Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tastes Like Chicken...For Two Days After (Warning: Non-Vegetarian Post)

Every now and then, my local grocery store has a great sale on whole fryer chickens.  At three or four pounds each, these little guys are great for shredding for sandwiches, soups, salads, etc.

Here's how easy this is...

Lovely raw chicken photo courtesy of the folks at Prevention mag.
This is Chicken in Child Pose Position.  It's important that the dead chicken is calm and relaxed before consumption.

Into a slow-cooker or pot on stove, place the chicken, 4 cups of water, some carrot and celery sticks, a whole onion (chunked up), some salt and pepper, and a couple of bay leaves.  Let the slow-cooker go for a 8-10 hours, or simmer (very low heat, please) a few hours on the stovetop.  Cover the pot so that the water doesn't evaporate.  You'll do something amazing with it later.

Basically, when the chicken falls apart as you're trying to take it out, it's done.  Remove the carcass and all the meat bits, and let it cool.  Then, get your hands right in there and pull it apart.  It's kind of fun, actually.  You'll end up with a couple of pounds of what I call Blank Slate Chicken.  Set it aside for now.

In the crockpot, you'll have some liquid left, along with the aromatics and vegetables and chicken fatty bits.  Strain this all out, and pour into a freezer bag or container.  That, friends, is chicken stock you'll pull out later in the winter for stews, soups, etc.

Back to the shredded chicken.  Possibilities are limitless.  I divided mine in half.  That night we had...

Photo courtesy of Cooking Light.
BBQ chicken sandwiches with coleslaw.  I pretty much ate mine just like this...except without the bun.  The creamy, crunchy coleslaw right on top of the savory, tangy barbequed meat is a combination I really dig, and I don't need bread muddling it up.

There are a million and one barbecue sauce recipes out there, and I actually have one that contains red wine (perhaps for another post).  But, there was a half-bottle of KC Masterpiece in the fridge, and there was no better time than the present to get rid of it.  Into a saucepan on the stove went the sauce and half the shredded chicken...heat on medium until warm.  Eat.



The next day, I had every intention of making Chicken Noodle soup, because 'tis the season.  But, to make the soup, I'd have to make the noodles, and I dunno, I just couldn't muster the energy.  An excellent alternative?  Chicken tortilla soup.

'Preciate the folks at dishmaps.com for this pretty photo.
Soup base first.  Because you know I'm all about that base. About that base.

Ahem.

One onion diced, sauteed with some olive oil in a hot pot.  A three-finger pinch of salt and pepper. Two tablespoons of chicken base. One and a half tablespoons of cumin, chili powder, garlic powder and onion powder, each.  Add three tablespoons of tomato paste and stir until a thick paste forms.

Then, get out that amazing chicken stock you made earlier.  Dump in the whole thing.  Heat and taste and correct seasoning as needed (I usually need to add more cumin and salt...but that's my personal taste).  Throw in the chicken and heat soup fully.  Serve with shredded mozzarella, chopped cilantro, sour cream and crushed tortilla chips.

Om nom nom nom.

Seriously, though, I do love doing whole chickens in the crockpot.  It's so simple and I get two or three or four, sometimes, meals from it.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Best The Four Farthings Has to Offer!

First of all, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, etc. to you and yours!

For me, the holidays are always about the food.  Naturally.  But, I guess there are people out there (mostly of the younger set) who feel the holidays are about The Stuff.  The loot.  What Santa brings.  Etc. Etc.  PlayStations, Xboxes and televisions and iPads and iPhones were the gifts given to young people I know...which make Brent and I look like miserly Grinches because we gave Legos, painting sets, and promises to our children.

But I say to you: did any of those kids have a six-course, all-day Hobbit feast for their Christmas Day dinner?

No, they did not.

The Hobbit meal idea was borne of the recent release of the final Hobbit movie this month  Diehard Tolkien fans know that Hobbits eat several meals a day including a first and second breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and supper...not to mention a mid-morning meal called Elevenses.

This idea is a little repellent to non-Tolkien fans...after all, it does seem like a lot of food.  And, recreating a Hobbit Christmas feast meant spending most of the day with the same people.

And in this case, moderation is key.  Let us begin...


The inspiration began with an NPR article (read here) and recipes found here.  I decided on six meals instead of the traditional seven.


The morning began at 8 am with a light breakfast of saffron cream scones, homemade Devonshire cream, and lemon curd.  Also, an assortment of coffee and teas were offered...as it is the Hobbit way.


After present-opening, it was nearly time for second breakfast.  This meal was a little less Hobbitish, and consisted of pancakes, sausage, and bacon.


In between meals, we played Pin The Tail On Smaug and Riddles In The Dark.  Before we knew it, it was 11 o'clock and time for Elevenses.  And Elevenses consisted of Lembas (an Elvish waybread) and Merry's Mulled Cider.  We also played the clip from the first Lord of the Rings where Legolas explains that a small bite of lembas fills the stomach of a grown man...and then Merry and Pippin divulge they've eaten four of the wafers.

After this time, most of the Hobbit guests left to go take naps or showers...to reconvene at one for luncheon.


Lunch was simple...cold cuts, cheeses, and crackers.  It was gone within minutes.  Then, we began the first Hobbit movie.  Fitting, yes?

Afternoon tea was at three.  Lemon-lavender muffins with fruit...and I will be making these muffins again.  They were light and floral and delicious.  And of course, a selection of teas and coffees were available.


And shortly before this meal, I began working on this...


The centerpiece of the supper meal.  The prime rib...certainly a favorite of Dwarves across Middle-Earth.  Supper was at six...


The finished, crusted prime rib...


On a plate with a good drop of the Old Winyard, laid down by Balbo Baggins, along with Mushrooms ala Gandalf, and Farmer Maggot's carrots...

 
Topped off by a blackberry tart from Bree...

As good as the Shire could afford!  Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Thing About Sushi...

1. Yes, there is some capital outlay involved.  You certainly *can* make sushi without a bamboo mat or the right kind of rice, but I have a hard time seeing it without the nori/seaweed paper.

2. While I enjoying rolling it, cutting it, etc...sushi is one of those things most people want someone else to make for them.  There is a fair amount of effort involved, especially with the cutting and the preparing of the rice.  But, see, I dig that kind of thing, so it's doesn't bother me, but it might be a deal breaker for someone else.

3. Most people either love it or hate it, and it's not always a favorite at something like a church potluck.

And it is for those three reasons that we will not be bringing sushi to the Nelson Family Christmas this year.  While one of my husband's brothers and wife would love it, the MIL, FIL, and other two brothers probably would not.

Alas.  More sushi for me.

At a Asian food store about an hour from here, I picked up all the accoutrements for making sushi...to the sing-ding total of about $24.  Not bad for two rolling mats, a 50-sheet package of seaweed, a five pound bag of rice, and sushi rice vinegar.

And because I was inspired and in the mood, I had this for lunch...



...because one does not simply drive an hour to the state capital and NOT have a decent lunch.  The above cuisine is Vietnamese, and honestly, some days, there is nothing a better than a big bowl of pho.

Back home, though...after julienning some crabmeat, cucumber, carrots and mincing some shrimp, here was the end result:


I like sushi a lot, but I've discovered that the sauces are necessary.  There's four on my plate: sriracha, wasabi, hot mustard, and soy.

And because it made me laugh (and still does), here's a video of Bean trying the hot mustard for the first time.  You'll notice five distinct phases of his process: Trying/Thinking, Unexpected Reaction, Growing Dislike, Peak of Discomfort, and Milk Euphoria.  This 28-second video is very much like a short story (Expository, Initial Conflict, Continuing Action/Conflict, Climax, Resolution).


video

Friday, December 12, 2014

Bavarian Cream Is Like Riding Your Bike

In which you have not ridden your Bavarian Cream bike in a long time, but once you get going, you think, Hey! I remember this!  This is fun!  This is easy! Wheeeee!  And then you make a teeny little mistake, miss that teeny little rock in the road, and suddenly you've wiped out, big time.

I don't think I've mentioned it here, but a friend of mine asked me to do the food-providing for her small-group business holiday party next week, and of course, I've been testing and pairing recipes like madcap.

I'm in the shower this morning, and I realize I have the ingredients on hand for Bavarian creams.  And even better, I'm going to divide the creams out, so I can play with flavors.

But, first...a creme anglaise.  So far, so good.

This right here is what is referred to by pastry chefs as "nappé" (nap-pay).  I wanted my egg-sugar-cream mixture to cook at a low temp long enough to get thick enough to coat a spoon...and then hold the line I drew through it.


And everything else was going swimmingly...I'd divided out my warm anglaise out and one was chocolate-and-coffee flavored and the other was porter-and-chocolate flavored.

And here, things go a bit south.  I set both mixtures in the freezer to chill slightly before adding the whipped cream.


The bowl on the left is the porter and chocolate, which set up EXACTLY like I wanted it.  The mocha, though, overchilled and I did not get my smoothness when I folded in the cream.  Meh.  I can't pour that into cups!

Then.  I finished folding the cream into the porter mixture, and I soon realized I'd overbeat my cream.  The extra agitation during the folding rendered my porter not very pourable either, and in the end, the porter mix was so stuff that I had to pipe it into serving cups.  Not a horrible thing, honestly, but not what I wanted.  Fortunately, it tastes great, so it wasn't a total loss.

While I did not end up with a final product I would be comfortable serving to my friend, I feel pretty good about the fact that a.) the FP tasted pretty damn good and b.) I know exactly what to do differently for next time!

Edited to add the picture of the final product.  That's a chocolate-porter ganache on top.  I've got beer on the brain, as you can probably tell!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving Wrap-Up!

It was a rather low-key Thanksgiving Day here at the Chez Nelson...and no wonder.  The menu was pretty understated (for me, that is):

Appetizers:
Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp
Blue Cheese and Pear Crostini

The Dinner:
Turkey
Roasted Mashed Potatoes
Green Beans & Corn Medley
Stuffing
Gravy
Cranberry Relish
Pumpkin Cheesecake
Dutch Apple Pie
Dutch Apple Pie with Blue Cheese

And then you remember that I did my Thanksgiving Dinner like this:


Layer #1 & 2: My mom's stuffing, which had, hours ago, filled the main orifice of Mr. Turkey.  Then, the stuffing layer was covered with a nice, generous layer of shredded turkey, cooked the day before.


Layer #3: A straight-up, no-frills corn and green bean medley.  Green bean casserole would be good.  So would scalloped corn.  So would diced roasted sweet potatoes or squash.  You just gotta have some vegetable in there.


Layer #4: Mashed potatoes.  I roasted some Yukon Golds in the oven first then mashed them up in my mixer.  Salt, pepper, garlic powder, butter, and milk.  OhEmGee.


Bake at 400 degrees until temp is 165.  We discovered that 350 was not hot enough to get this massive casserole heated through in 45 minutes...that's why we cranked it up.  Twenty minutes later at the higher temp, we were good to go.

So, essentially, this casserole is like a Thanksgiving Dinner all in one shot.  Some friends of ours asked us, Didn't you miss all the dishes on your Thanksgiving table?  Honestly, a little.  I mean, yeah, the table was pretty sparse-looking with just one blue Pyrex dish, one bread plate, and one gravy bowl.  But, did I like having the one-stop-shopness of this casserole?  You betcha!  Did it taste just like Thanksgiving dinner anyway?  Heck yes.

Would I do it again?  Maybe.  After all, this casserole best lends itself to traditional items...turkey, veg, potatoes, stuffing.  I did feel a little stifled, like I couldn't really go outside the box on the menu items, because I had to take into consideration how well it would go into the casserole.

But, it was fun and delicious.  Now, onto the Christmas meal planning...


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving Leftovers...For Thanksgiving?!

Well, what a month November has been.

My National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel is almost at 40,000 words, so I'm par to finish on the last day of the monthNothing like the 11th hour, right?

Professionally speaking, there are changes coming in the next month for me.  I took a job last month that didn't quite fit my overall career goals, so I'm making some changes in that regard.  Hopefully, this change will make my home life a lot less stressful.  I have also had some interesting business propositions come my way, and now I guess it's time to, putting it crudely, crap or get off the pot.

Or, like Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption - get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

I can talk more at length about that some time later.  For today, though, I am finally going to reveal my Thanksgiving dinner plans.

The past several years' Thanksgivings have been full-out, all the stops affairs.  And especially the past two years, there have been classic dishes with a Nelson-esque twist.  This year, however, it's a nostalgic return to simplicity.

The Casserole.

My mom and I were discussing The Original Happy Meal about two weeks ago and I jokingly said, we should do like an all-in-one Thanksgiving dinner meatloaf (although I think I used the word terrine, but she didn't know what that was).  And she was all like Yes!  But I was kind of kidding...

Then I realized that a Thanksgiving loaf had many, many pros: 1. Less dishes in the oven at one time and less dishes dirtied at one time in general.  2. No need to worry about fitting all the choices in on your plate, one slice of the loaf and the entire meal was right there.  3. More room for dessert.

Of course, were my in-laws coming to my house for Thanksgiving, I would not have even thought about doing this.  They are traditional people and they want traditional-looking food.  Truth be told, my dad's the same way, but he either eats the weird stuff my mom wants to eat, or he eats peanut butter sandwiches and Van Camp's pork and beans at home by himself.  However, this year, things just worked out in that way where the day is just the five of us and my parents...and we just do bizarre things like this.

Eventually, the loaf idea gave way to a layered casserole.  Mom's going to roast the turkey the day before and bring over turkey slices/pieces.  She's also in charge of gravy and stuffing.  I've got the mashed potatoes and vegetables (I'm also doing breads and desserts, which we actually discussed putting in the casserole too, but thought that really might be pushing the gross factor).

Just so you have an idea where this is all going, here's an example of it from Stepable.com.  Notice how the original title is Thanksgiving LEFTOVER Casserole??  What do you call it when it's not leftovers but the first-time, fresh-from-the-oven foodstuffs?

You call it something like Thanksgiving Dinner In A Dish (like, Bed In A Bag, but Thanksgiving-related, you know).

Don't worry, you know there will be pictures.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November 18 - A Great Day for Tomato Marmalade

A little over a week until that great American holiday of Thanksgiving.  And the big furor this year are the number of shopping places that are announcing that they will open on Thanksgiving Day, in addition to Black Friday.  Of course, critics from sea to shining sea are outraged at the desecration of the sacred American Family Holiday.

You know, because we just can't have good family time any other day of the year besides Thanksgiving.

But, don't read that last sentence the wrong way.  Although close members of my family participate, I do not go Black Friday shopping...ergo, I would not consider shopping on Thanksgiving either.

To me, Thanksgiving is ALL ABOUT FOOD.  Of course it would be.

In fact, my mom and I already have our Thanksgiving meal planned.  I want to wait a few days...then, you'll all have your set Thanksgiving menus, and won't want to take my idea.

Let's just say it doesn't quite involve your mom's green bean casserole.  I'm not slagging green bean casserole...it's one of the great dishes that nourished our parents through the post-WWII years.  But...there is a lot to be improved upon there. 

In the midst of the new job, meal planning, writing a novel, and so on and so forth, I rediscovered the word document file folder on my laptop called: Heather's Recipes, with a subfolder of Recipes to Try.  These particular recipes are ones I culled during my time on the island, when I would take out the subscription to Bon Appetit magazine and copy down recipes I thought would be good.  I've decided to attempt making all these recipes within the next several weeks...and discard the mehs and keep the keepers.

So, tonight was a little on the light side...and as it's Ethnic Night at Chez Nelson, a little on the Italian side as well.

The actual recipe, courtesy of Bon Appetit, is found here.  The professional food stylist for Condé Nast decided the final product should look like this:

Yeah.  That's gorgeous.  Someone for Condé Nast is really earning their paycheck.  But, let's put this recipe in its appropriate context...I got this from the August issue of Bon Appetit, when beautiful, colorful, juicy tomatoes and herbs were at their peak, and the weather was still warm enough to crank on the grill

And when one doesn't make this dish until mid-November when it's really cold, snow is on the ground, and the grill is put away...well, modifications need to be made.  I would appreciate it greatly if you could withhold passing judgment for now.

This is what I got:

 I know.  Not nearly as pretty as the professional.  But, I think it would taste just as good, if not better.

So, one loaf of Italian bread (from scratch would be best, obviously), cut into thick slices (like 1/2" or so). One pint-ish of cherry tomatoes, halved, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, garlic, basil and parsley.

I was fresh out of minced garlic, so I used garlic powder.

I could only find fresh basil at the grocery, so I bought that.  No parsley, so I got that squeezy tube stuff.

The recipe calls for raw tomatoes, but I roasted mine, because I just like the flavor.  They got soft enough that I could lightly mash them into what I will now call Tomato Marmalade.  And Tomato Marmalade's got possibilities:  take out the basil and parsley and sub in cumin and cilantro....Boom!  Southwest!

And instead of grilling my bread, I baked/toasted in the oven for about 10-13 minutes.  A little salt and pepper sprinkle over the finished product, and it was chow time.  I'd bought a fancy little meat platter from Walmart, and we had that with the tomatoes and bread.  Awesome.  Light and relatively easy.

Would be much better in August, true.  But like I'm going to tell Condé Nast that.










Sunday, November 9, 2014

Procrastinate Daily...But Only If It Leads to Epiphany

The first week of National Novel Writing Month is over (NaNoWriMo), and because of work, kids' activities, and all that jazz, I have fallen behind on my word count.  So, on a free morning like I happen to have right now, I am doing the right thing...

Procrastinating.

It's weird.  I love to write, and I should leap at the chance to work on my story.  But, to be honest, it's been a struggle this year.  It's a story idea I absolutely love and have had in my head for about two years...but I feel like I'm killing it with my subpar, half-hearted writing.  But, that's my problem, not yours.  Your problem is to read my subpar, half-hearted writing here.

Ha.  Jokes!

So, anyway.  I'm procrastinating on writing my novel this morning.  Instead, I did my grocery list, submitted an invitation request for the new Echo on Amazon, flatironed my hair, and cleaned and organized my kitchen countertops.  And as always, cleaning and reorganizing any kind of home space usually results in discoveries of the various kind.  Like:

1. We have entirely too many tea bags.  Some have been around for quite some time, too.  How many bags of English Breakfast does one really need?

2. What do people do with extraneous kitchen tools like peelers, salad tongs, wooden spoons, spatulas, etc?  I suspect most people don't, like me, stuff these into ceramic crocks, Mason jars, or kitchen drawers.  I would like to know their secrets.

3. And while I'm thinking about it, what about bigger detritus like mixer or Nutribuller attachments?  Is there anything wrong, really, with chucking these things into a smallish Tupperware tub and shoving it into a corner of the kitchen counter?  And...if you knew someone who did this...would you judge harshly and condemn them to the ninth circle of Home Management Hell?

4. Appliances fall into a number of categories.  First, there are fixed and movable, yes?  Like, I can't shift around or put away my dishwasher, fridge, stove/oven, refrigerator - hence, fixed.  Movables are things like my coffeepot, Nutribullet, blender, food processor, mixer...ones I can put away.  But within the Movables category, there is a spectrum of subcategories.  At one end are appliances that are Necessary.  At the other end are Appliances I would categorize as Arbitrary.  For example, at the Necessary end would be my coffeepot, because I use it everyday.  Even though I could stash it in a cupboard somewhere, I don't because I'd just get it back out the next morning.  At the Arbitrary end is Kirby's Belgian waffle maker, which we maybe use, oh, once a month...usually on weekend mornings when we have time and energy to make waffles.  Not practical to keep that on the countertop, and not to mention, it's a lightweight little thing, easy to tote around.

Everything else falls in the middle.  True, I do not use my Breville mixer but once a week...maybe.  But it's heavy and cumbersome, and that's why it stays on the counter.  The Nutribullet and processor also stay because I use them often in the process of cooking or preparing foods or making smoothies in the morning.  And, upon reorganzing and pondering my kitchen space, I decided to take the blender downstairs to storage, namely because I used it mostly for smoothies, which I now have the smaller, lighter, and more efficient Nutribullet for.  The next time, though, I have a big Margarita party, I'll haul the Oster upstairs

And now, visuals.
The Big Three.  They meet daily on how they can better serve the Nelson household.
The Crockpot...spends most of its time as an Arbitrary.  But not today.  And not for Mr. Chicken inside.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

One Night Only: Bein' Korean

Tuesdays are Ethnic Food Night here at Chez Nelson.  So far, we've done chicken curry, shrimp and pork spring rolls, and alfredo lasagna (probably not really true Italian, but who's keeping track?).

Tonight, we paid a little homage to our Korean family with:


Bulgogi (a Korean marinated and grilled beef), rice, homemade white kimchi, and seaweed wraps.

The dynamics of this meal was incredible: savory beef, neutral rice, salty wrap, and spicy-sweetish kimchi.

I don't have much to say about this tonight, except that you should make it sometime.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Not A Manic Monday...A Marvelous Monday!

Monday is my Sunday...and Sunday is a fun day.

Good things:

1. The last soccer game was yesterday, and so now, our evenings and weekends will be soccer-practice-and-game free!  Let me say, though...I do support my children.  It's just, well, it'll be nice to have the time back...time to eat meals together again and whatnot.

2. My parents have dug up about a 14' x 24' patch in their backyard so that we can do a nice, big, communal garden next spring.  My mom and I are big garlic lovers, so we decided to give growing out own a shot.  And that special member of the Allium family went into the ground this morning to sit and get all deliciously garlicky over the winter.

 

I know it's hard to tell exactly what's going on here...but if you look at the top and bottom center of the picture, you'll a group of small bulb-looking things.  That's the garlic, planted in happy little groups.  The other junk in the picture are the worked-in scraps from my compost bucket.  I'm trying to be a friend to the Earth, see.


And this is the layer of pretty mulch put on...to keep the garlics warm and hopefully the squirrels away too.

3. Mondays are a day off for me, and I have the peace and quiet of the kitchen to myself.  So, this morning, I've done two loaves of multi-grain bread, spiced squash soup for tonight, and prep work for tomorrow's Korean Dinner.

When I was doing the Monday-Friday daily grind, I used to dread Mondays, but now, I really love them!  Serendipity now!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It's November!

Ate at P.F. Chang's today for lunch and received this fortune...


Hahahahahahaha!  How fitting.  It is, after all, National Novel Writing Month...so, yes, I will write a book.  Thank you, mass-produced Chinese fortune cookie fortune.

If I'm a little scarce here, that's probably the reason why.  Oh, and yeah, I need to talk about work here one of these days.  Along with craft beer.

Speaking of which...let this tide you over.






Trappist ales are my new favorite beer these days.  And tonight I tried them with an extra sharp cheddar.  Verrrrrry nice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beets. Apples. Battlestar Galatica.

The television show, "The Office" - ever heard of it?  I personally enjoy the opening scenes of each episode...especially this one.



The only thing that ties this clip to today's blog post is the mention of beets.  Otherwise, there is no relevancy whatsoever except that I wanted to try embedding a video from YouTube.  And it worked, so let's count that as Success #1.

Success #2 includes the vegetable mentioned in both The Office clip and my blog entry title today.  Beets.  Up until the last couple of years, I never gave beets much thought.  Most of the time I saw beets on salad bars in pickled form...and that just didn't excite me.

Until I learned about roasting them.  And then all of a sudden, beets were amazing and delicious!  And they are beautiful, too.  (Although, a word of caution, wear gloves when you work with them - you'll be grateful later)

And here was my latest brainstorm...I bought three beets earlier in the week, and by the weekend, the greens were wilting.  It was ready to do something with them or throw them in the compost bin.  And, as luck would have it, there happened to be an abundance of apples in the crisper drawer.  And with the weather turning colder, any extra apples go right into the crockpot to become applesauce.

But back to the beets - here's what I did:


Beets on the left.  Apples on the right.  Into the crockpot they go.  With some cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, brown sugar and a little apple and lemon juice (water would work too).  Two things worth noting here: if you do this at home, your house will smell awesome, and you will have a yummy product at the end of the cooking.

Crockpot on low.  Three or four hours.  Not long...enough time to soften up the fruit/vegetable.  Then, dump the mixture into the food processor and whiz for a few seconds.


The picture is not that great, but you can still see the color is beautiful.  No additives here either.  That's the natural color of the beets there.  Taste-wise, here's what you get: earthy, fruity, and a little sweet.  The consistency is that of store-bought applesauce, but the taste is something you won't find there.  I'd encourage you to play with flavors...any "hard" vegetable could be used: sweet potatoes, squash, etc.  Also, fresh ginger would be amazing in lieu of powdered.  Maybe some orange zest and juice for a little zing.  And I'm just spitballing here.

The point is: your crockpot is your friend.  Applesauce is great.  Beetappsauce is out of this world.  Even Dwight Schrute would agree...especially since he runs a beet farm.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A New Tradition: Guilty Pleasure Sunday

Guilty Pleasure Sundays will very, very likely be a Once a Month Thing only.

So, no, this post will not be about anything sexual.  Get your minds out of the gutter!

I am talking about junk food.

Yesterday was quite the long day at work for me...as in, thirteen hours of non-stop prepping and serving food to hungry college students.  Sundays are my Saturdays, and a day that I try to cook as little as possible.

So the idea originally was to eat out somewhere decent for dinner, but then, my thirteen-year-old daughter and I came up with a brilliant idea...


and

We originally were going to call it Junk Food for Dinner...but then Kirby came up with "Guilty Pleasure Sunday Dinner".  Brilliant!

Understand that I don't normally condone junk food.  If I can't or don't want to make it myself, then I try to stay away from it in the grocery stores.  Which is why - I never usually would buy Little Smokies, plastic Easy Cheese, Ritz Crackers or microwave popcorn with Extra Butter.  I would, however, make the pictured Vanilla Cupcakes with Raspberry Buttercream Frosting.

That, by the way, was Kirby and my's Sunday afternoon project.  When I told the menfolk our dinner plans, they were so excited that they ran helter-skelter into the supermarket to pick up their favorite Food Mom/Wife Won't Let Us Have In The House.

Therefore,

Spencer: Easy Cheese and Crackers
Elliot: Extra Butter Microwave Popcorn
Brent: Little Smokies with BBQ Sauce

So..To Thine Own Self, Be Food, right?  Especially today...when you just feel like eating processed crap with your family...for one meal on one day a month.

Tomorrow will be To Thine Own Self, Eat Less and Eat Simple Food.

Hoorah!

P.S.: I'm not gonna lie here.  I secretly enjoyed the Squeezy Cheese and Little Smokies.  But just not everyday.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

To Every Thing There Is A Season...Soup Season!

Ecclesiastes 3 is a popular biblical verse for those meaningful rites of passages: birth, death, marriage, puberty...

And, more importantly, it is THE game-changer in the Kevin Bacon version of "Footloose".  John Lithgow was NOT expecting his rebellious daughter to employ Ecclesiates 3 as the cornerstone of Kevin Bacon's moving "Let This Town Dance" argument.

And I agree...for everything, there is a season.  Fall just happens to be the season for soup.

It's mid-October here in Iowa - that crazy, unpredictable time of year when anything, weather-wise, can happen.  We could have snow tomorrow and 80 degrees the day after.  That's how we roll around here.

Yesterday, though, was gray and rainy and windy.  My front lawn is littered with yellow and orange leaves from our birch trees, and yesterday's wind was the final straw as many of them finally let go of the summer season.  And it was on this odd and spiritual note that I smiled...and got my mirepoix ready.

Chili is always usually the big family winner this time of year, but I decided with the acumen I'd garnered on the island, I'd try this soup a little different.  Normally, I throw everything into a crockpot and let it stew all day, which ends up being delicious, that is true.

This time, though, I started with mirepoix, which is a 1:1:2 ratio of diced celery, carrots, and onion.  I sweated them in a skillet with some olive oil until they were soft.  Then, I added some minced garlic, before deglazing the pan with some white wine.  A tablespoon of chicken base, a small can of tomato paste and my chili spices (cayenne, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika) then get whisked into the fray.  I think I get more flavor from letting these things come into contact with the heat of the skillet without the dilution of the liquid.

I call this my chili base.  At this point, I could cool it, bag it, and freeze it for later chili makings.


But right now, in the picture above, I've added a bit of V8 vegetable juice for some substance before I add in a can of red kidney beans, a can of black beans, and a half-pound of ground turkey and beef each.


At this point, I'm tasting what's in the skillet and adjusting the seasoning (usually more salt).  Then, I add more V8 until I get the consistency I want.  Because I was going to put this in the crockpot, I add a little less V8 than I would normally.  And voilá!  We have really yummy chili.  Awesomesauce #1.

Courtesy of amazon.com
On the way home from Michigan nearly three weeks ago, we stopped at a consignment store, where I found this gem for two dollars.

I tried the first recipe from it last night - the Winter Nordic Vegetable Soup (see the recipe online here).  And naturally, I can't leave a recipe alone, I've got to make my own tweaks (mostly because of what I can find and/or I need to get rid of in my own veg crisper). 

Here's what I changed:

*Three onions instead of one onion and two leeks

*1 cup quinoa instead of pearled barley (incidentally, using quinoa in this recipe was a mistake - I just didn't like it)

*1 quart of vegetable broth, 1 quart of homemade chicken broth, and 1 quart of water instead of 2 quarts of vegetable broth and 1 quart of water

* A sachet of thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, and parsley stems instead of just thyme and bay leaves

* 1 1/2 pound of carrots instead of celery root

* An added tablespoon of Herbes de Provence during the sweating of the onions

And I did not get a picture of this soup, alas, which is too bad, because it was everything I pictured a cool-weather soup to be.  The quinoa did not work out, but egg noodles might.  I liked adding the carrots because it provided some color, as celery root is roughly the same color as the parsnips, along with the spinach (or kale).  Along with a fresh-baked loaf of bread, this was quite the sustaining almost-winter meal.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Buy It Now, Google It Later

This is usually my modus operandi for buying new and unusual foodstuffs I see in the produce section of my sort-of-rural supermarket.  Any time I see some cool thing that definitely does not grow in Iowa (cherimoya, chayote squash, etc), I buy it lickety-split-quick. 

Because.  It's a like a conveniently quick, cheap ticket to some exotic place in the world.  Except there's no long airport lines, no TSA, no risk of malaria or worse, Ebola.

And then when I get it home, I Google it to find out what I can do with it.

Today, doing the weekly shopping, my small-town Iowa grocery store has this in the produce department:





I know, right?  It's like a hairy little sea anemone or something.  Its real name is rambutan, and it comes from Vietnam.  It's indigenous to many Southeast Asian countries...that means it's a tropical fruit.  These fruits (or at least the ones I found at the store) are small, even in the palm of my hand, and the weirdly prickly skin is peeled off before being eaten.  The yield, therefore, is small and I don't think it's practical to use many of these in some kind of recipe, although it's possible...maybe in combination with a medley of other tropical fruits?


Basically, this is what I did.  Peeled off that outer layer to reveal a large grape-looking thingy.  It tastes like a grape too, but there's a large and not-very-delicious seed in the middle, so Brent and I ate "around" it.  Good times.

Anyway, that's my advice to you today.  If you see something at the grocery store you've never heard of in your life, buy it (unless you can't afford it, in that case, buy the essentials and feed your family), and research it later.  You won't regret it.  At least, I hope you don't.

Friday, October 10, 2014

I'm Not A Doctor, But Nearly As Important As One

Some college-level football player gets fed by me just about every day.  If that isn't saving lives, then I don't know what.

So, almost three weeks ago (tomorrow) marks my last day as an employee of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, MI.  That means I've been home for about two and a half weeks.  And I am different.  I have changed, and sometimes the environment I live in has not changed quickly enough for me.

But.  It is what it is.  Things will realign most soonly, I am sure.  Until then, the first item of business is to get a job...because a.) it's just simply the thing to do these days, b.) I've got to put this new degree to use, and c.) not working is not part of my genetic makeup.

Here in Small Town Iowa, there's only a few jobs available to me.  So I applied for a Cook job with Sodexo Corporation, which runs the cafeteria at the college here in town.  I also applied for a Cook job at the local hospital and I even interviewed, but have not heard back (almost two weeks now?).  And in the end, readers, I want to work, I want experience, and Sodexo gives me full-time, benefits, a chance to learn different skills, and access to different opportunities.

Okay.  But?  The job is a lot of high volume institutional cooking (not a prison, but a school, folks!).  Yeah.  That means we're not looking at real creative, high-quality plates.  We're looking at relatively easy entrees that we can make a lot of.  Oh, and the main populace are college students, many of them athletes who eat like nobody's business AND have manners similar to grade-school children.

I'm sorry to speak ill of the generation that will probably be wiping the drool from my chin in my later years, but there it is.

The saving grace of this job is that the cafeteria also does catering jobs to local businesses, groups, individuals, etc.  So, during the week, I'll get to cook for those, which I think will allow me a little creativity and opportunity.  Friday and Saturday, though, is my "nose to the grindstone" days...evening cook and shift supervisor.  Yes, you read that right - supervisor.

Look at me, Mom...all responsible and stuff...

Heaven help us all. *insert smiley face*

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Living Small. Living Simply.

I woke up this morning, about 6:35 a.m.  I walk down the hallway to the front room of my house.  There, I see a colorful assortment of school detritus, papers, backpacks, blankets, and clothing strewn about the floor.  Oh, and a totally functioning microwave in the middle of the floor that my parents want, but have not found the time to come get yet (even though my mom is now retired and has more hours in the day than she knows what to do with).

Continuing on to the kitchen, I am greeted by random Cheerios on the floor, not to mention other wrappers, rubber bands, and litter that has not been swept up recently.  Our kitchen is actually one long room that contains the dining room and TV room and that means I can see the mess that is normally called the dining table.  Chili splotches that did not get wiped up from the night before, more school papers and such scattered about, etc.  The entrance to the downstairs is actually blocked by a random plastic bag and my daughter's Adidas gym bag.

Which, right there, I should have taken as a sign to NOT go downstairs.  The downstairs is mostly the domain of my husband's office, my laundry room, and the two older kids' bedrooms. 

And it is trashed.  We're talking craaaaap everywhere.  Dirty clothes and craft stuff.

I think you can probably guess what happened next.  Mom freaks out (film at eleven).

I've only been home two weeks.  Two weeks, two meltdowns.  I feel trapped by this house and everything in it.  But, the question of course, where to begin?  I *want* to live smaller, there's no doubt about it, but how?

Enter the Dragon. 

Martial artist Bruce Lee says it best: "It's not the daily increase, but the daily decrease.  Hack away at the unessential."

Indeed.  It's the unessential that is driving me crazy.  But, what is unessential to me is totally essential to my husband.  Or my children. 

We are preparing for a garage sale later this month, and our garage is becoming full of things that are unessential to us right now.  Whatever doesn't get sold will probably be donated.  And then, we'll begin the culling process again, I reckon.  Until someday, when we have our things pared down to the essentials and we have one (or zero) child left in the house...then we can move into one of these:


This is the 'Linden' model of house, available at Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.  Two bedrooms, 177 square feet of usable space, totally mobile.

That is the end game right there, readers.  Small home, small living.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Porter Plus Panna Cotta = Provocative Pairing


What you're looking at is photographic evidence of a happy little beer-food pairing I came across last night.  Panna cotta is among one of my favorite desserts to make...easy, cheap, versatile, and yummy.  And I had two slightly overripe bananas that needed something doing with.  I had no idea I was about to do something incredible.

The porter is a dark, malty beer with roasty, slight coffee notes.  Typically, porters (and their stout cousins) go well with spicy foods, barbeque, some chocolate dishes, etc.

And, as it turns out, porters also go well with Roasted Banana Panna Cotta.  After adapting the original recipe from Cody Curl here, I turned out the dessert onto a plate and began digging in.  It is a very sweet dessert, and next time I will cut out the sugar altogether.  Roasting the bananas give them a roasty sweetness that completely negates the need for granulated sugar.  Curl's recipe called for a banana-flavored liqueur to bloom the gelatin in...which, what?  What does one actually use banana-flavored liqueur for?

Of course I did not have banana-flavored liqueur just sitting around...but what I did have was a smidgen of Amaretto left in its fancy glass bottle.  Works for me!

A lot of whisking and heating and blooming later, I'd poured the already thickening mixture into five ramekins and carted it off to the freezer for and hour or two of quick-cooling.  Typically, I wouldn't recommend this because sometimes the sugars freeze so fast, they crystallize and become a watery mess when it sits out at room temperature for awhile.

I was halfway through eating the dessert when I idly wondered what beverage would taste good with it.  And I remembered the six-pack of Founders in my chiller.  The rest is history, sort of.

The porter is not as roasty-toasty as a stout, but the roasted quality of the bananas REALLY brings it out in the beer.  And vice versa...the porter really accentuates the roast of the bananas, which amplifies the sweetness, and therefore, it was almost too sweet altogether (which is why I'd cut out the sugar in the recipe).

So, I'm going to do this again...with a couple of changes.  First: instead of blooming the gelatin in Amaretto, I'm going to use the porter.  And, I'll cut out the sugar.  Second: I'll make the recipe just as it is, but instead of a porter, I'll drink an IPA with it.  I'll be interested to see the dynamic of that pairing.

Until then, happy Sunday, readers!

P.S. Get my modified panna cotta recipe here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Genetic Mutations, or: Waffles!

Current parenting trends tell us it's not appropriate for moms to declare that they have a favorite child.

But I say, sometimes, that's just the way it is.  Depending on the day, the situation, etc., I most certainly do have an especial inclination towards one of my three children.  And equally, there are days and situations in which none of my children are my favorite and I actually prefer the cat over them.

This morning, I caught a glance of my youngest, 10-year-old Elliot, hauling his laundry basket downstairs for washing.  My kids all do their own laundry, they have been for at least a year now, and he is consistently the only one we don't have to remind or nag to do it.  So, yeah, favorite child award today goes to him.  On the other hand, the 15-year-old is currently on my Crap List because his favorite slacker trick when doing dishes is NOT to remove the silverware, thus letting pile up and not get washed properly.  I am considering having him revert to the old school way of dishwashing, the way I used to do it - BY HAND.

Two mornings ago, I woke up and made these:


These are Raspberry-Almond Waffles, recipe found here at http://100daysofrealfood.com.

The only change I made was substituting orange extract for the vanilla.  They were easy to make, quick to fix (thanks to my daughter's Belgian waffle maker), and gone in minutes.  I did put the finished waffles in the oven (on the lowest setting) while the others cooked.

And as we're eating these yummy, fruity, nutty concoctions...my 13-year-old daughter says, know what would be awesome, Mom?  Pieces of bacon and sausage in the waffle...then you'd have like the whole breakfast in one go.

Simple. Genius. And totally worthy of the Favorite Child Award for Wednesday, October 1, 2014.

I love all my children.  Really.  Of course I do.  But every now and then, they completely startle me out of the gene pool with their brilliance.




Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Exorcising Your Refrigerator, or: Demons Are Money, People!

Today is the first day of October.  It's a beautiful day.  That kind of pale, gray, gently rainy morning that is perfect for a cup of coffee, the latest issue of Mother Earth Living, hard-boiled eggs gently simmering on the stove...

This is serendipity, folks.

Until the husband comes upstairs and says, Hey, how about we do the cat's ear medicine now?

Thankfully, only Juno the cat's morning was the slightest bit disrupted, as Brent went back to work and I was quickly able to rediscover my bubble of tranquility.

Starting tomorrow, my family and I are doing the 10 Days of Real Food Pledge (as discussed at this website http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/).  Because, frankly, I won't be getting as much exercise here at home as I did on the island, and I just need a better plan for food around here.  Eating "real food" is very easy in theory, but difficult in practice.

For example.  According to the Real Food Rules, those bottles of squeezable fruit spread in my refrigerator are OUT because they contain an artificial form of sweetener (e.g. corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup).  And of course, I agree with the rule and I don't dispute this.  But.  I've got one and a half bottles of Satanic fruit spread in my fridge...and as much as I'd like to exorcise its demons, I simply can't just chuck out perfectly fine fruit spread, its religious shortcomings notwithstanding.

What would be nice is if I could dip my entire fridge in holy water and all evil foodstuffs, condiments, et al. within would be transformed into natural, healthy ones. The HFCS in the fruit spread becomes 100% maple syrup or honey or fruit juice concentrate or something naturally similar.

I guess I need a young priest and an old priest.

Ultimately, there's got to be some kind of compromise, right?  I want to fulfill the 10-day pledge, and I feel to keep the fake fruit spread, et al. around is some kind of fraud, punishable by law.  But, I also can't, in good conscience, just throw food out (although, really, the word food in this case is subject to question and certainly necessitates the use of sarcastic air quotes).

Maybe the Great Answer will come to me as I bake bread and make homemade granola for the first time in forever today.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sunday. Super Sunday.

I have suffered only one breakdown/panic attack in the almost-week I've been in Iowa.  That one occurred on Friday when I felt compelled to tidy up the laundry room...and became completely and utterly overwhelmed by the amount of, pardon my French, shit my family and I have managed to accumulate over the years.  The piles of clutter were insurmountable and I felt like I would never be able to conquer them.  Ever.

So I hyperventilated.  I panicked.  I cried.  I freaked out on my husband.

It was a very sad Friday, indeed.  But, I managed to pull myself up by the shoestrings on my Asics and get on with it.  And I ended up having a great weekend.

Of course, it helps that it was, like, an unseasonably 82 degrees here in Iowa...which allowed me to do this:

Brent and I have decided to do our grocery shopping biweekly, as opposed to once a week.  Perhaps it seems like a waste of time, but we found we were dealing with more spoilage or menu items not being used, etc.  You know, from those little pesky life things that pop up every now and then to disrupt your routine?

Anyway, doing groceries on bike is a great way to make sure you stick to your list.  I got a lot of interesting looks from the other shoppers at Fareway, and frankly, I look forward to shopping there again and letting the bag boy take my groceries out to my "vehicle" for me.  Ha!

The majority of the rest of the weekend was spent watching kids' soccer games and getting sunburnt.  Until Sunday morning when I decided to try to recreate one of the meals I'd eaten on the island, thanks to the Jamaicans - Chicken Fricassee.  I did *not* have any jerk spice, but instead an amazing hodgepodge of Asian sauce bottles...all of them with just "a little bit" left in the bottom.

The word 'fricassee' is beauty to me because it's fun to say, not to mention most people don't really know what it is, so they're impressed.  And, as it turns out, it's fairly easy to do.

1. Procure bag of chicken pieces (Wings, thighs, drumsticks, etc). Do not remove bones.

2. Rinse.  Toss in a large bowl with salt, pepper, soy sauce, Korean BBQ sauce, sweet chili sauce, etc., whatever you have left that will expire soon.

3. Let sit for a few minutes.  Meanwhile, chop vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, green peppers, jalapenos for this recipe, wish I'd had some ginger on hand).

4. Heat oil in a large skillet.  Choose an oil with a high smoke point (I used corn, but peanut or soybean oil would work too).  Heat to high, look for the "shimmer" on the surface, and put chicken in carefully (and maybe even using the lid as a shield).  Turn down heat a little if the popping and splattering continue.  We only want color here, so turn pieces over after 3-4 minutes.


5. Transfer chicken to crockpot.

6. Drain all oil except for a couple of tablespoons.  Sauté cut vegetables for a few minutes until tender.  Add to crockpot.


7. Deglaze skillet with white wine, and lift up all the browny bits.  Add chicken broth, sauces from the marinade, herbs like thyme and parsley, other seasonings (onion and garlic powder here), more soy sauce, etc. etc., and let it reduce down until it's as thick as you want it.  If you're in a hurry, do the cornstarch-and-cold-water slurry to thicken it.

8. TASTE YOUR SAUCE AS IT COOKS DOWN.  Correct seasonings, add salt, etc.

9. Pour over chicken in crockpot.  Turn on low and let cook for six hours.  Meat will simply fall off bone.

10. Cook rice and red beans and serve the fricassee over it.

Yeah.  It's as easy as that!  I know, I know...I didn't include any measurements.  How much of this?  How much of that?  I did one onion, two carrots, three stalks of celery, one jalapeno, two green peppers...and I just threw in the dried parsley and thyme.  Frankly, I wish I'd done more jalapeno and herbs.  Tasting as you go is crucial.  If you're not in the habit of tasting your food as it's cooking (or even before it cooks), do it now.  It's really important.

Now.  Depending on what ingredients we happened to have on hand, this fricassee would taste different.  Sometimes there would be curry and coconut milk, sometimes just a plain brown sauce or demi-glace, or sometimes it would have the Asian flavor, like the one I created yesterday. 

I do love this technique...it's very open to creativity.  Go fricassee for yourself!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What I Came Home To

I'm sure that is the burning question on everyone's mind: What kind of culinary chaos did Heather come home to after five months?

Let me say...frankly...it wasn't so bad.  I was expecting worse.  I was expecting my shelves to be exploding with Hamburger Helper and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, etc. etc.  However, I appeared to have rubbed off on my husband somewhat - hurrah!

All of the pictures below need a context.  Here it is:  I have three children: one in high school, one in middle school, and one in elementary.  The high schooler and middle schooler are in cross country and soccer.  The elementary kid is soccer only.  Then, my boys are in Cub/Boy Scouts while my daughter (the middle schooler) is on Student Council.  Suffice it to say that fall is a very busy time for our family and there is a lot of taxiing that goes on...of which Brent has been shouldering the sole burden of since April.

So...can you really blame the guy for what you're about to see?  I think not either.


Like entrails spilling out of a sliced abdomen, bags of potato chips tumble out of an open bag.  Chips are quick, versatile, and a pile of salty deliciousness.  I get it.  Anytime I feel like eating a bag of air, potato chips are the first thing I go for.  There is a loaf of wheat bread on the counter and a package of Oscar Meyer bologna in the meat drawer...and I suspect these items, and these chips will be gone in three days.  Nothing goes with processed lunchmeat and enriched "wheat" bread like Lay's Classic bags of air.


You know, I can't really complain about this.  Yes, these quick micro dinners are saturated with fat and sodium and have the nutritional content of a cardboard pizza box...but, they also foster independence.  If the kid can work a microwave, that is.  And what?  There's four, maybe five, boxes here?  That's one meal, maybe two.  Gone in two days.


Far and away, this is the biggest disappointment.  Upon interrogation regarding the sundae syrup, my husband said "we had ice cream once or twice".  To which I wish I would have said, oh, you topped that ice cream with melted magenta crayons?  Yuk, yuk, and more yuk.  I don't trust packaging that is this unnatural color.  Also, HyVee?  Nice try at duplicity on your bottle of strawberry spread...a picture of some nice succulent REAL strawberries might just trick someone else into thinking your spread is made with *real* strawberries.

But you gotta get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on me.  Or...maybe I'm just that cynical.  Yeah, that's probably it.

Here's the awful thing...that syrup is so transmogrified that it has a shelf life of, like, twenty years.  We eat ice cream so infrequently, and subsequently, that syrup will last long enough to end up as a heirloom of the family.  Thus, I would not be surprised if this bottle ends up in the trash soon.

So, final report:  there is some damage control to be done here...but not a whole terrible lot.  I expect to be purged by the end of this weekend. Hurrah!