I did my civic duty this week: served on a jury for three days. What seemed on Monday to be a huge inconvenience had by Thursday become sort of a pleasant routine — so much so that when our case ended early that afternoon, some of my fellow jurors took the rest of the day off from work. The pressures that had seemed to urgent Monday had faded even with a few days of enforced separation.

I’m left with many memories of the case, but my most tangible reminder will be the recipe a fellow juror brought in for me one morning after we’d been talking about feeding our kids.
Her son is nearly my age, and one of his favorite childhood foods was the White Castles his mom used to make and feed his friends. I’m no particular fan of White Castle, but my brother is, so I’m well enough acquainted with the odor that I’ll be able to call Kathy and tell her whether or not I agree with her son, that these knock-offs do smell just like the real thing.

White Castles

2 lbs. lean ground beef, browned
1 envelope Lipton onion soup mix
1/2 cup water
1 cup dill pickle relish (drained, liquid reserved)
1/2 cup dill pickle juice
2 Tbsp. flour
Mix all the ingredients together and simmer for 20 minutes. Chill overnight. The next day, form into patties and heat. Serve on dollar rolls with slices of pickles.


S. loves beans. LOVES beans. He likes nothing better than to spoon up kidney or black beans straight from the can. It would be great if he were the vegetarian half of my little dynamic duo, but no.  M. is the vegetarian, and it’s always a struggle to get him to eat even a few beans unless they’re heavily doctored.  And most of us are like him, I guess — no one else I know has ever preferred their canned beans straight!

I’ve heavily modified a Taste of Home recipe for Baked Taco so that it pleases both boys.  You can change it more to incorporate corn or chiles or red peppers or crushed tortilla chips or whatever your favorite Tex-Mex ingredient happens to be.

Baked Taco Casserole

Yield: 4 servings

1 lb. ground beef

1 envelope taco seasoning

1/2 cup salsa or taco sauce

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. Bisquick

Salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup chopped tomato

1/4 cup chopped green pepper

1/2 cup canned kidney or black beans

2 cups (8 oz.) shredded Cheddar

In a skillet, brown the ground beef; drain. Add the taco seasoning (or your own blend of oregano, paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, salt, cayenne, cumin, etc.) and cook until fragrant. Add a couple tablespoons of water and let it cook away. Remove from heat and stir in the taco sauce or salsa and the chopped onion. Spoon the meat into an oiled 8-by-8-inch pan. In a bowl, beat the eggs and milk with a fork. Add the Bisquick and salt and pepper; stir to combine. Pour the batter over the meat. Bake, uncovered, in an oven preheated to 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Spread the cheese over the top and sprinkle on the tomato, green pepper and beans. Let the cheese melt (return the pan to the oven if necessary) and serve hot. Top with sour cream and more salsa, if desired.

sugar-cookieDid you eat up all your cookies yet? We stirred up one more batch of sugar cookies earlier this week, a special family recipe passed down from my grandma and perfected by my aunt. I haven’t been back to my hometown at Christmas for many years, but one mention of these thick, moist cookies and I’m right there in Bowman, North Dakota, after the annual Dec. 24 meal of oyster stew and Brussels sprouts, searching for the cookie with my name on it. You don’t need to get that fancy when you’re decorating these — in fact, Aunt Gail says, store-bought icing works perfectly well — and you don’t need to make them only at Christmas.

Gail’s Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
Yield: About 5 dozen
1 cup shortening
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup sour cream
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Cream the shortening and sugar with a mixer. Add the vanilla and eggs and beat well. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients, then add them to the creamed mixture alternately with the sour cream, beating well after each addition. The dough will be soft and sticky. Roll out a third of the dough on a floured surface to a 1/4-inch thickness (or to taste — we prefer them quite thick) and cut with cookie cutters. Transfer to an ungreased, unlined cookie sheet. They can be decorated now with sugar sprinkles, if you like, or baked plain at 400 degrees for 8 minutes, until they’re done but not brown. Not even a tiny bit at the edges. Cool them on a wire rack and frost them with your choice of icing. They store well in the freezer, if you can get them there before they’re scarfed up!

If you’re heading downtown tomorrow (Nov. 27) for the Thanksgiving parade at 8:30 a.m., I’ll be there in spirit, but not in person — we’re celebrating this holiday, as usual, with my parents in Nebraska. Although the travel (15 hours’ drive time) is not much fun, once we get here it’s quite relaxing, particularly because I don’t have to do much cooking, and no meal planning.

It’s not that I don’t like to cook, or that I don’t enjoy it. I’m actually pretty good at Thanksgiving foods, especially the pies. That’s part of the problem — one summer, back before cooking demonstrations were cool, I spent a solid three months practicing pie crusts in order to win a statewide high school contest. My family was so, so, so tired of pie! However, my recipe, Sugarless Apple Pie with Whole Wheat Crust, and my demo finished in top 10, so I felt like the practice paid off, even if they didn’t — and they still don’t ask me to bring pies for anything!

But in case you’re looking for an easy, healthy pie (and I won’t say a word if you decide to use store-bought pie crusts!), this is a great recipe. You could whip it up after the parade and still have time left to watch some football on TV. Or you could whip it up while the parade is on TV — the broadcast on KMOV starts at 8 a.m. and ends around 11 a.m.

Sugarless Apple Pie
1 6-oz can apple juice concentrate
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. margarine or butter
1 tsp. cinnamon
Dash salt
5 large apples
Pastry for two-crust pie

Heat juice and cornstarch, whisking constantly until thickened. Add margarine, cinnamon and salt and remove from heat. Peel and slice apples and add to the pan of hot juice. Stir to coat all the apple slices. Pour into an unbaked pie shell and cover with the top crust. Bake at 350°F for 45 minutes. Makes one 9-inch pie.

This year I finally stuck with the resolution I make every Halloween: to save the pumpkin flesh from carving the eyes and nose and mouth and cook it up. It turned out to be way easier that I expected. For one thing, this year I used a power drill and an apple corer to make circles — it’s much faster than trying to form circles with a saw or knife — and the results were a lot of fun. I also found a recipe just right for someone like me, who always chooses apples or berries over pumpkins in a pie.

Pumpkin Pie Squares
1 cup flour
1/2 cup oatmeal, uncooked
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 16-oz. can pumpkin (or about 3 cups of flesh from about four jack-o-lanterns)
1 13-oz. can low-fat evaporated milk
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or 1 tsp. cinnamon and 1/2 tsp. nutmeg)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If you’re using jack-o-lantern flesh, make sure it’s all in pieces of about the same size. Toss them with olive oil and a bit of salt (trust me on this!) and bake them for half an hour or

45 minutes, until they’re tender when pierced with a fork. You can bake the crust at the same time: Combine the flour, oatmeal, brown sugar and butter until crumbly. Press the mixture into a 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake it at 350 for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mix all the remaining ingredients together. If you’re using jack-o-lantern flesh, puree the ingredients together in the blender for the smoothest texture; if you’re using canned pumpkin, whisking well should be sufficient. Pour the mixture over the crust and bake it for 35 minutes. Remove it from the oven carefully, because the custard will firm up as it cools. When it’s cooled to room temperature, cut it into squares. Refrigerate any leftovers.

The recipe is from the University of Missouri Extension, which teamed up with Parents as Teachers last spring to offer a very informative nutrition class. If you’re not taking advantage of either of those free resources for your young children yet, check out their homepages to learn how to get started.

Have I mentioned here before that M. has been a self-proclaimed vegetarian since age 3? He actually has disdained meat all his life, but we threw in the towel when he came home from preschool with the revelation that some of the kids and one of the teachers choose not to eat meat. He even had a word for them: vegetarians. That’s what I am! he proclaimed.

I’m fine with it most of the time, but we tend to grill several times a week in the summer — steaks or chicken or meaty kabobs or hamburgers — and he usually winds up supping on a few pieces of cheese from the pack that we’re using to top the burgers. But last year we came up with a menu that includes him and still manages to please the rest of us. And it keeps me out away from the oven and the stove, which can’t be overrated!

Grilled Cheese

Prepare your favorite bread and filling, then toss the sandwiches on a grill brushed with oil (you do have a silicone basting brush, right??? They’re indispensable for grilling!) to achieve golden-brown deliciousness. They cook fairly quickly on our gas grill, less than five minutes per side, so you’ll probably want to do the corn first.

Microwaved Corn on the Cob

My mom showed me this trick: Shuck the outer couple layers of husk from each ear, leaving the kernels protected by at least one husk on all sides. Cut off the top bit of silk just to the top of the cob; don’t worry about the rest. Put four large or six small ears in the microwave at a time and nuke them four minutes per ear for large or three minutes per ear for small. When the timer beeps they should be slightly soft to the touch. Let them cool briefly (or use your silicone gloves and work while they’re hot for best results) and shuck them the rest of the way; the silk should come off easily too. Salt or butter to taste.

Grilled Peaches

I can attest that this year’s peach crop is on farmstands and ready to go — we bought a peck last week in southern Illinois and enjoyed every drip of juicy goodness.  They’re superb on the grill: Cut each peach in half and grill it cut-side down for a couple of minutes, just until it’s starting to brown. Turn it over and fill the indent from the pit with brown sugar. When it melts, the peach is ready to be served.

Grilled Banana Split

If you’re looking for a more impressive dessert, try this recipe for Grilled Banana Splits from Midwest Living. It calls for fresh pineapple, and that’s important — canned won’t work as well. Buy one of those handy corers from Bed, Bath and Beyond ($9.99) and the kids will clamor over themselves to help you with it.  Grilled pineapple is extremely versatile — try it with whipped cream and shortcake too.

Frozen Red Grapes

Some say these should be a dessert, akin to sorbet, but I like to have them as an appetizer because they cool the kids down but don’t fill their tummies right before supper. About.com has instructions here; it omits the step of dipping them in powdered sugar if you’re serving them as a dessert.

So there you have it — and easy, kid-friendly, vegetarian meal with no stove time!

So we’re faced with another rainy weekend … I’m starting to wonder if swimsuit season will ever come. On the upside, the longer it delays, the less guilty I feel about indulging in sweet treats! And a rainy weekend is a very good time to whip some up. I’m a big believer in the classics like Rice Krispies treats, apple pie and meringue cookies, so I love it when we find new ways of presenting them that still taste just as good. In the past few months we’ve seen new twists on all three of them, as follows:

  • Rice Krispies Arches: Regular Rice Krispies bars are a sticky mess to scrape into a 9×13 pan, let alone mold into the shape of the Arch, but a few weeks ago M. was presented with an Arch so beautiful that we had to try to duplicate it. The trick is to make a ramped-up version with something thicker than marshmallows to hold it together; my choice is to add butterscotch chips, as follows:
    1 (10 oz.) pkg. marshmallows
    6 c. Rice Krispies
    1 (12 oz.) pkg. butterscotch chips
    1/4 c. butter

Melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Add marshmallows and butterscotch chips and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat. Stir in the Rice Krispies until evenly coated and then, working quickly, take a glob about the size of your hand and shape it into an Arch. It should stand upright (on the legs) as it cools. It can be decorated with frosting or drizzled chocolate.

  • Apple Pie Balls: These are made in individual muffin tins so there’s lots of crust on each piece to sop up ice cream — and the mess that sometimes accompanies the process of serving pies isn’t an issue. This recipe is a sugar-free one, to counterbalance the sugar bomb above!
    1 6-oz. can apple juice concentrate
    2 Tbsp. cornstarch
    1 Tbsp. butter
    1 tsp. cinnamon
    Dash salt
    5 large apples
    Pastry for 2 9-inch pie crusts, cut 12 into circles that will overhang the muffin cups

Heat the juice and cornstarch in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, whisking constantly until thickened. Add the butter, cinnamon and salt and remove from heat. Peel and coarsely chop the apples and add to the pan of hot juice. Stir to coat all the apples. Line individual muffin cups with pastry circles, letting the extra hang over the edges. Fill the cups, then crimp the edges tightly to seal. If desired for aesthetic purposes, flip the ball over so the seam is on the bottom. Cut a small vent in each (I like to do this in an A shape). Bake at 350°F for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

  • Meringue Bones and Ghosts: It can be daunting to whip up meringue, but once you’ve got the knack, it’s a great blank canvas for adding in tidbits (chocolate chips or crushed candy), for dipping into toppings and for making seasonal shapes. One of the best I’ve seen is bones and ghosts for Halloween, but there are endless possibilities, including flowers for Mother’s Day or simply plopping it onto parchment paper; even in blob form it manages to seem elegant. An extra plus is that meringue, once baked, keeps for weeks. And it has even fewer calories than the pie! For tips on making it, see this Fine Cooking article. For a kid-friendly explanation on making ghosts, see this blog.

Yesterday we started a new experiment that M. “read” about in a magazine: colored daisies. We filled six glasses with water and added food coloring to each of them to make all the colors of the rainbow, then we put white daisies into each one. In theory, the daisies are supposed to drink up and turn the same color as their water — and on one we split the stem so it’s drinking two colors, blue and yellow.

The catch is that it isn’t working yet, 24 hours later. We’re seeing a few veins on the underside of the petals turn red or orange or blue, but the rest of the petals are still stark white. So I think I’ll dump in a bunch more food coloring and see if that does the trick. (To do your own Crazy Daisy experiment, click here for directions.)

I wasn’t surprised M. leaped on this idea, because for the past few weeks we’ve been experimenting with colors in other ways too. The longest running of these experiments is the Smoothie Project, which entails making smoothies of every color of the rainbow and then some. We drink smoothies a couple of times a week, and it was easy to get pink and blue and yellow and orange and purple … but then we started going for colors like true red, brown, black and white. Those are challenging us in some very creative ways.

Our basic three-serving smoothie recipe is guaranteed not to fail: Take 8 ounces of yogurt (either with fruit or plain) and pour it into the blender. Add two ripe bananas (either peeled and frozen ahead of time or fresh). Let the kids run the blender a few times to get a nice thick goo — this step can go on and on in you’re working with a 22-month-old! — then add your choice of frozen fruit (about 2 cups), ice (about the same amount) and any other fresh fruit, should you so desire. Once all that’s in the blender, pour in your choice of 100% fruit juice to cover and let ‘er rip.

This basic ratio of fresh-frozen-liquid makes a satisfying smoothie. Note that there’s no added sugar — even using plain yogurt, the fruits more than compensate with sweetness — and that there are an infinite number of combinations. Green has been one of our favorites; I’d never have guessed that M. would be OK with my tossing in a couple big fresh spinach leaves in addition to kiwis, but I’d read that they get blended up completely, and guess what? It’s true! You’d never have guessed there was spinach in that smoothie.

It’s hard to go completely wrong, although we’ve made a couple false steps: Mandarin oranges, for example, just aren’t meant for smoothies, although plain old orange juice tastes fine. And we can’t find a way to get a black smoothie, even using blackberries, black currant juice, blueberries and blue food coloring. It’s that yogurt lightening it up. We’ve recently moved on to a quest for white, using white grape juice, apples, bananas, plain yogurt and ice.  Very yummy, if I do say so myself!