Saving Old Recipes

The quick answer:  Recipes are often family heirlooms, but those from the last century may require "healthing-up".


1000 Words

I’ve renewed my intention to keep posts under 1000 words so can’t tell the whole story of our recent trip to Sacramento.  Except to say we attended the funeral of the beautiful wife’s namesake Aunt Clare; had dinner with my Mom who gave us some of her delicious Heavenly Hash (mixed berry jam) and prized Christmas fruitcake; and stopped at Elk Grove Walnut Co. for just-harvested walnuts at $5/lb., shelled.  (Yes you can get some, just Email: 

But I did tell the walnut lady the lovely story of how Aunt Clare’s husband died after a 50-year marriage and how she rediscovered her first true love, whose wife had also died, and how through the years each had saved a portrait of the other, and how at 80 he swept her off her feet, again, so they could spend their last years holding hands in Hawaii.  Which simply proved that Robert Browning was right when he penned, 

Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be,

 The last of life, for which the first was made . . . .

As I turned to leave, the walnut lady,  wiping a tear from her eye, thanked me for sharing the story. 

Nor can I tell how my Mom’s dad, a hard rock miner, died of pneumonia when she was just two, and how she and her widowed mom survived the Depression by the grace of God and the kindness of her Aunt Kate (she of Aunt Kate’s Chili Sauce), and how through the hard years Mom came to cherish the promise of Christmas future.  I can’t even tell the story of how at the moment she turned from girl to young woman, when she expected nothing for Christmas, her mother surprised her with a beautiful green gown that she later wore to the dance where she dazzled her husband-to-be.  Well, actually, that story has to be told—next week we’ll set food aside and tell a Christmas story.

Cooking and Flavor

By now you know I can’t resist a good story.  But the real subject of this post is how to improve old recipes.  On our drive to Sacramento I read Mark Bittman’s Ebook, Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet.  It’s short, meant to be read in one sitting, and echoes the argument we’ve made here:  If you want good health, cook!  I didn’t realize when I started this blog that home cooking would be the key to health.

Bittman, in his Ebook, shared his three favorite flavors for improving a dish:

  1. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
  2. Highlight with smoked paprika.  (Not the old stuff sitting in your spice drawer waiting for you to make deviled eggs, but Spanish paprika, also known as pimenton.)
  3. Toss on whatever fresh herbs you have on hand, chopped.  (This works best, I think, if you have a herb garden, or at least some leftover parsley, cilantro, or thyme.)


Taking Stock

Bottom line:  It's best to make your own stock.  The picture (above) shows the evolution of stock.  Campbell's broth, mixed as directed, costs $3.34 per quart.  Swanson's Chicken broth is $3.39.  Maggi's chicken bouillon flakes are cheaper but the ingredient list starts with "salt, cornstarch, MSG, hydrogenated palm oil", etc.  Actually, all these imitations of old-fashioned chicken stock are high in sodium (salt) and artificial ingedients.  The tastiest, cheapest, and healthiest is our homemade chicken stock (shown in the pint Mason jar).

Saving Old Recipes

Have you looked through the recipes of a grandmother or great-aunt who has passed on?  If so you will notice that between the World Wars, food began to be modernized, i.e. made more convenient, or more factory-processed.  Food Inc. accelerated meal preparation, but didn't tell us they were also speeding up our aging process. 

Stock, as shown above, was replaced by high-salt, low-taste, factory substitutes.  Lard was replaced by Crisco, or hydrogenated vegetable oils.  And the amount of sugar in cakes and cookies approached the amount of flour, which was refined and bleached.  If you love those old recipes, here are some tips I’ve collected to "health" them up.  (Yes, "health" can also be a verb.)

  1. Flour:  Use whole grain flours, or a mixture, in place of refined flours. 
  2. Sugar:  Minimize the use of sugar; reduce sugar by ½, or at least by ¼.      
  3. Broth:  If a recipe calls for store-bought chicken broth, Campbell’s, or chicken bouillon cubes—pull out your homemade chicken stock.  Last week I made three batches of Skip’s Potato Soup.  For the 3rd batch I forgot to take my chicken stock out of the freezer so, because I was in a hurry, I used store-bought.  We could tell the difference—the soup was good but the flavor was diluted.
  4. Fat:  Only use healthy fats.  Ignore the call for Crisco and substitute butter, or lard if you’re experienced.  Instead of refined vegetable oils, use butter, olive oil, coconut oil, or cold-pressed organic oils. 
  5. Low-cal stuff:  Minimize low-calorie versions of food.  There are no studies—to my knowledge—showing any benefit from low-calorie food products.  The best way to reduce calories is to avoid refined foods in favor of whole foods.  Whole foods are full of fiber and fill you with way less calories.
  6. Ditto for low-sodium products.  Less salt is better but some, especially if prescribed by your doc.  But the bigger issue for most if that salt is mainly found in processed foods.  Lowering the sodium doesn’t restore the lost nutrients.  Often low-sodium foods are higher in sugar.
  7. Vegetables:  To increase your intake, puree your produce and add it to entrees, sauces, and soups.

Please comment, share your share your favorite healthy recipes, or your favorite healthy cookbooks.  In the next post we’ll tell how the Sunday roasted chicken got processed into those frozen chicken nuggets. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (11)

Another great post, Skip- thank you! Really gets me thinking.

I have started making some of these changes to my favorite recipes, especially casseroles. I love a good casserole, especially on a cold, busy day. Unfortunately, most of my recipes call for canned "Cream of___" soups, but I have found a relatively simple way around it by making a Bechamel/white sauce. To save time, I make the casserole in the morning and put it in the fridge until It's time to put it in the oven, though if there are raw ingredients (like chicken), I just add those to the top of the casserole right before it goes in.

For recipes that call for 2 cans (about 20 ounces or 2 1/2 cups):

Cream of ___ Soup for Casseroles

3 T butter
1/2 c chopped onion, celery, mushroom or other
3 T flour
2 c chicken stock or broth
1/2 c milk or cream
Salt and pepper, to taste

Put a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and melt until bubbly. If you want "Cream of Mushroom" add diced mushrooms (drain canned), for "Cream of Celery" add celery, etc. and sautee until soft, but not browned. Add 3 tablespoons of flour and whisk together, letting the mixture bubble gently; you want to cook the flour taste out of the mixture. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of chicken broth, scraping all the flour mixture off the sides and bottom of the pan, and bring to a simmer until thick. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup of milk or cream. Season to taste. You may need to add extra salt so it tastes like the "real thing"- ha!

I have tried this recipe in Chicken & Rice casseroles (the many variations I have) and it works GREAT. The texture comes out perfectly and the taste is so creamy and light. I love that I don't feel a need to stock my shelves with cans of "Cream of ___" soups anymore!

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

Loved the story at the beginning of this post--it made my eyes wet.

Also, glad to have the recipe above for substituting those darn canned soups. Thanks Alicia.
I agree that chicken stock is best. "Better than Bouillon" organic from Costco is a good alternative if you are in a pinch--it is the only all natural one I've found.

A tip I've been using from Dr. Oz, is that meat in recipes, is more for texture. It can be replaced with mushrooms (packed with vitamins) for the same effect. I've tried this with lasagna and it works great. I also grated up some yellow squash and sauteed it with a bunch of spinach and threw it in there.

Another tip I just learned in my own kitchen: add sauteed, chopped green peppers to your pasta sauce for a natural sweetener. It has a calming, sweetening effect on tomato products and makes them taste so much better! You all probably knew that. But, I'm going to be using them more often in tacos, lasagne, soups, pizza, etc. anywhere I find tomatoes.

I love to sneak in lots of vegetables to any dish: frittatas, soups, casseroles. It makes me feel like a good mom to give my family something healthy and homemade:)

Thanks for another great post Skip. I will try using those tips from the Bittman book.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

What a lovely post (and surprise, to find that your wife is related to another of my favorite bloggers)! I am wondering if you might know where to track down reliable information on lard susbstitution. Some of our family tradition baked goods call for shortening and butter changes the texture drastically!

December 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Melissa, why not try using lard. Farmer John sells lard in a 1 lb. package. I got some to experiment with but you're a step ahead of me. Others fall back on the more hydrogenated margarines like Nucoa and ignore the trans fat issue. Please don't. Your ancestors cooked with lard; give it a try. Skip

December 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Hi Skip,
I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogging award. I love your blog! You do not have to do what it says. Here is the link. If it does not work, you can check it out on my blog.


December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoreen

Noreen, good to hear from you. And thanks for the nomination. I love your blog--beauty of everyday life. Blogs that go beyond the trivial and commercial in life, to find the more sublime truths, the hidden grace and wisdom, whether in nature, or around the dinner table, ring my bell. Thank you for bringing life's beauty to our attention.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I just read a recipe for ratatouille soup (vegies and soup) at
The only thing I would change, I think, is the fat free half and half to regular half and half.
Something else you could use is cashew cream...easy to make and good for replacing the canned, creamed soups as well.

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

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December 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterreplica breitling bentley

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December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaisy Ford

The story above reminds me of an adviser at DT when I went to college. Could it be the same woman?

You mentioned making your own stock right before the holidays and so since, I have been doing it. It sure adds a new level of flavor, (perfect timing for holiday dishes) and I feel more conscious and resourceful by using up my old vegetable pieces and bones.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Thanks for the great information! I have been trying to go less processed with my food, and I love your recipes and ideas!

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSheila Peterson

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