Soup’s On

Four years ago we began a new tradition for our annual larger family gathering. Rather than prolong the holiday menu of big meats and fancy dancy appetizers, we raise our soup ladles in unity for an annual Soupfest.

Soupfest is now one of my favorite events of the season. This pleasant weekend at my brother’s home nestled in the bluffs of Southeast Minnesota becomes a nice balance of activity and sloth, games, senseless humor, five canine chaos…and of course, really, really good food. A perfect way to start the new year.


Sledding is also involved. Give those brave souls some soup!

A soup/stew buffet is an easy, inexpensive and heartwarming way to feed lots of people well with plenty of leftovers.  You can make it in advance to prevent too many cooks in the kitchen. In fact, some soups taste better the second day after the flavors have had a chance to hang out and get to know each other.

This year I made corn chowder with grilled and frozen corn I helped raise this summer. Add a little Nueske’s bacon, roasted peppers and some heat, and you’ve got yourself a perfect marriage between the Southwest and the Frozen Tundra. These measurements are estimates, because making soup is an experimental free-for-all.

1 medium red onion, diced
8-10 strips of bacon, chopped
2 cups fresh or roasted bell pepper, mixed colors, diced
1/3 cup flour
3 medium red potatoes or 1 large sweet potato
About 6-7 cups of corn
6 cups broth (for a great lesson on making broth, check out Queen Jeanne’s tips)
Salt, pepper (1 tsp), cumin (2 tsp), brown sugar (1 Tblsp), hot sauce or peppers*
½ cup heavy cream
Fresh jalepeño, chopped cilantro and green onion, minced

Fry bacon in bottom of soup kettle, adding onion after about 5 minutes. (You can drain the bacon fat before adding the onion, but then add butter or olive oil. I cook the rest of the vegetables in the bacon fat for more flavor.) Throw in peppers and cook for about 7 minutes. You want some juice from the peppers and onions to still be in the bottom of the kettle. Sprinkle on some salt, brown sugar and cumin and stir well. Remove kettle from heat and add flour, stirring until it forms a paste. Cook on lower heat for about 2-3 minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom.  Slowly add broth, whisking well to avoid lumps. Turn up to medium-high heat and add corn and potatoes. Bring to just under a boil. Lower to medium-low heat and let it simmer for about an hour. Adjust spice, salt and pepper levels. Add cream and top with fresh jalepeño, cilantro and green onion.

*Everyone has a different heat tolerance. I love chipotle pepper sauce in corn chowder for its smoky flavor. Green chiles or cayenne also fare well. Some people, like my tender mother, are just fine with a sprinkle of black pepper. 


Frozen, store-bought corn will work for this recipe, but the best flavor comes from fresh-picked corn you’ve grilled and stored for the winter. photo by alvimann


Real hot chocolate and last minute gifts

Here they come….my action-packed cooking days. ‘Tis the season to play Iron Chef and give the gift of flavorful, seasonal food. Some nutritious, some just plain naughty. There really are no redeeming qualities about English toffee, save for that sprinkle of almonds I threw on top.

On the menu with a very, very white Christmas we Wisconsin Johnsons will have this year is real hot chocolate. Lots of instant cocoa mixes come with partially hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and a troublesome ingredient named acesulfame potassium which has shown to cause a bit of cancer in unfortunate lab rats. This kid is not an unfortunate lab rat. He is Snow Ninja. And he needs hot chocolate fast:

snow ninja

This recipe shows up in my eGuide to Healthier Holidays. I recommend you double the dry ingredients and keep them in a jar for easy grabbins.

Real Hot Cocoa, New Mexican style
1 cup sugar               
1/2 cup quality cocoa powder 
1 tsp cornstarch           
cinnamon stick*
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
pinch of cayenne or ground chipotle pepper
4-5 cups milk
2 tsp. vanilla or orange liqueur

Mix the dry ingredients—  Add milk (amount depends on how strong you like it. Substitute 1/2 water if you don’t want all that milk) and cook on medium heat until it scalds. Do not boil. Remove from heat and add vanilla or other liqueur. Serve with real whipped cream instead of marshmallows.

*Ground cinnamon has a tendency to get slimy at the bottom of hot beverages, but you can use 2 tsp. ground cinnamon if you don’t have the stick.


Once you try this recipe, you’re going to wonder what else is in this amazing eGuide to Healthier Holidays. You will want to buy it, or give it as a last-minute eStocking Stuffer. Here’s what you do:

Click here to get to the guide page.

Click Buy Now. This will take you to PayPal. Follow their instructions for payment and upload. The guide should automatically come up on your screen once you hit a confirmation button. It takes a bit of time, so be patient. DON’T FORGET TO SAVE THE PDF!

I receive notification of payment and will send you a follow-up confirmation email and  a link to the document in case you forgot to SAVE THE EGUIDE!

If you are giving this as a gift – you can forward it to your recipient or provide me with their email and I will put together a festive little message along with a link to the eGuide.

If you have any questions, technical difficulties or feedback about the guide, contact me at localbites3(at)

Along with talking about the benefits of seasonal eating, healing ingredients, grocery lists and promoting homemade cooking , I give you lots of nice recipes:



Go ahead…give a gift of homemade goodness to yourself or those you love this holiday season. It’s the REAL hot cocoa thing to do.

Winning: Three tips for champion salsa

All of us are good at something. Now don’t hang your head and shuffle your feet, “psshh…I ain’t good at NUthin’.   We all have one, or two show stoppers. Even if your audience is preschoolers.

My talent is salsa.

(Not the dance. Although there WAS a time when this Midwest girl demonstrated some serious Latin flavor in the sweaty basement of Cafe Sevilla) 

But the sauce. And I will not be humble. I make the best salsa I’ve ever had.

Apparently, the good people of my community think so too. You’re looking at the defending champion of our farmers market Sassy Salsa Challenge.

What’s the secret to Entry #2?

There is no one secret. I’ve lived among Southern California and New Mexican natives. I’ve observed chefs in four star restaurants and Mexican moms in leaky kitchens. I have discerning taste buds.

But to appease the roar of the masses, I give you three guiding principles:

1) ROAST, GRILL OR SAUTE some ingredients. Roast the tomatoes, peppers and onions as the base. Or add grilled corn. If you have fresh, firm tomatoes, keep them raw and but add sautéed onion and garlic.

2) ADD RAW AND FRESH. Freshly squeezed lime juice and chopped cilantro are almost mandatory in my salsa. Try raw red onion. Avocado. Mango. Keep the garlic raw. That’s just crazy. Your immune system will love you.

3) Find your perfect BALANCE OF CITRUS, SWEET, SALT AND HOT. I use fresh lime juice, brown sugar and because I’m a total salt-aholic…lots of kosher salt. Here’s a secret…caramelize. The hot always varies. Pick from fresh or pickled jalapeños, chipotle, cayenne, green chiles or for the very brave (and highly insane) habaneros or ghost peppers.

Flavor is subjective. I did not win everyone’s vote today. We all have opinions about too hot or salty or sweet. You have to experiment.

One more tip…pick fresh garden produce.  Preferably local.

In the cutthroat race of the Sassy Salsa Challenge, democracy rules. I will proudly reign for another year. Bring me your salsa concerns. Bring me your bags of needy chips.

What about you? What’s YOUR show stopper?


Ah, October. The crisp blue sky brings crackling leaves, the smell of bonfire, and…you know, 80 degree weather.

So instead of snuggling in with a warm mug of fresh herbal tea getting a shitload of writing done so that I can purge the clutter of ideas stacking in my head, (it’s like Hoarders: Buried Alive up there) I will catch up on some yard work, strap on the spandex to cruise a few hills and sip iced tea in the cabana.

Perhaps not timely weather for my Apple Crisp recipe to post over at Eco-Snobbery Sucks. But thar she be, in all her glory. She’s a tasty one, AND quite acceptable for the October Unprocessed Challenge.

How’s that going for you anyway? I couldn’t have my Kashi Heart to Heart cereal this morning, the ol’ standby when we’re rushing out the door. Have you missed anything yet? Discuss.

Alright folks. Enjoy hot temps or brisk fall days, treat yourself to the Crisp and stay unprocessed.

Roasting tomatoes saves area woman from insanity

Its harvest time people, and today I brace myself for hours in the kitchen. I have visited the orchard, worked the farmer’s market up and down, and helped save innocent tomatoes from their demise in last week’s frost. I have thousands of lbs. of apples, tomatoes, corn, basil, garlic and peppers to turn into tasty treats that will fill the gaping abyss that is my freezer. If my husband brings down a deer today, I’m screwed. Happy, but screwed.

I love to cook. It is my therapy. But who spends 8 hours in therapy? I tend to get squirrely after Hour 3. Squirrely is a nice euphemism for royally bitchy and resentful.

Am I alone? I don’t think so…admit it people, no one likes kitchen confinement. So today I will do what I can to make this a pleasant experience. Crank the music, make up cookin’ songs that don’t rhyme, take breaks…Maybe send the mister out for a six-pack of Wisconsin’s finest.

And I will roast the majority of my tomatoes. It’s less mess and time than chopping.

Here’s my latest and greatest basic tomato sauce recipe:

  • Fill a couple of 13 x 9 glass dishes with whole tomatoes, cores cut out
  • Grease ‘em up with olive oil
  • Throw in a whole head of garlic, divided & peeled (or roughly chopped)
  • Roughly chop a medium onion
  • Sprinkle with 1-2 tsp. of salt and 2-3 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • Season – I do one dish salsa and one dish Italian:
    • Salsa 2 tsp each of cumin & chile powder, a dried chipotle pepper, fresh squeezed lime, li’l bit o’ oregano (2 Tbsp. fresh or 2 tsp. dried)
    • Italian 3-4 Tbsp fresh (or 3-4 tsp dried) total of a herb mix that can include oregano,thyme, rosemary, basil, marjoram…you know, the Italiany herbs
  • Roast at 400 for about 45 min., stirring once or twice
  • Cool and remove skins from tomatoes.
  • Strain the liquid & save for a soup base or cooking broth
  • Mash or roughly blend the works, depending how chunky or smooth you like your salsa and sauces.
  • Add more seasoning (salt, sweet & spicy),fresh onion, garlic or herbs to your liking. I add fresh chopped cilantro and sometimes grilled corn to my salsa.
  • Voila! And you’ve hardly chopped nuthin’. Eat or freeze.

Roast us! Roast us!

Cure Midweek Fatigue with Homemade Power Chunks

Well, it’s Wednesday. You know what that means. You’re sick of cooking. Good thing that on Sunday, you whipped up a batch of my energy bars so you don’t have to worry about breakfast. Grab one of these go-getters, a piece of fruit and your morning is complete. Wait, throw in a couple of power yoga moves for total morning completion. In fact, eating my Power Chunks will allow you to bust this move before heading out the door. 

Unlike that move, it’s an easy and friendly recipe. Here you go:
3.5 cups of dried goodies. Pick what YOU like:  
Oats, oat bran, wheat germ, ground flax seed, toasted sesame seeds, coarsely ground millet, toasted coconut
Chopped dried fruit (raisins, cherries, apricot, prunes, mmm…prunes, dates, figs, etc…)
Chopped nuts and/or sunflower seeds. Do I need to list nut types? No. But toast for toastier flavor. You don’t have to chop seeds. They’re small.
Glue:   ½ cup brown sugar; ½ cup honey; ½ cup peanut or almond butter
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt

I am one of those cooks who doesn’t carefully measure this type of recipe. For anal retentive cooks who are breaking into a cold sweat because they need exact amounts, figure about 1 cup oats or oat bran, 1 cup mixture of grains, germs, coconut (about 1/3 cup each) 3/4 cup fruits and 3/4 cup nuts.  Again, it’s about your tastes and preferences. They’re your bars. Own the chunks. 

Toast, chop, grind, make the dry crumbles the size/consistency that you want, and mix together with salt.  I like it when recipes tell you to mix in a bowl. Isn’t that a given? Like you’re going to wonder, “It says here I have to mix all of these things…but where?…WHERE?!”  Heat the glue ingredients up on a stove over med heat & stir until well-blended, hot and saucy, almost to a boil. Gotta stir often though. No slackin’.  

Then mix the glue into the dry. Sing the Sir Mix-a-lot song if you want.

Press the whole works into an 8×8 lightly greased pan. Let sit for a few hours – it should harden. It won’t harden so well if you use smooth peanut or almond butter, or more honey than sugar. Wait until they are completely cooled before cutting.

Cook’s note: I’ve tried to reduce the honey and sugar in the “glue” to 1/3 cup each to reduce the sweet. But my bars were more crumbly. Next time I’ll use a finer grind/mince on the dry goods and see if that works. If you try it first, let me know if it does. Then bust out with your Power Chunks victory dance. I’d like to see that as well.

Political Uprising Causes Gastrointestinal Distress

I’ve racked my brain for thoughtful remarks on the proverbial fan-hitting shit here in Wisconsin. I started one sentence about collective bargaining before bowing out, best leaving the topic to those who actually know what the hell they’re talking about.

I started a passionate defense of Planned Parenthood, who spends 97% of their time and resources providing services that aren’t abortions. I pleaded with fiscal conservatives who, probably at least once in their lives, relied on PP for health care. If it weren’t for PP, some of us might not have seen the whites of a doctor’s eyes for over a foolish decade. My ramblings fell far short of riveting.  

Debate is not my strong point. I feel like Patrick Star in this climate of political uprising. I have strong gut feelings about issues that, alas, are sorely misrepresented by my weak rhetorical skills. Therefore, I’m gonna stick to my gut and what I do best  to help ease the wave of political nausea.  

I offer you… crackers. And ginger ale.

Crackers and ginger ale are great for gastrointestinal protests. But most store-bought saltines and ginger ale will do you more harm than good. Reality check:  homemade is better for your belly. And usually cheaper…a bonus when facing wage and benefit cuts. So pull yourself away from your favorite news feed and take a few moments to create a some relief.   

Come on America, join me. Crackers & ginger ale. A union we can all support.

Comfort Crackers

2 cups flour mix (white, whole wheat, oat flour, your choice)
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1-2 Tbsp. fresh herbs, finely minced (I use rosemary – it’s good for headaches, but you can use anything your heart desires)
2/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup olive oil
1 egg white & 2 Tbsp. water, whisked
toppings (sea salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, cracked pepper, or go nudey with no toppings at all)

Preheat oven to 400. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets. Combine dry ingredients & herbs. Stir in water & oil until dough is smooth. Split dough in half and roll onto cookie sheets. Cut into squares with pizza cutter. Use a knife to finish cutting edges. Brush with egg white wash and sprinkle with toppings. Bake 10-12 min. Cook longer for crunchier comfort.

Amy’s Ginger Cures What Ales Ya

Adjust amount of herbs for desired strength.  

2 cups water
4-6 cardamom pods, roughly bruised, crushed, or chopped (you just want to release some of that cardamom love without reducing it to powder)
cinnamon stick
½-1 inch piece fresh ginger, roughly chopped (not minced)
teensy bit o’ hot pepper (optional, and not recommended for small children or Midwest grandmothers with sensitve tongues)
bubbly, like seltzer, sparking water, or club soda (note: some club soda has sodium benzoate) 
sweetener (I use local honey. Agave nectar is healthier. Some people like stevia, I’m not yet a fan. If you must use sugar, use brown, for a touch of molasses & color)

Put all ingredients in saucepan & cover. Bring to boil. Lower heat and keep covered, simmer for 10 min. Take off heat, stir, and let sit for 10 more or until cool. Strain. Sweeten to taste, then add a little more (you’ll need it after adding bubbly & ice) Cool tea completely. Fill glass with ice, half tea, half bubbly.    

Not So Simple Syrup Option:  You can also make a spiced syrup with all of the above. Add a scant 1 cup of sweetener & 1 cup water to the saucepan. Simmer, covered, about 20 min, stirring occasionally. Cool completely. Add less syrup to the glass than you would the tea. Add more to adjust taste.

Serious Relief Option: If you are over 21 and just watched Glenn Beck, add a shot of quality rum or vanilla vodka. If you have too many of those, however, your belly will resume protests.

Final recommendation: My favorite store-bought ginger ale is Natural Brew Outrageous Ginger Ale. Very earthy flavor, chunks of ginger floating about. Reeds and Santa Cruz Sparkling Organics also make decent selections.