Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Well-Stocked Pantry

Yesterday was busy, busy, busy! I started at the Wednesday morning downtown farmer’s market to take photos for my Midwest Life and Cuisine blog—and of course bought tomatoes, corn and onions! Then it was off to a lunch meeting with my fellow teachers at Discovery Montessori Preschool to start planning the new school year and celebrate a co-worker’s 50th birthday. Finally it was home to work on a group of newspaper articles whose deadlines are fast approaching.

What to make for dinner on such a busy day? Going to a restaurant or ordering take-out would be a solution, but my sweetheart and I are trying to eat at home more. On the other hand, when would I have time to prepare a meal that didn’t come prepackaged in a box?

It's a time like this when a well-stocked pantry comes in handy. And by pantry, I also mean a refrigerator supplied with the basics. Then everything is readily available to make whatever your heart desires.

In my pantry, I always try to keep on hand:
  • A variety of pastas
  • Canned tomatoes—crushed, diced, whole, and sauce
  • Rice
  • Beans—both canned and dried
  • Chicken and beef stock
  • Olive and canola oil
  • Flour
  • Sugar—regular and brown
  • Baking soda and powder
  • yeast
  • Salt, pepper, oregano, bay leafs, thyme, rosemary, Italian seasoning, and other spices
  • Butter
  • Meats—chicken breasts, bacon, pork chops, Italian sausage and hamburger
  • Basic veggies—onion, celery, carrots, potatoes, garlic
  • Cheese—parmesan, mozzarella, cheddar
  • Milk

Okay, I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but you get the idea.

Back to yesterday morning. In 10 minutes, I chopped up onion, celery and carrots and dumped it all into a Crock-Pot. Next I added frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a crushed clove of garlic, 2 bay leaves, a teaspoon of thyme, a little kosher salt, and 2 14.5-ounce cans of low-sodium chicken broth. On went the lid, and I left it set on low all day. When dinner time arrived, I added a little butter and a flour-and-water slurry to thicken the broth. Then I cooked up some rice (you could also use noodles), and presto—homemade chicken stew!

Sorry I don’t have a picture to show you—we ate it all!
What’s in your pantry? Anything I should add to mine?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I hate diets!! 

Wait, let me backtrack for a moment. My sister, Angie, is on Weight Watchers. (I feel safe in telling you this since she posts her progress regularly on Facebook.) She is doing great! So far she is more than halfway to her goal and she looks terrific. I’m proud of her.

 This is Angie—she competes in triathlons! Crazy sister! :)

Now, back to what I said before—I hate diets! Maybe that’s because I’ve tried just about every one out there, including Weight Watchers, so many times I’ve lost count. Though I’m sure everyone who takes one look at me thinks I need to be on a diet, the whole process just doesn’t work for me.

In fact, I wrote a column about it! For an entire year, I wrote a monthly column called Let’s Get Real for the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire (when my name was Linda A. Odum.) I decided to change the way I think about dieting, and instead make lifestyle changes I could live with for the rest of my life. Those changes included eating whatever I wanted but in smaller portions, being wary of sweets (my weakness), and exercising more. And it worked! I lost about 20 pounds before I started writing the column, and then 20 more during that year. Ever since then, I’ve lost about 20 pounds more, and that was while going through a divorce and moving to Kansas. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how much weight I’ve lost in total because at my heaviest point the scale wouldn’t register my weight—it didn’t go that high!

 Me before I lost weight—June 2006. So big it was hard for me to climb stairs and get up off the floor.

 Me last October in Venus Beach, California.

I absolutely believe by eating smaller portions and exercising, anyone can lose weight and keep it off forever. In fact, According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, approximately 50 million people go on diets each year. Of those dieters, an estimated 8 million will sign-up for a structured weight-loss program. Many will lose weight, but only about 5 percent will keep it off for the long term. Most will regain part or all of the lost weight..

Of course, even though I know what works for me, that doesn’t always mean I follow my own advice! I’m terrible about exercising in the Kansas summer heat—I hibernate as though it were winter. Yes, I could get up early and exercise before it gets hot…but that would mean I’d have to get up early!

My sweetheart, Michael, and I eat at restaurants a lot, which isn’t good for portion control since restaurants love to overload the plate. We are trying to eat at home more often. First it was to satisfy my need to cook—I love being in the kitchen preparing meals with fresh ingredients. But we also need to dine in our own home because Michael has survived three heart attacks, including the dreaded Widow Maker. Preparing our own food means I can use healthy fats in our dishes (olive and canola oils), and watch the sodium content.

My way of losing weight is slow to be sure. But it also means I am less likely to gain the weight back. And believe me, I don’t want to go back to June 2006!

This recipe for Spicy Gazpacho is a great start. It uses the fresh vegetables now showing up at the local farmer’s markets, and it is fat free without the sour cream garnish! Plus it’s a refreshing way to beat the summer heat. Now, if I can just get Michael to believe soup can be eaten cold…

Spicy gazpacho
Serves 8
1 green pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 red pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1/2 cup chopped red onion
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded
3 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Sour cream, for garnish

In a large bowl, place the green and red peppers, onion, celery, and cucumber. In a food processor, finely chop the garlic and jalapeno. Add two cans of tomatoes, cumin, salt, black pepper, and half of the chopped vegetables. Process until smooth.

Pour the processed mixture into the large bowl with the chopped vegetables. Add the remaining can of tomatoes and lemon juice. Stir, cover, and chill at least 2 hours or overnight. Serve garnished with a teaspoon of sour cream.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Explore the Midwest

In the year since I returned to life in the Midwest, I've realized what an amazing region this is--the food, history, and people. To highlight that fact, I've started a new blog!

Midwest Life and Cuisine will focus on the eateries and attractions found in the middle of the United States--an area a lot of people either fly over or drive through but often do not explore. So come along and discover with me all that the Midwest has to offer.

Don't worry, this blog will also continue--I have lots of recipes to share!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Multigrain Pancake Mix

I’m not much of a breakfast eater. My favorite way to ease into the day is with a good cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. Then, if I do get hungry, I usually just eat cereal or yogurt. However, once in a while, I crave a big breakfast—usually on the weekends. And that means pancakes!

Last Sunday, Michael and I went to the Cracker Barrel restaurant, where I ordered the multigrain pancake breakfast. I’ve always liked my pancakes to have a little umph to them in the way of whole wheat, multigrain, or buckwheat. I also like blueberries added. These pancakes were oh so yummy! So much so I was still thinking about how scrumptious they were the next day!

Lately I’ve seen a lot of cooking shows feature ways to make and store homemade pancake mix. I’m not a big fan of the boxed mixes—I always make mine from scratch. (That may explain why pancakes are relegated to my weekend cooking repertoire.) So I decided to create a homemade multigrain pancake mix that would make it easy to prepare my favorite breakfast any day of the week.

I started my research with the internet. Some of the recipes I found called for shortening to be added to the mix, making it much like Bisquick. And some didn’t require shortening at all. A few recipes called for powdered milk so the pancakes could be made with just water. Many of them recommended using buttermilk when mixing up a batch.

I used a whole-grain pancake mix recipe from the King Arthur Flour Company’s website as my jumping-off point. This recipe wanted me to add oil to the mixture instead of shortening, but I decided to skip that step.

In a large glass jar, I added both  all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour.

Next came the old-fashioned oatmeal. The original recipe wanted me to grind up the oatmeal in a food processor before adding to the mix, but I like the texture of the whole oatmeal better. Then I added the baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt.

The original recipe also wanted me to use buttermilk when I mixed up a batch of pancakes. I don’t like to buy buttermilk because I'm always throwing a larger part of it out since I never use up the entire container. Remembering the recipes calling for powdered milk in the mix, my solution was to add powdered buttermilk! That way I could make my pancakes with water every time.

Once everything was in the jar…

I shook it up to mix the ingredients.

Then I pulled out a package of blueberries…

and mixed up a batch. Don’t preheat your skillet until after everything is mixed up, since the batter is better when it’s allowed to sit and thicken up a bit.

I like to make medium- to large-sized pancakes. You know it’s time to turn them when bubbles form on top.

Then all you need is butter and some real maple syrup. (This can was given to me by a Canadian friend.)  

Oh so yummy!

Store the jar of mix in the freezer or refrigerator to keep it fresh.

Now a weekend breakfast can happen whenever the mood strikes!

Multigrain Pancake Mix
Makes approximately 10 cups of dry mix

3 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoons baking soda
1 12-ounce container buttermilk powder

In an airtight container, add all of the ingredients and mix/shake well. Store in the freezer or refrigerator.
To make pancakes: In a bowl, whisk together 1 cup of water, 1 egg, and 2 tablespoons oil. Add in 1 1/2 cups of the mix and stir together. Allow batter to sit while you heat a lightly greased skillet or griddle. Add a little more water to the batter if it seems too thick, and fold in the fruit of your choice if you wish. Spoon the batter onto the heated surface. When the edges look dry and bubbles form on the surface, flip the pancakes to the other side to finish cooking.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Refreshing Orange Tea

It’s another day of 100-degree weather. I never thought it was possible to get cabin fever in the summer, but who wants to go outside when it’s this hot and humid. Most of my days are spent going from our air-conditioned apartment to our air-conditioned van, with the occasional detour into an air-conditioned library, store or restaurant.

Hot weather always makes me crave iced tea. Growing up, Mom always had a pitcher made for dinner. So did both of my grandmothers—and probably my great grandmothers. Sometimes it was sweetened, and sometimes not. Sometimes it was made with instant tea, and sometimes with steeped tea bags. (Steeped and unsweetened is my favorite.) Iced tea is the refreshing drink of choice for a hot, Midwest summer.  

My sweetheart, Michael, works at night as a courier. He picks up and makes deliveries for different companies—mostly Westar Energy. Many evenings I will ride along with him on his route to the various energy centers around Topeka before he heads out to Lawrence and Kansas City, and I head to bed. Those trips are some of my favorite times with him. We talk and laugh, growing even closer to each other with every passing mile. I truly believe our relationship is so strong because of the conversations we have on his route. And our love just keeps growing stronger…
                                           (Michael calls this view the Big Valley.)
On our way to Westar’s Jeffery Energy Center in St. Mary’s, we usually stop at Haag’s Short Stop in Rossville. It is a typical convenience store with all the snacks and beverages you would expect to find.

However, the shop also sells their own iced tea made with orange slices instead of lemon. It is a refreshing drink with just a hint of orange—perfect for a hot summer day. That drink is the reason we stop in!

I decided to make the orange iced tea at home. It’s easy!

I start by making the iced tea in the same way my parents have made it ever since I can remember. First, I bring a small pan of water up to a boil, and then remove it from the heat.

Then I add 6 tea bags and let them steep for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile I slice up one orange and place the slices into the bottom of the tea pitcher.

Then I strain the steeped tea into the pitcher on top of the orange slices.

Finally I add cold water to fill the pitcher the rest of the way. (I don’t like sweet tea, but you could add sugar or sweetener if you wish.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who’s Coming to Dinner

In New Hampshire I taught writing classes for Concord Community Education. One of my favorite assignments was: If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be and why? Oh, and what would you serve for dinner? (After all, I am a food writer.)

I was always amazed by my student’s answers. Many wanted one more dinner with a loved one who had passed away, or even a relative who died before they were born but lived on in the stories of others. Some wanted dinner with famous actors and historians. One particularly creative student selected Jesus, Ghandi, and Hitler!

Who would I choose? I can see them now, all gathered in our apartment. Julia Child is in the kitchen, coaching me along at the stove while I make Chicken Florentine for our dinner—chicken in a creamy wine sauce served over spinach and egg noodles—with warm Italian bread and zabaione with berries for dessert. She makes sure I use enough butter and wine in my dish, while she enjoys her cocktail—a traditional martini. She is delighted by my choice of cocktail munchies—Pepperidge Farms gold fish, one of her favorites. And I enjoy telling her about my sweetheart, Michael, who reminds me of all the stories I’ve heard about her husband, Paul—loving and supportive.

Our apartment is small enough that everyone can be a part of the conversation while I cook. Molly Ivans has us all rolling with laughter with one of her classic political tales. A popular political commentator, her stories were funnier than most, perhaps because of her Texas drawl. It would be hard to imagine even the most hardened politician being angry with her, no matter the insult. She told her tales in such a way that the offended party would also join in the laughter, even as she pointed out their partisan stupidity. I make a mental note to ask her what she thinks of Obama and Palin during dinner. That should be a kick!

Laughing right along with the rest of us is Katherine Hepburn. No one can miss her laugh, or her voice, as she tells her stories of Hollywood’s past. Her face softens when she mentions Spencer, and brightens when she tells us about Cary Grant’s antics on the set. She is such a unique mixture of femininity and toughness.

Actually, all of these women fit that description. They chose their path, followed their dreams, and succeeded in having fulfilled lives. I hope I “grow up” to be just like them—tough ol’ broads, in the very best sense of the phrase.

Chicken Florentine Style
Adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dredging
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons shallots, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen cut-leaf spinach, thawed, drained,
and/or 1 package of egg noodles, cooked

Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken in the flour to coat lightly. Shake off any excess flour. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook until brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate and tent with foil to keep it warm.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the same skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté until the shallots are translucent, stirring to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the skillet, about 1 minute. Add the wine. Increase the heat to medium-high and boil until the liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the cream and boil until the sauce reduces by half, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Stir in the parsley. Season the sauce, to taste, with salt and pepper. Add the chicken and any accumulated juices to the sauce, and turn the chicken to coat in the sauce.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in another large skillet over medium heat. Add the spinach and sauté until heated through. Season the spinach, to taste, with salt and pepper. Arrange the spinach over a platter. Place the chicken atop the spinach. Pour the sauce over and serve.

Or, if you do not like spinach, boil a package of egg noodles in salted water until tender. Drain and add the butter to the noodles, stirring to coat. Place the chicken on top and pour over the sauce. Serve.

(You can also serve both spinach and noodles. Then everyone is happy!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Peeved at the Dinner Table

I’m amazed how often this happens. My sweetheart, Michael, and I will be at a favorite—or new—restaurant. Partway through our meal, someone at a near-by table will blow their nose. Michael stops eating instantly! Just the sound takes away his appetite. Now, if he were on the Blow Your Nose Diet, then the loss of calories might be a good thing. However, we paid for a nice meal and it's a shame to see it go half uneaten because of someone else’s bad manners.

According to the Table Manners column on, Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute says a person should leave the dinner table to blow their nose when possible. Wasn’t this something we all learned growing up? Perhaps like many other rules of etiquette that have gone by the wayside, such as a man not wearing a hat inside, blowing the nose at the table has become acceptable. Since I’m not bothered by it, I never noticed until now just how common an event it has become.

What is your dining pet peeve? People using cell phones? Rude wait staff? Chefs not getting your order correct? Chewing with an open mouth? What bothers you the most?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For the Love of Veg

Last Thursday a major change happened in our household—we got cable internet and upgraded our cable television selection! The internet upgrade was wonderful. The pictures for my blog upload almost instantly, which was a big improvement from the 1 to 2 minutes it took with my cell phone hot spot connection. I’m in heaven!

I’m also in heaven because we now get the Cooking Channel. (I can just see Michael rolling his eyes. He just doesn’t understand my need to watch cooking shows! But then, I don’t understand his love for old western television shows—Gunsmoke, The Big Valley—so I guess we’re even.)

Jamie Oliver has always been one of my favorites, ever since his days as The Naked Chef. (No, not what you think!) I like his way of using the freshest ingredients to create a simple but delicious dish. And the fact that he is British makes him even more appealing to my anglophile heart.

The Cooking Channel is showing his series “Jamie at Home,” which I never got the chance to see when it originally ran on The Food Network. Yesterday I went to the library and found the cookbook that goes with the series; Jamie at Home: Cooking Your Way to the Good Life (Hyperion, 2007). 

The book is a delight to read, especially since I love gardening but now live in a downtown apartment with no outside space whatsoever. (Thank goodness for the Wednesday and Saturday farmer’s markets just a few blocks away.) The book is full of delicious ways to cook just about any vegetable imaginable—rhubarb, asparagus, peas, beans, tomatoes—plus recipes for game birds, meats, and fruity desserts. He also includes growing tips, a list of the vegetable varieties in his garden, and lots of beautiful photographs.

Oliver begins by talking about his "extramarital affair" with his vegetable garden. He writes, “I just like spending time with my veg. And I’ll tell you something, this has been the best cooking year of my life…Like most people these days, with a busy family life and a hectic working schedule, I began to struggle with finding a balance between the two. I seem to have evened things up a bit now, and it’s all thanks to my veg garden, believe it or not. I love spending the odd hour out there, as it really relaxes me. You might think I sound like a complete hippie now, but growing my own veg for these past few years has filled me with such pride, pleasure, and passion.”

Here is his recipe for Beautiful Zucchini Carbonara, which I also found on The Food Network’s web site—go there to check out a photo of the dish. Yum! (  Since everyone seems to grow an excess of zucchini, this is a delicious and simple way to use some of it up. Now I’m headed to to buy my own copy of the book!

Beautiful Zucchini Carbonara
From Jamie at Home: Cooking Your Way to the Good Life by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion, 2007)

Carbonara is a classic pasta sauce made with cream, bacon and Parmesan and is absolutely delicious. Try to buy the best ingredients you can, as that's what really helps to make this dish amazing. I'm using a flowering variegated variety of thyme but normal thyme is fine to use. When it comes to the type of pasta, you can serve carbonara with spaghetti or linguine, but I've been told by Italian mammas (who I don't argue with!) that penne is the original, so that's what I'm using in this recipe.

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 medium green and yellow zucchini
1 pound penne
4 large free-range or organic egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 good handfuls freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
12 thick slices pancetta or lean bacon, cut into chunky pieces
A small bunch fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped, flowers reserved (if you can get hold of flowering thyme)
Optional: a few zucchini flowers

Before you start cooking, it's important to get yourself a very large pan, or use a high-sided roasting pan so you can give the pasta a good toss.

Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Halve and then quarter any larger zucchini lengthwise. Cut out and discard any fluffy middle bits, and slice the zucchini at an angle into pieces roughly the same size and shape as the penne. Smaller zucchini can simply be sliced finely. Your water will now be boiling, so add the penne to the pan and cook according to the package instructions.

To make your creamy carbonara sauce, put the egg yolks into a bowl, add the cream and half the Parmesan, and mix together with a fork. Season lightly with salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat a very large frying pan (a 14-inch is a good start - every house should have one!), add a good splash of olive oil and fry the pancetta or bacon until dark brown and crisp. Add the zucchini slices and 2 big pinches of black pepper, not just to season but to give it a bit of a kick. Sprinkle in the thyme leaves, give everything a stir, so the zucchini is coated with all the lovely bacon-flavored oil, and fry until they start to turn lightly golden and have softened slightly.

It's very important to get this next bit right or your carbonara could end up ruined. You need to work quickly. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving a little of the cooking water. Immediately, toss the pasta in the pan with the zucchini, bacon and lovely flavors, then remove from the heat and add a ladleful of the reserved cooking water and your creamy sauce. Stir together quickly. (No more cooking now, otherwise you'll scramble the eggs.)

Get everyone around the table, ready to eat straightaway. While you're tossing the pasta and sauce, sprinkle in the rest of the Parmesan and a little more of the cooking water if needed, to give you a silky and shiny sauce. Taste quickly for seasoning. If you've managed to get any zucchini flowers, tear them over the top, then serve and eat immediately, as the sauce can become thick and stodgy if left too long.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Summer Holiday Food, Part 2

Boy, is it hot! My computer is flashing 102 degrees on The Weather Channel’s desktop alert. Nice way to head into the 4th of July weekend, isn’t it?

One of my all-time favorite grill marinades is one I developed for a Boston Globe article a few years ago. I called it Mediterranean Chicken since the ingredients are Greek in flavor—olive oil, lemon, oregano, and garlic. It’s simple to make and always gets raves from family and friends.

When I first started to cook for my sweetheart, Michael, I had some boneless pork chops to make for dinner one night. Since the marinade works well on chicken, I thought I’d give it a try on the pork. However, when I was reaching into the spice cabinet for the oregano, I spied the rosemary. It reminded me of how in the past I would butterfly a pork loin, rub the inside with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, tie it up and put it onto the grill’s rotisserie. Yum! So I decided to try rosemary in place of the oregano for the marinade. And I added a sliced onion because I thought it was part of the original recipe. (I found out later it wasn’t.)

Since the apartment Michael and I share doesn’t have an outdoor space for a grill, I used the George Forman variety. The pork was great, or in Michael’s words, “Good. Real good!”

A few weeks after I first used the marinade on pork, I made up a batch for Michael’s brother in-law, Don, to cook up on his backyard charcoal grill. He, his wife, Lisa, and his mother, Sharon, all thought it was delicious.

Also on my menu for this weekend, I’m making Mamaw’s Broccoli Salad. It is full of broccoli florets, raisins, sunflower seeds and bacon. I’ve never made it before, but Lisa loves the one they serve at a favorite local restaurant, The Pad. She asked me to try to make it for a bridal shower tomorrow. I tasted it, and the salad dressing seems close to one you would use on cole slaw. After some research on the internet, I happened to be talking to Mom on the telephone and asked if she had a recipe for the dish. Turned out the one she had was from my grandmother, Mamaw. I have Mamaw’s recipe file, which she gave to me many years ago, so I looked inside. Sure enough, I had the recipe all along.

Here are both the Mediterranean Marinade and Mamaw’s Broccoli Salad recipes for you to try. I hope they make a nice addition to your holiday cookouts. If you do try them out, let me know what you think. And I’ll let you know how what everyone says about the salad at the shower.

Mediterranean Marinade
Serves 4
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or 4 boneless pork chops
1 teaspoon dried oregano (for chicken) or ground rosemary (for pork)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 medium onion, sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
In a zippered, plastic bag, place the chicken or pork. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients and pour over the meat. Seal the bag and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Mamaw’s Broccoli Salad
1/2 cup raisins (I like golden, but either will do)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
2 bunches fresh broccoli, heads only
2 bunches green onions, chopped
1 pound bacon, fried crisp and crumbled or 2 tablespoons bacon bits
1/2 cup mayonnaise
4 tablespoons vinegar
4 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons sugar
Mix sauce and pour over other ingredients. Refrigerate for 2 hours.