Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dinner made easy

I enjoy cooking on the weekend and look forward to planning Saturday night's meal each week.

The menu usually depends on which family members will be eating at home that night.

Sometimes I do more complicated meals because I have more time to cook on Saturday and love to make yeast rolls or dessert to go with what I'm serving.

This past Saturday's menu was an easy one. It all started because I wanted a spinach salad. I ran across a new recipe for a fabulous and simple dressing a few weeks back, and Reggie and I loved it. I was eager to try it again. I had a quart of strawberries in the refrigerator, so it seemed like the perfect time for a spinach salad. So, what should I serve with it?

I knew chicken breasts were on sale at our favorite grocery store and decided on a simple chicken recipe my sister, Susan, gave me many years ago. I bought whole chicken breasts, which are much cheaper than tenders, and cut them into strips (or tenders) with my kitchen shears.

The recipe calls for the chicken tenders to be brushed with honey mustard and dipped in Italian bread crumbs. A sauce of apple juice and butter is drizzled on top. That's it. The chicken cooks under aluminum foil for part of the baking time, so it comes out tender and juicy.

I served it Saturday with angel hair pasta topped with a little butter and Parmesan cheese. This meal comes together in a short period of time. I made the salad and cooked the pasta while the chicken was cooking. The food was on the table in less than an hour from the time I started prep work.

The meal was delicious, and we had lots of leftovers.

I had only made enough salad for the two of us, so there was plenty of spinach and salad dressing for another meal. The chicken is very good in a sandwich or could be sliced and served in a leftover spinach salad.

Susan's Chicken Tenders
  • 3 chicken breasts cut into strips or tenders
  • Honey mustard
  • Italian bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 2 tablespoons apple juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare 9X13-inch dish with baking spray.

Brush chicken with honey mustard and dredge in bread crumbs. Place in prepared baking dish.

Mix butter and apple juice and drizzle over chicken.

Cover with foil and cook at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Uncover and cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until cooked through.

Serves four.

Susan Hoffman

Spinach Salad Dressing
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar, but balsamic or white vinegar would be a good substitute)
Mix ingredients in a covered bowl or covered cruet and pour over salad. Toss to coat. Refrigerate for 20-30 minutes before eating.

*In our spinach salad, we use baby spinach sliced strawberries and toasted sliced almonds.

Let the graduation project begin!

My daughter, Anna, will graduate in 2012. That means she's in the first Wilson County Schools class required to complete a graduation project.
I moaned the first time I heard about the proposal. Just what we need, I thought, another project.
This child has used enough glue sticks and printer ink on school projects to supply a small school district. We are forever going out after dinner to buy supplies for such things as a scrapbook for Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird" to Mod Podge or a bone folder (look it up; I'd never heard of it either) for an art project. Last night, we retrieved an old hairdryer and a white sheet from the linen closet at Mama's. I have no idea why she needs these things at school. She told me why she needed the hair dryer, which doesn't have to work, but I didn't understand the explanation. It involved wrapping something.
When I heard about the graduation project, I could only imagine the expense and the time element involved in such an undertaking. If you have a child in school, you are familiar with projects. We've done it all at our house: exploring the solar system; making papier mache masks; building dinosaurs from newsprint; researching poets; constructing a small-scale room; growing all kinds of plants. Right now, a crop of kidney beans planted in eight plastic cups is slowly wilting on my dining room table. Some projects are very elaborate and most are time-consuming.
This summer, Anna worked seven or eight hours a day (sometimes even more) on a summer IB art project. It consumed every waking moment for weeks with either the thought process, the purchasing of materials or the actual execution of the assignment in her sketchbook. She went about the project with a fierce determination and motivation to do it right.
She also spent several days with two Wilson artists who unselfishly gave their time to help her complete a requirement of exploring new art mediums.
The summer experience with IB art reminds me very much of what a graduation project will be. It will be time-consuming, it could be very expensive, and it will require the help of others. But it will also be a wonderful exercise in learning, and if it's like Anna's experiences this summer, it will stretch the student's imagination and broaden his knowledge. Perhaps it will even excite him, like it did my daughter when she learned how to properly change the lighting on a photograph and later made a black and white print in a photographer's darkroom.
Yesterday, Anna's English class learned more about the graduation project. Their teacher broke down the timeline over the next three years as they narrow in on a topic and work towards completion. At the request of her teacher, Anna asked her dad and me to talk to her about the project last night. She has already come up with three or four project ideas. They are all related to the arts and are all topics that are not taught in Wilson County Schools. If she finds a mentor willing to give 15 hours of his or her time, she will be able to learn more about print photography, Photoshop, silversmithing or hand-thrown pottery. The three of us talked about the possibilities the project offered and the people she could ask to help her. I'm so glad the schools already have them thinking about this project.
I hope other high school sophomores are having these same conversations with their parents. It's going to take not only the student and teachers to get these graduation projects complete, it's also going to take the parents and community, with volunteers willing to offer their time to teach their craft or share their occupation with students willing to learn.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"How's your Mama?"

Almost every day, someone asks, "How's your mama?" I appreciate the concern, I really do, but I don't always know how to answer the question.
Mama is not well. She's a frail whisper of her former self, when she was buying size 14 Alfred Dunner matching tops and slacks. At less than 90 pounds, even size small hangs on her thin frame.
She almost always has a sad or at least serious look on her face. Her smiles are saved for rare and special occasions: a visit with her sister, daughter from out of town and great-granddaughter, who, at age 10 months old, has the gift of making Grandma Helen happy.
During the summer, there were spells when Mama would eat less than a half-cup of food a day. She's had more of an appetite in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean she's eating heartily. I was thrilled to learn she had eaten one and a half chicken tenders and about a tablespoon of broccoli casserole I had cooked Saturday night. That was a huge meal for her, and I was happy.
At some meals, Mama will suddenly forget how to swallow. Of all the things I grow impatient over, this is at the top of the list. On a visit to the house to pay the caregivers Thursday morning, I watched milk dribble out the corners of her mouth. She made quiet grunting sounds and pointed to her mouth to let me know there was a problem. "Swallow it, Mama. Let it go down your throat." Blank stare. I rubbed her throat and repeated my request: "Swallow it, Mama." Sometimes this works, but not that day. I picked up a napkin and blotted the milk that was running down her chin. And forget about those last two pills. There was no way she would swallow those either, crushed or whole. So we gave up.
Walking is a challenge more and more each day, it seems. A hospice nurse told me months ago she was amazed that my mama could still walk. Her physical decline hasn't keep up with her mental decline. But her walking is so unsteady. She often crosses her feet when she walks, stumbling with each step. We hold onto her, guiding her moves the best we can. There are days when she walks with a slant towards the right. Other days, her walking pattern is definitely towards the left. Some days, one foot will lag, and one day last week, her left foot turned under with each step she took.
But don't try to stop her from walking. When she has the strength, she paces all day long, from one door to the next, looking for her family, who are busy at school or work. But she doesn't understand that. She thinks we are abandoning her with strangers.
I visit her as often as I can, but I know it's not enough. I drop by most days at lunch, and we sit and hold hands. There's not much talking. I ask her questions: "How was your night?" "Did you have a good breakfast?" She looks at me, puzzled, and has no idea how to answer. "I didn't do it." "Nobody told me." One day last week, I asked her a similar question, her answer was, "He's dead." She's still thinking of my daddy.
There are days when she talks. We don't understand much of what she says because she talks so quietly, and her words are a muffled garble. But sometimes she will tell us something that we understand. At her sister's house recently, she told us, "I don't feel good." It's not normal to hear a complete sentence that makes sense, so we paid close attention to what she was saying. Earlier this summer, again at her sister's, she told everyone present, "I love you," and followed it with a kiss. I cried. I cry a lot.
When I left her yesterday afternoon, after 30 minutes of just sitting and holding her hand, I kissed her goodbye. She reached up her right arm to hug me. She never does that. It was a tight hug, and she cried softly as we embraced. There's so much sadness inside that tiny body.
So, how is my Mama? My mama is frail. My mama is sad. My mama's not well.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cookies packed with goodness

There was a time when I seldom made cookies. They were messy, I reasoned, and not worth the effort. But I've changed my mind in the last few years, thanks to the purchase of a cookie scoop for the dough. (Actually, my sister might have bought my first one.)

So now, I think nothing of trying a new recipe, or pulling out an old one, so my family and I can enjoy fresh-baked cookies when we want them. With the help of the scoop, I can make relatively uniform cookies and don't have to form cookies into balls with my hands (which I hate). And if I happen to have parchment paper on hand, the whole process is even easier because there's no crusty cookie sheet to wash.

My latest effort was a variation of Flu-Fighter Cookies in the new Food Network Magazine. That recipe is jam packed with nuts and fruit and oatmeal and spices. The photograph showing the nuts and fruit on top made an enticing photo, so I made the recipe, with changes, of course. In fact, I made lots of changes.

My version of the cookie omits a few things, such as molasses, cloves, raisins, walnuts and dried cranberries. Instead, my cookies featured dried cherries and pecans, seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. The big addition, however, was dark chocolate chips to complement the cherries.

Let me tell you just how good these cookies are, fresh out of the oven while the chocolate is still gooey! And the lemon zest adds the most wonderful, fragrant addition to the tasty treats.

My husband and I loved these cookies. I will be making them again.

Fruit and Oatmeal Cookies with Dark Chocolate
  • 2 1/4 cups self-rising flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 bag dried cherries (cut in half)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips
Prepare cookie sheets either by lining with parchment paper or lightly coating with baking spray.

In a medium bowl, stir cinnamon and nutmeg into flour.

In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until creamy. Mix in eggs, yogurt and lemon zest. Slowly incorporate flour and spice mixture. Fold in oats, chocolate chips and half the dried cherries and half the pecans. Mix together remaining cherries and pecans and set aside.

Using a spoon or cookie scoop, drop tablespoonsful of dough onto prepared cookie sheets. Place remaining cherries and pecans on cookies. While oven is preheating to 375, let dough chill (on cookie sheet) in refrigerator.

Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes. Don’t let cookies bake too long; cookies should be soft.
Makes about 30 cookies.

Adapted from Food Network Magazine

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dip into some spinach

I'm not one to make appetizers for meals. We're lucky to just get the main course and a side dish or two. Appetizers and desserts are few and far between as a general rule at our house.

But the photograph of a spinach dip caught my eye at the grocery store one Saturday morning a few weeks back, and I had to try it.

The recipe for Creamy Spinach and Red Pepper Dip was on the back of the box of Triscuit Thin Crisps that I was buying. I immediately thought how good it would be teamed with the grilled steak sandwiches we were having for supper. If I made that dip, plus my daughter's favorite pizza dip, I could also skip making a salad, I reasoned.

So I bought the Triscuits as well as the ingredients I needed to make the two dip recipes.

I very seldom cook with spinach. I don't know why, but I don't. But I was careful to drain the spinach the best I could, even using my salad spinner, as I had seen suggested in a review for another recipe recently. It only took a few minutes to make the dip, which I refrigerated until suppertime.

My family enjoyed our dips that Saturday night. It was nice to have some different foods on a table -- fun foods at that!

I'm glad I looked on the back of that Triscuit box. I'm always looking at those back-of-the-box recipes. Some of my favorite recipes come from the back of a box. Look for more in coming weeks.

Creamy Spinach and Red Pepper Dip
  • 1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach, thawed, well drained
  • 4 oz. (1/2 of 8-oz. pkg.) Neufchatel cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup chopped roasted red peppers
  • Triscuit Thin Crisps
Mix all ingredients except crackers; cover.
Refrigerate several hours or until chilled.
Serve as a dip with the crackers.

Kraft Foods

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tomatoes in pie?

If you have a garden, odds are good that there are still a few tomatoes, at least, clinging to those fading vines. I noticed several green ones on mine this weekend and will be watching them closely because I've got plans for them. I'm going to make another tomato pie.

I've seen recipes for tomato pie before, and this summer, a number of food blogs I read mentioned various versions of both tomato pies and tomato tarts. The photos showed pies layered with tomatoes and cheese with a golden brown crust; I was intrigued. My husband and I love vine-ripened tomatoes, and we certainly love cheese, so why not give it a try?

I didn't especially want to go by a specific recipe. Instead, I wanted to make my own. So I read recipes online and in a cookbook from my niece's former elementary school in South Carolina, where tomato pies are apparently quite popular.

I read the dozen or so recipes and imagined how each pie would taste. I decided right away that my first tomato pie would be meatless, although some use bacon or even pepperoni. Mine would be a side dish.

I also decided not to use cheddar cheese, although many of the recipes I read did use cheddar. I wanted more of the pizza effect, I guess, and decided on mozzarella and Parmesan.

At first, I didn't want to add onions to my pie, until I saw a comment with one online recipe where the cook had sauteed Vidalia onions for her recipe. That sounded delicious, so I tried it. But I opted not to use garlic. I did, however, use fresh basil from my patio plant.

I also took the advice of recipe reviewers and drained the juice from my tomatoes the best I could.

Here's how I did it: I cut the tomatoes into relatively thin slices, not paper thin, but thin. I placed them on a cooling rack that I positioned inside a jelly roll pan to catch the juice. Then I sprinkled salt and pepper on the tomato slices and let them drain. After an hour or so, I put the tomato slices on paper towels to soak up more liquid. If you only seasoned one side of your tomato, be careful to place it seasoned-side up on the paper towels so the salt and pepper won't rub off. Quite a bit of liquid was removed from my tomatoes, and my pie was certainly not runny. But I also waited to cut the pie until it had cooled for at least 15-20 minutes, based on a reviewer's suggestion, which also helped it firm up.

Those of us at home who love tomatoes, loved this pie. We agreed it reminded us of pizza, although the crust is a pie crust. If I can get the tomatoes, I will make this recipe another time or two before the summer's tomatoes are gone because it is truly delicious.

Lisa’s Tomato Pie
  • One frozen or refrigerated pie crust
  • 3 to 4 medium, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped Vidalia onions
  • Olive oil
  • 3 or 4 fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (I used reduced fat)
Slice tomatoes and season with salt and pepper; drain juice for an hour or so before using.*

Cook pie crust for 10 minutes at temperature recommended on package. Make sure to prick the crust before baking.

While the crust is cooking, saute onions in a little olive oil.

Once crust is cooked, remove from oven (adjusting oven temperature to 375 degrees) and sprinkle a little of the Parmesan cheese on the crust. (Keep in mind that the Parmesan cheese will also be used in the pie’s layers, so don’t use too much.)

Layer tomato slices over cheese. Add a layer of basil, sauteed onions and a little oregano. Repeat layer, omitting basil this time.

Mix mayonnaise and mozzarella cheese and spread on top of pie. Top with remaining Parmesan.

Bake in pre-heated 375 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes until top is lightly browned and juice is beginning to bubbe through.

Let sit for about 20 minutes before cutting.

* Here’s how I drained my tomatoes: I cut the tomatoes into relatively thin slices, not paper thin, but thin. I placed them on a cooling rack that I positioned inside a jelly roll pan to catch the juice. Then I sprinkled salt and pepper on the tomato slices and let them drain. After an hour or so, I put the tomato slices on paper towels to soak up more liquid. If you only seasoned one side of your tomato, be careful to place it seasoned-side up on the paper towels so the salt and pepper won’t rub off. Quite a bit of liquid was removed from my tomatoes, and my pie was certainly not runny. But I also waited to cut the pie until it had cooled for at least 15-20 minutes, based on a reviewer’s suggestion, which also helped it firm up.