One of my strongest childhood memories was watching my grandmothers in the kitchen preparing meals for our large family gatherings on Sunday afternoons. Both my grandmother and my great-grandmother were influential figures in my life and instilled a quiet passion in me for bringing your heart and soul to the table. They would create memorable and delicious dishes that would cause us to want to sit at the dinner table for hours, not just minutes, and share together. They were wonderful and patient teachers and, like a sponge, I would absorb their body language, their knife skills, and their innate sense of creating something out of nothing as I worked alongside them. They were frugal, but they would never let us know it, as we sat down to a meal fit for kings.
When my great grandmother died, I inherited a few of her cookbooks. They have her notes in them from World War I, when she was a cook for the soldiers. They hold a place of honor on my bookshelf. It helps me to remember what an important role food has to play both in life and in death. I thumb through the fragile pages from time to time, half expecting to hear grandma’s voice whisper a secret direction to me.
This is among one of my grandmother’s signature recipes–a relish made with green tomatoes. We put our gardens to bed this past weekend and pulled up our tomatoes–now it’s time to take a stroll down memory lane.
My Grandmother's Green Tomato Mustard Relish
- Grind and drain for 1 hr. the first 4 ingredients (green tomatoes, green and red peppers and onions).
- Mix the remaining ingredients together and add the vegetables.
- Cook until it boils and thickens, stirring constantly.
- Pack in sterilized hot jars.
- Store in a cool, dry place.
It’s not too early to start preparing for Christmas! By day, I am a sales rep. to our bookstores for our publishing house, Paraclete Press. For a couple months now, we have had our focus on offering our Advent and Christmas products to start stocking for the holidays. It always feels a bit odd, as the leaves are just beginning to turn, to talk about a season that feels so far off – but then again, it is almost October!
This is the perfect time to start thinking about making homemade gifts for your loved ones. The gardens are still yielding, and the season just begs us to do some canning. Since the Farmer’s Almanac predicts a long winter ahead, you might want to consider taking some time to get a jump start. Homemade gifts are a thoughtful touch, especially when you have put your own heart and time into preparing them. Cut down on the frenzy of shopping, and maybe you’d have a little more time to spend with Jesus!
This recipe was inspired by jalapeno peppers given to me from my parent’s garden. Gift wrapped with a box of Ritz Crackers and Philadelphia Cream Cheese, this is the ultimate homemade Christmas gift!
Cape Cod Cranberry Jalapeno Pepper Jelly
- Bring boiling-water canner, half-full with water, to a simmer.
- Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water; rinse with warm water. Pour boiling water over flat lids in saucepan off the heat. Let stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain well before filling the jars with jam. Keep jars warm and dry in a low oven.
- Make the Jam: add prepared fruit, peppers, salt and vinegar to a 6 or 8 quart pot
- Begin heating on medium high and stir in the sugar
- Once the mixture comes to a full rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop bubbling when stirred), add the pectin.
- Return to a full rolling boil and continue boiling for exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
- Ladle immediately into prepared jars, filling to within an 1/8th of an inch of the top. Wipe rim with a clean, damp cloth, put lid on followed by the band, and screw tightly.
- Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into the canner. (Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water, if necessary.) Cover; bring water to gentle boil. Process 10 min. Remove jars and with a mitt, make sure band is tight, and invert the jar. After 10 min, place the jar upright on towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middles of lids with finger. (If lid springs back, lid is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.)
Sometimes simpler can be better. This is true with many things including food. Complex cooking with multi- layers of flavor and texture has its place,however combining just a few select foods can sometimes take ones breath away. Such was the case with a lunch we served last week to some visiting bell ringers.
Our change ringing bells bring many bell ringers here from many places to hone their ringing skills. They come for different lengths of time and are often here for meals. Most of them prefer healthy foods. All of them love our fresh garden vegetables especially our salad bars. Right now when eggplant and tomatoes are at their best we put them together in a simple salad that almost made itself. Together with a few special seasonings this dish kept many of them coming back for just one more helping all through the meal. This dish along with some crusty French or Italian bread and a favorite cheese, if desired makes a most satisfying lunch or light supper. Two important tips to insure the best flavor – use very ripe tomatoes and serve the combined ingredients at room temperature NOT chilled.
- Cut the eggplant and tomatoes into cubes and salt both generously with
- Toss eggplant with 1/2 cup of oil and spread out on parchment lined pan. Roast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until golden. Let Cool.
- Grate onion and add to tomatoes stir and leave at room temp.
- When eggplant is cooled to room temperature combine with tomatoes.
- Add oregano and place in serving dish. Sprinkle with olives and finely chopped basil.
- If desired top with grated cheese. This combination of ingredients is perfectly flavorful as is but if a little more tartness is preferred sprinkle with a splash of vinegar.
Our gardens are bursting at the seams with eggplants. I just love the shiny purple beauties and feel slightly sorry for the bad rap they get from opinionated palates! Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to attempt to set those opinions straight and give you some trusted recipes that will transform this ordinary vegetable into an extraordinary culinary delight.
In writing this, I am reminded of a wonderful book I read many years ago as a young Sister when I was exploring my Jewish roots. The book, To Life! by Rabbi Harold Kushner, is filled with wonderful insights into human nature and God. I underlined over and over as I read through the book. One particular quote has remained with me, the author says, “To be human is to choose to be good; to take something unholy and make it holy, something ordinary and transform it into the extraordinary. To sanctify the world and live a Godly life”.
Praying that co-working with God today will begin to make the ordinary extraordinary.
Melanzane alla parmigiana – Eggplant Parmesan
- Heat the 2 Tbsp. of olive oil in a heavy (non-aluminum) saucepan.
- Add the onion and half of the basil, the Italian seasoning and the salt.
- Allow to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally.
- Cook until the onion is translucent and then add the garlic.
- Add the tomatoes, cover with a lid, and cook until the tomatoes are soft and have melted into a sauce.
- Add the sugar to taste and adjust seasonings.
- Continue cooking so the sauce can thicken and add tomato paste, if desired for a thicker sauce (you don’t want your sauce to be watery!).
- Adjust seasonings to taste.
- Cut the eggplant into slices and sprinkle with salt. Put them in a colander and leave for 30 min. while the bitter juices drain away.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Rinse the eggplant slices and pat dry on a paper towel lined sheet pan. Mix the flour in a separate pan with some salt and pepper and lightly dust both sides of the eggplant with flour.
- Heat enough olive oil in a heavy cast iron skillet, or other heavy pan, and fry the eggplant in batches until golden brown on both sides (watch your heat so the oil doesn’t burn – lower is better!). Transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the oil, and repeat.
- To assemble: spoon a little of the tomato sauce into a 12” oven dish, or 13x9” pan. Cover with a layer of eggplant slices. Add a few spoonfuls of tomato sauce, then a layer of the mozzarella cheese. Add the remaining basil leaves. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and repeat the layers to use up the ingredients, ending with the cheese.
- Put into the oven and bake for 20-30 min. or until the top is slightly golden and crusty. Cool slightly before cutting into servings. If you are using a cold, ready-made sauce, allow a little extra cooking time (if sauce is not already hot). Serve hot or at room temperature.
It works well to make this the day ahead. Cover the casserole with foil and heat in a low oven for about an hour or until heated through. This also freezes well – assemble in a pan and freeze uncooked. When ready to use, thaw, and bake as above. You will enjoy this during the winter months if you have a harvest now. Andiamo mangiare!
On Tuesday mornings, at the break of dawn, all of the Sisters, Novices and Postulants divide and conquer the larger vegetable gardens in our community. That’s about 30 of us in each garden, with a small team of older sisters staying behind to make breakfast. In one hour, we are astounded at how much gets done – hauling off wheel barrows full of weeds to the compost pile and bringing in tubs of fresh veggies for the week ahead. The older Sisters teach the younger ones about suckering tomatoes and the younger ones have the strong backs to dig and till. Stories are told about the early days, and new ones are made – it’s Sisterhood life at its best.
This week, we got a bumper crop of Japanese cucumbers in – thin, long and crunchy –a welcome sight after a long winter of frozen vegetables! With the volume of cukes coming in, we opted to make our favorite sweet pickles. For many years, we have been making this special recipe and giving them as gifts at Christmastime. Now we are about to let you in on a big secret recipe that has stayed within the walls of our Convent for over 30 years. Enjoy and Happy Gardening!
“Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” – Rabbi Abraham Heschel
The Convent’s Famous Bread and Butter Pickles
- Thinly slice the onions and cucumbers. Chop the peppers (if adding).
- Combine cucumbers, onions, peppers and salt in a large bowl and cover with cracked ice. Mix thoroughly and allow to sit at room temperature for 3 hrs. or until the ice melts. Drain thoroughly but do not rinse.
- Combine the remaining ingredients in a large pot and heat just until boiling.
- Add the Cucumber and onion mixture and cook just a bit.
- Sterilize 5 quart size jars in boiling water.
- Add the pickles to the jar, followed by the juice. You may not need all the juice you have.
- Seal jars and process in a water bath.
I have been exploring “superfoods” for a while now, wanting to incorporate some healthier eating habits into our Convent diet. We live a very active life-style within our Benedictine motto: Ora et Labora (Pray and Work). My task is to make sure we are all eating well and taking care of our bodies (since we are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit).
In my research, I learned about the wonderful nutty grain-like seed quinoa. Quinoa is native to Bolivia and a relative of swiss chard, spinach and beets. We usually think of quinoa as a grain, but it is actually the seed of a plant. It’s also a complete protein, which means it provides all nine essential amino acids necessary for good health, hence the name “essential.” Your body can’t produce these nutrients itself, so you have to get them frequently through food. Quinoa’s slow-releasing carbohydrates help to maintain blood sugar levels. It can be eaten on its own as a side dish, with a bit of butter or oil, salt and pepper, or other seasonings. Quinoa also makes a great breakfast dish mixed with dried fruit, cinnamon, milk, and maple syrup or honey. A healthy substitute for rice, it also makes a tasty pilaf.
I found and adapted this flavorful and surprising salad side dish recipe for the Sisters and everyone loved it. Last weekend we served it to our Oblates who were here on retreat, and promised that we’d share it with all of you. Enjoy!
Quinoa Salad with Pears, Bacon and Baby Spinach
- Prepare the quinoa according to the package directions. 1 cup dry quinoa should yield over 4 cups of cooked quinoa. Cool quinoa.
- In a large bowl add the cooled quinoa, diced pears, green onions, spinach and bell pepper. Reserve the crumbled bacon and toasted almonds for later.
- For the dressing: Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and pour over quinoa mixture. Toss gently. You might not want to use all of the dressing depending on how wet you want your salad so add a little at a time. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving so that the flavors can meld.
- Mix the crumbled bacon and toasted almonds into the salad just before serving, reserving a bit to garnish the top as well.
Note: To toast almonds, brown them for a couple of minutes in a skillet over medium high heat. To roast them, bake them in the oven for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. When you smell them, they are done!