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Refried beans: homemade vs. canned. April 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching, and when we think about tacos, burritos, layered dips, or a simple, hot, filling lunch with tortilla chips and salsa, our friend Ben and I think of refried beans (a lot). We love refried beans. A lot. We even like canned refried beans, you know, that stuff you pry out of a can that looks like really bad dogfood.

It’s not that canned refried beans taste bad. Some brands—our favorite is the, gulp, Taco Bell brand, which we can no longer find in our local groceries—are quite flavorful and even vegetarian-friendly, which, since I’m a vagetarian, is key for us. It’s just that they have no texture and look horrible.

I confess to grabbing a can on super-busy nights and wrestling some of the horrid-looking glop out of it and onto some burritos, where it can be hidden beneath chipotle hot sauce, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, fresh salsa, guacamole, shredded lettuce, and the like. Then you get the flavor and protein of the beans without dealing with the appearance. By the time I’ve wrapped up the burritos, topped them with sour cream and salsa verde, and popped them in the oven, I feel pretty good about our meal, especially when I serve it with extra cilantro, shredded lettuce, chopped scallions (green onions), and sliced tomatoes, jalapenos, and olives for toppings.

However, it is easy and incredible to make your own refried beans from scratch. They taste delicious and, unlike canned refried beans, look appetizing and have great texture as well. Bearing in mind that no “refried” beans are actually even fried, much less refried, despite their name, refritos, let’s take a look at making them yourself. You will never taste more flavorful, delicious beans, I promise you!

Silence’s Best-Ever Refried Beans

canola oil
2 large sweet onions (Vidalia or WallaWalla type)
1 large green bell pepper
3-6 paste tomatoes
1 tablespoon lemon juice (we like Key lemon)
1 heaping tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 heaping tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 heaping tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon salt (we like Trocomare or RealSalt)
1 tablespoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed

Heat a generous amount of oil in a capacious, heavy pot. (I love my Le Creuset Dutch ovens for this.) Add finely minced onions, diced bell pepper, and chopped tomatoes. When the vegetables have cooked down, add lemon juice and spices, salt, hot sauce, and cilantro. Then add the pinto beans. Stir well to blend, then use a potato masher to smash the beans. You’ll get a semi-smooth, semi-chunky texture, which is fine. Stir well to blend, let the beans get hot, and serve or turn off the heat, covering the pot, until you’re ready. The beans will keep well refrigerated, too, for future meals and snacks.

‘Til next time,



The great taco debate. April 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Continuing our run-up to Cinco de Mayo here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, let’s talk about taco shells. You wouldn’t think that taco shells could be a cause for controversy, but taco lovers tend to find themselves on one side of two great divides: Hard or soft? White or yellow? Which sides are you on?

For me, both issues are clear-cut. If I want a soft shell, I’ll eat a burrito or a quesadilla. If I’m eating refried beans with all the fixings (more on this tomorrow), I want crispy-crackly taco shells. And I want them made out of white corn. (Mind you, I don’t eat a taco the way most people do, with all the stuff shoved inside the clamshell-like taco shell, which will inevitably break up and/or explode when someone bites it, spewing food everywhere. Eeeeeewwwww!!!! Instead, I crack my hot taco shells in half and use them as scoops, or layer ingredients on top. Works like a charm as long as you keep that half-taco over your plate!)

White corn wins for me every time over the heavy, bitter yellow-corn alternative. The delicate, luscious flavor of white-corn taco shells and tortilla chips enhances everything they’re eaten with rather than overpowering it, and there’s no bitter, oily aftertaste.

Of course, I come from the South, where yellow corn has traditionally been regarded as a field crop (i.e. winter food for horses and cows), while the milder white corn was the food of the people. In the North, however, yellow corn is king, its superior nutritional content often cited.

I’ll never forget my shock when I first moved to scenic PA and was offered “cornbread,” a yellow, soggy, heavy, bitter conglomeration that had been sweetened (!!!) to offset the bitterness. Where was the light, luscious, crusty cornbread that I loved, a savory, not a sweet, split and topped with melting butter? Who would call this yellow stuff cornbread, much less pass additional sweeteners like syrup and molasses to drown it in more sogginess and sugar?! Yikes. Ditto for yellow corn-on-the-cob versus the likes of ‘Silver Queen’ and its more modern descendants.

I hate the supersweet corn/candy corn era accordingly. I don’t want my corn to taste like candy, I want it to taste like corn. Like good, luscious, aromatic corn, a vegetable, a savory dish. Not bitter. Not sweet. Just corn.

I was beginning to despair that I’d lost the opportunity forever when it came to taco shells. The trend in light, airy, delicious white-corn tortilla chips seemed to be on the rise, with Tostitos introducing its cantina-style super-light white corn chips. But the Old El Paso white corn taco shells, the only ones I’d ever been able to find, suddenly vanished from local market shelves. Now, there were hard yellow taco shells and soft white corn and white flour taco shells, as well as soft yellow taco shells. I scoured the shelves desperately, month after month. Where had my crisp white taco shells gone?!

Finally, last week I found some at a nearby Giant. I was tempted to buy their entire stock, in case they, too, were planning to discontinue them, but controlled myself and only bought two packages, more than enough to get me and our friend Ben through this Cinco de Mayo. But the second they’re gone, believe me, I’m rushing back. Please, Old El Paso, please keep them coming! As the license plates used to say, you have a friend in Pennsylvania.

‘Til next time,


Great guacamole. April 28, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Not being a fan of slimy textures (and that goes for you, too, eggs and peas), I hadn’t realized that guacamole (or anything avocado) could be good until a couple of years ago. I’d been reading more and more about the good fats in avocados, and kept thinking I should find a way to include them in our friend Ben’s and my diets, weekly if not daily.

So when we went to a favorite local Mexican restaurant and I saw a server prepare fresh guac tableside for some other diners, I decided to go for it. (Though I skipped the tableside prep since our server assured me that it was made the exact same way in the kitchen for $3 less. Always pays to ask!)

The guacamole turned out to be a revelation. It was chunky and creamy, not slimy. It was room temperature, perfect with hot tortilla chips. And it got a big flavor boost from chopped onion, tomato and lime juice. Yum! It was good enough to eat as a meal in itself. The restaurant offered containers of fresh-made guac to go, but they were pricey. Could I create a homemade version that would compare?

In a word, yes. With a step-saver thrown in the mix. I think it, and serving the guac right away at room temperature, are key. But since I want to get the most nutrient power possible out of those avocados, and almost all of an avocado’s nutrients are located just under the peel (not counting the fats, of course), the way you peel an avocado makes a big difference, too.

For guacamole, you want to buy blackish, wrinkly Haas (now usually called Hass) avocados, not those big, smooth, green “alligator pears” from Florida. To peel them and keep all their nutrients, rather than cut them open and scoop the flesh out with a spoon (leaving the nutrient-rich green layer behind), do this: Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, then twist the halves apart and pop out the seed. Next, cut the halves in half. Take a quarter, insert a finger under the peel at the top, and peel it off like a banana skin. Voila! The dark green, nutrient-rich layer stays on the flesh, not the peel. Repeat with the other quarters.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because avocados are quick to discolor, turning a super-unappetizing brown at every opportunity, you’ll want to deal with them last. So let’s go back to the beginning. Of course, you’ll want to adjust quantities to suit your crowd. This is what I made for me and a typically hungry OFB, and we ate it as an appetizer with chips one night and in burritos another:

First, chop 1/2 a large sweet onion (such as a Vidalia or WallaWalla); reserve the other half for another dish. Chop a half bunch of fresh cilantro (or to taste) and add it to the mix. Douse with a good splash of lime or lemon juice (we like Key lime or Key lemon juice for this).

Next, add the “secret ingredient,” 1/2 container of fresh hot raw salsa. These are available in the fresh produce section of our local supermarkets, and contain finely diced onion, tomato, green bell pepper, and jalapeno peppers. The key here is to make sure you’re getting HOT salsa, and to make sure you can see the diced ingredients clearly. You definitely don’t want to get a pureed or cooked salsa, and you don’t want to end up with something like pineapple or black bean and corn salsa. Keep your eyes open and read your labels!

And don’t forget to drain that salsa well before you use it, so your guac is rich, not runny. (If you happen to like bloody Marys, or tomato or V8 juice, the liquid from the salsa will give them a nice kick.)

The beauty of this is that you can add a second layer of oniony goodness, the tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalapenos without having to chop them and in a much finer dice than you could ever manage. I’ve noticed lately that my local Giant also offers micro-diced onions and tricolored bell peppers (green, red, and yellow) in plastic-wrapped packages in the produce aisle, which you could add along with or instead of the salsa. But if instead of, you’d still need to dice a couple of paste tomatoes and at least half a seeded jalapeno!

Now, it’s time to add a splash of Tabasco Chipotle Sauce, just to kick the guac up a notch. And finally, cut and peel your avocados, toss the quarters in a bowl, and use a fork to mash them ’til chunky, then fold them into the guac, give it a good stir, and serve immediately. Cinco de Mayo will never taste so good!

Incidentally, if you inadvertently made too much and it sat out long enough for the avocado to turn brown (this shouldn’t happen if you’ve added enough lime or lemon juice, but still), don’t panic. The guac is still good even if it looks gross. Tuck it into a burrito or quesadilla or soft taco where people will enjoy the flavor without seeing the color.

‘Til next time,


What, no limes for Cinco de Mayo? April 27, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You’ve probably heard about the lime shortage that’s causing soaring prices and a lot of heartache to Mexican, Thai, and other restaurants that rely on limes in their cuisine and drinks. A whopping 95% of our limes are imported from Mexico, and winter downpours there have set back the lime crop, resulting in late ripening. The fact that druglords charge the lime growers outrageous “export fees” (and, Godfather-like, make them “offers they can’t refuse” if they don’t pay them) doesn’t help prices, either.

The remaining 5% of limes in the U.S. are grown in California and Florida. A three-year drought has literally dried up California’s lime crop, and Florida’s has been hit with a citrus disease that keeps the fruit from ripening. It’s predicted that the Mexican lime crop won’t arrive here in time for Cinco de Mayo, that great celebration of all things Mexican (and margarita). What’s a margarita lover to do?!

The few cases of limes that have managed to make it into the U.S. are so expensive that they’re forcing restaurateurs to get creative. One Mexican restaurant in California now offers patrons margaritas for 25 cents if they’ll bring in limes from their own backyard trees. Others have raised the prices of their top-shelf margaritas or refrained from adding slices of lime unless they’re specifically requested by the customer. Still others are experimenting with substituting lemon juice in dishes like ceviche and guacamole.

What does this mean for your Cinco de Mayo party? Probably not that much. Limes are going for 99 cents each or $2 a bag at Wegman’s, a high-end grocery, so they’re probably less at your local store. It’s not a huge sacrifice to splurge on a few limes for your fiesta. Or you could go for a paloma, a drink that’s more popular in Mexico than margaritas.

This delicious, refreshing drink is traditionally made with tequila and a Mexican white grapefruit soda (the drink’s golden color caused its originator to name it for the beautiful golden paloma horse). But as white grapefruit soda isn’t that easy to find in my part of rural PA and I happen to love pink grapefruit juice, I devised my own version. Allow me to present the Pink Paloma:

Fill a tall glass 1/4 full with golden tequila; add a splash of Triple Sec. Add pink grapefruit juice (no pulp, no added sweetener!) to bring the glass to half full. Top it off with mandarin orange seltzer water (again, unsweetened). So delicious! And it’s much less heavy and syrupy than most margaritas. Add a slice of lime at your discretion.

‘Til next time,


Think about what cheers you up. April 25, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It must be very hard to be a child actor working on such a relentlessly grim, violent, and dark series as “Game of Thrones.” Poor Jack Gleeson, the actor playing the despised and despicable boy-king Joffrey “Baratheon,” had to endure a worldwide celebration when he was poisoned. He has announced that he’ll never act again.

Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran Stark, takes a different approach to relieving the grimness. He told an interviewer that when he needs cheering up, he watches a little of “The Simpsons” or “Spongebob Squarepants.”

Way to go, Isaac! Our friend Ben and I love to start our day by watching a few clips of the films in the Pink Panther series. We especially love the clips featuring that comedic genius, Herbert Lom, as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, always battling his arch-enemy, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. (My favorite is when Dreyfus is forced to give Clouseau’s funeral oration, only to discover that he’s alive after all. OFB favors the “mad dentist” scene.) Soon we’re howling with laughter, and I can’t think of anything more healing. What a great way to start the day!

Think about what makes you laugh, and try to get more of it in your life.

‘Til next time,


A Middle East feast. April 23, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I simply love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods, some of the healthiest and most flavorful on the planet. And my lust for these healthy, flavorful dishes was kicked up more than a notch when our local paper featured an Egyptian food truck, the Taza Truck, that had actually stopped for a day in the tiny nearby college town of Kutztown, PA, just 15 minutes from our rural cottage home.

The article was cruel enough to discuss and show many of the luscious dishes being served by the truck. It also provided a link to the Taza Truck website, which provided a complete, tantalizing menu. Why was this cruel? Because the truck had stopped in Kutztown on April 2, and the article didn’t appear until April 9. Rushing to the website, I saw no sign that it would ever come back. Sob!!!

Unable to stop thinking about the bad timing of this, I told OFB in no uncertain terms that we needed to get some Middle Eastern specialties on Saturday and have our own feast, or he’d be taking me to Yianni’s, a wonderful Greek restaurant in not-so-close Bethlehem, PA, which has delicious food and wonderful ambience but cringe-worthy prices from OFB’s POV. He hastily agreed.

So Saturday found us racing first to do our usual Saturday chores in Kutztown, including a stop at Renninger’s, Kutztown’s farmers’ market. Renninger’s actually includes a Mediterranean food stand, Nancy’s, in the midst of its Pennsylvania Dutch specialty stands. So we began our Middle Eastern odyssey by stocking up on Nancy’s homemade spinach-and-herb hummus, incredibly rich Greek yogurt, and something new, flatbread topped with Lebanese cheese. Yum! Nancy’s plain Greek yogurt is so rich and delicious, you can eat it with hot buttered and salted basmati rice and a heaping side of arugula and cherry tomatoes (preferably gold or a mix) and enjoy one of the best meals you’ll ever eat.

Next, we made a special trip to the Allentown Farmers’ Market, which has what is arguably the best Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food in the area outside of Yianni’s, at a stand in the market called Foods of the Mediterranean. I quickly stocked up on their baba ghannouj (roasted spiced eggplant dip); their incomparable herbed feta cheese, the best I’ve ever had; amazing savory pastries made with phyllo dough wrapped around a spinach, feta and herb filling and then wound into a cinnamon-bun shape; falafels, those delicious crispy deep-fried chickpea fritters that are just perfect with tzatziki sauce (super-thick yogurt with cucumber, garlic and herbs). (So good if you want to wrap them in a soft flatbread, such as a Greek-style pita, heat them in foil, and add the tzatziki sauce with shredded lettuce and chopped tomato and onion before you eat them.) I also got their garlic-roasted cauliflower as a healthy and incredibly yummy side.

Wow, am I looking forward to setting this spread out for a super spring feast for me and OFB! I think, despite OFB’s appetite, we’ll be able to stretch it to three meals (especially if I add a Greek-inspired asparagus dish with the third meal). And that unbelievable herbed feta will continue to add delight to our spring salads and breakfasts smeared over toasted baguette slices and topped with thinly sliced radishes. Ooh la la!

‘Til next time,


Every day is Earth Day. April 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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“The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

—Chief Seattle

Happy Earth Day to you from all of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac!

Bringing home the bacon. April 21, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I just read an article on 24/7 Wall St on “The 10 Fastest Rising Food Prices.” In case you’d like to cut these skyrocketing items off your grocery list (or stock up while they’re still affordable), I thought I’d share them with you. This list applies to the first four years of this decade, so there’s some consistency to the price increases. And this only applies to price increases in the U.S., even though some of the items on the list aren’t grown here.

A final caveat before we get to that list: Like me, you might think it would contain traditional luxury foods like lobster, caviar and truffles. Or increasingly endangered species like sharks and tuna. Or trendy foods espoused by precious Gwyneth Paltrow and her ilk. Or the latest miracle weight-loss berries “as seen on Dr. Oz.” But it turns out that none of this is true. All the foods and beverages on the list are those consumed regularly by American households, guaranteeing that we’re all going to take a hit to our bank balance. Now let’s see what they are:

Bacon, ground beef, oranges, coffee, peanut butter, margarine, wine, turkey, chicken, and grapefruit. The price of bacon has risen 53% in just four years. Yowie kazowie! And of course, just when bacon-with-everything soared in popularity with both chefs and the general public. I like to begin my day with a refreshing glass of half unsweetened grapefruit juice and half mandarin orange sparkling water, and end it with a glass of wine, so I’m taking a double hit from this list. Ouch!

Apparently, supply and demand isn’t to blame in most of these cases. Instead, Mother Nature has stepped in with years of crippling drought in California’s agricultural regions and in the Southwest, cattle country. Coffee plantations in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee exporter, have also been hit by drought, as have peanut growers in Georgia and other parts of the South.

Disease has attacked Florida’s citrus trees, keeping fruit from maturing and ripening. It has also decimated pig populations with Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (eeewww, think about that next time you tuck into some bacon!). There are also crops like limes and avocados that didn’t make the list, but owe their skyrocketing prices to the drug wars in the regions of Mexico where they’re grown.

Connections aren’t always clear: Margarine prices have gone up, for example, because of droughts in corn- and soybean-producing states which provide the vegetable oil from which margarine is made. These states grow the nation’s sunflower supply as well. Which means that I can expect my parrot’s sunflower, cracked corn, and peanut feed mix to go up in price, as well as the bags of black oil sunflower seed I feed my outdoor birds. I can expect my taco shells and Our Friend Ben’s beloved tortilla chips, made of course from corn, to go up. Think about all the things you eat that could be affected by these shortfalls.

Then think about stocking up on the things that keep well (like peanut butter, wine and coffee) and what you could substitute for the things that don’t. And keep an eye out for coupons and sales!

‘Til next time,


Birds make a home at Pizza Hut. April 20, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Like most people, I love pizza, and like most people, I love some pizzas more than others. When I’m not making my own pizza with its pesto and olive oil base topped with my own chunky, super-rich marinara sauce and lots of shredded mozzarella and provolone, I love Papa John’s thin and crispy veggie pizza and Pizza Hut’s veggie pan pizza. But there’s something I love even more than these, and that’s Pizza Hut’s cheese breadsticks with extra marinara dipping sauce. Who needs pizza when you have them?!

Yesterday, OFB and I were returning from the farmers’ market when we saw a Pizza Hut. There’s no Pizza Hut near us, and we’d headed to a distant farmers’ market as a special pre-Easter treat. “Ben, let’s stop and get cheese breadsticks!” OFB was up for it and swung into the parking lot. I waited in the car while he went in for the breadsticks, facing a bunch of tightly pruned yew and chamaecyparus evergreen shrubs. As I idly watched the shrub directly in front of our car, I noticed a beak poking out. Followed by a head peeking out. Followed by a male house sparrow slowly emerging from inside the shrub and making his way to the top.

Next, a second head poked out, this time the female. She called to the male, who then flew off. Then she withdrew back into the protective shelter of the shrub, where they doubtless had built a nest. I’d never seen such a thing before in my life. All I could think of was the female sticking her head out and calling to her mate, as I had to OFB, “Don’t forget to ask for extra marinara sauce!”

‘Til next time,


How many favorite numbers do you have? April 18, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Blog regulars know that our friend Ben loves the lottery, the cheapest form of hope. For less than the price of a Coke or a pack of gum, I can buy a ticket that holds the promise of financial freedom. It’s great motivation to get out of bed in the morning.

This morning, I noticed that my ticket contained an ad for another lottery game called Quinto. It announced, “Pick your five favorite numbers. If you have an exact match, you win $50,000!” Reading this made me wonder, “Do I have five favorite numbers?!!”

It’s sort of like asking someone to pick their five favorite letters. It might be kind of fun (and revealing) to pick your five favorite words. But numbers, like letters, are just means to an end. In the case of letters, that end is words, things with meaning(s) and, usually, layers of meaning. In the case of numbers, the end is just more numbers.

At a guess, if people had to pick favorite numbers, most would choose 7 and 11, the “lucky” numbers. But beyond that? Do you have five favorite numbers?