Monthly Archives: November 2011


Thanksgiving for nearly every American family is a special holiday where grandparents, parents, children and often more distant relatives and friends gather around a bounteous table to share fellowship and a delicious traditional meal. The meal has become almost ritual, and each family table is filled with particular foods that absolutely must be there. There is usually the roasted turkey, although in recent years more and more families are substituting roast beef, ham or some other protein. Then there are mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with miniature marshmallows on top, dressing or stuffing as the case may be, gravy, cranberry relish, and green bean casserole made with canned mushroom soup and canned fried onion rings.  All of this is followed with both pumpkin and pecan pie with lots of whipped cream. (How can one possibly choose – so of course you need “a little sliver” of both!)

One of our family traditions is creamed onions. No one eats them, but the whole family complains if the onions are not on the table.  What nobody complains about is the bread dressing. The recipe came from Susan’s aunt who used to visit the family around Thanksgiving-time and always brought good food and new recipes from Delaware. Her dressing  has been an all-time hit so that we always double and usually triple the recipe to have plenty to eat with leftover turkey the next day. I suspect that she got her recipe out of a newspaper or magazine, because I have seen a lot of similar though not identical recipes since then. Still, this is a family heirloom which has to be made exactly the same every year.

Our family Thanksgivings have been both days of joy and family happiness (There are three birthdays in November) as well as days of sadness when one of the clan has been diagnosed with a serious illness or when a loved one is no longer at the table.  The day can also be one of discouragement for the cook or cooks who have been baking and preparing for days ahead. They often arise before dawn on the big day to put the finishing touches on the meal. Hours of hard work, sweat over a hot stove, and attention to details all seem to be for nothing when everyone sits down, only to have the meal disappear in a few minutes. That’s so folks won’t miss a minute of the football games on television or conversations around the fire. Mountains of dishes still have to be done by the kitchen crew.

Cubed French bread

Crumbled corn bread

This year we are doing things differently. We will be going to the dining room of a local hotel where they will serve a traditional turkey dinner ending with a huge buffet of desserts. When everyone has eaten his or her fill, the leftovers get packaged up to take home for the next day. No hot work in the kitchen and no dishes to clean up. Everyone seems happy including the usual cooks.

Ready to eat

Still, we will miss AA’s all-time best bread dressing. We might even make some beforehand to make sure we have it on Friday.


AA’s All-Time Best Bread Dressing


5 Cups cubed French bread

5 Cups crumbled cornbread

1/2 Cup butter

3/4 Cup minced onion

1/2 Cup minced green pepper

1/2 Cup minced celery

1 chicken bouillon cube

2/3 Cup hot water

1/2 pound bulk sausage

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning

2 eggs,beaten

3/4 Cup chopped pecans

  1. The day before, cut French bread into 1/2 inch cubes and spread them out to dry overnight.  In a separate pan, crumble the cornbread and spread it to dry overnight.
  2. In a large, heavy skillet, saute the onion, green pepper, and celery in the butter until tender.
  3. Place the bread cubes and crumbled corn bread in a very large container.  Dissolve the bouillon cube in the hot water and sprinkle over the dried breads. Stir in the sautéed vegetables.
  4. Using the same skillet, saute the sausage until browned and finely divided. Set aside.
  5. Add the salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, eggs, and pecans to the crumb mixture. Stir in the sausage and pan drippings and mix well.
  6. Bake in a large greased pan, covered, at 325 for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the top is nicely browned.

Yield: Enough for 6 to 8 with no leftovers


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When I was growing up, my mother would make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and put it in a brown paper sack along with some carrot sticks, an apple or orange, and some home-made cookies. When we moved to the suburbs the school had a lunch program. For twenty-five cents children could get a hot meal served in a war surplus Army metal divided tray. For a quarter you got a main dish like spaghetti, a salad, hot bread, fruit, dessert, and a little glass bottle of milk. All the kids loved lunch and lunchtime because the food was good, and it was a break from the classroom. Nobody threw anything away. The reason it was so cheap was that the meal was mostly made from “commodities” which the government had purchased from the farm subsidy program. Cheese, meat, chickens, eggs, butter, and produce were all part of the program, so it was possible to make a tasty meal from high quality ingredients. The other reason the lunches were so popular was that they were made by the “lunch ladies” who usually were mothers of some of the school children. Their kids were often your friends, and the cooks knew everyone’s name. In those days, nobody would dream of wasting food, especially in front of a mother who might tell your mother. Besides, the ladies would often make special treats like home-made potato chips to go with juicy hamburgers and all the trimmings.

My mom became one of those lunch ladies, and for many years she cooked meals which the children loved. Her fresh, hot rolls were famous as were her pumpkin pie and chocolate sheet cake. She loved “her children” and they loved her.

Then something happened. The commodity program shrunk dramatically. School boards across the country decided that they needed to cut payrolls and that they could provide lunches cheaper by contracting with big restaurant firms. The home-made lunches disappeared, and in their place came frozen TV-dinner-like meals that got heated up in the microwave. It was about the same time that a garbage barrel got placed at the end of cafeteria line where kids could dump their uneaten tray and head for the vending machines filled with soft drinks, corn snacks, and candy bars. It was about that time, too, when the decision was made to count ketchup as a vegetable to make sure of the “nutritional value” of the meal, and when childhood obesity began to inch up.

Now some schools have contracted with caterers who have the child choose from a menu of items that are popular with kids. The food is apparently better, but it is still not the solution to having the kids eat a healthy lunch.

In frustration, my daughter Carol decided to do something about it. Peanut butter sandwiches are often no longer allowed. Although she is not really concerned about some of the other food restrictions which have multiplied seemingly geometrically in the last few years –  mercury content of tunafish, dairy products in drinks, estrogens in soy products, gluten in bread – and on and on – she wanted to make a lunch her kids would eat, and so she turned to bento boxes.

Sarah's authentic bento box from the Kyoto train station

She picked up a copy of “The Just Bento Cookbook” by Makiko Itoh (one of this year’s top ten cookbooks on the Amazon list) and bought some bento boxes. Then she prepared this menu from the book: chicken kijiyaki, pan-steamed sweet potato, cucumber and turnip salad with lime, rice, and apple bunnies.

Carol's bento box in the morning

Being the good cook that she is, Carol made a point of seasoning the food to kid tastes and arranging it beautifully in the boxes.

Cameron's bento box in the afternoon

Ciara's bento box in the afternoon

Alas, with all that effort, she felt let down when her kids returned from school with their bento boxes in tow. Now, it’s on to another ploy to get her kids to eat a healthy lunch at school.

RECIPES (adapted from “The Just Bento Cookbook” by Makiko Itoh, published by Kodansha International, 2010)

Chicken Kijiyaki

1 chicken thigh, boned with skin on

1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

  1. Pierce the skin of the chicken with a sharp fork and place it skin-side down on a hot non-stick skillet. Saute until the skin is crisp, turn over and saute the other side until done.
  2. Remove the chicken from the pan, clean the skillet with a paper towel and return the skillet to the heat. Add the mirin, soy sauce, and sugar, stirring until the sugar is melted and the sauce is hot. Return the chicken, turning it to coat it with the sauce. Remove the chicken from the pan, let it cool, slice it, and arrange it in the bento box.

Pan-steamed Sweet Potato

1 small sweet potato, peeled and sliced into 1/2 inch rounds

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon honey

  1. Arrange the sweet potato slices in a single layer in a sauce pan. Add enough water to half cover the slices. Sprinkle with salt.
  2. Bring to the boil. Then cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the sweet potato slices are tender. Turn once about half way through the cooking.
  3. Drain the water from the sauce pan, drizzle honey over the slices. Then let them cool completely before packing them in the bento box.

Cucumber and Turnip Salad with Lime

1 small cucumber

1/2 turnip, peeled

1 teaspoon salt

zest of 1 lime

1/2 Tablespoon fresh lime juice

  1. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and slice very thin half-moons.
  2. Slice the turnip into small, thin slices and combine with the cucumber slices
  3. Rub the vegetables all over with the salt. Let stand for 10 minutes until they are limp. Then squeeze out any excess water
  4. Add the lime zest and lime juice. Place in a covered container, and refrigerate overnight

Apple Bunnies

1 ripe, red apple

juice of 1 lime

1 Cup water

  1. Cut the apple into wedges and remove the core
  2. With a sharp paring knife, score the skin of an apple with the shape of a triangle, its base at the top of the wedge
  3. Again with the sharp knife cut through the apple just below the skin on either side of the triangle
  4. Gently remove the skin from the triangle
  5. Place the carved apple in the lime juice added to the water to prevent discoloration of the cut apple and so that the “ears” curl and

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Sunset on the Chisos Mountains

I just returned from a week at Big Bend National Park and the Terlingua International Chili Championship. The Big Bend of Texas is a magical place. It is a vast desert dotted with amazing island mountain ranges. The  Basin in the center of the Chisos Mountains is filled with alpine conifers and is also home to black bears, peccaries ( also know as javelinas), and mountain lions.  There are many oases out in the desert with cottonwoods turning golden this time of year. The Rio Grande carves deep canyons as it makes its eponymous big bend. In the spring, especially after a rainy winter, a huge diversity of wildflowers turn the harsh landscape into an unparalled garden.

View of the Cook Off

For many, all of this natural beauty is secondary. These are folks who are waiting for the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship. The cook off began in 1967 with some of the legends of chili cooking. Unfortunately as often happens in nascent organizations, there was a falling out with the division into two competing organizations, the Chili Appreciation Society Internationa (CASI) and the International Chili Society (ICS). For a time, the two organizations held competing contests just a short distance from one another – and in fact ICS continues to have a cook off “behind the store” where the original contests were held.  But ICS branched out across the country  and then began to have what it billed as the “World Championships” in California and other places. This year’s event was held in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Still, the CASI event continues to be the granddaddy of cook offs and remains true to its roots in Terlingua, a nearby semi-ghost mining town.

Reggie Graves cooking

Susan and I attended the CASI cook off to see our old friend, Reggie Graves, who has returned to competitive chili cooking after a break of several years. Reggie is known by everyone at the contest because of his friendly spirit and because he cooks up a mean pot of chili. Everyone there seemed glad to have him back.

Tomato sauce and "dumps" ready to go

Squeezing the last bit of juice out a hot chile

This year marked the 45th cook off, and although most of the competitors are from Texas, many come from all over the United States and even other countries. This is truly the big-time, because cooks must qualify by winning enough points awarded in sanctioned local and regional contests throughout the year. There are hundreds of RVs and tents set up in little villages across the desert for days before the contests start. Everyone seems to be having a good time, and there is plenty of beer to go around. Lots of crazy hats and a few outrageous costumes. In the area known as Krazy Flats you may even see a fair bit of skin. Of course, the big event is the chili cook off on Saturday, but lots of other cooking contests are held earlier in the week: salsa, beans, wings, barbecue, and desserts among them.

Chili is a truly American dish (some say a truly Texas dish), and nearly everyone has his or her favorite recipe. More than that, nearly every home chili cook believes that his or hers is the best chili on the planet. Firehouse cooks achieve their fame with their chili, and grandmas make their chili for special family occasions. Some recipes call for tomatoes. Some recipes call for beans. Some recipes call for fresh hot peppers. About the only things that most chilis have are meat and chili powder.

Competition chili is different. More than one person has declared that competition chili is not intended to be the evening meal. Its purpose is to highlight the skills of the cook to use the essential ingredients, meat and chili powder, better than anyone else. One thing is certain: you will never find beans or tomatoes in competition chili. You will also not find chopped onions or minced garlic. One explanation for this is that the judging is supposed to be strictly anonymous, and if a bit of onion or a garlic clove should turn up in the competition cup, it might signal the identity of the cook.

Meat cooking in the sauce

Chili almost ready for "turn-in"

Competition chili recipes adhere to a common ritual with five basic steps: (1) preparation of the meat, (2) cooking and preliminary seasoning of the meat, (3) addition of chili powder, pepper, and other seasonings, sometimes called “the first dump”, (4) addition of fresh chili powder and other seasonings shortly before serving the chili, sometimes called “the second dump”, and (5) preparing and filling the styrofoam cup to be turned in to the judges. Of course, competitive chili cooks all have their own secrets for every step in the process. And fashions come and go. For example, years ago, winning was impossible without using carefully cubed chuck roast; now nearly everyone uses coarse ground beef. Some cooks use packets of ketchup from their favorite fast-food restaurant. Everyone has his or her favorite mix or mixes of chili powder. Some folks even throw in a little grape jelly! Who knows what other secrets are out there?

Speaking of chili powder, the stuff that competition cooks use is different from the ground chiles (note the spelling difference) used in Mexican and New Mexican cooking. Chili powder comes pre-mixed with different combinations of ground chiles, garlic powder, ground cumin, ground oregano, other ingredients, and usually silicates to keep it from lumping. There are also light and dark versions depending upon the chiles used and the degree of roasting. Most cooks buy their spices from a couple of spice merchants in the Fort Worth area and/or use bottled powders from Mexene, one of the sponsors of the event.

Jerry Hunt, 1990 Champion

Reggie preparing his "turn-in cup"


The recipe that follows is an amalgamation of those of several previous champions, including Jerry Hunt of Shreveport, LA, the 1990 champ. No secrets are included, and don’t expect to win even a local contest with this recipe, but it will give you a starting place if you want to become a competitive chili cook.

Competition Chili


2 pounds ground beef, coarse grind, 20% fat

1 Tablespoon cooking oil

1 Tablespoon onion powder

8 ounces unsalted tomato sauce

14½ ounces (1 can) beef broth

2 Tablespoons (divided) light chili powder

3 Tablespoons (divided) dark chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon (divided) ground cumin

½ teaspoon red pepper

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon chicken granules

1 teaspoon paprika

¼ teaspoon brown sugar

1 package Sazón Goya

  1. Brown the meat in the cooking oil, adding the onion powder while stirring
  2. When the meat has browned, add the tomato sauce and beef broth. Stir to combine and cook for 30 minutes.
  3. (First Dump) Combine 1 Tablespoon of light chili powder, 2 Tablespoons of dark chili powder, garlic powder, salt, ½ Tablespoons ground cumin, red pepper, black pepper, and chicken granules. Add the mix to the meat, stir to combine, and cook at a simmer for 1 hour.
  4. (Second Dump) Combine 1 Tablespoon of light chili powder, 1 Tablespoon of dark chili powder, paprika, ½ Tablespoon cumin, brown sugar, and Sazón Goya. Add the mix to the pot, stir well to combine and cook at a simmer, covered for 30 minutes. Add water and salt if needed.
  5. While the chili is cooking, prepare the “turn-in cup” by coating the inside with a little of the chili. Discard or taste the extra.
  6. Transfer some of the finished chili to the prepared “turn-in cup” and make your way to the judging stand.

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