Thursday, June 27, 2013

Potluck & Variations

This is a profile of one super easy, really successful “Covered Dish” or “Potluck” dinner casserole. It takes just a few minutes to put together, and ingredients are easily found at (just about) any grocery store. The base is frozen hash brown potatoes, the kind that come cubed in a bag.

For the most part, I like to feature recipes that work mostly “from scratch”. However, the point here is to offer an idea that can be thrown together quickly and easily. It also has a lot of leeway so you can use what’s in the cupboard.

 Basic Hash Brown Casserole:

  •  One bag frozen hash brown potatoes
              (cube style recommended, though grated could work)
  • 1 can “Cream of” soup :
              i.e. Cream of Mushroom, Broccoli, Celery, Chicken, etc.
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 cups grated cheese, sharp cheddar recommended.

Lightly grease a 9”x13” pan. Mix together all ingredients except ½ cup grated cheese. This can be achieved in the pan but is easier in a bowl. Bake at 350° F/175° C  for 45 minutes. One way to tell the casserole is done is when it bubbles slightly in the center. Top with the remaining cheese and put back in the oven until it melts.

The casserole can be made up ahead of time to pop in the oven later. It isn’t necessary to wait to put the cheese on top, but if you do wait, you get more even results.


Now for variations on a theme:


Diced vegetables can really add flavor to the casserole: Broccoli, mushrooms, green peas, peppers, tomatoes, go wild. You’re only limited by your imagination and how much the pan will hold.

You can also add some diced ham or chicken (fully cooked), or some browned hamburger. Combine this with some veggies in the casserole, and you have a one-pan meal.

Reduce the amount of potatoes to balance the additions for best sauce-to-stuff ratio.

This recipe is perfect for customization. Use what you like, add herbs & spices, experiment. Make it yours.


Variation: Seafood Casserole


Again, the point here is not “authenticity” but quick, easy, & affordable.

  • 1 package faux crabmeat, cut in small chunks.
  • 1- 6 oz. can shrimp
  • 1 small can crabmeat (if you feel like going wild)
  • 1 can Cream of Shrimp soup
  • 1 ¾  cup grated cheese
  • 1 or 2 oz. Swiss cheese cut into small pieces.
              (Important. It adds some “edge” that gives the casserole a nice “bisque” flavor.)
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ½ bag frozen hash brown potatoes

Lightly grease a 9”x13” pan. Mix ingredients together, reserving ½ cup grated cheese for topping. This can be achieved in the pan but is easier in a bowl. Bake at 350° F/175° C for 45 minutes.

If you want to use fresh seafood, go for it. Just make sure everything is fully cooked.

There you have it. Fast, easy, crowd pleasing.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Zero Tolerance

Warning: political rant. New recipe to come next week sometime.

Paving Stones on the Path to Dystopian Tyranny

Zero Tolerance means:

  • Zero Thought Necessary
  • Zero Decisions to Make
  • Zero Responsibility
  • Zero Accountability

It is the administrative bureaucrat’s dream. It is the perfect excuse.

Back in the 1990’s, Zero Tolerance policies were presented as the best path to Getting Tough on Crime. Any offense, no matter how small, would be dealt with as if it were the gravest crime, subject to full sanctions and response by the authorities. That way, supposedly, small problems could avoid becoming larger ones.

It was all a vicious lie. The point of Zero Tolerance is to condition us to accept the unacceptable and to sanction government sponsored abuse of our precious children. Zero Tolerance means Absolute Power. It never stays within the intended bounds. It never fails to corrupt.

Zero Tolerance “No Knives” policies resulted in children being suspended and/or arrested for possession of nail clippers and plastic flatware with their lunch. “But a plastic knife is intended for spreading peanut butter, not mayhem”, you say? No matter, policy says we cannot apply reason.  “Intent” may no longer be taken into consideration.

Zero Tolerance “Drug” policies resulted in teens being suspended and/or arrested for possessing aspirin. A student can get into serious trouble for carrying a potentially life-saving inhaler without "proper authorization". We are to believe that it is okay to withhold needed treatment because of "policy". 

One student was strip searched because administrators suspected she had ibuprofen in her possession.

In each case, teachers and administrators are able to avoid any accountability for disgusting, unreasonable acts by pointing to “policy”. They are just following orders.

As Zero Tolerance policies and behaviors progress, the definition of “offense” has been expanded to include more and more normal behaviors exhibited by normal school children. Temper tantrums, which might have resulted in removal from the classroom and a stern lecture from a counselor or the principal, now result in handcuffs and court appearances. Teenage highjinks and pranks, which in the past would have earned a few hours in detention, now result in criminal records.

Last March, a Maryland seven-year-old was suspended for unwittingly eating his pastry into the shape of a gun. He was attempting to chew out a mountain. His teacher and principal responded with hysterics, removed him from the classroom, and suspended him for being “threatening”. This was done without regard for the fact that no one, besides the teacher, felt threatened in any way by the pop tart sculpture. The principal of Park Elementary claims he bears no responsibility whatsoever for his ridiculous, asinine reaction.

Policy, don’t you know? Just following orders.

The teacher was not responsible.

The principal was not responsible.

Only the child was responsible.

Let me repeat this: The adults are not responsible any more. Only children are to be held responsible.

Zero Tolerance is a conditioning program. It is meant to condition school workers to accept whatever edicts the state hands down, no matter how evil they might be. Anything can be designated an offense worthy of mistreatment from here on in. We parents, teachers, principals, and members of society, are being conditioned to tolerate the systematic abuse of our most vulnerable. If we let them have our children, we'll tolerate anything.

Zero Tolerance is a paving stone on the path to tyranny. It is part of the larger campaign to incrementally remove all vestiges of justice in our society. No longer will judgment be permitted in the adjudication of criminality. Do not question. Do not reason. Follow policy. Follow orders.

It is through ideas like Zero Tolerance that we are conditioned to look the other way when gross injustice is perpetrated.

We must not accept this outrage. We must not condone the removal of accountability. We cannot look the other way.

The Nazi concentration camp guards were following “policy” too. We are headed down that road. Let us turn around.

Evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

Let’s tell evil to take a hike. No more "Zero Tolerance".


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Peanut Butter Cornflake Cookies

Reunions. This is the year for High School and Family reunions. Lots and lots of memories.

Most of us have unhappy memories of our school cafeteria food. However, there is one item that was always a hit in our school system: Peanut Butter Cornflake Cookies. Nirvana on, of all places, a school lunch tray! On days when these cookies were on the menu, we all made sure we arranged to buy our lunch. Usually they appeared on alternate Thursdays along with Turkey and Gravy, the second-best item on their entire menu.

While they were well known within our small school system, no one else seemed to know what they were. I met kids from all over the country, and none of them had ever heard of these delightful treasures. We were so lucky.

Anyway, a post on my high school Facebook group reminded me of this favorite dessert, so I went surfing for a recipe. There are several incarnations to be found, and with a little experimentation, I have arrived at a fairly good approximation. (After a few decades, the secret was bound to get out.)

I posted a comment on Facebook that I had made some, mostly for the benefit of old classmates. However, a relative commented that she would like some. Since she was going to be at a family reunion, I decided to bring some with me to the gathering.

I figured that a few would be eaten, and I would end up taking more than I could eat home with me.


All that was left were a few crumbs. People raved about them. They requested that I post the recipe to Facebook. So I did. From my phone. It’s that easy.

Peanut Butter Cornflake Cookies

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons honey
6 tablespoons corn syrup
1 cup peanut butter
5 cups corn flakes (I don’t usually recommend brands, but the Kellogg’s® flakes work the best.)

Bring sugar, honey and corn syrup to boil for a minute or two. Remove from heat. Stir in peanut butter. Pour over corn flakes in a large bowl and mix to coat. Press into 9x13 pan. Let cool. Cut into squares. A pizza cutter works well.

You’d think it would be sticky, but it’s not. So don’t worry about greasing the pan. Really.

Cheap, easy, super yummy.

Enjoy. Impress your friends, relatives, and, most importantly, PTA parents (which is no small victory).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Absolutely Awesome Nachos

I’ve been making this recipe in various forms for almost 25 years. It’s an adaptation of one from a women’s magazine article that explored different microwave recipes, when microwaves were still fairly new to kitchens.

I find the microwave can do funny things to tortilla chips, so I simply stuck it in the regular oven with fantastic results.


1 normal-sized bag (~13 oz) Tortilla chips (Whatever kind you like best. Fritos® style corn chips are not recommended but will do in a pinch.)

Mix together:

½ cup mayonnaise
2 cups shredded cheddar—use more if you like
1-3 oz can green chilies
1 small can sliced Black Olives

Take 2 or 3 cookie sheets and line them with foil. Spray the foil with cooking spray, so the cheese doesn’t stick and pull everything off the nachos. Spread your tortilla chips in one layer, with some overlaps. You want the topping on the chips, not the pan. I’ve found the recipe uses about 2/3 of a bag of chips.

Spoon the topping evenly over the chips. Bake in a 350° oven for 20-25 minutes. Serve hot. You can move them to plates to serve or right off the pans.


Add some crab delights, chopped chicken, or bacon to the mixture. They all work well.

I have also lined a 9”x13” pan with crescent roll dough, and put the topping (with crab delights) on top, and baked at 350° for 25-30 minutes. Slice into 2-inch squares. Fantastic for potluck dinners.

You can also put the topping on French bread, sliced lengthwise, and bake for a Mexican French bread pizza.

Try mixing the topping with cauliflower for a low-carb casserole version.

I have substituted green salsa for the chilies, but it makes for runny topping. Reduce the mayo somewhat if you go that route.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Spinach & Artichoke Dip

My daughter and I went to TGI Friday's in February. It had been a couple years since our last visit. 

I have always loved the inventive and interesting foods they serve. We got an appetizer sampler and a few other items from the appetizer menu. It was all good, but, for some reason, it doesn't appeal to me like it once did. Has the quality changed, or has my taste changed? I’ve noticed that a lot of restaurant food just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I actually prefer to make my own. Has anyone else had the same experience?

One of my favorite "appetizers out" is Spinach and Artichoke Dip. The serving we got at TGI Fridays was good, but it had a canned soup flavor to it. Still, I like it enough to try making my own, since Friday's isn't usually in the budget.

Anyway, I turned to the Internet for ideas. There are several pages devoted to S&A dip, many claiming to be just like Friday's.

Let me now state that mine is not like Friday’s. Yes, there are spinach, artichokes, and cheese, but it all comes out very differently. Mine has more veggies and less sauce.

All the recipes call for thawing, draining, and squeezing the spinach before adding to the mixture. My experience is that the dip is very dry, so removing moisture is self-defeating. I also found large amounts of spinach can overwhelm the other ingredients. Using half of a 1 lb. bag seems to achieve the right balance. The other advantage of bagged versus a 10-oz block is that you don’t need to thaw it.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip


    • 1 cup milk or half & half
    • ½ cup mayonnaise
    • 1 to 2 teaspoons minced garlic (I use the jarred kind) Powdered, a scant teaspoon maybe.
    • 1 T prepared horseradish
    • 1 –2 teaspoons Italian Herbs
    • 2 cups (8 oz.) Italian blend cheese
    • ½-(16 oz.) bag frozen spinach (thaw in the microwave for a shorter cook time)
    • 1 (14 ounce) can/jar artichoke quarters, drained & chopped
 Combine all ingredients. Place in shallow casserole dish. You can bake the dip for about 15-20 minutes at 325°F, if you thawed the spinach. It can also be heated in the microwave for a few minutes.

The last batch I made, I just mixed everything in the casserole, with the spinach still frozen, and stuck it in the fridge until later. I baked it for 45 minutes at about 350° F.

We use whatever is on hand to dip it: crackers, toast, tortilla chips, or rye crisps. Use what you like.

I have spread the dip on flour tortillas to make spinach & artichoke quesadillas. Yum! Added some roast turkey deli slices. Double yum!

Enjoy. Let me know what works for you.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sesame Chicken Sauce

I love Sesame Chicken from the local Chinese food place, but not so much the expense, and definitely not the rock-hard breading on the chicken. So, I have come up with my own recipe that is quite satisfying and economical.

I buy the Asian ingredients at the local international grocery where the prices are amazingly reasonable, often less than half that at the regular stores or even the big box discount store!

The international store (called the Super-G Mart) has been here in town for several years, but I never went in until about six months ago. It’s quite an experience. One of the first things you see is the big bags of rice (15-40 pounds) of many different types and origins: Basmati, jasmine, long grain, medium grain, from China, India, and the US.

Folks from all over the world mix with locals throughout aisles that carry a dizzying array of foods, many of which I can’t identify. The produce is amazing. There is so much to choose from. Despite being crowded and busy, all of the customers show great respect for one another, making it a far better shopping experience than the local discount store. Going to “foreign food” stores makes good gourmet and economical sense.

Here is my own recipe for yummy homemade Sesame Chicken:

Use the broth from ½ of a 40-oz. bag frozen chicken tenders baked with:
  • 1 T olive oil in the pan            ¼ cup teriyaki sauce         a pinch of ground cloves
  • garlic powder                         onion powder
Use the oil in the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Place the tenders in one layer. Drizzle the tenders with teriyaki sauce, then season to taste with onion & garlic. Go easy on the cloves, they’re powerful.

Cover with foil. This keeps the tenders from drying out and produces the broth.

Bake for 30 minutes at 250° then 30-60 more minutes at 300°.
  • (Editorial note: It took quite a bit longer in a glass pan than in a metal one. I had to up the temp to 300° and cook an extra 30 minutes. The key to doneness is opaque chicken and clear juices.) 
The long slow cooking makes for very tender meat. If you're pressed for time, by all means cook at a higher temp.

Remove the chicken and pour the broth into a small saucepan. The broth is about 1-1/2 cups. Alternately, use some canned broth or bouillon if you come by your chicken through a different method.

Bring the broth to a boil over med-high heat. Add:

  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger              ¾ cup sugar  (I use demerara)  
  •  2 T soy sauce     2 T rice wine vinegar     1 tsp or so Sesame oil               

Reduce heat just below medium. Mix 2 scant tablespoons arrowroot powder to equal amount water, mix well. Add to the sauce to thicken. Maybe hold back a little on arrowroot. Mine came out very thick and gelled.

Once the sauce has thickened, add:
  • ½ cup sesame seeds
Cut chicken into bite-size pieces if you like. Pour sauce over chicken.

Serve sauced chicken over rice with cooked veggies. Yum! 

Makes 3-4 servings. GREAT for brown-bag lunch.

I had some sauce left over to put in the freezer.


Fresh ginger smells wonderful, very lemony and it is well worth the trouble. Substitute ½ tsp ground ginger if fresh isn’t available.

If you want to use fresh onions and garlic, go for it.

Cornstarch is another thickener you can use.

Sesame Oil is powerful stuff, so err on the side of caution. It the smell is overwhelming, refrigerate the sauce overnight and it will become much milder.

If you don't have rice wine vinegar, you can use fruit juice, or apple cider vinegar. Use about half as much cider or white vinegar as rice vinegar.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How to Make an Easy, Inexpensive E-collar For Your Cat --or Dog--or Bird...

Ways to up-size for our canine friends will follow  

This is a fast, easy, lightweight e-collar for convalescing pets. I recommend having a few extra sheets of foam on hand for replacement collars, as these tend to get beat-up and worn out.
Alas, the Pewter Panther is gone, but his memory will live on. He suffered from bone cancer, and had a leg amputated. Unfortunately, the cancer moved to his lungs and did him in this February. 

Following his surgery last year, we had to find a way to keep him from worrying the scar. Hence this post.

You will need:

  • A placemat sized craft foam sheet, which can be found at your local craft store/discount retailer for about $1 a piece, generally in the "kid art" section. It comes in lots of colors and patterns. I found some in zebra stripes.
  • Duct tape
  • Measuring tape
  • Calculator
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Scissors

Optional add-ons (for our wilier fur-people)

  • Sewing elastic (or yarn/string) to secure e-collar to a regular collar
  • Hole punch

Lets get started:
  1. Measure your cat’s neck and add an inch. Divide this number by pi (3.14). The resulting number is “A”. Write it down.
  2. Measure from where a regular collar would normally sit on your cat’s neck to the tip of its nose. Write down this number. Call it “B”.
  3.  Find the midpoint on the long side of the craft foam.


  1. From the midpoint, measure out number “A” (cat’s neck divided by pi). Mark at several points in a half-circle on the craft foam:

  1. Next, measure out from the first circle the second number “B” (from neck to nose). Mark a semi-circle again. Make sure you mark from the first circle, not the initial midpoint.


  1. Cut out the white part.

  1. Tape the straight edges of the collar together, edges meeting, but NOT overlapping. Leave one inch open on the inside edge. You should be able to slip this over the cat’s head, small end first.
The taped part of the collar is the heaviest, so it will work its way around to beneath the cat’s chin.
If your cat is inclined to remove the collar, it can be secured to a regular collar with elastic or string. Make several holes, just big enough for the elastic, along the inside edge. String the elastic through the holes and around the collar, like you’re sewing it to the collar.

For our bigger fur-people:
  • Larger sheets of craft foam (36’ x 36”) are carried at Michael’s craft store. They can be ordered online as well for up-sizing.
  • If you can find it, clear, flexible plastic sheets will work well so the animal can see through them. Your cat will bump into a lot of walls and corners before it gets used to the collar.
  • In a pinch, you could use poster board to make an e-collar, just don’t plan on it lasting for more than a day or two.
 I plan to upgrade this with pictures and a video at a later date.