Everybody eats: Lessons from 'Little House on the Prairie'

Stock up on staples during winter to avoid a cold trip to the store

Classic macaroni and cheese is piled with shredded sharp cheddar at the home of Meredith Hines-Dochterman in North Liberty on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. This week’s column features hearty meals that can be made using ingredients you already have on hand. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Classic macaroni and cheese is piled with shredded sharp cheddar at the home of Meredith Hines-Dochterman in North Liberty on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. This week’s column features hearty meals that can be made using ingredients you already have on hand. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

One of my all-time favorite books is “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I adore all the books in the Little House series, but my love for the first book is just slightly above the others. It’s the book where the family is settled. They have their cabin, in the woods, and every day is dedicated to doing something that allows them to continue living life the best way they know how.

A specific chore for every day of the week? Ma Ingalls was a Pinterest mom before Pinterest existed!

I’ve been thinking about the Ingalls family a lot the past few weeks, even picking up my worn copies of the books to flip through and reread favorite passages. The scene Laura paints of her and Mary happily playing in their cabin’s attic, among all the food items Ma carefully salted, canned and smoked to keep the family fed during the long winter months, is a personal favorite.

I, like Ma, want my kitchen to be prepared when it’s dark and cold outside. Of course, I’m not stocking up on dried pasta, chicken broth and Dijon mustard to keep my family from starving. I just hate leaving my house.

I’m not a complete nomad from December through March. I go to work and other various locations outside of my home as required. But I make a point to run all of my errands before I drive home for the night because once I’m there; I refuse to leave until the next day. The last thing I want to do is put on my shoes, bundle into my coat and search for my missing mittens just to go to the grocery store for ingredients needed for that night’s dinner.

Nope. Not happening. We can have eggs. We’re out of eggs? Cereal it is!

Breakfast for dinner — Brinner! — is a great alternative on those nights that your dinner plans change, but there’s only so many times you can get away with that before you feel the need to make something more substantial. That need sounds suspiciously like members of my family, but OK; even I get tired of French toast. And we ran out of syrup two days ago.

Everyone has thoughts on what food items are considered staples. If stocking your cupboards for winter is something you want to do, there are plenty of suggestions online to get you started. Tailor those lists with ingredients for the recipes you know your family likes and your own your way to being a 21st century Ingalls family.

Classic Mac

Makes 4 servings.

1/2 pound dried elbow pasta

2 cups Mac Sauce (recipe below)


1 1/2 cups grated 2-year-aged, extra sharp cheddar cheese (edit: sharp cheddar cheese works fine, too)

1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until a little less than al dente. Drain, rinse the pasta with cold water, and drain it again.

Add the sauce and both the cheeses to a large, heavy-bottomed pit and cook over medium heat. Stir until the cheese is barely melted, about three minutes. Slowly add the cooked pasta, stir, and continue cooking while stirring continuously until the pasta is hot and steaming, another 5 minutes.

Spoon into bowls and enjoy.

Mac Sauce

Makes 3 cups.

3 cups whole milk

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt

Heat the milk over medium heat until it just starts to bubble, but not boiling, three to four minutes. Remove from the heat.

Heat the butter over medium heat in a separate, heavy-bottomed pot. When the butter has just melted, add the flour and whisk constantly until the mixture turns light brown, about three minutes. Remove from the heat.

Slowly pour the warm milk, about one cup at a time, into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly. It will get very thick where you first add the milk, and thinner as you slowly pour in the entire three cups. This is normal.

Once all the milk has been added, set the pot back over medium-high heat, and continue to whisk constantly. In the next two to three minutes, the sauce should come together and become silky and thick. Use a spoon to make sure it’s ready. To do this, dip a metal spoon into the sauce — if the sauce coats the spoon and doesn’t run off like milk, you’ll know it’s ready. You should be able to run your finger along the spoon and have the impression remain. Add the salt.

The Mac Sauce is ready to use immediately and does not need to cool. Store it in the fridge for a day or two if you want to make it ahead of time — it will get a lot thicker when put in the fridge, so it may need a little milk to think it out a bit when it comes time to melt in the cheese. Try melting the cheese into the sauce first and if it is too thick, then add milk as needed.


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Source: “The Mac + Cheese Cookbook” 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America’s Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant” by Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade (Ten Speed Press; 2013)

Creamy Chicken with Shallots

Makes 4 servings.

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon paprika

4 chicken breast cutlets (about 6 ounces each)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large shallot, diced

1/2 cup white wine (or chicken broth)

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Season the flour with the paprika, salt, and pepper. Cost the chicken cutlets in the flour, shaking off the excess.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté the chicken in two batches, turning once, until browned, about two minutes on each side. Transfer to a plate. In the same pan, sauté the shallot until browned, about five minutes.

Add the wine or broth and boil until reduced by half, about two minutes. Add the cream and mustard and return to a boil.

Reduce the heat and return the chicken and its juices to the skillet. Continue to cook until the cream is reduced and coating the breasts, turning once, another seven to nine minutes. Serve with steamed peas.

Source: “Time for Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration, and Recipes for Family Meals Every Night of the Week” by Cookie Editors (Condé Nast Publications; 2010)

Classic American Meat Loaf

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Meatloaf Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions (white and green parts)

1/4 cup grated carrots

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground onion powder

1/2 cup ketchup

2 teaspoons gelatin

2 pounds ground beef chuck

1/2 pound ground pork

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Glaze ingredients

1/2 cup ketchup

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

To make the meat loaf: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the scallions, carrot and onion and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, cumin, paprika, and garlic and onion powders. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Scrape into a large bowl and let cool completely.

Meanwhile, heat the ketchup in the microwave until just warm to the touch. Sprinkle the gelatin over the ketchup and whisk to remove lumps. Add to the cooked vegetable mixture, and then add the beef, pork, eggs, and breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper and mix until just combined. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with oil and form the mixture into a loaf.


To make the glaze: In a measuring cup, stir together the ketchup, Worcestershire, and mustard. Brush a little glaze on the meat loaf and bake until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, about 1 ¼ hours, brushing three or four times with the glaze until you’ve used it all. Let the meat loaf rest 15 minutes before slicing.

Source: “My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes from 50 Essential Ingredients” by Geoffrey Zakarian. (Domaine Enterprises; 2014)



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