Thursday, December 31

Easy New Year's Resolution - Amish Friendship Bread

Amish Friendship Bread is Not a Resolution to be Broken

There was a time when you could make your own New Year's resolution, and break it, all by yourself. Well, just before Christmas, my daughter took care of one of my resolutions and gave me a gift of Amish Friendship Bread -- no, no -- she gave me the beautiful printed 10 days' instructions for keeping the "starter" alive so that, ultimately, I could bake my own loaf. Resolution: Do not let starter die.

Daily stirring and adding ingredients on the proper days was done 21st Century style (you are specifically told not to use metal bowls or utensils) and the starter bowl was replaced with a one-gallon Zip-Lock bag for easy 'mushing'. At last, I could finally bake my own two loaves of bread and discover for myself what ten days of attention had

Monday, December 28

Chicken-Egg-Cheese Casserole - KFC Redoux

Recipe Starts with KFC Leftovers
The only leftover I really enjoy is lemon meringue pie. That doesn't mean I don't use leftovers -- that would be throwing away money -- I just prefer my leftovers to look like something new.

As a special after-holiday treat, my sister and I decided to order take-out from KFC. It was just supposed to be two three-piece chicken dinners, with sides of mashed potatoes and kernel corn. Turns out it was cheaper to buy the eight-piece bucket of chicken that came with two sides, biscuits, and a half gallon of sweet tea -- and, ta da!, built-in leftovers. Time to get creative in the kitchen.

Chicken-Egg-Cheese Casserole Is Born

There really wasn't enough chicken for two people unless it became part of a different dish, entirely. I wanted to use the solar oven because it was such a beautiful, sunny, day, with a temperature of 46°F. The chicken was already cooked, it was simply a matter of using fresh binders.

Discarding both skin and bones, the chicken was chopped into small pieces and placed in a bowl. Next, came one 10-ounce can of cream of

Saturday, December 26

An Honest Opinion is a Matter of Taste

Some Folks Just Won't Try New Foods
Pickey eaters! They are everywhere and, some times, right at your own table. It's been my good fortune to have a family willing to try anything I prepare and eagerly look forward to new tastes. But, that's not true for every chef. So, for today's blog, I'm going to offer a few tips to new chefs to help them gain confidence in their culinary skills.

Take this little unfortunate fellow on the left here. This is definitely NOT one of my creations but was the result of a Photoshop Pictures Contest site, Freaking News, asking for bad food pictures, that does manage to get my point across, quite vividly. (If you're really brave, check out the site for even more vivid entrees!)

Many of your food critics (and I am not speaking of professional food critics here) don't so much dislike what you have prepared so much as they don't like nor want to try new foods. Been that way since birth and you're not going to change them. Some folks wouldn't be caught dead trying snake meat and others wouldn't eat this little guy because of the onions, complaining that they overwhelm the subtle chicken taste.  Both are right. It's just an opinion, and a matter of taste.

Teddy Roosevelt Said it Best
Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, was also reknown for his common-sense quotes. One of my favorites, "You have a right to state your opinion; but, inherent in that right is not the right to be taken seriously."

Where would we be without the opinion of others when we're trying to accomplish a goal, whether building a house, learning to drive, or creating a meal. The opinion of others, if given honestly and fairly, helps us grow and perfect our skills. In the kitchen, it is possible to be too heavy-handed with spices and herbs, prepare foods that are too dry or too moist, or, not recognize that pink rice should never be served with bluefish . . . well, should never be served, in my opinion -- but, I digress.  If left to our own opinions all the time, we'd stagnate and become quite dull, serving the same meals week in and week out.  BUT . . .

There is a big difference between a fair and honest opinion and criticism that is masking a mean spirit or cruelty, the kind of criticism that destroys your will to continue.  So, for all you new and returning chefs, let me give you a few hints on what types of opinions to accept and which to ignore when sharing your meals with others and asking for their opinion.

Consider the Source of All Opinions Given
One of the easiest way of working out most problems is to adapt Journalism's 5 W's of good reporting to your criticisms.
  • Who is giving the criticism? A best friend, husband, wife, lover, child, chef, take-out diner? Knowing their background helps you work with the criticism. Most folks are pretty attached to their favorite flavors and ingredients. If your dish is out of their comfort zone, the opinion is just that, something they don't like because it's different. Look for the kernel of truth and use that to improve your dish and ignore the rest.
  • What is the criticism? An honest opinion reflects the majority of tasters and you will learn that your meal is too salty, too bland, too mushy, too crispy, under-cooked, over-cooked -- things that can be fixed over time. But, most people tasting the dish will likely have the same opinion, so you can feel safe in assuming they are right. The lone wolf always finding fault, no matter what is prepared, can be ignored. If the critic blinks rapidly, screws up their face, and says, "bletch," without giving any real reason for the theatrics, wonder why you're trying to please them.
  • When is the criticism given? Waiting until you've been served the same dish four or five times before letting the chef know that there really is far too much sage in the dressing for the average person to eat in a lifetime is the same as waiting until after the party to tell your friend that they have spinach on their teeth. An honest opinion comes no later than the second time a dish is served with the same ingredients and given with the understanding that different people have different tastes.
  • Where is the criticism given? Does the critic wait for a roomful of people to grow silent before shouting, "My God, is this a cat in the casserole! I'm allergic to cats! How could you do this!" Or, do they wait until you can have a private conversation and tell you that there was something unpleasant, something hard to pinpoint, something like, well, a dead cat, on the bottom of the bowl? Honest opinion comes from love and a desire to see someone grow in their interests, not in humiliating them before others.  
  • Why is the criticism given? This is the tricky one. If you've asked for an opinion, then it's only fair to accept the opinion. If unsolicited, consider the source and what they may or may not have to gain by either praising your dish to the skies or tearing it apart. Do you trust their judgment about food? Do you trust their friendship? Is it an unbiased opinion? There's nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. Your own instincts should tell you whether the criticism is honest, given in love and support of your interest, or meant to curb your enthusiasm about cooking.
Everyone's Opinion Has Validity in Their Kitchen
We all feel that we can improve anybody's recipes. If you don't believe me, check out the comment sections on cooking sites. A recipe is posted, then everyone says why they did or did not like it -- usually, after they've altered most of the ingredients to their own liking. "I didn't have hazelnuts, so I used corn nuts," and, "I substituted cider vinegar for the white wine and used wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour, and left out the garlic because. . ."  Sometimes, in their opinion, the dish turned out better than the original recipe; sometimes, it didn't live up to the hype --  in their opinion.

Never mind that they changed the interaction of the ingredients and altered the recipe to suit their own tastes. In their opinion, your recipe wasn't very good. But, that's all it is, their opinion, based on their own personal likes and dislikes. If your critics can pass the 5 W's test, you'll be able to trust their criticisms and feel confident preparing your family's favorite meals while building your own recipe file. And, before long, they'll be asking you for your opinion about their latest recipe.

Friday, December 25

Solar Mushroom and Barley Soup with Grilled Corn Beef Sandwiches

Christmas Eve has been enjoyed at my daughter's home for the past thirteen years. Meals are simple, atmosphere relaxed, and the grown children and adults swap memories and open presents.  We miss the excitement of small children and Christmas mornings, but know that before long they will soon be joyfully present, once the upcoming generation gets settled. Right now, we're enjoying the respite.

Tips for Winter Solar Chefs at Christmas
The Lord has been good to us these past few days, giving us solar chefs clear blues skies and bright sun -- perfect for some winter solar meals.  Alas, the holiday also means being a very busy little bee in the kitchen with the camera too far away to get my attention. So, just a few holiday hints and recipes

Sunday, December 20

A Holiday of Sorrowful Joys

This has been a season of sorrow with small pockets of joy. A beloved sister-in-law and nephew passed away within days of each other a week ago.  One was expected and one, a total surprise. He was hale and hearty in August and, then, he was gone from that most insidious disease, cancer.

The pockets of joy came from being able to see so many of my relatives at this time of year and see how much the generations have changed and grown. You know you're old when you think you are talking to a niece only to discover that she's the daughter and her mother is across the room! 

Pysanky holiday ornament orders were really up this season -- most surprisingly from Europe and the U.K.  So, along with holiday preparations, trips back and forth out-of-state, and filling orders -- and, an incredibly long rainy period here in NC, solar cooking has been very limited and writing this blog almost nonexistent. 

But, I did want to take a moment to wish each and every one of you a holiday season filled with lots of solar cooking, warm memories, and a New Year of health, good fortune, and happiness.

Saturday, December 5

Solar Cooking for the Future - Make Ahead Pepperoni Spaghetti Sauce

Solar Cook Your Sauces for the Future - or Tonight!
My uncle loved to cook. He swore that spaghetti sauces tasted much better after the ingredients were 'married' in the freezer for at least a week and were best after a month! I couldn't argue because his sauces were always delicious. Well, you know what happens when you start thinking about food -- it was time to plan a 'sauce wedding' of my own. I had just enough time to prepare a sauce for next week's pasta meal. It was 11:30AM and I had to get cracking.

Garden-fresh Veggies Form the Base for Pepperoni Spaghetti Sauce
This is my waist-high 6'x24' garden in full summer bloom. It is December, now, and the foremost corner doesn't know it! Volunteer tomatoes have climbed over the fence to the right; carrots, onions, chard, chives, stevia, sweet basil (almost gone) and sage still offer their bounty. By next week, all will be put to bed for the winter so the soil can rest and get sterilized for next year's planting.

The harvest yielded about a quart of cherry tomatoes, one onion, carrot tops, chives, stevia, sage and sweet basil -- I was ready.  The tomatoes were cleaned then cut in half and the onion chopped. Using a large skillet, I sauteed them over medium heat in two tablespoons of olive oil. While that was doing its thing, I cleaned and chopped the herbs and added ground oregano, ground fennel seed, thyme, one teaspoon yellow mustard, a dash of mace, and salt and pepper to taste. And chopped the pepperoni into bite-size pieces. When the tomatoes and onion were soft, I mashed them up a bit, stirred in all the herbs and spices and let them simmer for one-to-two minutes.

Sensational Sauce from the Solar Oven  
Since time in the winter sun was precious, I decided to use a large casserole dish to keep the sauce shallow enough to build up heat quickly and concentrate the flavors. Put the whole dish into an oven bag, sealed it, and placed it in the solar oven by 12:30PM.  I didn't use the SolarWear(tm) heating bag because I wanted to keep the temperature low and slow. By 4:30PM, it was bubbly and ready to bring inside.

It turned out I didn't have my uncle's patience and, in my weakness, prepared some pasta for dinner. After four hours of togetherness, I figured the sauce was 'married' enough, by today's standards. Next time, I'll double the recipe and put half away in the freezer to give it that extra deliciousness. But, for tonight, I'm having me some pasta with solar-cooked Pepperoni Spaghetti Sauce.
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