Entre

Spaghetti Sauce (or: Southern-Style Conchiglie Sauce)

Posts have been coming slow and will continue to come slow until I get my financial situation together. In short, I’m super broke, so buying specific items for specific recipes isn’t going to happen too often for a while. Lately I’ve been buying things that happen to be on sale and eating as much free food as possible.

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However, an exception had to be made for my family’s spaghetti. When you’re thinking in bulk pricing, this recipe is actually pretty cost effective. But even though I cut the recipe in half, and even though I had some of the ingredients already, my trip to the store was still over $30. Thankfully my sister enthusiastically agreed to go halfsies on the cost. This spaghetti sauce recipe is huge so that it can be frozen and stored. I cut the recipe in half, gave two-thirds of it to my family, and still my husband and I ate it for a week. And, no, we didn’t get tired of it. It’s freaking delicious.

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This is a funny recipe. First of all, it’s not technically spaghetti sauce. My grandmother and grandfather created this recipe together, and I think they set out to make spaghetti sauce, but it ended up something different. Spaghetti sauce is called spaghetti sauce because it’s served with spaghetti noodles, and this sauce is served with shell noodles. Also, it doesn’t have an overly Italian flavor. It’s got a heaviness to it that’s more southern American than Italian, so I feel the need to rename it. Right now, I’m going with Southern-Style Conchiglie Sauce, conchiglie being the Italian word for the shell-shaped pasta. If anyone has a better name, let me know.

The other funny thing is the ingredients. For instance, one of the ingredients is Ragu. That’s right. One of the ingredients in my family’s legendary spaghetti sauce is….spaghetti sauce. When I laid all the ingredients out for the photo, David was dumbfounded. He told me, “I don’t get it! Your mom’s recipes are so mythical to you, but the stuff you make is so much more authentic!” Of course, he ate his words when he tasted the sauce. There was a time when I was going through an all-natural, made-from-scratch phase, and I tried to make a few of my mom’s less-than-scratch recipes from scratch. They didn’t turn out so well. Then it dawned all me: why gather all these individual ingredients when they’re already put together in a convenient package for you? It’s a superficial, time-consuming change to make something from scratch when it’s wonderful the way it is. I do think I would like to figure out a from-scratch recipe in the future, but not because it would be more authentic. Some day, they’re going to stop making Ragu or any one of the other pre-made ingredients, and I’ll still want to be able to make this sauce.

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Note: Only half portions of the ingredients are pictured, and I forgot to put the bay leaves in the photo.

There’s a cute story about the cream of chicken soup. My grandmother was, understandably, very against putting it in, while my grandfather thought cream of chicken soup in spaghetti was a great idea. However, my grandmother put her foot down, so every time they made the recipe, my grandfather would wait until my grandmother wasn’t looking and sneak a can into the pot. And every time my grandmother would tell him, “See? It’s perfect without the soup.” Apparently my mother and the other kids kept his secret for years before my grandmother figured it out. Ultimately, the soup stayed, because the combination was indeed perfect.

There’s only one thing I’m going to change about the recipe. It calls for 10 lb. of ground beef, and I’m going to say ground beef or turkey. Turkey’s cheaper, slightly healthier, and you can’t tell a difference when there’s all the other flavor in the mix.

Ingredients:

  • 10 lb. ground beef or turkey
  • 1 lb. Tennessee Pride hot sausage (or similar brand)
  • 32 oz. tomato sauce
  • 32 oz. tomatoes, chopped or diced
  • 2 or 3 large bell peppers, diced
  • 3 or 4 large onions, diced
  • 2 lb. mushrooms, chopped or sliced
  • 2 large (45 oz.) jars Ragu
  • 4 or 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 package McCormick’s spaghetti seasoning
  • ½ to 1 tbsp. crush red pepper
  • 2 cans cream of chicken
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 bottle chili sauce
  • 1 lb. sharp cheddar cheese (grated)

Brown hamburger and sausage in a skillet and drain. Place all ingredients except cheese in large pot and simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce is hot and onions are slightly transparent. Remove the bay leaves*. Cheese can be mixed into the warm sauce or sprinkled on top of each dish. Serve with shell noodles (conchiglie). Sauce can be frozen for storage.

*If you can’t find the bay leaves, that’s okay. Who’s Got the Bay Leaf is a fun game to play at the dinner table.

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Fail, Soup

The Chicken & Dumplings Need Work

I tried out my mom’s chicken and dumpling recipe last week. It turned out pretty well, but not perfect. I’ve determined that she only wrote notes for herself disguised as a full recipe. For instance, I never remembered my mother using a pressure cooker for chicken and dumplings, but the only instructions listed for cooking the chicken are, “If chicken frozen, pressure cook for 30 minutes.” She only wrote it down because she never did it that way and couldn’t remember the time.

However, I did think it was cool that there were instructions to cook the chicken frozen because I rarely have the foresight to thaw meat. I decided to follow what was written and intentionally left the chicken in the freezer. I thought I’d have to borrow a pressure cooker, but then was shocked to find one in my utility closet. You never know what might wiggle out of your storage when you’re a third generation packrat. The only problem was that the thing looked like it might have witnessed all three of those generations, and I’ve read that faulty pressure cookers can explode.

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But I live life on the edge. Also I had already decided not to thaw my chicken, so I was committed.

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It was faulty. Thankfully it was just missing the gasket, so rather than exploding it just became a large, heavy-duty pot with some useless equipment attached to the lid. And it took FOREVER to cook the frozen chicken, the outer bits drying out by the time the inner bits thawed.

The broth was bland. What I usually do when I make broth is boil the chicken until it is perfectly done, then strip the meat off and continue to boil the hell out of the bones and skin and whatnot. But I wanted to see what would happen if I followed what I now realize are half baked instructions, so I ended up adding the fat from the top of some broth I’d made for something else in order to make my chicken and dumpling broth flavorful.

There were no instructions on how to turn the whole chicken into the soupy part of chicken and dumplings. Not that I needed them. I got the idea. But instructions need to be there in the recipe I write. This was demonstrated when, because it was getting late and we were effing hungry, I had David remove the meat from the bones and add it to the soup. I did not really instruct him in doing this, so it ended up a bit chunky. I had a bad feeling about how it was going to turn out anyway, so I wasn’t worried about it. He also thought it would be an excellent idea to put the skin in too, and still holds to this conviction. I told him that fried or baked skin equals delicious, and boiled skin equals slimy, jiggly, and barfy. But he’s been eating the soup ravenously all week so whatever. I just picked mine out.

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To make the dumplings, the card said to mix 2 cups self-rising flour and 1 cup broth. I had to add significantly more flour than that to make it remotely handleable. Still it was too gooey, and resulted in dumplings that were a bit too doughy. I remember my mother rolling out the dough perfectly and easily cutting it into tiny, firm squares to drop in the broth. Obviously she improvised the mixture and never updated the recipe. Bitch.*

What resulted was tasty, but not quite right. I certainly didn’t get what I needed to write a recipe, and I’ll need to take a new, less chunky photo.

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*David said, “You called your mom a bitch? Your sister’s gonna read this.” I said, “She’ll think it’s funny.” “Would your mom think it’s funny?” “Yeah, but she’d tell me if I’d cooked with her more I’d know all this stuff already.”

 

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Fail

Chocolate Amaretto Cheesecake & Disappointment

Chocolate, amaretto, and cheesecake: three decadent flavors that should have been a heavenly combination. I was so looking forward to this recipe. I’d never actually had it before….it isn’t a memory of my mother. It just looked so good that I couldn’t pass it up. I told some friends about it, and that I would be bringing it to our board game night because I was sure I’d scarf the whole thing if I left it in the house. (David would not help to eat it. He downed an entire bottle of Disaronno in his youth, and now he gets ill at the thought of amaretto.) My friends were looking forward to it. I mean, c’mon! Chocolate amaretto cheesecake! Who wouldn’t drool with anticipation (barring traumatizing teenage misadventure)?

I made the cake. It was pretty. I brought it to game night. I took the nicest looking piece and put it aside for photographs later, then we served ourselves.

It’s not even that it was bad. It was just….meh. Okay. Fine. Good, but I’m not going for another piece. And you couldn’t even taste the amaretto. One person had the idea to splash a bit of amaretto directly on top of the cheesecake, which did indeed improve things. But the cheesecake itself was still lackluster. I would have preferred a plain cheesecake, maybe with a chocolate amaretto glaze—and I may do that still, but not for this blog.

In a nutshell, I was disappointed. And this, combined with the fact that I, personally, didn’t care for my previous shrimp dip recipe and that both the macaroni and country style steak were a flop, I found myself a bit demotivated. Which is why this is the first time I’ve updated this blog in a month—the same length of time that damn cheesecake has been sitting in my fridge, uneaten and unphotographed.

I don’t only want to write about the recipes that I remember my mother making. I also want to write about other good recipes that are in her collection, because these are pieces of her that we can discover. But I certainly don’t want to be one of those bloggers that writes positively about whatever recipe they’re posting about. There are some blog recipes I’ve prepared, and when I finally taste the outcome I think, “Did this person even really make the recipe, or did she just take pretty pictures of the ingredients on her cutting board?” I want to provide good information while organizing my thoughts for the recipe book.

I wasn’t going to write about this disappointment. I was just going to gather my will to move on with another recipe and sweep this one under the rug. But David encouraged me to write about it, saying that obstacles and failures have historical significance that shouldn’t be ignored, and that chocolate amaretto cheesecake is the Smaug in my culinary journey.

So I’ll pick up blogging again. But I won’t post the recipe because it’s not worth the pixels, and I’m certainly not taking a picture of that cake. I’m actually afraid to look at it at this point.

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Hor d'oeuvres

Shrimp Dip

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First of all, I think this recipe may need to be renamed. I, as well as other people I mentioned this recipe to, assumed this was a dip for shrimp rather than a dip with teeny shrimp in it. It didn’t help that shrimp was not listed with the rest of the ingredients, but rather in the instructions. I’m not sure what I’d call it, though. Any ideas? According to my WordPress stats, there’s three people plus my sister reading this blog. Time for some feedback.

I’m told this recipe was delicious. I couldn’t tell because shrimp is gross, and it’s especially gross when it comes from a can. However I brought it to a dinner party and put it out with some crackers and it disappeared quickly with many unsolicited comments of “Who made this?” “This is wonderful!” and “What’s in here?” Apparently it didn’t taste noticeably like shrimp to people who enjoy shrimp. It might could stand another can of shrimp if you want it really shrimpy. Blugh.

There’s an option in this recipe to add cucumbers, which I did after I took the photo before the dinner party. I’m told it was good both ways. I also added an option to use mayo rather than Miracle Whip. My mom probably used mayo, and I don’t have Miracle Whip lying around because it, like canned shrimp, is super gross. But I suppose it might be good in a recipe so I won’t nix it entirely.

Ingredients:

  • 1 8-oz. package cream cheese, softened
  • 3 or 4 tbsp. Miracle Whip or mayonnaise
  • Onion flakes or chopped onion
  • Garlic powder or one clove minced garlic (optional)
  • 1 or 2 4-oz. cans small shrimp

Blend together cream cheese, mayo, onion, and garlic. Mix in shrimp.

Variations:

  • Add diced cucumbers
  • Omit onions and add walnuts

I used grated carrot and a sprig of celery leaf for garnish, but I threw out the leaf before serving. I’m not sure how edible that is.

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Fail

Expletive Deleted: Country Style Steak & Macaroni

In addition to trying to prepare all our mother’s recipes, my sister and I have a short list of dishes we have fond memories of but are not written down. Macaroni and cheese is on that list, and I thought that’d be a nice, easy place to start. However, when we went to the store and I informed my husband we would be having mac and cheese and mac and cheese alone for lunch because we had too much other stuff to do that day, he told me I was being ridiculous and we needed to make something else. So I chose the next unknown recipe on the list: country style steak.

If you haven’t already inferred it from the title, this didn’t go too well. Not awfully, but certainly not something I ever want to do again.

I remembered my mom’s macaroni and cheese had four ingredients: elbow macaroni noodles, butter, milk, and Velveeta. And don’t knock Velveeta. Just because it’s processed cheese product doesn’t mean it’s not delicious. A few years ago I was on a made-from-scratch, all-natural kick (which is great if you have the energy or don’t have a full time job) and made some mac and cheese with all natural cheese, and it didn’t hold a candle to my mom’s. I’m sure there’s a way to make macaroni and cheese stay all delicious and gooey without Velveeta, but I bet it takes more time than I’m willing to give to cheesy noodles and may even involve doing the same things in your kitchen that they do to make Velveeta.

My sister and I made this by ourselves at some point when we were in high school, but we didn’t really remember the quantities or instructions. So I looked on the box and improvised. The VELVEETA® Down-Home Macaroni & Cheese recipe looks good, but in addition to my mother’s ingredients it calls for flour, cheddar cheese, and Ritz crackers. I was trying to find exactly what my mom did, so I nixed the extra ingredients and added more Velveeta to make up for the lost cheddar cheese.

I used this recipe for country style steak from Allrecipes.com. The ingredients looked about the same, but as I recall my mother didn’t put hers in the oven, so I set one cubed steak aside to only cook over the stove. Unfortunately, I forgot to get beef broth from the store, so instead I dissolved beef bouillon cubes in warm water.

The country style steak ended up way too salty from the bouillon, but edible. The one piece that I set aside to skip the oven step was a definite fail, too tough to eat without a steak knife. The oven step let the meat soak up the gravy to tenderize. I’ll have to do some more searching to find a good method of stovetop only preparation.

The macaroni was also edible, but no better than the boxed macaroni that my mother raised her eyebrow at when my sister and I attempted to get it at the store (“It is no harder to make it homemade!”). Maybe she did use more ingredients than we remember. I may just try the Down-Home Macaroni & Cheese recipe as written and see how that compares.

I really hope we’re able to figure these recipes out, but they may be lost forever. That idea makes me very sad, but I guess I could see this as an opportunity to start new  traditions.

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Dessert

Silver White Coconut Cake

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This cake was a rare delight for my family. It was the signature dessert of my great aunt, so we usually only got to have it during big family gatherings. I only remember our mom actually making it a few times. It would sit in the fridge all day as it waited to be served, taunting us. Although my sister and I have both tried to make it and, for reasons mysterious to us, failed, we thought it would be nice to have for our dad’s birthday party. We needed to figure it out at some point anyway.

(Edit: I made the scones in the foreground of the above image with Scones in a Jar mix by Little Miss Muffin, a business run by my friend Wendy Carson. Check out the Little Miss Muffin Facebook page to see her meticulously crafted desserts. Seriously go look. I don’t recommend stuff lightly.)

While I was pretty sure the cake was an original creation from my family, I Googled it just to be sure. I found it in a post on a website called The Recipe Circus, and the source listed is my mom! It is so cool to see a piece of my mother out there on the internet. It was also practically beneficial because my mom’s recipe card called for 2 packages of  frozen coconut for the icing with no precise quantities per package listed, whereas the internet post says 2 12-ounce packages. I had picked up 2 6-ounce packages of the only kind of frozen coconut the store had. I realized the error after I’d put the cake in the oven, and had to run to the store while it baked.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups plus 2 tbsp. self-rising flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 whole eggs or 4 egg whites, unbeaten

Icing:

  • 2 12-oz. pkgs. frozen coconut, or the equvalent freshly grated (avoid using the sweetened Baker’s Angelflake)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup sour cream.

Preheat oven to 350º. Grease and flour 2 round 9″ pans. Mix together flour and sugar. Add shortening, milk and vanilla. Beat 2 minutes med. speed on mixer. Add eggs (or egg whites). Beat 2 more minutes. Pour equal amounts of batter in pans and bake 35 to 40 minutes.

Mix coconut, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup sour cream and beat. Note: Icing must go on warm cake.

Carefully remove warm cakes from pans. Divide each cake in half, either with a knife or with a string (sewing thread or unflavored dental floss works well). Place first layer with the cut side facing up and ice just enough to mostly cover cake. (The icing will want to clump, but it’s better to have patchy icing between the layers than to not have enough icing to ice the outside of the cake. It will all meld together as the cake sets.) Place second layer on top of the first, and repeat until all layers are stacked. Ice the outside of the cake, covering all exposed cake.

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I think when I messed up the first time with this recipe, I didn’t put the icing on while the cake was warm enough. My mother has another recipe that says to ice a warm cake, but if you do it right out of the oven the cake falls apart and the icing goes everywhere. This one, if you don’t ice it right out of the oven, the granulated sugar in the icing doesn’t melt and it’s unpleasantly grainy, so I tried to emphasize immediately icing in the directions. I also went into greater detail in the dividing/icing portion because I think the only reason I was able to do it correctly was because I’d seen my mother do it before.

As you can see in the foreground of the first image, we had some backup desserts in case the cake didn’t turn out well. Thankfully, it came out great and everyone at the party had at least one piece. Even people who said they didn’t like coconut enjoyed it, probably because when most people think of coconut they think of candy and whatnot. While this cake is sweet, it’s not quite Almond Joy sweet.

This was the first recipe I’ve done for this blog that’s really brought me back to my childhood, and I’m ecstatic that it was successful. Finally.

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Recycling Food

Recycling Food: Chicken Salad

For my last post I did Wine-Glazed Cornish Hens, and after I completed the full recipe I experimented with an alteration of the recipe with a single hen. It did not go well, producing very dry meat that I was not looking forward to eating. So that was shoved in the fridge until I figured out something to do with it.

I believe a big part of being a real-life, grownup cook is learning how to prepare food with what you have. I’m trying to get out of the habit of throwing things out if they didn’t go as planned, and planning meals around what I already have in the fridge rather than buying a slew of very specific ingredients that I probably won’t use again. Casseroles and various salads (chicken salad, egg salad) are good tools for this. The problem is actually creating something that tastes good. You have to learn to improvise, which requires practice, and may result in destroying more food than you set out to salvage.

Doing something with the dry dry chicken turned out to be easier than I thought. There’s a chicken salad recipe I got off of Allrecipes.com that I love and is always a hit. It appears to have been removed, but this recipe is nearly identical. Just use lemon juice instead of lime and fresh minced onion rather than onion powder. Luckily I had almost all the ingredients it calls for, so I didn’t need to improvise as much as I thought I would.

The recipe calls for bacon, grapes, and water chestnuts, none of which I had. Bacon is delicious but unnecessary, so I didn’t bother to find a substitute. Instead of grapes, I chopped up part of a sweet apple that had been sitting around too long. For the water chestnuts, I picked a handful of pecans out of my Extra Fancy Unsalted Mixed Nuts from CostCo (that purchase has been much more useful than I could have ever anticipated), broke them up a bit, and threw them in. I was shocked that the partial head of celery that’s been wilting in the vegetable drawer for the past few weeks (it’s been too cold to venture out to the compost barrel) actually had one semi-crisp stalk on it. I didn’t really measure any of the ingredients because I had an odd amount of chicken and didn’t want to do math. Also I was doing this just before bed so I could have something for lunch the next day, so I was feeling a bit lazy. It ended up tasting not quite right. I may have messed up the proportions, or maybe the chicken sat in the fridge in a carelessly covered casserole dish for a little too long. Or maybe it really did need the bacon. So I added a few dashes of tarragon vinegar, and it was perfect. Vinegar fixes a lot of stuff.

The chicken salad was beautiful, but I didn’t get a chance to photograph it before we ate it all. Maybe next time. It’s no big deal because it’s not going in the recipe book, but I do like pictures of pretty things. Que sera sera.

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