How I Spent My Summer

What is it about childhood memories?

Those rose-colored, temperature-controlled, glamour-coated days of carefree simplicity?

OK … so that’s a bit of a stretch, but I recently revisited one of the places that has held a prominent place in the mental photo album of my youth: the Buena Vista County Fair (BVCF). To imagine what summers on the farm were like, picture Little House on the Prairie, but with indoor plumbing and cars. As a kid, I had chores: gardening, canning, cooking, cleaning, mowing, and walking beans (a dirty and hot job of walking through the bean fields, pulling weeds in the ever-so-pleasant company of my brothers). There was also plenty of time for riding bikes, swimming, and hanging out with friends. For one week each summer, the county fairgrounds became my home-away-from-home.

When many people think about fairs, I think they picture state fairs: Rogers and Hammerstein stanzas play in the background as images of sparkling carousels, giant corn dogs, ribbons of blue, red, and white flutter in the breeze, and children riding on the shoulders of their parents as they take in the shows.

Now take this extravaganza and divide it by 99 and you find the county fair. Why 99? There are 99 counties in Iowa and each has its own fair. The purpose of the county fair is to focus on the “education of the youth of Iowa, and showcasing Iowa’s agricultural, industrial and domestic heritage” (Association of Iowa Fairs). The “education of the youth of Iowa” is largely centered around the 4-H and FFA clubs. The former is what provided me with so much involvement, opportunity, and fun at the fair.

If you are unfamiliar with 4-H, it is a national youth organization with local, county, state, and national activity levels fostering self-improvement and community service. Kids are introduced and encouraged to explore areas like food & nutrition, sewing, home improvement, animals & livestock, citizenship, photography, public speaking, agriculture, and so much more.

By the time I was 9, thanks to my mom and my grandmothers, I had a pretty solid foundation in cooking, baking and gardening. 4-H was the perfect opportunity for me to build on and expand my food-loving spirit. All throughout the year, our club would meet monthly and divide the responsibilities of hosting, presenting, planning, and sharing ideas. But when school let out in May, it was time to start planning and creating for the fair.

The fair was our chance to display and have judged the things we learned about and made throughout the year. The fairgrounds had (have) a special building for 4-H and each club in the county had (have) a space to decorate and display. Each project had to be entered under a specific category and was judged at the very beginning of the week. Baked goods and nutritional information, arts and crafts, sewing and quilting, refinishing and refurbishing, posters and instructional displays filled the building, waiting to be adorned with a purple, pink, blue, red, or white ribbon.

Once the decorating and judging was over, there was more time for socializing. For the next few days, my cousin and I would wander the fairgrounds, spend time in the cattle barns where her dairy cows were housed for the week, eat fair food (specifically the homemade pie at the Peterson Family Food Stand), and watch whatever events were scheduled for that day. If my cousin was involved in something like the cattle show/judging, I would watch. If I was involved in giving some kind of presentation (usually involving food … go figure), she would watch. The fair was where we got to know a lot of kids from other towns, so we watched what they were doing. There was always a small midway with rides and games that was a true novelty … a couple of rounds on the Tilt-a-Whirl and a bunch of quarters lost to the bulldozer game usually sent us exploring again.

The evenings were reserved for special 4-H events and grandstand entertainment. In the early evening, there would be events centered around 4-H like the Fair Queen Contest, Pie Baking Contest, Share the Fun, and a teen dance. Our fairgrounds were the home of the BV County Stock Car Races during much of the year so the entertainment often involved a night of races, an evening tractor pull (don’t knock it till you’ve watched it), and concerts.

As I wandered around the fair this year, I noticed the 4-H building seemed smaller, there weren’t as many kids or adults milling around, the number of projects and entries had declined, and, sadly, the Peterson Food Stand was no longer operating. I thought, “Where IS everybody?’

I was disappointed.

There were still fun things to do … a rock-climbing wall, kids activities, presentations, animals ranging from large horses to a huge variety of hens and roosters, rides and games, etc.

Pedal Pull Contest

There were still fun things to see … beautiful arts and crafts, kids showing their cattle, 4-H projects, and cute baby contests.

In a world where a 2-hour movie costs $10, a concert runs $75-$100 per ticket, a trip to the aquatic center is $8-$10, this day at the fair was a true bargain. Admission was one dollar. The pork burger I bought from the Pork Producers was two dollars. That evening, the Pork Producers and Corn Growers were sponsoring a free dinner: pork burgers (no, I didn’t mind eating two pork burgers in one day), fresh-from-the-field sweet corn, and ice cream. They were collecting donations to support veterans and as I waited in line for free food, it was pretty easy to contribute after spending a total of $3 for a day of entertainment and memories.

Maybe the fair hasn’t changed nearly as much as my perspective has. I’ve moved to an urban area where instead of supporting county fairs, I’ve been going to the State Fair. Is it possible that those memories have been running through my brain under the influence of rose-colored glasses? I don’t remember it being miserably hot and humid during the fair. I remember it being … well, ideal. I remember it being a busy place, full of people I knew. Or maybe it was not quite as busy as I remember but was full of the friendly, supportive people of my youth.

The fair was a place of freedom, competition, cooperation, networking, community, and education. As a kid, I didn’t realize I was getting all of these life lessons when I paid the admission at the gate. I was just paying for a day of fun. For 9 years, I pledged …

my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

I repeated this 4-H pledge over and over again. I think it took a trip back in time for me to realize I am still a student of 4-H. Next year, I pledge to spend a few days visiting the county fairs in my area. After all, “Shop Local” applies to entertainment too.


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Mother’s Day Picnic

As Mother’s Day approaches, it is impossible for me not to think back over the years since I first became a mom (and how quickly that time has passed). My two little boys are now grown men but they still like to make me smile. Sometimes it is a warm and appreciative smile. Sometimes it is a shake-my-head-and-sigh smile. And sometimes it is a throw-my-head-back-and-laugh-out-loud smile.

When they were little, I loved the cards and gifts that were made at school. Things like:

  • little ceramic, hand-formed vases or cups,
  • construction paper cards decorated with buttons and drawings of me (thank heavens stick-figures are skinny, am I right?),
  • poems with prints of their paint-dipped hands, and
  • anything with a photo of them smiling into the camera

are all stashed away in my memory trunk (literally and figuratively).

As they grew, and baseball started dominating our spring calendars, we spent many Mother’s Days at the ballpark. The bleachers became my throne and the concession stand my buffet.

And then there were the teenage years …

I’ve heard stories about the “less than enthusiastic” participation of teenagers in honoring their mothers on this day. In our home, this was not the case. These were the years that sarcasm and humor became the vehicles for sharing feelings and appreciation. My boys would search and search for just the right card for me … especially cards with recorded messages that played when you opened them. Here’s an example of what could have been expected:

Hoops and YoYo by Hallmark

Sometimes I would see a television commercial or on-line video that would bring tears to my eyes because it just seemed like something my boys would do:

I Smiled Last Time

As more years would pass, we started doing things together FOR Mother’s Day but not necessarily ON Mother’s Day. One year, I was presented with four tickets to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game scheduled for Father’s Day! I was a good mom and used the other three tickets to take them with me.

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As you may have noticed, I often use this beautiful, wicker, picnic basket in my photos. It has a very special place in my heart and reminds me of one of my earliest Mother’s Days. Marty and I were both in grad school (i.e. broke) and our oldest son was maybe two. There was a wonderful kitchen store in downtown Ames that I loved to browse. It was one of those stores that, when money is tight, you can stroll through and think, “Someday, I’d love to have a (insert object of desire) just like that one.” That was the case for me with this picnic basket.

On Mother’s Day that year, Marty told me that he and Nick had a surprise for me but we had to go somewhere to get it. We drove to a nearby park and got out. He asked me to get something out of the trunk of the car and when I did, there was my beautiful picnic basket … and it smelled like fried chicken! When I lifted the lid, I found fried chicken and all the appropriate accompaniments to make a perfect picnic.

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The credit for the creativity, thoughtfulness, and joy of giving that my boys have goes to their dad. Marty always took the boys shopping, included them in his master plan, taught them how to keep secrets, and showed them the joy of making their mom feel special and loved. I’m not sure if my “warm and appreciative” smile, my “shake-my-head-and-sigh” smile, or my “throw-my-head-back-and-laugh-out-loud” smile will be most appropriate tomorrow. All I know is that I will be smiling because I have been blessed with two happy, healthy boys and a picnic basket loaded with good memories.


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The Traveling Jelly Jar

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This week, I said good-bye … or, as I prefer to say, see you later … to a very dear friend. Lou was 76 years old, sweet to children of all ages, a kind-hearted practical joker, and faithful and courageous to his last days with us. About 14 years ago, we met Lou and his wife, Dianne, when we joined their congregation and they quickly went from “those sweet, kind people at church”, to beloved neighbors, to an extension of our family . In fact, our boys consider them honorary grandparents.

When Dianne called and told me that Lou had gone to his eternal home, memories from the last 14 years started running through my brain and good tears started running down my cheeks. One memory in particular stood out …

In 2008, we took a vacation to Door County, Wisconsin. Lou was curious if we were going fishing. He loved fishing. He loved fish stories. He wanted to hear all about it when we returned.

We did take our poles and we “drowned a few worms”, as they say. But we didn’t have much luck. There were plenty of stories to tell though … fish boils, lighthouses, the National Mustard Museum, cheese curds and the McVey-family-vacation-requirement, a baseball game (Miller Park √).

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Even then, I couldn’t resist a roadside market or winery. And, just ask my guys, there are a LOT of them in Door County. As many of you know, this area is famous for cherries. I’m not a big fan of cherries but the sight of jars and jars of beautiful, clear, berry-pink colored jelly in sweet little canning jars was too much to resist. Since my husband and boys are fans of cherries, we made our purchase and we thought Lou and Dianne might enjoy one too. They enjoyed our stories and the jelly.

A few months later, they stopped by one evening and handed us the jar, sans jelly, filled with black walnuts. In the fall, they would pick them up off the ground and Lou would make it his winter project to remove the green hull, dry the hard brown shell, crack open the shell, and remove the nut meats.


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NOTE: I just came across a website LOADED with black walnut recipes
and information and pictures (including the one above):
Hammons Products Company

I had seen these stinky nuts under trees and driven over those hard road hazards for many years but never knew anything about them. I just told you the first thing you have to know about black walnuts: they stink! Well, they stink when they are still in the green hull, and they will stain skin, fabric and surfaces so WEAR GLOVES during the gathering and hulling stages and cover your work area.

The second thing I learned is black walnuts have an acquired taste. They are stronger in flavor than traditional English walnuts and have a smoky edge and smell a little like black licorice. I am still trying to find that perfect recipe that makes me crave these gems … maybe one of those from Hammons will take me from “appreciation” to “infatuation” (future blogging potential)!

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Over the years, that jar has traveled back and forth between our houses filled with simple gifts. One year at Christmas, I filled it with peppernuts. One Easter, it came back filled with green and pink mint meltaways (those little mint candies that look like chocolate chips) because Lou and Dianne remembered me telling that the boys’ grandma had always put a bag of those in their Easter baskets. After randomly meeting outside our local grocery store and browsing the clearance table of perennials, I bought the plant they denied themselves and dropped it off at their house with the jar filled with Miracle Grow. Discussions about making dandelion chains as kids resulted in the delivery of this little ballroom dancer to my door. She’s made from a flower and a bud of one of their outdoor perennials (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten the name of the flower).The picture does not begin to do her justice.

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Back and forth … treats and candy … flowers and Bible verses … holidays and every days … simple gifts filled this jar. But the contents of the jar were far outweighed by the friendship between the joint owners.

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So, Lou, I thank you for all the hours you spent on those black walnuts and for sharing them with me. I hope you spend your days watching the hummingbirds, planting trees, handing out Starburst candy, singing “Jesus Loves Me”, and telling all who will listen about “the one that got away”.  Better yet … I hope you CATCH all those that got away!

And don’t worry … the jar will continue its travels back and forth from our house to yours.

 


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A Handful of Mixed Nuts

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Pfeffernüsse … pebernødder … pebernoten … peppernuts …

Whether they have German, Danish, Dutch, or English/American influences, these cookies are an addictive, tasty bite of holiday goodness best accompanied by coffee, tea or wine. (Yes, I know everything is better with wine but bear with me here.)

I grew up with, but failed to fully appreciate, these tiny treasures. Looking back in older versions of my childhood church’s cookbooks (1952 and 1980), there are primarily German influenced recipes with some Danish and Dutch versions as well. My grandmothers and mom recruited my help at an early age when making two different versions of peppernuts. Little hands are very useful when you are cutting 1/2-1 inch ropes of dough into 1/4 inch slices, rolling hundreds of them in cinnamon and sugar, and carefully placing them on the cookie sheet. At this young age, I was more interested in the frosted sugar cookies with sprinkles and the peanut butter kiss cookies than these spicy-sweet “nuts”.

Foolish child.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the word “peppernut” might imply a combination of “pepper” and “nuts”. What is interesting is the list of ingredients for these cookies typically excludes both. The “pepper” in the name refers to aromatic spices. Some recipes will include finely diced nuts but the reference here refers to the size of the cookies. They are meant to resemble nuts and be eaten by the handful. Can you think of a single reason I shouldn’t be completely infatuated with this concept??

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When I see peppernuts for sale in stores, they are frequently rolled in powdered sugar. This is not traditional (at least from any recipes I have found and Wikipedia agrees so it must be true). There are, however, many variations on the spice combinations, sweeteners, and additions of fruits and/or nuts. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, ginger, allspice and cardamom all make appearances in my cookbooks. Molasses, honey, dark corn syrup, brown sugar, and granulated sugar are found in varying combinations. Until this year, I had only made or tried peppernuts without nuts or fruits. That changed when I found a recipe right next to my two go-to recipes that looked so interesting I had to try it. It had citrus peel, coffee and walnuts! (Shhh … don’t tell my grandmothers, but this might be my favorite.)

Even the choice of fat … butter, margarine, lard … makes a big difference in the flavor and texture of each recipe. If you have been following me for a while, you probably know that I have a mild obsession with lard. It probably has something to do with my Grandma Glienke’s peppernut recipe that reads “1/2 pound butter or goose or duck lard”. Yep … because everyone has goose or duck lard hanging out in their refrigerator. I wish!

Now that you’ve allowed me to ramble on the history and variations of these simple-looking tidbits, we should get started on the recipe. Time consuming? Yes. Difficult? No. Worth it? Definitely!

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Christmas Peppernuts

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1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2  cup butter
2 medium eggs (or smaller “large” eggs)
1/4 cup strong coffee
1 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup finely chopped lemon peel
1/8 cup finely chopped orange peel
1/2 cup granulated sugar

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Cream brown sugar and butter together until smooth; add eggs and coffee and blend until creamy. Fold together or sift 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, flour and baking powder together and slowly add to batter. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in citrus peel and walnuts by hand until evenly distributed.

Roll dough into ropes 1/2-3/4″ in diameter. Wrap individually in plastic wrap or place on a cookie sheet covered with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours.

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine granulated sugar and remaining teaspoon of cinnamon in a flat-bottomed bowl. Remove 2-3 ropes at a time from refrigerator and place on a slightly floured cutting board. Cut into 1/4″ slices, roll in sugar/cinnamon mixture, and reshape into circles if necessary. Place about 2 inches apart on cookie sheets that have been lightly coated with cooking spray (first batch may take longer as cookie sheets are cool). Reapply a small amount of spray after each use. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cookies are done when the bottom of the cookies are golden brown. Allow cookies to cool 1-2 minutes on cookie sheet then transfer to parchment or waxed paper. Make sure pans are completely cool before refilling.

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The cookies at the bottom are all from the same batch. The one on the left was baked a minute too long. The one on the right needed another minute or two. The one in the middle is perfect. Good news? None of them are anywhere close to ruined. It just makes them look more like mixed nuts!

This is the recipe for half of a batch. You can easily double it (only use 3 large eggs not 4). A full batch will over-fill a gallon-sized ziploc bag.

Danish Peppernuts

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1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons cream or evaporated milk
3 cups flour, divided
2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Cream brown sugar, butter, and margarine; add egg yolk and cream/milk and continue mixing until smooth. Mix in 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and the ginger. Sprinkle the cupboard with the additional cup of flour and place dough on flour. Gently work flour into dough in a kneading motion (lifting and turning) until all flour has been absorbed into the dough.

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine granulated sugar and remaining teaspoon of cinnamon in a flat-bottomed bowl. Roll the dough into 1/2 inch diameter ropes and cut into 1/4″ thick slices. Toss the slices in the sugar/cinnamon mixture and place, 2 inches apart, on a cookie sheet that has been lightly coated with cooking spray (first batch may take longer as cookie sheets are cool). Reapply spray between uses. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until bottom of cookies are golden brown. Allow cookies to cool 1-2 minutes on cookie sheet then transfer to parchment or waxed paper. Make sure pans are completely cool before refilling.

This recipe will fill a gallon ziploc baggie about half full.

German Peppernuts

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1/2 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup lard
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 (rounded) tablespoon baking soda
2 tsp boiling water
3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon, divided
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Place corn syrup, molasses, lard and 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a slow boil, stirring frequently, until well mixed.  Remove from heat and stir for 2-3 minutes to cool.  Combine baking soda and boiling water and stir slowly into molasses mixture.  Allow mixture to cool to room temperature.  Sift flour and spices into mixing bowl.  Slowly add warm cooled molasses mixture with the mixer on low until combined.  Dough will be sticky.  With floured hands, divide dough into four parts; wrap in plastic wrap and let dough stand for at least one day in a cool, dry place; do not refrigerate. (This is the original instruction from the days when everyone had a cold room … refrigerating for one day is permitted.)

Preheat oven to 350°.  In a shallow pan, combine 1/2 cup sugar with 1 tsp cinnamon; set aside.  On a lightly floured surface and working with one portion of dough at a time, divide into two or three parts and roll into a 1/2-3/4″ rope and cut rope into 1/2″ slices.  Place cookies in sugar/cinnamon mixture and toss to coat.   Place on cookie sheet that has been lightly coated with cooking spray.  Bake for 10-12 minutes or until set in the middle and the bottom of each cookie is golden brown (first batch may take longer as cookie sheets are cool).  Remove from oven and allow to cool 2-3 minutes on the cookie sheet.  Remove from pan and cool completely on parchment or waxed paper.  Make sure pans are completely cool before refilling.

This last recipe is credited to my grandmother in one of those church cookbooks I mentioned earlier. I love her final instructions:

Do not freeze; store in an air-tight container in a cool place. 

“These will keep until all gone.” 

They will indeed!

But once you start giving some of these little delicacies away to friends, you will not have to worry about how long they will “keep”. I like to combine all three kinds into small cellophane bags and tie them shut with cording or ribbon. As the recipient starts sampling, they can taste the subtle differences and struggle to decide which is their favorite.

Joy in tiny morsels …

… by the handful!


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Thanksgiving Humble Pie

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It doesn’t happen very often.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to pull an original prank on my boys like I did that one glorious Thanksgiving. It was shear genious and completely unplanned. The opportunity presented itself and, for once, I recognized it and owned it.

It lasted for two days.

You see … I am guilty of the following phrase when I make substitutions in recipes:

You won’t be able to tell the difference.

Yes, they can. And they always do. They have their father’s discerning taste buds.

Before I tell you the story, you must know that pumpkin pie is not just a traditional dessert at our house. It is sacred. The whipped cream is just as sacred. My husband must have homemade and our youngest has a life-long obsession with the kind he can spray directly into his mouth. Anyway …

Two years ago (the “boys” were 24 and 19), I was doing my Thanksgiving meal prep work the day before the feast. I was cooking sweet potatoes. One of the boys walked in the kitchen, took one look at the sweet potatoes, wrinkled up his nose, and said:

What are you making? 

Opportunity knocks.

Sweet Potato Pie!

WHY?

Because I am going to prove to you guys, that you cannot taste the difference
between pumpkin and sweet potatoes! I am making one pumpkin pie and
one sweet potato pie and you have to try them both.

Our house is never quiet but panic was setting in. Not panic that they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Panic because there was only going to be ONE pumpkin pie!

By the time the boys were up and ready for church the next morning, both pies were baked. They were gorgeous! They looked exactly alike. The boys started to get nervous.

They sniffed them. They questioned me over and over if I was sure I knew which one was which. My father-in-law arrived for the meal, which we devoured. The boys had filled him in on the pie situation. I very carefully cut the pies into thin slices and laid a slice of each on everyone’s plate, being very careful to put one on the right side and the other on the left. The boys have never taken so long to eat dessert. They were examing the texture and concentrating on the flavors. My father-in-law glanced at me and gave me a little smile.

He figured it out.

When the boys had finally made their guesses, they were not as certain as they thought they’d be. There was fear of having to admit that mom was right. Or, maybe, it was fear that mom would start substituting sweet potatoes in all of their favorite pumpkin recipes. Doesn’t matter … there was fear.

Drumroll please!

They are both pumpkin.

My father-in-law started laughing. The boys didn’t.

But what about the sweet potatoes you were cooking?!?!

I pointed to the sweet potato casserole that had been passed around the table during the meal.

The looks on their faces? Priceless!

They started laughing, dug into the pie with typical gusto, and gave thanks that there was going to be a lot of leftover pumpkin pie after all.

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Fried Apples

This week, I am writing about my pre-Thanksgiving meal that controls my cravings for the ultimate feast that is weeks away. That first blog covered the main dish: turkey meatballs! Turkey is the premier entre for Thanksgiving but it’s the side dishes that crowd the plate. It is hard to leave any of our favorites out of the feast, but our tables are only so big! That is the best part of a pre-Thanksgiving meal … make some of those sides that didn’t make the cut for the final menu.

Or, maybe you are ready for a new line-up and just need some good recommendations.

The second post this week featured a simple and healthy side-dish: Parsley-Mustard Glazed Carrots.


Having covered the protein and the veggie, it’s time to add a little fruit.

By reading the title, you might be thinking we’re breaking out the deep-fat fryer or at least some serious amounts of oil. But we’re not.

In fact, these apples really aren’t fried at all. They are steamed and simmered but there is no oil involved. A little butter? Yes. We are talking Thanksgiving, after all!

My mom would make these apples for dinner (well, we called it supper). They always seemed so FANCY to us and were so pretty piled up on top of pork chops. There were never any leftovers. I made a full batch for my husband and myself so there are a few left. They are calling me to warm them up and put them on top of pancakes or oatmeal this morning.

It would be rude to ignore them …

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Fried Apples

5-6 medium size apples (these are Jonathan apples and my favorite for this recipe)
2 tablespoons of butter
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt (if using unsalted butter)

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Cut apples into quarters, remove core, and slice thin. Melt the butter in a shallow pan over medium-low heat and add apples (and pinch of salt, if needed). Fold apples into butter, cover with lid, and allow to gently steam for 15 minutes.

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Remove lid, sprinkle with sugar, gently stir apples to coat, return lid to partially cover pan (allowing steam out) and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Stir only once or twice. Remove from heat and serve.

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Looking at my pictures, these apples really deserved a much prettier presentation. I have a couple of my grandmother’s depression-glass bowls that would have been worthy. Of course, growing up we didn’t spend any time staging our table or our plates. We certainly didn’t take time to take pictures of our food (oh how I wish we had). We said our prayer and we dug in! I’m sure it was the appreciative sound of “mmmmm…” as we all took our first bites that pleased Mom the most.

After all … when cooking for others, that sound is all the applause that is ever needed.


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