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A Year of Columns

For a year now I’ve been sharing random thoughts with you. I’ve shared recipes. I’ve shared some of my expertise. I hope you’ve learned something and been entertained. I’ve enjoyed every minute.

Thank you for coming on this journey with me. I hope you’ll stick with me for the next year, as well.

I’d love to hear from you. Is there a topic you’d like for me to cover? Is there a cuisine you’d like me to explore? Just let me know.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share my family’s favorite spaghetti sauce recipe. It’s undergone some changes through the years. I first got it from a family I attended church with as a teen. If I recall properly (that was a lot of years ago), the family had Sicilian roots, and this was a family recipe. Over the years I first adjusted it to add a bit more heat. More recently I’ve removed a little of the heat and made it a bit sweeter. To be honest, I don’t really use a recipe anymore unless I’m making it for company.

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Pack Your Lunch

Today (March 10) is National Pack Your Lunch Day. What do you think of when you think lunch? Salad? Sandwich? Burger and fries?

If you take a lunch with you to work or on your errands, you might want to think outside the norm. I often do a more European take on lunch—some olives, a few nuts, some fresh fruit, a bit of cheese, and maybe some good, artisan bread. I think of it as having “bits and bobs.”

Wraps have gotten very popular as a lunch item. You can wrap the filling of your choice in a flatbread, a tortilla, or even lettuce. It’s a great way to use up leftovers from last night’s dinner.

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Fresh in March

It’s spring in warmer states. That means you’ll start to see some fresher produce in the store. One of the first fresh foods you’ll find is peas. You’ll want to look for full, plump, medium-sized pods. The peas inside large pods turn starchy more quickly. Medium ones will stay sweet for 2-3 weeks if you store them unwashed in an open plastic bag. An open bag allows some air to circulate. Don’t shell them until just before cooking.

I love kiwi fruit. While you’ll see kiwi fruit referred to as simply kiwi, I am a bit pedantic and insist on calling them kiwi fruit. (A kiwi is a flightless bird from New Zealand.) Choose a kiwi fruit that has dark brown skin, is plump, round, and full. They should give slightly when you squeeze them. Avoid fruits with bruises, dark spots, or wrinkles. Also, avoid them if they look shriveled. Store ripe kiwi in the refrigerator and eat them within a few days. If you purchase the kiwi fruit while it’s still unripe (very firm with skin more yellow than brown), it will ripen on your counter.

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Snacks

February is National Snack Food Month. I realize we’re nearing the end of the month, but it’s never too late to think about snacks.

Most of us fall into one of two camps—sweet snacks or salty snacks. I think the best snacks are those that combine a bit of both. And the idea of what constitutes a good snack varies wildly from country to country. In the US, the top 10 snack foods are:

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Pizza!

This is National Pizza Bake Week, and I love pizza. I love it hot or cold, deep or thin, homemade or purchased. To be honest, I’m kind of a purist when it comes to pizza. It must have mozzarella and tomato sauce. I’m open to dessert pizzas of all kinds, though.

According to online food dictionaries, pizza is a yeasted flatbread generally topped with tomato sauce and cheese, baked in an oven.

The word “pizza” first appeared in a Latin text from the southern Italy town of Gaeta, then still part of the Byzantine Empire, in 997 AD; the text states that a tenant of certain property is to give the bishop of Gaeta duodecim pizze (twelve pizzas) every Christmas Day, and another twelve every Easter Sunday”.

The ancient Greeks covered their bread with oils, herbs and cheese, and in the 6th century BC the soldiers in Persian King Darius I’s armies baked flatbreads with cheese and dates on top of their battle shields.

Modern pizza evolved from similar flatbread dishes in Naples, Italy, in the 18th or early 19th century. Prior to that time, flatbread was often topped with ingredients such as garlic, salt, lard, cheese, and basil.

It is uncertain when tomatoes were first added and there are many conflicting claims.

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Need a Wedding Planner?

Many, many couples will be getting engaged over Valentine’s Day. One of the first decisions they’ll likely make is whether or not to use a professional wedding planner. If you’re going to get married in a small ceremony with just a few friends and close family members, you may not need the services of a planner, or your incredibly organized friend or family member might be able to help with wedding details. But if you are looking at over 100 guests, you should at least give it some thought.

I know several planners, and one of the best things about hiring a professional is that they know the potential pitfalls, so they can help you avoid them. They can also be a wonderful resource for trustworthy vendors—caterers, bakers, alterations, music, photographers, videographers, etc. This is especially important if you’re planning to get married someplace other than where you currently live. After all, things may have changed in your hometown. That great venue you always dreamed of may now be derelict, dilapidated, and dingy. (There are wonderful male and female wedding planners, but the majority of the planners I know are women. So, for the sake of ease, I’ll be using female pronouns throughout the rest of this column.)

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Fresh in February

There aren’t a lot of fruits and vegetables that are specific to February. One that not many people seem to know much about is fennel, though I’ve read that it’s the most popular vegetable in Italy. It has a bulb-like base, stalks like celery, and feathery leaves, and all of those are edible. It has a mild licorice flavor. It’s a member of the parsley family. And just one cup contains almost 20 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C. You'll also find plenty of iron, fiber, and potassium.

Choose your fennel by looking for small, heavy, white bulbs without cracks, browning, or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp with bright green, feathery fronds. Once you have it home, wrap it in plastic and store it in the fridge for up to a few days. It will lose flavor as it dries out.

As for cooking fennel, as I said, you can eat all parts of the fennel—the bulb, stalk, and fronds. Use any of them to add flavor and texture to salads, slaw, or pasta. Thinly-sliced raw fennel adds a sweet licorice flavor to salads along with a satisfying crunchy texture. If you want to soften the flavor, you can sauté, roast, or grill it. Use the fennel stalks in place of celery in soups and stews or as a “bed” for roasting chicken. You can snip the fronds and use them like dill or parsley. The fronds also make a lovely garnish.

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Warm Up with Some Soup

The weather is cold here in northcentral Indiana. While I’m not a big soup eater, the occasional bowl of chili, vegetable soup, or tomato soup really hits the spot. Here are a few tips and a family favorite recipe.

• Cream- or milk-based soups don’t freeze well. Make those in small batches—just what you can reasonably eat in a day or two.
• There are two great ways to freeze your soup for later. You can portion it into zip-style freezer bags, then lay them flat in your freezer. This saves room. Another option is to line cups or bowls with plastic wrap or freezer bags, add your cooled soup, and then place them in the freezer. Once they’re frozen solid, slip the frozen soup out of the cups/bowls. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap or squeeze the air out of the zippered bags. When you want to eat the soup, remove it from the plastic or freezer bag. Now you have a perfect portion of soup for your cup or bowl.
• I think potatoes lose their pleasing texture when you freeze them. So, I remove potatoes from my soup before freezing, then add fresh ones when I’m ready to serve the soup again.