Christmas recap

Hello there, internet! I hope everybody had a splendid weekend. It was a good Christmas around here. I got to spend lots of time with family and bake a lavish, three-layered dessert, which is pretty much all I ever want in a holiday.


(Neapolitan cheesecake–perfect when you need a birthday cake for somebody important in your life. Or a major religious figure.) I also made numerous sugar cookies, in case Santa stopped by.


(You spend ONE day in a gross sweatshirt that’s older than you are and the paparazzi come out of the woodwork.)

Thanks to a couple days of food-centric, sugar-y celebrating, by the time yesterday rolled around all I wanted to eat was grains and veggies. So, on that note, here’s a very approximate sort-of recipe for my post-Christmas “detox” dinner.


I roasted about a pound of Brussels sprouts and half of a diced red onion at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, while cooking 1/2 cup of millet (which made about 2 cups cooked). I use the directions in this post whenever I cook millet. I mixed the roasted veggies and cooked millet with approximately 1/2 cup each chopped fresh cranberries and chopped almonds. Then I whisked up a maple-y vinaigrette, drizzled most of it over the millet, and saved a bit for future salads. Here are the measurements:

  • 1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • S&P to taste
  • 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil

Because this post is already completely disjointed and nonsensical, can I just share one piece of exciting, food-related news before signing off? Yes? Thank you for humoring me.

Thanks to the recent gift-giving holiday, we now have a JUICER in the house! I’ve been intrigued by the idea of veggie juice ever since I got my hands on Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Diet, and now that I’ve tried it for myself, I’m telling you–this stuff is amazing.



It tastes so pure and fresh and healthy that there has been a serious upsurge in singing at the table around here. Given enough vegetable juice, I am confident I could run the world (or at least maybe mount a last-minute write-in campaign and win the Iowa caucus, just for fun)! So far I’ve been doing a combo of cucumber, celery, romaine, broccoli stems, and pear. If any of you happen to be juicing aficionados and have combos to suggest, please let me know!

With that, I will sign off for 2011 and wish you all a very happy New Year. I hope it’s full of fun and champagne cupcakes!


Our liberties we prize, and our tots we will maintain

Last week, The Atlantic published an article that set out to tell the rest of the country what we Iowans are really like, so everybody would know what kind of people will be setting the tone for the GOP nomination race at the first-in-the-nation caucus. The article does not put us in the most flattering light, and it did not go over well here, to say the least. I think it’s safe to say the author, Stephen Bloom (a University of Iowa professor who is currently visiting at the University of Michigan) will never be honored as grand marshal of the Iowa State Fair parade.

I read the article, of course, to see what everybody was so upset about, and my reaction was as follows: “Meh.” (Picture me shrugging my “hardy” Midwestern shoulders as you read that.) Sure, it’s full of generalizations. Sure, it sort of makes it look like all we do here is hunt, fish, praise the Lord, and cook meth. (I only do one or two of those things on an occasional basis, I’ll let you guess which ones. Hint: not the meth.) But I think most people who’ve spent any significant amount of time here know that Iowa can be a great place to live. And if the few that don’t see that want to persist in believing that we’re all a bunch of closed-minded country bumpkins, well….I guess I’m not particularly concerned.


I must comment further on the food-related portion of the article, though. Professor Bloom writes about food in Iowa: “Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals.”

Well, I’ve never heard of people bringing food to a wedding, potluck-style, but funerals, absolutely. My mom used to get calls quite frequently, as a member of the St. Joseph’s Ladies’ Guild, to bring a “salad” to the parish center for a funeral dinner, and she usually made what we referred to as “cherry fluff.” Cherry fluff includes:

  • 1 tub of Cool Whip
  • 1 can crushed pineapple
  • 1 can Eagle Brand milk
  • 1 can cherry pie filling

Then you freeze it, and put it in a tupperware or glass dish that has your name on it, so nobody on the clean-up crew cabbages onto it after the funeral dinner. Mom also told me she would occasionally add “some sort of nutmeats” for texture. I told her the word “nutmeats” makes me uncomfortable.

And yes, Iowans do tend to enjoy tater-tot casserole. I hadn’t had it for years, because it’s usually a ground-beef-laden dish, but when I read the article I suddenly had a serious tot craving. So I made a few tweaks to the standard recipe–meatless “meat” and a homemade cheese sauce instead of canned cream-of-mushroom soup–and ended up with something traditional enough for a square dance down by the river in Keokuk, yet upscale enough to entertain insurance clients in Des Moines.


I’m not usually into fake meat products, because I don’t miss eating meat. But I wanted this casserole to have the texture of the real thing, so I used this stuff:


I don’t think I would want to eat it on its own, but it worked perfectly mixed with the veggies and sauce. The sauce starts with a roux (which is not hard, it just sounds hard because it’s French), and gets a little bit of a kick from some pepper jack cheese.



You should know that this casserole received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from my dad, barbecue master and staunch carnivore! I’m always very proud when I can achieve that with a veggie recipe. I’ll type out the particulars below, and then get back to cleaning my turkey-huntin’ rifle. Until next time, fair friends!


Vegetarian Tater-tot Casserole

  • 1 16-oz. bag frozen mixed vegetables, defrosted
  • 12 oz. meatless “ground beef”
  • 4 oz. grated pepper jack cheese
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 c. milk (I used 1%)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • about 1/4 tsp Kitchen Bouquet*
  • about 1/2 of a 32-oz. bag frozen tater-tots

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9×13 baking dish. Prepare the “meat” as directed on the package–it may need to be browned for a few minutes in a skillet, or it may be fine to just crumble it up. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Then add the flour, and stir to combine. This is the “roux”–cook it for a minute or so, stirring constantly. Then add the milk and salt, and whisk until there are no lumps. Continue whisking (or stirring) until the mixture bubbles just slightly and thickens. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add about half of the grated cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted. In a large mixing bowl, combine the frozen veggies, the fake ground beef, and the cheese sauce. Pour this mixture into the baking dish and spread it into an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top. Then line up the tots on top of the vegetable mixture, and bake for 30-35 minutes (until the whole casserole is bubbling and the tots are crispy).

*Kitchen Bouquet is a seasoning/browning sauce used to add flavor and color to gravies, sauces, etc. Totally optional.


I’ve had a lot of pretty great ladies to look up to in my life. One of them was my Grandma Mary Frances.


Isn’t that picture amazing? I want to be that picture when I grow up. Mary Frances died when I was in college, but she was far too fantastic to ever forget. She excelled at sending cards for every holiday, making me laugh, teaching catechism, and grandmother-ing in general. She had real style, too–when she was older she wore diabetic shoes, but she found a catalog where she could special order them in all the metallic shades a gal could ever need. I miss her a lot.


I especially missed her when I found this recipe in St. Joseph’s Cookin’ (a publication of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Jefferson, IA, which is where we went when I was growing up). Take a moment to just read this over, if you please, and you will understand my confusion.


I read a lot of recipes, friends. Usually they make sense to me. But this one left me with a LOT of questions. Such as:

  • Stir for 45 minutes? Really?
  • What if I stir to the left instead? With a metal spoon? Would that render the finished product inedible?
  • Aren’t there a few food safety issues with leaving raw, egg-y cookie dough out on the counter overnight?
  • Does “bake (for Christmas) in late November” mean that you’re supposed to let these cookies sit for nearly a month before you eat them? Or does it mean that you’re supposed to just eat them in late November to get in the holiday spirit?

These are things I can’t ask her, so I set out to figure it out myself.


I followed all of Mary Frances’ instructions. Except I did not stir for 45 minutes, because that’s crazy talk. I stirred for 4-5 minutes (i.e. 4 minutes and 30 seconds) instead, hoping that the church cookbook compilation people had just made a typo. I baked off an experimental pan of the cookies right away, but those were clearly all wrong. So, I let the rest of them sit overnight. To hell with food safety–this was a serious investigation!


I baked the remaining pans the next morning, and……CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!


My dad (one of the world’s few remaining experts on the cooking of Mary Frances Lane) proclaimed they were right on the money. And, I think you really are supposed to let them sit for up to a month, because he also said they got more and more like hers as the week went by. They’re a very odd cookie–chewy on the bottom, with an eggshell-like top that cracks when you tap on it. They’re also a love-it-or-hate-it sort of deal, due to the anise, which tastes a bit like black licorice. I don’t like black licorice, so they’re not really my cup of tea, but it was well worth the time and ingredients to feel like I was communing with my grandma. And that’s why I love baking.

Final note: if you happen to try the recipe, be advised that the cookie sheets need to be well-greased. Anything less and you, like me, might find yourself struggling to scrape the cookies off the sheet, using language your grandma would not approve of.

Have a great week, everybody :)