Pottery House Cafe’, An Engagement to Remember

Marie and I rarely eat out.  By rarely I mean almost never.  There’s no reason for it.  We have a fully functional kitchen that is well stocked with foodstuffs.  Marie is an excellent cook and enjoys practicing that art.  Most of the time.  Sometimes she’d rather not.  I am … capable, in the kitchen as well.  I take a turn at the cooking several times a week and neither of us has died.

One occasion when we do eat out is Christmas eve.  This is an annual celebration.  We’re celebrating the anniversary of my proposal of marriage to Marie and her acceptance (she did not need to ponder the proposal for long).

The original event occurred at the Pere Marquette Lodge  near Grafton Illinois.  It’s actually in a state park of the same name.  There is a wonderful, rustic dining hall there, and that’s where I popped the question and bribed her with a ring.

While we lived in the area, we would return to Pere Marquette every year on Christmas eve to celebrate that event.  When we moved away and could no longer get to the actual scene of the event, we found similar locations to stand-in for that lodge on this annual celebration. Continue reading “Pottery House Cafe’, An Engagement to Remember”

6 Tips on Selecting Pet Food

pet foodThere is a bewildering array of pet food brands, and products within brands, out there to choose from. Products ranging from dry kibble, to canned, to fresh-frozen, to raw meat are available. All have some benefit, all have some risk. How do you decide which of these are best for your lifestyle and your pet’s health? Here are some tips to help you wend your way through the brand maze and select the best products to consider.

#1: The Pet Food Company

Many pet owners don’t trust larger pet food companies, thinking that a large corporation is by nature callous and uncaring. Smaller brands are more closely linked to their customers and likely to make better, safer products. However, statistics tell a different story. Continue reading “6 Tips on Selecting Pet Food”

Encountering Collard Greens

collard greens
Photo courtesy www.louisfoods.com

I have for many years been aware that collard greens are a staple food here in the south. Even when we lived in St. Louis we had friends who swore chitterlings (or as they pronounced it, “chitlins”) and collard greens were the food of the gods, and invited us over to try some on several occasions. I knew what chitterlings were and had no desire to eat them – despite the fact that I do enjoy natural casing sausages. Somehow there was, at least in my mind, a world of difference between a kielbasa and a pile of guts on a plate. I assumed that collard greens were similar to chard, kale or beet tops: all of which I have grown, cooked and enjoyed.

While having our monthly Dinner on the Ground (indoors) Feast and Fellowship at church this past weekend, a fellow gardener was commenting how his collard greens had just gone crazy this year: They were still growing strong despite it being November and us having already had one hard frost. He didn’t know what to do with them all. He looked at us with hope and expectation in his eyes, “Would we like some?”

Marie said, “Sure: we like greens, we eat them all the time.”

“Great! I’ll go get you some,” and he ran for the door.

I called after him, trying to say that he didn’t need to do it NOW … but he was already out of range. The man was obviously desperate!

The Pawpaw Fruit: A Southern Delicacy

I have, on several occasions, heard of a mysterious fruit called a pawpaw. On each occasion it was referred to as a Southern delicacy: a fruit tree whose papaya-shaped fruit have the consistency of custard inside a tough, thin-skinned pod and a vanilla-banana flavor.

One of my gardening mentors, Benny La Fleur, recently provided me with a pawpaw fruit to try. He grows them on his farm, along with many other wonderful things. As I had heard, it looks tropical: a greenish-yellow pod about 5 inches long with brown flecks. When cut open I found a soft fruit containing many large (an inch or more in length), brown, bean-like seeds. To me, the fruit tasted much like a banana crème pie, and was a welcome complement to our breakfast.

Curious, I decided to poke around and see what more I could learn about this strange, tropical, pawpaw fruit.

Read more:

Tomatoes: Keep Some for Later

As summer winds down the tomatoes ramp up and we’ve got a bountiful harvest coming in. Some we use fresh – in fact we try to enjoy as many as we can fresh – but what to do with the rest?

tomatoes by the bucketSharing is good: if you have friends and family that don’t raise their own tomatoes. A couple of Sundays ago we went to church and found a large basket of ripe, red tomatoes sitting inside the door. From the pulpit, the pastor clarified, “Those tomatoes inside the door are for taking home and eating, not for throwing at your pastor.”

Tomato season doesn’t last long so it’s a good idea to preserve what you don’t eat or give away for use later. Here are my favorite ways to preserve tomatoes to be enjoyed throughout the year.


Tomatoes freeze well and it’s easy to do. Freezing does make the skins tough, so you can blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 second to get the skins to slip off easily, but I prefer not to. I remove the core, cut the tomato in half along the equator, use a plastic spoon to scoop it the seedy-goopy stuff (that does not freeze well) then cut the tomato halves into wedges. Lay the wedges skin side down on a cookie sheet and pop in the freezer. When the wedges are frozen stiff, quickly transfer them into a freezer bag and put it back into the freezer. When the bag is full, squeeze out as much air as possible and seal the bag before putting it into the deep freeze.

By freezing the wedges individually you will be able to take out and thaw just what you need and put the rest back, still frozen. If you throw a whole bunch of wet tomatoes in a bag and freeze them as a unit, the whole bag will have to be thawed to be used. This is not a problem if you have specific uses in mind and package according to your intended use. If not, versatility without waste is good.

When you thaw the wedges the skins will pull off easily.


Vaccum packed tomatoesDried tomatoes can be enjoyed directly as a crunchy snack (tomato chips) or can be stored for long terms to be used in cooking.

Remove the core, slice the tomato in half along the equator and use a plastic spoon to remove the seeds and goop.

Tomatoes can be dried with the seedy goop left in, but it will take a lot longer and you risk scorching the tomato flesh. Slice the tomato halves into rings ¼” thick for “chips” ½” thick for storage.

Spray the tray of your dehydrator with non-stick cooking spray (or rub with olive oil). If you don’t have a dehydrator you can use cake cooling racks on cookie sheets in your oven set at its lowest temperature (and even at that you may need to crack the door). For a dehydrator, 140° works well. Be sure to rotate the drying trays (or cookie sheets) around the oven to produce even drying.

When the slices are leathery, flip them over and continue until they are dry. Store in an air-tight jar, or vacuum pack them.

To use in cooking, soak the slices in hot water to reconstitute. If you’re making soup, the liquid in the soup will do this for you.

Instant Tomato

Another angle of dehydrating is to keep the skins you remove from tomatoes you process in other ways, dry those then use a mini-food processor or grinder to pulverize the dry skins into powder. This “instant tomato” can be used as a tomato flavored thickener or can be mixed with a little water to make tomato paste.


Canning tomatoes can be a little time consuming, but it’s not hard to do. They can be pressure canned, if you have that equipment, or water bathed. You can put them up as sauce, or soup, as tomato chunks, or whole: plain or pickled. Recipes abound. My favorite way to can raw tomatoes is what’s called Raw Pack Canning.

Raw Pack Canning

Raw Packed TomatoesThe tedious part is preparing the tomatoes. I tend to do this when I get about a half-bushel of tomatoes – this will yield a full canner run of 10 pint jars. But that’s a lot of tomatoes to clean.

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drop into icy cold water to arrest the cooking process. Core, slip the skins, and remove the seeds.

Chop the tomato into whatever size chunks you tend to use. If you want very small chunks, drop the tomatoes into a food processor and pulse just enough to chop them. Put the cut tomatoes in a colander to drain off as much water as possible (this helps reduce separating that produces a half-jar of tomatoes floating atop a half jar of clear liquid).

While you are doing this, have a canner full of jars & lids boiling up.

Some folks say that if you’re going to can something for more than 10 minutes you don’t need to boil the jars and lids to sterilize them, they’ll be sanitized in the canning process just like the contents; just wash them well and rinse. Others say always sterilize the jars. If I’m going to err, I prefer to err on the side of caution: especially if an error could make my family sick or dead. So I always boil up my jars and keep them hot in the canner.

Remove a jar from the canner with tongs or a jar lifter, dump the hot water in the jar into the sink (unless you’ve boiled your water level in the canner down, then dump a little of the hot water into the canner first). Put a tablespoon full of lemon juice in the bottom of a pint jar (2 Tbsp. for a quart – don’t use the 1½ quart jars for raw-pack) and spoon in enough tomato chunks to half-fill the jar. Use a non-reactive spoon or pestle, or something (I uses a small stainless steel whisk) to smoosh the tomatoes down. This forces out air pockets and fills gaps with juice. Air pockets are bad. Fill the jar almost full and do it again. Now inspect the jar for air bubbles that might have been missed and remove them with a plastic or bamboo utensil (I use an orange peeler). Top the jar to leave ½” of head space, wipe the rim, install a lid and band (just finger tight) and return the jar to the canner.

Repeat until all the jars are filled.

To water bath these you’ll need to boil the full jars for 85 minutes. Adjusting for altitude means I have to water bath the batch for about two hours! To me it makes a whole lot more sense to pressure can raw-pack tomatoes … especially since I DO have a good pressure canner. That means venting steam for ten minutes to purge the canner, install the 10 pound weight and process at 10 pounds for 15 minutes. Low altitudes can go 10 pounds for 10 minutes. Then turn it off and go do something else while it cools down. A half-hour instead of being stuck watching the pot boil for 2 hours.

Cooked Tomatoes

tomatoe sauceMy favorite way to put up cooked tomatoes is to make sauce out of them.

Blanch, peel, core and clean the tomatoes as above.

If you’re a purist, run them through a food mill. If not, use a food processor to pulse the tomatoes for a fine chop and transfer this to a stainless steel stock pot on medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the tomato mixture is reduced in volume by half. Reduce heat just to keep it hot.

For an Italian sauce add to each prepared pint jar: (double this for quarts)

  • 1 fresh Basil leaf
  • ½ tsp Thyme
  • ½ tsp Oregano
  • ¼ tsp Rosemary
  • ¼ tsp Sage
  • ½ clove Garlic (smashed)
  • ¼ tsp Onion powder
  • 1 Tbsp. Lemon juice

By measuring the spices into each jar instead of into the stock pot you get a more consistent taste across the batch – and you can adjust or eliminate the spices if you desire to do a split batch. I also like to put up sauce with BBQ seasoning and with Chili seasonings.  These make quick meals possible.

The lemon juice is required as an acidifier, anything else can be adjusted.

Ladle your cooked tomato into the hot jars, leaving 1/2” head space.  Remove bubbles (recheck head space), wipe the rim, install a lid and band (finger tight) and return to the canner. Water bath the batch for 35 minutes (adjust for altitude).

There You Have It

By having tomatoes put up in a variety of ways we have options. By having some put up as pre-seasoned tomato sauce we have an easy open-and-go means of fixing dinner. By having the raw pack canned tomatoes we have versatility. Frozen tomatoes retain more texture. Dried tomatoes are compact and last a long time. You can transfer some from glass jars to vacuum packed bags to take along on camping trips for better-than-average meals in the wild.

Maybe you won’t be able to do BLT’s in January with your own tomatoes, but most anything else can be created from at least one of these forms of preserved tomatoes. Enjoy!

I Can Can Apples

Summer is winding down and our canner is getting lots of use.  This time I planned to can the apples as pie filling for quick easy pies this fall, but that went amiss.

This is the first year since we moved in here that we had a decent apple harvest.  I’m pretty sure that has something to do with the 3” thick layer of wood chips I put around the base of the tree last fall.

This year I pulled a market basket full of apples off the tree.  This may have been a little early, but I didn’t want to wait until they were all wormy.  I put them in a big paper bag and let them finish ripening there.  I canned them up yesterday.

canned applesI got nine pints from that basket of apples.  Yes, I can count: one didn’t seal and it’s in the refrigerator.  I probably forgot to wipe the rim.  By the time I got to the canning run it was getting late and Marie would be home soon and I was rushing.

These are just plain apples, no seasoning or fancy stuff done to them.  I figure they’re more versatile that way.  That wasn’t my original plan, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Read the Rest…

MoonPies in the Smokies Festival

moonpie logoOn May 26th, 2012 approximately 3,000 people braved the 92° temperatures to attend the First Annual MoonPie in the Smokies Festival, held in Newport Tennessee at the A&I Fairgrounds and sponsored by Pepsi, the Cocke County Partnership, Chattanooga Bakery and 92.3 WNPC radio.

In many respects it was your typical country fair: there were food, drink and memorabilia vendors, there was a car show, there was a cornhole tournament, there were inflatable bouncy things for the kids to play in, there was a giant sand pile to dig in, the fire department sent a pumper truck to spray water in an area where folks could go to cool off.  The local grammar school kids put on a musical comedy called The Unknown Salesman honoring Mr. Earl Mitchell Sr. inventor of the iconic Southern snack; the MoonPie, which featured – naturally – dancing MoonPies: the MoonPiettes.  But the guests of honor were The World’s Largest MoonPie, Anna Pratt; granddaughter of Mr. Mitchel, and Ron Dickson author of The Great MoonPie Handbook.

Moonpie & RD ColaMs. Pratt lives in Gatlinburg TN but frequently comes to Newport to put flowers on the grave of her grandfather (Mitchell) who is buried in Union Cemetery. When asked if her grandfather had received any royalties from his invention she replied, “Not a penny.” But his creation has spread joy across the South for generations; every self-respecting Southerner knows that a MoonPie and an RC Cola is the greatest snack on the planet.  Continue reading “MoonPies in the Smokies Festival”

Dried Beans a Twist on an Old Favorite

My wife and I like making soups and stews with dried beans.  Prior to putting in our own garden, we bought bags and bags of various dried beans and bean soup kits (assorted beans and seasoning in one bag).  Black beans have always been a favorite of ours, so when I started gardening, I was sure to put in some black bean plants.

beans, dry, black, shelling, dried beansWhen I think of dried beans, this is the sort of thing I think of.  But recently I stumbled across a twist on the dried beans idea: dehydrated green beans.  We dehydrate a lot of things: fruit slices, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and a wide variety of herbs, but green beans?

My green beans are doing quite well this year and I have bunches of them blanched and frozen or canned for later use.  And still they come in.  So I decided to try drying a batch and see how that works out. Continue reading “Dried Beans a Twist on an Old Favorite”

Ice Cream Sunday

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan designated July as National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday of the month as National Ice Cream Day. He recognized ice cream as a fun and nutritious food that is enjoyed by a full 90 percent of the nation’s population. In the proclamation, President Reagan called for all people of the United States to observe these events with “appropriate ceremonies and activities.” With this in mind I thought I’d talk just a bit about ice cream and its history.

Did you know…

ice cream, making,familyEach American consumes a yearly average of 23.2 quarts of ice cream, ice milk, sherbet, ices and other commercially produced frozen dairy products.

The Northern Central states have the highest per capita consumption of ice cream at 41.7 quarts.

More ice cream is sold on Sunday than any other day of the week.

Ice cream and related frozen desserts are consumed by more than 90 percent of households in the United States.  Continue reading “Ice Cream Sunday”

What’s Your Chocolate Blog Hop

Today I’m trying something new for me, a Blog Hop. If you’re new to this too, a blog hop is an easy way to discover new people with a common interest and read some great posts. This time, we’re all talking about our love affair with chocolate and invite you to join in through the comments. Below my article is a list of links to other hoppers, this same list appears on all the hop stops. Here, have a brownie, read my article, leave a comment if you like, then click a link in the list to go there. Repeat as often as you like or until you’ve visited them all.

My Favorite Chocolate

chocolate, dark chocolate, HersheysI love dark chocolate.  Yes, I know: to most of you this qualifies me as a psychopath.  “Normal” people prefer the sweetness of milk chocolate.  Be that as it may, I remain committed to the dark variety.  But then, even though I’m a Southerner, I don’t drink Sweet Tea and I prefer the taste of a diet soda over regular just because I can’t handle the syrupy sweetness. In the meals that we cook we reduce or eliminate sugar.  It’s what we’re accustomed to.

My favorite every-day treats are Hershey’s Nuggets: Special Dark with Almonds.  I keep a canister of these on the counter in the kitchen, and use them as a reward to myself for having completed all my tasks for the day and behaved myself.  On special occasions I may receive Ghirardelli or Toblerone bars. Continue reading “What’s Your Chocolate Blog Hop”