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.