Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slow cooking, spicy soups for Christmas Eve supper

12/24/08 Cook’s Corner
Betty Kaiser

The day before Christmas is one of the busiest days of the year.  With Christmas day nipping at our heels, there’s still much to do. Even if the house is clean, the shopping done and the packages all wrapped and under the tree, the kitchen calls. And if you’re the chief cook and bottle-washer at your house the last 24 hours are especially crazy-making.

In the midst of pie baking and cookie frosting we often eat junk food the night before the big event. But you can put together a quick healthy meal if you use your Crock-Pot or slow cooker. Assemble your recipe in the morning and let the slow cooker do the work for you.

Getting organized is simple. Check your ingredients list and set them all out on the countertop before you begin. Now is not the time to be snobbish and think that you have to make everything from scratch. Gather up those frozen or canned items from your cupboard and freezer and put them to work by combining them into a guilt-free tasty meal.

As soon as you get the main dish cooking, assemble a crisp green salad. Top the greens with shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, green onions and a few black olives. Cover and refrigerate until dinnertime. That night serve everything with store bought French bread and you’ve got a meal fit for a king.

Most slow cooker recipes say that you do not have to brown meat or sauté vegetables. I disagree. Ground beef should always be lightly browned and drained well. In fact, I always brown beef products when using them in soups and stews.

I also briefly sauté onions, celery and carrots before simmering them with the recipe ingredients. The resulting product from this sweating procedure is much more flavorful than if added raw. This mixture is called a “mire poi” or equal parts carrots, celery with twice as much onion. It can be used as a flavor base for a myriad of dishes.

Slow cookers do have limitations. It is generally okay to simmer meats and sauces all day but you may have to add extra spices before serving. Remember to cook chicken pieces at low heat or they become too soft if cooked too long on high heat. A whole chicken will retain its shape and flavor nicely but at the end of the cooking process, I often brown mine in the oven to intensify the flavor.

Some foods will retain their texture and color best if added in the last hour of cooking. I always precook noodles and rice, adding them about 30 minutes before serving. Otherwise they turn to mush. Broccoli, in my opinion, should never be cooked in a slow cooker. It develops a very strong taste and turns a really ugly green.

Of course, the holidays are not the only time to use your slow cooker. If you’ve kept the cookbooks that came with yours, you’ll find lots of interesting ideas. But be careful. Depending on your taste buds, some recipes are more appetizing than others.

My first Crock-Pot cookbook from the 1960s has some recipes that never saw the light of day at our house: a spinach casserole with cottage cheese never made the cut; neither did a macaroni, mushroom soup, chipped beef and hard boiled egg casserole. Ugh.

We often eat something spicy and not too heavy the night before holiday meals. The following recipes will fit the bill nicely. I’ve added the macaroni and cheese for the kids among us. Enjoy!

Taco Soup with Black Beans
“Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook”

1 lb ground beef, browned and drained
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
15 ounce can corn, undrained
15 ounce can black beans, undrained
15 ounce can red kidney beans, undrained
1 envelope dry Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix
1 envelope dry taco seasoning
1 small onion, chopped

Combine all ingredients, cover, and cook on low 4-6 hours.
Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, and tortilla or corn chips.

Spicy Chicken Soup

1 cup diced onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon oil
3 cups cooked chicken or turkey, diced
1/2 package dry taco seasoning mix
2 cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can pinto beans, drained
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
1 can diced green chilis, drained
2 cans chicken broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Cook onion and garlic in oil until tender. Place in slow cooker with remainder of ingredients and cook on low. If the broth is too thin, mix cornstarch with water; add to soup and bring to boil. Just before serving, add a dash of hot sauce. Serves four.

All-Day Macaroni and Cheese

8 ounces cooked and drained elbow macaroni
12 ounces evaporated milk
1-1/2 cups milk (not skim)
2 eggs
4 cups cheddar cheese, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1/2-teaspoon black pepper

Coat slow cooker with non-stick vegetable spray. Place the macaroni in the cooker. Mix the milks and eggs together; add 3 cups of the cheese and pour over the macaroni. Pour the mixture over the macaroni and mix well. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Cover and cook on LOW 5-6 hours. Do not remove the cover or stir until the mixture is firm and golden around the edges. Serves 4

Keep it simple and keep it seasonal! Betty Kaiser’s Cook’s Corner is dedicated to sharing a variety of recipes that are delicious, family oriented and easy to prepare. Contact her at 942-1317 or email

Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas (the craziness is traditional)

12/17/08 Chatterbox Betty Kaiser Hey, everybody, Merry Christmas! How is the shopping going? Is your house decorated? Are gifts purchased and wrapped? Will your extended family drive for hours to enjoy a festive day together? Or will you just drive each other crazy? Will you suffer through preparing grandma’s pearl onions and grandpa’s favorite dish of lutefisk because it’s “tradition”? Are you on the verge of exhaustion? Have you decided that next year you’re really, really going to simplify the holidays? Do you wonder why we work ourselves into a frenzy to do all of this stuff? Well, you have questions and I have answers — traditional ones. First, the disclaimer: I am a Christian who loves Christmas — both the spiritual and the secular. My spiritual traditions include times of worship, prayer, hymns and carols. The other side of that coin is all the crazy hoopla that goes into family celebrations — the decorating, the presents, the food, the fun, the arguments and the fatigue. When things get really crazy, I wonder… if celebrating Jesus’ birthday is the goal for Christmas where did all this other stuff come from? Why don’t we just do cake and ice cream? Over the centuries, his simple birthday party has evolved into the biggest celebration in the world. Because it’s the dead of winter, that’s why. And we’ve got to have something to cheer us up. It’s traditional. Two thousand years ago the early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. It wasn’t until the fourth century that believers could agree on the date that Jesus was born. They chose Dec. 25. A date not necessarily based on fact. But it was convenient. Other (pagan) celebrations were being held at that time of the year — why not Christmas? They added another tradition. The manner of celebration has been bathed in controversy ever since. At first it was a solemn, quiet religious day. Then, so-called pagan cultural influences inspired the Christians to tell the story of the nativity through music, art and dance. Things became a bit earthy and raucous. Finally, after the Reformation, Protestant groups banned celebrations entirely. Christmas was only re-instated after King Charles II was restored to the throne. In the American colonies, Christmas celebrations evolved slowly. The Puritans were very orthodox. It was illegal to mention St. Nicolas’ name, exchange gifts, light a candle or sing Christmas carols. There was a five shilling fine for exhibiting the Christmas spirit. Around the 19th century, the nation embraced Christmas as a family holiday. Slowly they re-incorporated candles, cards and carols into worship. German immigrants to Pennsylvania introduced the tree concept to Americans. Their candle-lit Christmas trees originated as oak trees that were worshipped in the 8th century by Germanic tribes. Martin Luther is credited with bringing a small fir tree into his house and decorating it with candles as a way of mirroring the beauty of the starry outdoors. It became a tradition. The garlands and wreathes that we hang on doors and tables date back to the 16th century. They are attributed to German Lutherans who began the custom of Advent — the period of four Sundays preceding the nativity of Jesus. The circular shape of wreathes symbolizes the love of God that is without beginning or end. Candles are one of the oldest of all Christian symbols. There is no controversy about the meaning of lighted candles in a church. In contrast to darkness, light is illuminating. It means goodness, truth, life and wisdom. The Bible says that Jesus is the light of the world and God is the father of light, so we let the candles burn! So what are we to make of gifts and gifting? Well, I think that 2,000 years ago a precedent was set. The Magi brought appropriate gifts to the infant Jesus. The three gifts were spiritually symbolic and fit for a king of that era. By doing so they demonstrated their joy, honor and respect at his incarnation. Perhaps this could be a template for our gift giving — three items — instead of the entire toy, clothing, sporting goods or jewelry store! A new tradition. The Christmas challenge is to balance the spiritual with the secular. But as we have seen, a lot of the secular has a spiritual background. Christmas is all about worship and sharing joy. We know we’ve succeeded at the later by the smiles on the faces of the ones we love. While most of us are working ourselves into a dither putting together a traditional Christmas, some people get all worked up over whether or not to tolerate the holiday. Some folks are really good at getting hostile about anything that smacks of religion. Recently there was a letter to the editor of the Register Guard exhorting readers to not extend celebratory greetings to strangers. Such phrases as “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” were distasteful to him. No sharing of well wishes or random people contact for this unhappy guy! Bah Humbug! The kindness of others, be it a smile or a warm greeting, is a blessing not a curse. If someone is celebrating, celebrate with them. It’s a cold, dark and lonely world unless joy is shared. It’s traditional. Years ago the word ‘merry’ had an entirely different connotation than it does today. It meant peaceful and blessed. “Merry Christmas” would then be translated as, “A peaceful Christmas to you” or “May Christmas bring the blessings of God to you.” Peace and blessings are great gifts. Long after all the presents under the tree have been unwrapped, the meals eaten, the guests departed and the decorations put away, the intangibles remain. The hugs, smiles, greetings and warm memories of the season are the best gifts — peaceful blessings. Enjoy your traditions (you can rest later) and Merry Christmas to all! Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.

Classic Candy recipes

12/10/08 Cook’s Corner
Betty Kaiser

Homemade candy is one of my favorite Christmas memories. At our house, candy was a treat. It was not something that we had sitting in the cupboard to chow down on. Most of the year, our candy budget was pretty much restricted to penny candy from the neighborhood drug store. A chocolate bar was five cents and a rare treat.

But Christmas was different. At the holidays, neighbors would drop by with plates of homemade cookies and candy and mother always made her special candied nuts. Sometimes my dad’s business associates gifted us with boxes of See’s Candy. The choices were mind-boggling and we kids always argued over the molasses chips.

Today, a delicious piece of candy is still one of life’s simple pleasures. Reduced to its essence, candy is nothing more than a concentrated source of sugar and water, to which a variety of flavorings and colorants have been added. So you might say that today’s recipes are all about sugar.

First, the disclaimer. Candy in copious amounts is not good for you. Sugar provides empty calories, contributes to overweight, rots teeth and makes kids hyper. It is not the stuff that healthy diets are made from.

On the other hand, a small piece of candy isn’t going to kill you. It’s a treat. A condiment. Something to be eaten in small amounts on special occasions. And special treats should taste wonderful! So don’t waste your calories on cheap, lousy, tasteless confections. Save them for only the best melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, flavorful mints and chewy caramels.

The following recipes are family holiday favorites. The Fantasy Fudge recipe has been around forever, is delicious and freezes well. The truffles are elegant with a minimum of work. Try both of the coatings or just roll them in powdered sugar. You will need a candy thermometer for the divinity and nuts but don’t worry if you haven’t used one before it’s easy. Enjoy!

Fantasy Fudge
Microwave and traditional method

1-1/2 sticks butter or margarine
3 cups sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1 12-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 7-ounce jar marshmallow crème
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon vanilla

Lightly grease 13x9-inch pan.
Melt butter 1 minute in 4 quart microwave safe, glass bowl. Add sugar and milk; mix well. Microwave 3 minutes and stir. Return to microwave for 2 minutes and stir. Repeat this step again.

Remove from microwave and gradually stir in chips until melted. Add marshmallow, walnuts and vanilla. Mix well and pour into prepared pan. Cool at room temperature. Cut into squares. Makes 3 pounds.

Stove-top method:
Combine sugar, butter and milk in large saucepan. Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Continue boiling 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips until melted. Add remaining ingredients and beat until well blended. Finish as above.

Chocolate Raspberry Truffles

2/3 cup whipping cream
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

Choice of coatings:
One 6-ounce white baking bar OR
1 cup milk chocolate chips
2 teaspoons shortening
Additional toppings: finely chopped nuts, coconut flakes or toffee bits

Heat cream in heavy, 2-quart saucepan just to boiling (do NOT boil). Remove from heat. Add chocolate chips; stir until melted and smooth. Stir in vanilla and jam. Pour into medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate until firm.

Line baking sheet with wax paper and drop chocolate mixture by heaping teaspoons onto prepared sheet. Freeze about 45 minutes or until firm. Roll into balls and return to freezer until ready to coat.

Over hot (not boiling) water, melt baking bar or chocolate chips with shortening. Stir until smooth. Drop frozen truffles, one at a time into melted coating; stir gently and remove with fork, shaking off excess. If desired, roll again in toppings mentioned above. Place on baking sheet and chill until set. Store in refrigerator, in airtight container for 1 week (if they last that long!).

Easy Divinity
(Karo Syrup)

2-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup coarsely chopped nuts

Mix first 4 ingredients in 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat; cook without stirring to 265° F. or until small amount forms hard, yet plastic ball in cold water. Just before temperature reaches 265° F. beat egg whites in electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Beating constantly on high speed slowly pour hot syrup over egg whites. Beat until small amount holds soft peaks when dropped from spoon. Mix in vanilla and nuts. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto wax paper. Makes 40+ pieces.

Mother’s Candied Walnuts

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup light corn syrup
10 regular marshmallows
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
3 cups walnut halves

Mix sugar, water and corn syrup in heavy 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring, constantly. Cook to 238° F. or until soft ball forms (flattens on removal from cold water). Remove from heat. Stir in marshmallows and peppermint until dissolved. Stir in nuts until well coated. Turn onto waxed paper. Separate nuts while still warm. Makes 1 pound.

Keep it simple and keep it seasonal! Betty Kaiser’s Cook’s Corner is dedicated to sharing a variety of recipes that are delicious, family oriented and easy to prepare.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

What to do when a lost dog and gunshots explode

12/3/06 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser Life in my ordinarily tranquil neighborhood recently turned ugly. First there were gunshots: “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!” They were followed by one ominous “Yelp!” Then there was total silence. Shocked, we wondered, “Did someone shoot that stray dog?” Several days before the shooting incident, a handsome young German Shepherd came on our property. We assumed that someone in the neighborhood had a new dog. We clapped our hands and shooed him home. Later, we noticed this same Shepherd would run out of the wooded park near us, as my husband drove by in his silver Jeep. the dog would look longing at him as Chuck zipped by. Obviously, he was looking for someone special. It was a sad “Are you my daddy?” gaze. During this time, the dog had also been sighted up the hill by other neighbors as he visited their properties. He was not approachable —just nervous. One neighbor encountered him on a bridge going across his creek. The man moved out of his way, as the dog crossed the bridge and then resumed raking leaves. The shepherd was apparently lost — not mean or aggressive. Prior to the shooting, we set out to help him, loading our pockets with dog biscuits before we headed to the park. As usual, as soon as the shepherd saw the Jeep, he came running. A beautiful young dog, we noticed that he limped as he ran. But try as we might, we could not get him to come near us. He nervously ran circles around the Jeep, never making eye contact or showing any response to our pleas. His nervous circles became larger and larger and we became fearful that traffic might hit him. Reluctantly, we went home. Shortly afterward we heard the gunshots. Immediately we hopped in the Jeep to look for him. But we searched in vain. He was gone. A few days later our doxies became very agitated and determined to dive down into a nearby drainage ditch. They had discovered another little lost soul —a Persian cat. Its sad little face was dripping with mud and its formerly brilliant white fur matted with dirt. And so it goes out here in the country where thoughtless people ignore or abandon helpless pets who starve and die a miserable, violent death. It’s a sad, sick situation. These are not wild animals accustomed to living off the land. They are domesticated animals, dependent on mankind for food, shelter and kindness. City dwellers have similar pet problems. The overpopulation of cats in Cottage Grove has been well documented. One unsprayed female cat can produce as many as 32 kittens in a year! One unaltered male can father multiple litters. You do the math. No wonder there are so many feral cats fighting, spreading disease and upsetting homeowners. It should always be a financial choice whether or not to bring home a pet. Responsible pet ownership should include funds to pay for spaying or neutering as well as food and shelter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a neutered male dog will not roam the streets and get in fights. Dogs are pack animals and they need attention. Please don’t chain and ignore them. Chained, the dog will howl, dig, get frustrated and become dangerous. Who’s fault is that? Traditional animal control was primitive and often inhumane but we have evolved. Most of us. Sometimes I think that the 2-legged human animal needs more training that the 4-legged variety. It’s usually not the pit bull that’s mean. It’s the owner treating the pet like he or she was treated as a child. Violence is a cycle that needs to be stopped. Since 1990, the Humane Society of Cottage Grove has sought to make our area a better place for both pets and owners. Janetta Overholser and her hardworking crew of volunteers can tell you stories about cruelty to helpless animals that will rip your heart out. At the same time, they can warm your soul with stories of those who rescued the victims. They clean them up, get them veterinary care, feed, love and find them a home — either by fostering or at Greenhill. The entire community benefits from the efforts of a handful of people who dedicate themselves to protecting animals. They field questions and answer calls for help; offer coupons to help with spaying/neutering costs; and send teams to local schools to teach youngsters the proper care and handling of animals. All of this is financed through donations and a second-hand store — ‘This-and-That Corner.’ Its entire proceeds are donated to animal support programs. There are no employees. Only volunteers. No one gets paid a dime but everyone benefits. In our neighborhood many people had seen the agitated stray dog but we did nothing. What do you do? Do you catch it? And if so — then what? Just whom do you contact when an abused, neglected, hurt, sick or lost animal appears on your doorstep? Here’s a list of resources to help answer your questions: Call the Cottage Grove Police Dept. if you live in the city: 942-9145 Call Lane County Animal Services if you live in the county: 682-3645 Call the HSCG: 942-3130 Call Greenhill Humane Society: 689-1503 Call local veterinarians to see if an animal has been reported missing. Take the pet to a veterinarian to be scanned for a microchip. Call KNNDs ‘Pet Lost ‘n Found’: 942-2468 Put a (free) found ad in the Sentinel: 942-3325 Post signs or posters. Many charities vie for contributions at this time of year. May I suggest that you add the CGHS to your list? They’ll spend your money wisely and make the world a little better for man and beast. Their emergency Angel Fund selectively assists where needed. Mail contributions to P.O. Box 61, Cottage Grove, 97424.
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.