Mom leaves food legacy to daughters

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Jean Steffen Krueger's dog Butch serenades her as she plays the accordion in the living room of the old farmhouse near Dotyville, Wis.

Two years ago I said goodbye to my mother for the last time on Mother's Day.

I still remember how beautiful the blossoms were on the flowering crab trees outside her window at the hospice, and how the songs of the birds along with the fragrance of the blooms wafted into her room.

Mom loved her flowers and birds, and enjoyed providing for her family. As a kid, I remember bending over rows and rows of tomato and pepper plants in our sprawling gardens out behind the house, pulling weeds in the hot sun for what seemed like hours. Come the end of summer we would have deep tans and mom would be standing over the pressure canner, watching over yet another batch of stewed tomatoes.

Those jars of ruby red tomatoes lining the shelves of our root cellar would inevitably find their way into a pot of chili, flavored with her special blend of spices and peppers. That large kettle would feed our family for a couple of nights, which was a relief to my mother after a long day at work as an industrial sewer.

And if the endive was plenty out in the garden, she would whip up a batch of endive salad, complete with warm potatoes and maybe a few dandelion greens.

Born a farmer's daughter, mom learned many of her cooking skills from her mother and grandmother while standing in the kitchen of the old farmhouse near Dotyville. Her father was the oldest of nine children and her mom (an identical twin) hailed from a family of six kids, and when the relatives got together there was always plenty of food to go around.

Mom's go-to for any family gathering was a big roaster full of baked beans, flavored with molasses and thick bacon from the Eden Meat Market. We always knew a treat was in store (along with plenty of fiber for our diets) when we saw the beans soaking overnight in the 19-inch blue graniteware roaster.

Mom wasn't big on baking unless it was Christmastime. When she pulled the old Mirro cookie press out from the back recesses of the lower cupboard, our favorite Christmas cookies would be soon cooling on the newspapers lining the countertop. While we fussed over which of the 12 discs would go on the press, mom was busy mixing up a batch of orange crisp spritz cookies, made with fresh zest from oranges.

My mom may never have given Julie Child any competition, but she did her best to feed our family of six through some pretty lean years. And it's funny how my sisters and I seem to hold on to those food memories which link us to the past: Grandma Steffen's goulash or Grandma Krueger's buttermilk pancakes and mom's fragrant baked beans. 

Those smells trigger long ago emotions and transport us back to the past, to simpler times in our childhood when our mother and grandmothers set meals before us in their homey kitchens, and we all sat around the table, breaking bread together.

Those signature dishes still have the power to evoke vivid snapshots in time and keep treasured memories alive in our hearts and minds. This weekend I'll be soaking some beans and conjuring up images of my mom, smiling in satisfaction as she pulls the lid off the old granitewear roaster to see another perfect batch of baked beans. Happy Mother's Day Mom.

Those jars of stewed tomatoes lining the shelves of our root cellar would inevitably find their way into a pot of chili, flavored with my mom's special blend of spices and peppers.

Jean's Chili

1 lb. ground beef

1 onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped,

1 banana pepper, chopped

1 qt. jar stewed tomatoes (or 14.5 oz. can)

1 15 oz. can tomato sauce

1 15 oz. can kidney beans

 1 1/2 c. water

1 t. chili powder

1 t. cumin

1/2 t. garlic powder

1/4 t. Tabasco sauce

salt and pepper to taste

Spaghetti noodles (optional)

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the beef and onion and peppers, saute until meat is browned and vegetables are tender. Add the stewed tomatoes with juice, tomato sauce, beans and water.

Season with the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, Tabasco sauce, salt and ground black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes. Add noodles if you like.

My mom's go-to for any family gathering was a big roaster full of baked beans, flavored with molasses and thick bacon from the Eden Meat Market.

Family Reunion Slow Baked Beans

1 lb. dry navy beans

1 T. salt

1 c. yellow onion, chopped

1 cloves garlic, chopped

1 t. thyme

2 bay leaves

1/2 to 3/4 c. dark molasses (add more or less to your taste)

2 t. brown mustard

1/2 t. ground black pepper

1/2 c. brown sugar

1/2 lb. thick cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 c. yellow onion, diced

Apple cider vinegar, to taste (optional)

In a large Dutch oven, cover beans with cold water by about 2 inches and stir in 1 T. of salt. Cover and let beans soak overnight (at least 12 hours). Drain and rinse. Cover beans again with the same amount of water, add onions, garlic, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and let simmer for an hour. Drain beans (reserving the cooking water and skim out lay leaves.

In a separate bowl, add molasses, mustard, pepper, brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Add 1 1/2 c. of warm bean water (reserving the rest of the water) and stir until molasses is dissolved.

Using the Dutch oven, cook the bacon on medium-high heat until lightly brown. Add onion and cook until tender. Add beans to pot. Pour bean water/molasses mixture over top, stirring well. Add enough reserved bean-cooking water to just barely cover beans, stirring once more. Bring to a simmer.

Cover and bake in a 300 degree oven for 4 1/2 to 5 hours, stirring twice during baking (and adding more bean water up until the last hour of baking, making sure beans don't dry out). May add a splash of apple cider vinegar to taste. Makes 6-10 servings.

Warm Mashed Potato and Endive Salad

2 small russet potatoes (about 12 ounces total), peeled, diced

4 bacon slices, chopped

1/4 c. minced onion

3 T. cider vinegar

2 t. sugar

2 heads endive, sliced

Cook potatoes in large pot of boiling water until tender, about 12 minutes. Meanwhile, cook bacon in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat until brown and crisp. Transfer to paper towel using slotted spoon. Drain bacon well. Reserve pan drippings in skillet.

Transfer potatoes to colander and drain. Return potatoes to pot. Mash coarsely. Reheat bacon fat in skillet until just warm. Remove from heat and mix in minced onion, cider vinegar and sugar. Add dressing to potatoes. Add endive and toss gently. Season salad to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with bacon. Serve salad warm.

Orange Spritz Crisp Cookies

1 c. shortening

1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. packed brown sugar

1 T. orange juice

1 egg

1 t. orange zest

2 1/2 c. sifted all-purpose flour

1/4 t. salt

1/4 t. baking soda

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream the shortening, gradually adding in sugar and orange juice. Cream well. Beat in the egg and the orange zest. In separate bowl, sift flour, salt and baking soda. Add flour mixture to the creamed mixture a little at a time. Fill cookie press and form cookies onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.