Category Archives: Family Food Stories

Sautéed Green Beans with Almonds

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I grew up on canned products and salad as my options for vegetable-like things.  My journey through adulthood has introduced me to the wonders of broccoli, broccolini, cauliflower, and all sorts of other greens that just never made it onto the childhood menu rotation.  This minimal side dish selection would change for Thanksgiving and Christmas when we received a special treat:  Green Beans with Almonds.

Green Beans

Initially, this was a way to dress up squishy, briny, grey-green canned beans to make them more appealing to our palates.  When I was about ten or so, my mom decided to build a vegetable garden to one side of our house.  This was my first experience with freshly-grown produce.  Green beans were long and slender and crunchy – what a revelation!  (The same kind of vegetable epiphany happened for me with snow peas as well.) I fell in love with these verdant slivers then and try to grab up handfuls of them each year when they arrive at the Greenmarket.

Toasted Almonds

Theories behind how to cook green beans range from the boil the heck out of them until they are breaking apart, which is just too close to the canned ones I was tormented with as a child, to just barely fork-tender and crunchy.  For this recipe, I cook them in boiling water until they get to the latter stage, drain them, and then pop them into the sauté pan along with butter and the toasted almonds.  My mom used to cook all of the ingredients together, but that made the beans drenched in fat and rather greasy; it also involved way too much butter to be healthy.  Cooked my way, they still have a bit of give to them but are soft enough to balance out the meaty, crunchy taste of the nuts while still having a bit of a sheen and richness from the butter.

Sautéed Green Beans with Almonds

Prep Time:  15-20 minutes

Serving Size: 4 people

Ingredients:

1/4 c. slivered Almonds

1/2 pound fresh Green Beans, trimmed on top and bottom

2 Tbsp. unsalted Butter

3/4 tsp. salt

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Put almonds on a tray in a single layer and place them in the oven to toast.  This will take about 5-10 minutes, but you should check on them a few times to make sure that they do not become too dark or burn.

While the almonds are toasting, put a saucepan of water on the stovetop to boil.  Once the water has boiled, put in 1/2 tsp. salt.  Toss in the green beans and let them cook for 5-10 minutes until a fork inserted in them goes through easily (i.e., “fork tender”).  Remove the saucepan from the heat and drain the green beans.

In a large frying pan, melt the butter.  When the butter is frothy, toss in the green beans and the toasted almonds and stir them around until they are coated in the butter.  Add 1/4 tsp. salt and toss to coat everything.  Serve immediately.

Buon appetito!

This post is also in memory of my mother’s oldest brother who passed away suddenly this past Saturday evening.  I took it pretty hard, even though I hadn’t seen him in a few years.  I wondered why, and then it hit me as I thought about all the great family meals and many, many Thanksgivings and holidays that he had been at our house.  As he didn’t have a wife and children of his own, he usually came to my folks’ place to join us in the festivities, well, and to watch football.

I would relish being a “big kid,” hanging out at the table after the plates had been cleared away, with my mom, their other sister, and him telling stories about growing up in their large, chaotic family while the inevitable family card game was in play.  I don’t think I ever managed to win one of those, even as an adult.

Almond Butter Sticks

These might not look like much in the photo but at that first delicious buttery, sweet bite, teeth breaking through the layers of dough folded over almond-sugar filling, you are destined to fall in love with these cookies.  I think that the recipe first came from a Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook that my mom had from 1963, if I’ve remembered it correctly.  It really doesn’t matter, however, as from when that first batch of Almond Butter Sticks came out of the oven, hot and fragrant, they became a family favorite.

The ingredients are deceptively simple: butter, cream cheese, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and almond extract.  The trick to making these is a couple of things, as I can attest after having made probably about 50 batches of these.  I found the recipe on Cooks.com, which gives the same instructions that I have on my well-used recipe card.  After dividing the dough in half, each piece is rolled out in to a large rectangle, filled with 1/6 of the sugar-almond extract mixture, folded into thirds, and then turned a quarter of the way around where the process is repeated two more times.

The dough, divided in half

This is not a recipe to be made when it is hot and sticky outside as the dough becomes too soft to work with and will be difficult to turn and fold.  Aside from reserving baking these for drier and cooler months of the year, one tip I have is to do a flip and fold method.  After folding in the sides, carefully turn over the whole parcel of dough so that the folded sides face downwards and the flat side (what was the bottom) faces upwards.  I’ve found that this keeps the bottom from becoming to thin, leading to it breaking or becoming difficult to lift from the table when rotating it.

The first fold

The second fold

The final folds

Cutting the cookies

Another extra step that I usually do at the end is that after the last folds, I do one more gentle roll out of the final dough, filling and all.  This is really just to seal it and to make the cookies a bit larger.  The recipe on line says that this makes 72 cookies.  I don’t think that either my mother or I have ever managed to get that much out of a batch.  My average is about three dozen.  It kind of doesn’t matter because they don’t really last very long anyway!

They may not be pretty, but they are yummy

Last weekend, I mailed a batch of these to my sisters who were all together to support a member of our family who is going through a serious illness.  The reports I got back via emails and Facebook were that they devoured all of them – not a surprise.  These cookies were one of my specialties in college.  Using them and their irresistible appeal, I was able to barter the loan of a friend’s car and a lift to take the Foreign Service Exam, to name a few favors.  Yesterday, they also made the guys who delivered my new couch very happy, as being stuck at home for several hours waiting for them meant I had time to whip up another batch on the fly.  As you can see all from all the beautiful layers of the one in the photo below, there’s a clear reason why these cookies have had so many fans.

Layers of cookie and sugar filling

Buon appetito!

The Food Cranks

This weekend I spent time with a significant portion of my family to celebrate a batch of birthdays. Not surprisingly, we talked about food many times over. We discussed what to do about feeding the little kids among us and how to handle the different meals we’d all be eating together. Given that it is also Lent, some of us had other dietary restrictions to consider as well in the menu planning. Along the lines of that latter topic and fasting for religious reasons, we segued into talking about The Food Cranks.

Just what are these, you ask? Well, as someone who is notorious for having them, I should warn you that they aren’t very pleasant. My sister who is an EMT defined it as not just about being hungry. It’s more like getting to the point of needing to eat where your blood sugar has started on the swift decline towards crashing and you become very irritable and, well, really, really cranky. You reach the stage where you’ll snap at everything and everyone for no rational reason until you can get some food and raise your blood sugar back up to normal operating levels. For me, this also happens if I have to wander around from place to place to find something to eat, if what I really want isn’t available and I really need to have a meal at that very moment.

Since we were dealing with a lot of little ones this past weekend, feeding them before the Cranks set in and Meltdown became imminent was very important so our meals revolved around their little tummies. As my other sister pointed out, however, I am also one of the folks’ whose natural constitution needed to be factored into that equation. This came back to me when I was traveling last month. With my internal time clock out of sync, I had to be very careful to make sure that I was heading towards food when the first sign of being hungry appeared. This didn’t always work out so well, but I managed not to have too many problems. It had been a while since I’d really had to consider the Cranks and their impact on my personality.

One of my sisters used to phrase it like this when we traveled together or were on a family roadtrip. The minute I made the tiniest comment about kind of getting a bit peckish or saying, “I could kind of go for something to eat in a little bit,” she’d holler out, “We need to find something right now for lunch/dinner/snack!” She never wanted to tempt the Cranks out of hiding. All of my siblings seemed to agree with her on this. (Nothing like having four of your five siblings agree, “Yeah, you do get really, really cranky when you need to eat something.”) I didn’t realize that they had such a reputation.

I’ve tried to be better over the years about making sure I listen to my body to know the signs and that I carry snacks with me. Unfortunately, sometimes I just forget, and with the amount of running around I do during my day going from meeting to meeting, there are times when I just don’t realize how long it has been since I last had a meal until it is almost too late to short-circuit the process. Other times, there’s just nothing that I want to eat or nothing suitable to eat at the time I need to put some proper nourishment into my body. A street-cart pretzel doesn’t really cut it. So, I do apologize in advance if you end up meeting the Food Cranks on my behalf. They don’t really mean to be so irritable; they just can’t help it. They’re kind of hungry right now.

Buon appetito!

No St. Patrick’s Day Recipes Here

For someone who is about 50% of Irish ancestry (or a bit more or less depending upon how accurate the genealogical records are), it’s probably really surprising that if you do a search on this site for recipes to make for St. Patrick’s Day, you won’t find any.  The reason is that my family didn’t have any recipes to hand down from The Olde Country.  My father’s family came here, pre-Revolutionary War which would have likely made them Scots Irish and not oriented towards the meals we now associate with that land, and my mother’s Catholic Irish predecessors came over during the potato famine so didn’t have many great food memories to import.  What does this mean that I usually make to celebrate the upcoming saint’s day?

Periodically, my mother would try to make Corned Beef and Cabbage, which I generally find a dreadful combination of too salty meat and too slimy vegetables (I actually have a cooked cabbage phobia left over from primary school cafeteria food memories.).  I don’t ever recall her making Irish Soda Bread at all.  It is a bit sad, then, that the only other food things I find associated with this holiday are kitschy green items like bagels, beer, and other fare dyed for the occasion.

Even if you pick up the book 97 Orchard Street (did you know that some of the foods we eat today without even thinking about it – like pickles! – were deemed “suspicious” and “unhealthy” when they were first introduced to the American palate), you’ll notice that the chapter on the Irish family who lived at that address is the shortest one in the book.  No wonder that I have a difficult time bragging about my food heritage.  If you happen to walk into a bookstore (quaint, I know), pick it up and check out pages 62-63.

This is the shopping list and budget for food for a week for an Irish immigrant family of ten. Notice anything?  The diet is heavy on starch and dairy.  I can tell you that this is definitely one of the traditions that carried over from the old world to the new.  The author also specifically comments on the fact that the Irish dependence upon potatoes for dietary sustenance was still a predominant feature in their daily lives in New York.  My littlest nephew must have inherited this gene, as he can probably eat his body weight (which isn’t much) in french fries, he likes them so much.  What is the longest chapter in the book?  The one about the Italian family who lived in that dwelling.  I often wish that my family had those culinary traditions to hand down.

So, tomorrow I will not be raising a pint at many of the places at which to over-imbibe or painting my face green.  I won’t even be making shamrock cookies (which I do some years). Instead, I will pause at some point in the day to thank my ancestors who came to this land in search of a better life and more food to eat for them and for their children.  I keep trying to convince my parents that all our relatives really wanted when they got off of the boat in New York Harbor to was to enjoy a really great slice of pizza or a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

Buon appetito!


Serena at Seriously Soupy has a recipe for Irish Beef Stew.  This is one of the dishes that I can say that I did enjoy, when my mother made it.  Unfortunately, I don’t have her recipe for it.

C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me…

For better or for worse, as she packs up and makes her way back to the U.S., The Experimental Gourmand is letting the younger of her two younger brothers write about one of his favorite food topics.  For the record, she also gifted him a box of Thin Mints again last year to refresh his cookie jar.

When my sister asked me to write about food, I briefly considered a variety of food topics.  However, like Sam Malone returning to his true love in the Cheers finale, I think she always knew this would lead to the topic of Cookies.  After all, I did have Cookie Monster cakes on two consecutive birthdays when I was little.  Plus, I invented the term “pre-ssert” to justify my consumption of a dessert before dinner in front of my [then] 4-year-old niece.
 
My most notorious cookie incident, however, involves Girl Scout Cookies.  See, I have four sisters which meant that my mom had to buy a lot of Girl Scout Cookies.  Each year she’d buy about a case of each kind of cookie and store them in the freezer (By the way, I’m not sure I had a store-bought cookie for the first ten years of my life).  Now as an 8-year-old whose bedroom was across from the room with that freezer how long do you think it took for me to start taking those cookies?
 
Of course I was a bright little boy, so I knew I couldn’t just throw the boxes in the trash.  Instead I just kept sticking the empty boxes under my bed. Eventually, of course, these were found and there was some explaining to do.  My excuse – I was collecting the boxes.  Apparently I was relying on the “I’m just a weird kid” defense.  Either that or I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought.
 
To this day, I still haven’t lived that one down.  Also, Girl Scout Cookies that aren’t frozen or don’t at least have that slight freezer flavor don’t quite taste right.  As a post script, when I got married my sisters gave me a cookie jar as a present (shaped like a pig – unnecessary!).  However, first they stuffed the jar with Thin Mints so that all other cookies would have the vague minty flavor once they were put in the jar.
As a little payback to The Experimental Gourmand, let me share with you one of my cookie tips that annoys her.  I contend most cookie recipes make the cookies too thick and they’re always hard the next day.  To counter that, cut back on the flour just a little bit.  For example, when you make the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, use only 2 1/8 cups of flour not the 2 1/4 cups it calls for.  Also, when the cookies are done on the edges, but look slightly undercooked in the center they’re ready to come out of the oven.  They’ll finish off on the cooling rack and they’ll be more chewy and buttery the next day.

Belgian Squares- Kiwi style

While The Experimental Gourmand is awaygazing at the snow-topped mountains of Andorra, one of her brothers hasoffered to talk about his adventures in cooking with his children.

Our ten-year-old daughter startedintermediate school this year, so she’s now doing home economics (sorry – ‘FoodTechnology’). On the first day, they made lemonade. The nice thing for me was thatI’ve made lemonade with the girls for years. It was the first thing we ‘cooked’together. At first, they would wash the lemons and mix the lemonade, while Idid everything else. As they got older, they learned to squeeze the lemonhalves and measure the sugar and water. Sometimes, I would put the lemonsqueezer on the floor, which made it easier for them to push down on the lemonhalves.
Now, Miss Ten can do it all herself,including cutting the lemons. She told me that she likes Food Technologybecause she gets to cook all by herself (does that mean we hover too much?).She also likes that she is starting a recipe book in class.
Miss Ten and Miss Eight are both getting moreinterested in cooking and baking. I made salt-water taffy last weekend and theyhelped. Miss Ten measured out the flavouring and colouring for me, and bothgirls helped pull the taffy once it was cool. It reminded me that, no matterwhat I’m cooking, there’s usually something they can do to help.
There’s a range of desserts in New Zealand,where we live, that are called ‘slices’. They are square like Americanbrownies, but the texture can be somewhat cakey or somewhat fudgey. They alsooften have icing (frosting). Some of the common ones are ginger crunch,peppermint slice, chocolate fudge, caramel slice, and lollie cake.
Miss Ten has learned to make Belgian (or Belgium) square,which is like cakey gingerbread with frosting. I helped Miss Eight make a batchfor their lunches this week. She did a lot of it herself – measuring theingredients and mixing it up. I made sure she followed the recipe and did thefinal stirring and baking. She also chose the colour for the icing.

 

Here’s the recipe, originally from grandmaand copied from my wife’s handwritten recipe book:
Belgian Square
4 oz butter
4 oz sugar
2 eggs
1 Tbspn golden syrup
1½ cups flour
1 tspn baking powder
2 tspns mixed spices
2 tspns cinnamon
Cream butter and sugar. Add egg and syrupand mix well. Add dry ingredients. Press into sponge roll tin (or 8” bakingtin). Bake approximately 20 minutes at 350 degrees F. Ice when cool (withbutter frosting – just on the top) and sprinkle with jelly crystals (that is,Jell-O powder from the packet – or use cake decorating sprinkles). Cut intosquares or fingers.

Miss Ten has made this several times withMum, doing a bit more each time. There are several standard operations involved(‘Cream butter and sugar’), so it’s good for learning about baking. Overall,the recipe is pretty forgiving. The hardest part is waiting for the cake tocool enough to ice it.