Scalloped Potatoes for a Family Gathering

Here’s the first thing you need to know about scalloped potatoes: they need time to bake. I forgot I was assigned to make the scalloped potatoes for Christmas Eve dinner and had to finish them in the microwave.

Scalloped baked potatoes with heavy cream in a casserole dish on a green tablecloth.
Scalloped potatoes on the Christmas Eve dinner table.

I mistakenly estimated they only needed an hour in a 375-degree oven. Next time, I will par-cook the potato slices in the microwave.

Ingredients:

  • 4 large russet potatoes, thinly sliced, skin on
  • 1 ½ – 2 cups cream
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 large sweet onion.
  • Cup of white wine
  • 1 small bag of shredded cheese

    Fork inserted in scalloped potatoes in a casserole dish.
    Testing the doneness of the potatoes.

Spices:

Spices with heavy cream in a pot.
Spices extraordinaire and bay leaves in heavy cream and wine.
  • Rubbed sage
  • white pepper
  • paprika
  • Bay leaves
  • Nutmeg
  • Black pepper
  • Garlic powder

Directions:

How do you make scalloped potatoes lickity-split? We were driving back to the house on Christmas Eve after an afternoon of shopping, blasting Let’s Go Crazy and enjoying quality time among siblings and loved ones. My boyfriend’s brother-in-law reminded me I was expected to make scalloped potatoes for dinner. Guess what? I’ve never made them. So what?

Stop thinking you need to plan a menu, even a holiday menu, weeks in advance. I had the basic ingredients: potatoes, onions, cream and shredded cheese.

Sliced russet potatoes in a casserole dish.
Slice potatoes with the skin on.

Cut potatoes into halves, lengthwise. Then, thinly slice them. Place slices in greased casserole dish (try olive oil spray) and cook in microwave on the potatoes setting. Take them out a few minutes early so they are cooked, but remain firm, not mush.

Meanwhile, sauté garlic and onions in a large saucepan with butter and/or olive oil. Add pinches and sprinkles of spices. Once onion and garlic is turning golden brown, pour in white wine to deglaze pan. Stir in cream and add 2-3 bay leaves. Let simmer while you arrange the potatoes in pretty rows or formation in the casserole dish with cheese.

Scalloped potatoes in the oven.
Baking the potatoes

You may want to re-grease the dish before adding shredded cheese. Then, pour cream and onion mixture into the casserole dish over the potatoes. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Test with fork. If potatoes are soft, you are good to go. If not, try more time in 15 minute increments. This will depend on the size and density of the potatoes. Ideally, make this in the afternoon before a dinner gathering.

Cheers,

The Sage Leopard

Pasta e fagioli, an Italian soup with pasta and beans

Wintertime calls for soup and my favorites are Italian with ditalini, a little tubular pasta that lets the soup base slide right through. Pasta e fagioli is a broth-based soup with vegetables and tomatoes, and the eponymous beans. Bowl of pasta and beansA typical bean for this dish is cannellini beans, a classic white bean that also goes well in soups with escarole. Tonight, I’m using cranberry beans, so named because of the cranberry-colored striping on these white beans and their pods. After they cook, these loose the cranberry color and appear a rouge beige color. They provide a wonderful consistency. Pasta e fagioli is a great Sunday dinner soup and a great dish for entertaining. I once served it for a football party and people could just ladle a cup or bowl as they wanted. Before I relate the recipe, here are the basic ingredients:

  • Garlic, onion, celery and carrot
  • Pancetta
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Canned or dried beans
  • Veggie, chicken or beef broth
  • Ditalini
  • Parsley
  • Grated Parmesan cheese

My father makes a fantastic pasta e fagioli, and I had thought he was following a cookbook recipe. Nope, he has it in his mind, so I took dictation from him once and labeled in my recipe binder as Pasta e Fagioli Off the Top of Dad’s Head. Well, the proportions are flexible!

Sorting cranberry beans
Sorting cranberry beans

His basic recipe for a 15. oz can of beans had: 2 stalks of celery, 2 large carrots, half a big onion or a small onion and 2 to 3 cloves of garlic. He only used ¾ cup of tomatoes and 8 oz of pasta. Well, I was using a bag of dried beans tonight and realized I needed to roughly double the proportions:

  • 1 bag of cranberry beans
  • 2 #10-slices of pancetta
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • half a red onion
  • six stalks of carrots
  • six carrots
  • 2 28 oz. canned of diced tomatoes.
  • 16 oz. of vegetable broth, 1 small can of chicken broth
  • An extra can of chicken broth is on hand, in case the beans absorb a lot of broth as they continue to cook.
  • Shaved parmesan
  • *16 oz. box of ditalini, but I’m only going to cook half in a separate pot of water.
  • Fresh parsley to chop and add to soup when serving.

*After the main soup is fully cooked. I will fold it into the pot of cooked pasta, ladle by ladle to the get the ratio right and then reserve the rest of the soup in the freezer. This soup freezes beautifully without pasta. Frozen and then defrosted pasta is just terrible.

Pancetta on a cutting board.
Slicing pancetta

Don’t do it. Instructions: Dice pancetta and place in a hot Dutch oven. Brown. Add diced carrots and allow to soften and meld with the melted pancetta fat. Add diced onion, garlic and celery. Stir, cover and allow to simmer 10 minutes to soften together. Add tomatoes and stir in fresh ground black pepper. Under no circumstances should you add salt because the pancetta is salty! Cover again and simmer tomatoes and veggies for another 15 minutes. Add beans. (I used the so-called quick cook method for the beans so they still needed more cooking to soften up. If you just use canned beans, they only need to be in the soup for about 5-10 minutes to absorb some of the flavor of the broth. The ditalini are separately boiled in fresh water, drained and then stirred into the soup. Hence, pasta e fagioli. Ladle into individual bowls and sprinkle over grated Italian cheese and chopped fresh parsley. If you want a little heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes on and stir. Buon Appetito The Sage Leopard

Rhinestone Cowboy Chocolate Chip Christmas Cookie

Ever heard of a salted caramel chocolate chip cranberry coconut cookie? I adapted a recipe that has been my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe for at least 20 years.

Yesterday, I needed to bake a dessert for a party and panicked. I consulted a friend who has brought a hummingbird cake to my house and whose party expertise I respect. She began rattling off suggestions, all of which sounded decadent, elegant and festive – and none of which I had ingredients or know-how for. She snickered about me being an amateur. Besides bringing a dessert, I needed to get a white elephant gift. In short, I had very little time. I reverted to a stand-by and opted to add coconut on top to evoke snow. Hence, these are “rhinestone cowboy” cookies.Cranberry coconut cowboy cookies resting on a baking sheet.

(adapted from an L.L. Bean chocolate chip oatmeal cookies)

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup butter
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar (firmly packed)
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp. water
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup flour, plus ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ cup of oatmeal flakes
  • ½ cup chocolate chips
  • ½ cup salted caramel chips (yes, they make these!)
  • 1 cup of dried cranberries
  • shredded coconut (get it finely shredded)
  • Canola baking spray
  • Cookie sheets

Start with softened butter. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make sure your oven is actually empty before turning it on. In a large mixing bowl, use a spatula to cream butter with both sugars. Thoroughly stir in egg. Add water and vanilla extract and stir more.

In another bowl, toss together flour and cinnamon. For the later, use as little or as much as you like. I used enough to change the color of the flour. Add baking soda and salt. Now, fold flour mixture into big bowl with sugar mixture. Gently mix into until blended.

Baking Christmas cookies. My chocolate chip oatmeal recipe with the added delights of salted caramel chips, cranberries and coconut #christmas #cookies #thesageleopard
Baking Christmas cookies. My chocolate chip oatmeal recipe with the added delights of salted caramel chips, cranberries and coconut #christmas #cookies #thesageleopard

img_1019Then, fold in the oats. In turns, fold in the chips and cranberries. Mix thoroughly to evenly distribute the chips and berries. Use a teaspoon to scoop out a ball, use fingers to press in any loose bits and form a nice shape. Place on greased cookie sheet. Wet hands with water occasionally to smooth the cookie shaping process.

Place about 1 ½ inches apart. To add the sparkle, pinch coconut between fingers and sprinkle over one cookie at a time to give each one a snowy topping. (I end up using 2 big cookie sheets and jelly roll tin.) Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Let rest on the tins on top of stove for 3-5 minutes so they firm up. Transfer with spatula to paper towels. You can lay the paper towel in whatever you are using to store the cookies.

Merry Christmas!

The Sage Leopard

 

 

 

 

Hunting for Quality of Life

Do you seek “me time” where you can just shut out the nuisance noise of the world and find solace, curiosity or beauty? My boyfriend will say he needs to get out in the woods. Hunting is his quality time.

The thing I need most to escape is psoriasis and the accompanying anxiety.

A country road winds through the mountains.
On the road to quality of life.

It’s not a just skin-deep challenge. The inflammation is something I feel inside too and that stresses me out. Of course, stress leads to more inflammation and tension. It’s an anxiety vicious cycle. I don’t relate this to throw a pity party, but to relate some pointers for any challenge in life:

  • Confront your problem, don’t let anyone else minimize it.
  • If something is no longer working for you, do something different.
  • For a chronic problem or condition, find the things that give you every day joy and fill your days with those things too

What does psoriasis have to do with recreation and the outdoors? A lot. When it first presented, I was a tween and swimming competitively. A chronic skin condition is no fun when you already feel gangly and awkward. Fortunately, I had some topical medications to ease the symptoms and pain. My enjoyment of sports was not curtailed and I went on to play field hockey and lacrosse.

I love running, but lately I was having real trouble with movement. I did not want to run or go to the gym. My skin was so extensively covered, it hurt to move. Plus, once I got warmed up, it seemed the legions interfered with temperature regulation and I would give up.

I actually skipped training for a long-distance bike ride that took place in October. It was a century and I love the route. Sigh. Why would I let this condition interfere?

Woman standing in autumn sunshine
Self-portrait the day after I started a new medication.

For years, the psoriasis was under control with a FDA-approved drug you may see advertised on TV. Its effectiveness went from miracle drug to dud. Once it waned to the point where I was 50% covered in psoriasis, it was time to throw in the towel.

It had impeded my physical abilities and hampered my quality of life. It was time to pursue something new. First, I needed a 30-day washout period for the old drug to leave my system and the effects to be recorded. Then, I went to get the new prescription, a drug that is also advertised on TV. Well, there was a snafu that delayed the specialty Rx and my skin got even worse. Finally, it was dispensed and after one week, I could feel my skin again. We had been hunting in Georgia and I was having a little trouble with the hike.

After two-and-half weeks, I’m feeling so much better, inside and out. My anxiety has eased and I feel ready to return to the gym. Last weekend, we had gone duck hunting and I felt so good. I could sit comfortably for hours.

Leaves changing color in the fall.
Getting outside is the best medicine.

Let me repeat, I was comfortable for hours. A chronic condition sometimes results in aggravating or even constant pain, which I had experienced for a couple of months before the new medicine took effect.

I am regaining quality of life. I can sit in peace, whether sitting at my desk working or sitting in the woods thinking. Even when I am in pain, I still focus on the things that give me quality of life: cooking, dogs, walks, cycling, breathing in life.

The Sage Leopard

Duck Hunting, A Driving Rain, and a Lil’ Disappointment

On a duck hunt, a cold, driving rain can make me wonder if I’m truly a hunter. My commitment is strong enough to get me out in the dark to set up and wait, but can be called into introspective question when my hands become so frigid that they are rendered useless.

It’s sort of like doubting your commitment to Christianity when you feel you cannot forgive Osama bin Laden. You have to keep trying. And, similar to a person of faith seeking to become what they pray, a hunter must stay. Or, in my case, bail when your fingers won’t shoot.

Pond with plants and algae in a duck habitat on public land.
Duck habitat before the rains

My boyfriend must be warmer-blooded person because he stayed out in the rain by himself for another half hour, at least. By the time he returned to the truck, he looked shocked by the cold. While we were wearing appropriate clothing, including neoprene waders and Frogg Toggs, there’s nothing like a 47-degree soaking to dampen your enthusiasm. Honestly, if I’d been in a blind, I think I might have enjoyed it. (More on that later.)

Instead, after more than a couple of hours, I ended up sitting in the truck watching an Alton Brown video of his visit to the Garden & Gun office kitchen. How did this happen? The road to hell was paved with good intentions. Yesterday afternoon, we scoped out or location and found what appeared to be the perfect spot to set up a blind. We used garden stakes and camo tarp and wrap. We took of some brush and set it up in front. When we got back to our hotel, the rain began.

Duck blind set up for a hunt in Texas.
Setting up the blind the day before the hunt

In the morning, we were excited despite the rain. We got back to our spot and hoofed through muck down the dirt levee until we reached the blind. We nestled under our blind. A wind kicked up and the ducks started flying in. So exciting! So very exciting until the wind kicked up the tarp, a.k.a., poncho above our heads. The poncho began wildly and loudly flapping, and spooking the ducks. Now, we desperately yanked down our blind and split up to stand in the reeds.

I could not see. I moved back and sat on the ground behind the reeds. The rain was pelting my face. I tried to find the happy medium between shielding my face and being able to see. Maintaining any semblance of peripheral vision was a challenge. If I looked up, the rain poured over my glasses.

This is when idiomatic expressions and their etymologies come to mind. Something blew our cover? Yes, our actual blind blew its own cover. Sitting duck? The one that came closest to me had landed and sat on the water a moment — until it realized it had joined a decoys party.

When we gave up, I held the gate open for Byron to pull through with the truck and two other trucks were coming through. One tailgate was full of ducks. I felt stupid. We gathered to compare notes and the successful party harvested a total of 11. I told another hunter about our fatal error with the flapping blind. He commented that they weren’t really flying today, which was a polite way of consoling a loser. The man with the tailgate full of birds remarked, “you’re a hell of a woman to be out here.”

Rainy marsh pond during a duck hunt.
View from my seat on the edge of the pond in the rain.

I don’t normally play the woman card, but I gotta wonder if I man would be too macho to write a blog admitting he got to cold too keep hunting. It may not be a gender thing, but I am a creature who loves comfort. I’m the type who likes to get into jammies around 8 p.m., wrap up in a fleece blanket and curl up on the couch with the dogs. They love being outdoors too and know when it’s time to come in to cuddle.

As for our next hunt, tomorrow morning, we are going to get out even earlier before they start flying and hope it is raining a little less.

The Sage Leopard