Easter Lamb

March 28, 2015


carved lamb photo 2 For decades I’ve made the same Easter dinner. Every year I read about new, trendy combinations, fresh starts. Yet I return time and again to the now almost sacramental supper of the lamb. It’s a once a year feast, the whole leg, stuffed with garlic and rosemary, cooked on the bone, roasted medium rare and thinly sliced lengthwise into rippling pink ribbons. It’s a meal so ancient no one knows its origins: desert herders or mountain farmers? We step back in time when we come to this table.

plated roast lamab photo 3Last year before Easter I waited for my leg of lamb. Bill, my butcher, promised to hold a small one when it came in and sure enough at almost the last minute I picked up my slender 8 lb (from shank end to hip) leg. I sawed off the bonier sirloin end, cut the meat into kebabs, and saved the bones for stock. My final “gigot” weighed 6 lbs. I trimmed off mini-bits of excess fat and studded the whole leg with slivers of garlic and tufts of fresh rosemary. Dusted with freshly ground black pepper, the wrapped lamb waited in the fridge until noon the next day. Two hours before roasting I drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled it generously with kosher salt, and let it come to room temp.

Strawberry/rhubarb pie went into the oven first. Next came the pan of scalloped potatoes that when cooked waited under a towel when it was time to bump up the temp for the lamb. After exactly an hour and fifteen minutes the lamb was done and ready to rest half an hour before carving. I scraped the browned mirepoix into a saucepan, added a quart of good stock and set it to simmer for the sauce while we drank a bottle of champagne in the afternoon sun. Green beans tossed with butter, warm potatoes dauphionoise, rosy sliced lamb, and a dark brown sauce. Dinner is served, everyone inside, time for the Easter lamb.

French Style Roast Leg of Lamb

5-7 lb. bone-in leg of lamb with shank attached.

3-5 cloves garlic

sprig of fresh rosemary (or dry rosemary)

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

large onion, carrot, 2 celery ribs and extra garlic cloves

24 fl. oz. (3 cups) lamb or chicken stock

1-2 tablespoons roux

fresh lemon juice to taste

Trim lamb of excess fat. Cut peeled garlic cloves into splinters and remove rosemary needles from sprig. Use small, sharp, paring knife to make deep holes in meat. Widen each hole with finger, and push sliver of garlic along with 3 rosemary needles in each hole. You will need to insert 15-20 slivers of garlic all over leg of lamb. Rub lamb with olive oil; sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Set aside at room temperature 2 hours before roasting. Slice onion, carrot and celery; add a few unpeeled garlic cloves. Place vegetables diagonally over base of 10-by-14-inch roasting pan.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Insert meat thermometer into thickest part of leg. Place seasoned lamb fat side up on bed of vegetables and roast for 20-30 minutes or until sizzling and beginning to brown. Reduce heat to 375°F and roast 30-40 minutes. Remove lamb promptly when thermometer reaches 130°-140°F. Do not roast longer unless you plan to serve well-done lamb; temperature will rise 5-10 degrees as lamb rests for 20 minutes before carving. [To test lamb for doneness without a thermometer, insert long metal skewer into thick section. Hold in place to count of 10; remove skewer and place it just above your upper lip. If skewer is warmer than comfortable, lamb is done.]

To prepare sauce: Lift lamb from roasting pan and pour off excess fat. Remove any vegetable bits that have burned. Pour in stock to soften all browned bits. Scrape cooked vegetables and stock into saucepan. Bring to low boil and simmer 5-10 minutes to intensely flavor stock. Crumble in roux, whisk to dissolve, and simmer to richly flavored sauce. Add fresh lemon juice to taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper. Strain sauce through a sieve before serving. Carve lamb in thin slices lengthwise in direction of the bone. A 6 lb. leg of lamb will serve 10 and still have leftovers.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon




Buttered Cabbage

March 15, 2015
buttered cabbage

buttered cabbage

Supermarkets are rolling out mountains of green cabbage, bakeries icing cupcakes luminous green, to tempt Americans who plan to eat corned beef and raise a ruckus on St. Paddy’s Day. Meanwhile, from Dublin to Dingle, families will have a quieter bank holiday, go to church, and settle around a roast turkey dinner. Legends of fifth century St. Patrick abound as he brought the gospel to native Celts, drove snakes out of the Emerald Isle, and used the three-leafed clover to explain the Trinity. Corned beef is more American than Irish, and it was promoted by our East-Coast Irish immigrants, who salted cheaper cuts of beef to emulate their version of bacon: brined pork loin.

Even now at least a decade after Ireland’s food renaissance, many don’t realize the bounties of goodness that await the traveler. Americans who think an Irish dinner means boiled potatoes and soggy cabbage will have a jaw-dropping experience due to Ireland’s culinary revolution. The island’s patchwork of green pastures produces the best of butter, farmhouse cheeses to rival the French, garden produce nurtured in the rain, grass-fed beef and lamb, the freshest seafood, and the world’s premium smoked salmon. Common Irish veggies like potatoes and cabbages are way ahead of what we buy in our winter markets. Ireland’s mild climate allows harvesting to continue pretty much year round. Farms border towns and cities, so produce doesn’t travel far. Spuds are dug close to selling time, come to market with dirt still on them, and have such rich flavor they can easily be the “center of the plate.” Sweet green cabbage is seldom simmered in lots of water until soft; instead, it’s shredded, cooked with a little butter for just a few minutes.

We’ve shied away from cooked cabbage after bad experiences with the mustard gas smell from overcooking. Quickly prepared cabbage is a distinct vegetable experience—it’s for more than coleslaw. This week, why not buy a crisp green head, shred and quick-cook one of the tastiest (and cheapest) greens. Your Irish eyes will be smiling.

Buttered Cabbage

2 pound head fresh green cabbage

pinch salt

2 tablespoons butter

4 fl. oz. water

additional tablespoon butter if desired

Quarter the cabbage, cutting from the top through the core. Cut away the core and thinly shred the cabbage. There will be about 8 cups shredded cabbage.

In a heavy four-quart pot bring 4 fl. oz. water, 2 tablespoons butter and a good pinch salt to a boil. Add half of the cabbage turning it in the hot butter with a tongs. Add the second half of cabbage and combine it with what you’ve buttered. Cover and cook over moderately high heat for 5-7 minutes, turning it a couple of times with tongs. Add a little water if cabbage seems dry. When it’s tender, taste for seasonings, adding more salt if needed, and stir in another tablespoon of butter. Serve it, sweet and tender, to 4-6.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



Bread Pudding for Mardi Gras

February 17, 2015
Blueberry Bread Pudding

Blueberry Bread Pudding

Two thousand years ago Romans loved to party. The rulering powers believed the public needed to let off steam. Carnivals and Dionysian feast days marked the calendar. In the fourth century when Constantine announced Christianity as the new religion, a peaceful transition meant holidays needed to stay. Most of the now Western church-related holidays such as Christmas, Mardi Gras, and Easter replaced standing feast days in name only.

Mardi Gras, or Carnival, has ancient roots. When early French explorers settled the region known as Louisiana, they brought their homeland traditions. Not Puritans like those settling New England, these raucous New Orleans Roman Catholic immigrants paraded and feasted before the penitential season of Lent. Feast days of Carnival said goodbye (vale) to meat (carne). On the last day before Ash Wednesday, it was time to use up the kitchen’s fat before a sparse and somber Lenten diet. Thus we have Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

In the frugal kitchen of the French housewife, no scraps were wasted. Bits of meat and vegetables went into stocks and soups, and stale bread was saved for French toast, which morphed into the now famous New Orleans Bread Pudding. Who can resist this warm, fragrant dessert that blends the best of a cake, a custard, a soufflé. With some good bread, a few eggs, a little sugar, milk and cream, you can feast like the King of Mardi Gras and find the buried treasure of blueberries in your own bread pudding.

Bread Pudding

12 oz. loaf good French bread, sliced and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (9 cups)

4 eggs

6 oz. (3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon

knife-point ground cinnamon

8 fl. oz. (1 cup) heavy cream

16 fl. oz. (2 cups) whole milk

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries (or other fruit of choice)

cinnamon sugar for sprinkling

In deep bowl whisk eggs with sugar, vanilla, rum, and cinnamon. Blend in cream and milk. Add bread cubes and fold in until thoroughly moistened. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate two hours or overnight to allow bread to absorb all custard.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide half of the pudding among 10-14 individual buttered custard cups or spread in a 8-by-10-inch buttered Pyrex dish. Scatter the berries evenly over the pudding and top with the remaining half of the custard-soaked bread. Dust tops with cinnamon-sugar. Bake in water bath (place the filled cups in a deep baking pan and add at least 1/2 inch boiling water). Set water bath in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until individual puds are puffed and golden. (Bake approximately 40-45 minutes for a larger pudding dish or until puffed and lightly browned.)

Serve bread pudding warm or at room temperature with crème anglaise, whipped cream or ice cream if desired. Individual servings of leftover pudding may be quickly flashed in a microwave for a quick warm up.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon





Beach Fish

January 21, 2015
beach fish

beach fish

Every day from ten to six Vicki cooks fish at the edge of Los Muertos Beach. Her sign reads “Mariscos bajo el Puente” (Fish Under the Bridge), with her kitchen under a low concrete bridge. She stands in soft sand up to her ankles working at a clean oilcloth-covered table lined with seasonings, water jugs, a cutting board, and a couple of knives. Just alongside the bridge her rusted iron “range-sized” grill holds a blanket of smoldering charcoal under a heavy grate.

We order a whole red snapper for dinner, and I wade through sand to observe Vicki. She lifts a shiny red fish from her cooler, flicks off the scales, splits it open along the spine through the belly and head, opening the snapper like a book. She holds the open fish over the sand while she asks me to splash on enough water to wash away blood. She gashes the spanking clean fish twice on each of the skin sides. She sprinkles the inside with salt, pepper, bottled red chili sauce, and Maggi sauce (which alas contains MSG and is sort of a fermented wheat soy-like condiment used in Mexico and called “English Sauce”). She also seasons the skin side, then chops two large cloves of garlic, and stuffs bits into the skin-side gashes and into any crevices on the flesh side. Next, she opens a wire hinged grill cage, places the splayed fish inside, slides down the clasp, and sets the fish over glowing coals. On the edge of her grill there’s a saucepan of melted butter seasoned with garlic and fresh bay leaves. Vicki wields a large paintbrush dripping with this seasoned butter and glosses both sides of the fish as it faces the fire.

We sit on  plastic chairs watching smoke curl. Tantalizing aromas of butter, smoke and garlic mingle. While the snapper cooks for ten minutes on each side, Vicki chops tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro and chilies for a salsa-like salad, and warms a stack of corn tortillas. Her grandchildren play in the sand, her daughter takes orders from other customers, while her husband carries the till in his waist fanny-pack.

As the sky grows rosy with sunset, our steaming fish is ready for the plate. We bid goodbye to the family and walk up the beach to dine on a balcony as night falls.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


Tortilla Pizza

December 9, 2014

tortilla pizza  photo-16A grand table lined with trays of bite-sized holiday fare looks like easy entertaining. Though the cook may tremble at tedious finger-food work, larger baked sweets or savories that may be cut in pieces save the day.

Along with shallow quiche cut in squares, appetizer pizzas have been one of my mainstays. I divide a batch of pizza dough into five-ounce lumps, and stretch seven-to-eight inch pizza circles that may be topped, baked, frozen, reheated, and cut into six or eight mini-wedges. All’s fine until I’m asked to include a few gluten-free items. Since most of the powdery, gf flours don’t stretch well or have much flavor, I opt for corn tortillas. Corn tortillas work into the same routine as the regular pizzas and offer gf folks crisp, savory bites.

In almost every corner of Chicagoland from strip mall tiendas to chain supermarkets, El Milagro’s fresh corn tortillas have a regular spot. Actually, they’re better than many tortillas I’ve had in Mexico and worth a place in every home freezer or fridge. Even for a snack or lunch, a corn tortilla quickly toasted over a gas flame or softened in a toaster and spread with peanut butter, drizzled with olive oil and salt or rolled around a morsel of cheese offers nutritious, satisfying flavor.

Whether you need to add some gf items to your holiday party table, or you’d just like a delicious corn tortilla pizza yourself, here’s the plan:

Corn Tortilla Pizza

fresh corn tortillas

olive oil

tomato sauce for pizza (homemade if possible) thick enough

to mound in a spoon

grated cheese—stringy pizza cheese plus grated Parmesan

or a mixture of grated Swiss, white cheddar, Jack or

whatever cheese you have

crumbled goat cheese (optional)

toppings: slivered bacon or pepperoni, diced roasted peppers, halved olives, caramelized onions, sliced canned artichoke hearts

dry oregano, and crushed red pepper

Place tortilla on baking sheet; brush with few drops olive oil. Cover with smear of tomato sauce; sprinkle with grated cheese. Top with second tortilla and press down. Brush the second tortilla with oil, smear with sauce and sprinkle with cheese before topping with any of the listed items, so it looks like a pizza. Lightly sprinkle with crumbled dry oregano and crushed red pepper. Bake in a 450° oven 8-10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the tortilla is crisp. Use a baking stone if you are doing other baking at the time to merit the long heat-up. Tortilla pizzas also bake easily in a toaster oven. Use right away or freeze for handy gf party food. When ready to serve, cut each pizza into sixths or quarters with a chef’s knife.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon





Pumpkin Bread

November 23, 2014

pu,mpkin breadDecades ago in a booklet on Greek Olive Oil I came across a recipe for pumpkin bread. Actually it’s more of a cake than a bread but falls into place for a tea sweet or a breakfast cake and could easily be dessert with a scoop of ice cream. I see pumpkin bread recipes racing across the screen these days, but each year I take out my 29-ounce tin of the pureed orange stuff and use a pound for the loaves; I still have enough left for a pie.

This quick-mix formula makes plenty for extra cakes to give away. With a half hour’s prep, 40 to 45 minutes baking, and a brush of lemon glaze, six sweet loaves will quickly line your cooling rack. I prefer to use small, 6-by-3 1/2-inch loaf pans, since I’m always advocating small slices of anything sugary. It’s vital that the pans be well buttered and floured before adding the batter so the cake comes out easily. For extra moisture and flavor, I add dried fruit. This can be a mixture of raisins, currants, and dried cranberries, or a more elaborate combo of diced prunes, dates, apricots, and figs, or any combination. Chopped walnuts or pecans may also be part of the fruit mixture.

Since the original recipe came from an olive promotion booklet, olive oil works well, but this is no place for fancy extra virgin olive oil. Those cold-pressed oils should be saved for dressing salads or garnishing since their flavor and many benefits disperse in heat. For any sautéing or baking it’s suitable and much less costly to use a reputable “pure” olive oil. Otherwise, use a standard vegetable oil.

Thanksgiving’s right around the corner, and you can easily fit in a welcome batch of pumpkin bread.

Pumpkin Bread

16 oz. canned pumpkin (2 cups)

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon ground clove

4 large eggs (or 3 extra-large)

21 oz. sugar (3 cups)

6 fl. oz. pure olive oil (3/4 cup) or 8 fl. oz. vegetable oil (1 cup)

6 fl. oz. water (3/4 cup)

16 oz. all purpose flour (unbleached if possible) (3 ½ cups)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

12-16 oz. mixed dried fruit and nuts* (2-3 cups) (optional)

* raisins, golden raisins, currants, dried cranberries, cut dates, figs or prunes, chopped walnuts or pecans.

Butter and flour 6 small or 4 medium loaf pans. Preheat oven to 375°.

In a wide mixing bowl whisk the spices and salt into the pumpkin. Add eggs; beat to combine. Add sugar and whisk like crazy. Pour in oil and blend thoroughly. Place flour, soda and baking powder in sieve and sift 1/3 over pumpkin mixture. Whisk to combine, adding 1/3 of the water. Repeat, alternating the flour and water until all are incorporated.

Fold in optional fruit and nuts. Divide batter equally among the prepared baking pans. Place in preheated oven; bake at 375° 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and bake for another 20-30 minutes or until tests done.

To glaze, mix 2 cups powdered sugar with a tablespoon of lemon juice and few drops of boiling water to make a thin icing. Remove loaves from pans; place on cooling rack and brush icing over warm cakes, allowing some to drip down the sides. As cakes cool, icing will harden.

Wrap carefully and store in a tin or plastic box, or freeze. Makes 6 12 oz. loaves. They’ll be even tastier if allowed to mellow for a day or so.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon




Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

October 28, 2014
Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

Where the sidewalk edges the church parking lot, a lone pear tree lives in a fistful of dirt against an old brick wall. There’s not even room for a dandelion. This solitary pear tree is never watered, fed or pruned, yet each season it drops a blanket of rotting fruit crying for recognition beside the holy path. This year Darlene sent a crew up ladders until a bushel of small, green, hard Seckels stood in the church office next to a stack of bags and a sign saying “free.” The pears, strong in character but weak in appearance, weren’t popular. Neither were they wormy, but they were freckled, streaked, blemished, and some misshapen. Visitors thinking of rosy-cheeked golden Bartletts and slender-necked russet Boscs in the supermarket shunned the local organic, ugly Seckels.

I noticed them, delighted at the prospect of giveaways, and scooped them up. I knew they’d need time to ripen and that they’d prefer the dark, so I spread them in the basement, covered them with newspapers and checked every few days. Three weeks later the pears had yellowed and begun to soften. Their juicy flesh liked a pinch of cinnamon and a sprinkle of brown sugar. . .and I remembered the Ballymaloe Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake. Reducing the butter and sugar from the original recipe makes a light teacake or a brunch pastry. Warm from the oven, it welcomes a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream for dessert.

Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

1 oz. unsalted butter (2 tablespoons)

3 1/2 oz. brown sugar (1/2 cup)

small pinch salt

4 oz. all purpose flour (1 cup minus 3 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 extra large egg

3 1/2 oz. sugar (1/2 cup)

1/4 cup vegetable oil (or pure olive oil)

1/4 cup grated pear

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (use microplane)

6 small pears, peeled, halved, cored or 3 regular pears cut in sixths


Melt butter in 8-inch cast-iron skillet. Sprinkle on brown sugar and melt over low heat. Add tiny pinch salt.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Peel and cut pears.

Beat egg, add sugar, oil, ginger, and grated pear; whisk together thoroughly. Place flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon in sieve and sift over egg mixture. Beat together.

Circle pear halves, rounded side down, over brown sugar and butter, or pinwheel pear pieces around pan. Keep skillet over very LOW heat. Spread batter over pears. Bake at least 40-45 minutes or until well browned and tests done. If pears are especially juicy, the cake needs extra baking time to thoroughly cook the cake’s center. When the cake is deeply browned and tests done, remove from oven.

Allow cake to cool 5 minutes. Loosen edges and turn cake upside down onto flat serving plate or wire cooling rack. Scrape out any remaining bits of caramelized sugar and smooth it onto the cake sides. Serves 6-8.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



Pasta Pronto

October 8, 2014
Pasta Pronto with Black Beans and Carrots

Pasta Pronto with Black Beans and Carrots

After Friday’s pizza and Sunday’s roast chicken, meatless Monday sounds just fine. Some years ago a rushed Italian mother of twins told me about this one-pot pasta supper, and I’ve had a quick fix treasure up my sleeve ever since.

Here pasta and vegetables cook together, then combine with warm garlic-infused olive oil plus grated Parmesan cheese for one of the most versatile and satisfying noodles in the book. Pasta shapes and veg varieties are limitless: asparagus or peas in the spring; green beans or zucchini in the summer; broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or kale in the winter. Basically any noodle (wheat, or gluten free) and any veg that takes to a quick boil will work.

Once you’ve selected a vegetable and a pasta, you’ll need garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper, Parm cheese, and you’re ready to go. Since the veg usually takes less cooking time than the pasta, start the pasta in boiling water and add cut veg 4-5 minutes later. Meanwhile, olive oil warms in a small pan along with an infusion of chopped garlic and crushed red pepper, while grated Parm waits in a bowl.

With a quick combination, dinner’s ready. I complemented this week’s veg pasta pronto with tomato and cumin-stewed black beans and carrots braised with ginger and preserved lemon, plus a bowl of homemade yogurt: a colorful feast for a meatless Monday.

Pasta Pronto with Broccoli

8-10 oz. trimmed broccoli

4-5 oz. linguine

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper or to taste

generous ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Trim broccoli or other selected vegetable into bite sized pieces. (If using broccoli stems, peel and slice). Grate cheese, chop garlic.

Bring 10 cups water to boil; salt generously. Add pasta and begin timing. (My pasta took 12 minutes, so I added the broccoli and sliced sprouts at the 6-minute mark.) Add veg with enough time to cook until tender: at least 4-6 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm olive oil in small skillet or saucepan. Add chopped garlic and pepper. Heat until garlic is fragrant and soft, but do not let it brown. Turn off heat and hold.

Once pasta and veg test done, reserve a small cup of the cooking water and drain pasta. Return drained pasta and broccoli to the cooking pan and add the warm garlic oil. Stir gently to combine adding the cheese a handful at a time. Stir after each addition to melt the cheese and form a coating sauce. Add a little of the reserved cooking water if the mix seems dry. Mound glorious greens and noodles on a serving dish and drizzle with little extra virgin oil if desired. Serves 2.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



How to Make Yogurt

September 6, 2014
Homemade Yogurt Tomato and Yogurt Salad

Homemade Yogurt
Tomato and Yogurt Salad

When the last dog days of summer blaze, yogurt saves the supper. For me yogurt is essential year round. I’ve been making my own yogurt for over fifty years following guidelines from a Gujarati woman who once taught me the skill in a torrid dry season in Tanzania. Back then I was able to come by an occasional pint of fresh milk delivered to my kitchen door in a clean twenty-ounce brown beer bottle stoppered at the top with a wad of newspaper. Fresh milk was precious, needed sterilization and a way to keep it. Making yogurt was the answer.

In America yogurt wasn’t common during the ’40s and ’50s. When I tasted its tangy freshness for the first time alongsidespicy Indian food, it was something totally new. In fact, having first learned to enjoy yogurt with savories, I’ve never been able to go for it with sugared fruit so popular nowadays.

My Indian friend’s method for making yogurt was simple—no special equipment needed. If you have a heavy saucepan, a couple of glass jars and an insulated picnic box or a Styrofoam container and a heavy towel, you can make yogurt. People have been using this method for thousands of years. It’s nothing to be afraid of and can give you a way to preserve milk, make milk more digestible, and save lots of money. Yogurt may be used as a substitute for buttermilk, sour cream; homemade yogurt is so thick and creamy there’s no need to go for the Greek.

To begin you need a starter (bacteria that will grow in warm milk transforming lactase sugar in milk to lactic acid that thickens and lengthens the life of the milk). To find a starter, buy a small container of the best organic whole-milk plain yogurt you can find. Make sure there are no additives; the starter should contain only milk and yogurt culture—no sugars, flavorings or stabilizers. You will need to buy the culture only once. From then on, one batch of homemade yogurt will give you starter for the next batch.

Usually I make two quarts of yogurt at a time, but you can make any amount, even as little as one cup. I firmly believe in making whole-milk yogurt because it tastes better, and, used in small quantities, it’s worth the calories. Any type of cow, goat or sheep’s milk can be used.

First rinse a large, heavy saucepan with cold water and shake out water (this will help to prevent milk from sticking). Pour in selected amount of milk and place saucepan over moderate heat. Bring milk to a boil, stirring occasionally. (Lay wooden spoon used for stirring across top of saucepan—this will help prevent a boil-over.) Let the milk come to a boil that foams and rises in the saucepan; take care to remove from heat before any milk spills over. Set saucepan away from heat and let milk cool. Stir from time to time to prevent a skin from forming over milk (don’t worry, though, if a skin forms; the yogurt culture will break down the skin in the finished product).

Ready the jars and lids. Make sure jars and lids are impeccably clean. Run them through a dishwasher or wash with dish soap and rinse with very hot water. I prefer to use pint jars, but any size will do, from jam jars to quart jars.

As milk is cooling, place a rounded soup-spoonful of yogurt (or yogurt from your last making) in the bottom of each clean jar. Allow boiled milk to cool until you can hold a scrupulously clean pinkie finger in the milk and count to ten, or ten seconds. At this point the milk is lukewarm and will not kill the bacteria, which is a living organism. Pour the lukewarm boiled milk into the culture-inoculated jars; stir; screw on the lids and place the warm jars in an insulated picnic box, Styrofoam box or small cardboard box lined with a soft towel. Fold the towel over the jars; clip on the lid and allow the box to rest undisturbed at room temperature for a few hours.

In summer yogurt may be ready in four hours; in winter it may take eight to ten hours to set. Yogurt is ready when liquid milk has turned into solid custard in jars. There will be a little liquid whey floating on the top, and vertical ridges may show along the sides of the jars. Remove jars from box and refrigerate. If unopened, yogurt will keep for weeks. I once accidentally found a forgotten jar of yogurt that had been in the back of my fridge for three months; it was perfectly good.

When you spoon yogurt from the jar, a pool of whey will ooze into that space. The liquid whey is also good; it can be poured into a sauce, a soup, added to a salad dressing or a smoothie. People are paying big bucks these days to buy powdered health-giving whey, but yours is a free byproduct from your homemade yogurt. This ancient craft of preserving milk is a miracle! Make it your own today!

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


Stuffed Giant Zucchini

August 14, 2014
Stuffed giant zucchini

Stuffed giant zucchini

Every year I dutifully plant a few zucchini seeds in a sunny mound at my community garden plot. I water, weed, and wish for squash, but I usually get only lush leaves and a bounty of blossoms. While other gardeners are flinging oversized, unwanted zuccs onto the compost heap, I keep searching for some slender young squash among the wide, prickly greens. I’ve vowed to mind my plants carefully, never to let a homegrown vegetable go to waste. Yesterday after almost daily searching, I glimpsed a gigantic zucchini right in the middle of my leafy plant. I still can’t imagine how I missed it, but garden sprites are not to be outdone.

I was unwilling to let my handsome—though too large to sauté—squash go to waste. Not a fan of zucchini bread or muffins (in fruit-laced baked goods I much prefer pumpkin or banana), I set out to stuff the squash. First I rid it of as much excess water as possible, then whipped up a stuffing of aromatics and the grated flesh. With just a little cheese added, it’s a great vegetarian dish; it can be baked along with a chicken or a few loaves in the oven and is tasty either warm or at room temperature. It won’t freeze but, refrigerated, it will make enough to stretch out simple suppers for several days.

The following isn’t a recipe with measurements but, rather, a guideline. The process will work for any kind of summer squash.

Stuffed Zucchini

Overgrown zucchini


Olive oil


Garlic, chili, fresh herbs

Cooked brown rice if available

Crumbled feta (optional)

Soft breadcrumbs

Peel the zucchini; cut in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard seeds. Grate half of the squash and the end pieces of the other half on the large holes of a box grater. Place the grated squash in a bowl and toss generously with salt. Also salt the scooped out other half. Let salt draw water from the vegetable for at least an hour.

Place grated squash in a strainer and squeeze out the water. Taste to make sure it isn’t overly salty. (If so, rinse, drain, and squeeze.) Drain and wipe water from squash boat. Line a long loaf pan (or cut squash boat in half and use two pans if you don’t have a long one) with overhanging parchment, brush bottom with oil and add the hollowed squash half.

Meanwhile, sauté an onion in olive oil until soft, add as much chopped garlic as you like, a good handful of chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, or whatever you have), and a bit of chopped fresh green or red chili for some zing. Once the aromatics are fragrant, add the squeezed grated squash and cook over moderately high heat, stirring often until the squash is wilted and no longer watery. Add a couple spoonfuls of cooked brown or white rice if you have some, plus a nice handful of feta crumbles. Spoon the filling into the boat, top with fresh breadcrumbs, sprinkle generously with olive oil, and bake either slowly or quickly (according to whatever else is in the oven) until zucchini is tender and the crumbs browned. Use the parchment sling to lift the stuffed squash from the baking pan. Serve with lime wedges or salsa if desired. Organic edibles saved!

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



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