Old-Fashioned Cooking – Leftover Mashed Potatoes

When you grow your own potatoes, sometimes you get big ones and sometimes you get not-so-big-ones.

When you grow your own potatoes, sometimes you get big ones and sometimes you get not-so-big-ones.

In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.

Old-fashioned cooks would have been horrified at the thought of wasting even a small scrap of food. Growing food took effort, and it had to be properly stored, managed while in storage, properly prepared and actually cooked. Carrot and celery peels, potato peelings, bits of celery and onion skins all went into the stockpot to simmer until every bit of flavor was cooked into the water. The resultant cooked veggie bits were strained out and fed to the chickens and pigs; old-fashioned cooks didn’t make compost with food scraps — they were too valuable. Leftovers were served at the next meal until completely eaten, or turned into creative new dishes, some of which have become culinary icons.

People who lived through the Great Depression often have strong memories of eating a lot of potatoes. Potatoes were a particularly valuable resource: easy to grow, productive, could be stored through the winter without canning or drying, and extremely versatile. In addition, they made great leftovers. Chopped cooked potatoes could be turned into hash with the addition of a little chopped onion and some leftover roast meat, fried on their own, or mixed with eggs, cheese and scallions for a baked casserole. Mashed potatoes really took the prize when it came to versatility, though, partly because there are so many things you can do with leftover mashed potatoes. For example, potato pancakes (fancied up to “croquettes” for Sunday dinner), cream of potato soup, potato bread and rolls, gnocchi, breakfast egg cups (mashed potatoes in a Pyrex dish with an egg baked in a depression on top), shepherd’s pie, even cake. A little bit of mashed potato made a good thickening agent for gravies, soups or stews.

Here are a couple of leftover mashed potato recipes:

Cream of Potato Soup
2 or 3 cups of mashed potatoes
1-2 Tbs butter
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
½ large onion in small dice
1 Tbs finely chopped parsley
Cream (amount will vary depending on how runny the potatoes are and how thick you want your soup)
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion and celery in butter until soft; add a little water if necessary, as you don’t want them to brown. Mix about 1 cup cream into the onion and celery and use an immersion blender to puree them (or leave them in chunks if you want). Continue to add cream until the soup is the desired texture. Stir in parsley, add salt and pepper. You could sprinkle a little shredded cheese on top — cheddar and Parmesan are both good choices. To turn this into colcannon soup, saute about 2 cups chopped green cabbage or kale with the onion and celery. Make potato cheese soup by adding a cup of grated cheese to the finished soup. Other good additions: chopped cooked bacon, chicken, turkey or ham; cooked corn kernels; scallions or cooked broccoli.

Potato Refrigerator Bread
1 cup mashed potatoes
2/3 cup butter or lard
3 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 cup whole milk, scalded, then cooled to lukewarm
2 eggs
5 to 6 cups bread flour, sifted
Melted butter

Cream mashed potatoes with butter or lard, salt and sugar. Dissolve the yeast in the water, then stir in milk. Add yeast mixture to potato mixture, mix well. Add flour, mixing well after each cup, to make a stiff dough. Knead the dough on a well-floured board until smooth, about six to eight minutes. Put the dough in a well-greased bowl and turn to coat. Let rise until double, about one to one-and-half hours, then punch down. At this point you can shapes loaves or rolls, or cover and refrigerate up to a week. Let the shaped loaves or rolls rise until doubled — about 45 minutes for rolls and one hour for loaves. Brush tops with melted butter and bake rolls at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Bake the loaves at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.

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Drying Basil


Genovese Basil, just about ready for drying.

Genovese Basil, just about ready for drying.

Drying herbs is one of the easiest ways to beef up the medicine chest and add a little extra to winter meals. When you walk in my house this time of the year, it often smells like licorice. That’s because I have basil hanging to dry from various supports like light fixtures and cabinet handles.
Freshly harvested basil.

Freshly harvested basil.

Basil is great with any kind of tomato dish, and a requirement for winter dishes like minestrone and pizza. You can also freeze fresh basil, and if I had unlimited freezer space (in my dreams!) I would probably preserve it that way as I wouldn’t be constantly dodging the bunches of hanging herbs and the flavor is better. Freezing is the best way to preserve basil for pesto; just whiz the leaves in the food processor and drizzle with lemon juice. When you’re ready to make pesto, toss it back in the food processor, let it defrost for about 20 minutes and add the rest of your ingredients. I also mix bolting lettuce leaves half and half with the basil; it makes a slightly milder version (add a bit of sugar if the lettuce is really bitter). For many recipes, dried basil works just fine, so I try to dry enough to have at least two pints of crumbled leaves on hand. Since dried leaves shrink dramatically and you’ll also be crushing them, this means the equivalent of a five-gallon bucket of fresh basil.
You can just see the immature flower heads in the center of the leaves.

You can just see the immature flower heads in the center of the leaves.

The best time to harvest basil (as with most herbs) is just before it starts to flower. This is when the essential oils and plant constituents are strongest. You can use the cut-and-come-again method quite nicely with basil, which means you can plant less. At the end of the year, well before the first frost (few things look as sad as frozen basil), pull up the plants to dry the last batch. You can use the method below for almost all herbs, although if they’re wild-harvested, I soak them in salt water for about 10 minutes before prepping them to dry, as it gets rid of insects. Culinary herbs from the garden seem to be less likely to have infestations, so a good rinse usually is all they need. The process is simple:
Cut off roots and ratty leaves.

Cut off roots and ratty leaves.

1. Cut off the roots.
2. Strip the bottom two or three inches of leaves off and discard; these tend to be ratty, pale or mold-spotted.
3. Wash well in cold water; make sure you get both sides of the leaves.
4. Use string or rubber bands to bundle five or six basil stalks together; shake off the excess water.
5. Hang basil bundles to dry; make sure they have plenty of air circulation. Depending on humidity and air currents, expect the basil to dry completely in about a week or 10 days.
Bundled and ready to hang.

Bundled and ready to hang.

Basil hangers.

Basil hangers.

6. Take the bundles down and strip the dried leaves off over a large platter or sheet of paper. Put the leaves in a jar and crush with a wooden plunger or spoon.
7. Label, cover tightly and store in the pantry; it should be good for at least a year (although I often run out before the next crop is ready to harvest).

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Canning – Gut Instincts Part 3

Jam and jelly made without a water bath.

Jam and jelly made without a water bath.

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read parts 1 and 2 before you tackle this)
You’re full of it (or rather, them) – bacteria. Your body is covered and simply loaded with bacteria, most of which are beneficial and exist with us in a state of symbiosis (meaning both we and the bacteria get something out of the relationship). A lot of these bacteria, as in tens of trillions and at least 1,000 different species, are in your gut. People also have similar colonies in deep layers of the skin, the mouth, lungs and places like the bladder or vagina.
The gut bacteria play a vital role in your immune system function. For one thing, they “talk” to the immune system through the exchange of chemical signals and “teach” the immune system which bugs are the nasty ones. The bacteria also stimulate lymph tissue, which helps it produce antibodies for pathogens (disease-causing organisms). There’s some indication that gut bacteria may play a role in preventing autoimmune diseases, which include conditions like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Your gut microbiome is nearly as individual as a fingerprint. About two thirds of the gut bacteria are specific to you, while the remainder are common to most people. In addition to its immune system effects, the gut microbiome helps the body digest certain foods, enables the production of vitamins B and K, and promotes proper digestive functioning. You aren’t born with a microbiome. Babies’ guts are sterile and colonized after birth by microorganisms from mom’s vagina, feces, skin, breast and breast milk. Babies born by Caesarian section or fed formula have very different microbiomes compared to those delivered vaginally and breastfed. By age three, a baby’s microbiome is relatively stable, although it continues to evolve to some degree throughout life.
Yes, you are what you eat, especially when it comes to the gut microbiome, and even more especially if we stretch “eating” to include taking medicines like antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the beneficial microbes in the gut, which allows the “bad” bacteria or fungi to take over. Prebiotics are foods — mostly indigestible fiber — that feed beneficial gut bacteria. Garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, bananas, plums, apples, whole grains and nuts all contain prebiotics, as do leafy greens like kale. Probiotics are fermentations of food, like yogurt, that contain beneficial bacteria that are the same or similar to what lives in our guts. You can also get probiotics in supplement form.
So, how does this relate to canning and food safety? It’s pretty simple, really — these beneficial bacteria are found in the external environment: in the soil, water, plants, humans and animals with which we co-exist. In order to get them in our systems, we have to come in contact with them. If we live in a sterile environment and eat food that has been cooked to death, the gut microbiome suffers. Pasteurizing milk or cooking fermented foods kills the beneficial bacteria, along with any “baddies” that might be present. A healthy gut microbiome will help us maintain a balance of organisms. Canning and food safety is a matter of the basics, not over-processing foods until they’re sterile.
Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but you may find all of these posts useful information, and if you’re interested, here’s what I do when it comes to canning/food preservation safety and immune system support:
1. I freeze meat, vegetables and many fruits.
2. I can some things, like applesauce and grape juice, and do I waterbath these, using the directions in Putting Foods By. My copy was produced in the late 1990s, but I know plenty of people who are canning successfully with books produced in the 1970s or earlier. I rarely use pressure canning.
3. I ferment a variety of vegetables and keep them in cold storage after the first couple of weeks. They typically last for a year if not eaten before then. These fermentations include pickles (summer squash and cucumbers in particular, with the addition of onions and garlic) as well as beets, carrots, peppers and zucchini relish.
4. I store potatoes, onions, garlic, apples, pears and winter squash in the proper conditions.
6. I leave things like chard and other leafy greens, green onions, carrots and beets in the ground until ready to eat them. If I run out of garden space, I’ll either freeze or ferment them.
5. I drink raw milk and make raw milk cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, cream cheese and butter.
6. I support my immune system with the above foods, adequate sleep, stress management and regular exercise.
7. During flu season, I usually take something like elderberry or blackberry syrup once a day; good immune system booster. I don’t get a flu shot.
8. If I do catch a cold, I let it run its course, take herbal medicines like horehound cough syrup and make sure I get plenty of rest and fluids.
9. I don’t use any kind of antibacterial or antiseptic cleaners. For that matter, I don’t use commercial cleaning concoctions, with the exception of oven cleaner about once a year and a citrus-based cleaner called Awwsome Orange for really tough, greasy jobs (and since I recently found a recipe to make my own, as soon as I try it, this one may go down the pike). I keep a spray bottle with an ammonia/dish soap/water mix to spray for surface cleaning, use vinegar spray for mold, and baking soda and vinegar to clean drains and carpets.
10. Although I do wash my hands regularly, I’m not a fanatic about it. Hand washing may help get rid of surface bacteria, but it also strips the skin of natural protective oils and increases the risk of breaks in the skin that can allow nasty bugs to gain a foothold. That’s particularly important for someone like moi, who regularly has her hands in dirt, plays with critters and poultry, and never seems to be able to keep her fingernails clean for more than five minutes. As soon as I dry my hands, I apply home-made hand cream, usually with infused calendula oil added to protect the skin.
The bottom line in this discussion is that your gut is trying to tell you something: don’t worry so much about the teeny-tiny details a researcher in a lab obsesses over. Listen to your gut (there’s a reason it’s call a gut instinct!). Feed your microbiome well, follow the basics of cleanliness and use your common sense. If what you’re doing has worked for 30 or 40 years, and worked for mom and grandma before you, odds are pretty high it’s safe.

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