Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Baked Beans, Cousins and Robert DeNiro

I must say, I make good beans.

This has been the one dish I have made and perfected for my family for almost 20 years, long before I took a serious commitment to the kitchen.  I'm delighted to say my recipe has made it into one of the most requested and/or expected dishes to be served at all family events from May through September. The demand is almost close enough to the expectation for stuffed cabbage on Christmas to my aunt's French onion chip dip, which is expected at EVERY family event and national holiday.  Since my husband has been a welcome part of this family and a hungry fan of her dip, she now makes a double batch that seems to go just as quickly as before he was around.

I am honored that my fantastic younger cousins (16 to late 20s)  have said they have loved growing up knowing that my beans were going to be part of the family bbqs.  Food is so much more than taste.

I volunteered to take this position.  It was the first opportunity I had as a young, independent adult to create and contribute.

My mom's late cousin Linda used to make the beans for family functions when I was young, and when she was available.  Linda was quite a character in my family, though her beans did lack some.  I was six in 1977 when scenes for The Deer Hunter were being filmed in the Tremont neighborhood and the steel mills in Cleveland, Ohio.  Linda was a bar maid at one of the bars by the mills.  I'll never know if Linda worked at the bar that was in the film, but she did work in one in the area.

Linda.  Mom and Uncle's cousin they grew up with off Buckeye Rd, then off Chevy Blvd playing kick the can and going to Saturday matinees  She was someone Mom called 'street wise' when I was young.  She sometimes arrived on a loud, grumbling motorcycle with the tallest man I had ever seen.  His name was Kenny.  His faced looked like Jesus.  But, he wore a leather vest with a white t-shirt and had tattoos all over his arms of crosses with skulls and flames.  I was confused.  I was afraid of him, although he was always nice and friendly to me when he greeted me, then left me alone.

Nowadays, lots of our acquaintances and a number of our beloved friends look like that, including Hubby's best friend in our wedding party.

I remember the day when our brassy haired, brassy-living Linda was ecstatic.  All the adults gathered around and gasped as they gazed at some small picture she pulled from her wallet.  They then explained to my younger brother and me under their waists in simple terms that she met a movie star.

Years later I learned from Mom that she spent an afternoon drinking Rolling Rock beer with Robert DeNiro in his trailer while shooting the Deer Hunter.

Years later when we were young teens she spent more time with Mom, Brother and me, and it was so much fun.  Kenny fell off the radar somewhere between my ages of 6 and 10, I guess; and her newer boyfriend, "Butch," was ..... well ..... away for a few years .....

Linda was a grandparent, buddy and truant officer when she took my brother and me on a few adventures of our own.

She spoiled us on junk food even though Mom told her not to.  She took us to see Purple Rain when I was 13 and Brother was 11.  We thought she was cool.  Sarcastic. Funny. Tough. She frosted over a few stories of her past; not to sugar coat it, but to let us know in Teen Terms that her path was one both of us should not take, and she'd kick our ass if we did.

"DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO OR DID," said Linda about 1,000 times.

She passed in the late 90's from leukemia.  She was 47.

Surprisingly, her beans lacked the lust for life I thought she had, especially after knowing some savory stories.  She'd pour a few generic cans of " 'pork 'n beans' in tomato sauce" into a baking pan, added salt and pepper, and layered strips of raw bacon on the top, then baked until the bacon was slimy and greasy.

I think of Linda and her beans each time I make them.  I'll always remember her flavored life and spicy stories.  My beans have been created with some spice and sass both in her honor, and in my desire to make a dish my family will pass down.

Many have asked for this recipe, but until now, there hasn't been one.  I've just opened cans of beans until the pot was full, then I started playing with all kinds of flavors: A big squirt of mustard, stir, taste, add another dash of vinegar, stir, taste, until I started to be able to 'eyeball' how much was to go in.

As I make these for my lovely cousin's Sweet 16 party, I've finally measured and jotted down how I make this.

I can never make too much it seems.  Even though there seems to be a lot of leftovers after first helpings, my family usually grabs seconds or makes sure a spoonful goes into the take-home leftovers for work the next day.

If you like tangy beans with a nice balance of spice and sweetness be sure to give this one a try.

This recipe can easily be made as vegan or vegetarian.

It's not hard to make and most of the ingredients are probably already in your fridge.

Before you begin, a few notes:

Rule #1 - MUST be made a day or two ahead of time.

The beauty of this recipe is that you are welcome to customize it to suit your own taste.  A little more or a little less of anything I've included in this recipe won't be bad.  If you are making this for your first time, start with 1/2 of the seasoning I suggested, stir, let cook for at least 15 minutes (30 is better), taste, then gradually add the rest of the seasonings until it has the taste you enjoy.

But, be mindful the flavors will mellow and get more intense leaving it overnight.  You can always add the rest or more of the seasonings before you bake it the next day.

I have never had the need to add salt to this recipe, even when I've left out the bacon.  There is enough salt in the canned beans and other ingredients.

Cooking it low and slow is the key.  It must marry and have a honeymoon overnight in the refridgerator.  It's the only way to get the best flavor.

As you can see in the photo, a significant visual drop from where the sauce surfaced., the sauce will reduce and thicken during cooking and cooling and will repeat the next day.

Serves 20-25

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F


1/2 to 1 pound of sliced bacon (preferably thick cut, preferably lower sodium) *OMIT FOR VEGAN OPTION

1 cup of onions, diced
3 15 oz cans of black beans, drained
3 15 oz cans of pork and beans or baked beans in tomato sauce
2 cans pinto beans
* spicier option: 1/2 to 1 whole jalapeno seeded and finely diced 
** really hot and spicy option: throw a few of those jalapeno seeds in

1 Tablespoon garlic powder (NOT garlic salt!)
Another Cleveland Tradition
1 Tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon pepper
1 Tablespoon sweet paprika
1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup Cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons spicy brown mustard (my favorite is Cleveland's Satadium Mustard)
2 Tablespoons yellow mustard
2 teaspoons liquid smoke (not entirely necessary if you don't have it, but it does give a distinctive BBQ flavor)

1/3 cup of honey (or brown sugar, but I like honey the best for its taste and better nutritional value, plus, I use the honey my uncle has been making with his neighbor for over a decade)

One stove top pot
one baker, bean pot, cake pan, etc, aluminium.

Slice bacon into thin strips 

Add to stove pot, turn stove onto medium high (6-8).  Once bacon starts to sizzle, stir once every 30 seconds until some pieces start to appear done with slightly brown or crispy edges.

Turn stove down to low.

Add the raw onions.  I like that all of the onion flavor cooks slowly.  It goes right into the sauce instead of sauteing first.  Plus, I know the sauce isn't done yet if the onions aren't clear and tender.

Add beans and optional pepper or pepper seeds.

Add spices, stir.

Add liquids, stir. Turn to medium high (6 to 8)

(you can add these all at once or once at a time, I'm just trying to keep this first written recipe organized)

After the ingredients have cooked together at medium for about 15 minutes, until everything is warmed through, hot enough to taste, then add the honey
Stir and incorporate the honey into the rest of the sauce.   Turn up to high if necessary, until there are rapid bubbles in the sauce, but not boiling.  Then, turn down to low (lo to 2), until there is a very low, but steady stream of a few bubbles; a low but active simmer. 

Cook for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring occasionally (every 15 to 30 minutes), until onions are clear and very tender.  This is important, because the beans will settle at the bottom - even more important if you don't have a non-stick pan.

Let cool for at least 30 minutes before covering and resting them in the fridge for the night.  The beans can be transferred at this time to the baking container for the next day.  Or, you can leave it in the stove pot, then transfer to the baker before going into the oven.

The next day is Bake Time.  Even if you are doing these beans to take to a party, bake them before at home, unless you know you have enough time and oven space to watch it.  It needs to bake for a certain amount of time to thicken the sauce, as well as cooling it until warm.  It will be dense, so it should stay warm for a while.

Set in a covered baking pan or pot in a preheated 350 degree oven. 

***** These baking times below are just approximate, ovens and pans will vary. *****

Bake about 30 minutes in a covered (lid or foil) square or rectangle baking pan until it starts to bubble, stir gently, remove cover.
- OR - 
Bake about 45 to 60 minutes in a deeper covered baker, stirring once halfway.  Remove cover.

Reduce oven to 300 and bake for another 20, 30 or 40 minutes, depending on the shallowness of the dish and how thick and blackened you may want your beans.  

The more you bake it and stir it uncovered, the thicker the sauce will get, especially upon cooling.  

Enjoy, and thank you for reading.

As you can see, there's not much left for the lucky few who wants seconds or leftovers.

Different shapes, different colors, different textures in a tangy sauce that doesn't run into your hot dog or burger bun.  It's hefty enough to stand on its own.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I'm Cooking, but in Another Way ...

 I have hardly been in the kitchen at all this week.  I've been working outdoors like crazy painting our deck with weatherproof paint.

This project was started last year with my husband painting the floors with a very textured weather-proofing material called Restore.  It looks as if he's painting concrete.  It's supposed to have a seven year guarantee against water damage.  Ok, then, beats painting or weatherproofing every three years, right?  We decided to give it a go.  Our first BIG home improvement project since we moved in.

A few weekends, and a few hundred dollars later, my husband was hardly able to get the first coat on the floor completed before we ran out of material and the weather turned bad.  He bought more material, rolled it down, and it never set.  Instead, it began to melt and run through the cracks.  We had a cold, rainy Spring last year, and only a few weeks of  'nice' weather.  It was 90 degrees by early June, with over 80% humidity.  The label on the cans said it can not be spread if humidity is over 77%.

Ok, so we waited to finish this year, and I stepped up to the plate.  I saw how long it was with just one person doing it.  I never painted outdoors, or have done much work outdoors at all.  I'm still getting used to weeding.  However, I've helped paint 10 rooms in my life, including three here in our new home, and I ENJOYED it; so, how hard could it be to help?

I must say, I am really having a blast!  Hubby's finishing the floor, I'm putting two coats on the railings and privacy wall.  It's my fifth day of painting 10-12 hours.  I'm almost done with the second coat on the outside of the railings and must put first and second coat on the other side of the wall, then I'm done.  I may almost regret it, like finishing a good book - you're so excited about completing it, but when it's almost done, you had so much fun during the process, you hate to end it.  I love being outdoors all day with just one thing to focus on - paint.  My husband has suggested that I crank some tunes, as I love to do that when I'm cooking.

Nope.  I've been too engrossed with hearing the bird songs.  I've been elated at discovering the different sounds I hear throughout the day.  They have different songs at sunrise than they do at noon.  Have I not had an excuse to be outside daybreak to sunset the past 5 days, I may never have noticed.

Though some like redwood (and I do in some settings), we were never impressed with the color and the job the owners did before us.  It was uneven and peeling when we first moved in.  Plus, the floor of the deck got very hot with the darker color.  Most importantly, it just wasn't 'us.'

This granite color is definitely more 'us.'  We love that it's brighter and makes the deck look larger.  We love how darker gray shadows move along with the sun on our deck as if they were color coordinated.  And, last year when it was scorching hot, the part of the floor my husband did stayed much cooler under bare feet.

The kitchen has been closed since I've been Ace Painter.  With both of us working on it the past weekend, it was a great excuse to load up at our favorite all-you-can-eat Chinese/Japanese buffet and indulge in big breakfasts at our favorite local diner.  During this week, Hubby has been picking up burritos and pizzas for munching between brush strokes.

I do hope to get cooking again soon as well as highlight some of my favorite food festivals coming up - especially my favorite Greek Fest  this coming weekend.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Lotus Coffee Cookies and Biscoff Spread

These crispy little cookies are one of the small pleasures my husband and I have enjoyed on our scuba diving trips to Bonaire.  It's a tiny island part of the Dutch Caribbean, so of course there is a heavy Dutch influence in food, groceries and culture, and it's also very international, as over 60 countries are represented in permanent residency in a population of @ 17,000.

It's our favorite place on Earth for a number of reasons.  We love visiting part of his family who lives there and it has pristine, spectacular and easy diving.  We love that there are no traffic lights on the island (except for in front of the pizza place, and that's just for show).  Almost anywhere in the small town or on the coast you can grab a tasty coffee and you are guaranteed to get one of these next to your cup.

This tasty, crispy cookie is wonderful on its own or with a a quick dunk.  It's not too sweet but has a wonderful taste of cinnamon and you can taste the butter as it melts in your mouth.

On Crete, friends and I loved getting free small dishes of potato chips, pistachios or fruit along with a cocktail, or even just a soda.  On Cozumel, My husband, friends and I loved being served fresh salsa, pico de gallo or requested picante as soon as we were seated.  On Bonaire, we look forward to our coffee cookies.

We don't get to Bonaire as often as we'd like.  Fortunately we were there six months ago after a three year hiatus.  Having been there a few times, and not knowing when we can get there again, we managed to save four of them to take home.

Every tiny bit we nibbled on we imagined being in our favorite coffee bar watching the sun set of the salty turquoise water.

We were down to one (the one above), until my mom saved the day.

Mom lives near a wine and imported foods store.  She's smart - she goes on Saturday afternoons when they have free food and wine samples.

One afternoon they were showcasing Lotus Biscoff Spread as a tasty and nutritious alternative to peanut butter.

The representatives said that this was now the spread and cookie which is being served on Delta Airlines because they are nut-free.  The spread topped the oblong coffee cookies.  Mom said she wondered if these were the tiny treats we rave about upon our return.

I was elated when she told me about her discovery.  I asked if she could pick me up a package of the cookies.  I thought that if they weren't the same, it had to be close, and if not, when have I ever met a cookie I didn't like?  Mom said that I must try the spread, too, since she promised it was as good as the cookie.  Ok, Mom, twist my arm.

I saw her a few days ago, she presented me the sweet treasures and,,,, WOW!!!  The cookies taste the same as in Bonaire!

And, as for the Lotus Biscoff Spread - DOUBLE WOW!!!  It tastes exactly like the cinnamon-y, buttery, slightly sugary cookie.  It's almost like you are eating cookie dough, only much smoother, and much less fat, even less than peanut butter.  This spread is the perfect option for vegans or who have nut allergies.  It's also perfect for everyone else, too, in my opinion.

I can't wait to try these with some Nutella.  I'm guessing that a cookie with Biscoff and Nutella would send me over the edge, as Biscoff spread alone on the cookie or with my homemade strawberry jam has taken me to the cliff of "Can Anything be Better Mountain.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Homemade Low-Sugar Strawberry Jam Made with a Bread Machine

Spring is my favorite season; warm, bugless sunny days filled with the potent fragrance and color of early flowers like lilies and lilacs after a long, gray and cold winter.  And, BERRIES!  Lots of berries!

I look forward to berry season each year.  I use them on everything from cereal to salad, yogurt, muffins and now fresh jam!

I never, ever imagined that I'd make my own, especially because I saw how Grandma made jellies and jams.  It is a favored memory but it would be too much labor, time and volume for me.  The family would drive two hours to get to the country for the best pickings.  We gathered wild elderberries in buckets on the roadsides and visited the farmer stands for baskets full of berries, plumbs or grapes later in the summer.  Once and a while if we were lucky, and if Grandpa netted the cherry tree well in their back yard, and kept up his watch shooting enough BBs from his pellet gun into the air to scare the birds, we managed a jar or two of cherry jam.

Making jam or jelly with Mom at Grandma's was fun as a child, but it looked complicated.  There were so many large pots simmering on the stove, strainers, and huge metal cones with holes to mash berries and grapes into juice without all the seeds.  There were thermometers and times where my brother and I had to be quiet for a few minutes as Grandma and Mom behind her shoulder watched them closely.  There were also times where we had to leave the small kitchen quickly as Mom and Grandma poured hot fruit liquid into glass jars and pour hot wax to the top.  Then, sometimes there was some boiling of the jars if I remember correctly, or perhaps that's an overlapped memory of their vegetable canning.

Anyway, there was no way I was ever going to do all this, no matter they were the best jellies and jams I ever had.

Thank goodness for my very dear friend, Elaine.  She bought us an Oster Bread Maker for our wedding.  I had it on our registry because I couldn't wait to make homemade bread, pasta and pizza dough for my first time.  This machine is great for all of these.  It cuts down on time, the physical labor of kneading and mess.  Spreading your counter, floor and ceiling with flour is avoided with most of the recipes.

As you can see by the photos, I like to mark recipes I've tried with a blue postie.

I have tried eight from the Oster user manual  (the green tab is a quick measurement guide).

Surprisingly, there are recipes to make just a jar or two full of jam or marmalade.

I was so excited!  Could I actually make jam as good as Grandma, without making 2 dozen jars with all those contraptions?

Yes, I can!  The bread machine heats the ingredients up to just the right temperature for the right amount of time, so no watching the clock or thermometers.

Plus, this recipe is LOW SUGAR.  Most jam recipes call for double or triple the amount of sugar.  Pectin for low or no sugar recipes MUST be used.

And, don't skimp and use bottled lemon juice.  Most bottled lemon juice is diluted with water.  Only 100% fresh squeezed lemon juice will work with the pectin to make it gel.  You will only need one.

I've only made strawberry and blueberry jam, or a combo of both in the past three years.  Strawberries are my favorite, and our new home has a blueberry patch.  I love blueberries, too, and these two berries are easy to do since there are no large seeds to filter.

I plan on posting a blog entry when my blueberries are ready, and Elaine with her kind, beautiful daughter will help me pick them and make jam as we have done in the past.

For now, here's the recipe for the strawberry jam I just made.  Strawberries are super-cheap in my area now, so I'll be making more.

Copied and adapted from Oster Bread Maker's User Manual received in 2009.

Makes 2-3 cups

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon powdered low-sugar pectin
1.5 cups fresh strawberries, sliced or diced
(dice smaller if you want more jelly or @ three cups,  keep them in slices or larger chunks if you want a thicker jam with more strawberries, but approx. two cups.)
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients into bread pan
Select Basic setting

Press "Start/Stop" Allow to mix 5-6 minutes, scraping sides of the pan with rubber spatula.
Press "Start/Stop" to cancel
Select Bake setting
Press "Start/Stop"
When Unit signals and display reads "0:00," press "Start/Stop"

Using hot pads, remove bread pan
Pour jam into glass container(s)

Use old jam or jelly jars, or any smaller glass jar with a lid. 

Cover. Refrigerate to set  (at least overnight or 8 hours)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mom's Heavenly Cheesecake

This post is especially for Tresia, a reader from Namibia who saw the photo of my mom's cheesecake on Easter and asked for the recipe.

I thought I'd share it.  It needs to be shared.  Her cheesecakes are one of her many masterpieces.  Friends joked in the past that she should do catering.  It is just that good.  Mom bought me my own springform pan which I look forward to use.  I'm less experienced as a baker, but I look forward to this challenge someday, and will post step by step photos.  Until then, Mom was most happy to share, and flattered that readers from around the globe have taken interest.  She is most grateful and so am I.  Thanks for asking and we are happy to share.

You will need a 10 inch springform pan.

You will also need another larger oven-safe container to cradle the cheesecake pan during baking.  It needs to be deep enough to hold the pan while it is 1/3 to 1/2 submerged in a water bath to bake.  Large casserole bakers or pans work well.

Preheat oven to 300F

1 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup butter, softened at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar

Mix all ingredients together.  Push into bottom of pan and a little bit up on the sides. Bake for 10 minutes.  Set aside.

4  8oz packages of cream cheese, softened at room temperature
2  14 oz cans of sweetened condensed milk
6 large eggs or extra large eggs (7 medium, 8 small)
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
8 oz sour cream (I'm guessing yogurt may work if sour cream is not available)

Mix all together, then whip for 5 minutes.  It must be whipped at high speed for 5 minutes to incorporate air and fluffiness. 

Pour into crust mixture.  Cover springform pan and sides with foil and place in larger pan.  Add water in the larger pan 1/3 to 1/2 high from the springform pan's height.  Bake for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean with a slight jiggle in the middle. Ovens will vary, so keep an eye on it and check close to 60 minutes. Take out of the water bath pan.  Let cool for 30 minutes before toppings are added.  Don't turn off the oven.

1 1/2 cups sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Rasberry syrup or jam (optional)

Beat together while cheesecake is cooking, then spread over the top of the cheesecake that has been cooled for 30 minutes.

Place back in the oven directly on the rack (no water bath) for 5-7 minutes.

Let this cool for another 15-30 minutes, then chill at least an hour until serving.

If you want to make it even more decadent like Mom did, spread raspberry syrup or preserves on top, then add fresh raspberries.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dogs in Blankets (aka Pigs in Blankets)

Have you ever had one of those days where you just can't think of anything to make for dinner?

 I've had one of those days for almost a week now.  Sure, I can think of lots of things to make.  I have trusted and true standbys we both love, as well as a dozen cookbooks with more than a few dozen red Post-It tabs which scream to me,

"You REALLY wanted to make this, remember?  That's why it's marked in red!"

Sometimes, though I know these recipes calling are out to me - casseroles and soups just waiting to be discovered and introduced to others.  Cakes and muffins ask to finally be acknowledged.  Roasts and gratins wait patiently to get promoted from a red tag to blue, meaning I have completed the recipe.

Yet, I ignore them all.  The cooking side of my brain goes on vacation.  Sometimes for a few weeks, and sometimes a long weekend is all my cooking spirit needs to get recharged.  In the meantime, there's our favorite Mexican restaurants, a decent place for pizza, and quick, brainless meals like this.

I didn't plan on this tonight, nor have I made it before.  And, I can't remember any time I've ever had Pigs in a Blanket.  I call this Dogs in Blankets instead of pigs because there was no pork in the hot dogs.

And, I'm not promoting this as a healthy dish AT ALL.  Meals like this are hardly in our menu, especially when I cook at home.  My husband loves hot dogs, I've never been crazy about them.  I'll have one at a baseball game in the Summer, and/or grilled out at a friend's, then I'm good until the next year.  Even though my husband loves them, it doesn't mean I make them for him all the time.

Today was one of those special occasions.  It's been one of the first few warm and sunny days we've had, so I got one of his favorite grilling options - 100% beef hot dogs.  We planned to grill out but didn't due to a variety of factors - first is that the grill is allllll the way back in the garage behind a LOT of stuff.  And, since our deck is midway into weatherproofing, there was no need to drag it all the way out and not to be able to permanently place it where it should be.  Hubby doesn't get many full Saturdays off; so, I cancelled the grill plans and let him nap on and off in his "Strato-Cruiser," his name for his eggplant purple recliner, his favorite color.

So, I was left with hot dogs ready to go without much else except the spinach salad I already prepared.  Neither of us like boiled hot dogs.  I didn't have anything else thawed from the freezer.  As I gazed hopelessly into the fridge and wishing I didn't have to go back the store to pick up french bread pizzas, I saw the can of  Pilsbury Grands Biscuits I was saving to make a version of spinach pies.  I remembered seeing all kinds of creations with biscuit and crescent dough on Pinterest.  I remembered seeing 'mummies' at Halloween - hot dogs with biscuit mix rolled around and baked.  My husband loves hot dogs wrapped in pretzel dough, so thought an experiment with this may be fun and hopefully tasty.

I didn't bother trying to roll them like a mummy.  Hubby was between naps and overdue for something to eat.  So, this is what I did:

Preheat oven to 350 f
One package of 8 Grands Biscuits
One package of 8 of your favorite hot dogs or sausage

Optional: shredded cheese, jalapeno, diced onions

On the side: ketchup, mustard, relish

Line a medium to large cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil.

Release biscuits from can and GENTLY pull them to the length of the hot dog.  Gently widen it to look like an oval or bottom of a hot dog bun.

If you wish, sprinkle cheese, peppers and/or onions onto bottom.

Place dog or sausage in middle, pull sides up and pinch together.

Bake between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on your oven.  Mine took 18 until the golden brown color was visible.  Let stand for 5 minutes and enjoy.