Spaghetti sauce kicks off our salute to the hand-written recipe

I have a long-time habit of bHauying vintage cookbooks at estate sales and junk stores. I love the kitschy graphics on ’50s tomes and the impossibly complicated recipes from the 1970s when everyone was trying to be like Julia. The introductions are usually a hoot.

This is one of my favorites from “Creative Cooking” by  Nicholas Roosevelt in 1956: “With the lack of domestic help in the country more housewives are doing their own cooking and the focal point of the family is back in the kitchen – the warmest, savoriest and friendliest of rooms.”

They are also honest. The introduction to the Women’s Guild of St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va. collection is almost as long as the book’s title: “The Guild Cookbook: Containing 429 Famous Recipes…Old and Modern…of Prized American and Foreign Dishes” (1951). The ladies state that, “Since, for the most part, the Guild membership is composed of ladies descended from West Europeans, some of these recipes have served, not one, but several generations of people, who, while appreciative of good food, are at the same time careful and thrifty.”

And yep, true to their thrifty claim, there on page 48 is a recipe for Vienna Sausage Scalloped with Apples. Since I know you and I will never make this, let’s just say it is layers of sliced apples dotted with butter, sugar and cinnamon, topped with sliced Viennas.

As much joy as I get from the cookbooks themselves, It’s bonus time when I find hand-written recipes on brittle yellow paper tucked inside. I save these scraps of spidery writing, because this is an even more fascinating glimpse into the past.

Then, I decided that I needed to try these recipes. I mean, after all, someone thought they were good enough to copy down and save. So, occasionally, I will be including a hand-written treasure in this column.

I won’t say that I will replicate each recipe without a few enhancements. Today’s recipe for spaghetti sauce sounded so bland, I had to add salt, oregano, basil and garlic.

It was copied on stationery from The Hotel Eutaw in Orangeburg, SC. This grand old hotel was built in 1927 with an unusual source of funding – three community organizations, including the Orangeburg Rotary Club. The groups hoped the hotel would be a boon to downtown, and for years, it apparently served as a focal point for the social scene. It stood empty and neglected for years until it was purchased by a company with plans to renovate it into studio apartments and retail space.

But, way back when this anonymous woman was whiling away some time in her hotel room reading the November issue of Good Housekeeping, this recipe caught her eye:

4 lbs. ground beef

1/2 lb fat back

2 1/2 lbs onions

14 large green peppers

4 large cans tomatoes

2 lbs cheese

6 pkgs skinny spaghetti

1 large bunch celery

1 bottle hot sauce

Fry fatback. Fry beef in drippings. Add onions, hot sauce, celery and peppers. Add tomatoes. Simmer, covered for four hours.

Since I wasn’t cooking for an army, I made one-fourth of the recipe. And, to add even more flavor and a little depth, I pulsed four carrots in the food processor and added them to the mix. I also added six cloves of sliced garlic, and a tablespoon each of dried oregano and basil. The recipe doesn’t say what to do with the fried fatback, so I ate it.

The resulting sauce was chunky, thick and kind of institutional. My husband said it reminded him of the sauce at Howard Johnson’s way back in the 60s and 70s. It was really even better the next day, when I ate it out of a thermos without any pasta.

 

Mmm, a potato and olive stew beats the lunch rush

Look, I don’t know who invented the 30-minute lunch break, but I would be willing to bet they were not foodies.

Seriously, by the time I clock out, grab my purse, and rush out the door, three precious minutes have elapsed. A 30-minute lunch means fast food.

But I don’t mean sitting in the drive-through at the ubiquitous chain restaurant, or grabbing yet another bagel and schmear. I mean making lunch. In the heat of the summer, I’ll retreat to the cool break room, which has a fridge and microwave. But this fall and winter, I would rather see blue or grey skies and people-watch while I dine.

My friend Tammy recently asked if she was the only person who loved slipping into a toasty warm, sun-bathed car on a frigid day. Nope. I love to retreat to my car, push the seat all the way back on its tracks and nosh while watching shoppers scurry along on their errands. I can make calls or listen to tunes and sing along (something discouraged in the break room). Even on the coldest days, I can crack the windows and get some fresh air.

So I’ve become addicted to eating lunch in the car. You’ve got to be creative with this. Nothing too messy or complicated will do. Think about it. You don’t have a table to catch crumbs, and you’re working in a tight space with few flat surfaces. It’s hard to spread cheese on crackers. I tried and ended up with crumbs everywhere and unfortunate leftovers on the steering wheel. I know that sandwiches seem like the perfect solution, but unlike many, much more evolved people, I can’t eat the same thing every day. Two days – tops. Then I have to move on.

Salads also seem problematic to me. The other day at the car wash vacuum station, I sucked up several shriveled olives and some unidentified object that apparently had jumped out of my container. Ewww. Now I put my salads in a wrap and that seems to work pretty well.

I’m thinking about getting one of those squat thermoses and bringing homemade soup a couple of times a week. It will stay hot in the car and I can just open up the thermos, grab a roll that I’ve warmed in tin foil on the dashboard and get down to the important business of laughing at drivers’ bad parking skills and apparent disregard for pedestrian safety.

Here’s the first soup I’m going to try:

Potato Stew with Olives

1/4 pound cracked green olives (the firm, meaty kind, not the flimsy pimento-stuffed ones)

juice of one lemon

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced onion

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 1/2 pounds red-skin, new potatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces

1 tsp. sweet paprika

1/2 tsp. cracked black pepper

1/4 tsp. of cayenne pepper

1 cup water

1 14.5 -oz. can of diced tomatoes

At least three hours before making the soup, combine half of the lemon juice and olives and let sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally. Or you can make them a day ahead and after three hours, refrigerate them, covered.

Heat the oil in a large saucepot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté for three minutes, then add the garlic and sauté for two more minutes. Add the potatoes, paprika, pepper, cayenne and olives with their lemon juice. Stir to combine, then add the water, turn the heat up and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, lower the heat to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and continue simmering, uncovered another 10 minutes. Add the remaining lemon juice and salt to taste.

Grilled cheese – we need to talk.

Funny how something simple can became “a thing,” isn’t it?  Way back, in the winter of 2013 (does anyone remember that far back?) I was making my usual grilled cheese for lunch. I took one bite, and even though it had just the right amount of butter and gooey cheese, I just couldn’t eat any more. My brain just said, “NO.”

I know I risk sounding like Andy Rooney, but why do we even bother to call it a grilled cheese? Does anyone actually slap their sandwiches on a hot grill? No. We take the sensible route and brown that baby in as much butter as we can stand.  But where was I? Oh, yeah, this sudden dislike was quite a shock. Grilled cheese has long been the go-to menu around here, whether we are busy with work, projects or play. We could always whip up a grilled cheese, add a salad or soup and call it a meal – happily.

But on that cold winter day last year, I must have reached my life-long quota on grilled cheese. I tossed the rest of the sandwich and fretted about it  – for about a minute. But later that night when I told my husband about this strange, acute aversion, he surprised me with his vehement declaration that he, too, was sick of one of our favorite things.

It wasn’t like me made them the same way all the time, either. We would throw in a combination of any kind of cheese we had around the house,  and add tomatoes, or salsa, chutney, relishes or pepper jelly.  But, apparently, enough was enough.

So 2013 became the Year Without Grilled Cheese.  We broke up with our long-time companion. No goat cheese with pecans; no pimento cheese; no brie with raspberry jam was crammed between two slices of bread and quickly sautéed. And nope, we didn’t even miss them. We did finally realize the inherent usefulness of the sandwich – the reason we ate so many of them as children. They are one of the quickest ways to use up stale bread. Our Depression-era mothers never met a bread heel they didn’t love.

So, we made bread crumbs instead.

Now, with a freezer full of crumbs and a rested palate, we’re thinking about dipping our toe back in the water this week. I’ve got a little bit of really ripe Gruyere and some chewy sunflower bread. We’ll see.

What we’re really worried about is that this aversion syndrome will suddenly rear its head in relation to our other two long-time favorites – chicken wings and – gulp – pizza. If that happens, well, we’ll deal with it – and eat a little healthier, too.

For those of you who still think grilled cheese should be the official sandwich of your state, here’s a doozy to keep you warm this winter – with or without the tomato soup.

Inside-out Grilled Cheese

1 Tbsp. butter

1/4 cup of your favorite soft, flavored cream cheese

1 small apple, sliced thinly

4 slices bread

1 cup sharp cheddar, shredded

Melt the butter over medium heat in a non-stick pan big enough to hold both sandwiches. (If you cook one at a time, use a tablespoon of butter for each sandwich.)

Evenly spread the cream cheese on one slice of bread, top with apples and place the other slice of bread on top. Press down.

Sprinkle the cheese over the hot butter in the pan. Place the sandwiches on top and press down. Cook until the cheese starts to brown and crisp. Flip the sandwich with a spatula and briefly warm the other side. Serve cheese-side up.

Nutty meringues pack a sugar whallop

Ahh, ’tis the season to eat sugar – lots of sugar, in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

I think I have mentioned that I come from a long line of sweet tooth fanatics. We stuffed bags, tins and containers full of peanut butter balls, mint brownies, nutty scramble and sugar cookies every Christmas. And even when my sister and I moved away, we tried new recipes and brought them home for the holidays. Many of them became new traditions and we knew we had better not walk in the door without them, or at least the ingredients to make them.

These new favorites included my sister’s Puppy Chow (or White Trash, depending on where you’re from) and my mint chocolate meringue cookies. I stumbled upon the meringue recipe somewhere and since it had a catchy name – Forgotten Cookies – and looked quick and easy, I gave it a try. Beat an egg white, add some mint extract, a lot of sugar and chocolate chips and throw them in the oven, turn the heat off, and come back in a few hours. Like magic, you pull out a tray of crisp, melty, uber-sweet cookies that offer a welcome change from the butter-laden treats.

Last week, though, I decided to change things up when I spotted a large bag of pecan meal at a fancy, gourmet grocery. The label said the meal was a great for breading fried food, or adding to salad dressings. But my thoughts, of course, turned to sweets. Why not add this meal and some cinnamon to the meringue?

Yep. You never know when inspiration will strike you. I impatiently waited for the guy in front of me to buy $600 (600!) worth of wine and I took my prize home.

Five minutes later, I had meringue cookie batter ready to go. The result is a golden, sugary cookie that tastes like molasses and toasted pecans. It’s the perfect gift for anyone avoiding dairy or gluten. One or two will satisfy even your biggest sugar fiend.

Don’t try to bake these without wax or parchment paper. The bottoms will stick to the pan and you’ll pull up a hollow shell, leaving the insides of the cookie on the tray. Of course, a dab of whipped cream in that shell would taste pretty good…

You can easily make your own pecan meal by tossing a cup of pecans into the food processor and pulsing until you have a fine meal.

Pecan Meringue Cookies

1 large egg white, at room temperature

1 cup dark brown sugar

pinch of salt

1/8 tsp. cinnamon

pinch of nutmeg

1 cup pecan meal

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a cookie tray with parchment or wax paper.

Add the egg white to the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk until whites hold a stiff peak. Add the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg and blend thoroughly. The batter should turn shiny.  At low speed, add the pecan meal and stir just until blended. Drop the batter on the tray by the teaspoonful. You can fit about fifteen on the tray, because they don’t spread much. Bake 30 minutes, until the tops crackle. Remove from the oven and let sit 3-5 minutes. Then, using your fingers, gently peel the cookies from the paper. Cool completely on a rack and store in an airtight container.

A winter warmer with shrimp and spinach

All right. We all get a little harried once the calendar page flips over to December. Unrelenting work, chores and errands have to be wrapped around additional holiday preparation and events.

I had to step off the crazy train for a little while last week, when I realized that six of my meals in the past week had consisted of pizza – hot and fresh, or cold and congealed. Don’t judge, it’s easy and quick, and hey, tomato sauce and half a mushroom sliced really thin count as vegetables, right?

Wrong.

What I was craving was something toothsome, something layered with a mélange of tastes. And I got it, when I caught up with a friend over lunch at the stellar Garden Café in York, SC. A plate of shrimp, diced bacon and fresh spinach, sautéed and served over grit cakes almost made me cry.

That’s a wintery dish I can get behind. So, when we saw frozen shrimp from Pamlico Sound at the farmers market last weekend, it was a no-brainer dinner plan.

I made mine with pancetta, the non-smoked Italian bacon studded with black pepper. It puts out a lot less grease when sautéed, so you don’t have to drain the pan before you add the other ingredients. Most grocery store delis carry it now. Get the half pound you need for this recipe sliced into three thick slabs, then dice it yourself.

This dish comes together quickly when you purchase pre-made polenta (usually found in logs in the produce section). Just slice and sauté. I use garlic powder because this dish is cooked over relatively high heat, and fresh garlic will scorch quickly.

Once you’re full, get back to those presents – they aren’t going to wrap themselves.

Shrimp and Spinach Saute with Polenta

1/2 pound diced pancetta

4 oz. premade polenta, sliced into thin rounds

1/2 pound peeled shrimp

8 oz. fresh baby spinach

1/8 tsp garlic powder

juice of one lemon

Stir and brown pancetta over medium-high heat in a large pan. Remove to a dish. Pat polenta slices dry with a paper towel, then add to the pan and cook 3-5 minutes per side, until edges begin to brown. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Add the shrimp, spinach and garlic powder to the pan and stir continuously, scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pan. If the moisture from the spinach isn’t enough to help scrape up the browned bits, add a tablespoon of water or real sherry. Cook until shrimp are pink and spinach is wilted, 3-5 minutes. Add the pancetta back to the pan at the last minute to reheat it. Place polenta on serving plates. Stir the lemon juice into the shrimp mixture and pour the mixture over the polenta.

Blending times, ingredients, and traditions

A strange juxtaposition is happening in our house right now. The cool, mercury glass pumpkins I snagged this fall are nestled on the mantel next to the mini cypress Christmas trees we found this weekend. The holly berry soap and the pumpkin spice hand wash are jostling for space on the bathroom sink. And we just can’t bring ourselves to toss the adorable mini gourds and pumpkins. Yep, the dregs of Thanksgiving are infringing on the fast-approaching Yuletide.

That kind of blend, as with almost everything else around here, even translated to the kitchen this Thanksgiving, but instead of mixing the two holidays, I mixed a little Turkey Day tradition with the last hint of summer.

Perhaps I was inspired by my visiting in-laws from Daytona Beach, but when I was planning out the pie selection, I wanted to include a lemon chess pie. Specifically, a Meyer lemon chess pie. Of course, the original plan was to use fruit from our own tree. Alas, we kind of forgot to feed and water the poor thing much this summer, so no crop there.

I bought some Meyer lemons, but they are just so darn good, I found myself using them on everything from drinks to salads, and oops, by Thanksgiving Day, only one lonely lemon was left rolling around the vegetable crisper.

I give thanks for procrastination, because I had a full bottle of key lime juice left in the pantry. I had been promising to make my husband a key lime pie all summer, and, well, you know how it goes.

So, why not a key lime chess pie?

I added 1/4 cup of the juice to my lazy blender recipe I’ve been using for decades, and whoa! The velvety citrus punch cut through the heavier tastes of the other pies, which included chocolate chess, pumpkin and pecan. With its crunchy top layer that forms during baking, and silky firmness, this pie even got the attention of our family’s most rabid chocolate lover.

That’s the beauty of chess pie. With a base of eggs and sugar, and little flour, it can adapt to almost any creative cook. I’m still not sure why it’s called chess pie, because several different theories have been floating around for a couple of centuries. I think the most likely one is that because of their high sugar content, with no fresh fruit, these pies would keep for quite a while in colonial cooks’ pie safes, or pie chests, and were known as chest pies. And since the colonists didn’t care much about spelling, the name eventually morphed into chess pie.

Any way you spell it, chess pie remains a favorite around here. I’ve got half a bottle of pomegranate juice in the fridge. I’m going to try that next, maybe increasing the sugar a little to offset the tartness. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Until then, try this recipe, which really is even easier than pie:

Lemon Chess Blender Pie

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

6 Tbsp. butter, softened

1/4 cup key lime juice

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

2 Tbsp. flour

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend at medium-high speed for one minute. Stop and scrape down the sides with a spatula, then blend another minute. Pour into a 9-inch pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 250 degrees and bake another 45 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.