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Bread and Salt

These flowers arrived the other day. A gift from my plumber.


A few weeks ago, Terry Wilson, the owner of the plumbing company that takes very good care of us, called with an unusual request. His daughter was getting married in California to a young man from a Russian family. Some members of the young man’s family spoke very little English, and he wanted to be able to congratulate the young couple in Russian. “Just a couple simple words for the occasion,” he asked.

My plumber is a romantic! So am I. Terry called just as Judith and I we about to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. Romance was in the air.

I wrote out a toast to the newlyweds in Russian and transcribed it phonetically. I selected easier words, and managed to weave together a toast that spoke of love and happiness and bread and salt. I practiced on Judith – she did very well after just a couple tries. So I sent Terry the texts, Russian, English, phonetic English. Then I recorded the toast on his cell phone voice mail so that he could listen and parrot me. Off he went on the airplane.

The card that came with the flowers said that everything went wonderfully and that the Russians were very impressed with him. Bravo, Terry, молодец!

Russian wedding traditions

It is traditional for a bride and groom to be presented with bread and salt on their wedding day. The bread represents the wish that they would always have sustenance. Salt adds savor, but it is also a preservative, and it represents the wish that the joy and love they have today will last a long time.   Polish people observe the same tradition. Here are Judith and me at our son’s wedding a number of years ago, presenting bread and salt to Chris and Risa.

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At some point at the reception at Russian weddings (and at Polish weddings too), someone will start to chant – горько! горько! – (“It’s bitter! It’s bitter!”). This is a symbolic way of saying that life is bitter, and that the sweetness of the kiss of newlyweds will chase the bitterness away. So the newlyweds will kiss, everyone will cheer, down a shot, and wait for the next горько! горько!




Joe’s Tomato Sauce II

Joe’s tomato sauce is perfect plain with pasta, but I use it in other dishes as well. Here are two.

Stuffed shells


The stuffed shells are a favorite of the grandgirls.

Pasta.  1 12 or 16 oz. package jumbo shells (I like R&F brand, Barilla are good, the H.E.B. house brand is good)

Tomato sauce. I use Joe’s Sauce. Use a 24 oz. jar store-bought if you wish. I like varieties with lots basil and garlic. “Mom’s” is especially good.


2 lbs. ricotta cheese

2 cups grated dry cheese (parmesan, asiago…)

1 cup shredded mozzarella

1/2 cup+ chopped curly parsley

2 eggs

2 packages frozen chopped spinach

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 tsp.+/- each: nutmeg, salt, black pepper, sugar

Prepare the filling: Thaw the spinach, drain, squeeze all the water out that you can. Mix all the ingredients together, adding the eggs last. The filling should be somewhat stiff. If not, add more cheese.

Prepare the pasta according to the package directions, drain, rinse, and mix with a little olive oil. Be careful as you cook them to avoid breaking the shells. The package contains 39 or 40 shells, and there’s enough filling for 36 plump shells.

Assemble the shells. Use a 9×12 glass pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of tomato sauce. Stuff the shells with the filling (fingers or a teaspoon are best) and nestle the shells in the pan. You may need a second, smaller pan. When the pan is full, (*) cover generously with more tomato sauce, dust with more cheese (dry or mozzarella or both), cover with foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or so, until the sauce bubbles. Serve with more grated cheese.

(*) Stop here if you want to prepare this a day ahead, or if you want to freeze the casserole. If you do freeze it, thaw it completely before continuing.

Chicken Cacciatore


This is my favorite Chicken Cacciatore recipe. It’s not traditional Cacciatore. It differs in a few ways. First, the chicken in this recipe is braised in the sauce, not breaded, sautéed, and then finished in the sauce. That makes it less messy to prepare. Then, this recipe is loaded with vegetables – also not entirely traditional, but very satisfying.

Tomato sauce. I use Joe’s sauce. Store-bought is okay. See my comments above.

Last time I made this, I used a package of organic skinned and boned thighs. I seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper, placed in it a baking dish along with a little olive oil and about 1/2 cup of the sauce, covered it and braised it for about 15 minutes in a 350 degree oven. This will pull some of the juice out of the chicken. After 15 minutes, remove the chicken and discard the drippings.

Vegetables and finish. Chop coarsely 2 stalks of celery, 2 peeled carrots, 1/2 sweet onion, and soften them in olive oil in a heavy skillet. This will take 10-15 minutes. In Italian cooking, this combination is known as soffrito. It’s an aromatic flavor base for soups and stews and is found in many cuisines where it has different names: mirepoix in French, holy trinity in Cajun and Creole, Suppengrün in German, and włoszczyzna (loosely, “Italian stuff) in Poland.

When the soffrito is ready, add the rest of the sauce and a good handful (1/2-3/4 cup) of white raisins. This is also not traditional in Cacciatore, but I like the sweetness that it adds to the dish. Once the sauce comes to a simmer, add the chicken pieces and continue to simmer slowly until the chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. I had a link of sweet Italian sausage in the fridge left over from grilling a couple days earlier, and I sliced it diagonally into 1/2 inch pieces and tossed those in with the chicken.

I served this with fresh egg-rich  tagliliatelle from Central Market and dusted it with grated cheese.

There are  “hunter’s stews” in the cuisines of many cultures. A favorite is bigos, the Polish hunter’s stew, prepared with various meats, kielbasa, sauerkraut, tomatoes, white cabbage, and peppercorns. Look for a post down the way, when the weather gets cooler.


Anniversary Waltz

Today is our fiftieth wedding anniversary. We were married on June 4, 1964, at the Cadet Chapel at the USAF Academy. We were the first cadet couple to be married in the Catholic chapel.

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Judith graduated from Colorado College on Monday, I graduated on Wednesday, and we were married in Thursday.

Our rehearsal dinner was at the Circle Lanes in Colorado Springs. That’s right, at a bowling alley. There was a restaurant connected to the bowling alley that served wonderful prime rib and baked potato dinners, and that’s what we had that evening.

Spring 1964 was a memorable and historic semester. JFK’s death was fresh in our memories. The Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in February; the (then) Cassius Clay – Sonny Liston heavyweight championship fight (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”) was also in February, and the Civil Rights Act came before the US Senate in March. It would be July before a compromise bill was passed by both houses and signed into law by LBJ.

Judith remembers the prize fight. She was receiving Roman Catholic pre-marital instruction from Father James Jepson at the St. Mary’s rectory in Colorado Springs and he was half-instructing, half-listening to the fight on the radio that evening. Father Jepson married us. We later learned that he left the priesthood and got married himself.

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Happy anniversary, sweetheart. We promised “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.” Each of those promises continues to come to pass in our life together. I love you.


Tex-Mex, Russ-Mex


Ла Кантина (La Cantina) is located on Тверская Улица (Tverskaya Street) just north of Red Square.  This café and bar features Мексиканская Кухня (Mexican cuisine). It’s been there for nearly 20 years.   It’s not a half-mile from Lenin’s Tomb. I wonder if he’s pleased?  In “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” Anya von Bremzen writes “Lenin qua Lenin ate humbly.  Conveniently, his wife, Krupskaya, was a lousy cook.”

Mexican food is popular in Russia and in eastern Europe. You can buy bean burritos at kiosks at many Moscow metro stations, and there are even a couple Taco Bell franchises in Moscow. Unlike Taco Bell, however, la Cantina and the other restaurants I mention in this blog are local and reflect the experience and taste of their owners and chefs. I took these photographs on my travels.


The Текила Хаус (Tequila House) in Kiev, Ukraine. The décor, table settings, and food here are the most authentic of all these restaurants. Even Corona longnecks were available.

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Also in Kiev is the Ковбой (Cowboy) Dance Hall and Saloon. The sign on the left promises “fine relaxation” and invites you to “stop in and dance.” The sign on the right reads “we invite you to come in and unwind.”

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The Texas Grill Étterem (Restaurant), also known as the Wise Owl Restaurant in Budapest, Hungary, is on the left.  On the right is one of my favorites, the Armadillo Baras in Vilnius, Lithuania. It featured Teks-Meks Virtuvė (Tex-Mex cuisine) and Biliardinė (needs no explanation). Vilnius was full of surprises, including an excellent Japanese restaurant with authentic tempura and a monument to Frank Zappa. Yes, Frank Zappa. No, he was not Lithuanian.


When I worked in Minsk I would take day trips to Vilnius on the train to do European grocery shopping and to enjoy western amenities. Belarus had (and still has) a socialist command economy that offered few luxuries.


Joe’s Tomato Sauce


The grandgirls came to visit during spring break this year, and our “feast” (we always have a feast) was stuffed shells with Joe’s Sauce.

Joe’s Tomato Sauce

2 6 oz. cans tomato paste

5 pounds canned whole tomatoes, packed in juice

6 Tbsp. olive oil

5 rounded Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

ground black pepper

6-7 cloves of garlic, peeled, each cut lengthwise into 5-6 pieces

1 Tbsp dried basil

(1/3 cup fresh basil coarsely chopped)

9 whole cloves

4 shakes ground cinnamon

Put the tomato paste into a large, heavy pot. Drain the juice from the canned tomatoes into the pot and mix it smoothly with the paste, adding it slowly at first. Add the tomatoes, which you have broken up (see notes below). Mix thoroughly and add all the other ingredients, mixing well. (Crush the dried basil by rubbing it between the palms of your hands as you hold them over the pot.) Bring the sauce to a slow boil, about 30 minutes, cover and simmer for two hours. Stir it often as it simmers and be careful not to let the sauce burn on the bottom. (I use a baffle on the lowest gas flame I can manage.) Add some boiling water if the sauce seems too thick. Correct the salt and pepper.



tomato sauceSugar? Cinnamon? Cloves? Yes indeed! This has been our basic house sauce for some forty years. The kids grew up on it, and when I visit them, they often want me to make a double batch before I leave. This recipe is adapted from one we received from Anne Lojacono, a friend from my time in the Air Force in Colorado Springs in the late 1960s. I think that this was her husband’s mother’s recipe. This sauce will also be one of my claims to immortality. Bob and Helen Hays, old Austin friends, now of La Grange, tell me that they occasionally ask each other, “Is there any Liro Sauce in the freezer?”

I like to find big chunks of tomatoes in the sauce, so I buy “whole” canned tomatoes packed in juice, not “diced”. Imported Roma or plum tomatoes are perfect; Hunt’s or Del Monte are just fine. I use various methods to break up the tomatoes, including sticking scissors into the opened can and taking several strokes. Most often I simply push a knife through them a few times as I hold them over the pot in the palm of my hand. The stems I cut away and discard.

It’s as much work to make ten pounds as five. These proportions, though, are perfect for five pounds of tomatoes. When you double the recipe, be careful with the sugar and spices — a little less might be in order. For the first time, try five pounds.

When you make ten pounds, freeze the extra. I use plastic freezer bags. Label the bags, stick them in saucepans or small metal bowls, fill each with 6-8 cups of sauce, place them in the freezer overnight. Next day, take the bags out of the saucepans, squeeze the air out and seal them.

Over the years I have tinkered very little with this recipe. I will add the fresh basil (in addition to the dried) if I have some in the garden right then. Sometimes I have added fennel seeds, just a hint, about 1/4 – 1/2 tsp for the pot, whether five or ten pounds. I don’t want the fennel to compete with the cinnamon and cloves. I have tried using a couple inches of cinnamon sticks, but prefer the way ground cinnamon flavors the sauce.



Osso Buco

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Osso Buco – “bone with a hole” – is a Milanese specialty. It’s also my traditional fancy-dancy birthday dinner. Or at least it was until our neighborhood trattoria took it off the menu a couple years ago. So this year I prepared my own birthday feast.

There are many recipes for Osso Buco. The one I used is adapted from “Roberto’s Osso Buco,” a recipe in Jan Karon’s “Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader.”   More on this delightful book later, but here is the introduction to the recipe, taken from chapter twenty-one of Karon’s “A Light in the Window.”

“Roberto had put on the rector’s favorite apron, tucked his tie into his shirt pocket, and was busy creating the most seductive aromas in the rectory’s history.

“’Osso Buco!’ Roberto announced, removing the pot lid with one hand and waving a wooden spoon with the other.

“’Ummmmm!’ cried Cynthia, … ‘Man!’ exclaimed Dooley, … ‘Oh, my goodness!’ gasped Miss Sadie, … Louella sniffed the air appreciatively. ‘That ain’t no collards and pigs’ feet!’ The toasts flew as thick as snowflakes during last year’s blizzard. … The rector had never seen so much toasting and cooking and pouring of olive oil and peeling of garlic, nor heard so much laughing and joking. … It was as if Roberto were one of their very own and had come home to them all.”

Roberto’s Osso Buco

2 or 3 pounds veal shanks (be sure that they are full of marrow)

salt, pepper, flour, olive oil, unsalted butter


1 large onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 large carrots, chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped


1 (or 2) 14-1/2 oz. chopped tomatoes in juice

1 (or 2) cups chicken stock

5-6 sprigs fresh thyme

8-10 fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons lemon zest

* * *

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Season the shanks with salt and pepper. Dredge the shanks in flour (a zip-lock bag works perfectly). Heat a couple tablespoons of oil and butter over medium heat in a large, heavy Dutch oven and brown the shanks all over. Remove the shanks to a plate.

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Lower the heat, add a little more butter along with the onion, garlic, carrots, and celery. Saute the vegetables until they are just soft, 5 or 10 minutes. Add the wine, tomatoes and juice, stock, the thyme and basil (wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with string), sugar, and lemon zest, and about 1-1/2 tsp salt. Arrange the shanks over the sauce and cover the Dutch oven and place it in the preheated oven. Braise the shanks for about 2 hours, basting occasionally, until they are very tender.

While the shanks are braising, prepare the gremolata. Pull the leaves from one bunch of fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley. Finely chop the leaves with 4 cloves of garlic. Combine the parsley and garlic with 2 tablespoons lemon zest. Let the mixture sit for a while to mix the flavors.

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Serve the Osso Buco on individual plates, with sauce spooned over, garnished with a sprinkling of gremolata.   Risotto is a traditional accompaniment; mashed potatoes or polenta are also options.  We like it with polenta.   A plate of sliced tomatoes, seasoned with olive oil and dried oregano, was the perfect accompaniment.

The cookbook & kitchen reader

Cover_JanKaron'sMitfordCookbookJan Karon’s “Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader” edited by Martha McIntosh, offers 150 recipes, scenes from the Mitford books, Jan’s memories of her grandmother, family photos, hymns… well (as the jacket says), “everything but the kitchen sink. My Judith – feminist, teacher, theologian – is a Jan Karon groupie. Is that incongruous? Perhaps not. She rereads the Mitford novels – it seems she always has one going. Perhaps they are for her a sorbet for the mind.

One finds recipes for company fare here – Helene’s Roast Poulet with Currants, Cynthia’s Bouillabaisse, Esther’s Orange Marmalade Cake. There’s also comfort food – Puny’s Creamed Corn, Rector’s Meatloaf, Marge’s Chicken Pot Pie.

And a few moments of downright silliness – Doolie’s Fried Baloney Sandwich Supreme (Fry a slice of baloney, spread mayo on two slices of white bread, place the baloney between the bread, fry the sandwich on both sides until crispy brown). Doolie’s Second Favorite Sandwich – The Doozie. (Spread a slice of white bread with a generous amount of smooth peanut butter, sprinkle the peanut butter liberally with Cheerios. “Fold the sandwich in half and jump on your bike and go.”)

Bon appetit.







Seafood Stew with Tarragon



Seafood Stew with Tarragon

1+ cups chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only — about 1 large leek)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup dry white wine

3 cups chicken stock

1 tsp sugar

scant tsp salt

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 pound bay scallops

12-15 mussels, scrubbed

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, in small pieces

2 cups coarsely chopped plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded and drained

2 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon

2 tsp lemon zest

1/4 tsp ground red pepper (optional)

salt, black pepper, olive oil

* * *

In a large heavy pot, over medium heat, cook the leeks and garlic in olive oil until tender, stirring often.   Add the wine, chicken stock, salt, and sugar and bring to a simmer.  Stir in the shrimp, scallops, and mussels, bring to a slow boil and then simmer the seafood until done, about 5 minutes.  The shrimp should be pink, the mussels open, and the scallops firm.  Remove the seafood with a slotted spoon and keep covered in a bowl.

Bring the mixture back to a boil and cook about 4 minutes.   Remove momentarily from heat and add the cold butter, stirring constantly with a whisk until the butter is melted.  Return to heat, add the tomatoes, tarragon, lemon rind, and (if you wish) red pepper.  Cook for a couple minutes.

Now return the seafood to the broth, heat through, and correct the seasonings.  Serve with crusty bread.


Notes:  This is my adaptation of a recipe called “Spring Seafood Stew” that appeared in Cooking Light.  I think…  There is a magazine cutout with my handwritten annotations in our soup and stew notebook.  I used to tear pages out of magazines in waiting rooms, and this looks like one of them.  I don’t do that any longer.  It was a very bad habit.

This stew is very satisfying and flavorful.  Tarragon and lemon are perfect seasonings for the sweet shellfish.  I might make this with a sliced fennel bulb sometime, using it to replace some of the leek.

The addition of cold butter at the end of cooking a sauce to give it a velvety texture and rich sheen is a French technique known as monter au buerre, to “mount with butter.”  It’s an emulsion.  The butter also adds a layer of flavor.

A Russian folk saying says, “Кашу маслом не испортишь” – “Butter won’t ruin the porridge,” or “You can’t get too much of good thing.”  That’s true of butter.  And love.  And kindness.  And friends.  Enjoy this stew with someone you love.  Enjoy it with a friend.