Back From the Farm: Family Recipes and Memories of a Lifetime

Family memories, times together, food, family, and friends–all come together in Phil Potempa’s newest cookbook.

              My friend Phil Potempa writes these encyclopedia-sized cookbooks based upon growing up on a farm and his years—still counting—as a food and entertainment columnist, currently for the Chicago Tribune Media Co. Well, his latest, Back From the Farm: Family Recipes and Memories of a Lifetime Vol. 4, is no different. I didn’t weigh it but it’s hefty and thick with 576 pages. Chocked full of recipes, photos, and anecdotes, the book is a compilation of Phil’s food and entertainment columns that takes us from growing up on the family farm in La Pierre, Indiana to hanging out with celebrities and everything in between such as local baking contests, chef interviews, chili cook-offs, ethnic celebrations, and readers’ favorite recipes.

              “There are a lot of ways to read these books,” Phil tells me, noting that some people tell him they go straight to the index and look up the celebrity names while others leaf through the book, stopping at recipes that look interesting and still others are intrigued by stories of Potempa’s farm relatives.  After all, who could resist recipes with such names as “Granny Wojdula’s Nine-Day Sweet Pickles,” “Jim Nabors’ Mom’s Split Green Pea Soup,” “Bob Hope’s Favorite Chicken Hash,” or “Blondie Wappel’s Favorite Pink Champagne Cake,” which implies that Blondie must have had several recipes for cakes made with pink Champagne.  Now that’s really drilling down on an ingredient.

              San Pierre, for anyone—and that’s most of us—is a small dot on the map consisting of less than 200 people according to Wikipedia. It’s where the Potempa still spends time with his family (he also has a place in Chicago) and is the center of Indiana’s mint growing industry and where the North Judson Mint Festival is held every year. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Services third nationally for spearmint production and fourth for peppermint production. Much of their mint ends up as oil and is sold to Wrigley, Colgate Palmolive, and Proctor & Gamble for use in their products. In other words, when you brush your teeth with a spearmint flavored toothpaste it might have come from San Pierre which is some 50 miles away.

              Asked what his favorite story was, Potempa names Phyllis Diller, a housewife from Lima, Ohio who hit it big as a comedian in her late 30s and had a career that continued on until her death in 2012 at age 95. Her schtick included donning a fright wig for wild blonde hair, downplaying her good looks with bad make-up, and, with a cigarette in a long holder, cackling out jokes about her life including her poor domestic skills. She was considered the first woman stand-up comedian and like Joan Rivers, another first in the field, was expected to make fun of herself to be successful.

              “One of her lines was that she used a smoke detector as a way of timing her dinners, when it went off, she knew the food was ready,” recalls Potempa. “In actuality, she was a great cook.”

              Indeed, Diller opened a food production business, though as far as I can figure she only sold cans of her chili which came in three varieties—beef, chicken, and vegetarian. But don’t look for it in the grocery store and even Amazon doesn’t carry it as her food company is closed now. But the recipe for her chili is a popular search item on Google and is included in Potempa’s book.

Celebrate family ties, Hollywood friends, and recipes from the farm in Phil Potempa's newest cookbook.

              The two both shared a love of cooking and Diller helped Phil with his first From the Farm cookbook.

              Describing her as his first celebrity interview, Potempa says that over the years when she was performing in Northwest Indiana or the Chicago area she would invite he and his family to attend her shows and then visit her backstage afterwards.

              “She was really a friend, I’ve been to her home and it was so wonderful to see my cookbooks in her fire red kitchen,” says Potempa about one of his visits to her home in the tony Brentwood, California city near Los Angeles.

              Another fav story was told to him by his good friend Russ Adams, a 1978 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, who worked at the Strongbow Inn, a Valparaiso Restaurant that was started by Adams’s grandparents on the site of their turkey farm and for more than 75 years was a favorite stopping point for dinner no matter what time of year. Adams recalled when Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda came into the kitchen to see what was going on. He’d ordered a turkey sandwich and told Russ to “load it up! And make it like you’re making it for your brother.”

              Russ also told him about the time his Grandma Bess was at the hostess stand sometime in the late 1950s and came face-to-face with a portly man waiting to be seated, who looked very much like Oscar winning actor Charles Laughton. When Bess mentioned how much he resembled the famous actor, he told her, in a very cold and stiff English accent: “Madam, THAT is because…I AM CHARLES LAUGHTON.”

              Interestingly, Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, frequented the Strongbow Inn whenever he was in Northwest Indiana visiting his key local fast-food franchises says Potempa. Popcorn King Orville Redenbacher of the popcorn powerhouse ate there every year when he’d return home. In all, the restaurant served more than 250,000 pounds of turkey a year but one of the most requested recipes from the place that Phil received was for their Blue Cheese Dressing.

              Phil wrote in one of his columns that he never expected to get the dressing recipe with its secret combination of ingredients because the Strongbow Inn restaurant used to bottle and sell their dressing in their lobby waiting area, displayed on a rack near a small freezer where a frozen version of their signature turkey pot-pies and gravy could also be purchased. But with its closing that changed and the recipe is below as are several others.

Phyllis Diller’s Chili

Serves six

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 pound ground beef (chuck is good)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium bell pepper, chopped (see note)
  • 10 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion salt
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 or 3 dashes tabasco sauce or to taste
  • 1 (28 oz) can chopped tomatoes
  • 2 (15 oz) cans s & w kidney beans, undrained
  • Garnishing – if desired
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 2 cups mild cheddar cheese, shredded

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, warm oil over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef, breaking it up, and cook, stirring occasionally, until beef is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

While the beef is cooking, peel and chop onion. Set aside. Core and chop bell pepper. Set aside. Peel and mince garlic cloves. Set aside.

Once the beef is cooked through, add the onions, bell pepper and garlic. Cook until vegetables are softened, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Stir in the seasonings and tomatoes. Reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer the chili until it begins to thicken slightly, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Stir in the kidney beans with their juices. Simmer an additional 10 minutes or until heated through.

Adjust to taste.

Peggy’s Easy Beef and Noodles Supper

  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds cubed beef stew meat
  • 2 quarts water (divided use)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cups sliced carrots
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 2 teaspoons mixed seasoning blend, like Mrs. Dash
  • 6 teaspoons beef bouillon paste (or equivalent using cubes)
  • 1 (16-ounce) bag of Amish egg noodles (grocery shelf variety, not frozen)

Heat oil in bottom of a large soup pot and lightly brown beef and onion. Add 1 quart of water and simmer for 1 hour. Add carrots and celery, beef base and seasoning blend and add remaining 1 quart of water and simmer 1/2 hour. Finally add dry noodles and cook according to instructions, about 1/2 hour. More water can be added as needed during cooking time.

Makes 10 servings.

Blondie Wappel’s Favorite Pink Champagne Cake

Makes 18 servings.

Cake:

  • 1 (16.25-ounce) package white cake mix
  • 1-1/4 cups pink champagne
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 egg whites
  • 3 or 4 drops red food color

Pink Champagne Frosting:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine, softened
  • 3-3/4 to 4 cups sifted powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup pink champagne
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 or 4 drops red food color

For the cake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together dry cake mix and champagne in a large bowl; add oil, egg whites and food color and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes. Lightly grease and flour the bottom of a 13-inch by 9-inch shiny aluminum pan. Note: The baking temp has to be adjusted for glass, dark or nonstick pans or alter baking times and pan prep according to the directions on the cake mix package.

Pour cake batter into pan and spread evenly. Bake for 25 to 29 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Allow cake to cool completely before frosting.

To make frosting, cream butter with an electric mixer in a medium bowl and gradually add the rest of the frosting ingredients, beating at medium speed until the frosting is of a smooth consistency. Spread frosting evenly over cooled cake.

Decorate as desired, including possible garnish with pink and white sugar crystals.

Forbidden Apple Cake

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 sticks Imperial margarine, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 cups unpeeled apples, cored and diced (a firm, slightly tart baking apple is best)
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup golden raisins (can be soaked in 1/2 cup good rum for one week for a “sinful” addition)
  • Powdered sugar for dusting.

Note: Seal rum-soaked raisins in a glass container at room temperature for one week, ahead of time. If using the rum version, omit cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray 10-inch bundt or tube pan with non-stick cooking spray. Beat oil with margarine. Add sugar, eggs and vanilla. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add apples to flour mixture and stir a few times to coat. Add raisins and nuts, if using, to egg/oil mixture. Stir flour/apple mixture into egg/oil mixture until well blended. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 75 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Cool 30 minutes, invert onto cake plate. When completely cooled, dust with powdered sugar. Makes 10 slices.

Strongbow Inn Bleu Cheese and Garlic Dressing

Makes 5 cups

  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 3 cups vegetable oil
  • Cheesecloth and string
  • 1 cup crumbled bleu cheese

Prepare a piece of cheesecloth cut into a small square.

Combine salt, pepper, sugar, oregano and garlic, wrap in cheesecloth, fasten, and tie. Use a mallet or rolling pin to slightly pound the contents of the tied cheesecloth.

Place the cheesecloth bundle in a large quart-canning jar. Pour 1 cup of the cider vinegar over the spice bundle, seal jar and allow spices to steep overnight on kitchen counter.

Remove spice bundle, squeezing out excess liquid before discarding bundle.

Add three cups vegetable oil to vinegar mixture to fill jar and drop in the crumbled bleu cheese.

Store dressing in refrigerator and stir well before serving.

Philip Potempa can be reached at pmpotempa@comhs.org or mail your questions: From the Farm, PO Box 68, San Pierre, Ind. 46374.

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