Archive for May, 2010

Restoration Pressure (Cooker)

May 25, 2010

When I was 12 the pressure cooker blew up. It was summer, the middle of peach harvest. I was alone in the house with my brother, Scott, still a toddler. The blast plastered peach over the walls and shot the lid into the ceiling. Scott screamed and we raced to the “lower ten” where my mom was driving the flatbed through the orchard as my dad hoisted boxes filled earlier in the day. I don’t remember much more, but I know I shied away from the pressure pan as I took over more and more of the family cooking. A decade later, I was in remote East Africa where bottled gas fuel was costly and the pressure pan tenderized the tough local beef, steamed breads and hastened canning with minimum flame time.

For the next 40 years I banished the pressure cooker from my kitchen. I had fallen under the spell of Julia Child, fully convinced that only slow, low cooking brought the best flavor and tenderness.  During the years of Mary Jo’s Cuisine, the restaurant, my heavy commercial baking ovens with thick iron floors that held residual heat for hours made slow cooking supreme.  Never before had I turned out such succulent stews and pots of melting beans. When the restaurant closed, I missed the Blodgett ovens and the big gas jets of the Garland range, and I still struggle with the mincing heat of a home stove. Then two years ago as I was working in the kitchen section of the church rummage sale, I faced the pressure cooker once again. I thought, maybe I should give it another go and for a couple of bucks what did I have to lose? The pressure pan’s now back as a regular kitchen tool used at least once a week to cook beans.

For most people who are able to eat legumes, beans are one of the great foods of the world, both for flavor and nutrition. They are sustainable, inexpensive and packed with minerals. In fact one pound of dry beans will yield protein equal to a 3 ½ pound chicken or 1 ¼ pounds lean ground beef. Yet so often home cooked or even restaurant cooked beans aren’t completely tender, and canned beans are often laced with sugars or preservatives.  The best beans must be satin soft, meltingly tender, though not stewed to the point of mush.  I count on a pound of beans a week to add to soups, salads, stews or tacos.  State of the art pressure cookers cost at least $50, but there will surely be one or two at your local church rummage or neighborhood garage sale. Make sure the rubber sealing ring is in good order before you begin, and keep a plentiful supply of dried beans in your larder for variety. Cooking times vary for different beans. You will find a handy guide in the manufacturer’s directions.  Here’s a basic recipe using a 1970’s pressure cooker.

Pressure Cooked Dry Beans

1 lb. dry great northern or black beans

1 tablespoon olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil or bacon fat

Optional additions: 3 cloves unpeeled garlic, 2 dry chilis de árbol, l bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

The night before: pour the beans into a wide bowl and check for any small pebbles (most unlikely, but always look.) Cover generously with cold water and allow to soak overnight.

The next day, drain the soaked beans. Pour beans into pressure cooker. Cover with 5-6 cups cold water, add fat of choice and optional garlic, chilis, bay leaf. Twist on lid to lock, top vent pipe with steam valve with weight, turn heat moderately high and allow pressure to come up. Air vent will pop up; weight may rock. Immediately reduce heat to low and time 30 minutes for great northern beans or 35 minutes for black beans.

When cooking time is up, turn off heat and allow cooker to stand until air vent drops, meaning all pressure is released. Open lid and season beans with salt. Beans may look as though they have burst slightly, but they will retreat to shape as they cool. Taste their luxury. For beans less soft, reduce cooking time 5 minutes.  Makes 2 quarts cooked beans in broth. Use within 5-6 days or freeze in pint containers. If beans begin to develop a slight smell of mustard gas, skim any white film and bring to a boil. Beans keep better in glass jars or stainless steel than in plastic cartons.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at


Ellen’s White Cookies

May 20, 2010

Time and again I remember Ellen’s white cookies. Ellen wasn’t really my great grandmother, but she was the only great grandmother I ever knew. You see, my great grandfather, John Lapp, stalwart Brethren blacksmith, had married stern Lavina of strong shoulders and steady feet. But when Lavina passed away in the early 1940’s, John had done his duty to faith and family. He revved up the old Essex less than six weeks after Lavina’s demise, pushed east to Missouri and married his old school flame, Ellen, still a maiden lady.

Gentle Ellen came to live behind the wrought iron fence in a rambling farmhouse next to the silent forge. Her kitchen window faced cottonwoods and the sugar beet fields of Appleton, Colorado. A coal-fired cook stove cozied the lineoleum floored kitchen with its round oak table and a high sideboard, atop which sat a Depression glass cookie jar. Only one kind of cookie lived in that jar, as I remember, and it was the one I always wanted. It was round, thick, soft and white. It was the plainest of cookies, dusted with granulated sugar. Grownups dunked the cookies in strong cream-laced coffee and kids pocketed them to nibble while sending cobs of dry corn through the hand-cranked sheller near the chicken coop.

My recipe file holds an old card with the ingredient list so simple one would wonder why there is any search for the replica, but then there was home-churned butter, rich clabbered buttermilk, the western flour from more than sixty years ago and the temper of coal heat. Now I use unsalted butter, homemade yogurt and bake the cookies in a slow electric oven. I make them small since I’m watching fats and sugars but still need the occasional sweet. They may be different, but they take me back to that treasured room in my life story where I feel blessed to have known sweet Ellen.

Ellen’s White Cookies

½ stick unsalted butter* (2 oz.)

½ cup granulated sugar ( 3 ½ oz.)

¼ teaspoon Kosher salt

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup plain yogurt, sour cream or buttermilk

¼ teaspoon baking soda

about 1 ½ cups all purpose flour (6 oz.)

* reduce salt if using salted butter

Allow the butter and yogurt to come to room temperature before mixing.

Sift half of the flour with the baking soda.

Cream the butter and sugar until light working in the salt, vanilla and gradually beating in the yogurt, sour cream or buttermilk. Stir in the flour sifted with soda and gradually add the remaining flour until the dough comes into a soft ball. Scrape the dough onto the countertop and gently pat together with a light dusting of flour until no longer sticky. Cover with a towel and rest the dough half an hour, allowing the flour to absorb the moisture.

Cut dough ball in half and roll on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of ¼ inch. Cut with a 2-inch round cutter. Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet, add scraps to remaining dough and continue to roll using all the dough. Sprinkle cookies with granulated sugar before baking in a 325° oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Cookies should not brown and will remain soft in a tightly covered tin. Makes 2 1/2 dozen.  May use for small ice cream sandwiches or soak with juicy berries for mini shortcakes

Note: Recipe may be doubled. Flavor may be varied with the addition of a drop of lemon oil or ¼  teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg.

Mary Jo’s Cookbook is available at

Asparagus á la Jacques

May 11, 2010

I’ve never met Jacques Pépin, but I’ve cooked my way through France with La Technique and La Methode, until they’re old friends still prominent on my kitchen book shelf. One of his best nuggets is the simple Asparagus Stew tucked into the vegetable section of La Methode. I come back to it time and again with my own variation as still the best way to cook fresh asparagus. And by fresh asparagus I do not mean what comes from Mexico or Peru and lands in a supermarket.

Each spring when the local farmers’ market opens with an abundance of purple and green just-picked-yesterday asparagus, I vow to eat it everyday while it’s in season and never to buy any other. Its delicate sweetness is unrivaled and its vegetable stardom asks for a solitary presentation. A bowl of quickly cooked asparagus with a crisp chunk of peasant bread makes a perfect first course. With the addition of a few egg noodles and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan, you have supper.

We used to think asparagus was at its best after a brisk dunk in a pot of boiling salted water, but now we know that high heat in an oven, on a grill or in a shallow covered pan slicked with butter and a sprinkling of water, keeps more flavor in the spears. This rapid, almost stir-fry approach lifts the now prized “sparrow grass,” the weed we used to collect along Colorado ditch banks, into the realm of supreme delicacy.

Asparagus  la Jacques

1 lb. farm fresh purple or green asparagus

generous ¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons water

Carefully rinse asparagus, allowing it to soak in cold water 2 minutes if it feels sandy.

Cut each spear on a diagonal leaving the tops 2 to 3 inches long and narrowing the lower slices (see photo).

In the bottom of a heavy 10-to-12 inch stainless or enameled cast iron skillet with a tight fitting lid sprinkle the salt and water. Strew in the sliced asparagus and dot with butter. Cover, place over high heat. As soon as you hear cooking sounds, time 3 minutes. Stir, taste for tenderness and when done to your liking, tip the contents into two bowls, sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley or mint and rush to the table. A gift for 2.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at

Midweek Beef Stew

May 5, 2010

I usually stay away from those packages of cut up stew meat for fear that they may be a mixed bag, but every now and then there’s a tempting remainder from a good butcher, the package of stew meat from a beef quarter in the freezer or something picked up when there isn’t time to cube and trim a section of chuck. Almost always we find good value in the cuts of meat that take longer to cook.

A simple beef stew’s welcome for all seasons. It works with potatoes, carrots and parsnips on cool days, and it’s great poured over egg noodles or linguine next to a fresh green salad on warmer days. It’s something to put together one evening and heat up the next day for a quick supper. It’s something to make in quantity with plans for more than one meal since the seconds will undoubtedly taste better than the firsts. It’s a dish that takes to a multitude of variations: add canned diced tomatoes, oregano and basil to make it Italian, add a stick of cinnamon and a couple of long swivel peels of orange to make it Greek, add stripped roasted red peppers, more garlic and chili to make it Spanish, add a bit of star anise, some julienned fresh ginger, and soy sauce to give an Asian flair.  Keep your stew lean for health and you’ll find the contents pleasing for dinners, sandwich fillings and bits to strew in a main dish salad. Here’s a basic slow cooked braise that gives maximum flavor for minimum cost.

Midweek Beef Stew

1 lb. beef stew meat trimmed and cut in 1 inch cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil, or rendered flavorful pork fat (bacon)

l medium onion diced

1 medium carrot diced

1-2 branches celery diced

4-5 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon tomato paste

½ cup red or white wine, beer or 1 tablespoon wine vinegar plus water

½ cup stock or water

generous pinch dry thyme, crushed red pepper, 1 bay leaf

Optional: 2 medium potatoes, 4 oz. sliced mushrooms, sautéed.

Salt and pepper

Season the beef with salt and pepper and let rest at room temperature half an hour if possible.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil or dripping in a heavy frying pan and quickly brown the meat  remembering not to crowd the pan. Place the browned cubes in a heavy pot with a tight fitting lid (enameled cast iron is the best). Reduce heat and add the second tablespoon of oil to the pan with the meat residue. Gently sauté the diced onion, carrot and celery until limp. Stir in the chopped garlic and tomato paste allowing to cook until fragrant. Add the wine. beer or water and bring to a simmer. Pour the contents of the skillet over the beef. Deglaze the skillet with water or stock and add to the stew. Season with salt, pepper, herbs, chili to taste. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1-2 hours.

Halfway through the cooking time, top the stew with small or halved potatoes and continue to cook until both meat and spuds are tender. (If potatoes are done before the meat, remove them to a side dish to prevent bursting.) When the meat is tender, add mushrooms, if desired. The sauce may be thickened by whisking in a small lump of roux, or a teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in a little cold water. Serves 2 – 3.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at