Beef Barley Soup

Skip the mushrooms!

Freezer full of meat
Here’s what 100 pounds of beef looks like in a mid-sized upright freezer. The other meat I’ve been storing is on upper shelves. The doors are filled with plastic containers of homemade heat-and-eat meals.

Yesterday, I took delivery of 100 pounds of grass fed, locally raised beef. This “1/4 cow” came butchered, wrapped, and frozen solid. Although I already had a chest freezer I’d brought with me from my Arizona home, I bought another freezer primarily to store this meat. It just about filled the bottom two shelves.

(I should mention here that our local supermarkets often put “expiring” meat on sale for 30% to 50% off. I can’t tell you how many amazing deals I’ve gotten on normally very pricey meats just because their last date of sale is that day or the next. One day I scooped up four racks of lamb for about $7 each and a large boneless leg of lamb — which was great in a Moroccan lamb dish — for about $10. Last week, Safeway had a sale on baby back ribs that were still frozen: $2.99/pound instead of the normal $4.99. I bought four racks for smoking on my Traeger. Having a big freezer makes it possible to take advantage of these deals as they come up. And when you consider how much I’ve been using my new Instant Pot lately, I don’t expect to have any trouble keeping that freezer full of meat or homemade heat-and-eat meals.)

I had some control over what I’d get in my beef package — basically a menu where I could choose a certain number of cuts in certain categories. In addition to a bunch of steaks cut from all over the place and a lot of ground beef, I also got short ribs, roasts, a very large brisket, and stew meat.

With a winter storm coming, I figured that some comfort food was in order. So when I went down into town to run errands and pick up the beef, I stopped at the supermarket for the few ingredients I needed to make beef barley soup.

I found the recipe on I chose it over other recipes I found online primarily because it looked so hearty in the photo and wasn’t tomato-based. Although I made the recipe pretty much as it was written, I wasn’t satisfied with the results. The reason: mushrooms. In my opinion, mushrooms ruin the flavor of this soup.

So here’s my new take on this recipe.


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil. The original recipe called for cooking spray. But why not use a little olive oil instead?
  • 1 to 1-1/2 pounds stew meat, trimmed and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. You can make it with less meat, but if you have more, use it. It’ll make a heartier soup. The beef I got was amazingly lean and didn’t need a bit of trimming.
  • 3-4 large carrots, sliced. Carrots are a must-have in any meat-based soup.
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, sliced. The original recipe called for 1-1/2 cups of celery. Seriously? That’s way too much.
  • 1 large onion, chopped. The third member of the aromatic trilogy, I put onions in most soups and stews. The original recipe called for 2/3 cup, but more is better.
  • 1 large parsnip, sliced. If you can’t find parsnips, add another carrot or two.
  • 1 medium turnip, cut into 1/2-inch cubes. This will really round out the root vegetable flavor.
  • 4 cups fat-free, low-sodium beef broth. I could not find real beef broth (vs. “beef flavored” broth) in my supermarket that was both fat free and low sodium. So I bought what I found.
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 2/3 cup uncooked pearl barley. This was the first time I’d ever bought or cooked barley, despite the fact that I really like beef barley soup. Go figure, huh?
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt. You can probably omit the salt if you don’t use low-sodium beef broth. I did, but then again, I’m trying to keep my salt intake down. Remember you can always add salt; you can’t remove it.
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Pepper is always good with beef.


These instructions assume you’re making this on the stovetop. I’ll update this blog post when I have pressure cooker instructions. I need to experiment.

  1. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
  2. Add beef to pot; cook 4-6 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently.
  3. Remove beef from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  4. Add vegetables to pot; cook 6-8 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates.
  5. Return beef to pot with beef broth and bay leaf; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
  6. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 1 1/2 hours or until beef is tender, stirring occasionally.
  7. Stir in pearl barley; cover and simmer 45 minutes or until pearl barley is tender.
  8. Stir in salt and pepper.
  9. Discard bay leaf before serving.

Keep in mind that the longer you cook the pearl barley or let it sit in the hot soup, the more liquid it will absorb. The net result could be more of a stew than a soup. If you want a soupier soup, either reduce the amount of barley or increase the amount of broth.

This yields about six-eight servings, depending on serving size. I think it would be excellent with some crusty bread on a cold winter day.

Want a printable version of this recipe? Download it as a PDF.

Construction: My Finished Kitchen

It’s been a long, ongoing project but it’s finally done.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

This morning, I put the finishing touches on my kitchen when I finally removed the paper backing from an adhesive light strip and stuck the over cabinet lighting to the cabinet tops. At this point, all the difficult work in the kitchen is done. There’s just some trim around the floor, which I’ll likely do next week some time.

I decided to sum up the entire project with pictures and links to related blog posts. When you buy a home that’s already finished, chances are you have no idea what went into building it. This blog post will give readers a pretty good idea of what’s “under the hood” in a kitchen and how I built mine. Although it’s been mostly done — and certainly in use — for the past eight months, it’s nice to take a look back and remember what I did, with the help of contractors and friends, to get where I am today.

The Long Road

Framed Kitchen Wall
The back wall of my kitchen in December 2014. The framing was done and I’d just begun the wiring.

I started planning my kitchen well over a year ago. Back then, all I had was a framed out wall between the future kitchen and the bathroom behind it. I knew I wanted a galley kitchen with an island for the stove and breakfast bar. The framing was done in September and I didn’t wait long to take the next step.

Final Floor Plan
Here’s the framing floor plan with wall widths taken into consideration.

Kitchen Drawing
Here’s Home Depot’s first stab at my kitchen.

That next step was to talk to the folks at Home Depot and Lowes about kitchen cabinets and appliances. I go into some detail about that in a blog post about planning the kitchen. That’s also where you can read about getting quotes for cabinets and the things that were important to me that led me to finally place an order with Home Depot for Kraftmaid custom cabinets and granite countertops. And because I wanted my kitchen to be “perfect,” I also arranged for professional installation.

I actually ordered the appliances more than a week before I ordered the cabinets and countertops. I ordered them from Home Depot, too, taking advantage of their big “Black Friday” appliance sale to buy a Samsung Dishwasher, a Samsung Range, and a Whirlpool refrigerator, as well as a Samsung washer and dryer for my laundry room. Not long after placing the order, I realized that the refrigerator I’d ordered would be too wide for the space framed out for it; I had to change the order to buy a slightly narrower model.

Once the cabinet dimensions and layout were set in stone (so to speak), I could build the stub wall for the center island. I had a framer over to do a few other odd framing jobs, including the wall around the stairwell, which was open to the area below. I copied the way he did that wall to build the island’s stub wall. Then, after a lot of measuring — “measure twice, cut once” — I screwed it down into the floor, making the exact location where my center island cabinets, stove, and countertop would go.

I did the wiring for the whole place, including the kitchen. I was crazy about including outlets and placed the ones on the countertops three feet apart with alternating circuits. I added two more outlets on the island. I originally had the refrigerator on its own circuit, but electrical inspector said it had to be on the same as one of my 20 amp outlet circuits. Likewise, I had the over/under cabinet lighting outlet and switch on a 20 amp outlet circuit but the inspector said it had to be on a different circuit. So I wired it into the loft’s circuit. The same went for the exhaust fan, which they allowed me to put in the wall rather than the ceiling; I had to wire that into the living room circuit. When all that was done and the electrical inspector was satisfied, I got the okay to cover — that meant I could have them do the insulation and drywall work.

Kitchen Drywall
Here’s the kitchen with the drywall done and the painting almost done. The large opening is for the fridge and its cabinet; the small opening would be my pantry.

In January, a contractor began work on the insulation, drywall, and painting for my home. I think the task was a lot bigger than they had expected — especially the drywall for my 20-foot tall interior wall and vaulted ceilings. As the drywall was finished, each room — including my kitchen, of course, suddenly began feeling like a room. They’d put in the shell for my living space. I left for a trip to Arizona while they were still working on it, but when I returned in mid-February, I was thrilled to see mostly painted and ready for the next step.

Delivered Cabinets
The cabinet installers unboxed and inspected each cabinet before bringing them upstairs.

Not a moment too soon! I got right to work on the electrical outlets and lighting. I needed the outlets done before the appliances would be delivered and I couldn’t get in the way of the cabinet installers, who were coming next. I wired a lot of outlets in a very short time. I took delivery of the cabinets the day before the installers came to measure again, unbox the cabinets, inspect them, and carry them upstairs.

Then it was off to California with the helicopter for frost season. I stayed a few days before returning home.

When I got back, the cabinet installers returned and got to work. They did most of the job in two days. There were some minor problems. Two cabinet doors needed to be replaced and the lower shelf unit was the wrong color. They ordered replacement parts and more trim.

Here’s how my kitchen looked by the end of the first day of cabinet installation work.

The appliances came a day or two later, on February 28 — the delivery date I’d specified three months before. (I really know how to cut things close.) I’d had just enough time over the previous day to prepare vinyl adhesive plank flooring for under the fridge, dishwasher, and stove. The rest of the floor would get Pergo and the manufacturer recommended that the appliances not be placed on top of “floating flooring.” The vinyl was practical, and didn’t look bad. It would be mostly covered anyway.

The appliance delivery went very smoothly. There was some confusion about the refrigerator two weeks later when I turned on the circuit it was plugged into — it wouldn’t work. But then I pulled it away from the wall and realized the installers hadn’t plugged it in all the way. Those darn tamper-resistant outlets!

Kitchen in Progress
With the appliances installed, it started looking like a kitchen.

The countertop guys came and took exact measurements based on the cabinet installation. It would be a while before they were back with the countertops. Before they left, they told me I’d need corbels to help support the weight of the granite over the void of the breakfast bar area. I went in search of an appropriately sized, relatively attractive solution and came up empty. So I found a company that made corbels and ordered four of them, placing a rush order so they’d be at my home on time.

Cabinet Pulls
I wanted something unique and I found it — at Home Depot, if you can believe that.

Meanwhile, the cabinet guys came back and finished up their work on the cabinets. That included replacing the bad doors and off-color shelves, adding trim, and adjusting doors and drawers. They also installed all of the cabinet and drawer pulls. I’d chosen an unusual twig design available online through Home Depot. (The twig seemed to go well with the design of my great room sconce lighting, which features a sort of vine support.) They did a fine job, but they’d ultimately have to return one more time for some final adjustments. This is one of the best things about working with Home Depot; the contractors they send do the job right, no matter how many trips it takes. And there’s no surprise on pricing. (I wish I could say that about my drywall contractor.)

Track Lighting
Jim and Cy hung the track lighting. (I couldn’t do it on my own.) Their wives, Kriss and Alix, came along and a dinner party broke out.

Track Light Head
I chose these art glass light heads for the hallway and kitchen.

Some friends came by one evening to help me with the track lighting in the kitchen and hallway. I’d bought the tracks and 10 art glass light fixtures at Home Depot but was unable to hang them with just one pair of hands. The beauty of track lighting is that you can easily add, move, and point fixtures wherever light is needed. and with the right track heads, it doesn’t have look like a throwback from the 1970s. I thought I’d be helping Jim, but Cy stepped in and the two of them knocked off the job in no time at all. That cost me a smoked rib dinner and was so totally worth it (especially since it gave me an excuse to make and eat some ribs, too).

Bob and I attached the corbels one Saturday or Sunday. I rewarded him with a fresh-baked quiche. By this point, I’d begun using my stove pretty regularly, although I still lived in my RV.

When the corbels for the breakfast bar support arrived, my friend Bob came with a set of forstner drill bits and helped me install them with special screws I’d bought at Home Depot. Each screw is inset; one of these days, I’ll cover the holes with wood buttons.

The countertops came next.I felt sorry for the guys who had to carry those huge granite slabs up the stairs. They did a great job in only a few hours, handling the installation of my under-counter composite granite sink as part of the job. I was thrilled that the 4 x 8 island came in one piece; the 12-foot main countertop was split in two at the sink but the seam is barely visible. I should mention here that I’d decided early on to keep the island at just one level rather than raise the breakfast side. This gives me a huge surface for food preparation.

Finished Countertops
At this point kitchen was at least 90% done. You can see in this shot that only one of my three hanging pendant lights have been hung.

First Cup of Coffee
First cup of coffee in my new kitchen.

On March 28, 2015 I moved my coffee maker upstairs and made coffee in my new home for the first time. While that might not sound like much, it was a huge deal for me.

Almost Done Floor
I almost got the floor done in time for my kitchen unpacking get-together with friends.

Meanwhile, I’d been working hard on the Pergo floor, starting at the east end of the room and working my way toward the kitchen. I had planned a get-together with some of my girlfriends to unpack my kitchen boxes and I really wanted the floor done before they arrived. Unfortunately, I came up just shy of being finished. But we unpacked the boxes anyway and I put most of the things I’d packed two years before in Arizona. It was great being able to use my Calphalon pots and pans and Mikasa dinnerware again after two years of cheap Silverstone and Corelle in the RV.

Drawer Organizer
I love keeping kitchen drawer contents neatly organized and these bamboo dividers were perfect for the job.

I bought bamboo drawer organizers at the local Bed Bath and Beyond to organize silverware and kitchen gadgets in the drawers. I really like being able to keep the drawers organized and prevent gadgets from shifting around when I open and close the drawers.

I did a few more trips to California for frost work. I was enjoying the ability to commute down there when needed so I could spend the rest of my time working on my home.

My dishwasher, right after installation.

The plumbers came back at March month-end to finish all the plumbing work. That included hooking up the sink and dishwasher. I celebrated by loading the dishwasher. That night, I slept in my new home for the first time.

I installed my over-cabinet lighting. I’d bought two adhesive LED lighting kits — one for over the cabinets and one for under the cabinets. Since the over-the-cabinet lighting was a straight run, I ran the tape, fastened it down temporarily with masking tape, and plugged it in. It was great indirect lighting. But I put off installing the under cabinet lighting since it would take three separate runs and I hadn’t quite figured out how I’d do it.

Wine Fridge in Closet
I have my priorities straight; I built my pantry shelving to accommodate my wine fridge.

I built shelves in the pantry out of white Melamine board. (I detest those crappy white wire shelves you can buy in kits.) That gave me plenty of space to store food and countertop appliances. (I’d already decided that this kitchen would not have cluttered countertops.) I’d put an outlet in the pantry specifically for my wine fridge, so I designed the lowest shelf high enough to fit the wine fridge under it. (The wine rack shown beside the fridge in this photo was subsequently moved out of the pantry and into a dedicated “bar” area I set up months later.)

I bought three bar stools designed for countertop height surfaces. Although a lot of my friends had been telling me to buy comfortable stools with cushions and backs, I decided to go with a simpler and cheaper solution until I could find the “right” stools. But after using them for the past eight months, I’ve decided that they are the right stools for me. No need to get super comfortable at the breakfast bar; I have a dining room table and sofa in the same room. These are light, easy to move around, and they stack when I set my Roomba loose to vacuum for me.

I finally finished the floor, although I didn’t even start doing the trim. That’s when I felt ready to share a progress report on my blog. On April 7, I posted my first kitchen video tour.

Kitchen on April 7, 2015
Here’s what my kitchen looked like on April 7, 2015. I made a video that day to show it off.

After that, it was mostly trim and finish that needed to be done. I worked on it between more trips to California, including one in late April to retrieve my helicopter, and a lot of work I had begun doing outside in my garden and on my deck.

Pendant Lighting
I finally hung the pendant lighting with a friend in mid April.

Another friend helped me hang the three pendant lights over the breakfast bar. I’d hung one with Jim and Cy but had to wait until two more like it were in stock at Home Depot.The trick was getting them lined up when the ceiling they hung from sloped. The job was nearly impossible with one person but relatively quick and easy with two.

I hung a painting by a friend that happened to fit perfectly in the area over my sink. I later replaced it with a very large clock. I also moved the utensil rack I’d hung under one cabinet to the other side of the sink and packed up my canisters for sale on Craig’s List.

Spice Shelves
These spice shelves fit nicely onto one wall of my pantry.

I added spice shelves to one wall of my pantry so I can keep all my spices handy and organized. I find that it’s a lot easier to put things away when they have a specific place — and a lot easier to find them when you need them. I blogged about some of the organization features I’ve incorporated into my new home.

Kitchen Window Sill
My kitchen windowsill was one of the first I installed.

I installed a windowsill on the kitchen window. That window would see a parade of radios ranging from a small boom box to a big boom box to a small iHome — all of which I already had. (I might not watch much TV, but the radio is nearly always on here.) I’ve recently gotten some cedar planking with bark edges to replace all my windowsills, but I suspect I’ll tackle that huge project in the summer months.

Pantry Door
The pantry doorway got a curtain instead of a door.

I trimmed out the doorway for the pantry when I realized that I just wasn’t interested in spending a lot of money on a custom door for its narrow doorway. I used a spring rod and a curtain to close off the area. That was probably the best solution, considering that my wine fridge generated a bit of heat; a door would have turned that space into a warm room. The curtain introduces leaves to the design, which, of course, goes great with the twigs.

I didn’t do much over the summer. I was busy with life and doing things outdoors. The kitchen was nearly done and was in full use. I don’t have any pictures of newly completed tasks — just lots of pictures of food, especially baked goods.

Last week I got back to work on the kitchen. I unpacked the silk plants and baskets I’d had over the cabinets in my Arizona kitchen and put some of them in place over my kitchen cabinets. Although the jury is still out among my Facebook friends, I like the way they add depth to the otherwise empty space up there.

Fire Extinguisher
Here’s something I hope I never have to use.

I also bought and installed a good-sized fire extinguisher inside the pantry door. I have one downstairs in the RV garage, but I thought it was a good idea to have one handy in the kitchen, too.

The Finishing Touch

I considered my kitchen “finished” the other day when I finally installed the under-cabinet lighting.

I honestly don’t know why I put it off so long. All I needed to do was figure out how to run the light tape under the cabinets and buy some 20 gauge wire and electrical connectors. Once I had the parts I needed, I had to cut the tape, temporarily put it in place with masking tape, and run that 20 gauge wire between the cabinets. That turned out to be the hardest part; one of the cabinet pairs had a very tight fit. Then I connected everything together, plugged in the power supply, and flipped the switch.

And there was light!

I was glad I’d used masking tape for a temporary mount. I’d placed the light strip on the bottom of the cabinets, facing down. As a result, when they were turned on, they reflected in my absurdly shiny granite countertops. I didn’t want to see those tiny points of light, even as reflections. So I mounted the lights on the bottom trim of the cabinets, facing the wall. Much better.

I then climbed on top of the countertops, dusted off the top of the cabinets, and used the tape’s adhesive backing to permanently secure the over-cabinet lighting to the top of the cabinets. I rearranged the silk plants and baskets, climbed down, and flipped on all the switches to admire my handiwork.

My Finished Kitchen
Shot before dawn on a cloudy day, this photo shows my kitchen with all lights turned on. Can you believe how reflective my countertops and stovetop are?

I should mention here that when I wired the kitchen for this lighting, I placed a 2-socket outlet over the top cabinets and wired each outlet to a separate switch beneath the top cabinets. Doing this made it possible to use two separate power supplies and turn on each light string independent of the other. So I could have upper lights on, lower lights on, or both sets of lights on. The power supplies are hidden in plain sight eight feet off the ground, behind the upper cabinet trim and under the silk plants.

I’ll do another video tour one of these days. I actually shot one but didn’t like the way it turned out.

Practical Use: The Verdict

No blog post about a finished kitchen would be complete without a quick summary of how practical it is. Remember, I designed this whole thing, from its size and the placement of walls, to the selection and location of cabinets, appliances, and countertops.

I’m not a kid anymore and I’ve lived in enough homes with kitchens to know what works and what doesn’t work. While many people seem satisfied to hand over kitchen design to an architect or kitchen planner, I wasn’t that interested in their ideas of what would work. So I take full responsibility for everything that’s in my kitchen today.

For the most part, I got it right. The placement of the refrigerator, sink, and stove is in the classic triangle that most kitchen designers recommend. I set up the kitchen so that the left side was for food prep and the right side was for serving. So everything I need to make a meal is on the left and everything I need to serve a meal is on the right. With access around both sides of the island, I can be cooking while a companion sets the table. Or fetches himself a glass and something to drink.

In late June, when I started dating a guy who liked to cook, I was very pleased to see that my kitchen was spacious enough for two without getting in each other’s way. Plenty of room to get past each other behind the island, too.

With counter space right by the open refrigerator door, there’s always someplace to put the items going into or coming out of the refrigerator. The trash is also nearby, making it easy to clean out the fridge when something in there is looking funky.

Dishwasher next to the sink is a no-brainer, of course. I put it on the right side mostly because my dishes are stored on the right side. But it’s also the location of the dishwasher in my last four homes. Maybe that’s standard?

I didn’t get a disposal for the sink and I halfway regret that. I can always add it; there’s a free outlet under the sink just for that purpose. I do a lot of composting and feed salad scraps to my chickens, so I don’t really need it. It does come in handy, however, when rinsing plates after a meal. Like I said, I can always add it later.

Although I thought I’d be using my countertop appliances — think Instant Pot, mixer, food processor, blender, bread machine, ice cream maker, dehydrator, vacuum sealer, toaster — on my main countertop, it turns out that the island countertop makes a much better surface. It’s right next to the pantry where most of these items are stored, so it’s very convenient for the heavier appliances, such as my mixer. Using the appliances there also keeps the rest of my countertop clear for other use, such as staging food to be prepped or stored.

The island has also become the go-to place for meals either alone or with one or two friends. I sit there with my morning coffee and journal, gazing out the window as I plan my day. Friends sit there to keep me company while I cook or clean up after a meal.

So I definitely got the island right, even if it was by accident.

Storage is good, too — although I honestly wish I could have made the pantry larger. I have plenty of room for my pots, pans, plates, utensils, and gadgets. I love the fact that there are no food items in any cabinet — everything edible is either in the refrigerator or the pantry. The pantry can fit all of the food on hand and most — but not all — of my countertop appliances. I store the appliances I use least — my bread machine and ice cream maker — downstairs on shelves in my shop area. I might set up some new shelves just inside the RV garage door for these items — I’m getting an upright freezer next week for that area and shelves beside it might be a good idea to keep these things handy. We’ll see.

So other than wishing the pantry could be larger — which is not possible at this point — and not having a disposal in the sink — which can be added later — I’m very pleased with the way the kitchen turned out. It might be small, but it’s extremely functional and easy to use.

Certainly something to be proud of.

Low-Fat, Low-Calorie Raisin Bran Muffins

A variation of a Martha Stewart recipe.

This summer, after cleaning out my RV for the last time, I found myself with an unopened box of raisin bran cereal. I like raisin bran, but there are other cereals I like better. So I searched for a way to use up the cereal and remembered how I used to occasionally make raisin bran muffins. So I went in search of a good recipe that called for the ingredients I had on hand. I found this one on

I made them with just one substitution: I didn’t have whole wheat flour so I used just unbleached flour. They came out amazing: moist and tender. I stored the leftover muffins in the fridge and reheated them one at a time with a 30-second zap in my microwave.

Of course, the big drawback to the recipe is also what makes it moist: it contains oil, which is high in fat (duh) and also high in calories. Although the folks at seem to think this is a “low-fat” recipe, it could be better. I decided to try again with a substitution that could make it better: using unsweetened applesauce instead of oil.

This isn’t something I dreamed up. I’d read it in other places and figured this recipe would give me a good opportunity to try it. Here’s my version of the recipe — not only did it come out great, but it’s about 80 calories less per muffin than the Martha version. Like the other version, this makes 6 largish muffins.


  • Nutritional Info
    Nutritional information with the ingredients here. As you might expect, it’s pretty high in fiber.

    1 1/2 cups raisin bran. I used Kellogs, but you can use any brand. If you can get it without sugar-coated raisins (ick), go for it.

  • 3/4 cup 2% milk. You could probably substitute fat-free milk for even less fat and a lower calorie count.
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour. If I had whole wheat flour — it’s on my shopping list now — I’d do 1/2 cup of each.
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar. You could probably reduce the amount of sugar if you wanted to since the unsweetened applesauce is still sweeter than oil. That would further reduce the calorie count.
  • 1/4 cup sauce unsweetened applesauce. If you use sweetened applesauce, you might be able to completely omit the brown sugar. I don’t know; I haven’t tried it. I don’t buy sweetened applesauce.


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a 6-cup muffin tin.
  2. In medium bowl, combine cereal and milk. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.
  3. Stir applesauce, egg, and sugar into cereal mixture and mix well.
  4. In a small bowl, thoroughly combine remaining ingredients. Fold into cereal mixture.
  5. Raisin Bran Muffin
    One of the drawbacks of substituting applesauce for oil is that the muffin sticks to the paper liner. The next time I make this, I’ll put the batter in the individual lightly oiled tin cups.

    Divide batter into prepared muffin cups. Bake 20-25 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

  6. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then move to a wire rack. Store in a sealed container in refrigerator.

If you do make this, let me know what you think. I’m also interested in any substitution ideas you might have.

Mushrooms in the North Cascades, Day 3: Cooking and Heading Home

Cooking with Kent.

The weather finally broke on Sunday morning. Although I love the sound of the rain more than the average person — a side-effect of being a desert dweller for so long — it was nice to not hear it that morning. I dressed, packed my bags, and made the hike down to the parking lot to stow them in my car.

Morning Sun Through Autumn TreesAfter nearly 40 hours of rain, it was a real pleasure to see the early morning sun shining through the trees, casting long shadows across the wooded trail.

As I walked to the Dining Hall for my morning coffee and a bit more time on that puzzle, low clouds lingered over the area. But by the time we’d finished breakfast, it had cleared considerably. I grabbed my camera and went for a walk on one of the short trails that wound through the woods alongside the lake right outside the Dining Hall. When the clouds parted over Pyramid Peak, I could see that there had been snow in the higher elevations — possibly the first snow of the season.

Pyramid Peak in Clouds
Although you can hardly see it in this shot, Pyramid Peak had a generous dusting of snow.

The Cooking Class

Culinary Setup
Kent’s cooking class setup.

Back in a small utility kitchen off the Dining Hall, Kent, the Learning Center chef, was preparing for the culinary part of the course. He’d set up a table and some chairs and gathered ingredients.

Mushroom Galette
Kent’s mushroom galette was not only delicious, but it had an incredibly flaky crust.

Chanterelle Mushrooms
Store-bought chanterelle mushrooms. Kent used them fresh, but also had some dried and powdered mushrooms for the sauce recipe.

Soon we were all gathered together again, watching, listening, and taking notes as he prepared several dishes featuring mushrooms: fresh mushroom pickles, a mushroom galette (pictured), mushroom sauce over pan fried pork tenderloin, mushroom risotto, and mushroom bruschetta. For most of these dishes, he used chanterelle mushrooms, although at least one recipe included a mix. While chanterelles can be found locally, the ones he used were store-bought because (1) it’s illegal to gather mushrooms in a national park (which is where we were) and (2) NCI rules require all ingredients to be obtained through suppliers to limit liability. (It would not have been nice if we were all poisoned because he picked the wrong mushrooms.) His presentation was a lot like watching a cooking show with the added bonuses of being able to ask questions and sample the food. By the time it was over, it was lunchtime but we were all too full to eat in the Dining Hall.

The Trip Home

Fall Color at the NCELC
I took one last shot from the parking lot as I left the Learning Center. It was a really beautiful day.

The course pretty much broke up after that. I’d already packed up my room and loaded my car so I said goodbye to Lee. The other two women in the course were going to try looking for mushrooms on the Rainy Lake trail on the way home and I was hoping to join them. But first I wanted to try photographing some of the reflections in Gorge Lake from the road farther west. So I took off that way, hoping to catch up with them on the road.

Unfortunately, the light wasn’t quite right for the shot I’d imagined. I turned around and headed east on the North Cascades Highway, making tracks. The road was pretty much dry and traffic was light and my Honda is no slug but despite my speed I was unable to catch up with them. And when I got to the Rainy Lake trailhead, it was absolutely packed, with cars stretched out the entrance road onto the main highway. (The longer and more popular Maple Pass Loop trail shares the parking lot.) I drove in optimistically and did find a parking spot, but I didn’t find my classmates. I was a bit disappointed, but not exactly shattered. I decided to do the hike to Rainy Lake again. Maybe I’d meet up with them along the way. Either way, I’d try to get the reflection shots I’d tried to get on Friday.

I didn’t meet up with them, although there were a few more people on the trail. The lake was glassy smooth but clouds had moved in. Still, I got a decent shot of the lake with reflections. Seems like I’ll have to keep trying to get it just right.

Rainy Lake Reflection
With the clouds gone, I could see the fresh snow atop the peaks around Rainy Lake. Can you see both waterfalls in this shot?

I only made one more stop on the way home: Washington Pass. The weather was turning cloudy again and the sky was gray. But there were quite a few people at the pass. I followed the short trail up to the overlook and gazed out at the rocky peaks covered with fresh snow. The yellow leaves or needles of aspen or larch (or both) trimmed the scenery like Bob Ross brushstrokes. Finding myself alone at the overlook for a few minutes, I composed an odd shot of a reflection in a puddle. (Seriously: I can’t get enough reflections in my photographs.)

Washington Pass At Washington Pass
Two shots from the Washington Pass overlook. It’s a shame it had turned into such a cloudy day.

Then it was back on the road, top down, headscarf on. I stopped for gas in Winthrop and kept going. The fall color was in full swing in the Methow Valley and it was a joy to drive through it.

After a stop to visit a friend in Chelan, I made my way home. I pulled into the driveway at about 8 PM. I had a lot of work to do around the house before catching the 5:40 AM flight to Seattle and Anchorage the next morning.

But that’s another story.

Summing Up

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. It was was great to be in such a beautiful place, surrounded by interesting, intelligent, and thoughtful people who are in tune with the environment and actually care.

It was also great to be “off the grid” for a few days — I had no cell phone coverage and minimal Internet access. I got a chance to keep up my journal and start some “mindfulness” exercises to help me focus on what’s around me. I need more experiences like this. I really look forward to next season when I can attend base camp there — hopefully with better weather — and get more hiking in.

As for mushroom hunting — well, I already made two forays into the forrest with friends since then, one successful and one not. I’m planning another mushroom hunt later this week and will report here about how I do.

Mushrooms in the North Cascades, Day 2: The Mushroom Hunt

Hunting for mushrooms on a very rainy day.

I was in the Dining Hall for coffee by 6:30 AM. Later, when breakfast was served at the buffet line, I was joined by a few classmates. Because we’d be going out into the field later that day, we made sandwiches and packed them up in bags to go.

Then it was back to the classroom for a discussion of what we’d be doing out in the field. The idea was to collect as many varieties of mushrooms as we could. Later, when we returned to the classroom, we’d try to identify them using a key Lee had for us.

Or course, it was still raining. The Learning Center staff brought out a bin of orange rain coats and rain pants. I took a pair of rain pants. I’d already snagged two plastic bread bags from the sandwich bar to put over my socks and under my hiking shoes. I was determined to keep my body warm and dry.

Mushrooms on a Tree

More Mushrooms

Puffy Mushrooms

Beefy Mushrooms

Rock Hard Mushroom
Here are some of the mushrooms I picked, in their natural habitat.

We headed down to the parking lot and loaded into a big van. Our mushroom hunt would be outside the town of Marblemount, a 45-minute drive. One of the NCI staff members — Derek, I think? — drove. We parked outside the gates for a seasonally closed campground, got out with our buckets, and, after another briefing by Lee, headed down the closed road. We would meet again at the van at 12:30.

I don’t think I’ve ever purposely walked in such a hard rain. It poured. I was warm and snug inside my raincoat and the bright orange rain pants and was really proud of my foresight to put those plastic bags over my socks. I probably would have frozen to death without them. I walked down the road, wandering into the thick, green undergrowth on either side, photographing and picking all kinds of mushrooms. Occasionally, I’d meet up with one of my classmates and spend a few minutes exploring with him or her. It was fun — believe it or not — despite the rain. The hour flew by quickly. When I checked my watch, I was very surprised to see that it was already 12:30. While my companion at the moment continued down the road, I headed back.

Some of my classmates were already there. The others straggled in. Soon we were almost all there. Almost. The one person who was missing was Derek — the guy with the keys for the locked van.

Long story short: time ticked by and Derek did not appear. We managed to flag down a car, which used its horn to try to signal Derek to return. No joy. Lee finally climbed on board for a ride back to Marblemount where there was either phone service or a phone. The rest of us stood out in the rain, speculating on what could have happened to Derek and how a search and rescue might work. The woods were too dense for us to look for him anywhere off the road and the remaining NCI staffer with us didn’t want us out of his sight. But at 2 PM, we saw an orange slicker and rain pants heading up the road, carrying a basket of mushrooms. It was Derek and he’d simply gotten lost. He’d been gone a full 2-1/2 hours.

We were so happy to see him that we didn’t give him the grief he probably deserved. (We did tease him for the rest of the weekend.) He let us into the van and we made a mad dash for our packed lunches. We ate on the way back to Marblemount, where we found Lee and canceled our rescue request with the folks at the Learning Center.

Moss on a Metal Post
You know a place gets a lot of rain when moss can grow like this on a metal post four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, I was quite wet, even under my raincoat. The wetness had found its way under my arms and seeped in at the seams for my sleeves. As a result, the underside of my shirt’s arms were soaked. (How weird is that?)

Back at the Learning Center, we went back to the dorms for hot showers and a change of clothes. It felt good to be in warm, dry clothes again. Unfortunately, I’d only brought one pair of shoes and they were absolutely soaked through. So I wore my slippers when we gathered in the classroom a while later, being careful to avoid puddles to keep them dry.

In the classroom, we laid out our finds on big sheets of white paper. I thought I had a good variety until I saw what my classmates had brought back. One of them had even managed to find a few pounds of chanterelles — a highly prized edible mushroom.

My Mushrooms
Here are the mushrooms I found.

Tiny Mushroom
I might have won the prize for tiniest mushroom brought back. I’ve included my pen point for scale.

We walked around looking at each other’s finds. Then we worked with a key Lee had to try to identify the mushroom groups. A key is basically a decision tree in table format. You find the first identifying feature — in this case, spore color, which Lee provided — and then check other features down the appropriate column(s) to find a match for gills, stems, attachments, habitat, and textures. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the key, mostly because you need to do a spore print to get spore color to use it, but I’m no expert (and likely never will be) and I assume it was pretty typical.

After running through a few identification exercises, the group broke up and went back to the dorm for wine. I stayed behind, mostly because I didn’t think my slippers would survive with the extra walk to the dorms and back. Instead, I went down to the Dining Hall and got comfortable with a cup of hot tea and my journal. Someone had started a jigsaw puzzle and left it abandoned on a table and I worked on that for a while.

Mushroom Dessert
No mushrooms were harmed in the preparation of this dessert.

When the group came back, it was dinner time. Although I don’t remember the main course, I’ll never forget the dessert: a chocolate and meringue treat designed to look like a log covered with mushrooms. It was very tasty!

Afterwards, it was back to the classroom for more identification practice. We were at it until after 9 PM again. Then back to my room where I slept like a log.