked sweet potatoes. Half an onion – I was leaving town for ten days and didn’t want it to ruin in the refrigerator. One slice of meatloaf. A half-cup of spaghetti sauce. A plastic container labeled ‘For Soup’ stores a spoonful of corn, a few servings of green beans and lima beans, celery leaves, and who knows what else – all leftovers to go into a pot of vegetable soup.

I don’t like to throw away food. When I peel apples and pears for my Grands, I usually eat the peeling. I’ve even boiled citrus peelings with cinnamon to make good use of the peelings and make the house smell good. I dice the thick stems of broccoli for salads. I chew on the tough core of pineapples. And I know about composting, but don’t do it. I should because then I’d never waste food. Potato peelings, apple cores, pineapple leaves, eggshells – all could go into compost.

A Reader’s Digest article about fresh produce entitled “Food Parts You Should Never Throw Out” caught my eye. According to the article, most of us throw away nutrients when we dispose of what we consider waste. Pineapple cores were listed first and I patted myself on the back. But I didn’t think of adding chunks of core to a cup of hot tea or chopping it finely to add to chutneys or a stir-fry.

I was reminded of the many possibilities of citrus zest: blend in smoothies, vinaigrettes and marinades or stir into yogurt, cottage cheese, and oatmeal. Citrus peel provides fiber and three times as much vitamin C as the flesh. I’ve never tried eating kiwi skin; even thinking of its fuzzy texture makes my mouth dry. But I’ll try biting into the whole fruit because kiwi’s vitamin C level decreases when the fruit is peeled and exposed to oxygen.

Watermelon rind provides an amino acid that is good for heart health. I know about pickled rind, and this summer I’ll add chopped rind to fruit salads and slaw. Who knew watermelon seeds can be roasted? I roast pumpkin seeds, but have never roasted watermelon seeds.

I was nodding in agreement until I read the words ‘Banana Peel.’ You might remember my column about bananas. I can’t eat a banana. Its mushy, slimy texture gags me. I almost skipped this section, but I read on out of curiosity.

Banana peels provide amino acids, which boosts serotonin, known as the happiness hormone. The best peels are ripe ones because they are softer, thinner, and tastier, according the article author, Isadora Baum. To soften the peels, boil them for at least ten minutes (imagine that stench) and then add them to soups or smoothies. Or puree the peels and add to muffin or cake batter. And the kicker: for a real treat, slice and bake a banana with the skin on.

I won’t eat a banana peel in soup or a muffin or baked. Not even for its happiness hormone. Some things should be thrown out.

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Cole’s Country Store

“What’ll you have?” asked the server who stood beside me. I looked at the lunch menu that was hand written on a large dry erase board.

“Maybe everything. It all sounds good,” I said.

“You can. Some people eat one plate full here and take another one home,” said Tish who not only serves the food, she’s also the cook and cashier. “Save room for cherry cobbler and ice cream.”

Everything on the menu was good country cooking. Chicken casserole. Meatloaf. Green beans. Pinto beans. Mac and cheese. Fried apples. Cooked cabbage. Stewed potatoes. Fried corn. Slaw. And cornbread baked in a black skillet.

This was my second lunch outing to Cole’s County Store. I’d recommended Cole’s, located here in Putnam County, to my college roommate and her two Davidson County teacher friends because it’s like going home to mom’s and grandma’s kitchens. And that welcome is exactly what owner, Marcia Cole Huffman, intends.

But why did she buy a rundown, century-old building that had been boarded and empty for years and is located on Highway 70 west of Baxter, miles from other retail businesses? And why open a meat-and-three restaurant?

Marcia’s close friends and sisters discouraged her. They advised her to not consider buying the store when it was advertised for auction, but Marcia could not let her great-grandfather’s store go to someone outside the family. “I was obsessed,” Marcia admitted.

Marcia, who lives in Georgia and recently retired from working in a systems engineering office explained, “Dr. Phylander Sylvester Cole, my great-grandfather, established the store. It has been his doctor’s office, a post office, a place for marriages by a family justice of the peace, a bus stop, a polling place, a source for hunting and fishing license, gas and coal oil, a general store, a gas station, and a community gathering place! One friend put it this way, ‘What kind of financial decision is it to buy a rundown store in the middle of nowhere?’ Of course, it was not a financial decision – it was a HEART decision. Both sides of my family were born and lived in this beautiful area. I’ve been to all continents except the cold one, and the best place to be is in Putnam County, Tennessee.”

Marcia thought she’d update the building to be a country residence and a place for family gatherings, but when community members saw work being done on the abandoned store, they assumed it was going to reopen. Marcia said, “The whole thing spiraled!” Tish wanted to open a “meat-and-3” and she talked with Marcia. Neighbors, family, and friends helped Marcia and Tish equip the kitchen and provided store furnishings from the mid-1900s when the store was in its heyday.

Heart and opportunity. That’s why Marcia bought the old Cole’s Store and opened a restaurant. It’s worth a drive down highway 70; just don’t be in a hurry. You’ll want to sit and talk a spell, like I did. The meatloaf, mac and cheese, green beans, and coleslaw tasted like home.

Rich Memories are Stirred up Looking Through Mom’s Old Recipe Box

I looked through Mom’s collection of 3 x 5 index recipe cards one more time. Surely, I’d find her corn bread dressing recipe. Surely, Mom wrote it down and filed it in her wooden recipe box. Surely, I overlooked it when I searched before.

Thanksgiving is about traditional foods that have been served by grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Mom always made the dressing to go with the turkey and giblet gravy, and after her death more than twenty-five years ago, I used recipes from cookbooks to make it for family gatherings. Last week I touched every recipe card in Mom’s file. The one recipe I wanted wasn’t there. I’ve determined the reason is the recipe was in her head. She seasoned by taste and added broth by feel.

But I discovered something I hadn’t noticed previously. Almost every recipe includes two ingredients: sugar and butter. And many include flour. Mom’s file is full of desserts: pies, cookies, cakes, and candies. Those are the labeled tab dividers. The tab labeled casserole doesn’t have a single card behind it, but Mom added another category: Rolls, Biscuits, Cornbread. She was a meat- and-three cook, a really good one, and she didn’t need recipes except for desserts and some breads. Her fried chicken and chicken and dumplings were the best ever. She cooked fall-apart beef roast in a pressure cooker and smothered liver with onions. She fried tender pork chops in a black skillet, then used the drippings for gravy. No recipes needed.

I also discovered Mom and I collected many of the same recipes, and I don’t know why I didn’t get them from her. Pecan Pie. Oatmeal Cookies. Angel Biscuits. Chess Squares. Sugar Cookies. Her Old Southern Light Cornbread recipe is exactly like the one I cut from a Southern Living magazine.

Like most cooks of her generation, Mom recorded many recipes using paper and pen. Reading her handwriting brings a lump to my throat. She wrote neatly and concisely, omitting every ‘the, an, a’ and her directions were simple. The last notes on most cards are numbers, such as 350º, 45 minutes.

My favorite finds are Never Fail Pie Crust and Southern Pecan Pie*. I wonder why I didn’t notice these recipes before and made them my own. Mom could make piecrust blindfolded and she always made two. One she put in the refrigerator for another day. Studying her recipe for pecan pie, I now know why the flavor of my pie isn’t as rich as Mom’s was. My recipe is exactly like hers except she used dark Karo syrup and I’ve always used light. (Dark is made with molasses and light corn syrup that is flavored with vanilla.)

For our family’s Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow, I’ll have to use the corn bread dressing recipe I’ve created, combining several recipes, and titled “Dressing Most like Mom’s.” But the pecan pie I’ll serve my cousins and sister-in-law and their children will be exactly like Mom’s. As close as I can make it.

*Recipes online at susanrray.com

What’s for Supper?

cutlery-297617__480Who cooks supper meals? Remember meat-and-three-meals? Pork chops, fried chicken, beef roast, or meatloaf and three sides. Vegetables such as potatoes, green beans, corn, peas, cole slaw, and carrots. Mom cooked like that. And sometimes she served homemade soup with hot cornbread or spaghetti topped with her special tomato sauce and meatballs. That’s the suppers I ate as a child and I learned to cook at Mom’s elbow.

When friends reminisce about the first meals they ate as newlyweds, they tell funny stories because the wives didn’t know how to cook. My newlywed story is different. A few months after Husband and I married, I remember him telling me, “We really don’t have to have a big supper with meat and vegetables every night.”  I took him at his word.

I’ve always like cooking – like to chop, dice, bread, measure, mix, knead, sauté, brown and bake. But planning and shopping are chores. If someone would just tell me what to cook and buy the groceries, I’ll cook. I’ve been in a slump and I looked for other meal options.

Anyone else tried mail order meals? I ordered by email and UPS delivered a box of food packed on ice on my doorstep. Inside was everything needed, with directions, for two meals for Husband and me.   Everything for Crispy Rice Chicken Katsu with roasted Chinese broccoli. Everything. Including a liquid egg, ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, and 2 fluid ounces Tonkastu Sauce. The meal was delicious, easy to prepare, and I loved that I didn’t have to buy a large amount of an ingredient that I rarely use. One box included 2 teaspoons of Chicken Demi-Glace and 3 thyme springs and 1 red fresno chili.

To avoid planning and for easy shopping, there are fresh ready-to-cook meals available in the grocery stores. Sweet chili chicken, mild Italian sausage with sweet peppers and onions, flank steak stuffed with spinach and provolone. All ready for the oven or microwave. Even taco soup for my crockpot. And salads are bagged with cut lettuce and carrots, dressing, and croutons. All I have to do is open the plastic bags and dinner is ready.

Frozen meals have come a long way. Remember TV dinners in the 1950s? Meat drowned in bland brown gravy and tasteless mashed potatoes and diced soggy carrots weren’t acceptable on Mom’s table. But oh, the frozen meals choices today. Beef Lo Mein, Alfredo Chicken, Three Cheese Lasagna, Chicken Pai Thai, Chicken Pot Pie. And there are kids’ meals with chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and broccoli.

And delicious prepared meals are available from local caterers. Take the food home, heat it, and serve. Nothing could be easier. Voila! Dinner is served!

I’ve tried mail order meals, meals in a box, meals in plastic bags, catered meals. Some passed the test – as good as Mom’s. Most didn’t. Time to make this week’s menu and shopping list, including what I call ‘find-it, eat-it’ meals. Husband is good with that.