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Frozen vegetables are frozen vegetables. October 21, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. If you walk down the freezer aisle in your preferred grocery and look at the vegetable options, there are almost as many choices as n the toothpaste aisle. No longer do you only have plain frozen vegetables and that horrid mix of peas, corn and diced carrots. There are lots of vegetable mixes, lots of frozen veggies in buttery sauces (those Green Giant people are no fools), and lots of boil-in-bag and steam-in-bag options.

But what if you just want a particular veggie, without sauce, and can’t find it frozen as is, but can find it frozen in a boil-in-bag or steam-in-bag version? Can you just open the bag and treat the contents as if it came from a regular frozen package?

I think we’ve all heard by now that nutritionists agree that frozen veggies are really good for you, better than fresh veggies picked out of season and shipped green, like, say, winter tomates. Frozen veggies are picked at the very peak of ripeness and flash-frozen to retain their nutrients. (Admittedly, I’ve never seen a bag of frozen tomatoes, but jarred tomatoes are wonderful for you, since they concentrate the protective, antioxidant-rich lycopenes in ripe tomatoes.)

I have no microwave, nor do I want to boil anything in a plastic bag and then eat it—aaaggghhh!—but one of the staples I love keeping on hand for cooking is frozen white shoepeg corn. The season for fresh white corn is so short, and I love sauteeing it to add to a meal, adding it to corn pudding at the holidays, and tossing it into chili. But I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to find a bag of frozen white corn, much less white shoepeg corn, in this area. What I can find, however, are bags of frozen white shoepeg “boil-in-bag” and “steam-in-bag” corn. And in my experience, the’re every bit as good added to a dish or sauteed as plain old frozen shoepeg corn could ever be.

So if you like boiling your veggies in a bag or cooking them in a bag in the microwave, I have no doubt that both methods work fine. But if you’re a traditional cook who simply needs to stock up on frozen staples you can’t find, don’t fear the boil-in, steam-in veggies. They’ll work wonderfully for you as well. Just keep away from the ones in sauces.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Another reason men aren’t like women. October 14, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A friend just e-mailed me, telling me that she had an upper respiratory infection and was making garlic-onion soup to try to get rid of it. I understand this completely. When I was recently ill, unable to keep anything down, all I could think about was miso soup and white rice. Healing, soothing: ahhh!!!

But when our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders was recently stricken with agonizing kidney stones, unable to eat, moaning and groaning for days while taking powerful narcotic painkillers nonstop, what was the first thing he wanted to eat once he’d passed the stones? He wanted a “California burger” with the works—mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, provolone, pickles, potato chips, and a giant order of fries with plenty of ketchup. And a salad and breadsticks on the side, please, with butter for the breadsticks! Our friend Ben and I took him out to get one. He ate every bite, too.

The mysteries of the differences of the sexes will never end, but yowie kazowie. Easing back into health doesn’t seem to be on guys’ agendas. Richard isn’t the only one. God knows, OFB is ready to get up and go the minute he’s able. No miso soup or garlic-onion soup for these guys, bring on the burgers or wings or fried chicken or pizza or whatever. And don’t forget the sides! (Actually, pizza doesn’t sound so bad. Hmmm…)

‘Til next time,

Silence

Birthday cake. October 7, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As it happens, my birthday falls on the long Columbus Day weekend holiday. And so does my sister’s. We were both born on October 11, a year apart, and were both premature, so go figure that, while our brother, born several years and several months later, was a huge, late baby. I now love having been born on a holiday, but growing up, I don’t think I noticed that. Instead, what mattered was the cake.

My mother wasn’t much for dessert, so we almost never got any, except for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. (Plus, of course, the inevitable Halloween basket.) But for our birthdays, we each got to choose our own cakes. And since my sister and I shared a birthday, we got to choose two cakes. This was a really big deal!

Sadly, at this point I can’t even recall what my brother’s favorite was. (I’ll have to ask him. But I already know the answer: “What are you talking about?”) My sister’s was chocolate cake with homemade chocolate fudge frosting. But mine was always angel food cake with whipped cream icing.

Even out of a box, this was not an easy cake to make. You needed one of those tall cake pans with a tube in the middle and a removable bottom. You needed lots of whipped eggwhites. You needed to get the cake out of the tube pan and let it cool while whipping the cream and adding sugar and vanilla, then chilling the whipped cream until just before icing and serving the cake. When I was a child, in October berries were unavailable, so there were no sliced strawberries or whole blackberries or raspberries or blueberries on the cake, not even any sliced bananas. There certainly was no whipped cream in a can. But I loved the delicious purity of that whipped-cream-topped angel food cake.

These days, if I’m invited to friends’ for my birthday, I’ll still celebrate with angel food cake. This time, the cake will be store-bought, and I’ll have plenty of lovely berries and sliced bananas to nest in layers of whipped cream (still homemade). Yum! It’s no longer my favorite dessert, but it’s still my favorite cake, and it holds so many memories. It’s light, so it doesn’t weigh you down—all those eggwhites, why it’s called “angel food”—a perfect finish for a meal.

Anyway, my point is that every child should get to choose their own birthday cake. It’s such a special thing. Maybe your children will choose a different cake every year, rather than going with the same one as we did. But in a world where everything’s constantly changing, having one ritual that never changes, empowering your children to do one thing exactly as they want it, is more important than I can say. They may not know to thank you now, but they’ll thank you later. And it’s just a cake.

Someone sent me a “happy birthday” e-mail this week, and encouraged me to celebrate with a big slice of cake. I can’t really remember the last time I had cake, or any dessert—usually, it’s food or dessert, and I choose food. But the e-mail reminded me of my childhood, and those birthday cakes, and my family, and the good times. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Cold enough for chili. October 6, 2014

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Brrr, is it ever cold outside! Silence Dogood here. Temps dropped to the 30s here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, last night. Our friend Ben and I managed to keep all our plants alive, but yowie kazowie, that is cold for early October. We weren’t so cold inside our cottage home, thank goodness, but it certainly made us start craving cold-weather food, like chili.

Chili is one of those forgiving foods that tends to taste good no matter how you make it or how you serve it. (Our friend Ben loves it over rice, my favorite is over buttered spaghetti with shredded Cheddar, which is apparently called Cincinnati chili, and of course, you could always serve up a big bowl plain.) I have lots of chili recipes, including one with pumpkin puree (it really is delicious, trust me), but here’s a basic recipe:

Saute 2 diced sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, in olive oil. Add 6 teaspoons minced garlic, a generous tablespoon each granulated garlic, salt (we like RealSalt), cumin, dried rosemary, thyme, and basil, and hot sauce (we like Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa for this), plus a minced fresh jalapeno pepper. Add a diced bell pepper (any color), a diced fresh tomato, 2 tablespoons chili powder, and a splash of Frank’s RedHot Sweet Chili Sauce. Stir, adding splashes of vegetable broth or water as needed to keep everything from sticking, until the onion has clarified.

Now, add a large can (28 ounces) of crushed tomatoes and a can of Ro*Tel diced tomatoes with hot peppers or a large can diced tomatoes, and a large can (40.8 ounces) of kidney beans (light red, red, or dark red all work fine). Cook until the tomatoes cook down, stirring as the chili cooks, until it’s the consistency you like. (We like thick chili, like a thick spaghetti sauce.)

Once it’s as thick as you want it, you can turn it down or turn it off while you make the rice or pasta or whatever you’d like to serve it with or over. I think slices of polenta, sauteed or baked until molten with butter and cheese on top, would be delicious floated on chili. If you like yours soupy, adding grated cheese and sour cream to each bowl, then serving it with your favorite soup crackers and passing the hot sauce or salsa sounds good.

Finally, let me remind you that, like spaghetti sauce, chili is very forgiving, so it’s a great way to use up leftovers. If you have an ear or two of corn that’s passing its prime, or half a carton of fresh hot salsa, or a softening avocado or tomato, go ahead and throw them in. Your family will probably wonder why the chili is so much better than usual!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Love your pets, love yourself, love your home. October 5, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, pets.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, your three bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, are all history buffs. Silence is especially interested in the domestic history of past times. When the three of us get together, it’s a topic we often talk about. As in, how did the royals and nobility in earlier times, who clearly loved their lapdogs, manage to survive living with their fleas and with their unspayed, unneutered pets?

When our friend Ben and Silence first moved here to Hawk’s Haven with our two cats, we didn’t realize that the cat of the previous owners had left fleas everywhere. We’d never experienced fleas at all, nor had our poor cats. The experience left us with bloody, itchy bites all over our lower legs, and nearly killed our cats from blood loss before we realized what was happening. Fortunately, there are now flea sprays that stop larval development in your home, breaking the vicious cycle. We’ve never had a flea problem again.

Every month, we feed our dog Shiloh a chewy treat that also happens to prevent heartworm disease. We used to dose her with a poisonous flea-and-tick preventive on her neck at the same time, but now they’ve developed a chewable. She loves her “treats,” and it’s such a relief to be able to feed her something she loves once a month rather than rubbing something she hates onto her neck.

This is easy, but it’s not cheap. It’s still better than dosing your house, your family, and your pets with God-alone-knows-what, though. And it’s far better than being bitten alive by those fleas (or, shudder, ticks). I still wonder about royals like King Charles I and his queen holding their beloved spaniels in all those portraits. Were their legs bleeding and itching the whole time? Don’t let it happen to you. Give your pets their meds.

Love your pets today. October 4, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, pets.
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Today, October 4, is the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. On this day, many Catholics take their pets to church to be blessed. But you don’t have to be Catholic to share the spirit of the saint who called animals his brothers and sisters.

Instead, just give a few more minutes of your time to make your pets happy. Make sure your cats’ litterbox is clean and filled with fresh litter, your aquarium filter is replaced, your birdcage bottom is cleaned and lined with fresh paper. Make sure every pet has fresh food, treats, and water, and fill up the wild bird feeders. Finally, pet, brush, and play with your dogs and cats. Let them know you love them. If you have chickens, don’t forget to give them leftovers: fresh fruits and veggies, bread, rice, and so on. Everybody will be so happy!

If you think about how much your pets love you, if you think about why you have them, if you think about how much you love them, how much your children love them, maybe it will be a little easier to buy some nutritious treats for them today while you’re grocery shopping, or decide to spend an extra ten minutes a day playing with them, or not yelling at them if they’re making a racket.

Happy Saint Francis Day!

Water for winter birds. October 1, 2014

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Building on our previous post on feeding winter birds, our friend Ben would like to address the issue of providing water. Most “experts” will tell you that providing water is crucial for keeping winter birds alive. Food is not enough, and shame on you for daring to simply set food out! Well, shame on them for not giving you a simple way to do that.

If you don’t have a stream, pond, or other way to provide water, go to your local Tractor Supply or hardware store and buy a black rubber water dish. We have two for our backyard chickens. Unlike a birdbath, a rubber container is flexible, which means that you don’t have to heat it. If the water freezes in cold weather, just turn it upside-down and flex it to get the ice block to come out. (If it won’t come out, you may have to turn it upside down, set it on the ground, and stomp on it.) Then rinse and refill. It may freeze again, but so what? Flex, refill, the end. No submersion heaters, open water for your wild birds.

Winter birdfeeding basics. September 29, 2014

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When our friend Ben and Silence Dogood go out to buy our monthly big bag of birdseed, we’re always amazed by the variety of birdfeeding products available. There are elaborate feeders, special seed mixes, specialty seeds, dried mealworms, literally hundreds of products. Books on birdfeeding are just as bad, making it seem like you need a special seed or seed mix for every single winter feeder. What’s someone who just wants to feed birds in winter supposed to do?

Actually, the answer’s simple. SO simple, it’s ridiculous. All you really need to feed birds in winter is a bag of black-oil sunflower seeds and a squirrel-proof tube feeder. That would be one, such as a Droll Yankees feeder, with a metal top, bottom, hanger, and feeder perches so squirrels can’t gnaw their way in. Hang it from a metal shepherd’s crook or from a branch where you can see and enjoy it, fill it up, and watch as the birds fly in. When you fill it up, don’t forget to scatter seed beneath it for ground-feeders like cardinals, juncos, and mourning doves, and you’re all set.

Sure, birds will eat other seeds. Cardinals will eat safflower seeds, goldfinches will eat nyger thistle seed. You can buy the most expensive custom blend of seeds, nuts and dried fruits imaginable and you’ll get an appreciative audience of birds. But for a fraction of the cost, you’ll attract all the same birds with plain black oil sunflower seeds.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage garden OFB and Silence share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, we love sitting out on our back deck in the lazy summer mornings and evenings and beautiful autumn evenings, so we keep one tube feeder up and running all year. Most birds are busy eating bugs and berries then, but they’ll still come up to the feeder where we can see them from the deck.

Once the cold weather arrives and supplies of bugs and berries thin out, we up the ante. (Pun about ants suppressed.) First, we put away our windchimes until spring and hang more tube feeders on the windchime hooks, except for the windchime directly in back, er, front, er,?! of our deck. Years ago, someone gave us one of those cylindrical suet feeders that holds a block of suet inside and cages squirrels out. Our woodpeckers and nuthatches very happily eat black oil sunflower seed from our tube feeders, but they (and our chickadees, titmice, and so on) love the hi-cal, pre-formed blocks of suet stuffed with peanut butter, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and so on, and we can buy a six-pack at our local hardware store for less than a dollar a block, so we indulge them, and ourselves, by hanging that feeder right next to the deck.

We also have what we call a cabin feeder, a wooden feeder shaped sort of like a log cabin with a “roof” that lifts up for filling and long, shallow troughs for eating, plus glass sides so you can see when it needs refilling. It’s attached to a tree by our front door so we can check its progress by looking out the front windows. Ground-feeding birds like cardinals, bluejays, and juncos are willing to eat on its platform, so it brings them closer to eye level.

So here’s the bottom line: Feed black oil sunflower seed; everybody likes it. Hang a tube feeder where you can see and enjoy the birds (and see when the feeder’s empty). You’ll need a vermin-proof container for your seed (we have a wonderful bird-themed canister we got years ago at a wild bird store, but a small tin garbage can with a tight-fitting lid would do), plus a scoop for your seed and a way to pour it into your tube feeder. (We bought a big plastic bottle with a long nose from a wild bird store, like a giant ketchup dispenser.) If you don’t want to set up a cabin feeder, just toss some seed around on the ground (or snow) under your tube feeder for the ground-feeders. The end.

Buying a guide to winter birds in your area will certainly increase your pleasure as you watch your little visitors enjoy your offerings. The guide will provide tips you’ll want to know, such as that the olive-colored birds at your feeder in the winter are the goldfinches that lit up your garden all summer (they’ve just shed their brilliant yellow breeding plumage). Happy birdfeeding!

Recreating spinach balls. September 27, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s not often these days that you find a restaurant, much less a quiet country inn, with a signature dish. But at the Bowers Hotel in the scenic crossroads of Bowers, PA, where chicken cordon blue and chicken marsala, not to mention shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, and liver and onions, are all still on the menu, one appetizer was the restaurant’s signature dish: baked spinach balls. Try finding those on somebody else’s menu!

The delicious spinach balls were the reason our friend Ben and I have been returning to the Bowers again and again since we first moved to this area. When the restaurant closed for a time before reopening in 1212, the first thing reviewers noted was that the beloved spinach balls were still on the menu. OFB and I loved taking visitors to the Bowers to experience the famous spinach balls for themselves. I’d recently been sick and unable to eat for a week, and last night, I insisted that OFB and I head to the Bowers so I could celebrate my recovery by sharing a plate of spinach balls.

Oops, what are spinach balls, anyway? They’re basically a mix of spinach and breadcrumbs, shaped golf-ball size and pan-fried or baked to a golden crispiness outside, then served hot over shredded Romaine lettuce with a honey-mustard dipping sauce. (And trust me, even if you think you hate honey-mustard, it’s a perfect match for spinach balls.) When we first encountered them, they were pan-fried, with a higher proportion of breadcrumbs to spinach. The latest incarnation had lots more spinach to breadcrumbs and was baked to make a healthier appetizer. Both were really good.

Backtracking to our experience last night, we arrived at the Bowers in a triumphant mood. (At least I did: Free to eat at last!) And then I looked at the menu. I looked at the appetizer menu again, and again, and again. No spinach balls. When our server arrived for our drink order, I asked where they were. “The chef’s replaced them with spinach-artichoke dip. Nobody was ordering them.” Spinach-artichoke dip! Excuse me, this isn’t Applebee’s!

I was devastated. But I wondered if, just once, I might be able to recreate the spinach balls at home, since they weren’t fried (something I refuse to do, eeeewww). What could go into them, I wondered. Thawed frozen spinach rather than fresh, I was guessing, cooked and with the liquid pressed out. Minced onion. Breadcrumbs. And a binder, such as beaten eggs or eggwhites, plus salt and pepper to suit.

I was unable to find the recipes used at the Bowers Hotel online (sob). But I did find a recipe on Epicurious that I thought captured the spirit of the dish and would be easy enough to make at home. Here’s a version of it:

Spinach Balls

Makes about 2 dozen.

1 10-oz. box frozen spinach
1 cup herbed bread stuffing (such as Pepperidge Farm)
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup grated Paresan cheese
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Cook spinach according to directions on box. Drain well. Mix in all other ingredients, continuing until well mixed. (Add more stuffing mix if needed.)

Form balls of 1 teaspoon-1 tablespoon size as desired. Bake on lightly greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees F. until lightly golden and done. Serve with honey mustard or the mustard of your choice as a dipping sauce.

Double recipe as desired. These freeze and reheat well.

Another thing I found in my researches was a recipe from a British restaurant chain (and possibly grocery) called Carluccio’s for a wonderfully delicious-sounding pasta dish with giant penne and spinach balls. The thought of making the spinach balls crispy, then adding them to a basic Alfredo sauce over pasta, struck me as brilliant. Will I make that? I don’t know, but I’d love it if someone made it for me. Will I try making from-scratch baked spinach balls at home? Yes, probably. Will I grieve the loss of another regional specialty? Absolutely.

‘Til next time,

Silence

What’s the difference between bisque and chowder? September 25, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been thinking that a warm, inviting corn chowder would make the perfect “farewell to summer” dish, creamy and corny as it is. I had an idea for the ingredients, since I wanted the soup to be rich and gorgeous but not bland. But before I actually made it, I wanted to check what other people were putting in their corn chowders. And somewhere in my search, I encountered corn bisque.

Bisque! Even if we’ve never had it, I imagine most of us have heard of lobster bisque, that elegant dish from a bygone age. (I can picture it being served with great pomp and style on the Titanic.) I’ve never eaten it, but I remember smelling it, with its delicate aromas of lobster, cognac (or sherry) and cream. Mmmmm!!!

But corn bisque? When is a creamy corn soup a bisque and not a chowder? Turns out, when the ingredients are pureed into a single smooth, silky consistency. Chowder, on the other hand, features chunks of its ingredients in a creamy base. Needless to say, it was considered the workingman’s version, since it took a lot more trouble to create a puree in those days without a food processor, immersion blender, or blender. It all had to be done by hand. And that perfect, silky-smooth texture didn’t come cheap. Especially when the crustaceans’ shells (I’m afraid so) were incorporated into the bisque, as was traditional. Eeeeewwww!!!

Well, give me the chowder any day. But I intend to try to compensate for the pureeing with canned creamed corn. See what you think of my recipe:

Silence’s Creamy Corn Chowder

2 (14.75 oz.) cans creamed corn
1 package frozen white corn kernels, or two large ears white corn, kernels cut off cobs
1 pint light cream
1 box veggie stock (aka broth), any brand
1 large sweet onion (such as Vidalia or Walla Walla), diced
1 8-ounce box whole button mushrooms, minced
3 red new potatoes, finely diced
1 yellow bell pepper, finely diced
4 tablespoons salted butter
salt and pepper to taste

To make the chowder, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan, such as a Dutch oven. (I love my LeCreuset Dutch ovens for soups.) Saute the onion with the salt and pepper until it clarifies, then add the mushrooms, cooking until they release their juices. Add the new potatoes, cooking until softened and glistening, then the bell pepper pieces, then the fresh or frozen corn kernels. (If the veggies start to stick to the pan during cooking, add a splash of veggie stock/broth as needed.) When the veggies are aromatic and soft, add the cans of creamed corn and slowly pour in the light cream. Stir to combine and check the thickness; add veggie stock/broth as needed to thin out to the consistency you want. Heat through and serve.

As you can see, this is all about the corn, creamy, fresh, or frozen. I’m not, for once, even adding herbs or spices to distract from corn’s delicate flavor. You could add a pinch of basil, or a pinch of garam masala, or a pinch of ground fenugreek, or even a very small splash of white wine, sherry, sherry vinegar, or the like. But I’d recommend starting with the basic recipe and modifying it later if you thought it needed something. The flavor’s delicate but rich, like a good chowder should be, and it’s thick enough to hold its own as a meal with a hearty salad and a hot loaf of multigrain bread.

Goodbye, summer!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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