Sunday, February 24, 2013


I'm always torn between embarrassment or pride...Am I a cheap SOB or a resourceful thrifty individual? If I was going to dive into complete disclosure I think I would have to claim bi-partisanship. It totally depends on the space and time. If I'm feeling particularly flush, dropping serious coin on a dinner in a fine establishment can bring me joy, soul satisfaction and inspiration. The 90's had a lot of those moments.... Lately, ethnic “dives” in shady neighborhoods resonate more precisely to my pleasure points.

And while I personally would never pay more than $20 for a haircut, I could completely justify shaving my head and selling my hair to afford an original piece of art that I fell in love with. Can I really tell the  difference between a $100 Italian Barbera and a $12 Chilean Carmeniere? I'd like to believe I could. But can I justify the expense? I'm feeling a lot less self confidence on that... It's just me.

What I do know is how smugly self-satisfied I get when I make “something from nothing” in the kitchen. This is nothing new. Grandmothers and professional chefs have relied on this perspective for years. That’s why they buy whole chickens and whole fish instead of parts and filets.  They want the bonus of the bones, backs and giggly bits that go into making stock.  But in our contemporary home kitchens, most of us don't take the time, and convenience becomes our thru-line.

I've written in the past about the intelligence of saving scraps to make stocks, especially vegetable and chicken stocks. It's so much common sense and given the stupid high price of canned stocks, it's basic home economics. I've also sung out with my exuberance of making asparagus soup from the woody stems of asparagus destined for the trash bucket. Similarly broccoli and cauliflower trimmings and leftovers can be soupercized into a winter cup or bowl of comfort food.

Equally important to getting the most out of a food budget is holding onto leftovers.  Whether it’s an uneaten ear of corn or the remainder of a package of tofu, creative thinking on how to re-purpose the bits and scraps that can accumulate in your pantry can go a long way to stretching a budget.  Plus I hate, hate, HATE wasting anything. It’s a part of our American lifestyle that makes us look spoiled and ungrateful.

Today I am singing the praises of stuffed veggies as a way of cleaning out leftovers.  Following is what I came up with facing the flotsam and jetsam of my particular refrigerator.  FEEL FREE TO IMPROVISE!!!!! That’s kind of the point!    That said, I also sing the praises of this recipe as both a lightened up version of comfort food, as well as a way of squeaking tofu into a meal. 

Here I’m setting forward cabbage leaves. Most Central and Eastern European countries have their own version.  Gołąbki, Holubky, Golubsty, Töltött Káposzta, Holubsti are all names that may linger on the tables of your family trees.  My stuffed cabbage are a more modern twist on Grandma’s.  If the rolling of cabbage rolls seems too labor intensive for your schedule, roasted sweet peppers, eggplant or zucchini boats would be other quicker options.

Makes 12 - 18

1  Large Head of Cabbage

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Onion – peeled and finely diced (about 1 cup)
1 Small Red Pepper  –  (seeds & stem removed) finely diced ( ½ cup)
1 Small Jalapeno  - (seeds and stem removed) finely minced
2 cups  Thinly Sliced Mushrooms – white, cremini, shiitake, or whatever
2 Medium Garlic Cloves – minced
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 medium/large carrot – peeled and shredded (about ½ cup)

20 ounces Ground Turkey
1 cup cooked rice  - brown or white
½ pound firm Tofu – shredded on large holes of a box grater
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
¾ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
5-6 scallions – thinly slice, white and some green (about ¾ cup)
1  14.5 ounce can Petite Diced Tomatoes
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½  teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ cups water
1 cup Sauerkraut (drained and rinsed) – OPTIONAL
1 small apple – peeled and grated (avoiding seeds and core) - OPTIONAL

Core the cabbage and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan and add the oil. Add the onion, red pepper, jalapeño, mushrooms and garlic.  Sauté for several minutes until onion and peppers start to soften.  Add salt, pepper and carrot.  Cook one more minute, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
Put the cabbage in a very large pot.  Add enough water to cover well.  Remove the cabbage, salt the water and bring it to a boil.
While waiting for the water to boil…    Put ground turkey, rice, tofu, Worcestershire Sauce, salt and pepper in a large bowl.  Add cooled vegetables and mix well.  Set into the refrigerator.
In a large sauté pan, warm the butter until bubbling.  Add scallions and sauté for 1 minute.  Add tomatoes, paprika, salt and water.  Bring to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes.  Add the sauerkraut and / or apple if using.  Warm through. Remove from heat.
Carefully put cabbage in the boiling water.  As the outside leaves cook, pull them loose from the head and remove to a bowl of cold water.  Continue removing the leaves as they cook until you have 20.  They only need to be cooked enough to make them pliable for folding.  Trim the bottoms of the leaves and shave away some of the tough rib.
Remove filling from the refrigerator.  Put a cabbage leaf in front of you with the base at the bottom, the leaf curling up on the edges naturally.  Place about 1/3 cup of filling an inch or so above the base.  Roll the leaf forward, tucking the base in.  Fold the right and left sides of the leaf in and continue to roll forward, forming and enclosed package.  Set aside and continue until all the filling is used.
Line a large Dutch oven with some left over cabbage leaves.  Layer the cabbage rolls on top of the leaves, spooning some of the tomato sauce over each layer.  When all the cabbage rolls are in the Dutch oven, cover with remaining tomato liquid.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and place over medium high heat.  Bring to a boil and then lower heat to keep the rolls cooking at a low simmer.
Cook 60 – 75 minutes depending on the size of your cabbage rolls.

Friday, February 08, 2013


I’m curious what determines a person’s palate.  Certainly location.  Even in this world of cultural cross pollination, a child in Nagasaki or Adis Ababa is likely to come of age with a different frame of gustatory reference than I did in Springfield, Ohio.   Economics of course would come into play in a similar way.  Deep pockets could certainly lead the way to depth of cuisine and all the variety therein.

Family of origin…  and probably to a certain degree the culinary capabilities of whoever was in charge of feeding said family.   Or culinary proclivities…  Growing up under the influence of a militant organic vegetarian would have as significant of an influence as a home cook who depended on Hamburger Helper, canned spaghetti sauce and take out menus.  I also had the pleasure of growing up in a family with little tolerance for finicky eaters.  You ate what was on the table, or waited until the next meal.  That will broaden a child’s tastes.

Sophistication … or just the desire to seem sophisticated is another factor.  I know a few people who might never have ventured to try sushi or caviar had they not been offered it in public, and from the hand of a lovely one they hoped to impress. Personally I am still “jonesing” for those caviar-luscious parties of the 1990’s, and proud to be someone privileged to reminisce about that kind of indulgence!

But I’ve come to believe that the major determining factor is how much joy one derives from feeding themselves.  Big Mary has the potential to derive A LOT of joy! Too much my doctor might say.  I’ll concede I have much to learn about control, both portion and self….  But I would SO rather deal with the frustration of extra pounds than be one of those food phobic folks with a litany of foods they never eat.

In the years following my 1980 arrival in New York City, I have found a lot of culinary G spots, flavors and aromas that opened my unschooled Midwestern eyes wide.  Who had ever heard of Pad Thai before I found that Chinatown dive?  Pastel de Choclo?  I barely knew where Peru was, but I knew I loved this corn custard casserole I found in Hell’s Kitchen! And I continue to be drawn to these much less expensive,  endlessly inspiring centers of culinary pride for the enterprising immigrants who open their kitchen to NYer’s, always on the prowl for the next new thing.

Here is a recipe inspired by those flavors that’s so easy to make it should become a regular event in your kitchen.  That’s why I encourage you to go the extra distance to source out the unusual ingredients.  Something this delicious deserves a little effort!  And these Thai kitchen staples will keep refrigerated for a very long time.  (The lime leaves freeze well for more than a month.)  But once sourced, this is an exotic yet accessible dinner that can be thrown together in less than 30 minutes.  As one of my private cooking class clients said last week… “My friend is very a very picky eater, but she would love this…. I’m going to make this for her. I just won’t mention the ingredients.”


1               Tablespoon Vegetable Oil
5               Small Shallots, peeled, halved and slivered - 
                 approx 1/2 cup
1 - 1 1/2     teaspoons Thai Green Curry Paste 
                 (depending on desired spiciness), 
                 available in Asian grocery stores
3               Large Kaffir Lime leaves - stems removed
                 and finely chopped, (3/4 teaspoon), 
                 available in Thai or Asian Grocery stores or
                 substitute 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1 - 1 1/4     Pounds boneless Chicken Breast - cut into
                 1 inch pieces
1               Medium Red or Yellow Pepper, stemmed, 
                 seeded and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 1/2          Tablespoons Thai Basil, chiffonade cut -
                 available in some Greenmarkets, many 
                 Thai/Asian groceries or substitute equal
                 parts mint and regular basil

Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat.  Add oil.  Add shallots and cook a minute or so until they begin to soften.  Add Curry Paste and stir continually for 30 seconds.  Add chicken, red pepper and chopped lime leaves.  Cook over high heat for 1 minute.  Add 1 1/2 cups of coconut milk, reserving the rest for final seasoning.  Lower heat to medium. Cook for several minutes until chicken is cooked through, about 4-6 minutes.
Add Lime juice and basil.  Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings as desired ...
Too spicy?  Add remaining coconut milk.  Needs salt?  Add another 1/2 teaspoon of fish sauce.  Needs acidity?  Add another 1/2 teaspoon of lime juice.

Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

Copyright 2013 Big Mary's Kitchen

Friday, February 01, 2013

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

I've recently developed a recipe for Apple Butter to both keep up with my handsome husband's bottomless appetite for homemade jams and preserves, and winter's lack of variety for canning jams and such.  I've also adapted the recipe to use Splenda artificial sweetener...  Another nod to that same husband's "bottomless" appetite for sweet jams.  I know there is plenty of arguments against artificial sweeteners.  YOU take it up with him!

I've added this recipe to a revised edition of one of my early blog posts about apples and making apple butter.  There's plenty to be said for the more organic and traditional process outlined in the original post.  There's a LOT to be said for letting your Crock Pot do the work overnight while you sleep!

And so, please enjoy the following.  When Big Mary was taking baby steps... October 2006

Apple Glory

I've bellyached before about the year round availability of way too many fruits and vegetables that years ago had specific seasons.  It holds true even for apples.  Let’s face it, Granny Smiths and Red Delicious apples have become as ubiquitous and expected as fake eyelashes on drag queens.  That's  why come  September till November or so I’m constantly of the prowl at our Greenmarket.  Every year I’m seduced by more and more varieties as local farmers feed our fascination with heirloom and specialty apples.

A local newspaper tallied up 34 varieties at a recent Greenmarket; including some very old and rare cultivars like the Newton Pippin (George Washington’s favorite),  the very pale fleshed apple known as Winter Banana, as well as the less rare but no less cherished  Macintosh, Jonathan, Macoun, Northern Spy, Cortland, and some newly crossbred varieties like my favorite the Honeycrisp.  Each one has a unique blend of distinct sweetness or tartness, crisp crunch or soft melting bite. Some are puckeringly acidic, some are pure honey sweetness, and some heirloom apples even carry the tannic dryness of a big red wine.   And of course that’s part of the glory of apples.  Some excel in pies, some are bound for sauce and others just deserve to be enjoyed out of hand.

It's easy for a North American to take these red, pink, yellow and green beauties for granted. Partially because the storage and foreign grown apples we endure January through August deserve to be taken for granted. Most are one dimensional and flavor challenged. However on the plus side, they are damn convenient. They keep for a week or more if the heat's not too high, they are versatile, they are easy to eat, and most apple recipes fall into the realm of "comfort food".  But like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and other "comfort foods", a lot of the time these dishes aren’t very comforting.

We also undervalue apples because they are so omnipresent in our lives.  They're just everywhere from lunch boxes to deli counters to teacher’s desks.   My partner, “The Handsome Venezuelan” is always reminding me that this is not nearly so true in warmer regions, where apples and pears are considered quite exotic, much like we view guavas, mangoes, or passion fruit. And in the same spirit with which he dismisses the flavorless mangoes in our markets, I suspect there are damn few tropical tots who have ever tasted something as crisp and heady as a fresh picked Winesap apple.

When my dear Mama Gladys passed away in September, we drove back to Ohio to celebrate that lovely lady and wish her a sweet journey over. The nine hour return trip to NYC was sweet, not only due to reflections on my Mom's long and happy life, but also sweet with the crisp cidery smell of a bushel of apples from my middle sister's ignored apple tree. Before the horses and dogs grabbed the entire harvest, I threw a ladder up high and pulled down a few bags full. According to my eldest sister, they are Jonathan apples. I've learned not to question because she's usually right in such matters.
Yesterday, I spent a long aromatic day producing about 12 pints of old fashioned apple butter, so good my Mama almost came back for a taste. So good in fact, the Venezuelan proposed to me... Again.  Then ordered me to hide them from him and portion the jars out judiciously.  

Here's my typically brief outline of how you can share the love.  As well as a time saving more modern recipe…
Old Fashioned Apple Butter
Wash a big bunch of apples. A mix is a good option (perhaps McIntosh, Winesap, Macoun & Gala), though I succeeded with one variety that was tartly sweet. Roughly cut the unpeeled apples into eighths or quarters and put into a large heavy bottomed stock pot. Do not core or seed the apples. Add Apple Cider (or water, or a mix of both) until it just covers the apples. Place over medium high heat and simmer, uncovered, until the apples are completely collapsing. The timing will vary depending upon variety. A McIntosh will go quickly; a Granny Smith will take much longer. Cool the mixture and then pass it through a food mill.
Measure the puree and place in another heavy bottom stock pot (or the same one washed out)and add sugar at a rate of 50% of the puree. In other words, for 8 cups of puree, use 4 cups of sugar. I optioned for a little less sugar and was happy for it. Then stir in ground spices (I like a lot, so I used cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and ginger), a few pinches of salt and a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. Bring to a simmer, stirring often, and then cook until it is thickened and condensed. This will take several hours, and you need to stir it often, about every 10 minutes at least, checking for sticking on the bottom of the pan. A good test for when the apple butter is done is this: chill a china plate in the freezer. Drop a tablespoon's full of the apple butter on the plate. Wait a minute or two. When liquid no longer seeps out from the mound of puree, you're there.
Proceed with standard water bath canning procedures which can be found in any canning book or online.

Here is a method I tried in the time since I made my first batch and I was pretty happy with this as well.  I’ll admit, it’s not quite as deep in flavor, but given the trade off of convenience, I still recommend it.

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

6          Pounds of Apples    A mix of 3-4 varieties, Peeled
1 1/2    Cups                       Granulated Sugar (or Splenda - See Note*)
1 1/2    teaspoons                Ground Cinnamon
1/2       teaspoon                  Ground Ginger
1/2       teaspoon                  Ground Nutmeg
1/4       teaspoon                  Ground Cloves
1          medium                    Fresh Lemon

Grate the apples, using the large holes of a box grater, directly into the slow cooker.  Add sugar and spices.  Add zest on the lemon, then squeeze lemon juice into the apples, discarding pits.  Stir everything gently and cover.  Cook on Low for 12 - 14 hours.  Remove lid and whisk thoroughly to smooth out the apple butter.  Cook an addition hour to hour and a half to dry out the mixture.  Stir occasionally.
Makes 6 - 7 half pints
This can also be canned with the traditional water bath canning process.  Please check any reliable canning website.  Ball Jars maintains a great one.

Let me just say, if you've never tried canning, it's just a big hoot and a holler.  Very safe in my experience  as long as you follow instructions carefully, and you've got the right acid and sugar content provided by jams, jellies, or the acid in tomato sauces and salsas.  And it just makes you smile with accomplishment.  Besides it impresses the hell outta people who don't know how easy it is!

*NOTE - I don't know the kitchen science of canning with artificial sweeteners well enough to guarantee the safety of caning this recipe using Splenda to replace the sugar.  It WILL keep in the refrigerator for several weeks and freezes very well.