15 November 2011

Boxed food, the good kind

Recently when my friend Heather was dropping off my weekly goodies from her grocery delivery business, she said she had a deal for me. She'd leave me a small cardboard box full of winter veg if I'd cook it up, write it down and pass it along. Sounded like a fair trade to me.

Here's what was in my box:

1 butternut squash
4 medium carrots
2 bunches bok choy
1 bunch of kale
1 lemon cucumber
2 kohlrabi
1 yellow summer squash
4 habaneros
several turnips
handful of potatoes
couple of jalapenos
few other random peppers
dozen or so small, hot green chilies

And here's what I did with it:
  • Summer squash and kale saute. Nice, quick side dish or part of a veg entree on top of rice, pasta or a baked potato. Slice veg. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Add squash and season with salt and pepper. Give the squash time to brown and get yummy before pushing it around the pan. Once the squash is done, add the kale and a touch more oil and cook, moving veggies around the pan for a minute or two. Season with more salt. Turn the heat off and remove from pan.
  • Pepper preserves. The habaneros and tiny green chilies are too hot for my crowd, so I dried them in my dehydrator. Simple enough. Just cut off the stems and threw them in. I store the in an air-tight container (read: old peanut butter jar) with other dried chilies. I use them when cooking beans, in soups, dips, casseroles, etc. The handful of jalapenos were married with the remaining ones from my own garden for a batch of jalapeno jelly. Yum.
  • Pear and Butternut Squash Soup. Cut off both ends of the squash. Then cut in half, lengthwise. Scoop out seeds (I use a grapefruit spoon) and discard. Rub a little oil, salt and pepper on the exposed flesh of the squash and roast in a 400 degree oven, flesh side down, until the squash is fork tender. Remove from oven and let cool completely (if you can do this the night before, you'll make quick work of your soup the next day). Once completely cool, you can easily peel away the skin and discard. Saute one small onion in a stock pot. Add a few cups of stock (veg or chicken). Add squash and a can of pears and the juice. Use an immersion blender (or work in batches with a food processor or blender) to puree. Heat pureed soup and finish with cream, milk or a few tablespoon of butter. Serve hot topped with creme fraiche or sour cream and crusty bread.
  • Dress up a salad. Kohlrabi looks funny with it's tough outer skin, and stems shooting out all around. It's actually a very nice, mild flavor that can add a bit of a crunch (think jicama). To prep, pull off the leaves (which could be swapped for kale in many recipes). Use a paring knife to peel off the fibrous skin. Then slice, cut matchstick pieces, cube or grate. Toss in a salad along with that lemon cucumber. Or munch on it with carrot sticks and apples for a healthy snack.
  • Bok Choy, cherry tomatoes and fried egg over rice. Trim the end off the bok choy and slice crosswise into inch-wide strips. Add a bit of oil to a hot skillet and add the bok choy. Season with salt and pepper and cook until nearly done. Add tomatoes and cook just until burst. Remove from skillet and dump directly onto cooked rice. In the same pan, fry an egg. Slide cooked egg off the skillet and on top the veg. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Curried Root Veggies. Prep and slice carrots, potatoes and turnips into similar-size pieces. Toss with oil, salt, pepper and curry powder. Spread in a single layer onto a rimmed baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven until fork tender and veggies brown nicely. Another veggie that will merry well in this mix is cauliflower. This is a great side dish or serve atop coconut rice for an entree.
(These veggies were fine, but they would have been better with a bit more time in the oven to get nice and browned. I had screaming kids, so I pulled mine a bit early. Do whatever keeps you sane!)

31 October 2011

Caterpillar Cake!

I am a big planner about some things. And others, well, I do better if I just start working and create as I go. This frustrates the heck out of the Hubs at times, but, alas, I'll call it one of my more endearing qualities.

I've been saying for about two weeks that I was going to make Carter a caterpillar cake for his birthday. I didn't exactly have the execution planned out, just the idea. His birthday was Sunday, so by Saturday I thought I better get to it. I had nearly all of the ingredients on hand except powdered sugar, and I still needed to get dinner supplies, too. So we loaded up and headed to Safeway, boys in tow, to buy four pounds of confectioner's sugar, a package of hot dogs, buns and two bottles of wine. The teenage checker, I'm sure probably gave me a low score on the Mom-of-the-Year scale, especially considering the roaming 3-year-old boy who laid down in the middle of the wine aisle because he thought it would be funny to block the cart. Good thing I shop on price instead of tasting notes. We'd have been there a long time!

After a walk home in the rain from church on Sunday morning, I got to baking. The text book would tell me to bake the cake well in advance of decorating time, but this momma was working on Halloween costumes the night before, so something had to give. Here's a quick run down of how I made the cake. It wasn't too difficult, and had I not been trying to wrangling two kids, it wouldn't have taken too long to decorate.

  1. I am so unoriginal, I once again used this cake and icing recipe. I baked three cupcakes and one cake in a Bundt pan. After making the icing, I pulled about one cup out and mixed green food coloring into the red. Then I tinted the remaining one cup red. I was going for the Very Hungry Caterpillar look.
  2. After letting the cakes cool for about an hour, I leveled the bottom off the Bundt cake, reserving the cut off portion for later use. Then, I cut that cake in half to form two semi-circles. I set one of the halves aside. I took the other half and cut that in half once again. The semi-circle forms the back, then place the other two pieces in the opposite direction to for the neck and tail, both curling upward. The whole cake should be assembled on something flat and much large than the cake. I didn't have a platter large enough, so I turned a cookie sheet upside down and covered it with foil. You could also buy one of those fancy cake boards at a craft store.
  3. Take the cupcakes and break them up. Toss them in a bowl with something sticky. You could use frosting (cake pop style), but I used about two tablespoons of homemade strawberry jam. The consistency was perfect, runny and so, so sticky. Then I used a pastry blender -- a fork would work, too -- and mashed the whole thing up well. Try taking a small pinch and forming a ball. If you can do that, you're ready to move on to the next step. If it's still too crumbly, add more frosting or jam, mash some more until you can form the ball.
  4. Make a large ball out of the cake and jam/frosting mixture. Place that ball on the neck end of the caterpillar and ta-da -- you've got a head!
  5. Next, use the remaining cake that was reserved when you leveled the Bundt to fill in any cracks in your creation.
  6. Then, using small sheets of wax paper, line the underside of the cake. Place the sheets just barely below the cake surface, so that they will pull away easily. These will be removed after frosting, so that you will have a clean surface under the cake.
  7. Frost the body green and then the head red. An offset spatula is the best tool for this, which you can pick up at any store that sells cake decorating supplies. After frosting I gave the body a good dose of colored sprinkles. Remove the wax paper and place the cake in the refrigerator. The icing will set up a bit when cooled.
  8. I used Tootsie rolls to make the eyes, antenna, feet and grass. I (thankfully) had chocolate, lime and vanilla Tootsie rolls handy from the Halloween candy bowl. You can pinch or cut the Tootsie roll and shape them pretty easily with your hands. For the eyes, I just rolled them into a ball and smooshed them with a rolling pin. Super simple. I made all of the shapes and then set them aside.
  9. Take whatever cake bits you have leftover and toss them in the food processor with a few graham crackers. Buzz. This is the dirt you can sprinkle around the caterpillar. If you don't have a food processor, you could just crush up graham crackers by placing them in a zip top bag and taking a rolling pin to them.
  10. Lastly, pop the Tootsie roll decorations onto the cake.
  11. Enjoy!

30 September 2011

Birthday cakeS

Word to the wise mama: When you're picking up those birthday supplies, grab a bottle of Cab or some other soul-warming drinky winky. Because after the kind of 3-year-old celebrating we've been doing around here, you'll need it.

My big boy is 3, and while I believe he grew out of the Terrible Twos, he's making great progress in the Thwarting Threes. As in, anything I attempt to do, he somehow manages to intervene, steal the show, redirect my attention or otherwise drive me insane. Like yesterday when my sister-in-law called at the exact same time I notice a huge bug crawling up my arm. Either of these things alone could redirect one's attention. But at that very moment Jasper notified my that, despite being a mere inches away from the toilet, he'd peed his pants. Then he kicked off his Crocs (my direction, of course) that were mere portable puddles of piss. See what I mean? I can't freak out about a bug. I can't have a conversation with another adult. I'm dodging flying pee, throwing a kid in the tub and mopping the floor with what was once a nice hand towel.

Despite all of this, I can't get enough of this crazy boy. His grand day was filled with excitement that started with chocolate chip pancakes and ended with one huge slice of cake. And after the boys were snoring happily in a sugar-coated dreamland and I had scrubbed frosting from the floor, walls and clothes, the Hubs and I enjoyed a beer. And a little peace and quiet.

I made cake and cupcakes on two separate celebrations. I know, the kid's only 3, and I'm already certifiable. The first was cupcakes baked into ice cream cones. The second was a more traditional cake. They both used the same cake recipe, which you can find here. And the frosting is vanilla cream cheese.

It was easier than I'd guessed to bake the cake right in the cones. Just placed them on a baking sheet, filled with batter about 3/4 of the way full and baked. After one batch of underdone cakes, I discovered it was better not to pack them too tightly together as I did first in a casserole dish, thinking they'd tip over too easily. The second round I used a cookie sheet and just walked them very carefully to the oven. After cooling completely, I frosted them. Then we set up several small bowls of candies and let kids decorate their own. Fun, yummy and so much less messy than regular cake or cupcakes!

To make the J, I placed a piece of wax paper on top of the cake before frosting. With a Sharpie marker, I wrote the letter J on the wax paper in the size that was appropriate for the cake. Then, I placed the wax paper on a cutting board and used a paring knife to cut out a stencil, using the original J I'd made as a guideline for size. You could also trace an actual stencil on the wax paper. Then, after frosting the cake, I placed the wax paper stencil directly on the frosting and filled in with the sprinkles. After carefully removing the wax paper stencil, I then used a small plate to hold just over the cake to start decorating the outer rim and side. Then I filled in the sides using wax paper to help push them into the frosting. Before doing any frosting, always remember to line the cake plate with pieces of wax paper that will easily be removed after frosting. This leaves you with a clean plate without gobs of frosting all over!

31 August 2011

Plum overloaded

This morning I sliced and de-seeded about 20 plums. The last of our stash of roughly 20 pounds. That's a lot of plums. They arrived at my door by way of my friend Christiane. She was gifted 30 pounds of fruit and a ton of generosity.

The sliced Italian Plums, also called prune plums, were headed for the dehydrator. As Seth put on his bike helmet and gloves, getting ready to head out for work, he said, "It's like you're a squirrel getting ready for winter."

Exactly. That's what preserving food is about. Delicious berries? Not around come December. But sweet jams take their place. And there's the pickling and the flavored vinegars and the sauces and chutneys. So much goodness, it's going to be hard for winter to dampen my craving for summer foods.

So, those plums? Well, after I, too, gave away a generous amount to neighbors, I got to making a Chinese Plum Sauce. It was so delicious and simple. I canned mine, but this recipe would be just fine eating fresh. Get to it now, while the plums are ripe and ready. It's from Sherri Brooks Vinton's book "Put 'em Up!" This book offers some great ideas for preserving, and I love how it's organized by fruit or veggie. It goes well beyond jams and ice box pickles.

We slathered grilled chicken in this sauce and ate it atop brown rice and grilled summer squash. Nothing to complain about there, but the options are endless. It would be a delicious dipping sauce for just about any roasted veggie, spring rolls, chicken, pork, noodles and even sandwiches. And if my picky eater liked it, I'm going to call it kid friendly for the masses.

Chinese Plum Sauce
from "Put 'em Up!" by Sherri Brooks Vinton

2 pounds of plums, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

2 garlic cloves
1 star anise

Combine the plums, vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and star anise in a large nonreactive pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, 20 to 25 minutes. Fish out the star anise and discard. Puree the sauce with a stick blender. Refrigerate: Ladle into bowls or jars. Cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks. OR Can: Use the boiling-water method. Ladle into clean, hot 4-ounce or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Release trapped air. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, remove canner lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Notes: I chopped the plums by lightly pulsing the food processor. Then, I dumped almost all of them out and added the lightly chopped ginger and garlic. Then, I pulsed more to chop those more finely. I used anise seeds and made a sachet from cheesecloth for them and fished that out after cooking.

24 August 2011

Giving in and getting lunch

We are waging a battle of control around my house. It's me versus a nearly 3-year-old. And some days, he is on top of his game. But who gets the upper hand is a constant struggle because the decision-making just doesn't stop when you're a toddler.

Can you throw your rock collection down from the top of the stairs? Of course not. Is it OK to jump on the couch? Depends on Mom's mood. Is picking your little brother up in a headlock OK? Not a chance. Can you pee on my leg? Um, no. Will Mom feed a baby doll breakfast, too? You bet.

See what I mean about the battle? This is his response when I say, "Look at the camera."

That last one is so tough for me to say no to even though it means another three minutes before I get to sit down and eat my own breakfast. I'm always the last at the table anyways, so what's it going to hurt to pull out another plate, cup, spoon, bowl and do NOT forget the napkin?

When I was Jasper's age, I had an imaginary friend named Lucy. And she truly looked like Lucy, the Peanuts character. Yep, she was a cartoon, which is perfectly acceptable given her imaginary state. I know, it's not that unusual for kids to have a vivid imagination, but to what extent the parents play along is the bigger question. My parents went all the way, or out of their way may be the better way to say it. They stopped our car in front of the same stranger's house daily and honked the horn. Then, we'd all sit in the car and wait for Lucy to hop in.

I think I turned out all right, my own neurosis aside. And so will my little guy.

Here's a nice nibble for mom that comes from most of the same ingredients you can make a kiddo lunch from.

This pic isn't that great, but you get the idea. The kiddo spilled a full cup of milk while I was taking this.

Mom's Quick Sammie

Sliced bread, preferably a crusty loaf
Grainy mustard
Apples, thinly sliced
Cheese, try sharp cheddar, Swiss or Gruyere
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to broil. Line a baking sheet with foil for easy clean up. Mix roughly equal parts mustard and honey in a small dish and spread onto one side of the bread. Put the bread on the baking sheet. Place the apple slices on the bread next. Top with cheese. Pop under the broiler until the cheese is slightly browned and bubbly. Remove and cool for a couple of minutes. Top with salt and pepper and serve.

18 August 2011

My 3-year-old could do this

If there is no one in your house who would think this looks like a perfect meal, please, go to Fandango, buy tickets to see a documentary and hit the wine bar before the show. You are clearly too cool for me or for these cut up hot dogs in corn bread.

I'm a big fan of anything that makes my life easier. I've also become a fan of picture books. My oldest is now able to look at the pictures and tell me the story. We read him "The Poky Little Puppy" for bedtime last night. It's a Golden Book I remember from my own childhood. In my mature age, the story just seems drawn out in a way that can only mean one thing: No one edits those books.

The pictures were good enough cues, though, for Jasper to retell it this morning while I made mini corn dog muffins. Here's to hoping I can tell a story, or a recipe, through (mostly) pictures.

I cut eight hot dogs into six equal pieces each to make 48 mini muffins.

I made my usual cornbread batter. Any recipe would work. Mine typically makes a 9x9 pan of bread, and it was enough batter for four dozen mini muffins. If you need a good recipe, try this one.

Fill greased mini muffin tins about 1/3 full. Place a hot dog slice in the center of each. Bake at the temperature your recipe directs, but the time will be far less. Mine took about five or six minutes to bake.

Let them cool in the muffin tins for a few minutes, then gently remove and place on a wire rack for further cooling, or serve immediately. After cooling, I transferred this rack straight to the freezer. Once frozen, I tossed them all in an airtight bag. Reheated for about 5 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

15 July 2011

Easing back into the apron

Whew. It's been a whirlwind around here. Or there. Or wherever. We returned a few days ago from a 10-day adventure to Oklahoma, a trip we managed to plan during a sun-baking heat wave that radiated temperatures no less than 100 degrees daily. We had fun, saw lots of family, spent a fair amount of time in swimming suits and drank a lot of beer.

Then, like all vacations, we returned with a thud. Cranky kids, empty fridge and parents left with a jet-lag hangover that offers no mercy when the alarm goes off on Monday morning (For the Hubs it is an annoying bell on his iPhone, and for me it's the baby's early-morning babble.).

So, here's a bit of what I've been cooking this week. We've still got screaming kids and the swimsuits just aren't the same when the high around here is 75, but it does feel good to be back in our house. Now, if I only had an excuse for a beer with lunch. On vacation it seems like the relaxing thing to do, but for a stay-at-home mommy on a routine Wednesday, it just feels worthy of a call to CPS.

Soba noodles in a puree of coconut milk, sweet potato, caramelized onions, ginger and garlic. Topped with peas, edamame (both frozen) and lightly sauteed cabbage. Topped with veggies last, and the kids had theirs without green things.

I had salmon patties but no buns, so I decided to make it a wrap. They're nestled in the wrap with a slaw made from cabbage, carrots, mangoes, avocados and jalapeno. The slaw dressing started with basic mayo and vinegar, and I added a bit of cayenne for heat, lemon zest and honey to balance the heat.

23 June 2011

Feed my family

There's bread rising on my kitchen counter, and I'm about to start boiling some pasta for tonight's Tuna Casserole dinner. I'm back in the kitchen, and it feels good.

About a month ago I came down with some very strange virus that started with a swollen knee and terribly painful muscles and joints. I couldn't grip a toothbrush much less a chef's knife. I couldn't lift my 7 month old from the crib nor a pot of water to boil, and my hands cringed with pain when I'd wring out a wet washcloth to wipe down the table. The muscle and joint pain was followed by intense fatigue until finally one day I just couldn't make it all the way up the stairs. A trip to the emergency room turned into a three-night stay in the hospital where doctors performed dozens of tests on me, many of which were uncomfortable and some quite painful. When I returned home, I began to get my strength back but still had a few days of shuffling around as I healed from a procedure done to fix my spinal headache.

The entire ordeal was about three weeks. It was very scary not only for me, but for my family, friends, and, I'm sure, my 2-year-old. Thankfully, they found nothing terribly wrong with me. Just an exhausted, dehydrated, sleep-deprived mama who got whacked by a strange bug.

While I was down, though, my friends and family were there to help. My mom came to help with kids, laundry and generally keeping my house running without me. My dad and, later, my sister-in-law came to play with the kiddos. And my friends and neighbors kept us all fed. It's truly an amazing gift to know you are so loved that someone will take time in their day to roast chicken for you, bake cookies or cook a casserole. Odds are that most of us know someone or will know someone who needs a few meals or treats delivered to them. I've written about the power of cooking for others here and here, but in an era where we feel connected to people a gazillion miles away through Facebook and email, I welcome the reminder that nothing replaces family in your home and friendly neighbors at the ready.

Because I'm always looking for good ideas for meals to deliver to friends, I thought I'd offer up a list of a few I received. Offering a meal that can go straight to the freezer is another good idea. And if you don't have the time or desire to cook, a gift certificate to a local pizza joint or another restaurant with take out or delivery service is a way to help without cooking.

Here are a few of the meals and food gifts we received, and all of these are meal ideas I'll keep in my rotation to send to friends!
  • Sausage and Mushroom Lasagna
  • Roasted Chicken Thighs and Veggies
  • Homemade Mac 'n' Cheese
  • Chicken Curry and Basmati Rice
  • Minestrone Soup and Beer Bread
  • Quiche and Green Salad
  • Jars of Homemade Red Sauce and uncooked Spaghetti noodles
  • Chicken Enchiladas, prepared and ready for the oven
  • Spanakopita
  • Black Bean Hand Pies, unbaked and ready for the oven or freezer
  • Grilled Chicken and Asparagus Couscous
  • Tamale Casserole
  • Borscht, frozen in individual portions for a quick meal later
  • Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
If you're looking for a great way to coordinate meal delivery for a friend, the web site Take Them a Meal is very helpful for scheduling.

18 May 2011

Tortillas, tortillas

I've eaten a lot of tortillas in my life. It's hard to drive a mile in Oklahoma and not pass a Tex-Mex restaurant. You know the kind, where they bring you basket after basket of fried tortilla chips, little bowls of salsa and queso, and, at the good places, they bring you those tortilla warmers filled with soft, fluffy flour tortillas.

I know I'm not alone when I say that on more than one occasion I've eaten so many tortillas and queso that I wasn't even hungry by the time by enchiladas arrived. I have now stumbled onto something so fantastic and dangerous -- I've made them at home.

During a recent afternoon conversation with my friend Erin, she told me she'd planned on making tortillas that night for her family's dinner. I told her to let me know how it went and pass along the recipe. She said it was simple enough, so, today, while my boys napped and I chatted on the phone I made tortillas. I was shocked just how easy it was and excited just how delicious it was.

If you don't believe me, pull out the flour and shortening and get to work.

Flour Tortillas

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup shortening

1 cup hot water

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry cutter. Add hot water and mix with a wooden spoon. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and work into a bowl. Let the dough rest about 15 minutes, then, cut the dough into 16 equal pieces (I use a bench scraper to cut the dough in half, and then the halves in half and so on). Roll each piece into a ball. Flour a work surface and use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a thin round, roughly 6 inches in diameter. Set aside and repeat with remaining dough balls. Use a hot, dry skillet or griddle to cook until the tortilla puffs slightly and lightly browned spots appear underneath. Then flip and cook on the second side. Serve immediately or let cool on a cooling rack, wrap tightly in plastic once cooled and reheat for service later that day.

11 May 2011

Simple Roast Chicken

Taco night is one way to use roast chicken. I love to throw the bite-size pieces into soups, casseroles, stir fry, quesadillas or chicken salad.

My husband is constantly harping on me about cleaning out the fridge. He doesn't understand why I want to keep that quarter of a lemon with all the zest scraped clean, or the pork fat I trimmed off of the pork chops. Or the tortillas he's convinced have been in there since the Reagan administration.

Well, I may be slow, but I like to organize at my own pace. That is why it is a minor miracle I actually did some organizing around here. I'm pretty excited to share that I have started a recipe index for this site. (Update, May 18, 2011) The index seems to have been lost during a recent Blogger problem. I'm working to restore it.

Now, one with a new recipe.

Unless you cook for a houseful of vegetarians, knowing how to roast a whole chicken is right up there with spaghetti, scrambled eggs and pancakes. That is, if you cook at all, you should know how to cook these things.

I suppose the whole bird can be somewhat intimidating, what with the neck, liver and heart stuffed inside, reminding me of the random things my 2-year-old stuffs into the tightest cracks and crevasses. But all you really need to know is this: Pick up a decent meat thermometer, and you can roast the perfect chicken every time. It really is that simple.

Let the chicken rest before carving.

When I roast a chicken, I usually use one breast for that day's dinner. Then, once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the remaining meat and tear it into bite-size pieces.

Portion the meat into freezer bags. I like to do about a cup to a cup and a half per bag. That seems to be a good amount for a soup or casserole to serve about four people. The bags thaw quickly under running water or can be placed directly into soups to thaw.

Sure you'll read plenty of recipes about stuffing the bird with herbs, lemons and the like. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but just know, all you really need is some salt, pepper, olive oil or butter. I'm a big fan of doing anything that makes the weeknight dinner easier, and that's where the roast chicken shines. I recently bought a chicken that was a little over seven pounds and yielded meat for six meals for my family. Not bad considering that conventional birds start at about a buck a pound.

I roast a bird (or two), we'll eat it for dinner that night. Then, I'll remove all the remaining meat, tear it into bite-size pieces and freeze, portioned to be the perfect addition to soups, casseroles and noodles.

So, mastering this recipe is a must-do. You can present a handsome whole bird for a big Sunday dinner or parcel out leftovers for several nights. The best part is that the same technique translates to the tiny game hens or a 20-pound holiday turkey.

Simple Roast Chicken

1 whole chicken
Handful of kosher salt
Lots of black pepper
A few tablespoons of olive oil or melted butter

Tools: meat thermometer, kitchen twine, aluminum foil, rimmed baking sheet or baking dish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside. Cut a string of kitchen twine about 15 inches long and set aside. In a small bowl combine salt and pepper (and any other seasonings you like). In another small bowl pour oil or melted butter.

Place the chicken on the baking sheet, breast-side up. Working from the leg-end of the chicken, remove the neck and giblets from the cavity. Set those aside for another use or discard. Take each wing, one at a time, and extend it, then give it a little twist inward and tuck the lowest portion of each wing behind the chicken. It sounds silly, but it should look like someone basking in the sun with arms folding up behind their head.

Next, working with you hands, rub the oil and seasonings all over the bird, including in the cavity, and, if you like, between the skin and meat. Then, using the twine, tie the legs together. Insert your meat thermometer into the thigh, making sure the tip is well-surrounded by meat and not touch a bone (which heats more quickly than muscle tissue). Then place the chicken in the oven. Roast until the thermometer reads about 155 to 157 degrees (about an hour for that seven-pound bird). Remove from the oven and tent with foil. Let rest about 15 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise and must reach 160 degrees for food safety, when the juices should also be clear.

06 May 2011

Budgeting for food

Being charged with a family's food budget may be one of the biggest jobs of running a household. We can wear dirty socks if we must; a bath will be given, no matter when the last time it was scrubbed, and the floors will indeed still make perfect paths for our feet even when dotted with dust bunnies and toast crumbs.

But without those key items in our pantry, we simply cannot cook. For one month I gave it my best shot to spend as little as possible on groceries. I aimed for a $25-a-week budget and missed the mark on all but the first week. What I discovered was that food isn't cheap, and the whole thing just ticked me off. A stop in the dairy aisle alone could easily account for $25 worth of groceries.

I firmly believe I can help cut costs by changing the way I cook and shop, but I'm not willing to do it at the expense of my family's well-being. And that's where I drew the line. Next time I see someone stacking 20 boxes $2 pizzas in their grocery cart, I'm not going to assume they can't cook. Perhaps they can't, but, what I now know is that even though a homemade pizza is more cost effective than the traditional carry-out variety, it isn't cheap to stock a pantry with flour, yeast, cheeses, sauce, meats and veggies.

My revised goal, and one I hope can be more long-term is to spend $75 or less a week. Our family only eats a meal from a restaurant once a week, if at all, and we eat very few prepackaged, processed foods. I think this is doable and still quite frugal when I consider that even if my family ate some of the cheapest fast food for nearly every meal, we'd likely spend more than that in a week.

If you're interested in learning more about building a pantry for this type of cooking, here are a few tips. And I'd love to hear some of yours!
  • If you have a minimally-stocked pantry, try to pick up one or two items a week to add to it. For example, buy a 10-pound bag of flour one week and a few pounds of pasta. You likely won't burn through all of those items in one week, so you will gradually build your stock without spending $100 alone on one trip for pantry basics.
  • Teach yourself to turn to your pantry first instead of cookbooks. It's so frustrating to pick out a recipe only to learn that you are fresh out of the main ingredient. Open the pantry and pick an item to start with. Lots of eggs? Make a scramble, a quiche, egg salad. Pasta a plenty? Toss it into a tomato-based soup, make it a casserole, serve it up with red sauce, toss with mayo and tuna for a quick salad, make a pasta bar for a family full of picky eaters.
  • Be realistic when you shop. You probably have less time than you think to prepare meals, so take shortcuts when you can. If the pre-sliced mushrooms mean the difference of getting dinner on the table without a meltdown or not, and your budget can handle the increased cost, do it. There's no medal of honor out there for slicing all of your own veggies.
  • At the same time, be smart, though. If you buy whole carrots instead of the baby carrots, you could easily shred them, cut them into sticks, slice them for stir-fries, etc. Take your shortcuts elsewhere such as skip the step of peeling carrots and just give them a rinse.
  • Unlike Rachel Ray, my food doesn't come home from the grocery store prepped. But I do find that taking a few minutes to prep things at home when I'm not pressed against the clock for a meal, saves me time later. I shred an entire 2-pound block of cheese and store in an airtight container. I rinse and dry salad greens and store them in an airtight container lined with paper towels. I portion out raw meats and freeze individually, so I'm not forced to use an entire package of pork chops at once.
  • If you really get the hang of this prep business and do much baking, you can easily make up your own mixes of dry ingredients for items such as muffins, quick breads, pancakes, etc. This can save some time and make the task of baking less daunting. I always do this if I have overnight guests or early-morning entertaining.

29 April 2011

Remember, you are that kind of friend

I'm not that great at a lot of things. I don't know when to stop talking. I have ideas of grandeur and the motivation of a snail. I collect a thousand recipes and never organize them.

One thing I am good at is spending time in the kitchen. Read closely, I didn't say I was a good cook. I just cook a lot. I feel good with my apron on, singing along to some terrible country station on the radio and kids begging me to take a break from the stove.

Someone's having a baby; I cook. A neighbor is getting married; I cook. My friend is sick; I cook.

On Tuesday we had our friends Ryan, Dina and their boys over for a pizza night. We've hung out and played with them a thousand times before, but last night was special. It was the first time Dina had been to our house since a ski accident in January left her with a brain injury. Before that, the last time she was here, we sat in my basement and drank wine and watched a TV show just before Christmas.

After her accident, a steady train of dinners started arriving at her home. It's one thing nearly everyone feels they can do to help out. Drop off a casserole, a rotisserie chicken or, as some of her out-of-town friends did, have a pizza delivered. Since returning home, Dina has said she was overwhelmed with the amount of support her friends offered her and her family while she recovered.

At times since, she has been left searching for the person she was before that January day. She said a few weeks back that she hoped she was the kind of person who would cook for friends in need. I assured her she was. Last night, she said the last memory she had of being at my house was back in November when she came by to drop off a lasagna. I had a two-week-old baby, and even though she probably didn't have any more free time than usual, she had baked a lasagna for my family to enjoy during those rocky, sleepless first weeks of a newborn in the house.

She was that type of friend, and I am so blessed that she still is that kind of friend. The kind of friend that, despite the fact that simple tasks such as writing have become the culmination of months of therapy, she is sending out hand-written birthday cards.

I hope that you have a friend or two like Dina. If you do, you're blessed. And don't forget to tell them just that. And take them a plate of warm cookies. Or a dinner, or some homemade jam. Anything, really, whether you're a good cook or not. Food nourishes memories in a simple and solid way that sometimes even our minds can't quite replicate.

Snickerdoodle Cookies Saveur, Jan. 21, 2010

3 cups flour

2 tsp. cream of tartar

1 tsp. baking soda

1⁄4 tsp. kosher salt

1 3⁄4 cups sugar

16 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature

5 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1⁄2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 eggs

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt; set aside. Using a handheld mixer on medium speed, beat 1 1⁄2 cups sugar and the butter together in a medium bowl until pale and fluffy, 2 minutes. Add 2 tsp. cinnamon and the vanilla; beat for 1 minute more. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add reserved dry ingredients; mix on low speed until just combined. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 375°. Combine remaining sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Remove dough from refrigerator and, using a 1-tbsp. measure, spoon out 48 portions, rolling each portion into a 1" ball as you go. Roll each ball in cinnamon–sugar mixture to coat. Arrange dough balls 2" apart on 2 parchment paper–lined baking sheets. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool.


27 April 2011

Dinner in 10

I made a ton of humus over the weekend, and come Monday, I was staring at the fridge thinking I had too many leftovers not to use them in my dinner plans. What to do with the humus, what to do. I tried mixing it with some lentils for some kind of a salad. It was no good. Or maybe I'd just had my fill of humus and nothing with garbanzos would have tasted good.

Whatever, it didn't matter. It was 6:05 pm, and I did not have dinner on the table. Or the stovetop. Or the oven. That's when I had to rally, a term that Seth finds hilarious to use in the context of the kitchen, but the man has never had to cook dinner for the family, so he may not understand quite how fitting it really is.

I had leftover tortillas and grated cheese, so it was quesadillas for the kiddo. But what to do for the grown-ups who expect just a little more from their meal? I turned to another leftover, hard boiled dyed eggs from Easter. In about 10 minutes I'd put together a salad that Seth and I could call a meal.

Greens, grated carrots, corn, avocado, roasted red peppers tossed in Ranch Dressing, topped with a hard-boiled egg and quesadilla wedges

After I posted this picture of it on my Facebook page, I was surprised by reader reaction. So, for those who liked it, here's a couple of tips from that meal.

  • I buy whole heads of lettuce or bunches of greens. Bring them home, core them and drop the leaves in a large bowl filled with cold water. A little swish around and I toss the leaves into a strainer to drain (don't pour the water back over them, as all the sand and grit falls to the bottom). Then, if I had a salad spinner, that's where I'd send them next, but I don't. So I either fan them out in a single layer on kitchen towels and let them air dry, or I toss them into a pillow case, go to my backyard and swing the holy heck out of them* (think salad spinner before the days of the salad spinner). Then, I pack the clean, dry leaves into an airtight container with some paper towels to absorb any excess moisture. They keep for about a week, and are ready for a quick salad when you are.
  • I buy whole carrots by the 5-pound bag. A whole carrot turns into a shredded carrot in about 15 seconds on the box grater.
  • Frozen corn, defrosted in the microwave is a perfect addition to a salad right alongside some roasted red pepper from the jar, chopped. I would have added some whole beans to the salad if I had them.
  • Ranch dressing doesn't have to come in the bottle. If you've got mayo, milk, S&P and some dried dill, you can have Ranch in about two minutes. Drop a spoonful of mayo into a bowl. Add a dash of milk and whisk. Add more milk to thin, mayo to thicken. Once you get the right consistency, add salt and pepper to taste and a pinch or two or dried dill. You can use buttermilk instead of regular milk if you like. This keeps in an airtight container for several days in the fridge, and it actually tastes better the next day.
  • Lastly, instead of croutons or crackers with this salad, I used my last two tortillas to make one quesadilla. Then I split the six triangles between the two salads.
* It's best to introduce yourself to the neighbors before trying this technique. Otherwise, they may get the impression you're a little off if you're flinging around a pillowcase. My neighbor laughed when she first saw me doing it. She hollered over the fence, "If you want to throw the thing, you've got to let go."