There is nothing like a chilly winter evening to make us long for good home cooking. Perhaps we are just trained to crave traditional family dishes when the nights are longer and the holidays are approaching. This column features some of my family’s favorite recipes to make up a delicious family meal. Though these dishes are ideal for a Sunday family dinner, they are equally well-suited for a holiday dinner or party. Since each is fairly simple to prepare, you won’t mind making them often (due to popular demand, of course).
An ideal vegetarian appetizer or snack item is Hot Artichoke & Cheese Dip. It has become a family favorite. My mother has learned to make two when bringing it to a holiday or dinner party, one for the group and the other for the host to eat later. It is a good way to introduce someone to artichokes since the flavors bring out the sweetness and the intimidating artichoke shape is not present. Because the dish does not have meat or nuts, it can be enjoyed by many. Also, having an appetizer or snack handy while the meal is being prepared keeps everyone from getting in the way in the kitchen.
Nothing epitomizes home cooking like Mom’s Meat Loaf. Years ago, my mother started making this to encourage us to eat more vegetables. For as long as I can remember, the leftovers are even better! Change the included vegetables to suit your tastes and it becomes your special recipe!
The first time my dad ever cooked a full holiday meal was Thanksgiving several years ago. Evidently, Julia Child’s PBS program (and the Food Network) inspired him to make some fantastical dishes, including duck with an orange sauce. To this day, I remember how there were no leftovers that year. One of the sweetest side dishes he made was Bill’s Sweet Potato Bake. It fills in the empty spots in your belly and warms you up. Keep the marshmallows away for it be stay vegetarian. Omit the nuts if someone in your family is allergic.
You won’t remember why you ever used cherry pie filling after you try my Very Cherry Pie. The ingredients work to bring out the natural flavors in the cherries and the result is a light and delicious dessert. It has the lightness of a tart, but the hearty texture of a good old American pie.
Hot Artichoke & Cheese Dip
17 ounces canned artichoke hearts, drained
6 ounces canned green chili peppers
3/4 cup mayonnaise (not salad dressing)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded (if using Pepper Jack, omit the green chilis)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large mixing bowl or food processor, blend the artichoke hearts and chili peppers. Add the mayonnaise and lemon juice and continue mixing.
3. Once the ingredients are blended completely, spoon half the artichoke mixture into an oven-safe, non-metal pie dish. Sprinkle 1/2 cup shredded cheese over the mixture. Spoon the remaining artichoke mixture over that. Add the remaining cheese evenly over the top of the dip.
4. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
5. Serve with tortilla chips, Triscuits®, or pita chips.
Mom’s Meat Loaf
2 pounds ground beef
1 cup shredded carrots
1 package dried vegetable soup mix
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced
1 small can tomato paste
1 to 2 cups of plain bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, put the meat, shredded carrots, soup mix, and sliced mushrooms. Mix the ingredients together using your hands. One at a time, add the eggs, parsley, and sun-dried tomatoes, mixing well after each addition. Combine with all but 2 tablespoons of the undiluted tomato soup.
3. Add the bread crumbs little-by-little as you blend them in with the meat mixture. No more crumbs are needed when the mixture is moist (but not wet) and holds together easily. If you are preparing this ahead of time, you can refrigerate the meat in an air-tight container for up to 24-hours before cooking.
4. Separate the meat mixture in half. Shape each half into a loaf. These can be baked in loaf pans that have been lightly greased with a non-stick cooking spray or butter, but I prefer baking on a broiler pan or well-and-tree platter, so excess fat can drain away. It is important to wash your hands after handling raw meat.
5. Bake the loaves for 35 minutes. During this time, stir the softened butter with the remaining 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. At the 35-minute point, spread the mixture evenly over each loaf to help keep the top moist. Bake for an additional 25 minutes or until the internal temperature of the loaves has reaches 140 degrees.
6. Remove the loaves from the oven and allow resting for a few minutes as they continue to cook and then cool slightly. Serve in slices alongside rice or mashed potatoes and a salad. The leftovers make delicious sandwiches.
Bill’s Sweet Potato Bake
6 to 8 fresh sweet potatoes
2 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
1/2 cup salted butter
1 pound fresh pecans
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Puncture each potato with a fork several times before placing all on a baking sheet or directly on the oven rack. Bake for 1 hour, or until tender. Let the potatoes rest and cool slightly before peeling them. Change the oven temperature to 300 degrees to preheat for the final baking.
3. One-by-one, place the peeled sweet potatoes in a food processor. Mix using the pulse feature until all the potatoes have been added. Stop mixing while the potatoes are still chunky.
4. Pour the maple syrup into the food processor and add the unsalted butter. Mix until smooth then add the cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla sugar. Mix using the pulse feature for another minute before transferring the potato blend to a shallow baking dish. Using a spatula, smooth the top of the mixture. Set aside while preparing the top layer.
5. Warm a skillet over low heat to melt the salted butter. Stir in the pecans and sauté (while stirring regularly) until the nuts are coated with the butter. This should take about 5 minutes. Once the pecans are butter coated, transfer them to a plate layered with paper towels to allow the excess butter to drain off.
6. Arrange the pecans on top of potato mixture. This can be done simply or in a decorative pattern. It will taste delicious either way. Sprinkle the top with the brown sugar.
7. Bake the dish for 20 to 25 minutes, or until heated thoroughly.
Very Cherry Pie
2 refrigerated pre-made pie crusts (in the biscuit or cookie dough section of your grocery market)
2 1/2 cups fresh tart cherries (washed, pitted, and patted dry) or 2 cans pitted tart pie cherries (drained in a colander)
1 1/2 cups fresh Bing cherries (washed, pitted, and patted dry) or 1 can pitted Bing cherries (drained in a colander)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Let the pie crust pastry circles warm to room temperature, then place one in a 9-inch round glass or ceramic pie dish. Prepare the bottom crust according to the instructions on the package, which should require it to be baked for 10 minutes, the cooled for 10 minutes before adding the pie filling. While the crust is baking, prepare the filling.
3. Mix the granulated sugar, lime juice, and flour in a bowl. This can be done with a hand mixer for quicker results, or with a fork. Once the ingredients are well blended, add the cherries and toss them with the sugar mixture. Be gentle as to not crush the cherries. Let the filling rest for 10 minutes, while the crust cools.
4. Pour the cherry filling into the slightly cooled pie crust. Dot the filling with butter. Add the second pie crust pastry circle to the top so its edges meet up with the edges of the bottom crust. Pinch the edges to seal the pie filling inside. Flute the rim in whatever decorative way you prefer (my pie is pictured here). Cut small slits in the top crust or do so with a decorative touch. Then sprinkle the top of the pie with the vanilla sugar.
5. Bake for 1 hour. Check often during the final 15 minutes to make sure you remove it just when the top starts to take on a pale brown shade and the crust edges are tan. Through the slits or openings, you should be able to see the cherry filling bubble slightly.
6. Let the pie cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream. The pie is equally good after being refrigerated and reheated briefly in the microwave. Since there are no preservatives being added to the ingredients, it is best to consume the pie within 3 or 4 days of baking, if kept covered and refrigerated. Somehow, I doubt that will be a challenge.