Trick or Treat?

Definitely Treat!!  I have very fond memories of trick or treating when I was a kid.  Remember when people gave out homemade treats?  I do, and my favorite treat was popcorn balls.  My grandma R’s neighbor, a lovely lady named Clara made popcorn balls every year for Halloween.  Her house was one of the first houses that we visited.  She would have a big basket filled with these sticky, chewy, sweet balls of gooey goodness.  More often than not, we ate the popcorn balls while we were pounding the pavement going to as many houses as we possibly could, filling our pillowcases almost to the top.  Oh no, we didn’t have those plastic molded jack-o-lanterns, we were hardcore. 

 The thing about getting all of that candy that I don’t remember for some reason is that I never really ate that much of my candy.  If I did, it was sweet tarts, Tootsie rolls, smarties, and dum dum suckers.  Oh sure, I got plenty of candy bars and chocolate treats, but I was always conned out of them.  One of my older brothers always made these deals (that seemed like I’d be crazy to pass it up) with me to trade my peanut butter cups and candy bars for bubble gum and sweet tarts. 

Several years back, Brian worked with a lady that would bring popcorn balls in for everyone, around this time of year.  Brian is a smart guy, he liked them so much that he asked her for the recipe.  She jotted it down on a small scrap of paper and that is what I use every year to make these yummy treats.  I don’t hand them out for trick or treaters, but I do make several batches and hand them out to family and friends.  I also bring them to get togethers during the fall and it never fails that someone will reminisce about them.  Now, they are a tradition again and I’m so happy to pass this recipe along to you.

Popcorn Balls

16 cups of popped popcorn -or- 4 bags of microwave popcorn (the regular size bag, which is I think 3.5 oz.)

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup water

2/3 cup light corn syrup

1 stick unsalted butter ( has to be butter, not margarine or a spread)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Place popcorn in a very large bowl or container.  At this time, I also sort through the popcorn using another large bowl and a scoop to remove any unpopped kernels.

In medium, heavy bottomed saucepan, add sugar, water, corn syrup, and butter.  Bring to boil and let boil on medium to medium low heat until it reaches “soft ball” stage on candy thermometer. ( candy thermometers can be found at any department store or kitchen store) It needs to continue to cook at the soft ball stage for several minutes.  Do not stir this mixture, just let it keep boiling, making sure that the temperature on the thermometer stays constant.

(during this time, I used to stand and stare at the mixture while it was boiling away. Now, I know that I can let it boil away while I do other things in the kitchen, always keeping an eye on the mixture.)

Another way to check or know just when the syrup mixture is ready is to take a glass of cold water, dip a clean spoon into the boiling mixture and place a drop of the mixture into the cold water.  If it forms a little ball as it is dropped, it is ready.  If it disperses too quickly, it’s not ready.

After the boiled mixture is ready, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Step back slightly and do not stir the vanilla in.  It will bubble violently at first.  Immediately take this mixture to the large container of popcorn, pour over and stir.  Keep stirring until mixture has coated all of the popcorn.  The stirring will also cool the popcorn mixture enough to be handled and shaped.

After popcorn is well coated and cooled slightly, spray hands with Pam cooking spray and start molding the popcorn balls by taking a handful of popcorn and pressing firmly with both hands.  If you do not like to have your hands get messy, use gloves.

Place formed popcorn balls on wax paper lined trays and let cool.  Once cool, place in plastic baggies.  This recipe makes between 15 and 18 popcorn balls.

 

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Soup = stress relief

I don’t know how you handle stress, but I tend to handle it one of two ways.  The first being that I totally shut down, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t think.  The second being that I cook and bake and cook and bake and in between I have to clean up the huge messes and sinks full of dirty dishes and utensils.  My mom was just telling me this morning that was always what she did.  Now when she’s stressed, she cleans out the junk drawer or organizes a bookshelf.  I kind of wish that would happen with me, I could only imagine how neatly organized my sock drawer would be, or the basement, or the closets.  Brian doesn’t seem to mind that I cook and bake like crazy though.  Thank goodness for him!

This might sound crazy (I realized that it only sounds crazy to me, ha!), but I’ve had a really nice, peaceful day so far today.  I’ve spent most of it in the kitchen making my hearty black bean soup, and talking with my mom.  I treasure days like today. 

Wanna get the recipe for my hearty black bean soup?  This is one of the recipes that I was talking about a few posts back.  I entered this into our local newspaper’s holiday recipe contest and won!  Today is a cozy (I wish it were even a little bit cooler), overcast kind of day, and it is perfect soup weather.  (I think any day is perfect for soup though)  I wish you could smell how good this soup is making my house smell.

Hearty Black Bean Soup

  • 1 pound dried black beans
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 medium onions, roughly chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 1/4 bunch of  fresh cilantro (approx. 3-4 tablespoons)
  • Olive Oil
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 smoked ham shanks
  • 1 jalapeno, split (optional)
  • 2 quarts low sodium chicken stock
  • salt and fresh cracked black pepper

(Fresh limes and sour cream for recipe for lime crema- below)

Soak beans overnight with enough water to cover, plus one inch.  The next morning,  pick through the beans and discard any debris.  Wash under cold running water. 

In a blender or food processor, add garlic, onion, cilantro and bell pepper.

Set a large pot over medium heat and add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pot.  Add the vegetable puree and cumin.  Sautee until just starting to get fragrant, about 5 minutes.  Add beans, ham shank, jalapeno and chicken stock.  Slightly cover and simmer for 2-3 hours or longer, until beans are tender.  (I sometimes use a crock pot for this step, cooking on low setting, with lid slightly askew, for 4-5 hours).

When cooked, remove ham shank.  Cut ham meat off of the bone, cut into pieces and set aside.

Using a blender, puree just enough of the beans and stock (about 1/3 of the total pot) to thicken up the soup and bring everything together.  Season with salt and pepper and fold ham meat back into the soup.

Serve with a lime wedge, extra garnish of cilantro and lime crema (see below for recipe), if desired.

 

Lime Crema:     1 cup sour cream and 2 teaspoons lime zest.  Combine and place dollop onto black bean soup.

After proof reading my post, I have come to the conclusion that my description of how I deal with stress sounds a little bipolar, don’t you think?  I’m laughing… laugh with me, please.  Not at me.  Enjoy the soup!

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All good things take time.

  Maybe not all, but most good things do take time.  I spent a big part of my day today preparing our supper, and it was well worth the time and effort.  My motto about cooking is that it is not difficult, it just takes effort and time.  What did we have for supper you ask?  Beef Stew!  Here’s how I made mine:

Beef Stew:

  • 2 lbs. lean stew meat
  • 1 medium onion, coarsley chopped
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 6 -8 medium potatoes, cut into large pieces
  • 1 teaspoon Kitchen Bouquet or Gravy Aid
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • flour
  • water
  • 1 Tablespoon Beef Base

Lightly dust stew meat with flour.  Heat large skillet on high setting until it is very hot.  (test by holding hand over skillet to check)

Spray skillet with cooking spray or use non-stick skillet.  Add stew meat that has been dusted in flour.

Let stew meat sear on all sides,  remove from skillet and add to large dutch oven or roasting pan.

Pour 1 cup of water into the skillet that the meat had been seared and cook on high until the bits that are stuck on the skillet come loose.  Add this water and drippings to roasting pan along with the chopped onion.

Cook covered, on low heat (250 degrees) for 3 hours. 

In medium pots, add carrot and enough water to cover and parboil on stovetop for 15 minutes.  Do the same with the potatoes.

While the carrots and potatoes are cooking, take the roasting pan with the stew meat out of the oven.  Remove the meat, the onion will have cooking into the meat and cooking liquid. Place roasting pan on stove top on high heat. 

In a jar with a lid, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup flour and 1 cup water, shake well, until lumps disappear.  Add this mixture to the roasting pan after the juices start to boil.  While adding this, stir constantly with whisk until mixture thickens, lumps disappear and it is boiling.

At this point, you need to add water according to your preference of thickness of the gravy.  I usually add 2 to 3 more cups of water.

Season with salt (you will need a good amount, start with one teaspoon and taste test after adding), pepper, and kitchen bouquet.

After gravy is made, add stew meat, carrots, and potatoes back into the roasting pan.  Cook at 350 degrees for another 45-60 minutes. 

Serve and enjoy.  I like to serve with fresh-baked bread or rolls and honey butter.  I made the bread in my bread machine, using the recipe for country white bread. 

Recipe for Honey Butter:

  • 1 stick of margarine or butter softened
  • 1 Tablespoon Honey

Combine in electric mixer and mix butter and honey together until well combined and smooth.

This beef stew will give us leftovers for another supper this week and a couple of lunches.  I like to make big meals like this either over the weekend or at the beginning of the week, providing other meals for us throughout the rest of the week.

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Sometimes, I like to smoke.

Every now and then, I like to smoke.  Cook food in a smoker with wood chips, that is.  Yesterday was a beautiful and sunny fall day, perfect for putting something yummy to eat on the smoker, like stuffed jalapeno and sweet banana peppers.  I had a couple dozen jalapeno peppers that survived in the garden and I found some sweet and mild banana and gypsy peppers at the Crystal City Farmer’s Market this week.  Aside from being grown in my own back yard, there is nothing better than finding fresh, local produce.  You know that the vegetable has been picked within a day or so, making it super fresh and I got these peppers for just a few dollars.  It’s was a win win deal! 

Here is how I made these tasty stuffed peppers:

Stuffed Jalapeno & Banana Peppers:

  • 20 small jalapenos
  • 20 or so banana, gypsy, or small sweet peppers
  • 1 pound of pork sausage (I used half Italian and Half Hot Sausage)
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • a small bunch of parsley (about 2 Tablespoons), chopped (if using dry- 1 to 2 teaspoons full)
  • olive oil
  • Freshly cracked black pepper and seasoned salt-to taste
  • bacon (optional)

Clean, slice a small piece of the side pepper off, remove seeds and ribs from peppers.  *Use gloves for the jalapenos or hot peppers*  (keep the part of the pepper that you sliced off, it is good for many uses)  I used a sharp serrated knife and a strawberry huller.

In large skillet, cook sausage and diced onions until sausage is browned. 

In large bowl, add cooked sausage mixture, bread crumbs, cheese,  parsley, seasoned salt and pepper.  Mix well.  Mixture should be a bit dry or crumbly at this point. 

Add one tablespoon of olive oil to mixture, check to see if mixture will form a ball on its own.  If so, it is ready to stuff, if not, add a bit more olive oil until mixture can hold together.

Using your hands or a very small (teaspoon scoop), put stuffing into peppers. 

Optional- wrap a small piece of bacon around pepper and fasten with toothpick.  Bacon is never a bad choice, in my opinion.  People that do not like bacon are questionable in my book. 🙂  Remember, moderation. 

At this point, the peppers are ready to be cooked, or placed on a tray in the refrigerator until ready to cook. 

Place on preheated smoker with wood chips (I used hickory wood chips) and smoke for 1 to 1 and 1/2 hours. 

Remove from smoker when done and serve hot or room temp.

*Want a vegetarian version of these?  You could substitute sautéed mushrooms, diced pepper pieces (that you were saving anyway), and shredded or diced squash, instead of sausage.

*You don’t have to own a smoker to make these.  You can bake in a 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes, until cooked through, or cook indirectly on your grill. ( Add a handful of soaked woodchips to a pouch of foil with some holes poked in it to make a little smoker for your grill.  Place the foil pouch over the heat).

*Use whatever kind of cheese that you have on hand, or that you like.

*Use any kind of bulk sausage that you like.  I just happened to have Italian and Hot sausage on hand.

*Use a milder wood chip like apple, cherry or, pecan, if you like.

Hickory wood just happens to be my favorite. 

I kept the ingredients mild because I really wanted the taste of the peppers to come through.  As you can see, this recipe is just the basis for your palate and imagination.

 

I took the peppers with me to a party yesterday evening and I do believe that the peppers were enjoyed by all.  Good times.

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Soups On!

Every now and then I discover a new soup recipe or in this case create one of my very own.  A little over ten years ago, I found a recipe for potato soup in an old cookbook.  I used the basic ingredients and instructions and added some more ingredients to create a soup similar to ones that we would order from a restaurant.  It became an instant success!  Brian convinced me into entering that recipe in a local newspapers’ recipe contest.  Low and behold, that recipe won the overall grand prize of the contest!  I still make this yummy soup for my family a few times a year. (yes, I will share this recipe very soon)

I had not entered any other recipe contests until last year when I found another recipe for a soup that I thought I would try to make it my own.  This time, it was for black bean soup.  After tasting this soup, Brian said that it was another winner.  I entered the recipe and waited to see if I would get the call that my recipe had been chosen.  Luckily, I got the call!   This time the contest also featured a tasting of each persons recipes.  We were then able to taste, judge and vote on our favorites.  There were so many good recipes.  I was just thrilled to be able to have my recipe published in the paper, that I didn’t care if I won or not.  A couple of days later, the newspaper notified me that my black bean soup was the winner for its category!  (this recipe will soon be posted too)

It didn’t take me another ten years to come across another instant favorite soup recipe.  Shortly after the recipe contest and tasting last winter, I came up with this soup recipe on my own.  I had searched several cookbooks and websites and still couldn’t quite find a recipe that I liked.  I decided that I had wanted a creamy chicken soup with wild rice.  After I had the basics decided, I added what I thought would round out the soup.  I also wanted a soup that didn’t have alot of prep time or that was very difficult, because if it has too many ingredients or difficult instructions I’m most likely never going to want to make it.  It turns out that this is the simplest soup recipe that I have made yet.  It is now that time of year to start submitting recipes to the local newspaper’s contest.  My taste-testers gave this soup the thumbs up the first time they tried it.  I just entered this recipe into the contest today and I couldn’t wait to share it with everyone.  Here’s how the recipe goes:

Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

2 Chicken Breasts, cooked and cut into bite sized pieces (I like to use bone in and skin on and I bake them in the oven at 350 degrees for about an hour, until golden brown)

2 Stalks of Celery, diced

2 Carrots, diced

1 large family size can of Cream of Chicken Soup

1 box of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice, original recipe- prepare according to instructions

1-2 cans of milk (depending on preferred thickness)

1 Tablespoon margarine

Salt & Pepperto taste

 

Cooking instructions:

In large pot, saute’ celery and carrots in melted margarine, until tender.

Add cream of chicken soup to vegetable mixture, stir until well combined.

Add milk, chicken, rice, salt and pepper.

Simmer for at least 30 minutes before serving, being careful not to bring to a full boil, stirring occasionally.

I prefer to put the soup into a crock pot and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for a few hours instead of simmering on top of the stove.

Makes 8-10 servings.

Here’s hoping that this recipe will be chosen this year.  I’ll keep you posted!!

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Six Weeks

It has been nearly six weeks since I’ve made a post and that’s entirely too long.  What have you been up to in the past six weeks?  For me, the past six weeks have flown by!  We celebrated Brian’s 40th birthday, school started and it is going well.  Eli’s courses are: Intro to Psychology, Intro to Medicine, Algebra I, 20th Century Music, English (which includes literature, grammar, vocab and spelling), and American Government.  I cannot believe that he is a freshman this year.  We also  attended the wedding of a dear cousin, Abby and her husband, Justin.  I wish them well!   We’ve had two big trees cut down from our back yard, and I’ve read, “The Help”, and “A Raisin in the Sun”.  I’ve also kept myself busy with various other things that life hands me.  Somehow, the days fly by and before you know it, six weeks have passed. 

What are you going to be doing six weeks from now?  Besides the given daily tasks and everyday life, I am not really sure what I will be doing either.  The one thing that I do know what I will be doing is making more of my “six week muffins”. (If they’ve not all been baked and eaten by then)

 

I wanted to share this muffin recipe with everyone.  It is simple to make and is a great breakfast, snack, dessert, you name it!  Here is what you’ll need to make these muffins:

  • 1  15 ounce package Raisin Bran Cereal
  • 3 cups of Sugar
  • 1 quart of milk
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 (15-17 ounce) can of fruit cocktail, drained
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 5 cups all purpose flour
  • 5 tsp. baking soda
  • 4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (optional)

In very large bowl, mix all ingredients together.  Bake in greased muffin tin at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

This recipe is very forgiving.  Instead of vegetable oil, I use canola oil.  I also use light fruit cocktail instead of fruit cocktail in heavy syrup.  I also like to add pumpkin pie spice in addition to the cinnamon.  Pumpkin Pie Spice has cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice.  It gives the muffins a little more spice and the aroma that fills your house while you are baking these is amazing! 

You can also add your favorite sugar substitute for all or half of the recipe instead of all sugar.

You may be thinking that this sounds like a huge amount of ingredients and it is, but it keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks!  I look ahead and see what the date for six weeks from today is and mark it on a piece of masking tape and attach that to the container that I put the muffin batter in.  Can you believe that it will be November 21, the week of Thanksgiving?? 

I promise that it will not take six weeks for me to post another recipe.  I’ve got many great recipes lined up to share!

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The Big 4-0!

Today is Friday, the 9th of September 2011.  FORTY years ago, my mother-in-law gave birth to a little baby boy, who would twenty-four (or so) years later become my husband.  I am so thankful for this fact!

   This time of year always takes me back to when Brian and I first started dating ( it was either late August or early September, I wasn’t one of those girls who kept track of things like that).  We were both working at St. Louis Children’s Hospital when he asked me if I wanted to go to the zoo and then get pizza afterward.  Back in those days we listened to REM, The Black Crows, and The Eagles ALOT.  We were pretty much inseparable.  Thinking back to those times always puts a smile on my face.  We’ve now lived together longer than we have lived separately (does that make sense?).  I cannot imagine what my life would be without him in it… and THAT makes total sense to me.

In the tradition of Pedro, “I built him a cake” for his birthday.  Sure, the cake could look better, but I used the secret ingredient.  And I think most things homemade taste better anyway. 

Brian, I hope that you enjoy your day.  You deserve all things good today.  I admire and love you more than words can say!  You are always there for me and always unconditional, You’re The Best!!  (I also love that when you sing, you sometimes sound like Kermit the frog) 

Happy 40th, Bri, I love you.

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