slow food

For years I had been unwilling to attempt sourdough baking because I was put off by the idea of throwing away perfectly good ingredients just to maintain the sourdough starter. But a while ago, I’d read about making a smaller batch of starter. That was a revelation.

And now that we can go through a half a loaf of bread in one meal – thanks to my sons’ growing appetites – it was time to “up” my bread-baking game. With kids who seem to be hungry about an hour after a meal, it’s good to have plenty of bread on hand. So after I read a post last fall that made sourdough baking seem more approachable, I made my first batch of sourdough starter. I used just a quarter cup each of whole wheat flour and water per day for five days – no discarding was needed. With that starter, I make everyday sourdough a couple times per week and lots of sourdough crackers (half a batch at a time).

The bread is “top tier” in taste (to borrow a term from my teen), though it would not win any beauty contest. A lot of my loaves turn out sort of lop-sided, as the one shown. The crackers are tasty too, and have been known to disappear in one sitting, with or without hummus. I like that we can control the salt content.

Some days a spare moment is hard to come by, now that pandemic concerns have dissipated and we’re living life at top speed again, but I am making a point to hold on to slow food practices such as baking bread. Both the process and the results are worth it.

the best banana bread (vegan)

I didn’t grow up making banana bread. I think Grandma may have made some for us occasionally, but the quick bread of choice in my home was zucchini bread. We made it only in the summer, mostly with zucchini that were so big you had to peel the tough dark skin off and scoop out the huge seeds before grating the flesh. The dense, moist zucchini bread that resulted was the best way to get kids to eat a second serving of zucchini.  I’ve hung on to that tried-and-true recipe, but only pull out the recipe in the summer, when the home-grown zucchini are abundant.

I’d never made much banana bread until I had kids of my own. I’ve learned a few things through trial and error. The most important is that when given a range of banana to use in the recipe (say 2 to 3 bananas), always choose the larger number. The higher the proportion of banana, the more intense banana flavor your banana bread will have. It’ll be moister too. I have found that I prefer baking quick breads in small pans, and that a recipe for one standard loaf fits into the two smaller bread pans I have, yielding little loaves with nice domed tops. They bake quicker. They tend to disappear quicker too.

A few months back, a friend from Taiwan asked for a baking lesson. She wanted to learn to make banana bread, vegan if possible. That was when I discovered that the trusty ground flax seed substitute for an egg worked very well in this banana bread. Just replace the egg with one tablespoon ground flax seed plus three tablespoons of water.


Here’s my version of banana bread, adapted slightly from Simply Recipes.


3 very ripe bananas, mashed

1/3 cup canola oil

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground flax seed

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix mashed bananas with oil, brown sugar, flax seed, water, and vanilla. Stir until well blended. Mix dry ingredients thoroughly in a separate bowl. Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the banana mixture.

Grease two small pans (5 3/5 x 3 x 2 1/8 inches) and divide the batter equally between them. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for about 5 minutes in the pans, on a wire rack. Then remove from pans and cool completely.

Note: If you don’t need or want it vegan, simply omit the ground flax seed and water and use one large egg instead.

pasta for a crowd

When conference time rolls around and the PTO is looking for volunteers to help provide meals for the teachers on their longest days, I tend to be among the first to sign up. I like cooking for others. And when I do, thoughts of Grandma often come to mind. Grandma was from an era when home cooking was the only way, and she had so many years of experience to her credit. I can’t claim to even be in her league, but I do find myself with a similar urge to share home-cooked food with others.

When my oldest started school, I  bought a 6-quart slow cooker to hold big batches, and I am often looking for new ideas for how to fill it. This year I compared several slow cooker pasta recipes and came with a simple version that uses fairly common ingredients. The recipe is too big to make for just my family, but it’s great for a potluck or similar event. Judging by the few remaining bits on the bottom of our slow cooker, it was a big hit with the teachers last week.

Slow Cooker Ravioli

2 packages frozen cheese ravioli (25 oz each)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion diced

28 oz crushed tomatoes

8 oz tomato sauce

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

salt and pepper to taste

freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Saute onion in olive oil till translucent. Add cooked onion to a large mixing bowl with crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, garlic, spices, salt, and pepper. Mix well and stir in the frozen ravioli, making sure each piece is coated in red sauce. Transfer to a 6-quart slow cooker. Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan cheese and cook on high for two and a half to three hours, till bubbly and cooked through. Serve with additional grated cheese, if desired.


the gift of time

This year I decided to bake Christmas cookies to share with neighbors who live alone and probably rarely ever bother to break out the baking ingredients. (Who wants to bake for one person, really?)

The baking was the fun part; squeezing it in with all the other stuff we had going on in December was the challenging part. So I didn’t linger much as a rung doorbells and dropped off foil-wrapped parcels.

We got a note from one of the recipients, “I really appreciated the cookies, and they came at a time when I was feeling a little low!”

That got me thinking. Sharing homemade cookies is a small gesture. How much greater could it have been had I taken the time to sit down and listen to each person?

So I’m pondering what we as a family will do in the coming year to reach out more often to people who tend to spend more time alone than they’d prefer.

And since we’re talking about seasonal treats, here’s one that typically gets rave reviews when I share it:

Frango Mints

1 stick butter, softened

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2 teaspoons peppermint extract

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 pasteurized eggs

12 oz. pkg semi sweet chocolate chips, melted

Beat butter and powdered sugar until light and creamy. Beat in extracts and eggs. Add melted chocolate chips and mix thoroughly. Pour into a buttered 8 x 8-inch pan, smoothing out the top. Chill overnight or until firm. Cut into small squares.

wild rice soup

One of the great things about February is that it’s still prime soup season, which I enjoy more now that my boys are discovering that some of those soups I’ve been offering them all along actually taste good. Like wild rice soup. At some point during this winter it has become a family favorite. Everyone eats it. I mean the whole bowl of soup, not just a token spoonful.

I developed this recipe because I didn’t want to make a soup by opening several cans of pre-made soup. Still, it comes together quickly once you’ve cooked the wild rice. You can prepare that a day or two in advance to get a meal on the table faster. And an immersion blender comes in handy for pureeing the cooked potatoes, which thicken the soup and make it seem creamy even before you add any dairy product.

Here’s how we make wild rice soup:

1 cup wild rice

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 stalks of celery

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, diced

3 medium russet potatoes, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

1/4 cup half and half or evaporated milk

1 1/2 to 2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey

1 teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

Cook wild rice according to package directions. Drain, if necessary, and set aside. Saute celery, onion, garlic and carrot in a stock pot for about 5 minutes. Add three cups of water, salt and the sliced potatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until all the vegetables are quite tender. Remove the pot from the heat and blend with an immersion blender until creamy. Return the soup to the burner and add the chicken, cooked wild rice and half and half. Heat thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Notes: Add a bit more water or milk for a thinner soup.

The chicken or turkey is optional, and you’ll hardly miss it if you leave it out. I’ve also swapped in a half pound of browned ground beef for the poultry and no one seemed to notice.

what to do when you don’t have play dough

Our kindergartener came home with a teeny tiny container of Play Dough last Thursday. One of those containers that does not hold enough for two kids to share. Our three-year-old whined and pleaded for Play Dough. He didn’t take “We don’t have any” for an answer. But we didn’t have any.

Not a convenient thing to discover at meltdown-o-clock (a term borrowed from Deb at Smitten Kitchen). So I got the wild rice simmering and pulled out a recipe for play clay that I’d tucked away years earlier – when I thought it might be a good thing to keep in a teacher’s or aunt’s bag of tricks. I scanned the list of ingredients and found that we had everything on hand in sufficient quantities to solve the Play Dough crisis. It helped that we only needed three things, one of them being water.

So I whipped some up play clay between chopping vegetables. Moms are multi-taskers. Moms are problem solvers. This is what we do. The play clay was done in under 15 minutes, but then we had to let it cool. Still, it was ready to use before dinner. And it bought 15 minutes of peace right then, plus more in the following days. A good investment.

Here’s what I did:

In a saucepan, mix together a one-pound box of baking soda and one cup of corn starch. Add 1 1/4 cups of water, along with a few drops of food coloring if you like. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until it’s the consistency of firm mashed potatoes. It may seem rather soft, but it thickens up more as it cools. Form the dough into a ball, place it on a plate and cover it with a damp cloth as it cools.

Once it was cool enough for kids to handle, I pulled out cutting boards, the rolling pin, cookie cutters and a small spatula. The real Play Dough was traded in for a larger quantity of the homemade substitute. My two boys got busy creating. It was quiet.

We’ve used the dough every day since I’ve made it. It keeps well in an airtight container in the fridge. If your kids use it for an hour, their hands and their ‘tools’ will be coated with a thin layer of the stuff, but it washes off easily.

baked oatmeal: hearty whole grain breakfast

A friend introduced me to this tender, almost cake-like version of oatmeal a while back and I was intrigued. Would this be a way to get my boys to eat more whole grain foods? Based on their request for seconds this morning, the answer seems to be “yes.”

Here’s the recipe I used, modified slightly from an old church cookbook:

2 cups quick oats

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoon margarine or butter

1 egg

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

dash of salt

Melt margarine or butter in the oven in a 9 x 9 glass pan. Pour it into a mixing bowl and add all the other ingredients. (Sift the baking powder if there is any hint of lumps.) Mix well and put the mixture into the 9 x 9 baking pan. Spread it out evenly in the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until it starts to brown slightly on the edges. Serve warm with yogurt or milk. I would have topped it with blueberries too if we hadn’t finished them yesterday.

how to make sweet potatoes disappear

This sweet potato biscuit recipe from my sister-in-law is a seasonal favorite in our home. If I’m baking sweet potatoes, I try to bake extra so I can mix up a half a batch of these the following day. With the fall spices, even the smell of them baking is a treat.

Here’s what you’ll need to make sweet potato biscuits:

2 cups baked, pureed sweet potatoes

1/2 cup melted butter

2 3/4 cups flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Melt the butter and stir in the sweet potato puree and vanilla. Mix in the dry ingredients until the mixture forms into dough. Roll out the dough to about half an inch thick. Pull out the cookie cutters and ask your kids to help cut the biscuits into fun shapes. Place them on a nonstick cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for about 12 minutes. Serve warm. (With butter.)

simple cauliflower soup

I don’t have much sympathy for picky eaters. My theory is that children acquire such habits from their parents. My husband and I are not picky. So I was not sure how it came about some months ago that my boys seemed to turn their noses up at just about everything I cooked. I did little to cater to their finicky habits and usually just let them choose from the options on the table, though there were times when I offered a piece of toast (without jam). Mostly I just let them decide how much to eat, and kept desserts off the menu. I’m glad that we’ve made it past that phase, though I suppose it could reappear at any time without warning.

With the cooler weather, their appetites have also improved. That makes it easier to try new things, like this cauliflower soup recipe. I offered a small bowl of it to three kids recently. My four-year-old ate it, though it was not his favorite. Our three-year-old lunch guest liked it well enough to take seconds. My younger boy only took one spoonful. Maybe next time. At age two, a child’s tastes practically change from day to day so we keep offering whatever is on the table.

Anyway, I was pleased both with the simplicity and the taste of this soup. So much so I’m considering the purchase of an immersion blender to make it easier and quicker to blend this tasty snow-white puree (as well as another favorite pureed soup.)

1½ tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

½ head of fresh cauliflower, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Cook the onion in the 1½ tablespoons of olive oil until tender. Add chopped cauliflower and ½ cup of water. Simmer the cauliflower until it is tender. Add 2¼ cups of water, bring it back to a simmer and cook for another 15 minutes, uncovered. Puree the soup in batches. Reheat the soup, adding a bit more water if needed.

This slightly modified recipe is from Food 52.

slow cooker tapioca pudding

This recipe for tapioca pudding is an adaptation of one I found in Diane Phillips’
Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever with More Than 400 Easy-to-Make Recipes. The book provides inspiration for expanding the use of one’s slow cooker beyond the traditional soups and stews. And when I came upon the recipe using tapioca, I knew I had to try it.

The large pearl tapioca I purchased recommended soaking the hard beads overnight before cooking. That resulted in a couple of benefits: faster cooking and a slightly softer tapioca beads in the final product. My kids really liked it, though the smaller one wasn’t sure about the “lumps” at first.

1/2 cup pearl tapioca
4 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
grated zest of one orange
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Soak tapioca overnight. Drain. Place it in the slow cooker with the milk and sugar. Stir well. Cover and cook for two hours on low. Mix the orange zest, vanilla and eggs together. Add a little of the hot mixture to the egg mixture. Mix it well and pour it into the slow cooker. Cover and cook the pudding for 20 to 30 minutes more. Remove the cover and allow the pudding to cool slightly before serving. It tastes great warm, but you can also serve it chilled.