Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Prairie Dog Woman Cooks

During our latest Girls Gone Wild vacation in Kentucky our talk turned to a well-known show on Food Network.  Somehow the title of that show skewed into "Prairie Dog Woman."  We proceeded to demonstrate that we five sisters also had the right stuff to make us great cooks, too.

Our pre-Thanksgiving supper consisted of a choice of two soups: Cheeseburger Potato Soup and 8-Can Taco Soup.  Both were rated "delicious."

Cheeseburger Potato Soup
Serves:   8

1/2 to 1 lb. ground beef
3/4 C. chopped onion
3/4 C. chopped carrots
3/4 C. diced celery
1 tsp. dried basil (no substitutions)
1 tsp. dried parsley flakes
4 Tbsp. butter or margarine, divided
3 C. chicken broth
4 C. cubed peeled potatoes
1/4 C. flour
8 oz. cheddar cheese or American cheese, cubed
1 1/2 C. milk
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

In a Dutch oven, brown beef; drain and set aside.

In the same pan, saute onion, carrots, celery, basil and parsley in 1 tablespoon butter until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.  Add broth, potatoes and beef; bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer 10-15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, melt remaining butter.  Add flour; cook and stir for 3-5 minutes until bubbly.  Add to soup; bring to a boil.  Cook and stir for 2 minutes. 

Reduce heat to low.  Add cheese, milk, salt and pepper; cook and stir until cheese melts.


8-Can Taco Soup
Serves:   8

1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 oz.)  pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can (15 oz.) sweet corn, drained
1 can (12.5 oz.) chicken breast, drained
1 can (10.75 oz.) cream of chicken soup
1 can (10 oz.) green enchilada sauce
1 can (14 oz.) chicken broth
1 packet (1 oz.) taco seasoning
Shredded cheese
Tortilla chips
Sour cream

Spray slow cooker with non-stick cooking spray. Dump all the ingredients into slow cooker and stir together. Cook on Low heat for 2-3 hours. Serve with shredded cheese, tortilla chips, and a dollop of sour cream.

Note: Can also be prepared on the stovetop.

left: Susan prepares Cheeseburger Potato Soup
right: Nancy stirs together 8-Can Taco Soup

Thanksgiving morning began with two breakfast casseroles.

Cheese-Spinach Breakfast Casserole
Serves:   8+

1 lb. (16 oz.) shredded hash browns, well thawed
8 or 9 eggs, beaten
16 oz. (2 C.) cottage cheese, small curd, drain if extra wet
10-12 oz. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed
1/3 C. melted margarine
1/3 C. grated parmesan cheese
Pepper, to taste
2/3 C. chopped onions
2/3 C. chopped bell peppers
2 3/4 C. finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Place hash browns in a Pam-sprayed pan.  Bake at 350-degreese for 10 minutes.  (If assembling the night before, skip the pre-baking step.)

Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients in a large bowl.

Pour egg mixture over potato base.  Bake 40-45 minutes or until set.  Let sit 5 minutes before cutting.

Optional ingredients can be added: feta cheese crumbles, well-drained petite diced tomatoes, capers (to taste).


Sausage and Egg Casserole

1 stick margarine
1 lb. hash browns
1 small onion, chopped
2 C. (1 lb.) sausage, browned
2 C. shredded cheddar cheese
1 dozen eggs
2 C. milk
1 tsp. salt

Melt margarine. Place hash browns and onion in greased 9x13 baking dish. Drizzle margarine over top. Salt and pepper lightly. Bake 20-25 minutes at 350-degrees. Remove from oven and cool if not using right away.

Layer sausage and cheese on the potatoes. Beat together eggs, milk and 1 teaspoon salt. Pour over top. Bake at 350-degrees for 40-45 minutes.

Can be prepared the night before and baked the following day.

Left: our two breakfast casseroles
Right: Rod and Jerry on KP duty

Later in the day we feasted on our Thanksgiving dinner: ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato casserole, green beans, can o' cranberry sauce, and Beef House rolls.  The meal concluded with pumpkin pie and apple pie.

Crumb-Topped Apple Pie

1 pie crust
1/3 to 2/3 C. granulated sugar
     (depends on how sweet your apples are)
1/3 C. flour
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Dash of salt
2 Tbsp. butter
10 C. thinly sliced pared apples
     (Martha says: 10 cups sounds like a lot to me)

Heat oven 425 degrees and prepare pastry. Mix together all of the ingredients and put into pie crust. It will be very full.

Crumb topping:
1 C. flour
1/2 C. brown sugar
1/2 C. firm butter or margarine (1 stick)

Mix flour and brown sugar in bowl. Cut in butter. Mound over the top of the pie. It will appear to be really full but it will sink as it cooks. Bake 40 to 50 minutes.

left: Jane preps our Thanksgiving ham
right: Martha adds the topping to the apple pie

It's important to note that not all the kitchen duties were handled by the sisters.  An occasional brother-in-law stepped in to help speed things along.

Left: Amy relaxes after dictating to Jerry
Right: Jim avoids dishpan hands by offering to dry the dishes

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Men in Kilts

I did something a couple weeks ago that was way beyond my comfort level: I took a train to Chicago ….. All by myself!!!

It all started the beginning of June.  I was randomly googling musicals in Chicago when I stumbled across a production of Brigadoon.  I was very excited to see a favorite musical.  P. has long offered to go to musicals with me when he can – and he’s done so (The Music Man, Bye-Bye Birdie, Les Misérables, Spamalot), all local productions.  Once he moved to Chicago, he encouraged me to find something that I would be interested in doing, and he’d go with me.  Bingo!  A fantastic musical would be perfect.

I had to talk myself into taking the train by myself.  Funny-- the biggest stumbling block was where to park my car for the day.  I'm not familiar with the downtown train station; there are different parking spaces for different time allotments and I think long-term parking is somewhere across the tracks.  But I studied the maps, and after reconnoitering one Saturday morning I discovered that metered parking on the street is free on the weekends.  I made the theatre reservations and reserved a round-trip seat on Amtrak City of New Orleans train.

My train was scheduled to leave at 6:10 a.m.  The trains running through C-U are notoriously late.  Had they been reliable I would have booked the mid-morning departure that arrives in Chi-town around 1 pm.  I arrived at the station well-before departure.  Around 6:05 there was an announcement that the train would be 15 minutes late.  That turned out to be an under-estimate.  We finally pulled out around 6:50 with the explanation that they’d been delayed by freight traffic near Mattoon, but they’d make up the time in transit.

We were told the train was full and that they were assigning seats.  I was given seat 3 at the very front of the car.  I was agog watching the scenery.  No one was in seat 4 next to me, so I had the whole space to myself.  Which was good because I proceeded to take a bazillian pictures out the window.  Really 75, but that's a heck of a lot.  I'd never have done that if someone was right next to me.  My intent was to try to get one "perfect" photo that would encapsulate the whole train experience.  That was difficult because the windows were dirty, and by the time I snapped the picture, the train had passed the view.  Nonetheless, I persevered.

I tried to figure out the small towns that we passed.  Only one water tower’s name faced the tracks, Chebanse.  I occasionally got out my cell phone and used its GPS to track our progress.  Somewhere between Clifton and Chebanse we slowed way down.  It was announced that we were under “restricted speed” due to “signal issues.”  Alrighty.

I told our conductor (who made the announcements on the PA system) that he had a nice, reassuring voice.  And that I could understand him.  Dopey, I know, but it’s nice to compliment good work.

I texted P. when we passed the Homewood station, “home-sweet Homewood” as the conductor called it.  That would give P. a clue to our time of arrival.  He asked where I wanted to eat lunch, and I replied “middle eastern” cuisine or another ethnic food or anywhere.

We de-trained (that’s railroad lingo that I picked up) at 9:35 at Union Station about a half-hour late.  With the “restricted speed” we didn’t make up much time.  I followed the departing crowd and ended up on the street.  I asked a nice police officer what side of the building I was on.  Turns out I was on the west side facing Canal Street.  I texted P. and he found me.  Success!

I’d previously mentioned to P. that I’d like to see the Bean at Millennium Park.  It’s really called Cloud Gate, but everyone calls it the Bean, I think.  We stopped in the Chicago Cultural Center which is located in the old Chicago Public Library building.  It has impressive architecture that includes a memorial to the Civil War and a stunning Tiffany stained-glass dome, the largest in the world.  Building tours are in the afternoon, otherwise I think that would have been interesting.

Chicago Cultural Center -
in the former Chicago Public Library.

Millennium Park was pretty much across the street.  After viewing the Bean I was ready for a rest.  The weather was lovely for sitting in the shade, but walking under the sun was quite warm for me.  (Think sweat, lots of sweat.)  P. and I found a shaded bench and watched a couple little kids bury plastic dinosaurs under the newly-cut grass.  We talked about walking over to the far side of the park to see Lake Michigan, but after our rest I decided I'd see the lake another time.  BTW, the Chicago Air and Water Show was that same weekend.  We heard the buzz/drone of aircraft overhead.

left:  "The Bean" at Millennium Park
right:  The Picasso sculpture at Daley Plaza

It was now time to think about lunch.  P. had found a couple middle Eastern restaurants in our general vicinity, and we headed in their direction.  We went to the address for the first place, but we couldn't locate it.  P. said it could be somewhere inside the building.  We decided to look for the other one.  Once again, we couldn't locate it.  But looking down a side street we discovered why: it's located inside the building with the address we're looking for, but its entrance was off the side street.  We lunched at Roti Mediterranean Grill on North Dearborn Avenue, but its entrance was on Washington Street.  It was somewhat similar to Subway in that you order at the counter and select what you want on your sandwich or plate.  I had a Chicken Roti Plate and P. chose a Chicken Roti Sandwich.  The sandwich was a wrap made with laffa bread.  I chose cous-cous and fresh vegetables for my plate of shawarma chicken and rice with yogurt-cucumber sauce.  It was refreshing and tasty.

Following our lunch we walked up the street to the Goodman Theatre.  We had "cheap" seats in the mezzanine.  The view was perfect.  I loved, loved, loved everything about the performance: the music, the acting and singing, the costumes, set design and staging, the whole production, and especially the dancing.  I'm surprised how much I liked the dancing.  The Scottish dancing had a mix of ballet thrown in.  P. even said the musical wasn't bad.

Following the musical we made our way to Bridge House Tavern on the Chicago Riverwalk for an early supper.  We both selected Chipotle Chicken Sandwich on a pretzel roll, although I deconstructed my sandwich and ate the parts separately.  P. chose an Allagash White draft beer which he thought might appeal to me.  I took a sip and pronounced it "not terrible."  We killed a little time and chatted.

left: lunch at Roti Mediterranean Grill
(that's pita bread on top, not a gigantic mushroom)
right: supper at Bridge House Tavern

Then P. escorted me back to
Union Station.  He contacted an Uber driver for his trip back to his apartment.  I headed underground to the waiting room, and P. exited to the street.  I had about an hour's wait 'til the 8:05 departure.  The train left pretty much on time, and I arrived back in C-U around 10:40 to sprinkles of rain.

This was an especially lovely day for many reasons: I managed a train trip on my own, I enjoyed a wonderful professional musical production, and P. was a super nice guide for my venture in the big city.

And the answer to the age-old question: What do men wear under kilts?  From my seat at the Goodman Theatre, it looked like black Speedo-type underwear.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Beautiful Day

Oh, my goodness.  Yesterday was a beautiful day: temperatures in the 70’s, slight breeze, gorgeous blue skies and fluffy white clouds.  I love the color of the blue skies against the green grass and trees.

July 2014 - park near our house
Another reason why the day was so beautiful: It’s July -- traditionally the hottest month of the summer.  But this year’s July has been over the top with pleasant temperatures.  We had temps in the 70’s for several days around the Fourth of July.  While tomorrow is supposed to warm up again, next week’s weather prediction has the temperatures back into the 70’s.  I love it!

The Illinois State Water Survey says: The average temperature so far this month in our town is almost 5 degrees below the historical average of 75.  We may be headed for the third-coolest July on record (dating back to 1889).  Number 1 on the list is 2009 at 70 degrees.  The cool July weather is all because of an unusual position of the upper-air jet stream.

In contrast, two years ago, our town lived through its second-hottest July ever with seven days with temperatures of 100 or greater and 27 days with temperatures of 90 or greater.  Last summer was plenty warm, too.

Wind the clock back 6 months and we were in the midst of a cold, snowy winter.  In mid-January our snow total was nearly 25 inches for the season.  January temperatures weren’t any better: average at 20 degrees which ranks as the 17th-coldest January on record in Illinois. 

March 2013

The News-Gazette reports of the infamous winter of 1977-78 when the average temperature in our town was 20.2 degrees and we were buried in a record 67.2 inches of snow.  The next winter was barely better with an average temperature of 20.4 degrees.

Total snow in inches

I definitely remember the winter of 1977-78.  I began working at the college library January 1978 and was commuting from GC.  My first week of work the college was closed two days.  I do remember two other days that we were closed due to snow the next month.  The plows chiseled great walls of snow along the highways.

But that was then, and this is now.  We’ll keep talking about the weather and remembering “back when,” and we’ll set new records and compare year to year.  And I’ll be happy when the skies are a gorgeous blue with fluffy white clouds and the temperatures are mild.