On comfort food: Semi- homemade chicken pot pie

I’m sad. The weather is turning, we’re mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and the pandemic is in its sixth month. I felt the need for some comfort food today. So, using a little help from the grocery store, I made a comfort food classic: chicken pot pie.

This is the first time I tried this concept out, but it turned out so well, I think I will be making this many more times.

Things you’ll need:

One deep dish pan. I used an 8 in. square brownie pan, but if you have a deep dish pie tin that would work too.

Frozen chicken tenderloins.

One can mixed vegetables.

One can cream of chicken condensed soup.

One roll refrigerated piecrust.

Seasoning to taste.

Preheat your oven to 400°. In the pan, spread half the can of soup. Layer 3 to 4 chicken tenderloins over the soup. Spread half the can of mixed vegetables over the chicken. Add another layer of soup, another layer of chicken, and another layer of vegetables, finishing with whatever soup is left. If you wish, use a little onion powder, and a little salt and pepper, on each layer. Thaw and unroll the refrigerated piecrust, and then spread over the top layer, and crimp the edges. Cut holes in the top of the pastry to vent. Bake at 400° for one hour. Make sure the internal temperature of the chicken is 180° minimum before you take it out. The crust will be golden, and sauce will be bubbling. Let stand for five minutes before cutting into it with a big metal spoon. Serve in bowls.

This made enough for four people for lunch. Stay well, everybody.

On Midwest Food

Today I’m introducing my new podcast: Tales from the Midwest. The first episode focuses on Midwest food, and I’m talking to Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a Milwaukee native and expert on food journalism. We had a great conversation about food, home economics, and our hopes for a Midwestern cuisine movement.

For every podcast, I’m going to include links to favorite places discussed on it right here. Kim named Kopps Custard in Milwaukee and State Street Brats (aka The Brat Haus) in Madison, Wis. I’m adding Mader’s Restaurant, The Spice House, and Usinger’s Factory Outlet on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee.

Tales from the Midwest: Episode 1, with Kim Voss

Have a listen. The podcast is also hosted on BuzzSprout.

On Midwest Cooking: The Hot Dish

I noticed, the other day, just how many of my internalized Upper Midwest family meal recipes start with, “Brown a pound of hamburger.” It struck me as I was surveying the contents of my freezer, thinking about meal prep while simultaneously considering the restrictions on meat buying that my local grocery stores have implemented.

Hamburger is a stapje of many dishes I grew up with. The most dominant of these is something we obliquely refer to as “hot dish,” but the definition and recipe for hot dish varies by person, family, region, or specialty. Any pot luck dinner will feature as many variations of a hot dish, otherwise known as a casserole in other regions, as there are people to eat them. Each has some kind of meat, some kind of starch, some kind of vegetable, and a sauce to hold it all together. If it’s baked, it usually will also have some kind of crunchy topping.

The quality and type of ingredients often reflect the means of the household creating the hot dish. For example, when I was a child, browning hamburger could mean either cheap, fatty beef, or lean ground venison from the deer my father and his brothers would hunt or every fall. I recognize that in many parts of the world, venison is a luxury food dish; in northern Wisconsin, it is staple winter meat for many low-income families, who hunt for the deer themselves or know someone who can provide one for them.

It requires different handling than beef; depending on the deer and the conditions in which it was feeding, cooked ground venison can give a waxy mouth feel. I learned to brown it, drain the fat, and rinse it in hot water before I added seasonings, to avoid that. Chicken, canned tuna or salmon, or leftover meat of any kind also can be featured in a hot dish. All of the meat is cooked first before being combined with its other parts.

Starches run the gamut, from boiled noodles to rice to hash browned potatoes. Sauces, too, vary widely. As I was growing up, we relied heavily on canned condensed soups for our sauce component, and canned vegetables. (Funny, I just had the random thought that canned vegetables are for hot dish, and fresh are for plain eating alongside meat and potatoes. Interesting what sticks with you.)

Three different hot dishes still find themselves in my own, grown-up menus with a fair amount of frequency, though they differ a bit from the originals. The first, referred to as “Dad’s,” remains a favorite of my father. Originally, it’s just 16 oz of macaroni, cooked; 1 can of condensed tomato soup; 1 pound of hamburger, browned; and 1 can of corn, tossed together while hot and served from the pan.

My grown up, lighter version eliminates the fat and salt of the condensed soup (which I rarely cook with any longer). I also use different shaped noodles on a whim. Often, it’s 16 oz penne pasta, cooked and tossed with one pound of browned lean ground beef and one jar of marinara or other favorite tomato sauce. I top it with parmesan at the table. I’ve also been known to eliminate the meat and mix in a cup of mozzarella, ricotta, or cottage cheese, turn out into a baking pan, top with more cheese, and heat in the oven until everything’s melty.

A second common hot dish, features tuna. For this one, I do use condensed soup: cream of mushroom, actually, but I’ve seen higher-end recipes that use a béchamel with sautéed mushrooms, too. This is a combination of 16 oz. cooked egg noodles, 12 oz (two cans) tuna packed in water, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, and 1 can of peas, drained. Toss together and serve hot from the pan, with or without parmesan on top.

The last one is colloquially known as “Tater Tot Hot Dish,” and there’s as many variations of it as there are families who produce it. It’s a take on a classic shepherd’s pie, but it uses whatever ingredients are in the cupboard. My favorite combination is 1 pound lean ground beef, browned; 1 can cream of mushroom soup; and 1 can mixed vegetables, all tossed together. Turn that out in a 9 by 13 baking pan and cover the top of it with frozen tater tots. Bake until the tots are browned and crispy, and serve.

As meat restrictions remain, I’ll probably have to get more creative with my menus. I know how to cook high-protein vegetarian meals, and I’m afraid my family will just have to enjoy a few of those a week. It’s healthier, anyway. I think it might take some getting used to, but with so much happening in the world right now, it’s a small thing to change in the greater scheme.

Rustic Blueberry Scones

Day 22 in isolation, and I made these yesterday. By request, here is the recipe:

2 1/4 c. Baking mix. (I used Bisquik, but you could also use 2 c. flour mixed with 2 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons salt, cut with 1/2 stick cold butter

2 T. Sugar

1 c. Fresh or frozen blueberries.

2/3 c. Cold milk

Stir the sugar and baking mix together, then add the blueberries and toss to coat. Add the milk all at once and mix gently until it just comes together. Dough will be sticky. Turn out onto a lightly greased baking sheet and pat into a rough square about 3/4 inch deep. Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the dough into eight wedges. Separate them on the same pan so that the wedges are at least an inch apart.

Bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm with butter.

The Holiday Pot-Luck

Today, my department hosts its now-annual potluck to kick off December’s rush of finals, graduation, grading, and paperwork.

As a tradition, the potluck apparently got its name from Thomas Nash, who discussed added guests in terms of whatever’s available to feed them–the luck of the pot. However, it’s evolved to be a communal meal to which guests all contribute in one form or another. Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about a communal Thanksgiving dinner held in DeSmet, S.D., one year, sponsored by her church, where the members of the Ladies Association brought different dishes to share for a fee.

My first exposures to potlucks? Well, I can’t even remember. It seems they’ve always been a thing, though I do most closely associate them with the church ladies of my childhood, frankly. But every meal as an extended family functioned similarly; no one person provided all the food for any particular meal. All took part.

Thanksgiving became a perfect showcase for the potluck and for family dishes. Though snow prevented us from traveling this year, we were ready with our contributions of pie and cupcakes. My sister, brother, mother, and I texted back and forth for a few weeks to determine the final shakedown of who would bring what to ensure everything was covered.

The office potluck is a bit different. No one knows exactly what everyone’s bringing, just that everyone should bring something. To that end, I’ve evolved into the potluck person who brings some sort of hot dish to share that’s heavy on protein. There’s never, ever, enough protein at a potluck, especially at a holiday where sweet treats are the norm.

This time around I made meatballs from scratch, which, as I write this, smell amazing. the aroma brought all the participants to the front office to load up a plate. We’ve also got a variety of other treats at the table, and that’s half the fun of a potluck. You never quite know what’s going to be on offer.

Amy’s Meatballs

Suitable for spaghetti, sandwiches, and plain-old snacking, meatballs are family staple. My general recipe is actually a rule-of-thumb kind of thing: One pound of ground meat to one cup of fresh bread crumb to one egg, plus seasoning.

The batch I made for today turned out really, really tasty. I used jarred tomato sauce for the coating and kept them hot in a crockpot.

3 lbs 80/20 ground beef, thawed

2 cups Italian-seasoned dried bread crumbs

1/3 cup milk

1 T. salt

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 eggs

Blend the crumbs, cheese, and salt; add milk and stir together.  Let stand for a few minutes to “freshen” the crumbs. Crumble the ground beef over the top. Add the two eggs; mix with your hands until combined. Don’t knead too much or they’ll get rubbery.

Portion out into 1 1/2 inch balls on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes.

Once out of the oven, you can sauce them any way you’d like. I added this batch to a crockpot with four cups (two jars) of spaghetti sauce. If you used plain bread crumbs and added allspice and celery seed to the main recipe, you could sauce with mushroom cream gravy for Swedish meatballs. As I said, it’s more of a rule-of-thumb than a true recipe.

Enjoy for your next potluck!

Lovely Thanksgiving Turkey

Take one thawed turkey, stuff with onion, bay leaf, and celery, season with salt and pepper, and set in a roasting pan, uncovered, to bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes per pound. Golden perfection. When cooked through to correct temp, remove from oven, cover in foil and let stand for 30 minutes before carving. Utterly moist and delicious.

I also baste it with homemade turkey stock once every hour while it cooks. That’s a trick I learned from my sister-in-law, who simmers the neck and gizzards in water on the stove top for the duration of baking time to baste with. I do the same, but add onion, bay, celery, and carrots to the simmering stock, too.

Perfect every time!

Butternut Squash Soup

I impulsively bought an Instant Pot last week, and I tried it out Sunday by making Butternut Squash Soup.

Other than prep, with the pressure cooking setting on the Instant Pot, we had scratch-made soup in 20 minutes. I was impressed. And the soup was delicious.

To be clear, you can make this soup on your stove top. It will simply take much longer to soften your squash to the point that you can blitz it up into soup.

The preschoolers loved the soup. They ate it with fresh ciabatta bread from our local farmer’s market, and asked for more.

Butternut Squash Soup

One large butternut squash, about four pounds, peeled, seeded, and cut into one-inch chunks

4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or equivalent

1 large shallot, peeled and diced

1-2 T. olive or canola oil

1/2 t. powdered ginger

1/2 t. mild curry powder (I used Penzey’s Maharajah curry powder)

salt and pepper to taste

On the stove: Sauté shallots in oil until tender; add enough butternut squash cubes to fit the bottom and let carmelize briefly. Add the rest of the cubes and stir. Cover with four cups of stock. Add the curry and ginger powders. Simmer until the squash is soft, 1 to 2 hours. Blend with an immersion blender. Thin with more stock (or milk). Serve.

In the Instant Pot: Use sauté setting to proceed as above, but after the stock is added, switch to pressure cooking on high for fifteen minutes. Vent with quick release when done. Blend, and thin if necessary with stock or milk. Serve.


Strawberry Cake

My youngest turned 4 over the weekend, and she requested a strawberry cake for her birthday.

This turned out to be a little more of a challenge than originally intended. Probably influenced by our viewings of the Great British Baking Show, she wanted a giant layer cake, frosted white and topped with fresh strawberries. The cake itself also needed to be strawberry flavored and pink.

Since we were taking the cake to a family birthday party at which some family members with food allergies would be present, I needed to make it from scratch, and I needed to ensure no corn, soy, or cottonseed oil products would be included in the baking. That meant no powdered sugar, which contains cornstarch to prevent caking. It also meant a deep dive into the world of strawberry cake to find a solution.

Most strawberry cake recipes include strawberry gelatin for flavoring and color. That was a no-go for this occasion. Some recipes included pureed strawberries, cooked down for flavoring–something I didn’t really want to do, given the temperature and the humidity on baking day. Two mentioned the concept of pulverizing freeze-dried strawberries, and that the texture of the finished cake was good and flavorful, if not as moist as the kind with the pureed strawberries.

In the end, I went with a vanilla cake recipe, substituting pulverized freeze-dried strawberries for part of the flour. I baked the batter in three eight-inch layers and left them to cool while I contemplated icing.

So, buttercream would be ideal, but it contained powdered sugar, making it off-limits.

I settled on Seven-Minute Frosting, using Paula Deen’s recipe from the Food Network website.

Seven-Minute Frosting is plain white sugar, egg whites, water, and cream of tartar beaten over boiling water for seven minutes to create a thick, glossy icing that holds its shape and acts like candy when it sets. The day I was making this cake, the humidity was ridiculous, so the icing didn’t set up well at all. I persevered, however. And in doing so, I made a rather tasty mistake.

As I stacked my layers of strawberry cake, I added a layer of icing and fresh sliced strawberries between each cake, forgetting that fresh strawberries and sugar together produce syrup. It got very sloppy for a bit. I spread the icing over the top, letting it drip down the sides, and my preschoolers “helped” put the fresh cut whole strawberries, cut side down, on the top. The icing kept melting down the sides with the humidity and the chemistry, so I set it, uncovered, in the refrigerator for what amounted to about eighteen hours.

I quietly scooped frosting and strawberries off the cake plate every so often all evening, spreading them back up over the sides of the cake.

The next day, the icing had set. The cake looked pretty. And when we started to serve it, lots of wonderful things became apparent. First, the icing layers crackled as I sliced through the cake, sounding like rich candy. They weren’t too dry to cut, but provided a delicious texture with the soft berries and the rich cake. The cake itself, far from being dry, had soaked up the strawberry syrup created by my mistake. As one guest said, it tasted like old-fashioned shortcake when it had been soaked in the juices of the strawberry syrup.

We ate it all up. And the birthday girl loved it.

If you try it, I used the vanilla cake recipe found here. I used an entire 0.8 oz bag of freeze dried strawberries, blending them until they resembled flour. I spooned the strawberry dust into a one-cup measure, then added enough all-purpose flour to the cup to fill it up, incorporating it into the flour quota for the recipe.