Coming Soon: “Communty Cookbook Throwback Thursday”–A Haphazard Journey Through Grief and Seriously Questionable Coping Mechanisms.

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***Insert meaningful and insightful intro here…or not***

Before my mom passed away, she amassed quite the cookbook collection, many of which she inherited from her mother, or were gifts from the dozens of cousins, aunts, etc. that make up my huge, southern, zany extended family. And that’s where this post and the new series on my blog begins…

I remember spending hours flipping through those books, and not really understanding all of the history they contained, or what they represented to my mother. I would sit at her small, marble-topped kitchen table, turning the wrinkled, dog-eared pages while she miraculously bent our tiny, galley kitchen to her culinary will. Often, she’d pause mid-dinner prep to wash my cornsilk-like hair in the sink, setting a towel on the edge to cradle my neck before sending me off to a proper bath.

I always knew when she was feeling particularly down or frustrated, because that’s when she would fry chicken. After I had kids, she confessed that cooking our traditional fried chicken dinner (with rice, gravy, peas, and biscuits…preferably with mayhaw jelly), was a mental and emotional escape. She found that cooking that meal was the closest connection she could find to her own childhood memories, as well as a unique therapy when tackling the more difficult of life’s challenges.

When we moved to California, Mom was alone in a new place with no family and support system, which looking back, must have been incredibly lonely for her. Sometimes, her loneliness seemed like an invisible raincloud that blanketed our home, and she retreated to the kitchen like it was the only connection to her family and sense of home she could find.  I also remember that, during these low periods,  she pulled out the same few cookbooks from her collection, which were published works from the assorted regional chapters of Louisiana’s Junior League, churches, or other community cookbooks.

When she wanted to try something new, those were the books she looked to for a familiar foundation. Unlike a nationally published cookbook full of glossy photographs of culinary perfection, Mom was more inclined to try a new recipe that she knew came from the communities of her home state (as well as what came from her mother’s and aunts’ generation), and I think these books helped ease the homesickness that seemed to be her constant companion during those years. Other than the familiar recipes and techniques of her up-bringing, any recipe experiments began with a foray into those collections for research she felt she could trust. Looking back, I see that they were more like dictionaries and encyclopedias for a generation that wouldn’t see accessible internet or even unlimited long-distance calls for many years to come

By the time I was in middle school, I knew that the chocolate pie recipe I liked was in The Revel, the Christmas cookie recipe was in Cotton Country, and if I could not remember which recipes she had tried, I could always see her handwritten code in the margins to clue me in (a “check-plus-plus” meant she really liked it). I didn’t realize until we moved home, and I had spent more time with my extended family, that the various Louisiana Junior League  and community cookbooks from that era were staples in every kitchen. Growing up in southern California, I did not realize how much community cookbooks were such an ingrained part of our Louisiana culture.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Mom’s cookbook collection, so when I stumbled across a copy of Cotton Country at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and ran to the register like I was Indiana Jones avoiding that whole boulder issue. What is amazing about the iconic cookbooks of the various chapters of the Louisiana Junior League (published in the 60’s and 70’s) and local churches, is that they continue to be staples in many of our homes, which is why I was able to find this one. For example, Cotton Country was published in 1972 by the Junior League of Monroe, with a first printing of 10,000 copies. Since that time, the book has gone through 21 additional printings, with some topping 60,000 copies per printing, and the most recent being 5,000 in 2016. The book I purchased is identical to the original publication, with the only upgrade being a hardback binding that replaced the annoying comb binding. The book has no photographs, hundreds of recipes, lots of original artwork, and demonstrates just how much a labor of love these books were for their creators. I remarked to my husband about how much work these books were for local communities, because they were complied long before we had computers and software to streamline the process. From the meticulous index to the sheer volume of recipes, I imagine this book, and those like it, was a momentous undertaking and a great source of pride for the women who created it.

As I flip through the recipes, they seem like a microcosm of a by-gone era, both good and bad. I see how much they focused on entertaining (some have notes “will feed 25 for appetizers, or 12 for entrees”), which is something I think we all could use a little more of (entertaining, that is). I feel like the more digitally connected we get, the less meaningfully connected we become to our friends and neighbors, and that a little real togetherness could do us all some good.  These books also often give the ambiguous language of seasoned cooks (“just add to your taste”), which definitely reminds me of the women in my family, and why growing the confidence in cooking through experience is important in familial development.

However, along with all the feel-good nostalgia, I also know that these books also reflect the imbalances of race, gender, and socioeconomic classes that were just as much a part of those decades as beautiful Crab Mornay in elegant silver chafing dishes. In fact, each recipe in my recent purchase features the contributors’ names not as their own, but as a subset of their husbands. For example, rather than see “Mrs. Ann Smith,” you see “Mrs. John Smith,” a tradition that luckily seems to have faded slowly as modern South catches up. If anyone ever tried to call me “Mrs. Bayou-Husband,” I’d probably snort my cocktail right out of my nose. I well know that as charming as many of these books are, and the nostalgia they trigger, we could uncover an entire underlying narrative of racial and class dynamics that deserves acknowledgement, and that I could never do the justice that it deserves.

So, let’s circle back around to what this post is really about. A couple of months ago, I lost my father suddenly, and without warning. I’m trying to process the year-after-year grief sandwich life keeps serving me, losing my grandmother, mother, and father in such a short, successive time. After Mom died, that grief was like acid, eating away at me and it’s pretty much been a self-pity party ever since. This was a trauma I did, and do not, handle well. Except for those times when I kick myself in reminder that I am so blessed, it’s ridiculous. I wallow, but I also kick my own ass nearly everyday because perspective is the first step to a more graceful approach to the grief sandwich digestion project.

I think one of the most difficult parts of losing both parents is that I also feel like I lost a connection to my grandparents, because my parents helped keep their histories alive through their own stories and memories (though I was truly blessed to have my grandmother on Dad’s side live to see all of her great-grandchildren born and to be here for me into my mid-30’s). My mom regaled me of stories of her mom, including that she was a master sewer though my mom could not sew a stitch. I’m scared that I’ll lose those pieces in the telling of the stories to my own kids, and that they lost their own maternal grandparents at such a young age, when I had most of mine into my late teens to 30’s. I had the village. My kids’ village has shrunk in ways they will never know how to miss, but it also encourages me to embrace what’s still here.

I decided that one way to try and prevent an even deeper dive into the unhealthy grief sandwich starts with these cookbooks that defined so much of both my mom’s life, but also all the people in my crazy, zany, lovable family. Both Mom and Dad carried emotional weights from their own upbringings, and I want to learn from what worked and what didn’t. As a crafter, cook, and general maker, of course my approach starts with “PROJECT!!!”

I’m starting a new segment on the blog called “Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday” in which I will make a recipe from an old Junior League, church, or otherwise community cookbook close to me. You will see an unvarnished attempt at the recipe of the week, even if it fails epically, as well as my notes on how to translate the vague portions and directions into coherent words for an actually repeatable recipe.

So, if you actually managed to read this, you get a gold star! Stay tuned for culinary adventures and plenty of mishaps. And maybe, by the end of this little or big experiment, grief won’t be quite such a four-letter word. No promises there, but I promise a good cocktail along the way.

Italian Pot Roast in the Instant Pot

I love my slow cooker, and as much as I love my Instant Pot, I believe that they cannot be 100% interchangeable when it comes to recipe outcomes. However, after forgetting to start my Italian Pot Roast yesterday morning, I decided to adapt it to the IP and see what would happen. With a couple of changes, it came out tender and delicious.

The ingredients are simple:

And it only takes about 7 minutes to throw together. While the cook time is a little longer than many IP recipes, I think trying to shorten it would result in meat that is not as tender as it should be.

The Heathens ate it over some egg noodles, and I did not have to pull together a more labor-intensive Plan-B dinner. Sounds like everyone is a winner, and sanity reigned for another day. Can’t beat that with a stick.

Italian Pot Roast

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Ingredients

  • 3-lb chuck roast
  • 2 TBS canola oil
  • 8 ounces sliced baby bella mushrooms
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 envelope dry onion soup mix
  • 1 (14-ounce) can beef broth
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 3 TBS tomato paste
  • 1 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • 3 TBS cornstarch

Procedure

    1. Season roast with pepper on all sides. Set Instant Pot to Sauté setting and let it get hot. Add the canola oil and brown the roast on all sides (this can be a little awkward but it can be done).
    2. Remove roast from IP and set aside. Add mushrooms and onions to the IP, stirring well so they can pick up any browned bits from the bottom of the IP. Return roast to IP. Top roast with onion soup mix, beef broth and tomato paste.
    3. Place lid on IP and switch to Manual mode for 70 minutes at high pressure. When cooking is complete, let it release naturally for 5 minutes, then manually release the pressure. Skim as much fat from the top as you feasibly can.
    4. Switch IP to Sauté mode Add the tomato paste and Italian seasoning. Mix cornstarch with 3 TBS of water and add to the IP, stirring well. Let simmer 5 to 10 minutes until slightly thickened. Shred beef to desired texture. Serve over hot egg noodles and garnish with parsley if you are feeling fancy.

Black-Eyed Peas in the Instant Pot

I made black-eyed peas in the Instant Pot for the traditional New Year celebration. It super easy, and much faster than the usual stovetop method. I did soak the peas in water several hours before cooking them because this little boogers absorb a lot of liquid. The end results were delicious perfection, and plenty to feed a crowd.


Black-Eyed Peas in the Instant Pot

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Ingredients

  • 4 TBS butter
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 pounds dried black-eyed peas, soaked for several hours
  • 7 cups chicken broth
  • 1 ham hock
  • salt and pepper to taste (I’d start with a TBS of salt then add more later of needed)
  • cayenne pepper to taste
  • 2 TBS White vinegar

Procedure

    1. Set the Instant Pot to the saute setting and let it get hot. Add the butter, and when melted, add the onion, celery, and bell pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until soft (about 4-5 minutes). Add garlic and cook for an additional minute.
    2. Add the peas, chicken broth, ham hock, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Switch the Instant Pot to manual, add the lid and check that the value is correctly positioned for sealing. Set time for 20 minutes on Manual mode. (Note–with this much stuff in the IP, it will take about 20 minutes to come to pressure).
    3. When the timer is up and the IP beeps, let the pressure release naturally for 20 minutes, then do a quick pressure release if the pin hasn’t dropped already.
    4. Remove IP lid and stir in vinegar. Check for seasonings and enjoy!

Super-Easy Petite Cheese Cakes

We had a nice, relaxed family get-together yesterday, and I wanted an easy dessert that I was pretty sure *most* of us would like. These little cakes are so stupid-easy, and for something so simple, they still taste like delicious indulgence.

Petite Cheesecakes

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Ingredients

  • 2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 TBS fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 18 vanilla wafers
  • jam of your choice for topping, if desired

Procedure
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line cupcake pans with 18 paper baking cups. Place a vanilla wafer in the bottom of each cup. Beat cream cheese, sugar, eggs, lemon juice, and vanilla extract together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full with cream cheese mixture and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until set. Cool 15 minutes on a rack, then refrigerate until ready to serve. Top with jam, if desired.

How easy is that?!?

Easy Gingerbread Cutout Cookies

School is out, which means we are in the final countdown toward Christmas. I’m making cookies with the kids, which is equal parts fun and frustrating as they argue about who gets to use which cookie cutter first. My kids could fight about what air tastes like if given the opportunity.

We are on to sugar cookies today, but ended up making Gingerbread Cookies last weekend. The recipe I use is pretty easy to work with and forgiving, so it’s great if you really want to get into decorated cutouts. If you need to distract restless kids, I highly recommend baking up a batch, and investing in a few dollar tubes of icing from the store so they can decorate and be distracted from arguing about that whole air thing.

Gingerbread Cutout Cookies

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder

Procedure

    1. In a large mixing bowl, cream shortening and sugar. Add molasses and egg, mixing well to combine.
    2. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and making powder, stirring well.
    3. Gradually add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture, mixing to form a soft dough. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for a couple of hours.
    4. On a floured surface, roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out cookies with desired cutters and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes until edges are firm. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely. Decorate as desired.

Braised Beef Brisket in the Instant Pot

I am all about comfort food lately, but between shopping, baking, running 1000000000 errands, wrapping gifts, etc., I haven’t had a whole lot of time to enjoy extended cooking sessions. So, I got creative this week and adapted my favorite braised brisket from Guy Fieri’s cookbook for the Instant Pot so I could have what is typically a Sunday dinner on a weeknight. Here’s how I did it:

I seasoned the brisket and browned it with the Instant Pot set on the Sauté setting. It took a little maneuvering, but it worked:

Next, I chopped up some shallots, carrots, onions, celery, and leeks, and put them on top of the brisket:

I combined a bottle of chili sauce with some beef broth and poured it over the top:

Then, I closed the pot, and set it to 60 minutes on Manual. When it was done, I did a quick pressure release. I turned the brisket over, and added a bottle of Shiner Bock beer to the pot, being sure to baste the meat with the sauce and veggies. I closed the pot and set it to 30 minutes on Manual. When it was done, I let it the pressure release naturally for 20 minutes, then did a quick pressure release (however, if you have time, I would let the pressure release naturally and let the brisket rest for another 20 minutes in the pot thereafter for best results. This isn’t necessary per se, but I think braised brisket could always use a healthy rest period).

So, this is what it looked like. I removed the brisket to a cutting board and set aside. I broke out the immersion blender, and blended the juice/sauce/veggies in the Instant Pot until combined into saucy deliciousness. After slicing the brisket, I returned it to the pot for a quick sauce bath, then served with more sauce spooned over the top:

It was dang tasty, and nearly effortless.

Braised Beef Brisket in the Instant Pot

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Ingredients

  • 4 1/2 to 5 pounds beef brisket
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 yellow onions, cut into 1- inch rings
  • 2 leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and cut into thirds
  • 2 shallots, quartered
  • 1 carrot, cut in half lengthwise, then into 1- inch chunks
  • 4 celery stalks, cut into thirds
  • 1 bottle chili sauce
  • 1/2 cup beef broth
  • 1 12-ounce beer, at room temperature ( I like Shiner Bock or Amber Bock)

Season brisket with salt and pepper. Set Instant Pot to the Sauté setting and when hot, add canola oil. Brown brisket on all sides as best you can. Top brisket with onions, leeks, shallots, carrot, and celery. In a small bowl, whisk together chili sauce and beef broth, and pour over brisket. Secure lid on Instant Pot and set to Manual for 60 minutes. When cycle is complete, do a quick pressure release. Turn brisket over, add beer to Instant Pot, and baste brisket with liquid and veggies. Place lid back on pot, and set to Manual for 30 minutes. Let pressure release naturally for 20 minutes then do a quick pressure release.** Remove brisket to cutting board and slice. Using an immersion blender, blend the liquid and veggies in the Instant Pot until smooth. Return brisket to the Instant Pot, cover with sauce, then serve, topping with more sauce if desired.

**If you have the time, let pressure release naturally and let brisket rest another 20 minutes or so after the pin drops**

 

Cajun 15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot

I survived Thanksgiving week, which ended up being a relaxed, fun holiday despite the fact that I made more food than any reasonable person should. We ate leftovers for days, and I cranked out 4 big casseroles for the freezer with the remaining turkey. For the holiday, my sister brought a Honey-Baked Ham, and afterward, we froze the ham bone (that still had a good chunk of meat on it) for later use.

A leftover ham bone (or leftover ham in general) is the perfect foundation for 15 Bean Soup, which I typically cook on the stovetop with the above mix. However, I decided to adapt it to the Instant Pot so I could get it done, start to finish, after getting the Heathens from school.

First, I did soak the beans for barely a couple of hours, but I think you can get by without that if necessary. I added the ham bone and rinsed beans to the Instant Pot:

Then, I added 8 cups of water. I did not add salt because the ham itself is pretty dang salty, and the seasoning packet to be added later also contains salt. I put the lid on, and set it to Manual for 50 minutes on high pressure (note–with that much liquid in the pot, it takes about 20 minutes to come to pressure, so plan accordingly). Once it beeped, I did the quick pressure release, and removed the ham bone. I carefully removed as much meat from the bone as possible, then returned the meat to the pot while discarding the bone. I then added a minced onion, three cloves of minced garlic, a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes, the juice of a lemon, and the seasoning packet:

I put the lid back on the pot and reset it to Manual for 10 minutes. Once was it done, I did another quick pressure release, stirred, and served with cornbread:

The original recipe calls for sausage and sautéing the onion and garlic. While you can do this with sausage, ham hocks, or generally any smoked meat, I think the Instant Pot negates the need for unnecessary sautéing steps. Overall, we used up every last scrap of ham, which is a good thing because Honey-Baked Hams are not cheap…which is probably why they are so dang tasty. If you want to stretch this, you can also serve it over rice, but I like it as is and my scale could not justify any more calories…like at all…ever. If you need me, I’ll be at the gym.

15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot/Pressure Cooker

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  • 1 pkg. Hurst’s Cajun 15 Bean Soup Mix
  • 1 ham bone with leftover ham if possible
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Remove seasoning packed from beans and set aside. If desired, soak beans for a couple of hours. Place ham bone and leftover ham in Instant Pot. Add drained beans and 8 cups of water. Place lid on pot and set to Manual for 50 minutes, then do a quick pressure release. Remove ham bone from pot and remove as much ham as possible from the bone. Return ham to the pot and discard bone. Add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, lemon juice, and seasoning packet to the pot and stir. Return lid to pot and set to Manual for 10 minutes. Do a quick pressure release, stir, and serve.