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HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE GELATIN SALADS

IN A WORLD that prizes celebrity chefs, handcrafted cheeses, and locally grown vegetables, few foods get a worse rap than gelatin salads. Yet those of us who crave a cranberry-nut or strawberry-sour cream molded salad remain staunch defenders of this lost genre of cooking - even though we may not go out of our way to advertise that fact.

I have to confess that until one memorable Thanksgiving Day, I was more of a scoffer than a fan of these much-maligned dishes. In my childhood home, gelatin salads never put in an appearance. Nor did I prepare them when I was out on my own. To my prejudiced thought, gelatin salads represented all that was mediocre about cooking.

My relationship with gelatin salads continued to remain frosty until 15 years ago, when my husband and I joined friends to celebrate Thanksgiving at their home. When the 10 of us gathered around the overflowing table, I naturally noticed the domed orange gelatin salad sandwiched between the mashed potatoes and candied yams. But I figured I could easily satisfy my hunger with more appealing offerings.

As the serving dishes began passing from hand to hand, I watched as the others scooped a generous portion of the creamy orange salad onto their plates. It was impossible to ignore the enthusiastic responses to what was obviously a beloved tradition.

I admit that my curiosity was piqued. So when the molded salad came my way, I spooned a tiny mound on my plate while asking myself, "How bad can this be if it's earned a place at one of the year's most important dinners?"

The answer immediately followed my first taste. To my amazement, I discovered I liked this retro salad with the bite-size orange segments. No, "like" wasn't the operative word; I loved it. I wanted more, please. I needed the recipe.

In the years since, I have shared the directions with others seeking an easy-to-fix holiday side dish that partners nicely with turkey and makes a dandy solo midnight snack. I have heard nothing but rave reviews from everyone who's tried it.

All that's required are five ingredients and enough patience to let the mold set up properly. If you tend to be a purist in the kitchen, don't forget to toss in a large measure of open-mindedness. That could be the most indispensable ingredient of all.

A MUFFIN FOR EVERY SEASON

YOU CAN TELL what time of year it is at our house by the muffins we eat for breakfast. thanks to the largess of gardening friends and Mother Nature, our muffin season shadows the harvest calendar from spring through fall. And since I rarely refuse a gift from a garden or ignore a berry patch, I've had plenty of practice finding ways to satisfy my muffin mania with freshly picked fruits and vegetables.

This love affair with muffins is nothing new for me. Nor does it owe its existence strictly to my desire to use garden bounty or berries that I can walk out my door and pick till my fingers turn purple. Yes, I'm a practical cook. But I have to confess I also have a weakness for these warm-from-the-oven quick breads that perfume my kitchen with tempting aromas and make such lovely gifts. For me, they represent the ideal food. Muffins taste great, are easy to whip up, and they store well. What more could you ask for?

Ever since I can remember, muffins have held a place in my affections. During childhood summers at the beach, I'd pad down to an ocean-front bakery in my bathrobe and slippers to buy a fresh muffin every morning. And throughout grade school and high school, no trip to Boston was complete without stopping at Jordan Marsh, where my mom always bought a dozen sugar-crowned blueberry muffins to take back with us on the train ride home.

When I had my own apartment, I discovered the joys of muffins created from a host of other ingredients. I experimented with coconut and carrots, oranges and cranberries, and mustard and cheddar - to name just a few of the combos I've become attached to over the years.

Now that I live in Montana where home gardens abound, I'm the grateful recipient of all kinds of ingredients with muffin potential. Late spring starts the annual cycle with rhubarb muffins. The recipe I rely on contains some whole wheat flour, which lends a refreshing nutty flavor to the streusel-topped treat.

Come mid-summer, tangy huckleberries begin ripening in our part of the Rocky Mountains and pinch-hit admirably in my long-cherished blueberry muffin recipe. According to the friend who shared that treasure with me decades ago, it's supposed to be the recipe that made the bakery at Jordan Marsh so famous. I can't verify that it's authentic, but I can vouch for its universal appeal.

Late summer finds me with bags of zucchini that none of my neighbors can jettison fast enough. Fortunately, the zucchini adds just the right amount of moisture to an unusual chocolate cinnamon muffin that offers no hint as to the secret ingredient. This is perhaps more a cake than a muffin but that doesn't seem to bother anyone. And autumn for me is synonymous with home-grown pumpkins and winter squashes, which impart lush golden tones to one of the simplest of all muffins to make.

After my gardening friends cease harvesting and the berries disappear from our hillsides, you know winter has set in at our house because banana muffins now show up on the breakfast table. As supermarket staples, bananas do an admirable job of seeing me through until the next season's rhubarb puts in an appearance and repeats the delicious cycle all over again.