Memories of Home

The first Indiana Home Cooks podcast of 2018 features reminiscences of my mom, Barbara Mercer. She sat down with me some months ago to record the first interview for a podcast venture that was still in the “concept” phase. In the intervening months I couldn’t find a good spot for it on the podcast. But with the winter winds blowing, snow falling, and the thermometer making its home in the single digits above and below zero, I thought it was the perfect time for the warm comforts of home.

In the episode, Memories of Home, Mom reminisces about “butchering day” on the farm when she was a young girl in Clay County. As I listened to her descriptions, I couldn’t help thinking about the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  These were some of my very favorite books when I was a girl, and the charming illustrations by Garth Williams brought them even more to life than the vivid prose. I pulled out my copy of Little House in the Big Woods, and sure enough, in chapter one, there it was–Wilder’s account of butchering day when she was a little girl. And not much had changed from 1870’s frontier Wisconsin to mid-20th century Indiana when it came to butchering a hog.

In a wrap up of the holidays, this episode also includes the step-by-step preparation of our Fluffy Yeast Rolls. These rolls have been a staple of family dinners all my life. Special occasions, mind you, not everyday meals. It’s not that the rolls are difficult or time consuming, but they do require a little advance planning, and they are pretty rich for everyday consumption. We make them at least once a year, at Thanksgiving, and sometimes at Christmas or Easter. The recipe (with photos) is included below.

Katy Eberle and I discussed bread baking also, since I was on a little bread baking jag. I brought her a baguette I had made the day before. One of my favorite homemade bread recipes is Crusty Italian Bread from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. Here is the recipe from my King Arthur book…

If you prefer a copy without spilled coffee stains, notes, and other jottings, check it out online here.

Fluffy Yeast Rolls
From the kitchen of Barbara Mercer, from Margaret Balder
Makes 18 rolls

Dissolve 1 pkg. active dry yeast in 3 T. lukewarm water in a small bowl or measuring cup. While that is dissolving, whisk together the following ingredients in a large mixing bowl:

1/2 C. (one stick) unsalted butter or margarine, melted
1 tsp. salt
1 C. lukewarm water
1/4 C. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature

Add yeast mixture and whisk again. To this mixture, add 3 C. all-purpose flour. Mix with electric mixer until fairly smooth. Stir in 1 C. flour by hand. (Total of 4 cups of flour) Dough will be sticky. DO NOT KNEAD. Leave dough in bowl, cover with a plate or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Three hours before baking:
Remove dough from refrigerator. It should’ve doubled overnight. Grease muffin pans for 18 rolls. Melt 1/4 C. butter.

Punch down dough and pull off pieces of dough roughly the size of large walnuts and shape into balls (2 dough balls for each roll). Dip each ball into melted butter before placing in pan. Cover rolls with tea towels and let rise until double. Bake in preheated 450 degree oven for 5-10 minutes, until golden brown.* After baking, while still hot and in the pans, brush tops with more melted butter. Serve warm.

*If using dark baking pans, reduce oven temp to 425 degrees.




Soup’s On! With Katy

We are talking soup on this edition of the Indiana Home Cooks podcast. Please check it out and hear how much fun Katy and I had in the kitchen! She showed me her family’s favorite Italian Sausage Minestrone. It’s from the Taste of Home website. Remember, substitute your favorite beans if you don’t like the white beans called for. Katy uses dark red kidney beans. They look much prettier, in our opinion!

Katy’s Italian Sausage Minestrone

Many years ago, I subscribed to the Taste of Home magazine. My recipe file has several recipes clipped from that publication. I no longer subscribe to any food magazines, although I have considered signing up for Bon Appetit or Food & Wine. For now, my food magazine browsing is confined to the waiting room at the doctor or dentist office. If I see something that looks good, I whip out my phone and take a picture of it.

It really steams me when someone rips out the recipe!

Here is the process for my chicken stock, using bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. First I browned the thighs for a few minutes in a little oil in a heated stockpot. Here they are after browning:

Here is the bottom of the pot after browning the thighs, before and after de-glazing. That is, deglaze the pan by adding a little water, allow to cook a few minutes while scrapping up the bits from the bottom of the pot. :


That is the beginning of your chicken stock. Add everything else back to the pot–onion, celery, and half a lemon (if you have one), an extra chicken breast, salt & pepper, oh, and there’s a bay leaf in there! Cover this with more water and bring to a simmer:

After about an hour of simmering, turn off the heat, remove the meat to a cutting board and let it cool until you can handle it. Remove all the meat, throw away the bones & skin, drain the broth and use for soup, gravy, sauce, or freeze it for later. By browning the thighs first, you give your broth extra flavor and a little extra richness. Enjoy!


Thank you to David Smith, baker and owner of Smittybread, for spending some time with me the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Although the bakery was closed that day, he and his staff were hard at work mixing doughs, shaping loaves and rolls, baking cookies and pressing out croissant dough. The bakery is open Wednesday through Saturday each week, and even with those limited days, it’s hard to imagine just how many loaves and pastries have to be prepared each week keep up with demand, and the hours necessary to do it.

My favorites so far are the baguettes and croissants. I’ll be back to try more breads in the future!

Don’t Be Alarmed–In the Kitchen with Stephanie

I had this idea for a podcast about food and cooking almost a year ago. I wanted to focus on Indiana cooks, especially home cooks, but also professional chefs, bakers, restauranteurs, retailers, and people who produce our food, brew beer, make wine, etc. I love learning about all things food-related, and having a lot of fun and laughs along the way. So sharing stories about food and cooking is where the fun really begins.

After a visit to Scotland this past summer, I wanted to reconnect with the Highlands and the delightful people there. I had put the BBC Scotland’s app on my phone for the trip so I looked into that one day after being home for a couple weeks, and I found a show called “The Kitchen Cafe.” It was a fun show that featured lively conversation with cooks and food experts from all over Scotland, and “live” cooking in real kitchens. Sometimes the results are a bit surprising, as when the smoke alarm went off during one cooking session. When I heard that, I knew that was the kind of show I wanted to attempt–lively, informative, friendly, relaxed, spontaneous, surprising, fun! The “Don’t Be Alarmed” episode of Indiana Home Cooks includes just about every one of those elements.

The dish Stephanie Hainje prepared for us on the show is a recipe from Emeril Lagasse–Pasta with Roasted Squash, Sausage, and Pecans. You can find it here. And here is how it turned out on Stephanie’s stove. Enjoy!

Farm to Table to Tailgate

My guest on the “Farm to Table to Tailgate” episode of the Indiana Home Cooks podcast is Mary Ann Haan, a friend I’ve known for about eight years, but I feel like we grew up together. We were both raised on Indiana farms and we know now, as we all come to understand, that farm life is experienced differently by children and adults. Mary Ann and her husband Jeff have spent their entire lives on the farm, raising their own family there.

I saw my future beyond the farm and took a different path. Still, living in Kansas for twenty years and the rest of my life here in the Hoosier state, I’ve had much contact with people in farming. And with those contacts there is also a connection, a bond perhaps, that we share. Call it rural, small-town, country…it infuses the fabric of our lives and is certainly a permanent mark on our being. Sitting in Mary Ann’s warm welcoming kitchen, I was reminded again we share that bond, and with it, many similar memories!

When everything’s in the pot.

The cooks Mary Ann and I grew up watching–our moms, grandmothers, aunts, neighbors–for the most part did things the old-fashioned way, which for them, wasn’t old-fashioned, it was simply the way. And some of their techniques have been rediscovered by home cooks today. Maybe rediscovered is not the right word. Perhaps acknowledged is a better description. One of my favorite cookbooks is Virginia Willis’ Bon Appétit, Ya’ll! Ms.Willis is a French-trained chef who grew up in Georgia, and she traces similarities between many classic cooking techniques and the down-home way her mother and grandmother cooked. Good is good, after all. We know that browning and braising are the best way to turn an economical cut of beef into something mouthwatering and sublime. Our grandmothers knew that too.

Here is my vegetable beef soup, as given to me by my mom. It’s simple and fairly quick, and an easy recipe to adjust to your preferences. You can hear how I prepared it “live” on the podcast here.

Susan’s Mom’s Vegetable Beef Soup
(About 6 servings)
1 lb ground beef
Chopped onion & celery (about 1/2 cup of each, or more if preferred)
Chopped carrots (2-3, depending on size)
Chopped cabbage (about 1/3 head)
1 15-oz can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinse
2 15-oz cans diced tomatoes
1 32-oz box beef broth plus 1 cup water
Basil oregano, dried, 1/2 tsp each
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper to taste (generous amount of pepper is advised; taste before adding salt)

Brown hamburger in large stock pot or dutch oven. Add onions, celery, carrots as you get them chopped. Allow meat to cook undisturbed for several minutes so it sears and sticks to the pan somewhat. Be careful not to burn! Drain fat from mixture. Add about a cup of broth to pot and let it begin to cook and loosen the bits stuck to the pot. Scrap those up into to liquid. Put meat, vegetables, and all remaining ingredients in the pot and bring it up to a simmer.  Allow to simmer about an hour.

After cooking about an hour. Yum!! Get the ladle!

Note: It’s fine to add the chopped onion, celery, and carrots to the pot while the ground beef is browning. Those vegetables do not have to cook through during this step. But combining them with the meat at this stage helps build more flavor into the dish. So if those veggies are still firm when the beef is finished cooking, that’s fine. They’ll cook the rest of the way as the soup simmers.

Family Favorites–A Mean Spaghetti Dinner

My daughter Christine was in all the plays and musicals at her high school and in one play she had the lead role, a character named Nicole, who was, like Christine herself, a high school student.  In one scene “Nicole” is talking to a friend who mentions that Nicole’s mom “makes a mean spaghetti dinner.”  Later, Nicole’s mom turns up, in an apron, and if memory serves, with a spoon in her hand.  I have a feeling my daughter offered some advice on wardrobe and props for her “mom” on stage.  It’s either that, or you can call me a home cook right out of central casting.

Here is the spaghetti sauce recipe Christine’s real mom makes in the “Family Favorites” episode of Indiana Home Cooks. It comes from an old, old issue of Taste of Home magazine.  And, as usual, I’ve given it a few adjustments. This recipe can be doubled or tripled to serve a crowd.

Also, be careful not to add too much salt.  Keep in mind the salt in the soup base and in the canned tomatoes.  I know from experience it is easy to make spaghetti sauce that is too salty. I have a small covered dish on the counter next to my stove filled with kosher (coarse) salt.  That’s what I use to season the dishes I’m cooking.  It is easy to SEE how much salt I am putting on the food. And I measured it–my “pinch” of salt (between the thumb and first three fingers) is no more than 1/4-teaspoon. When I add salt a pinch at a time, and taste the dish as I go, I can more easily regulate how much is going in the dish I’m cooking. Try it. You may find you don’t need as much salt as you think you do.

Susan’s Savory Spaghetti Sauce (4-6 servings, about 1 quart)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 lb ground beef
1 medium sized onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp low sodium beef soup base (our 1 tsp low sodium beef bouillon)
1/2 C. liquid (combination of water and dry red wine, or all water)
2 cans tomato sauce (or combination of sauce, crushed, or diced tomatoes–2 cans total)
1 tsp dried oregano*
1 tsp dried basil*
1/2 tsp dried thyme*
2 T sugar
Kosher salt and ground pepper

Heat a large saucepan or dutch oven on medium high heat.  When pot is hot, drizzle in just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Put in ground beef and cook until thoroughly browned.  Allow it to sit and cook and get a bit crusty on the bottom of the pan. But don’t burn it!  Add the onions and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. Drain fat from the meat if there is an excess amount (note: if ground beef was 20% fat, or more, you should drain it off).

At this point, your pot should have some bits of meat stuck to the bottom.  That’s fine.  If you drained the meat mixture, then return it to the pot and add the soup base or bouillon.  Return pot to medium heat and add the liquid.  Allow mixture to simmer so as to loosen the bits stuck to the bottom.  Cook for about 5 minutes while scraping the bits off the bottom.

Add tomato sauce and the rest of the ingredients (salt and pepper to taste).  Cook at a simmer for at least one hour.  Can be cooked low and slow for 2-3 hours if you prefer.  Stir occasionally.  Before serving taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons olive oil into sauce, stir in, and serve over cooked pasta.  Top with grated parmesan cheese if desired.

*Note–if using fresh herbs, TRIPLE the amount given for dried.  Stir in a little more of the fresh herbs just before serving if desired.  But taste and adjust herbs and seasonings to your preference.

Thieme & Wagner Podcast Recipes & More

My Cooking Style
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, you will soon figure out that my cooking style is pretty informal on an everyday basis.  I tend to look in the fridge and freezer in the morning and decide what I can cook for supper that night based on what I have on hand.  And I try to reinvigorate leftovers so they don’t taste left-over. Sometimes a trip to the grocery is necessary, but I try to put that off as long as possible.
But when I talk about what I’m cooking, I tend to use language like:
“Drizzle in the olive oil.”
“A pinch of kosher salt…”
“A handful of fresh herbs…”
“Cook it till it’s got a good sear before turning over.”
“Taste it and adjust your seasonings if needed.”
I guess I do this because I tend to follow some basic cooking techniques that I’ve honed and that can be adjusted on the fly, or based on ingredients I have on hand. A recipe I find in a cookbook, or online, I will follow pretty closely, but not always to the letter. When I’m just cooking off the top of my head, and then explaining it verbally or in print, that informality carries over. For that I apologize. I know my explanations are not always precise or formulaic, but I hope they convey an ease with which I cook and that I believe anyone can achieve.
Now, that “ease” is not  evident in all my kitchen endeavors: 
Exhibit A:  Pie Crust!
Exhibit B:  Custard!
Exhibit C:  Meringue!
Put those three together and you have, take your pick, Coconut Cream Pie, Lemon Meringue Pie, Chocolate Meringue Pie…and on and on…
My point, and I do have one, is that much in cooking can be achieved with a relaxed approach that allows for substitution and adjustment as you go.  The dinner on the grill from the Indiana Home Cooks “Thieme & Wagner” episode is an example. The ingredients you have on hand can be subbed in for any of the ingredients I used.  You like more heat? Add some dried pepper flakes.  Have a cucumber in the fridge? Add it to the Greek Salad. (That’s more authentic anyway. I just didn’t have a cucumber handy.)
On the other hand, some cooking, and certainly baking, require a fairly rigorous adherence to the recipe.  Precise measurements and proper proportions are crucial to baking success. Proper technique with things like sauces, custards, and meringues is also essential. But it’s not rocket science. It can be learned! And maybe we will learn something along the way with Indiana Home Cooks. Keep in touch!
Mediterranean Marinade for Grilled Chicken
For 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs or 2 b/s chicken breasts
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp each kosher salt and ground pepper
1 tsp honey
1 handful of chopped fresh herbs—oregano, basil, sage, thyme*
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Whisk together all the above ingredients in a small mixing bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup.  If it seems a little too thick, add a little water.  Taste for seasoning and adjust to your liking.
Put chicken in a zip-top plastic bag.  Pour in the marinade and zip the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible.  Squish around the contents until chicken is thoroughly coated.  Put in the refrigerator for at least one hour, or up to 24 hours, before grilling.  Follow your grill’s instructions, or any basic cookbook, for cooking boneless chicken.
*To chop this jumble of fresh herbs, first, strip leaves from 2-3 springs of oregano, do the same with thyme, and stack together with 2 basil leaves, and 4-5 sage leaves.  Roughly roll this all up into a little “cigar” and slice into ribbons.  Then chop the ribbons finely. 
*Or, say “screw it,” and just use dried herbs!  I would use 2 tsp total—1 tsp of dried oregano, and a generous 1/4 tsp each of the other three.  A rule of thumb: with dried herbs use less, with fresh herbs use more.  Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor.
My Greek Salad with Grilled Vegetables
(4-6 servings as a side dish)
1 bell pepper, any color
One medium onion
One large tomato
Feta cheese crumbles
Calamata olives
For the dressing*, whisk together in your salad serving bowl:
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Pinch of kosher salt and ground pepper
Tiny squirt of honey, or 1/2 tsp sugar
Pinch of dried oregano
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Cut pepper in half and remove the stem.  Peel and slice the onion into 1/2-inch thick slices—keep slices intact.  Rub oil on outside of pepper halves and on the onion slices.  Cook on a grill over “medium” heat.  When the veggies begin to get grill marks, turn over and cook the other side.  Should only take about 10 minutes, give or take, depending on grill temperature.  Remove and let cool.  Then chop, along with tomato, into a large dice.  Add to the bowl with your dressing and top with feta and olives, as much as you want, and toss to coat. 
*You can mix up the dressing while the grilled vegetables cool, while everything cooks, or do it ahead of time.  The longer the dressing sits, the more the flavors will “marry” and get happy.