Archive for the ‘food/recipe’ Category

More Free Food-Stuffed Wild Grape Leaves

July 17, 2018

Wild Grape Vines

High summer, high heat, high humidity. Everything’s lushly green and growth pushes garden fences. Weeds abound and wild things encroach. I used to collect bowls of mulberries along my walk through the play field until the park district removed the low branches. Yet still wild grape vines cover fences and climb tree trunks. Before the Japanese beetles chew them to bits, gather ye grape leaves while ye may. They are edible; they are free.

Grape leaves play a role is all Mediterranean cuisines. They cover fish for grilling, line pots for steaming and most notably hold rice or meat fillings for Greek Dolmades. Stuffed grape leaves make welcome appetizers, picnic food or casual snacks to keep in the fridge. You may buy prepared grape leaves in jars in supermarkets, or you may take a basket, scissors and clip some on a morning walk when it’s cool. Check the vines making sure you see a few tentative green grapes forming along the stems to insure you’re into the proper plant. When nibbled grape leaves are tart.

Filling Leaves

To prepare for filling, cut any excess stem from the leaves and blanch them for two to three minutes in boiling, salted water. Once drained and cooled, the leaves may be stacked, wrapped and refrigerated or frozen.

Lamb or beef fillings are common, but rice is a good keeper and accessible for a wider range of food preferences. Made with organic brown rice, lots of fresh herbs and good olive oil, stuffed grape leaves are delicious to eat, highly nutritious and a summer’s delight.

Stuffed Wild Grape Leaves

24-30 grape leaves

Ready to Steam

½ cup brown rice (organic round grain if possible)

1/8 teaspoon turmeric (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2/3 cup finely chopped onion

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

a few slices chopped green chili (optional)

¼ cup chopped dill, parsley or mint

2 tablespoons currants (or 1 T each chopped dried tart cherries and raisins)

salt to taste

Ready to Eat

Juice ¼ lemon

Additional olive oil

Trim stems from grape leaves, blanch is boiling water and cool. The leaves will lose their bright green color and turn drab; that happens to greens with acid content. Grape leaves taste tart.

Cook rice with turmeric and pinch of salt until tender but not mushy. (A rice cooker is perfect here; cook 1cup rice to make the cooker work properly–freeze half for the next batch of stuffed leaves or use for rice salad.) Gently saute onion in 1tablespoon olive oil until soft and translucent. Add garlic and optional chili the last couple minutes.  Combine 1 heaped cup cooked rice, cooked onion, chopped herbs, currants and salt to taste.

On a clean counter or cutting board, place one grape leave at a time vein side (underside) up. Use a heaped teaspoon of filling centered in the lower third of the grape leaf. Fold the stem end up, the sides in and continue to roll up like a mini burrito. Line a heavy pot with three grape leaves and place the filled grape leaves snugly together in the pot. Make two layers of filled leaves if necessary. Sprinkle the rolls with juice of a quarter of a lemon, top with three more leaves. Sprinkle over a scant half-cup of water. Place a saucer on top to weight down and then the pot lid. Steam the filled leaves over low heat for a good half an hour. Remove lid, lift off saucer and cool. Before removing from the pot, drizzle over a generous twirl of good olive oil. Serve cold or at room temperature. Makes 20-24 dolmades







Brother Peter and Frank’s Slaw

July 31, 2017

“Don’t miss the chance to reconnect,” chirped Barbara, as we walked through the park several weeks ago. I had just recounted how a manuscript fact-checking search linked me with Brother Peter Farnesi whom I met 53 years ago at Nandembo mission near Tunduru in Southern Tanzania. Google led me to the Salvatorian headquarters, and even though I had only a first name, a place and a date, I discovered Brother Peter, now 91, living in a retirement community in Milwaukee, not far from here.

When my choir mate, Amanda, mentioned traveling to Milwaukee to deliver her MFA thesis, I asked to come along and my quest was underway. Of course after all these years, I had no memory of his appearance, but when a lively gent bounded down the hall of the Alexian Village, I knew this must be Brother Peter. The hours flew by as we talked memories, both of us happy to recall and relate stories we could easily visualize from the experience of being there.

The son of Italian immigrants, Peter grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. He worked as a cowboy, rodeo performer, farmer, cook, carpenter before he was drafted. While in the army he felt a call to give his life to serving others. Joining the Salvatorian Brothers, he accepted a mission assignment in Tanganyika. When he reached the Nandembo station in 1960 it was a bare bones, Benedictine house. (In the African bush, missions were developed a day’s journey apart, for means of communication, supplies and basic contact with the outside world.) Over his 24 years at Nandembo, Brother Peter built a carpentry school for boys, a domestic science school for girls and a medical dispensary as well as a farm. The mission farm boasted 50 head of Zebu mixed cattle, flocks of hens, a drove of pigs as well as a large vegetable garden and an orchard of cashew trees. It was ‘shoulder to the wheel’ work for decades for this master craftsman and Jack-of-all-trades. Days were long and hot, often with distress calls to drive a villager to the hospital 30 miles away in the middle of the night.

Brother Peter lovingly fulfilled his commitment to live among and to help the native people. “No man wants to hear the gospel if he is starving or sick” but when bellies are filled this man may ask, “ Who is this God you pray to?”

Peter told the story of a local woman who came to the mission garden, saw a large beautiful cabbage and asked to buy it. “No, madam, I will not sell it to you,” he responded. “But I will give you seeds and teach you how to grow the same cabbage in your own garden.”

All the white missionaries are gone now from Nandembo. The African Salvatorians are carrying forward, and I’m sure Brother Peter is warmly remembered there. I left Milwaukee feeling I had stood in the shadow of a living saint, a man who walked among the neediest and gave his life to their service.

Cabbages were often available in East African village markets and this southern cole slaw recipe from my good friend Frank is welcome on any continent, in any climate, at any time of year.

Slaw fixings

Frank’s Cole Slaw

3 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons white vinegar (wine, rice or distilled)

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ tablespoons oil (olive, sunflower or canola)

½ teaspoon celery seed (optional)

1 lb. green cabbage (6 cups shredded)

¼ large sweet onion (½ cup chopped)

½ green pepper (½ cup chopped)

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

In a small bowl, combine sugar, vinegar, salt, oil and optional seeds. Whisk to disslove sugar and salt dissolve. (This mixture may be boiled.)

Frank’s Saw

Shred cabbage using a Japanese mandolin if possible. Finely chop onion and pepper. Combine shredded and chopped vegetables in wide bowl. Pour over the dressing. Toss and allow cabbage to wilt for at least half an hour. Refrigerate until ready to use. Drain excess liquid before serving. Will keep for almost a week in the fridge. Serves 4-5.


Note: red cabbage and red onion may be substituted for green; shredded carrots, diced apple may be added.


Summer Squash Cakes

August 5, 2015

summer squashcakes photo-18Hiricas lived in a shabby wooden farmhouse on a couple of acres next to our place. All their linoleum-floored rooms were dark—a dim porch with a ceiling swing and stacks of rumpled Czech newspapers, a black heavy table and buffet in a dining room that was never used, and a low ceilinged grease-stained kitchen with a coal range and smells of old world garlic. For eight-year-old me, this was Gothic. I was drawn almost hypnotically to cross the east orchard and rap at their back screen door. I didn’t venture into the dirt cellar basement, but I’d climb the creaky stairs to the kitchen always hoping there’d be something good to eat—something I’d never find at home.

Now many decades later, there are only a few tastes I remember. In autumn there were sweet, doughnut-like fried rolls filled with the freshly ground poppy seeds harvested from the opium poppies grown alongside the gravel driveway. That creamy, soft, nut flavor can’t be duplicated from the usually stale poppy seeds sitting on grocery shelves. Those rolls and the walnut potica remain a memory.

But back to the subject: In the heavy afternoon heat of late summer, I might find a plate of fried summer squash left on the oilcloth-covered kitchen table. Mrs. Hirica, always eager to offer something to her curious neighbor, helped me buy my first cookbook about European food—a collection of Czech recipes.

Last Sunday I found an almost too large, lumpy skinned yellow summer squash in my garden. It was about seven inches long and too mature to grill or stir-fry. It was from my own carefully tended vine, too precious to toss on the compost heap. I remembered Hiricas’ decadent and delicious squash cakes. My mind whipped back to a memory of something I hadn’t put on a plate in almost forever. As a treat for a meatless Monday supper, my lumpy skinned squash became creamy-centered, crisp cakes served with a pool of basil scented yogurt sauce. Tucked next to a corn and kale pilaf alongside beans stewed with tomatoes and zucchini, a crookneck squash took me home again.

Summer Squash Cakes

1 yellow summer squash no more than 3 inches in diameter



1 egg

1 cup fine, dry bread crumbs

olive, canola or grape seed oil

Remove stem and blossom ends from squash. Cut into ½ inch slices. Sprinkle both sides of slices lightly with salt and allow to stand on a wire rack for 15-30 minutes. Blot away excess moisture with paper towel.

Prepare a plate of flour, a bowl of beaten egg and a plate of breadcrumbs. Dust each slice of squash with flour, dip in egg and then coat with breadcrumbs. Place the crumb covered slices back on the wire rack to dry a few minutes.

Heat a heavy cast iron skillet filmed with oil, and add the squash slices to the hot oil making sure they aren’t crowded. Keep the heat moderate. The squash will need to cook 10-15 minutes per side or until the coating is nicely browned and the center is tender (when pierced with a toothpick). Serve the squash cakes immediately, hold in a low oven or cool to room temperature and leave on the kitchen table for your little neighbor who might knock looking for a snack.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon






Asparagus with Poached Eggs and Hollandaise

May 14, 2015
asparagus with poached egg and Hollandaise

asparagus with poached egg and Hollandaise

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, and waiting for real June strawberries makes them sweeter, then surely spring asparagus lives up to its anticipated arrival. When our farmers’ market opened for the season a few days ago, I arrived early at the First Orchards stand for thick purple asparagus and boxes of newly laid pullet eggs—spring treasures in any cook’s book.

Now is the time to eat my fill of asparagus. While it lasts, I make it my main green vegetable and select the purple variety if it’s available, always choosing the thickest spears for prime flavor. When it disappears for the season, I’ve had my fill. I’m not tempted by the imported sallow-flavored spears that turn up in supermarkets throughout the year. It’s easy: Just say no to asparagus from Peru or Mexico when Michigan’s bounty promises to return.

Asparagus and eggs have long been a perfect match. Whether in a quiche, an omelet, a frittata or a soufflé, they are the ideal pair. When a new clutch of hens begins to lay, their first eggs, called pullet eggs, are treasured for richness and flavor. Young chicks are pickier eaters, seeking out the best bits, and their first miniature eggs taste better than what they will produce later in life. The pullet egg season is brief, so be sure to include them in your shopping whenever you see them.

Home again with my basket of asparagus and eggs, one of the best spring treats for brunch, lunch or a dinner first course is quickly cooked asparagus topped with a poached egg. To guild the lily further, add a spoonful of homemade Hollandaise sauce, which is far easier to make than you imagined and your small plate will become ultimate high-end restaurant fare. With a quick wrist and a couple of saucepans, your humble egg and early “sparrow grass” will dazzle royalty.

 Asparagus with Poached Eggs and Hollandaise

For each serving:

3-4 thick spears Asparagus

1 small poached egg

1-2 tablespoons Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise Sauce

6 tablespoons butter, room temperature

2 egg yolks (freeze whites for meringue)

2 tablespoons water

pinch salt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Whisk egg yolks with water and salt in a small stainless or Pyrex bowl that fits over a saucepan of simmering water (or use a double boiler). Cook, whisking constantly over simmering water until mixture is hot (test with your clean pinkie finger), begins to thicken and fluff. Gradually beat in butter 1 tablespoon at a time until mixture mounts like a soft mayonnaise. Season with lemon juice, pepper, chopped chives and fresh tarragon if available. Makes about 2/3 cup. Hold the warm sauce near the stove, over lukewarm water.

To prepare the asparagus, cut the spears into 4-inch lengths and diagonally slice the remainder of each stalk. Blanch the spears and slices for 3-4 minutes in boiling, salted water, until just tender. Hold on a warm sheet pan.

To poach the eggs, bring a shallow saucepan or skillet with at least 2 inches of water to a boil, season with salt and add a teaspoon of white vinegar. Crack each egg into a small cup. Use a spoon to swirl the simmering water into a whirlpool and slip in the egg. Make another whirlpool and slip in the next egg, etc. Cook each egg about 3 minutes or until the whites are firm and the yolks still soft. Eggs may be poached ahead of time and reheated in a pan of hot water for a couple minutes. Farm-fresh eggs poach beautifully with few shaggy white tails.

To plate, place three thick warm asparagus spears in the center of a salad plate and nestle a few slices alongside. Top the asparagus with a warm poached egg blotted on a tea towel. Spoon over 1-2 tablespoons of Hollandaise sauce. Garnish with chopped chives or parsley.

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





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



There Are Always Carrots

April 4, 2011

We’ve worked winter’s cruciferous vegetables to the bone with bowl after bowl of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. It’s still too early for asparagus, and spring peas haven’t yet pushed up in the garden. Supermarket green beans are arriving from Mexico but lack flavor. It’s time to dip into the veg bin for a bag of perennial favorites.

Carrots hold their flavor through long storage, pack a healthy dose of vitamin A, cook quickly and are a colorful, sweet treat. Look for carrots free from wooly sprouting roots and if possible stay away from those tasteless “baby carrots,” huge orange roots commercially whittled into bite-sized bits and treated with chlorinated water to maintain their color.

It takes only seconds to peel and slice a few carrots. They cook in about eight minutes, and children will call them carrot candy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been cooking carrots without water over moderately high heat in a covered pot. The heat forces out carrot juice, which joins with the butter or olive oil to form a glaze—no nutrients go down the drain in poured-off cooking water. A few leaves of early mint, a sprinkle of chives or the first biannual fringes of last summer’s parsley greening in the garden will French-up the carrots; a dusting of ground cumin and a few drops of pomegranate molasses take carrots to the Middle East; a pinch of turmeric and curry powder warmed in the cooking butter conjures India; and some ground chili ancho, a squeeze of fresh lime and chopped cilantro ring in Mexico. Carrots hold their own in all seasons and all cultures.

Glazed Carrots

1 lb. carrots, peeled and trimmed

1 tablespoon butter

pinch salt

pinch sugar (optional)

Choose heavy saucepan with tightly fitting lid.

Cut carrots into 1/4-inch slightly angled slices.

Melt butter in saucepan; add carrots. Sprinkle with salt and optional sugar (use only if carrots lack sweetness). Cover and cook over brisk heat 8–10 minutes.

Uncover, stir with rubber spatula. Carrots should be tender, juicy, glazed and sweet.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at