Weeknight Veggie Beef Soup

This is another one of those recipes you’ll never find in any self-respecting cookbook.  It uses canned broth and frozen veggies and plain old hamburger.  But it’s cheap; it’s hot; it tastes pretty darn good, and on cold winter Tuesday nights when you need to feed and warm a lot of people, it’s a great fix.  The measurements are all vague, and that’s on purpose; use what you’ve got, and it’ll be fine.  (As a kid, whenever I heard that “Stone Soup” story, I always thought of Mama’s veggie beef soup.)

I’ve added the “recipe” for making cornbread from a mix at the bottom just so you can see what you’ll need – this soup is best with freshly baked buttermilk cornbread.

Ingredients:

1 to 2 pounds of ground beef

a generous sprinkling of dried minced onion

1 large can of diced tomatoes

1 diced tomatoes can of water

1 medium-sized can of chicken broth (bigger than a Campbell’s soup can, not so much as a full carton)

3-4 beef bouillon cubes

1 can of diced, cooked potatoes, drained

1 bag of frozen vegetables (corn, peas, carrots, green beans – you can usually find these labelled as a soup mix – PLEASE NO CANNED VEG-ALL)

1 teaspoon dried thyme (or rosemary or marjoram if you have one of those instead, or any blend of any of these that you like)

Salt and pepper to taste (I like freshly cracked pepper, but it’s not necessary, and taste it before you salt it; that canned broth and bouillon will add a lot of salt already)

4 tablespoons of butter (half a stick)

2 tablespoons of cornstarch

At least an hour before you want to eat, brown ground beef with minced onion in a large, heavy pot.  Drain fat, return to the pot.  Add tomatoes, water, chicken broth, bouillon cubes, potatoes, frozen vegetables, thyme, salt and pepper.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Simmer vigorously for at least 45 minutes.  Melt butter in the microwave, stir in cornstarch until smooth.  Add to the soup and stir in thoroughly.  Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes longer.  Serve with cornbread, go to bed warm and full, sleep like a rock.

Cornbread (I use Martha White Buttermilk Cornmeal Mix, and this is the recipe on the bag)

1 large egg

1 & 1/3 cup of milk

1/4 cup of vegetable oil

2 cups of cornmeal mix

Heat oven to 450 degrees.  Spray an 8- or 9-inch cast iron skillet with cooking spray, put it in the oven to warm for about eight minutes.  Beat egg in a medium-sized bowl.  Add milk, oil, and cornmeal, beat until smooth.  Batter should pour easily; if it doesn’t, add a little more milk, just a splash.  Pour batter into skillet, bake 20-25 minutes.  Turn out on a plate and slice into wedges.  Some people butter and dip; I just crumble mine up unbuttered into my soup.

If you have any leftovers, this is also really good for breakfast the next morning buttered and toasted under the broiler.  Just slice each wedge open like you would to butter it, open it up, butter each piece, and put it under the broiler for about a minute until it browns.

Weeknight Christmas Ham

One of the good things about the retail godlings rushing us into the Christmas season early is the early appearance of Christmas hams in the grocery store dirt cheap.  Everybody thinks cooking ham is hard.  There’s a whole honey baked industry based on this myth.  But I absolutely positively swear to you, it’s not.  In fact, it’s so easy, I cook ham in the middle of the work week, serve it Southern classic with green beans and macaroni pie (baked mac & cheese for you foreign folk) for dinner, eat sandwiches on it the rest of the week, then make pea & ham soup on the weekend.  It’s so easy, this barely even counts as a recipe.  Now I know it’s possible to make this process complicated as hell.  The very first ham I ever baked, I used a Martha Stewart recipe that called for everything from sliced pineapple to Manischewitz.  It took all day long, and it looked beautiful – I could have easily put it on a fancy platter and set it on the table.  Ever tried to carve a ham on a fancy platter on the table?  This version isn’t nearly as pretty, but I promise you, it tastes every bit as good.

Ingredients:

1 bone-in, fully cooked ham, whatever size you want (you can use pre-spiral-sliced if you want, but it dries out really quickly; I have an electric knife and prefer to slice my own)

1 large Granny Smith apple (or two if you have a monster-sized ham)

12 whole cloves (buy one box and use it for the next ten years; they don’t seem to go bad)

Enough honey to drizzle over the whole ham, about three tablespoons (those little squirt bottles are easiest)

1 can of Coke (or 1 cup)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, move the oven racks down to the bottom two slots to create a big cavity.

Line a pan big enough to hold your ham with aluminum foil.  I use an old rectangular cake pan that I don’t use for anything else; cooking ham can ruin a pan if you’re not careful because of all the sticky stuff.  Unwrap your ham and remove any little plastic bits the packagers thought it prudent to stick on (there’s usually a weird little cap on the end of the bone).  Throw away any pre-packaged glazes that came with it – they’re sticky, messy, and taste revolting.

Put the ham on its side in the pan.  Halve your apple or apples and use the halves to prop up your ham in the pan – a little wobbling is okay, but you don’t want it rolling over on you as you take it in and out of the oven.  Stick your cloves into the outside rind of the ham, just randomly, but you don’t need more than 12, and using exactly 12 makes it a lot easier to know you’ve gotten them all out after the ham is cooked.  (Ask Lexx Christian sometime about the joy of biting into a cooked whole clove.)  Drizzle on the honey.  Pour the Coke over the whole thing.  Cover it up with more foil and seal it up around the edges of the pan by crumpling it – you’re not vacuum packing, just holding in as much steam as possible.

Put it in the oven and bake for 10 minutes per pound.  Take it out, let it cool until you can slice it without it disintegrating (about 15-20 minutes), take the cloves out, and have yummy Christmas dinner food on a Tuesday night.

And by the way, if you want the pretty presentation, that’s not really hard, either.  After you’ve propped your ham in the pan, take a sharp knife and make a series of cuts through the rind on the diagonal about an inch to two inches apart in one direction, then the other to create a diamond pattern.  Take canned pineapple slices and pin them to the ham with your cloves.  Pin a maraschino cherry at the center of each pineapple ring.  Drizzle with honey, bathe in Coke, and bake as above.  Just seriously, when you’re serving, watch out for those cloves.

The Chocolatest Cake I Ever Baked

cake

UPDATE:  For those who asked for a picture, I made another one of these over the holiday weekend as a birthday cake for my bestie and my niece.   I also made two batches of the frosting.  I put Batch #1 between the layers, then refrigerated the cake while I made Batch #2, then frosted the outside.  Then I chilled the whole cake in the fridge for about an hour.  Scruuumptious!

Full disclosure to start:  I got this recipe from Hershey’s website, hershey.com – they call it “Hershey’s ‘Especially Dark’ Chocolate Cake,” and it’s a perfectly coherent and usable recipe.  I’ve just added my usual goofiness in the hopes that it will make the actual execution easier for any kitten who decides to give it a try – learn from my pain, darlings, learn from my pain.

The Evil Genius and I were blessed this past weekend with a visit from two of my beloved aunts from out of town, Kathy from Florida and Neina from Maryland.  Magnolia that I am, I always put a cake on the cake dish when we have overnight company, but for them, I wanted to make something really spectacular.  I think this fit the bill nicely.  I wish I had taken a picture, but it didn’t hang around long enough.  It’s so chocolate, it’s almost black, and within 24 hours, it was gone, baby, gone.  The next time I make it, which will be soon, I’ll try to restrain myself and the EG long enough to take a snapshot.

This uses a very specific product – Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa.  Ordinarily I’m all for grabbing the type or brand of ingredient you like best, but not this time.  Unless there’s another brand of super duper ridiculously dark cocoa on the market I don’t know about, this will only work in these proportions with this particular variety of Hershey’s.   You don’t have to worry about being left with a bunch of cocoa; this uses most of the can, and you’re going to start craving another one of these cakes as soon as the first one is gone anyway.

One last note:  You’re gonna want a mixer for this.  Mine is a good hand mixer, and it worked just fine.  (Trust me, prairie princess; you don’t want to stir this by hand.)

Cake ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour

3/4 cup Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk (I used 2%, and it worked just fine)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup of boiling water

Frosting Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter or margarine (1 stick)

2/3 cup Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa

3 cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup milk (again, I used 2% and noticed no ill effects)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions for cake:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put water on to boil.  Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. (I used a spray with flour in it because I’m lazy and uncoordinated.)

With a wooden spoon, stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer for two minutes.  (Having made a lot of scratch cakes, I was amazed that you could just dump everything in like you would with a cake mix, but you totally can – get your dry ingredients well incorporated with one another first, then just throw everything else in the bowl and use the mixer.)  Use your wooden spoon to stir in a cup of boiling water.  The original recipe reads that the batter will be thin; I found it a little thinner than a pound cake batter, but not really thin – again, much like a cake mix.  Pour half the batter in each pan.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.  (With my oven, it took exactly 30 minutes.)  Cool ten minutes in pans, remove from pans to wire racks, cool completely.

Directions for frosting:

Melt butter.  Stir in cocoa – I used the mixer on its lowest speed.  Notice that it looks remarkably like clumps of damp potting soil – don’t worry; it’s supposed to.  Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating to spreading consistency – with each addition of sugar, start on low speed so you don’t powder your kitchen cabinets, then turn it up to high speed to get the sugar incorporated.  You’ll think there’s no way in East Hell you’re going to get that much sugar mixed into that tiny little bit of milk and chocolate sludge, but trust me, you will.  Just keep beating.  You can add a few more drops of milk if you absolutely must to get the right consistency, but you’ll be happier if you don’t because the texture is just gorgeous and a dream to spread.  Beat in vanilla.  This makes about two cups of frosting, which I found to be plenty to frost a layer cake.

My sister says this cake reminds her a lot of Chocolate Lovin’ Spoon Cake at McAllister’s Deli, and that is a glowing recommendation.  (Though we agreed to really get that, we’d have to double the frosting recipe and put a really thick layer of frosting between the cake layers.)  The cake is a bit denser than the usual layer cake, not as delicate, but VERY moist, and it makes beautiful slices.  My desserts usually taste divine but look ridiculous; this looked gorgeous.  Very definitely worth the effort.

cake cut

Beef Stroganoff

I usually make beef stroganoff in the slow cooker; there’s an excellent recipe on the back of the box of Lipton’s beefy onion soup mix.  But last night I really wanted this dish, and it was already after six.  So I did some research and came up with this quicker version.  And honestly, I think I might like it better; the flavor of the sour cream is more distinct, and the sauce has more body to it.  My chuck steak was the extra thin kind used in fajitas, and it worked well, but the ordinary stuff would work just as well, I think.

Ingredients:

2 pounds of chuck steak, partially frozen

2 tablespoons of butter

about a pint of fresh button mushrooms (the smaller container from the produce section)

1 large can of diced tomatoes

1 cup of sour cream

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 envelope of beefy onion soup mix

1 teaspoon of dried thyme

salt & pepper to taste

One bag of large egg noodles, cooked  & drained by package directions

Slice the chuck steak and the mushrooms into thin, bite-sized pieces.  Melt one tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over high heat.  Saute half the steak in the melted butter until done; remove from pan.  Add the other tablespoon of butter.  Saute the rest of the steak and the mushrooms.  Return the first half of the steak to the pan; add the can of tomatoes and 1/2 can of water.  Reduce heat to medium high.  In a separate bowl, combine sour cream, flour, and soup mix.  Add to meat, mushroom & tomato mixture, stir in completely.  Add thyme; salt and pepper to taste.  Reduce heat to low; simmer while you cook your noodles.  Serve over noodles.  Makes 4 generous servings.

Mama’s Layered Salad

Most of the recipes I post here on the blogness are things I cook all the time, that I love to eat, that are fairly quick and easy to make.  This one is none of those things.  I only cook it under dire duress; I loathe the very smell of the stuff; and the batch I just made took two solid hours to complete.  But it was my darling mama’s specialty.  She was famous in our huge extended family for it; she made it for every occasion; and there are people in the family, including my father, who absolutely adore it.  I have cousins who would follow her from the car to the potluck table at family reunions just to be assured of getting a serving.  Don’t ask me why; them that likes it loves it and them that doesn’t (like me and both my sisters) will never understand.

The first time I made it was the day of my grandfather’s funeral.  Mama wasn’t able to tackle a two hour salad project by then, and I knew people would want it with the sacred ham that magically appears at every Southern wake.  So after a long consult with Mama on the phone, I gathered the ingredients and spent the whole morning before the funeral making my first Layered Salad.  I think it lasted on my grandmother’s table for about ten minutes.

Since then, Mama has passed away, and I have become the sole source (neither of my sisters nor none of my cousins is dumb enough to make it the first time and prove they can).  And as much as I hate the stuff and as much as I hate making it, like most magnolias, ornery or not, I love my daddy very much.  And I know carrying that big ol’ casserole dish full of cheesy/greeney/Duke’s mayonaisse-y goodness into reunions comforts him.  So at least once a year, I break down and make it.  And at least one person at every gathering follows him to the table and stands over it with a fork until the blessing is said to get the first bite.

So be warned.  If this recipe intrigues you and you try it, most of your nearest and dearest will probably flee in horror.  But at least one will bug you the rest of your life to make it again and again.

Ingredients:

1 head of lettuce

1 large white onion, chopped

1 large bell pepper, chopped

1 can of LeSeur baby peas

4-5 boiled eggs, diced

1 pound of bacon, cooked and crumbled

1 medium-sized jar of Duke’s mayonnaise

1/3 cup of sugar

1/2 pound medium cheddar cheese, grated finely

This is how I put it together because I’m a crazy person.  There are many shortcuts you could take along the way, but this is how Mama did it, so I do it this way, too.  A note about layers – I’m sure Martha Stewart could make this in layers so perfectly neat and uniform that if you looked at the clear side of the dish, you could count each one.  I’m sure the picture in whatever magazine Mama first found this ungodly dish looked just like that.  Mine does not, and unless you want me to smack you, don’t tell me yours does, either.

Put the bacon in the oven in a shallow baking pan (spray it with cooking spray first and save yourself some heartache) and bake it at 400 degrees until it’s very crispy but not burned.  While that’s cooking, boil the eggs and start chopping vegetables.  I cut up the lettuce much smaller than I would for a regular tossed salad; a small julienne, almost a shred; line the bottom of a large rectangular casserole dish with the lettuce.  The onion and bell pepper also need a small dice; when they’re diced, you can mix them together; they occupy a “layer” together.  Sprinkle them as evenly as possible over the lettuce.

Now brace yourself; here’s where the smell factor starts to kick in.  Drain your can of peas and spread them over the salad.  Nope, not kidding.  Every time I make this, I always make a little separate bowl with no peas for my brother-in-law who loves everything else about it but hates peas.  Everybody else who likes it say the peas are key.  I leave you to judge for yourself.

Dice the eggs, also finely, and sprinkle them over the salad, again as evenly as possible.  Crumble the bacon over the eggs.

Here comes the tricky part – and the part that will make anyone not familiar with the unholy methodology of Southern cuisine shriek in horror.  (Just remember, we call anything with mayo a salad, whether it cures you or kills you.)  Dump the entire jar of Duke’s in a bowl.  Add the sugar.  Stir together until the sugar is mostly dissolved and the resulting slop is a soft yellow color.  Call this dressing with as little irony as you can manage.  Frost the top of your salad with it.  Spread it all over it, corner to corner.  It takes some work, and it won’t be pretty, but you can do it.  You’re basically using the dressing to seal the top.

Grate cheese over the top, covering completely so none of the dressing shows.  You could certainly use pre-grated cheese, but it won’t have the same texture – as soon as cheese is grated, it starts to dry out.  Do it fresh, and your salad will hold together in a way that warms the heart of those who love it and defies all laws of physics.

Chill overnight if you can, though I’ve grated cheese in my slip and hot rollers many times five minutes before walking out the door.

If anybody tries this out, please let me know – I want to know how it comes out.

Something easy to cook for dinner this week – Mama’s Chili

In my continuing effort to prove that I love to eat about as much as I love to write, here’s my family recipe for chili.  I won’t ever be entering this in any Texas cook-offs; I’m sure “authentic” chili cooks will read it and faint with horror.  But it’s hot; it tastes good; it’s filling; and it’s damned easy to make, particularly on cold December nights when you’ve got way too much else to do.  You can put this together, walk away, wrap presents, have a bowl when you’re ready and leave the rest simmering for the rest of the household to grab whenever they show up.  One batch will feed at least six people.  It also keeps very well in the refrigerator and makes a great lunch the next day.

My version is adapted from my mom’s version which she adapted from her dad’s version.  (His was legendary and involved little cut-up hot dogs – we’re not talking haute cuisine here.)  My sister, Sarah, and her husband, Derek, have refined their own version that is much more sophisticated; if they invite you over to eat, by all means, go.  Just don’t look for any beans.

Ingredients:

2 pounds ground beef

2 tablespoons dried minced onion

3 cans light red kidney beans, neither drained nor rinsed (12 ounces, maybe? the ‘normal’ sized cans, not the great big ones)

4 cans tomato sauce (8 ounces, I think – the small cans)

4 tomato sauce cans water

1 generous teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cumin (if you have it – don’t buy it special for this; it tastes fine without it)

1 tablespoon mustard (like you’d put on a hot dog, not dried)

3 drops Texas Pete hot sauce (do buy this special – other hot sauce might work; I just don’t know how to measure it)

Sour cream, saltine crackers, pepper jack or sharp chedder cheese, all optional condiments

Start at least an hour before you plan to eat.  Brown the ground beef with the minced onion in a large, heavy pot, drain the fat, return to pot.  Add beans, tomato sauce, water, chili powder, cumin, mustard, and Texas Pete, stir until well combined.  Bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally.

My favorite way to eat this is to cut pepper jack cheese in 1/2 inch cubes, put a handful in the bottom of a deep bowl, cover with chili, garnish with a dollop of sour cream.  Some of my family just add crushed saltine crackers.  My husband, who had never had chili before he married me, likes both cheese and crackers.

Turkey & Rice Casserole

Ah, the glorious traditions of the holidays . . . . friends, family, food, fun . . . f*cking off from writing the blog.  I’ve had a lovely time over the past week being a domestic goddess, but I’ve missed being a writer girl.  I’m trying to get back into actually writing fiction at the moment just so my brain doesn’t explode and I don’t start talking to the furniture, but I thought I could at least pop in here and share a recipe.  I made this last night with the final succulent remains of our Thanksgiving turkey, and it was quite yummy.  And it made great leftovers for lunch today, too – two minutes in the microwave.

Turkey & Rice Casserole

Leftover turkey, white and dark meat, cut into small bite-sized pieces – at least 1 cup

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

1 can of chicken broth

1 can of dry white rice

1.5 to 2 cans of water

1 tablespoon of poultry seasoning

2 tablespoons of dried minced onion

Salt and pepper to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons of butter

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray an oblong casserole dish with cooking spray or grease with butter.

Whisk together the cream of mushroom soup, the chicken broth, and 1 can of water with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and dried minced onion in a large saucepan.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Stir in the rice and reduce heat to medium low.  Simmer, stirring often, until rice is translucent and beginning to soften – about twenty minutes – adding extra water as needed.  Remove from heat, stir in turkey.

Spread rice and turkey mixture in casserole dish, spread butter in small dabs over the top.  Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes.  Remove foil and bake for 15 minutes more or until casserole starts to brown at the edges and rice looks fluffy.

Makes 4-6 generous entrée servings.

The more turkey you have, the better this is.  Also, you can sprinkle stuffing mix (just the seasoned bread crumbs, not instant stuffing) over the rice and under the butter if you like a crunchy topping.   By the way, this also works with chicken, including those rotisserie fowl you can get at the grocery store.  But personally,  I like turkey best.