Friday, December 4, 2020

Ham and Beans

I grew up in northwest Indiana, a stone's throw from Chicago. It was the best of both worlds, small-town rural suburbia and big city highlights.


It was not until I began to teach in a more central part of the state that I discovered "Hoosier" and Hoosier menus. Ham and beans was one such cuisine. It was often served in the school cafeteria with a piece of cornbread or a yeast roll. It was delicious.

It is stick-to-your ribs comfort food at its best. Warm and starchy. Redolent with smoky ham flavor. It uses the most simple of ingredients one usually has on hand. Sometimes I make a cheat version and just use canned seasoned butter beans and throw in some chopped ham.

But it's fun to play with different raw beans and soak them overnight until they puff up.

My ham preference, if I can find them, is smoked whole ham shanks. It has been several years since I found any grocery store that stocked them. Instead, I now use smoked ham hocks which are more available. They carry a ton of flavor, but not much meat, so I buy a small ham steak that I chop up to add later.

This is basically a bean soup but with the "soupy" part. 

  • 16 - 20 oz. dried white beans (Navy, Northern, etc)
  • 2  smoked ham hocks
  • 1 onion, halved
  • 1-2 whole cloves
  • 2 carrots, sliced and diced
  • 2 celery ribs, sliced and diced
  • 1 medium garlic clove, peeled, smashed finely diced or pressed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Tabasco to taste
  • Worcestershire sauce to taste
  • 1 small ham steak (or a thick slice of deli ham)
  • Smoked paprika (optional)

Soak the beans: The day or night before, go over your dried beans and remove any "stones" or odd-looking beans. Place them in a colander. Now place the colander inside a large bowl. Fill with cold water until the beans are covered. Change the water several times. The beans will almost double in size.

I like to wash my ham hocks. I give them a good rinse under hot water. Then I place then in a sieve and slowly pour boiling water over them. Why? Well, they're just gross looking. 

Make the stock: Place washed hocks in a pan. Cut the onion in half and stud with one or two whole cloves. Add to pan. Fill pan with water just until it covers everything. Sometimes, I throw in a can of chicken stock. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a good hour or so. Remove the hocks and allow to cool. Discard onion. Strain the stock.

Now add your beans to the pot. Slice and dice the other half of onion. Add carrots and celery. Mix. Remove meat from the hocks. Cut up. Cut up the ham slice. Add meat to the pot. Bring to just a boil. Remove any scum that floats to the top. Reduce heat and simmer for 1-2 hours.

After about an hour, give the ham and beans a taste. I like to add a few shakes of Tabasco Sauce and 1-2 teaspoons of Worcestershire. If they are not "smoky" enough, give a few shakes of smoked paprika.

If you need to add more liquid, add a bit of water or canned chicken stock. 

Towards the end of cooking, note their consistency. If you like them thick, mash some against the side of the pan. Or add one tablespoon of soft butter to one tablespoon all-purpose flour. Mix well and drop by teaspoonfuls into the stew. Cover and simmer until thickened.

Traditionally, ham and beans is served with cornbread and a bit of diced onion on the top for garnish.

This is not my photo, but it shows the consistency you are looking for:







Thursday, September 24, 2020

Smoked Sausage Casserole

Ready for the oven. Lots of colors and textures.
Update: This became my number one recipe of 2020. I always say that a good recipe is like a good date. It is inexpensive, fulfilling, you want to do it again and you want to tell everyone about it--even your family. Thanks to my Face Book friends who suggested I add the green beans. I have also made this with Kielbasa. I think it is the blend of dried herbs that sets this apart from other similar recipes. And don't forget the sour cream!
AUTUMN is certainly casserole season. Hearty meals of humble ingredients that are easily assembled and easy on the wallet. Often, they can be prepared the day before and are on the table in no time. Usually baked in one pan or dish, clean-up is not complicated. They are comfy and filling. What's not to like?
I have been making this casserole for the past week. Day after day. Honestly, I have not tired of it. I love the flavor. I love the long slow cook in the oven and smell of the sausage and seasonings as it permeates my apartment. Every ingredient just naturally complements each other: potatoes, carrots, onions, string beans.
No green beans in this one, but just as good!

The first time I made it, I couldn't get the seasonings right. The first try was awful. I was out of Italian seasoning, so I used Herbes de Provence. Big mistake. After a few tries, I think I got it just right. Of course, feel free to add your own. But don't skip the celery salt.
Look for sausage when it is on sale or BOGO. And stock up/freeze. My preferred brand is Hillshire Farm smoked beef sausage. I prefer it to Ecrich. A pound of sausage with veggies can satisfyingly feed several people. But this is also a simple dish to prepare for just one or two. Or, in addition to making a larger dish, make a smaller one, too, to share with a friend or neighbor. 
This is really more of a process than a recipe. Add how many veggies you would like. Go easy on the dried seasonings. A little goes a long way and remember it will bake for two hours, so that is a long process for the tastes to mingle. Avoid slicing your sausage too thin. You don't want it to dry out while it cooks.

  • 12-16 ounces smoked beef sausage
  • 3/4 large sweet onion, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 3-4 medium red potatoes, scrubbed, cut into chunks
  • 1 cup baby carrot pieces 
  • 1 cup fresh string beans, cut in half or thirds 
  • Butter
  • White wine, (optional)
  •  Sour cream for serving (optional)
  • Seasoning:
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
  • A good pinch or two of each: dried thyme flakes, rubbed sage leaves, dried marjoram leaves
  • A shake or two of garlic powder (not much)
  • A shake or two of celery salt
  • A few grinds of pepper
Cut the sausage into 2-inch rounds. Add to a bowl. Add the vegetables and seasonings. Mix to coat. Add to a 11x 7-inch baking dish or pan. Dot with butter. If desired, sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons white wine. The onions will tend to break apart and as they bake they almost disappear into the sauce, so keep that in mind.
Cover tightly with aluminum foil or lid. Bake for two hours at 300F degrees (I've also baked for three hours at 200F).  Remember, the sausage is already cooked, you are really just cooking the veggies and creating a sauce.

If your butter is soft, just add to the mixture to coat. That's what I did here.

Remove from oven. Keep covered for up to 30 minutes. Carefully remove the foil avoiding any steam that may escape. Stir. Serve, if desired, with a bit of sour cream on the side.

Here is a "small" version where I only used potatoes and onions. Delish!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Blueberry Pie


I was organizing my computer when I came across a file of blueberry pie pictures I had taken several years ago. But, for some reason, I never posted the recipe. I think I was going to do some research into blueberry farming and then got waylaid .... You know how that goes.

This recipe is based on America's Test Kitchen. It uses several handy little secrets. First, to keep the filling from spilling and spreading when the pie is cooled and cut, it uses a grated Granny Smith apple. Genius. The apple is loaded with natural pectin and acts as a thickener without having to mix in copious amounts of starchy additives such as flour, tapioca or corn starch. You will not taste the apple as it just kind of melts into the blueberries. Lastly, to concentrate the blueberry flavor, this recipe makes a kind of "jam" to use in the filling. I rarely have tapioca on hand, so I just skip that and add a few tablespoons of flour. I also substitute lime for the lemon. It makes for a "fresher" tasting pie. I think.

I rarely make my own crust. It's just as easy to purchase the pie dough at the grocery store. Just use a reputable brand. Easy-peasy. The ATK crust uses vodka.

Here in the South it is difficult to get what I call "real" blueberries unless they are trucked in from the cooler and wetter mountains to a local farmers market. Heat and berries just do not go well together. I've never used frozen or canned berries.

I hail from Southwest Michigan where growing conditions are perfect for growing blueberries: sandy soil and plenty of water.  Michigan annually produces 92 million pounds of product.

The most difficult aspect of preparing a fruit pie, for me, is gauging the amount of sugar to use. Of course, it all depends on the sugar-content of the fruit you are using. Add too much, and the fruit flavor is lost; too little and you end up with a too-tart pie. If my blueberries are plump, juicy and sweet, I use less sugar.

I am not a believer in a big fruit pies. I use smallish pans and never pile the fruit a mile high. I like a good ratio of crust to fruit which one gets in a smaller pie. A ten-inch fruit pie can often just fall apart--and that's why one makes cobblers in oblong pans.

For one 9-inch pie:

  • 6 cups fresh blueberries (about 30 ounces)
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and grated on large holes of box grater
  • 2 teaspoons grated zest and 2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon (I use limes)
  • 3/4 cup sugar (5 1/4 ounces) [depending on sweetness of berries]
  • 2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca, ground (I just use flour)
  • Pinch table salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces 

Measure 3 cups of berries into a saucepan and over medium heat. Using a potato masher or similar tool, mash berries several times to release juice. Continue to cook, stirring frequently and mashing occasionally, until about half of berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 8 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, line a 9-inch pie plate with dough of your choice. (Hint: if you are using a ceramic dish, I suggest lightly greasing or buttering it.) Place the grated apple in a clean towel or dish rag and wring/squeeze out the juice until all that remains is the pulp.

Place the apple pulp in a large bowl. Add the cooled blueberry mash, remaining fresh blueberries, citrus, sugar, tapioca or flour, salt. Gently fold to combine.

Transfer to your pastry-lined dish. Dot with butter. Roll out your top crust. Crimp edges under bottom crust and securely pinch together using a fluting method of your choice. You don't want all the juices leaking out. Cover the edges with a tin saver or tinfoil to prevent over browning.

Be sure to vent the top crust so the steam can escape. Here, I cut out a small circle and then made four slashes. I always use for to coordinate with the directions of Earth.

Bake in a 400 F. degree oven for 30 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 and finish baking another 30-40 minutes until crust is golden brown. If your is smaller, you will need to adjust baking times.

Cool completely before cutting.

Because blueberries prefer a slightly acidic soil, their autumn foliage can be breathtaking, especially if  it covers acres of land to the horizon.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Stuffed Peppers

I was the gardener in the family. I was forever digging up the yard and planting something, much to my father's chagrin.

Growing up, my immediate farming mentors were our neighbors Ann and Maureen, creative lovely people who worked for a candy company in the city next to us. Candy!

When I was older and after we had moved to a different town, I realized they were gay. Back in the 1950's, who knew? Apparently, the whole neighborhood. But no one cared. They were talented. Creative. And fun to be around. 

As a child, I just loved their gardening acumen and interest in ...  well ... everything. They even wove rag rugs. They made great homemade fudge. In the summer, they would sometimes have early morning breakfasts on the grill. It was like a vacation. They loved my family.

Maureen was the gardener. She was, ironically, a heavy smoker. And she had asthma. But she was the one who taught me how to plant tomatoes. And peppers. She would often get out her tin watering can, put in a bit of Miracle Gro, and away we would go .....

I loved when my mother made stuffed peppers using those I had grown. Sometimes she would put them aside until she had enough to feed a family of seven. I would eye the pile ...

Unless you grow your own, the days of inexpensive peppers is a bygone era.  As is ground beef. And cheese. Still, this quintessential American dish can be economical if you plan ahead and look for sales.

When I was a young cook on my own, I often used ketchup for stuffed peppers. I loved the Crock Pot version. It was sweet. Just a bit of acidity. Kind of like that which I grew up.

Today, not so much. Instead, I like a bit of complexity. 

I rarely use ketchup. I reach for cheese. And black olives. And a great bottled marinara instead of just a canned tomato sauce.  In this case, I used RAO which is not cheap! But, it is, as far as I'm concerned, and America's Test Kitchen, the best on the market! The point is to turn it up a notch with something more flavorful that canned tomato sauce.

Choose a cheese of your choice. Here I used mozzarella.
Target had RAO on sale for only 5.99! I bought three jars (always examine the expiration date). The cheese was on sale. And I got the peppers for a great price (79 cents each). I love the sweeter taste and visual play of colored peppers, but at almost two bucks each, I don't think so. The meat was also on sale. So, it all worked out.

I used "sweet" Italian sausage but I added a pinch or two red pepper flakes to the meat mixture. It's your call.

I also like to slice the peppers down the middle. That way, you can get in more of the meat filling. Again, it's up to you. If you want to fill them from the top, go right ahead (but you may need to cook them a bit longer).

These are great served with mashed potatoes to soak up some of the lovely tomato sauce. For a great summer meal, don't forget the corn on the cob. For dessert, a berry cobbler would suffice.

This recipe makes quite a bit, so it is easy to prepare some for neighbors or friends to bake at home. I find it easy to make two at a time and then I store the extra meat filling and sauce in the fridge to make a couple more the next night and the next. You could, of course, make ahead and freeze. Like Stouffer's!

Finally, stuffed peppers are somewhere between a meatloaf and stuffed cabbage rolls, so use the seasonings and mixes you and your family enjoy.

Just out of the oven, I added a mix of cheeses I had on hand. I liked the contrasting color.

  • For the sauce:

  • 1 large red onion, sliced and diced
  • 1+ tablespoon olive oil plus more for the peppers
  • Pinch or two of salt
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 2 cups jarred marinara sauce (I use RAO)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
  • 1 good tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Juice from one 4 oz. can sliced black olives
  • 1-2 teaspoons white sugar or to taste

  • For the stuffing:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 pound Italian sausage
  • 2 cups cooked rice or 1 package Uncle Ben's original or Basmati ready rice
  • 1 cup fresh Parmessan cheese (I use "shaved" pieces and break them apart)
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
  • 2 large cloves garlic, or 4 medium, grated, minced or pressed
  • 1 10-ounce can diced tomatoes (I use Heinz "fire roasted")
  • 1 4-ounce can black sliced olives, drained (save the juice)
  • 2 + teaspoons coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper of your choice
  • Several pinches red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 4 large peppers (here I used green)
  • Sour Cream for serving (optional)

Slice the peppers in half. Clean out the seeds. Using a melon baller, remove the interior ribs and white pith. Very lightly, add a few drops of olive oil inside each pepper. Using your fingers, rub in the olive oil, including the outside. Set aside.

In a large bowl, add the beef, sausage, onion, garlic, Parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper, drained black olives, bread crumbs. If using, add red pepper flakes. Lightly mix to combine being cautious not to compact the meat while mixing. Incorporate the canned, diced tomatoes. (If desired, add several squirts of ketchup.)

In a medium/large frying pan, add the olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the diced red onion. Add a pinch or two of salt. Sautee until tender. Remove half of the onions to add to the stuffing mixture. To remaining onions in the pan, add the beef broth, black olive juice, balsamic vinegar and marinara sauce. Simmer over medium heat. Add sugar a little at a time (or none!) until you are satisfied with the taste.

In a 13 x 9 baking dish, add the sauce from the frying pan. Stuff each pepper evenly with the meat mixture. Spoon a bit of sauce on top. Place shaved pieces of Parmesan on top of each pepper and sprinkle a few drops of olive oil on top.

Lightly spray the underside of a large piece of aluminum foil to fit over casserole dish. Secure as firmly as possible.

Bake in a 375 F degee oven for about 40 minutes. Carefully remove foil and continue to bake another 10 minutes or so or until the peppers themselves are tender. Remove from oven. If desired, sprinkle with a bit more cheese of your choice. It will melt on its own. Top with sour cream, if desired.

If using smaller baking vessels, proportion the sauce, peppers and stuffing accordingly. They may require less baking time.