Not Your Mamaw’s Soul Food

A lot of the recipes I cherish come from my family; solid farming folk from upstate New York and Kentucky; my grandmother Norma’s corn pudding, baked beans, Switchel and German potato salad (which is probably more like Pennsylvania Dutch style and NOTHING like that horrid gelatinous stuff in a can or served at buffets) and “Grammy” Mahala Joe’s pimento cheese, coca cola ham, jam cake and Kentucky Wonder pole beans that cooked all day with a little fat back and to this day is the one exception I will make to my “crisp tender” rule for vegetables. Lordy they were good!

But not all my favorite recipes are traditional. Some my children never had at my table growing up. My parents were fairly adventurous when it came to trying different foods, “ethnic” foods, even though they had not been exposed to much diversity themselves. My mother told me once she never tasted pizza until she was in her late teens! But we didn’t have much money and eating at restaurants was reserved for very special adult occasions or emergencies on the road. Now Rochester, New York, is hardly what you’d call a mecca of haute cuisine. But one thing I will say is that we have a lot of darn good, real deal, Italian restaurants. One dish that is a staple is “Greens and Beans”. Sometimes it’s an appetizer, sometimes a soup, sometimes a main course. Nothing fancy – escarole and cannellini beans. Italian soul food. The first time I had it was at a little hole in the wall place in a suburban strip mall in Webster, Proietti’s. I’ve tried it in probably 5 or 6 other places and they’ve all been good – but they’re not Proietti’s. I read somewhere that their recipe was featured in Bon Appetit. Yeah, it’s that good.

After having a wonderful dish out, I will often try to replicate it at home. After some experimentation I came up with a reasonable approximation, very tasty IMHO, and my husband and family have given it the “More Please” seal of approval, so it has become a staple. The fact that it goes together with a minimum of prep time and is pretty forgiving (read, you don’t have to measure anything) doesn’t hurt either. The way I make it may not be authentic, but it’s a simple nutritious meal in a bowl made with easily available inexpensive ingredients and my family loves it. That makes it soul food in my book.

Ingredients for Greens and Beans

Ingredients for Greens and Beans

What you’ll need: a pound or so of bulk Italian sausage (I have used hot, mild, poultry. Use whatever you like, or none at all); a bag of chopped escarole (6-8 cups fresh); 1 quart chicken stock or broth; 2 tablespoons or more minced garlic, 1 c dry or semi-dry white wine, 1-2 cans cannellini (white) beans; coarse ground black pepper; grated Parmesan cheese.
Brown the sausageBrown the crumbled sausage in a sauté pan, then remove from pan and set aside or put in a stock pot.
Wilt greens

In the fat left in the pan, gently sauté the escarole and garlic until the greens are wilted.

Remove the wilted greens to the stock pot. Deglaze the pan with the wine and cook over medium heat until reduced by half. About this time is when my husband stops what he is doing to see what smells so good.The real wine

Oh, did I mention – that nice bottle of wine in the ingredients photo?

Yeah, I didn’t use that. I’m saving that for dinner. I used the box. Like I said, this recipe is very forgiving!

Next throw the beans in with the sausage and escarole, then add the wine (and any yummy bits therein) from your pan. Last, add the chicken stock and a little pepper and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Have a glass of that nice Sauvignon Blanc while you wait.Add beansSimmer
Just before serving, garnish generously with grated Parmesan cheese, break off a piece of crusty bread and finish that bottle of wine with your favorite folks around the table. Enjoy

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Dear Blossom,

Spring Babies

We haven’t met yet and Blossom, I am fairly certain, will not be your name, but your Nana has loved you for a long time now. I call you Blossom because we will first meet in the usual sense around cherry blossom time. And, like the cherry blossoms, everyone is anxiously awaiting this miracle of beauty and renewal, this gift of spring, this new life – you. Your Mommy and Daddy, your Grandma Marietta and I, your aunts and uncles, are all trying to imagine what you will look like, what your personality will be like, what will your passions in life be and how you will grow and blossom into everything you were meant to be. We all have our own special wishes for you and, just as we do for your big brother, we make little promises in our hearts to help you, to share what we have learned in our lives so that you might have a life as full of joy and discovery and love as we can possibly make it.

It’s funny how we humans have this strange habit of thinking of you tiny new people as the culmination of all the lives that led up to you and the hope of all those who will come after. That’s quite a responsibility for someone who won’t be able to talk for another year yet! But we do. You and Jaxon have such a rich and varied heritage. None of this will mean a lot to you until you are much older but you will inherit stories about brave, hardworking, creative and smart women of long ago, and some you will meet and I hope come to know very well. Some of those stories will be told while we are in the kitchen. Your Grandma M will show you how to make Pancit and Lumpia, and she’ll tell you about how she learned to make it, about how she made it for your Grandpa; how it is that simple foods bind families together. I’ll take you for walks in the woods and fields and show you what plants are good for eating, how to tell a storm is coming, how to walk quietly and discover what wonderful things you can see when the animals don’t know you are there, just as your great grandparents did with me. I hope we do a good job of telling our stories, so that you will hear the love and pride in them. I know you will probably roll your eyes and tell us you would rather be out climbing something or working on your latest discovery, but I hope you hear enough to know we are giving you the gift of all our families’ strengths in those stories. We are assuring you that whatever adversities come your way – you will triumph over them. Whatever dreams inspire you, you will persevere and achieve more than your dreams. Whatever challenges you face, you will learn to gather around you the support and encouragement you need to shore up and overcome your weaknesses and let your strengths and talents lead you.

For now, though, I am content to smile to myself when I think of the glorious riot of sun-drenched colors, the interplay of sounds we interpret as music and how it speaks to us, and of the miracle of love, tolerance,  encouragement and respect that is a family, all waiting for you. As I drove home from church this morning I could not help but think as I admired the snow-flocked trees lining the roads and the drooping boughs of the evergreen trees around our house, “I can hardly wait to show you all of this.” You will learn this soon enough, but your Nana will stop a conversation mid-sentence to point out a pretty bird who has arrived at our feeder, and often chooses “shortcuts” (which Grandpa T knows always take more time) just so she can wind through forests and fields instead of highway signs. And maybe that’s why you, little Blossom, and Jaxon, and every new person is such a blessing. Each of you reminds us to see the world with new eyes,with more wonder, with more joy; reminds us to be grateful for every day we are given to go exploring with you.

Love you forever,

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Here in Upstate New York, one of the earliest festivals for us non-winter-sports folk is Maple Fest. In late winter/early spring the sap in the living, growing part of the sugar maple trees just under the bark, encouraged by the wild fluctuations in temperatures, begins to “run” up and down the tree. Native peoples discovered that boiling this very slightly sweet clear liquid produced a syrup with a unique flavor that makes virtually any other food more wonderful.

Today Kevin and I fought off cabin fever and ventured out under skies that were looking decidedly November-ish and broke our three week low-carb diet regimen to enjoy all- you-can-eat pancakes with local maple syrup at one of our favorite places, the Log Cabin Restaurant. Kevin says I am a syrup snob because I turn up my nose at maple flavored pancake syrup, but after three weeks of no sugar, the rich flavor and sweetness of real maple syrup made a believer out of him. It was so good we actually sat there giggling like two kids let loose in an ice cream shop.

My love affair with maple syrup started with my father, who spent his teenage years working on a dairy farm north of Syracuse that also made syrup. The memory of childhood visits to the Valley farm, the white plumes of the horses’ breath as they drew heavy sleds through the woods collecting the sap from the buckets hung on hundreds of trees, the smell of wood smoke and sweet syrup in the sugaring house, and the treat of syrup poured onto snow to make maple lollipops, is one that stays with you. This afternoon, after our feast, we took the horse drawn wagon ride a quarter mile down the road to see the sugaring operation at Packard Farms, a family farm in operation since 1821. We enjoyed a very informative presentation about modern collection and syrup production methods, grading and product quality control while standing under hand-hewn 6″ x 6″ beams. I caught Kevin’s knowing smile when I pointed them out to some young visitors who were standing with us. He knows I cannot resist a “teachable moment”.

Returning home with our treasure, a quart of grade A amber syrup, I thought I would pull out “old faithful”, my beat up copy of the cookbook my mother often used. “The Victory Binding of the American Woman’s Cookbook – Wartime Edition” published for the Culinary Arts Institute by Consolidated Book Publishers, Inc., Chicago, 1943. I learned to explore foods and respect cooking as an art from my mother, but I have to say I learned how to cook and mastered my first go-to dishes from this book. Even with everything available online today, its torn binding speaks kitchen love on every stained and dog-eared page. Because sugar and other food items were rationed during the war, it has a treasure trove of recipes using maple syrup and honey and other food items available locally to the American family from neighborhood Victory gardens and family farms.

Somewhere in our genes I think we have this sense that we should learn how to make do, to thrive in the face of deprivation. I don’t think we really appreciate though what our grandparents and parents went through – what living in a country at war really means. The opening paragraphs of this section of the cookbook gives us a glimpse.

A quick check of ingredients on hand and a couple of reasonable substitutions and I decided a pan of Maple Sirup Gingerbread was just the thing. I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about developing a cooking sense is that you know what will work when you have almost enough of something. This recipe is quick and easy, uses ingredients you probably have on hand, but with a little twist. Have I mentioned that pure maple syrup is, well, pure!


1 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup sour cream (I only had 1/2 cup so I used it plus 1/2 cup kefir)
1 egg well beaten
2 1/3 cup flour (I used 1 1/3 c Unbleached all purpose and 1 c mixture of oat, rye and whole wheat flour)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. Ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp melted shortening ( I used coconut oil)

Blend syrup, cream, egg together. Sift dry ingredients together and stir into liquid, beating well. Add melted shortening and beat thoroughly. Pour into paper lined pan (loaf or I used 8″ x 8″ square). I am sure you could use spray or grease and flour but I had parchment paper so I used it.

Bake in moderate 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Serves 8 – 10.




I am actually glad I used the paper though because it made removal from the pan and cutting so much neater.
The finished product? Oh my goodness! Light, not too sweet. Texture halfway between bread and cake. No one flavor was overwhelming, just that richness that maple brings at the beginning and a nice delicate ginger note at the end. Enjoy!



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Weeknight Skillet Supper

Weeknight Skillet Supper

Brussels sprouts, bacon, apples and pumpkin seeds. I recently decided to make a concerted effort to drop a few pounds by avoiding most foods made with flour (bread, pasta,snack foods, baked sweets, cereal), potatoes and sugar. Luckily I enjoy novel food combinations and a wide variety of vegetables! Tonight I threw this together and even with no seasoning at all, it was delicious.
4 slices bacon, cut into quarters
3-4 c Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced or shredded
1 medium apple, cored and sliced
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds
In a deep skillet or sauté pan, fry bacon until not quite crispy. Add the shredded Brussels sprouts and apples and continue cooking over medium heat until apples start to soften and Brussels sprouts start to brown. Remove and toss with seeds. It really doesn’t need anything else, but if I were to suggest anything other than salt and pepper, it would be just a hint of maple syrup drizzled over it. If this doesn’t make you love these oh-so-good-for-you baby cabbage-y things, nothing will.

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