Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pumpkin-Ginger-Chocolate Muffins....or Oh, The Hypocrisy!


Remember this post?  In which I complain about eating too much and feeling crummy?  In which I resolve to keep foods simple and close to the source?

Yeah.  That lasted three days.  Less than that, actually.  But that's neither here nor there.

I'm a hypocritical idealist.  Sue me.  I see the world in a certain, simple way...and figure that it's a matter of a practical course of action that will get me there.  But reality has its own ways and means as well.

Aaah well, there's always tomorrow to get on board with the right kind of eating.  Whatever that means, really.

So.  The husband took down the Christmas tree today and my kids began to clear out the holiday detritus.  And what's good for the (Ryan) goslings is good for the goose.  My kitchen pantries are in need of the same.

Hence, these muffins I made today.

With the holidays come holiday baking and cooking.  With all that come extra ingredients...chocolate chips, nuts and other sundry odds and ends.

When Kirby planned the meal for today, and put regular ol' Pumpkin Muffins on the menu...I saw a golden opportunity.  As luck/fate/my own damned inefficiency would have it, I had no ground ginger in the pantry.  But...I did have a three-inch leftover knob of fresh ginger left over from the beef pho I'd made the night before.  Ha!

And, I also had a half-bag of mini chocolate chips.  Double ha!

I also have various nuts in my freezer and I was two seconds away from adding a handful when I remembered that my husband "prefers not to have nuts added to baked goods".  So I left them out (this time...I found out later, to my chagrin, that he would have been fine had I added some pecans - jerk).

I used the last bag of pumpkin purée in the freezer (seems like just yesterday...or September...when I was baking all those pumpkin pieces for processing).  It also occurs to me as I type this RIGHT NOW that any kind of puréed vegetable might work here.  Squash, definitely.  Carrot, maybe.  Rutabaga?  Hmmm.  And the extras?  You are only limited by what pantry items you need to get rid of...except for pinto beans or similar.  That, I'm afraid, I cannot condone.  Shredded coconut?  Wheat germ?  Flax seed?  Raisins?  Canned pineapple, drained?  Get crazy!

I know I was all on my high horse a couple of days ago about eating right and eating simple...and I know, I know.  You're right.  Baked sweets does not constitute eating right.

Fine.  I eat my words.  And my muffin.

NEW FEATURE: Printable Recipe Here

Thursday, December 26, 2013

God Bless Us Everyone!

A full 24+ hours has eclipsed since Christmas Day, and I am now ready to recap the Cratchit Christmas Dinner.

I feel that post-holiday letdown moreso this year than any other...and it definitely has less to do with the lack of presents under the Christmas tree and more to do with no big holiday menus to plan for and execute.

Anyway, pictures and commentary and highlights:

It was a rather quiet Christmas, with the Nelson 5 and my parents.  Going off of context clues in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the menu consisted of roast goose, mashed potatoes, applesauce, sage and onion stuffing, and a Christmas pudding.  The point was to keep it simple and sparse.

Oh yeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah.

This is what a Christmas Pudding looks like.  I made it the Friday before Christmas day...but I read recipes that talked about keeping it in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

Whaaaaaaaaa...?  That's a ServSafe violation if ever I saw one.

But, that's why the recipes also say to sprinkle brandy on the pudding every 7-10 days.  It's so damned well-preserved that it won't spoil without serious negligence.

As you can see, setting the ambiance was everything.  Kirby made these place cards (glue job done by Peanut, I think, though), while I printed and prepared seven copies of Act 1, Scene 8 from the play adaptation of A Christmas Carol...for a Reader's Theater performance just before dinner.

Then, my mom brought chestnuts.  As it turns out, there's several ways to prepare them - roast 'em, boil 'em, grill 'em...

For the first attempt, we opted for microwaving them.  Bad idea.

They burn rather quickly.  As you can see. And this picture was taken about 20 seconds after the entire micro was smoking.  Good thing temperatures had risen into the thirties from the negatives of the days previous.  It wasn't nearly as cold in my house when we had to open up the windows.

Plan B.  Using my mom's old-school popcorn popper.  Within 10 minutes, we had roasted them enough to split the skins easily.

Frankly, I was not impressed by the taste of a whole chestnut...kind of sweet, kind of tough.  I see why people choose to chop them or puree them.

Oh yeah - the photo op moment right here.  When several of us gather around the "open fire" to "roast" our chestnuts.  It was our hope to make Mel Torme and Nat King Cole proud.

I must say, the simplicity of the meal made Christmas morning prep work easy-peasy.  I ordered a pre-roasted goose and I just needed to warm it in the oven for about an hour.  The stuffing I made the day before and that just needed about 45 minutes in the oven (by the way, a moister stuffing WITH oysters for dear old Dad...see this post here about the last time I served my father stuffing).  The applesauce I'd done in the crockpot the day before, thus just needed to be warmed in the morning.  By the way, I could not resist a little I added
a bag of fresh cranberries.

I know the picture is small, but this is what our dinner table looked like. Stuffing, potatoes, goose, applesauce, and a loaf of bread (from front to back).

After the meal, which, by the way, we did not feel incredibly stuffed, we watched the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol.

Then, it was time for the Christmas pudding...which I forgot to warm up in the steamer.  We settled for nuking it in the now chestnut smoke-free microwave and drizzling caramel sauce over it.  It was okay.  I will not be making and eating it again soon.  It's heavy, raisiny, and bready.  The kiddos could hardly get one bite down - too alcohol-tasting, they said.  The best part, though, of the pudding was setting it on fire.  Basically, I warmed a ladleful of whiskey, then I held an open flame to the edge and it caught instantly.  Pouring it over the pudding spread the blue flame out in a cool, surreal kind of way.

It was nice and quiet and relatively uneventful.  A real blessing.

Going to be hard to top this Christmas Dinner next year, I tell ya.  In fact, I'm sure it will have to involve costumes.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Time to Refocus

Okay.  I know I've got a Cratchit Christmas Dinner to recap and illustrate for you here, and I have every intention of doing so.

But, first...something that's on my mind: food.

You're shocked, yes?

I happen to be on a short hiatus from school and work, and I admit, I have the tiniest desire to be working or studying right now.  I mean, someone to crack the whip at my back.  It is all so easy to fall into a lifestyle of sloth during this holiday season.

I spent last weekend at my in-laws house.  They live in the country + painful below-zero temps = no exercise.  There's a fair amount of sitting on the couch, watching hunting shows or basketball games.  I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, preparing the evening meals (and by golly, I was glad to do it).  Also, my husband's mom firmly believes in three hearty, plentiful meals a day...hard to get my crowd excited about stuffed pork loin when they've just gorged on ham balls and cheesy potatoes.

Thus, coming into today's Christmas dinner, we were already feeling sickly and gluttonous.  The sparse Cratchit theme was actually brilliant, as we didn't terribly overdo our eating.

But.  I still felt rather queaseous at various moments during the day.  And I exercised my digestive and excretory systems more than I probably should have.  I felt lazy, slothful, and fat...and well, I still feel that way, to be honest.

So...what to do now?  The big feasting is done, the New Year (with its Resolution pressure) is looming on the horizon, and I'm definitely feeling the urge to act my health act together.

The exercise thing will resolve itself.  I hope.  Or it won't, and that will be a new problem I will deal with later.  Right now, I'm thinking about food.  I have not been overly mindful over the last several weeks (since before Thanksgiving, really) of calories, fat, sodium, etc. 

And I think it's all catching up with me.  Hence, the name of today's post.  Time to refocus.  Time to keep food and meals as simple and close to the source as possible.

For example, I didn't buy any cereal this week.  It's easy, yes, but it's carby, it's processed, it consists of ingredients masterminded in a chemistry lab.  I bought an extra dozen of eggs instead.  Scrambled eggs with a little hot sauce or salsa is easy...and I know where it came from.

Just need to refocus, that's all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Post Related to Neither Food Nor Christmas

My thermometer reads -16.  That is staying-inside-the-house weather, people. 

Today will be a day for cleaning house, catching up on laundry, prepping for tomorrow's dinner, and watching Christmas movies (today will be "Grinch" and "It's a Wonderful Life", tomorrow "A Christmas Carol").

And speaking of movies, I took my three kids to "The Hobbit" last night.  In 3D.  Watching movies "based on" books I absolutely love is usually painful for me.  For example, Keira Knightley's version of Pride and Prejudice was horrid, but the 1996 Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version is wonderfully spot-on.  The Harry Potter movies give me fits, and even the 'Lord of the Rings' series is missing key scenes from the books.

However, I keep going to these movies, so the discrepancies must not be enough to ruin the experience.

I am still trying to sort out how I feel about the certain "mistakes" in this film.  Usually, I need a couple of days to work through this.  For example, Legolas was not mentioned in the 'Hobbit' book.  At all.  Yes, the dwarves and Bilbo were in his kingdom, but to my knowledge, Legolas was never referred to.  However, for nostalgia's sake (or the same reason the first Bilbo and Elijah Wood/Frodo had brief cameos in the first Hobbit film), Legolas was written into the movie script.  I can forgive that, because, really, it could/would make sense that he'd be there.  Then, we have an Elvish romance.  But wait, it evolves quickly into a three-way Elf-Elf-Dwarf love triangle.


This all happens, by the way, over the course of a day, maybe?  Before the romance really has a chance to become a problem, Bilbo is stuffing the Dwarves into barrels and sending them off down the river.  Which did happen in the book, but Bilbo managed to seal the barrels properly, so that their journey would be uneventful and safe.  Unlike in the movie, where the barrels were not sealed...and there was a fair goodly amount of splashing going on (but no sinking, mind).  Then, because moviegoers crave action or something, a huge action-packed sequence breaks out in which the Elves learn of the Dwarves' river escape and begin pursuit...but the Dwarves are also being hunted by Orcs...who happen to arrive on the scene at the same time.  You would think: "Hm. Dwarves.  Fish in a barrel.  No weapons, no means to hide."  Wrong.  Lady Luck happens to be on the Dwarves' side as various sticks, rocks, axes, polearms come into their hands at certain opportune moments.  And after 25 minutes of hack-and-slash, the Dwarves make it safely out of the clutches of both Elf and Orc.

I wonder if it's a sad reflection of our society today that we can't have boring, secure river escape sequences...we've got to make them as thrilling and hair-raisingly action-packed as possible.  Seems like everything in movies these days must be so fraught with close to death.  Ugh.  Seems morbid to me.

I guess I need to go see Anchorman 2 next or something.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Dinner #1 in Pictures

Two days without my Internets.  While I was at the in-laws.  It was rough.

The in-laws let me be in charge of menus for the Saturday and Sunday night dinners, and I had two very willing sous chefs at my disposal (my brother#1-in-law and his wife).  The challenge was to class it up a little, but keep the foods recognizable for my father and mother and brother#3-in-law.


A Triple-Pork Pork Loin... pork stuffed with ground pork, spinach, apples, and mushrooms, and then wrapped in prosciutto.

Standard Au Gratin potatoes (I was heavy-handed on the cayenne.  I won't apologize for it.)

The Chocolate Silk Tart.  As you can see, I scored out eight slices.  I should have done 16.  Very rich. 

Finished pork loin with its unsightly marks from its time in bondage.

You can tell here that I didn't quite butterfly my loin right...the bottom is too thick.  But still...tasted delicious and not dry at all.

All this above made up Saturday's dinner, which consisted of 17 people.  I also prepared a simple green salad with cranberries, pecans, and blue cheese.  Oh, and a quick green bean sauteed with bacon and onions rounded out the meal.

Sunday's dinner was simpler: an Antipasto Platter, Fettuccine with Bolognese, Garlic Naan (not Italian, but hey!), and a Caesar salad.

Also, between the bottles of wine we brought and the wine my brother and sister-in-law brought...we had nearly a case.  I don't think we drank them all, but we were close.

Next up: an appetizer lunch with some friends tomorrow and the Tiny Tim Christmas Day Dinner!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't Go Out To Eat With Me. Period.

Because I will ruin your dining experience, likely.

Unless that's what you're looking that case, I'm free most evenings of the week and willing to drive just about anywhere.

You all know I'm in my 6th term (or, penultimate, if you're looking to boost vocab) of culinary school...and since week two of the entire program, people have been asking me if it's difficult to eat out because I can't helping critiquing.  And I've usually responded in the affirmative because yeah, knowing what I know about the foodservice industry...? I know all the shortcuts.  I know that lots of people around here aren't terribly discerning in their tastes...and lots of food-type products get passed off as 'gourmet'.

Case in point, my husband's pork roast lunch.

The pork slices were juicy, but otherwise rather flavorless, which made me wonder if it were pre-prepared or what.  The mashed potatoes, although they had green flecks of something in them, tasted like instant.  The stuffing was mushy and moist (it might have been homemade), and the corn was the straight-up gold kernel standard from a can.  And half the plate was covered in a brown gravy...beef gravy.  BEEF. 

Of course, my husband was despondent after I ripped his lunch apart...but he managed to finish it anyway. 

And I don't know what is more head-shaking...the fact that the restaurant serves this...or that people keep ordering it (in the course of our time there, waitresses delivered the pork roast lunch four times).

I suppose this is just one of the minor unpleasantnesses of being in the industry.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Stockpile Recipes, Not Arms

I can hardly resist the magazine aisle at any grocery store/Walmart/gas station.  The explosion in culinary magazines available to everyday readers like me is pretty exciting stuff.

Whole magazines devoted to wine.  To wine with food.  To cookies.  To healthy eating.  To gluten-free eating.  And on and on and on.  Invariably, I leaf through the pages, drool over the food photography, read the articles and tear out any recipes it was likely I'd try.

Erm.  Let me clarify.  I BUY the magazine and take it home first...and then do all that I listed above.  I do not, as a habit, vandalize periodicals I have not paid for.

Sometime earlier this summer, I'd purchased a magazine titled Eating Well.  And I'd clipped out this recipe:

Strawberry-Rhubarb Quinoa Pudding

I mean, I like strawberry and I like quinoa.  AND - I have a half-bag of it in the pantry that I need to use.

What better time to try it, yes?  I knew you'd agree with me.

It doesn't get much more simpler than this.  Boil water, fruit (frozen, straight outta da bag), quinoa, cinnamon, and salt...then reduce to a simmer.  Cover, let sit for about 20 minutes.  Then, add sugar and zest (I didn't have, so I used a splash of juice).  In a separate bowl, whisk the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of water together and mix that into the hot mixture.  Cook for another 2 - 3 minutes until it really thickens up.

Then, pour into into small cups/dishes and chill for an hour.  Done and done.

I didn't do the yogurt topping.  I opted instead to do a quick whipped cream.

The youngest boy really liked it, and he is by far the pickiest kid in the family.  Everyone else cleaned their bowls...and that's always a good sign.  The fruit cooked down into mush, but the flavor was wonderful, and I couldn't help thinking about other fruit-flavor combos to test in the future.  After reading some of the recipe reviews online, I will cut the sugar in half the next time I try this.

This was the picture that went with the recipe in the Eating Well magazine.  Obviously they can pay for food stylists and the like.

Yeah.  And this how the photography works at my house.  My house is so poorly-lit, it's not even funny.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Blur That Is December

November is over (okay, alright, you sticklers, it's been over for two days now), and I shall take today's blog opportunity to recap the month.

Another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is in the books, and I wrote another novel.  Every year I try to write in a different genre (Mainstream, Chick Lit (x2), Young Adult) and for 2013, I tried my hand at a murder mystery.  Since I'm not much of a murder mystery reader, it was rather difficult to write.  However, it is done, and I think it came out a little like a Janet Evanovich hybrid or something.  I reckon I ought to begin editing it soon.

It's also time to catch up on my reading as well.  Right now, I am working on A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and I've got Bram Stoker's Dracula and Shelley's Frankenstein on the list next (I've just recently watched the movie Van Helsing, can you tell?).

Food-wise, the Christmas menu planning is well underway.  For those tuning into to TTOW, BF for the 1st time, our family (and my parents) choose a theme every year for the Christmas Day meal.  We've done this for the last three years, and our themes have included: Mediterranean, Hawaiian, and Cajun.

This year, we're taking a page out of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and recreating the Cratchits' Christmas Eve far, it's looking like this:

Roast Goose (pheasants if goose cannot be effectively procured)
Mashed Potatoes
Sage and Onion Stuffing
Christmas/Plum Pudding

It's a Tiny Tim Christmas!!  They didn't have much...but after all, they had each other!

God Bless Us Everyone.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Leftover Parade

Everyone knows how Thanksgiving works, right?

You make too much food.
You eat too much food.
You try to send home too much food with all your guests.
You still have too much food in your refrigerator even after that.

At this point, you either get creative with the leftovers, or you eat them straight up as is, or you throw them away.  Usually, here at Chez Nelson, we go with the second option until we just can't stand it anymore and then we do #3.

This year, though, I've got different ideas.

This is a Sweet Potato and Turkey Pizza.  I made the dough from scratch, rolled it out to a 1/4" thickness, and used the rest of the Savory Garlic Philly Cooking Creme from the galette for the "sauce".  Had I not that, I would have probably gone with a seasoned olive oil brushing on the crust instead.  I don't think traditional tomato-based pizza sauce would go as well.

My father-in-law had brought me some garden-grown sweet potatoes and I diced them up and roasted them in my 375 oven for about 25 minutes until soft.  Then, I sprinkled them and some diced leftover turkey on top of the crust.  Back into the oven (now at 450 degrees) for about 20 minutes until things start getting brown on the top.

The turkey itself is rather flavorless, but that's okay with the sweet potatoes here.  It lends a little texture and substance to the pie, and looking at these pictures, I do wish I'd chopped a little fresh sage leaves up and sprinkled them on here.  That would given a little extra burst of flavor and color.

Some people dig the challenge of chopping down their own Christmas tree, some people thrive on the Black Friday chaos, but me, personally, this is my own private Herculean task: to artfully and uniquely transform leftovers into delicious goodness.  I feel a little like Cinderella's fairy godmother the night before the big ball.

The game is afoot.  The challenge is on.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

And...It Is Done

My alarm went off at seven-thirty this a.m. because it was time to turn this...

into this...

For the record, I should think about employing a professional part-time my 14-year-old who...doesn't really know much about my Nikon.  By the time I remembered to get a picture of a dish, the pan had been cleaned out.  Also, I didn't get a picture of the entire spread...and who doesn't do THAT!?

Keeping that in mind, here's what I did get for photos.

The first picture is what's left of the Spinach-Artichoke Galette.  Along with a vegetable relish tray, taco dip and chips, and deviled eggs, this was part of the first course.

The middle photo is the finished Lemon-Cranberry Bars, with a dusting of powdered sugar.  I think this one is a definite keeper, and I have been mulling over changes I'd make in the future.

The bottom photo is the Vanilla Bean Ice Cream with a Whiskey Caramel Sauce...which has my nomination for Best Dessert of 2013.  The eggy, rich brioche really set the tone, but since that type of bread is difficult to get around here, I'd experiment with other choices.  Also, the recipe calls for Vanilla Bean, but I'd also try something like a Butter Pecan.  However, I'd never use jarred caramel...I'd alwaysalwaysalways make my own for this dessert (did I tell you all I added Toasted Caramel-flavored whiskey?) At any rate, this dessert was so rich and delicious, that I'm going to continue tweaking it and turn into one of *my* desserts.

Based on commentary around me today, the highlights (and lowlights, probably) include:

1. My dad telling me the Cornbread Stuffing was okay, but that he really liked a more traditional, moist (read: mushy) sage stuffing.

2. My very traditional-food-eating brother-in-law raving about the Spinach-Artichoke Galette.

3. My father-in-law and my dad really liking the Bacon-Mustard Mashed Potatoes.

4. My mom and I finishing a bottle of Nouveau.  Nobody else in the whole house (15 of us) drank nary a drop o' alcohol.  It was a little awkward...until I remembered that I didn't care.

5. The creamed corn, lima beans and bacon, squash bisque and all the other unsung heroes of the table today.

6. The Bread Pudding.  Seriously.  You guys don't even know.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

TP-D3: And Now We Drink Verdejo

You know, dear readers, that I love what I'm doing, right?  That I love four afternoons and nights this week of chopping, stirring, baking, mixing, puréeing, boiling, melting, squeezing, zesting, brining, whisking, and combining for tomorrow's Thanksgiving Feast?


Tomorrow will begin early, only because of the turkey, but otherwise, I will be quite at my leisure.  My parents are arriving at 10 a.m., with their huge 12-cup capacity coffeemaker.  My in-laws (parents, two brothers, sister, and three small children) will arrive around 11, and the first courses will begin at 12.

And I will be ready.

Again, I've loved every minute of the prep process.  I've looked forward to coming home, getting out my knives, doing my mise en place, and working my mojo. 

Things are winding down.  For example, today's task list consisted of.

1. Wash all plates and serving dishes and utensils. Dust ceiling fans.  Vacuum.  Sweep.  Mop.  We may live like savages around here for 364 days out of a year, but that 365th day will be as clean and presentable as possible, savvy?

2. Brine the turkey.  Nothing says Happy Thanksgiving more than trapping a naked, whole poultry in a plastic, salty, spicy funhouse.  Good thing s/he's dead.  (To those offended, no apologies.)  We brined our turkey last year, and it worked so well, we did it again.

3. Assembling and baking the Lemon-Cranberry Pie Bars.  This was a first-time recipe, so I ran it the day case things weren't as they seemed (because I am constantly amazed at the amount of recipes published that don't work as the author wrote).  Note to Reader But Mostly To Self: Do not move bars until they are totally, completely, and utterly cool. Like, not until the next day.  They will crack in unseemly ways, otherwise.

4.  Make and chill the Butternut Squash Bisque.  Remember the squash I'd roasted yesterday?  Today, I sautéed some mirepoix and Granny Smith apples with some chiffonaded sage leaves, which I then tossed with the squash and broth before pureeing it up further in my Ninja.  Tomorrow, it will go in my crockpot to warm, and at that time I will add the cream.  And hey, did you know that it is very likely that squash was a dish at the First Thanksgiving?  That's what NPR Radio told me this morning on my morning commute, anyway.  But, I already had squash on the I tried not to be too self-congratulatory.

Puréed squash is so so so so pretty.
5.  Make the cornbread.  This is actually the cornbread for the stuffing, and I used the recipe straight from the Pioneer Woman's website (you'll have to go here).  Surprisingly easily this recipe is, but it calls for 1.) buttermilk and 2.) a cast-iron skillet...which may turn several would-be cornbread bakers away.  I do own a cast-iron skillet (Christmas '12) and I purchased buttermilk, knowing Ma Marcella (this is my mom) is coming to my house tomorrow and she loves the stuff. 

As I began tonight's blog post, I realized I forgot to get a photo of the above cornbread.  Silly me, I must have lost my head.

However, I did not forget to get a picture of this:

Verdejo grape - Grown near Segovia, Spain - I've been there

6.  Drink wine in celebration of finished prep list.  Huzzzah!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Prep: Day Two

It has been a long day.  And by long I mean on my feet. 

So, my dear mother came over tonight for Day Two Prep...and I will say, she is extremely efficient in the kitchen.  She can multitask like an Olympic acrobat.

1. Make and refrigerated Bacon and Mustard Mashed Potatoes.
2. Thaw brioche for Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Bread Pudding.
3. Make and chill galette dough for Spinach-Artichoke Galette.
4. Roast squash and puree for Butternut Squash Soup.
5. Make cranberry puree for Lemon-Cranberry Bars.
6. Make graham cracker crust for #5.

In short,

1. Make and refrigerated Bacon and Mustard Mashed Potatoes.
2. Thaw brioche for Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Bread Pudding.
3. Make and chill galette dough for Spinach-Artichoke Galette.
4. Roast squash and puree for Butternut Squash Soup.
5. Make cranberry puree for Lemon-Cranberry Bars.
6. Make graham cracker crust for #5.

Tomorrow, school lets out early.  Plenty of time to complete Wednesday's prep list before the big show.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving: Prep Day One

Thanksgiving is a mere three days away.  The food preparation begins now.

The menu planning began four weeks ago, and the to-do list was sorted out two weeks ago.

And now, my mostly American (and one Russian) friends, execution is key.

I must admit, I sort of expected a lot of people to ask me what I'm doing for Thanksgiving.  But surprisingly, not many have.  Don't people want to talk about menus like I do?  Don't people want to know what a chef-in-waiting is going to prepare for, like, the biggest food feast of the year?

No?  Oh, the hubris.   I shall soldier on anyway.

My to-do for tonight included:

1. Make mashed potatoes and freeze.
2. Make cranberry chutney.
3. Make caramel sauce for vanilla bean bread pudding.

But first, the filling of four dozen pumpkin whoopie pies for my son's Boy Scout banquet tomorrow night took precedence, and that set me back 45 minutes.  By my account, Item #1 was the most making mashed potatoes was moved to tomorrow night.

1. Make mashed potatoes and freeze.
2. Make cranberry chutney.
3. Make caramel sauce for vanilla bean bread pudding.

Chutnies and compotes are probably one of the easiest things to make, and not to mention one of the tastiest.  And this year, instead of the typical cranberry-sauce-in-a-can, I opted for a cranberry chutney to top the turkey.  Chutney is a condiment of Indian origin, and it can be fruit or vegetable-based, and usually has a little spicy-ish kick to it.  Now, because my in-laws are coming this year, I left the spice out.

Sauteed shallots and minced garlic, whole cranberries, brown sugar, diced dried apricots, apple cider vinegar, water, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper...all of it simmered down in a thick, chunky mash.  The tart integrity of the cranberry is still intact, but tempered with a savoriness that comes from the shallot and garlic.

1. Make mashed potatoes and freeze.
2. Make cranberry chutney.
3. Make caramel sauce for vanilla bean bread pudding.

The caramel sauce instructions that came with the bread pudding (November edition of Food + Wine, btw) were terrible.  Caramel can be a tricky thing...if you don't keep an eye on it, or have your heat too high, it will burn.  So, my original instructions make these mistakes:

- Cook sugar-water until it turns an amber-caramel color, about 5 minutes ( what temp?  If I have it at medium-high heat, it takes WAY longer than five minutes.  So, I'll turn it up, and boil it...WHOA!  That browning happened fast!)

- Add room temperature cream to hot caramel (Uh.  NO.  Caramel seizes immediately and it becomes impossible to incorporate the two).

Like I should have done before, I refer to my Baking textbook.  Sure enough, the instructions there say I should heat the cream and incorporate a little of it into the hot caramel.  And it worked, boy howdy, I was able to whisk the heck out of it.

The caramel sauce and the cranberry chutney
I think my caramel sauce is a little too light, however, I was VERY nervous about my sugar being too brown.  If I have the time, I may try it again for kicks.

Oh, and, this caramel sauce has about 1/3 cup of Black Velvet Toasted Caramel-flavored whiskey added to it.  So, it's, you know, really caramelly.

My mom is making me add raisins to the bread pudding...and I think I'll soak the raisins in the whiskey before I assemble the dessert.  Ha.  That'll show her.

1. Make mashed potatoes and freeze.
2. Make cranberry chutney.
3. Make caramel sauce for vanilla bean bread pudding.

And as Meatloaf once said, two out of three ain't bad.  Tomorrow night, my mom is coming over to help with Day Two of food prep, and I'm sure we will get a lot done.  If we don't open any wine, that is.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Blog Entry In Which I Apologize For Nothing

A new school term started today, and you know how those first days are...exhausting and uncertain.

All I really wanted after supper tonight was something a little sweet.  A little chocolate, a little dessert, a piece of my kids' Halloween candy...but no, turns out there was nothing.  No chocolate, no banana cream pie, and the candy had long since been run through my kids' digestive and excretory systems.

So, what - I mean, I gotta do everything around here or what?

Necessity is INDEED the mother of invention, because here's what I did.  Toasted a piece of whole wheat bread, buttered and cinnamon-sugared it...then sprinkled it with mini-chocolate chips.

As if that weren't awesome enough, I remembered suddenly that I had a bottle of Port in my wine cooler.

Double booyah!  Port is a sweet, fortified red wine normally produced in Portugal.  It's heavy duty stuff, not for the Boone's Farm drinkers in the crowd...will warm your insides right up in a pinch.  20% alcohol content.  Goes well with strong cheeses, nuts, and chocolate.  Yeah.

How convenient...

So, this is where I do not apologize for the "rustic, nay, crass simpleness" of this post.  Toast, cinnamon-sugar, chocolate chips, and Port wine.  It gives me what I need.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Phone Booth/Clown Car Casserole

*Warning: Post contains references which may make author seem older than she appears.

Who here remembers phone booths?  Not in relation to Doctor Who, but those mostly-glass boxes on street corners that would more often than not have no phone book and a telephone that did not work?  I remember them too, but I never used one because by the time I would have had somebody important to call, they'd gone obsolete (the phone booth, that is.  Not the person I wanted to call).

Apparently, waaay before my time, it was a fad to pack as many people as possible into a phone booth.  It looked something like this:

Photo courtesy of
I can't think of anything I'd rather do less than cram myself (along with 20-30 people I don't know very well and who probably haven't been tested for diseases) into a space that is designed for one person, maybe two, and a decent amount of oxygen.  This here is NOT the choice way I'd spend my crazy college weekend.

But it was the Fifties, so...

While we're discussing cramming, how about the image of clown cars?  You know, about 20 gaily dressed clowns emerging out of a teeny tiny little car?  They just keep coming and coming and coming...right?  Same weird concept.  Random rubbing up awkwardly against people, but this time, they're wearing wigs and garish makeup and huge shoes.

Apply this stuffing/cramming/crowding/overfilling concept to a casserole.  How many random vegetables can one person stuff into a Tater Tot Casserole?  That's the the answer I went in search of earlier this week.

For the record, I could live the rest of my life without eating TTC.  Not that I hate it, but it's just sort not what I'm about anymore, you know?  However, my two sons (14 and 9) love Tater Tot Casserole, and I try to honor their request about every fifth time they ask.  The recipe itself is pretty basic...cream of mushroom soup, milk or sour cream, hamburger, green beans, and tater any mixture/layer/configuration you can think of.  Some recipes I saw online omit the green beans.  Some omit the hamburger.  But none of them dare leave out the tater tots.  The only representative from the vegetable category is the green bean, if it's included, and the tater tot...and that's a stretch.

Obviously, this dish is in need of some renovation, yeah?

On the bottom is a layer of french cut green beans (an entire 1-lb bag).  I grated some carrots and diced onions for a mirepoix of sorts.  Then, Spencer browned these veg and the hamburger while Elliot mixed together a can of cream of mushroom and a cup of homemade pumpkin puree (which I'd done way back - what? - last month?)  That's the orange cast in the mix you're seeing there.

The boys then layered the tots on top.

The males in my house would now be perfectly content to eat this casserole as is.  However, it wasn't enough vegetable for me.  So, I sauteed a bit of garlic with some turnip greens I had in the fridge for a quick little side dish.

Clown Car Stats are as follows:

Original vegetable count: 1 (Green beans - I AM NOT counting the tater tots)
New vegetable count: 4 (Onion, carrots, sweet potatoes, green beans)

The next time I try this, I think I'll go for six...really pack that phone booth.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hump Day Indeed

I have never ever been a fan of referring to Wednesdays as 'Hump Day' for the following reasons:

1. 'Hump' is a weird word that conjures up mostly animalistic imagery for me.  Dogs and rabbits in general.  Don't get me wrong...I don't mind dogs or rabbits or humping.  At all.  I just don't want them associated with the middle of the week.  That's all. 

2. Hump Day seems to imply an action that everyone should be doing, instead of being productive work citizens and contributing to the GNP.  And not humping by a dog or rabbit, but by another member of your species.  That's a lot of pressure.  I mean, some Wednesdays it's just about all I can do to get out of bed and crawl into a hot shower...much less try to hump or get humped.

My own personal linguistic preferences notwithstanding, I had a pretty kick-ass Wednesday.  My fifth term of culinary school ended yesterday, and so us students are on a little end-of-term break until next Monday.  I can't think of the last time I had a weekday off...and my, was it a glorious one!

First, I slept in until 7:10.  It was awesome. 

Other highlights include:

With the exception of an hour's worth of errand-running in the morning, I spent the day in a purple cardigan sweater and flannel lounge pants.  I also did not wear any makeup.  And no, I'm not sorry.

In the kitchen, I did a pot of Bolognese sauce and it was low and slow, and just about the best-tastingest stuff ever.  Also, the youngest boy asked yesterday if we could do a Chocolate-Peanut Butter cupcake recipe he'd seen in one of his sister's magazines.  Of course I said yes.  They turned out lovely and are now in the freezer, to be frosted before visiting friends on Saturday.

I watched "Wedding Crashers".  Because I needed my Vince Vaughn fix, I guess.

My husband took a nice lunch break with me today.

I renewed my membership at Anytime Fitness...because I'm getting tired to doing nothing, you know what I'm saying?  Then, I did 20 minutes on elliptical.

The NaNo 2013 is coming along swimmingly, and I cracked the 32k mark tonight.  I am nowhere near writing The End yet, so I expect to exceed 50,000 words.

I do not have to work or go to school tomorrow, so it looks like the Man and I can stay up a bit late watching and episode or two of The Walking Dead.

Indeed.  Mama said there'd be days like this...and there needs to be more of them!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

That Most Meaningful of Endeavors: Work

Today, I want to talk about work.  My work autobio, more specfically.

With the exception of the months that I birthed my three children and took my subsequent maternity leave, I have been a member of the active labor force since 1999.

I graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor's degree in English and a teaching certification for grades 7-12.  My husband, who'd graduated six months before me (that scoundrel), took a software engineer job at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota...and he who gets the well-paying job first gets to call the shots.

Spencer was born in April of 1999 and I started teaching 7th and 8th grade Reading that fall.  And I taught there through the spring of 2004.  I'd also managed to get my Master's in Education just before Elliot was born in August of 2004.  My plan then was to take a year off from teaching to be with my three children, who at that time were 5, 3, and infant.  That year off lasted until December, when I decided to take a long-term English sub position at the high school (same town as the middle school I taught at).

Then, a Drama/English teaching position opened up at the high school in my hometown, which was four hours away from where we currently lived.  I applied, interviewed, and was passed over...but then I was offered a job as a freshman English teacher as well as the Yearbook/Journalism advisor.  Brent got the okay to telecommute, and in the summer of 2005, we moved back to my hometown.

I taught freshman English and advised the school publications from 2005 to 2009.  Then, an opportunity at William Penn University landed on my doorstep, and I took it.  I was an adjunct instructor there, and I also maintained my Yearbook advisor duties at the high school (no more English).  I did that for two years before leaving the high school scene all together.

During the summers of 2010 and 2011, I did some correspondent writing for my town's local paper.  Basically, I was in the books as a "travel" correspondent.  I took my children to cool, educational places in Iowa, took pictures, and wrote a weekly column about it.

Then, the 2011-2012 school year was spent solely adjuncting at William Penn.  That was the year I made the decision to return to school and enroll in the Culinary Arts program.  In July of 2012, I took a job as "Tasting Room Staff" at Tassel Ridge Winery...and from there, I became the chef on staff.

I would say I've had a lot of experiences, some different jobs.  There's been a lot of work in schools...and so I know first-hand the problems America's educational systems face today.  However, I've always had relatively decent principals as my bosses.  I've never really had a complaint in that department.

So, imagine my amazement as I work now in the private business sector (small business at that) and come across bosses of a different ilk.  Bosses who aren't really held to any ideological philosophy or legislation...bosses who are free to run their businesses how they want.  And I get it - that's the beauty of America, right?  Free enterprise!

But, I've never had to deal with a boss who philosophy I do not understand and whose decisions and words seemed contradictory.  My emotional reaction is to stand up and fight against bosses like that...or quit the job altogether.  Fight or flight, right?

Then, I remember that I've got to think about prudence and wisdom.  Because supposedly *I* am older and wiser and better.

What is the more rational, controlled response? 

And that, friends, is the hard part.  Digging down deep for the controlled, prudent part of myself.  It's hard psychoemotional work, let me tell you...and there are times when I can't help but think, What is this bullshit about?  I guess it's all about growing and learning.

So, then.  A toast.  Here's to lucidity, cogency, judiciousness, and pragmatism!  Huzzah!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Thanksgiving Bruschetta...You Betta!

Today's entry title is brought to you by all those northeasterners who have a strong Jersey accent.

Try it yourself.  Channel your inner Snooku or The Situation or Jonny-B (what happened to real people with real names, eh?) and say the blog title out loud.

Then, you'll get the rhyme.

So, it's November, right?  That means it's National Novel Writing Month (just over 10k words here, btw), not to mention the month of, like, the biggest feast of the year.  The greatest chance for people like myself to showcase our skills, wow the crowds, and dream of being able to modestly address our adoring families and friends with words like, Oh, it was nothing!  I just whipped it together in a couple of hours.   Etc., ad nauseum.

Now is the time to begin planning your Thanksgiving meal menu.  Actually, last month was the time to start planning it, but those days are gone by, and we must focus on the now.

What I've got here is a fun little hors d'oeuvres that totally will appeal to the cranberry lovers in the crowd: Apple-Cranberry Bruschetta (or Crostini - same diff).  I know, bruschetta conjures up images of tomatoes and basil and olive oil.  Except here at Thanksgiving.

Cranberries, by the way, are now available in grocery stock up now!  What you're looking at here above is a cooked compote of whole cranberries, apples, red onion, minced garlic, red wine vinegar, brown sugar, dried basil and oregano (specifics in the recipe listed below).  It boiled, then simmered on the stove...altogether, about 15 minutes.  Then, I cooled it to room temp.  While I waited, I sliced my baguette in nice, thick slices on the bias, brushed them with olive oil, and baked them for about 10 minutes.  A thin layer of goat cheese was spread on the crusty tops before I spooned a bit of the compote on top.  The tartness is tempered by the brown sugar and enhanced by the tang of the goat cheese.  A great first course or addition to the relish/appetizer tray, if I do say.

Apple-Cranberry Bruschetta

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
1 ½ cup Granny Smith apple, chopped
1/4 cup brown sugar (taste during cooking..if too tart, add another 2 Tbsp of brown sugar)
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. water
½ red onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. dried basil
1 tsp. oregano
1 5-oz. log goat cheese, softened (which means left out on counter for awhile)
1 8-oz. French baguette


Combine cranberries, apples, sugar, and liquids in medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil. Add onion and garlic and return to the boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until cranberries pop (or soften if using dried).

Remove from heat and transfer to a clean container; add herbs.  Let cool to room temperature.

Cut baguette on the bias into 15 ¾” slices and brush both with oil.  Bake in a 350 oven until toasted (10 minutes).  Spread with a thin layer of the goat cheese and top each slice with the cranberry compote.

Now you go, getta bruschetta!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Things Are Not What They ApPEAR to Be

What is this?

If I had a decent camera on my cell phone, this picture would look like below:


Um. Damn.  Google failed me there.  

I couldn't find a really super-duper professional Glamour Shot of the exact poached pear dessert I did for a pasta dinner Friday night.  Which, now that I think about it, makes me happy...that means not many people out there are doing what I do.

Well, they probably are, but they are a.) not taking pictures or b.) are beyond the first couple of pages of Google hits.

So, let me 'splain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.
(One million spacebucks if you can tell me what movie the above three lines come from)

A firm pear, cored and peeled, poached in a bath of really sweet red wine along with a couple of cinnamon sticks and some vanilla.  I only filled the pot halfway up the pear because I wanted the gradual red fade into the natural pear color.  Then, I whipped up a sabayon sauce with egg yolks, a sweet blush wine, along with a little heat and much hand whipping.  Chocolate cookie crumbs on top of the sabayon and a caramel sauce drizzle on top of the pear...and voila!  A classy dessert for 16.

I'll admit, I'm pretty damn proud of how it turned out.  It's one of those times where what I imagined and what actually happened were similar.

Carry on.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Non-Food Post - A Tangential Matter

Sundays are beautiful, glorious days of the week.  A time for leisure and work, the promise of success and fortune lie right at Sunday's feet. 

Anyway, it's almost November.  And you know what that means!

Or...maybe you don't?

NaNoWriMo!!!  Wheeeee!  One month of craziness, scaryashell laughs and fist pounds as me and millions of other writers across the planet try to pound out 50,000 words of unadulterated crap in 30 days.

As if I don't have enough to do.  I know.  But as Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) says in The Shawshank Redemption, Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

That's about damn right.

I'm on year five, and I've won all previous years (winning = hitting 50k+), so I expect this year to be the same, except...

my genre of choice this year is "Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense", which sounds great, but a.) I've never written a mystery before, and b.) I don't read a lot of mysteries.

But hey, I'm not going to get bogged down in the details.

I'm writing what's called a "cozy" mystery...very little violence (graphic, anyway), a little romance, a lot of funniness, small town setting and characters, amateur sleuth.  And - it's taking place mostly at a community a Culinary Arts program...most of the book's characters are culinary students or chefs/bakers.

Write what you know, people, write what you know.  And that's what I know.  For right now, anyway.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cake Plus Eight

Two weeks of unrelenting and uncompromising cake decorating ended today in the bakery.

And while I'm rather relieved that the ordeal is over, I admit to being a little sad about its conclusion.  Here's what I've learned...

1. Cake decorating is art.  Anyone who tries to argue that it's not knows nothing about its processes and procedures.

2. It will make you cry.  Check that, it will make me cry.

3. It will test your limits of patience.

4. You'll find out how much of a "satisficer" you are (at which point you say meh, good enough)

5. It will make you feel like you really accomplished something, when it's all said and done.

6. Some people just walk in the light, you know, when it comes to this form of artistry.  Accept it and move on.  You won't be good at everything.

7. Cake decorators (the good ones) are totally justified in asking for hundreds (thousands) of dollars for their wedding cakes.

8. Marshmallow fondant is easy to make, color, roll out, and cover cakes with.

Today, our final project was due: a two-tiered, fondant-covered dummy cake (not edible) that uses some of the decorating techniques we've learned the last two weeks. 

Cake layers covered, stacked, and bordered.  We went with a buttercream piped bead border, then with wet fingers, we made them to look like pearls.

Sunlight streaming in through the bakery window, this is our tipped-over wine glass and cascading roses and petals effect.

At the suggestion of the guest cake decorator, my partner (who possesses the more creative hand by far) painted gold scroll detail on the bare sides.

And that's it.  Let them eat cake...or well, not really in this's not edible.  You'd choke and maybe even die.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Keeping It Short, Keeping It Real

Today marked the penultimate day of Cake Decorating...and it was by far the most stressful of the last three weeks...and I mean, to quote the youth, I was a hater.

But, that time is done and gone.  Here's what happening right now:

A glass (which may turn into a bottle) of a Riesling I have not had in quite some time (read about that here), and a episode (or more) of AMC's The Walking Dead.

Let me clarify...quickly because TechMeat's got the Netflix cued.  School friends of mine went on and on about this TV show, so I got nuts one night and watched the first episode (with Brent, natch)...and now, we're kinda interested.  We're on episode 4 of Season One, so yeah, a long ways to go to catchup.

Honestly, the last time we had this much interest in a TV show was Spin City and Dharma and Greg in the early 2000s.  For real.  We don't do a lot of TV around here.  Movies, yes.  TV, no.

I'm going now.  To recover my strength and gear up for the final day of CD...stay tuned for pictures of our final project.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Frankly, My Dear, I'm Trying to Give a Damn

Today we say hello to the one reader in the United Arab Emirates.  Thank you for your (accidental, likely) readership.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know where the UAE was until I Googled it.

Which brings me to today's blog post.  My ignorance and and subsequent Google search, that is.  But really, I have something far more scary to talk about.


Many of the people I go to school with and are very much in contact with are afflicted with this particular disease.  Of which there may be no cure.  Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road, has perhaps said it best, "It's a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little Goddamn mediocrity.” 

I would amend Mr. Yates's statement by attaching two words to the very end: "...and entitlement."

By nature, I am not an optimist.  I have rather high expectations of people, and naturally, they don't get met very often.  In some ways, this has morphed me into quite the cynic, which is depressing, because I'm just too damn young to be there yet.  So, I fight the cynicism, and I'm afraid I come out a bit righteous and condescending.

(There it is.  I hope my dear readers will not flee at this rather scathing self-portrayal...just remember, this is all tempered by a good, healthy dose of hopefulness)

I suppose I could go on here and grouse about the indifferent nimrods I come into contact with frequently...but what would be the point?  Will they read this and change their dispassionate ways?  Not likely.  Am I going to feel better?  No.

But another author has some wise words for us...and I'll try to keep them in mind as I go out and do my thing...

"The opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."   - Elie Wiesel

If you don't give a shit, then you're not living.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Almost Paradise

Cue your 'Footloose' soundtrack, readers!  Get that Mike Reno cranked up loud!

Almost Paradiiise...we're knockin' on Heaven's door... could we ask for more....?

I know that Mike and Ann (Wilson) was talking about Lori Singer and Kevin Bacon, but the moniker applies to my adventure.

Des Moines.

Farmer's Market

A chilly, sunny (mostly) October Saturday morning.

Yep.  You probably know where I'm going now.  Fresh, local produce.  Free samples.  An general goodwill camaraderie of like-minded people.  Free samples.  And the vegetables!  Vegetables, I tell you!  Vegetables that became my dinner.

Iowa pork chops.  With a salt, pepper, and sage dry rubs.  Grilled until yummy!

Parsnips.  Peeled, cubed, and boiled...much in the same vein as potatoes.  Butter, milk, chives, and garlic added to the puree.

Brussel sprouts (Spencer seen scoring in the background) that would later be parboiled, shocked, then sauteed with a pecan butter.

The entire entree.  Amazing flavors of fall and beyond.

My only regret (as it is every mid-October)...the Farmer's Market closes next weekend...and I wish I'd gone more.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fondant Is Me!

I've been chronicling my cake-decorating adventures in the bakery here at Be Food.

And it's been interesting and riveting, to be sure.

Today, however, I find is not a day for words, but instead, pictures.  Today I achieved a great milestone, and I will trumpet my joyousness here on the Internets through pictures.

We've had a guest in our bakery class, a professional wedding cake designer and maker.  She's shared some recipes, tricks of the trade, as well as her tools and skills. 

And today, for the first time ever, I covered and decorated my first fondant cake.  This has always been a daunting thing for me. Fondant has always seemed scary.  Until today.

Probably hard to tell, color-wise, what exactly is happening here.  A bright yellow fondant-covered cake, purple fondant pearls there at the bottom, purple and yellow fondant flowers on the sides.

I had my daughter, Kirby, in mind when I did this, and she will turn 13 (I know, I know, next March...however, why not think about these things now?).  I used cutters for the flowers, but I free-handed the 13. 

Birthdays (and all other cake-appropriate holidays) will never be the same at the Nelson house.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Salisbury Steak Haunts Me...

Let's jog the ol' memory tonight.

Nah...let's more like shake the crapness out of my memory until it wets itself and surrenders any and all information I ask it for.

If you read between the lines (not the Blurred Lines) on my Kenny Rogers-related post, you'll get that my childhood family meals were pretty Amurican.  Beef stew, pot roast, pan-fried pork chops.  I do recall cans of La Choy Chop Suey and chow mein noodles, and in the later years, tacos (and that was ethnic food at our house).  But, for the most part, Hamburger Helper (and this was long before Tuna, Chicken, or Asian Helper) and Swanson's made up the bulk of my childhood eating.

And here's where things get even more murky: What in world did I eat for lunch when I was a kid?

Take a moment to ponder this very question for yourselves.  Are you having as much trouble as I did answering this question?  Or am I just getting old?  Or have I repressed it?

I know I did not get the cafeteria lunch very often when I was in elementary.  So...what did I bring to school to eat?  Did I have a metal lunch box?  A plastic one?  A paper sack?  Manky old Tupperware?  Gods, did I even eat anything?  Were my parents that horrible!?  I cannot recall! 

The few cafeteria lunches I do remember from the younger years include: instant potatoes with chicken gravy, salisbury steak, beef and noodles, and that kick-ass rectangle-shaped pizza with the diced "pepperoni".  I also remember canned fruit (cocktail, peaches, pears).  Maybe tater tots in middle school.  No salad bars, though, that's for sure. 

In the early 90s, when we weren't as worried about childhood obesity, Type II diabetes, and trans-fats...I remember a new pasta bar, hamburger line, and even better colossal pizza offered at the high school.  However, I don't think I ate these very often, but I'm drawing a big-arse blank when it comes to recalling what I did eat for lunch instead.

I think of all this tonight as I'm brainstorming school lunch cafeteria ideas.  The Food and Nutrition Director here in town (someone I know personally as well) has asked me to collaborate on a project with her: Come up with a "signature dish" or some cool ways to make vegetables.  Of course I wanted to get in on the action!

Whoa, first.  This is the age of government-influenced nutrition and healthy eating.  I don't even so much as I think about bacon-wrapped asparagus until I check the USDA Standards for School Lunches.  To meet guidelines, I must watch the calories, sodium, and trans-fats; also, I need to make sure the kiddos get a specific amount of fruits, vegetables (now broken down into Dark Green, Red/Orange, Beans/Peas, Starchy, Other, and Additional), grains, meat/meat alternative, and fluid milk (Hey - where the hell's the cheese?).

But wait.  Here's what else: Calorie-wise, meals must be between 550-650 (Elementary), 600-700 (Middle Grades), or 750-850 (High School).  Saturated fat must be less that 10% for every meal served, and sodium cannot be more than 640, 710, or 740 milligrams (elem, middle, and high school, respectively).  And - nutrition label must indicate zero grams of trans fat per serving in all cases.

Oh, how times have changed.

Indeed, a great and grueling work lies ahead.  It shall be the first of my Herculean Labors.

Okay, I'll bring down the supercilious, elevated tone.  But still...this is going to be hard.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mortality: I Now Have It

Achilles' Heel.  Soft spot. Kryptonite.  Dragon's Underbelly.

I have a chink in my armor, and it is called Cake Decorating.

I don't mean the general icing and frosting of cakes and tortes (as reported earlier this month).  I mean this kind of stuff...

This right here is the laborious and meticulous work for all the cake decorating lovers out there.  It requires the precision and patience of a surgeon...and I'm ashamed to say I'm often not any of those things.

It depends, of course, on what I'm doing.  If I'm writing or planning a dinner, I'm precise and meticulous to the very core of my being. 

And patient, no.  I can't think of a situation in which patience comes naturally to me.

Wait.  2004.  The birth of my third child.  I was almost two weeks days past Elliot's due date, and I opted not to induce labor with drugs (like I had with the previous two).  That was the last time I remember being patient.

After the last two days in which I've practiced the above handiwork, I am humbled, awed, and reverent of cake artisans who do endless amounts of shell, reverse shell, rope, rosette, and zigzag borders for us devouring consumers.

And I am mortal.  I am not good at everything.  Everything does not come easy to me.  Out of a class of 14, I was one of the last three students who finally got the okay to start the "final board" (the one you see above).  Everyone else had passed the muster and moved on to rosebud and sweetpeas.

And it hurt, people.  A nice, smarting slap to the ol' ego.  But, in the words of John (Cougar) hurt so good.  It did.  I'm humbled.  I have my weaknesses.  It's good to know it.  Because, like Socrates said, all we know is that we don't know anything.

Friday, October 4, 2013

When It Comes to Your Parents...Remember the Kenny Rogers' song "The Gambler"

In the sense that,

"You gotta know when to hold 'em,
know when to fold 'em.
Know when to walk away,
know when to run."

Gods bless my baby boomer parents: products of Great-Depression era, hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-living parenting themselves.

Anyone my age has lived in confusing times - what with growing up with VCRs, rotary phones, microwaves, cell phones, and the Internet...but, my generation has embraced all those changes rather well.

Then I consider my parents, who've lived with those same technological advances, but their archives reach way back further than mine do.  I mean, we're talking wood-burning furnaces, hot water bottles, stay-at-home moms and cooking from scratch!  They grew up with mothers and grandmothers who made their own pies, gravy, canned their own goods, etc.  Life was simple, it was rough, and everyone did their share - nobody was exempt.

So that's my parents' frame of reference when they had me and my brother, right?  But, somewhere in the 1980s, our family moved to a new house, and that purchase was only feasible if my mom left her "job" as a stay-at-home mom and went back to work, which she did.  That move, which happened when I was in the 4th grade, is when I began to remember the foods of my childhood being pork chops in the crockpot, instant mashed potatoes, Hamburger Helper, and Swanson's salisbury steak.

My supposedly awesome-baker grandmother died in the early 80s, when I was 6.  My other grandmother, who allegedly could make out of this world gravy, died in 1976.  I was one year old.  So, I never grew up like countless other women my age, in the kitchen with their grandmothers...and I never really grew up in the kitchen with my mother, either.  Cooking was a chore, and a tiring one for her at that.  Hence, the crockpot, Hamburger Helper, etc.  She wasn't much of a baker, either, so I have no real memories of making cupcakes or cookies with her.

It's a wonder, really, how I ended up in culinary school, with a passion for food and wellness, at the age of 37.

Thankfully, my parents are good sports about my culinary endeavors, and my mother, especially, is always very willing to try whatever dish I've put together.  She and I talk shop a little bit, and I suspect cooking is still not her thing, but she supports me, and that's good.  She's very adventurous, and will eat just about anything.

Dad, though.  Very much a creature of habit.  Very much a "meat-and-potatoes" guy.  I discovered in the last few years that he really loves fried chicken, but because my mom doesn't like to make it, he doesn't get it often.  He informed me last night that I make "healthy" food (whatever that means), and I only convinced him to stay for dinner with us last night when I told him I'd heat up a can of Van Camp's Pork and Beans***, as well as make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese***, for him

And so, there it is.  Kenny Rogers' famous mantra, for my purposes:

You gotta know when to hold em,
know when to fold em,
when to make Pork and Beans,
and know when to refrain from lecturing your dad on his crappy eating habits.

***Incidentally, I did not purchase these two items.  They somehow ended up in my inventory after my husband did the groceries about three months ago.  They are gone now, and my husband has been banned from food shopping.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

No Fakin'...I'm Bakin' and Decoratin'

You know me and my rhymes.

But first, let's have a good news sharing moment.  Today shall be known as The Day In Which Technology And I Play Nicely In The Sandbox.

I discovered something today, and its name is Bluetooth.  I know, I know, this wireless technology has been around awhile and is practically Stone Age, but for me, it is a momentous, pivotal thing.

I'm stuck in 2006, you see.  I carry a Verizon slide-phone with a QWERTY keypad.  I don't have access to the Internets on my cellular device, and I don't have the fancy Steve Jobs-o-Rama widgets and wadgets and gizmosthingies.  And for the most part, I've gotten along just fine.  There's a certain amount of pride that comes with being a relic, you know?

But.  Any pictures I've ever taken of food (which, for the past year, have been a lot) get sort of lost in space.  I'm the only one who sees these pictures of my creations - I have no digital portfolio, really, to speak of.  And well, in this day and age, I can't help feeling like I'd better remedy that.

With the help of TechMeat (a.k.a my husband), I learned how to transfer my cell phone pictures to my laptop with Bluetooth, where I can then upload them here for your viewing diversions.

Oh, glorious day!

This week in the bakery, we're doing Specialty Cakes, Gateaux, and Torten (all the same thing, really), and after finishing a Mocha Roll with my partner, I started in on my Mocha and Black Forest Tortes.

A quick note, though, about the Mocha Roll.  Imagine a two-foot long, four-inch wide Hostess HoHo, frosted with a coffee buttercream, rolled up with chocolate shavings, and topped with chocolate drizzle.  Imagine it.  Then, try to restart your heart.

For all practical purposes, tortes (gateaux, etc.) are layered cakes that have various frostings and fillings.  Above is my Mocha Torte in progress.  You'll notice how sloppy and unsexy it looks...much like most of us first thing in the morning.

Previous to this day in the bakery, I've attempted a layered cake about twice in my life, both of them for the consumption of my family.  They're very forgiving people, you see, and will eat just about anything I set in front of them.  But today, I made cakes I feel actual pride in...cakes that I would, you know, serve to real people.  It's an amazing feeling.

Here's the Mocha Torte, finito.  Two vanilla cake layers, one pecan sponge cake layer, and filled and frosting with the leftover coffee buttercream.  Sliced almonds mask the sides and I did chocolate shavings on top before piping on the rosettes.

I like coffee and I like chocolate.  I also like Bluetooth...whose personal area network capabilities have made these pictures possible.

After the Mocha Torte, I tackled this Black Forest.  I have extremely fond memories of Black Forest Cake from my college days, and as it's one of Brent's favorites as well it makes for a prime candidate for honing my new skills.  Unfortunately, I did not take a picture in progress, but what you're looking at is three layers of chocolate genoise cake that have been brushed with a kirsch dessert syrup before being iced with a whipped cream.  There's a layer of cherries in between the second and bottom layer.

My baking instructor had me try the icing comb on the sides, which accounts for the lines there, but as you can probably see, I still need practice with that particular tool.

A milestone day for me, to be honest.  I'm no decorator, and today was my first day (really) in assembling and frosting cakes like these.  And now I have the means to share my progress here at Be Food...until I get myself one of those SmartPhone thingies.