Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ripened Fruit

Lately I’ve often found myself dwelling on seasons and the expected versus unexpected timing of events in life.  It’s important to allow moments to fully bloom, large or small, long or brief, giving them the individual consideration and respect they deserve.  My oldest daughter recently moved into a great new apartment in a neighboring state.  My youngest daughter is poised to move to we-don’t-know-where-yet-but-still-outside-of-mama’s-easy-reach-too in order to more easily realize her career aspirations.  My husband of a bit over 5 years is retiring after a long and successful military career and will be moving home next week where we will begin another chapter in our lives together.  In preparation we bought a beautiful old girl of a house which we promptly all but gutted - it’s being lovingly put back together bit by bit.  So much change in a brief period sends mama to the kitchen where big issues can literally be chopped into digestible bits so I can pretend for at least a little while that I’m not forced to swallow them all at once. As serendipity would have it, my dad showed up at my back door with a flat of just-picked, still-warm-from-the-field strawberries on his birthday last week.  Talk about timing...

I’ll not give the recipe here for what I did with that flat of strawberries (a strawberry cobbler per Birthday Man’s request).  Instead I’ll offer you two recipes instead of one.  The first can be enjoyed immediately and will have probably disappeared from your kitchen before you’ve washed the prep dishes (admit it, we all love immediate gratification).  The second recipe best shows its beauty given a little time to reflect on the wealth of a season passed.

Chocolate-Strawberry Shortcake

½ c. shortening 1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ c. white sugar 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 eggs, separated ¼ c. cold water
1 ¼ c. sifted all-purpose flour 2 c. whipping cream
2 tsp. baking powder ½ c. sifted confectioner’s sugar
¼ tsp. salt 3 c. fresh strawberries, sliced
⅓ c. cocoa 3 whole strawberries (optional)
⅔ c. whole milk


1 ½ (4-ounce) bars sweet chocolate ½ c. chopped. toasted almonds
¾ c. butter, softened

Cream shortening; gradually add 1 ¼ c. sugar, beating well at medium speed.  Add egg yolks, beating well.

Combine flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa; add to creamed mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture.  Mix after each addition.  Stir in vanilla extract.

Beat egg whites - at room temperature - until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into batter.  Pour into 3 greased and floured 9” cake pans.  Bake at 350 F for 18 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out cleanly.  Let cakes cool in pan 10 minutes; remove from pans and cool on wire racks.

For filling:  Melt chocolate in top of a double boiler; let cool.  Add butter, beating at low speed until smooth.  Stir in almonds.

Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a small saucepan; let stand for 1 minute.  Cook over low heat, stirring until gelatin dissolves.

Beat whipping cream in a chilled bowl at low speed, gradually adding dissolved gelatin.  Increase to medium speed and beat until mixture begins to thicken.  Add powdered sugar and beat at high speed until soft peaks form.

Place 1 cake layer on serving plate.  Spread ⅓ of chocolate filling over layer.  Spread ⅓ of whipped cream over filling and arrange ½ of sliced strawberries on top allowing berry tips to peek over cake layer’s edge.  Repeat procedure, ending with whipped cream.  Garnish with whole strawberries.

Balsamic Strawberry Preserves with Black Pepper

2 cups fresh strawberries, trimmed and quartered
1 ½ cups white sugar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small heavy saucepan.  Stir and skim and surface as the strawberries produce foam.  Simmer the mixture for approximately 15 minutes, skimming foam occasionally.  Cook until strawberries are translucent and thickened.  Remove pan from heat and wait for strawberries to cool completely.  Preserves will keep for approximately one month in refrigerator if they last that long!  Unlike many preserve recipes, this one does multiply easily if you want to double it, triple it, etc and preserve it in sterile jars.


late winter empty nest and i don’t know how many more times i can bear noticing when the heating system kicks on or how long it takes to accumulate a washer full of dirty laundry or how difficult it is to cook in proportions that won’t result in a week of leftovers.  but mostly i wonder if they enjoy their lives as much as i prayed they would and laugh with their lovers at odd hours and still make it to work on time and dream big enough and work hard enough to smile for really good reasons and take time to be thankful for them. and i want to know how many more days it will be before i can open my house’s windows to spring breezes and warm winds and birdsong and take a really long, deep breath

swell’s cusp —
i stand on top
of rain

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Inner Voices

Chalk it up as being one of those things you do -- knowing it was a bad idea all the while -- and, yet, you do it because you can’t help yourself. It’s like that time years ago when I was a young impetuous lad watching an electrical storm from my parents’ front porch. Mesmerized, I leaned against a metal railing to get a better view of the storm, streaks of lightning turning night into day, thunder exploding like the big guns of a battleship. An inner voice told me that it would probably be a good idea to go inside, but another voice -- much louder and more persuasive -- said, “OOOOoooo look at the lightning! Let’s stay a little while longer and see what happens!”

A few minutes later lightning splintered a nearby oak tree; the metal railing I was leaning on absorbed some of the dispersed electrical energy and quite literally jolted me into clear thinking. I hurried inside thinking that Benjamin Franklin was a very lucky man!

Sometimes it pays to listen to that inner voice.  

Which begs the question: Okay, Dunlap, where was your inner voice two weeks ago when you used canned biscuits in a crock pot chicken and dumplings recipe? I had a feeling that my pal, fellow Frugal Poet, Susan Nelson Myers, would and did call me on taking such a non-frugal short cut. After all, as she mentioned in last week’s Well, I never! post, “Dumplings are biscuits...just smaller and formed by hand.” The only excuse I have for using canned biscuits is that up until I met Susan, the only biscuits I knew how to make were mayonnaise biscuits and I ain’t about to post that recipe here. Nope. That would be foolish. Why, that would set Susan off again... Wait-a-minute! Maybe I should post my mayonnaise biscuits recipe! It sure was fun seeing Susan’s dander up, watching her fingers flying wildly over her computer keyboard in response to my canned biscuits snafu.

What’s that you’re saying inner voice? Speak-up. I can’t hear you! ;-)

All joking aside, Susan is my friend. I am forever indebted to her and her family for their neighborly kindness shown to my daughter and me since we took-up residence in Poet’s Cottage. In fact, I will go so far as to say that there wouldn’t be a Frugal Poet blog had it not been for Susan’s willingness to teach me how to can jars of marinara sauce, fire-roasted salsa, tomato bisque soup and icicle pickles, frugally preserving vegetables grown in her father’s garden for the winter months ahead. And while the two of us sharing a kitchen can be quite comical at times, I do know how to hush-up and listen when Susan switches into teaching mode. Followers of this blog saw Susan in teaching mode last week. ;-)

Here’s a tasty little hamburger sauce I concocted recently. Use this sauce instead of mayonnaise and/or ketchup. I’ll credit the name of the sauce to Susan’s daughters Lindsay and Deedee Grummett, two brilliantly gifted ladies with quick minds and a delightful sense of humor.

Furtis Sauce

2 tablespoons horseradish
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 to 2 teaspoons pepper vinegar (or use white vinegar with a dash or two of hot sauce)

Stir ingredients in a bowl until blended to a smooth consistency. My favorite go-to burger for this sauce is a cheeseburger topped with jalapeno peppers and onions, but a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and dill pickles will work with this sauce too.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with the following contemporary haiku I penned last year.

canning season --
an extra pinch of spice
in the pickle jar

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Well, I never!"

We Frugal Poets  normally divide our blogging duties such that one of us posts a personal recipe and poem each week.  Curtis graciously offered to write for two consecutive weeks when I needed to help one of my daughters move last weekend.  I certainly appreciate his willingness to help me out about a mouse playing while a cat’s away!

I never would have encouraged anyone to use canned biscuits in a recipe, but that’s precisely what Curtis did in last week’s Frugal Poet post.  Now I realize that many of us take shortcuts  when cooking but certain substitutions constitute no less than cheating in my book.  Rather than pick that recipe apart here, I’ll just suggest that any non-lazy person interested in a real dumpling refer to an earlier Frugal Poet post for a bona fide biscuit.  Dumplings are biscuits...just smaller and formed by hand.  If you’re looking for a chicken and pastry recipe...well, I guess I could help you but I simply won’t.  That’s a recipe from a different part of the state where they just don’t know any better.

I imagine that Curtis’ crock pot chicken and dumpling recipe will work fine enough in a pinch - we all deal with hectic schedules at one time or another.  But his substituting canned biscuits for handmade dumplings compelled me to think of other recipes which, while tasty and some even carved into regional culinary stone, were merely quick fixes to the problem of needing to put something on a table when the cook had little to no time to properly address a dish.  After reading Curtis’ post from last week, the first thing that came to mind was a recipe for a congealed salad that I’ve been served more times than I’d like to count but which I ate every single time.  I even asked someone for their recipe (sorry, but I can’t remember who to credit here.  I hope no one’s offended but, truthfully, I’ve had several versions of the same dish just the Jello changed colors - and you don’t want to get me started on the issue of food preservatives and dyes).  I even included this recipe in a handwritten cookbook I made for my daughters.  What you’ll read is precisely as written in their personal copies...just I’ve changed a name and omitted a few adjectives to protect the guilty.

Blueberry Congealed Salad

“Yes, I’m including this recipe since it reminds me of my childhood, my aunt Midge, and [the potluck dinners after] church revivals that I thought would never end.  It probably contains enough preservatives for you to set it afloat on the Atlantic in a piece of Tupperware, and it would arrive in England in pristine condition years later.  Don’t ever tell anyone where you got this recipe, or I’ll brand you a liar and a cheat.”

2 small boxes black cherry Jello
1 large can crushed pineapple, drained
½ cup chopped pecans
1 14-1/2 ounce can blueberries, drained
3 medium bananas (too bad these don’t come canned too)
1 8-ounce package cream cheese softened
1 8-ounce carton sour cream
¼ cup white sugar

Mix Jello according to package directions.  Fold in pineapple, pecans, blueberries and sliced bananas.  Pour into casserole dish and refrigerate.  When Jello has become firm, mix cream cheese, sour cream and sugar - spread on top of Jello.

And, finally, a senryu for your enjoyment...

what he says
what you hear -
funhouse mirrors

Prune Juice, Issue 8, Spring 2012

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Stew Pot Conversations

I had the pleasure of spending a day with an amazing person last November. Melvin Nelson is a man of many talents. He’s a beekeeper, selling jars of honey to locals and to restaurants; he grows vegetables in one of the most productive gardens in the county; he can build, weld, mold, shape anything he sets his mind to do; he’s a master storyteller, Brunswick Stewmaster and he can cook a hefty pot of some of the best chicken and dumplings you’ll ever taste. Melvin is also a master at frugal living and the father of my friend, Frugal Poet, Susan Nelson Myers.

At (soon-to-be) age 77, Melvin shows no signs of slowing down. I learned many things while helping him stir the dumpling pot outside near his garden that day, but one of the most important things I learned was to hush-up and listen when he starts a sentence with a slow southern drawl of “Well...” What often follows is a bit of wisdom or a story steeped in good old-fashioned common sense, sage advice from which anyone can benefit. Many of us have a family member or someone we know like Melvin, willing to share their real world experiences if we’ll take time in our schedules to pause and listen. Spending time with Melvin that day was a treat for me. I hope I have the pleasure of spending time with him at a stew pot again.

Conversation has always been easy around Melvin. We verbally traveled the world that crisp November day. Highlights of our talk included Sandy Ridge, NC (where Melvin was born and raised), to the western states (Melvin enjoys Louis L'Amour’s Sackett series of movies while I’ve read the novels), to Australia (we are both fond of Tom Selleck’s motion picture Quigley Down Under), to Africa (we discussed Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies), to back home, here, not far from Tobacco Road where I confessed to Melvin that Gene Tierney's performance in the movie Tobacco Road was among my favorites by the glamorous movie star.

Here are a few pictures I took  that day.

Melvin's 25 gallon stew pot
Melvin Nelson stirring the dumplings
Melvin Nelson storyteller and stew master
Melvin with his granddaughter, Lindsay Grummett
Chicken and dumplings southern style

The recent cool April mornings have set my appetite to craving chicken and dumplings again. Here is a scaled-down crock pot version of chicken and dumplings. I use a seven quart crock pot for this recipe. It is also one of the few recipes I use that calls for canned biscuits.  (Susan’s on hiatus this week so I’m using ‘em where I can get away with it.  For purists, please see a homemade biscuit recipe here.)

Crock Pot Chicken and Dumplings

6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
(You can also use thighs, just cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bones. Remove the skin and bones when the chicken is thoroughly cooked.)
½ stick butter
1 - 26 ounce can cream of chicken soup
1 - 10.5 ounce can cream of celery soup
chicken broth
1 - onion diced
2 - (10 ounce) packages refrigerated biscuit
dough, torn into small pieces


Line the bottom of your crock pot with chicken.

Add butter, soup and onion.

Add enough chicken broth to cover the previous ingredients

Cover with crock pot lid and cook for 5 to 6 hours on high.

Add the torn biscuit dough (dumplings) to the crock pot an hour before serving time. Allow the crock pot to cook the dough until it is no longer raw.

I'll close with a contemporary haiku I penned during my time with Melvin.

hoar frost...
gleaning stories
around the dumpling pot

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Food Portions

In the world of food television shows and upscale restaurants, I have a difficult time understanding why someone would pay an exorbitant price (especially in this economy) for an entrée that appears as a tiny circle in the middle of a plate. Sure, I know “presentation” is an important element in the dining experience and all that vacant space left on the plate helps the eye to focus on the morsel in the center, the bull's eye of the meal if you will. I’m just of the mind that I won’t pay for an entrée that, in this humble poet’s opinion, should be demoted to appetizer status. I don’t want to eat dinner and be hungry an hour later. I want my appetite satiated completely. I want plenty of good food at a decent price. Fill my plate and if I can’t eat it all, I’ll take leftovers home.

Before I go further, let me clearly state that I’m not dissing food television shows, upscale restaurants or chefs for that matter. I’ve enjoyed meals, in one form or another, by all three. In fact, I have a friend who’s attending culinary school and is well on his way to becoming a chef. I blame my gluttonous love for large portions of food on my southern upbringing and will vehemently claim that the good state of Texas ain’t got nuthin’ on its southern sister states in the BIG department when it comes to supper time. Dining is an event here in the south; it’s something to be shared and enjoyed. We often cook so that there will be leftovers. Sometimes we cook for the sheer joy of cooking then deliver a hefty amount of food to a friend or neighbor as a token of appreciation and love. Southerners learned long ago that you don’t have to skimp on portions to eat frugally. A couple of biscuits smothered in tomato gravy with several dashes of black pepper thrown in for good measure can occupy those aforementioned vacant spaces of even the largest plate and be a tasty inexpensive meal.

I’ve already shared a dining experience I had at my grandmother’s table in the form of a prose poem. Here are two additional food moments that helped mold me into the kind of guy that would frown on being served a tiny Cornish Hen breast with a broccoli spear, drizzled with a sauce for dinner. (Okay, that was a slight exaggeration but maybe the reader will understand the gist of my complaint. Sometimes, less is more but not at the supper table!)

Margaret is a lady who lives in the community of Shiloh, a few miles east of Mayodan. Occasionally, I’d stop by to visit her son, a longtime friend. I cannot remember a time when Margaret failed to feed me while I was there. It never mattered that I’d already had supper at home. This wonderfully, splendid cook always insisted that I have something to eat while I was in her home. Margaret’s hospitality was as big as her heart and the portions were amazing! I’ve dined on as little as a slice of homemade chocolate cake (a slice being nearly ¼ of the cake) and as much as a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, biscuits and gravy. To refuse food when Margaret offered it would be impolite. And I’ve never been one to be rude where food is involved.

Ruth was a member of my church. Sadly, Ruth died a few years ago. She was a unique woman who gave selflessly of herself to her community and church. I am not ashamed to admit that I’d planned on skipping church one Sunday to go fishing with friends until I found out that a covered dish would be served after the sermon, which could mean only one thing: Ruth would be there with her amazing caramel cake. I quickly canceled my fishing trip. I went to church and listened patiently to the sermon that day. Later, I enjoyed a good old fashioned heartfelt hug from Ruth and two slices of her caramel cake. Sometimes, a way to a man’s soul is through his stomach, especially when good food is in abundance.

The following is my recipe for tomato gravy. Serve this with a sausage patty over biscuits. Figuring in the frugal factor here, use whatever tomatoes you have on hand. Just be sure to use enough flour to thicken the gravy to a desired consistency and season it with salt and pepper to your liking.

 Tomato Gravy
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons oil (I usually fry bacon or sausage and use the drippings, but for the health conscious folks, vegetable oil will do.)
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour stirred into a 3/4 cup of water (This is an old trick for thickening gravy during the stirring and heating phase.)
  • 1 16 ounce can of petite diced tomatoes (or whatever you have on hand. I’ve seen my mom use tomato juice.)
  • salt and pepper to taste
Set your stove top burner on medium-low. Add oil and one tablespoon flour to a skillet. Turn the heat up to medium and stir until the flour starts to brown.

Add the can of tomatoes including the tomato juice to the pan. Stir to break-down any globs of flour that may form.

Turn the heat up to medium-high. Start seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir constantly to avoid sticking.

When the pan starts to boil, add the flour water mixture and continue stirring. Turn the heat back down to medium. Stir until the gravy thickens. Continue seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking.

Serve over southern biscuits with a side of bacon or sausage.

Here’s a picture of a pan of tomato gravy I made with hog jowls.

During this time of soaring gas prices, when we pay more and receive less wherever we shop, it’s nice to know that there are still a few tasty meals that can be prepared in abundance. We live in times when many of us are spending less on extravagant meals. People are focusing more on necessities. Perhaps the following haiku I penned on my way home from work illustrates this shift back to basics and the essential things in life:

down sizing...
a satellite dish
shelters the wood pile