bess collectionMy dear friend, Gwen, is one of my favorite people in the universe.  In addition to writing and co-editing a popular, high profile sociology blog (yes, there is such a thing), she’s an academic who can make her own pickles, herd cattle, tell a funny story better than David Sedaris, and rescue any stray animal that happens to wander into her neighborhood, even if it’s a goat.

Gwen is also no slouch in the kitchen, and has been really supportive of me throughout this project, always quick with a comment, a tip, or an encouraging word (she even edited some of my first posts).

However, Gwen is a vegetarian, and as a result, would not eat approximately 75% of the things I’ve cooked so far.  I feel bad about this.

And so, my goals for this meal were two-fold.  First, to make a couple of former First Lady Bess Truman’s recipes from the Junior Service League of Independence, Missouri’s The Bess Collection.  And second, to make something from the cookbook that my dear friend might actually enjoy cooking for herself.

So Gwen, this one’s for you.

Stuffed Vidalia Onions

Stuffed Vidalia Onions

Stuffed Vidalia Onions

4 medium Vidalia onions
2 T. oil-free Italian dressing
1/2 cup sweet red pepper, chopped
1 cup zucchini, chopped
1/2 cup soft bread crumbs
1/2 cup part-skim Mozzarella cheese, shredded
2 T. fresh parsley, minced
1/4 t. dried oregano
Dash Tabasco
Paprika, optional
Fresh parsley sprigs, optional

Peel onions. Cut a slice from the top and the bottom; chop slices and set aside.

In a large skillet, steam onions in a small amount of boiling water for 15-20 minutes or until tender. Cool. Remove center of onions, leaving shells intact. Reserve centers for use in other recipes. Set onion shells aside.

Steaming the onions


Heat Italian dressing in medium skillet until hot. Add reserved chopped onion, red pepper, and zucchini; saute until tender. Remove from heat; stir in bread crumbs, cheese, minced parsley, oregano, and Tabasco.

Onions with centers removed and filling

Onions with centers removed and filling

Fill each shell with 1/2 cup vegetable mixture. Place in an 8-inch square baking dish coated with cooking spray. Cover and bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake additional 5 minutes. Garnish with paprika and parsley sprigs.

Serves 4

This dish was good, and we enjoyed it, but I think it could become great with a few minor tweaks.  Most obviously, I think it should bake longer, at a higher temperature, so that the onions can really roast and soften and caramelize a little bit.  And in the future, I’d probably skip the Italian dressing, and instead, saute the vegetables in olive oil with a few simple seasonings and herbs – salt, pepper, garlic, fresh chopped oregano and basil, and a few red pepper flakes.  Maybe I’d play around with the cheese, too – Gruyere might be nice, or parmesan.

Still, the fundamentals of the dish – sweet, veggie and cheese-stuffed onions – are sound, and it can be easily tailored to your tastes.

Next up, I prepared Bess Truman’s take on a true American standby – meatloaf.

Mrs. Truman’s Meat Loaf

Dab of butter on the peas, check.  Parsley garnish, check.  Radish roses... maybe next time.

Dab of butter on the peas, check. Parsley garnish, check. Radish roses... maybe next time.

2 pounds ground beef
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons parsley, minced fine
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup bread crumbs
3 tablespoons chili sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon onion juice

For Basting

1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup boiling water
Parsley and radish roses (for garnish)
Tomato sauce (can be bought in cans)
1 can frozen peas

Combine the ingredients and shape in a loaf. Butter a loaf pan, and place meat in pan. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 1 hour, basting frequently with butter and water combination. Remove from loaf pan onto heated platter. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and radish roses. Serve with tomato sauce and green peas, to which a dab of butter is added when served.

The recipe for Stuffed Vidalia Onions said to keep the steamed centers of the onion for other recipes.  So I did.

The recipe for Stuffed Vidalia Onions suggested you keep the steamed centers of the onion for other recipes. So I did.

Serves 4

Basting a meatloaf with butter?!?  Mrs. Truman was a genius.

This slightly unorthodox method helps keep the meatloaf moist, even if you’re using a lean ground beef, and gives the top a nice color when it comes out of the oven.  I’ll also admit to being a little skeptical about the plain tomato sauce.  Where I come from, we put Heinz Ketchup on our meatloaf, as all decent, right-thinking folk do.  But I have to admit, Bess was on to something.

As meatloafs go, this one was fairly ordinary.  But ordinary is kind of what you’re shooting for with meatloaf anyways, and being ordinary has never, in recorded culinary history, kept a meatloaf from being very good, which this one was.

For dessert, I decided to test another of Bess’s favorites. Brady has been agitating of late for me to make a key lime pie. Or rather, Brady is always agitating for me to make a key lime pie. I would not be surprised if one day I came home to find he’d been disseminating inflammatory pamphlets to the cats and calling for a work stoppage unless key lime pie production is up 50% by the end of the year.

This seemed very close in spirit to my key lime pie recipe, and I figured it might satisfy his key lime jones.

Mrs. Truman’s Frozen Lemon Pie

Mrs. Truman's Frozen Lemon Pie

Mrs. Truman's Frozen Lemon Pie

2 eggs, separated
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1 cup whipped cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup crumbled graham crackers

Beat egg yolks. Add lemon juice, rind and all, with two tablespoons of the sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Cool.

Beat egg whites, add two more tablespoons of the sugar, fold into cooked mixture, then fold in whipped cream.

Line greased pie or refrigerator pan with graham cracker crumbs. Save some to sprinkle on top. Pour filling into pan and freeze.

Serves 4

Now, my contempt for the frozen pie crust has been previously documented, but ironically, I have no problem whatsoever with a store-bought graham cracker crust.  So, that’s what I used here.  I also added a little bit more sugar than the recipe calls for, but only one or two extra tablespoons.

This is a fine summer pie – light and refreshing, tart and sweet.  I had some qualms about the fact that it involved uncooked egg whites – my key lime pie recipe calls for a similar folding of egg whites into a cooked mixture, but then you bake it and put the whipped cream on top.

But then I realized that I’ve been dying to make an icebox cake for ages, and the only thing that’s stopped me is the fact that every authentic period recipe I’ve found calls for uncooked eggs.  Reading old cookbooks, it seems that our grandparents were a lot less squeamish about salmonella than we are today, and I decided that if it was good enough for the First Family, circa 1945, it was good enough for me.  The addition of the lemon juice and the freezing process also helped calm my nerves.

And look!  I’m writing this, and not dead or in any gastrointestinal distress!

Sometimes I believe that any meal that can be described thusly should be counted as a success.