What’s Cooking Wednesday: Minestrone Soup

Scrumptious, savory soup often starts with good ‘stock’ (a flavorful liquid base).

You can make your own beef, chicken, turkey or ham stock by boiling meat scraps or bones in water and saving the liquid. Vegetable stocks are generally made with carrots, onions, celery and sometimes tomatoes. Garlic, thyme, bay leaf and other herbs make flavorful seasoning combinations.

Another approach to stocking your soup is to save the broth and/or pan drippings from other dishes.

My mom’s method is a quart container of beef broth in the freezer. Any time she cooks a roast or other beef dishes, leftover broth gets added to the container. Once the container is full, she uses it to make a soup- like this Minestrone recipe (below).

Of course you can always buy broth in a can or carton from the grocery store or use beef bouillon, but look out for the salt content! Ready made broth tends to be high in sodium. By making your own you can use herbs and other spices to add flavor while keeping your salt content lower.

Minestrone Soup


  • 4 c beef stock (or broth)
  • 2 c water
  • 2 large carrots, peeled & chopped
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 can chili beans (or 1 can black beans, drained & 1 tsp. chili powder)
  • 2 cups rotini pasta (uncooked)
  • 1 small zucchini, sliced & quartered
  • 1 cup fresh spinach, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/2 tsp. parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch


  1. In large pot, heat beef broth and water to boiling.
  2. Add carrots, tomatoes, onions & beans. Cook until carrots are tender.
  3. Add seasoning.
  4. Dissolve cornstarch in a small amount of cold water (Shaking it in a sealed container works well). Add a small amount of the hot liquid from the soup and shake or stir to combine. Pour cornstarch mixture into the soup, stirring constantly as you do.
  5. Add zucchini and pasta. Cook about 15 minutes until pasta is done. Add spinach for the last 5 minutes.

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Dutch Apple Pie

Dutch Apple Pie

How do you like your apple pie? For me warm & a la mode is the way to go. I think ice cream is especially delicious atop a slice of Dutch Apple Pie, which features a crunchy streusel topping instead of pastry crust.

My mom always bakes this pie inside a brown paper grocery bag – an old fashioned technique that helps steam the filling and keep the top from browning too dark. I’m a little gun shy, however; as the bag could catch fire if it comes into contact with the sides of the oven or one of the elements.

In all the times my mom made this pie growing up, it only happened once. My dad happened to be home at the time and responded to the fire call from the kitchen when the paper bag began to smolder because it was too close to the top element. Mom grabbed the fire extinguisher, but dad said, ‘No, that will ruin the pie!”

Instead he pulled the pie out of the oven with leather gloves, ripped the burning bag off the pie and stomped out the fire with his boots. Yes, he managed to save the pie from becoming a burnt sacrifice…a story he’s still proud to tell many years later.

And it should give you an idea of how delicious this Dutch Apple Pie is, that it would cause my dad (who is also a volunteer fireman) to attempt such heroics.

To avoid such excitement, I just cover the pie with an aluminum pie pan to achieve a similar effect.

Dutch Apple Pie


Single Pie crust – purchased or homemade


  • 3-4 large baking apples (about 5 cups)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice (optional)


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup butter


To make filling:

  1. Peel and core apples. Cut into bite size chunks.
  2. Stir in sugar, spices, flour and lemon juice until apples are coated. Let sit.

To make topping:

  1. Cut butter into sugar and flour with a pastry blender.
  2. Mixture should resemble coarse crumbs.

To assemble the pie:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Place crust in a 9 inch pie pan.
  3. Pour apple filling into the center.
  4. Sprinkle topping over the topping and press lightly to cover the apples.
  5. Fold edge of crust over and pinch to form fluted edge.
  6. Cover pie with an aluminum pie pan (upside down) and place in the oven. Bake at 425 degrees for 1 hour. Uncover for the last 5 minutes.

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Homemade Pie Crust

Homemade Pie Crust

The perfect pie crust: light, delicate & so  flaky it practically shatters when you touch it with a fork.  Making a pie crust from scratch to meet those standards is a skill that takes a little piece of practice & a slice of serendipity.

Pie crust can be a bit temperamental and while pastry dough is essentially just three ingredients: flour, shortening & water; the simplicity of the ingredients ingredients is made up for by complexity in technique.

My mother is an excellent pie crust maker and while I don’t think I’ve quite reached her level of pastry proficiency, I had the privilege of learning from the best and can share a few of her secrets of success.

1. Select your shortening: You want a fat that is solid at room temperature for pie crust (not an oil). Butter is a possibility but a fat with a higher melting point like vegetable shortening or lard works best. My mom always uses lard.

Lard is rendered pork fat. Although the idea may conjure up images of bacon grease, lard is white, odorless and it does not have a pork flavor. Once the fat of choice for many cooking applications especially on the farm, lard fell from favor due to its saturated fat content. But fresh lard does not have trans-fats, so while it’s not a health food it may not be such a villain either.

2. Less is more: Keep your mixing to a minimum throughout the whole process from cutting the shortening into the flour to stirring in the water. You also want to handle the dough as little as possible (no kneading) and it’s always best when you can roll it out once.

The trick here is all about avoiding the development of the gluten in the dough. Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat and some other grains and it’s a good thing in breads and cookies because it gives the dough elasticity, giving rise to a soft texture. But too much gluten development in pie crust makes it tough and dense rather than light and flaky.

3. Cold is key: Use cold shortening, ice cold water and chill your dough before (and maybe after) you roll it out. Cold ingredients also help keep gluten development to a minimum in order to maximize your flakiness factor.

4. Tools of the Trade: The culinary weapons of choice for my mom’s method of making pie crust are an old fashioned pastry blender, a fork and a rolling pin. In pie crust, you don’t want your shortening to be creamed – crumbled is what you’re after. Using a pastry blender (or two knives) and a fork can help you achieve the optimum amount of mixing (see #2)

5. Practice makes perfect: As with many skills in the kitchen, successfully making pie crust from scratch may take a few tries. But the reward for your efforts (even the flops) can be pretty delicious!

Homemade Pie Crust


Single Pie crust:

  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3-4 Tbsp. cold water

Double Pie Crust:

  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 5-7 Tbsp. cold water


  1. Cut shortening into flour with pastry blender just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  2. Add cold water and stir with a fork until just moistened.
  3. Form dough into a ball with hands.
  4. Place in refrigerator to chill.
  5. With a floured rolling pin, roll crust out on lightly floured surface to desired size.
  6.  Gently fold crust into quarters and transfer to pie pan.
  7. Unfold and trim edges evenly.
  8. Fill with your choice of pie filling.
  9.  For a two crust pie – repeat the roll out step for the top crust. Lay over top of filling. Trim edges evenly and seal by pressing edges together firmly. Cut slits in top crust to vent.
  10. Pinch all the way around to form fluted edge.
  11. Bake according to the directions for your specific type of pie.

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Broccoli Ham Cheese Strata

Broccoli Ham Cheese Strada

Breakfast, lunch, brunch or ‘brinner’ (breakfast for dinner) this tasty egg casserole will be a crowd pleaser any time of the day. A ‘strata’ is a savory bread pudding-like dish and its name comes from the fact that it’s a dish with layers. A strata is also a great way to use slightly stale or day-old bread.

One flavorful ingredient in this recipe is ham, a cured cut of pork. Curing is an ancient practice – used for thousands of years to preserve meat long before the invention of refrigeration. From ancient societies and Native American cultures to Pioneer farmsteads, things like ‘salt pork’ and smoke houses preserved protein for the winter months. For a technical look at what curing is and how it works, click here.

I think one of my favorite things about this recipe is the texture – light, fluffy & delicious!


  • 12 slices bread (slightly stale is better)
  • 3/4 cup cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup broccoli florets, cooked & drained
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 1/2 cup finely diced ham
  • 6 eggs
  • 3 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/4 tsp. dry mustard


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease the bottom of a 9 x 13″ baking dish.
  2. Cut circles out of the center of each slice of bread with a glass or biscuit cutter. Pinch a hole in the center of each circle to make a doughnut shape.
  3. Use scraps and crusts of bread to cover the bottom of the baking dish.
  4. Sprinkle ham, broccoli & onion evenly over bread. Sprinkle with cheese.
  5. Top with bread doughnuts.
  6. Whisk eggs and milk together until fluffy. Whisk in dry mustard.
  7. Pour liquid over casserole evenly. Flip doughnuts to make sure they are coated with egg mixture on both sides.
  8. Bake for about 50 minutes until top is golden and casserole is set (if you test with a fork, it should come out clean).
  9. Serve hot.

Note: photos show 1/3 recipe baked in a loaf pan

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Crockpot Apple Butter

Apple Butter

The math is pretty simple for this recipe: 12 cups of homemade applesauce & 12 hours in a crock pot yields 6 pints of sweet & spicy apple butter. Apple butter makes a tasty topping biscuits, rolls & toast…or if you find it as hard to resist as some people I know, you can eat it all by itself out of a bowl. And as a bonus – making apple butter makes your house smell amazing!

The rich brown color of apple butter comes from a combination of brown sugar, cinnamon & cloves, but part of it is also due to oxidation of the apples. Just like a sliced apple turns brown if it’s exposed to air long enough, the oxygen in the air reacts with the apples as they cook.

Enzymatic browning is not harmful, but discoloration on a fresh apple is somewhat unappealing. Recently some scientists and plant breeders  figured out how to  ‘turn off’ the genes that cause enzymatic browning to create Arctic Apples which will be available in Granny Smith & Golden Delicious varieties initially.

Arctic apples are so new you can’t buy them yet – some growers have planted trees but it will take a few years before they will bear fruit.

Did you know there are more than 7,500 apple varieties in the world? About 100 of those varieties are grown commercially. Check out this handy overview of apple varieties from Modern Farmer for more information.

For this recipe, I would recommend Yellow Delicious, Fuji, MacIntosh or Jonathon apples.

Please note that fresh apple butter (like this recipe) needs to be kept refrigerated or frozen. The only real challenge is making all the applesauce, which should be done the day before. When it comes to cooking the applesauce into apple butter – you pretty much set it & forget it.

Crock Pot Apple Butter


  • 12 cups homemade applesauce
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves


  1. Pour 12 cups applesauce into large crock pot
  2. Stir in all of the remaining ingredients.
  3. Cook on low uncovered for 12 hours. Stir occasionally (about 4-5 times during the cooking process).
  4. Transfer to jars or containers. Let cool for 10 – 15 minutes then refrigerate uncovered overnight. Cover with lids & freeze or pass it out to friends & neighbors to enjoy.


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