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."

20 April 2011

Budget Blues

I have this habit of coming up with an idea, running around telling everyone about it and then, a week or so later, thinking I'm the biggest idiot for ever thinking that would work.

You'd think that since I'm aware of this trait of mine, I wouldn't be so pissed off at myself about now for committing to the free world on this blog that I would spend only $25 a week on groceries. For a month.

It's ridiculous. And if I wasn't so stubborn, I'd just throw in the kitchen towel now. But I said I was going to do it (or try my damnedest), so I'll do it. That's why I'm so annoyed to tell you that I spent close to $40 last week. And, despite my efforts, I feel that I really saved nothing by driving to a separate store to pick up 2 pounds on mild cheddar for $3.99. Yes, it was indeed cheaper than usual, but the extra trip seemed outrageous if I consider the kicking and screaming meltdown we had in the parking lot over which side of the car my 2-year-old was going to climb into. I wouldn't dare bribe him with that precious cheese, either.

Here's what I really want: Parmesan, avocado, mushrooms, buttermilk, sour cream, three kinds of pasta instead of one, pineapple, beets, sliced deli meats and cheeses, delicious coffee and nuts.

I'm learning a lot about what my family will tolerate and what they won't. Jasper has been asking for avocado, the one veggie he's loved since his baby food days. And I groan at Seth that he's now taken to eating peanut butter on toast in the mornings. And when I pulled the last few raisins out and placed them on the counter for Jasper to snack on, I got frustrated when, after cleaning up dinner, I found them, uneaten, but probably handled for hours. To the trash they went. What a waste, I thought.

This is not the first draft of this post. The other versions were so much sweeter. Talking about how I'm learning a lot about being frugal. But then I deleted that BS. I'm frustrated, ticked off. I'm ready for May to roll around, so I can go back to my usual habits, which, by the way, weren't outrageous to begin with.

I wouldn't want to suggest that I would turn to food in such an emotional moment (I refuse to reveal exactly how many M&Ms I've eaten while writing this). But, should you need something to comfort you when you're feeling dumpy, this isn't a bad way. These biscuits are delicious. And lucky for me, they're cheap.

Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, cold
2/3 cup milk

In the work bowl of a food processor, combine all of the dry ingredients. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and dump into the work bowl. Pulse about 10 times or until the butter is well incorporated with no pieces larger than a pea. Be careful not to over-process. If you don't have a food processor, combine the ingredients in a bowl and cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or fork.

Next, add the milk all at once. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, fold the dough just until it comes together. Dump dough onto a floured work surface and gently work into a ball. Working quickly, roll out dough until it is about 1/2 inch. Use a sharp biscuit cutter to cut circles or work with a knife to cut squares. If using a biscuit cutter, just push it straight down and pull up. Do not twist, this will make the biscuits to rise unevenly.

Then, place the biscuits on a greased baking sheet. Brush the tops with melted butter and place the entire tray in the freezer for at least 10 minutes. At this point, you could continue to freeze and transfer to a plastic bag once they are completely frozen, or you could bake at 450 degrees for about 10 to 12 minutes or until the tops are golden.

To bake frozen biscuits, remove however many you want, place on a baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees for about 14 minutes. Do not thaw before baking.

Variation: Add 1 additional tablespoon of sugar and the zest of an orange or lemon to the dough. After biscuits are shaped, use your thumb to create a well in the center of each. Fill well with jam. Proceed with recipe as directed for freezing and baking. While biscuits are baking, juice the orange or lemon and combine with enough powdered sugar to create a think glaze. Once biscuits are done, use a pastry brush to brush glaze on warm biscuits.

19 April 2011

Find me on Facebook

It's been nearly five years since I started this blog. It's start came about in part because of an ending. An ending to my career as a newspaper reporter, that is. Since then, my life, and my kitchen, have changed. I've gained experience in commercial kitchens. I've learned a lot about recipe development and writing, and I'm cooking daily for my toughest critic ever -- a 2-year-old, and his baby brother will soon follow him to the table.

So, it's about time that I got around to having my own Facebook page. It's been a fun new adventure. I don't always have time to blog, but it seems more manageable to post a quick status update and photos. It's also a more appropriate way to pass along little cooking tidbits, you know those things that don't always need a lengthy description.

I hope you continue to come around here, and also stop by on Facebook. I'm also working on a few new projects for the blog that will help make it easier on you to find past recipes, which is exciting, too.

And please, drop me a line. The thing that gets me energized the most is hearing back from readers and fans. Some of you live a few doors down and some of you are in other countries. Wherever you are, I am so excited to share my love of food, cooking and, best of all, eating with you!

14 April 2011

Our happy hour

If you've spent any time around here, you know that I've been a bit frugal lately. I'm trying to limit my weekly grocery bills for the month of April to $25 a week, which I blew last week by $10.

The first week was stressful. It seemed like every day I was reaching for something from the pantry that I just didn't have. This week, however, has been a bit more sane. That is to say we've eaten well. I'll reserve the judgment on our sanity for those who care to visit.

These Pork Fingers were a dish I came up with when I found myself with pork chops in the freezer when I was craving chicken fingers. So, off I went on a chicken finger crusade with the Other White Meat. There are plenty of times when I start cooking with a craving and the wrong ingredients that simply turn into sub-par dinnertime disasters. This, however, was (thankfully) not one of those times. It's become part of our steady rotation.

I love this meal. It's kid food that feels dolled up just enough to take to a happy hour menu. But since we won't be ordering $2 pints and sliders any time too soon, this is a hearty consolation.

Pork Fingers

2 thick-cut pork chops
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups bread crumbs (see note)
1 cup all purpose flour
3+ tablespoons butter, melted
Salt and pepper

If the pork chops are more than an inch and a half thick, cut them in half, crosswise, so that you end up with two mirror-image portions from each chop. Lay out plastic wrap on a baking sheet and place all four chops on the wrap and cover with another sheet of wrap. Using a rolling pin or some other non-breakable, heavy object, pound the heck out of your meat, the goal being to increase your surface area by at least half or so.

Next, cut each chop into strips, roughly three-quarters of an inch wide. Toss the strips along with the buttermilk in an airtight container and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

When you're ready to cook, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the pork chops from the buttermilk and place in a strainer; reserve the buttermilk and place in a medium bowl. Set aside. Season the flour with salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside. Put the bread crumbs in another medium bowl. Set aside. Line a baking sheet with foil (for easy clean up) and place a cooling rack on top of the baking sheet. Set aside. Line up, in this order, the strainer full of pork, the bowl of flour, the reserved buttermilk, the bread crumbs and the baking sheet.

Working in batches, lightly coat the pork strips in flour and then place them in the buttermilk. Next, dredge the in the bread crumbs and then place them on the wire cooling rack. Repeat until all strips are positioned on the rack. Drizzle melted butter over the strips and bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until meat is done throughout and breading is golden.

Note: If you've got a food processor, making your own bread crumbs is simple, and the taste is so much better than the store-bought stuff. Here's how: Save your bread heels and leftover stale slices and let them hand out on the counter, uncovered overnight (or pop them in a low oven or toaster to dry them out quickly). Then, pulse in the food processor until crumbs form. I keep a zip-top bag full of bread crumbs in my freezer for use anytime.

08 April 2011

And the budget is blown

Here I am, a bit sheepish, to tell you that today I broke my own rule. I knew I'd gone over my $25 budget, but I thought it was by a couple of dollars. I was writing down prices, and keeping an average total in my head. While soothing a baby in a front carrier and entertaining a 2-year-old (who also needed one trip to the bathroom). Clearly, one of my next goals should be a remedial math course.

The grand total was $35.28. I bought 24 items. The most expensive award is split between a 32-ounce tub of yogurt and a 28-ounce jar of peanut butter. Both rang in at $2.88. My impulse buy was a bag of English muffins because we used the last of our bread for toast this morning, and it was going to be a PB&J kind of day.

I bought mostly produce and bulk items. Fresh fruits, veggies, dried beans, rice, flour, yeast. The big ticket items were cheese, yogurt, milk, peanut butter and granola bars.

There are a few staples that I don't buy at the store, which should be noted. I make most the bread we eat, and we have backyard chickens, so I don't buy eggs.

I'm still aiming for $25 a week or as close to that as possible. No matter what, I'm learning some valuable lessons that go way beyond the scope of my kitchen.
  • If you truly had only $25 in your pocket to spend on a week's worth of family groceries, you would easily spend 1/5 of your budget on a block of cheese or two gallons of milk. Although my family doesn't need it, it gives me a new perspective on why programs such as WIC are crucial to feeding our families.
  • The way Americans have been trained to shop is just to accept that things like flour and sugar come in 5-pound bags. Breakfast cereals, just about anything from the snack aisle and frozen foods are where portions are chosen for us by the manufacturers. And since their goal is to make money, they find creative ways to make you feel good about your purchase. Just being aware of this goes a long way.
  • If you have access to a store with bulk items, shop there. I bought 47 cents worth of bread flour and 70 cents worth of rolled oats.
  • Buying such small amounts really makes me question the validity of bargains from warehouse stores. The pricing may be slightly cheaper, and I've been buying several things is large quantities. But buying the large portions didn't keep me from my weekly journey to the grocery store. And every time I go in, I always buy a few things I didn't plan on.

07 April 2011

Pantry pickin'

We're one week into my Pantry Challenge.

So far, we've spent about $23. Things have been a little more challenging than usual, but given that we're potty training one kiddo and dealing with a baby around here, there's hardly a day that doesn't feel like a challenge.

The numbers:
$5.50 at the Farmer's Market last weekend on apples and pears. I was a bit frustrated to see three softball-sized apples. Commence a discussion with The Hubs: "Thank you for getting fruit. Next time when you're paying a high price-per-pound, look for smaller fruits to help make them last longer."

$18.53 at Freddy's on odds and ends. Picked up a few more apples, bananas, broccoli, lemons, peanut butter, tuna, milk and some bulk flour. Major tip from that trip: I went sans-kids and used a hand basket instead of a huge cart. When my basket was full, I'd hit my limit, and it was a handy reminder not to make any more impulse buys (the bulk flour wasn't a must have, but it was a good price, so I went for it).

Total of $24.03.

The food:
We've had oatmeal, eggs, biscuits and lemon ginger rolls for breakfasts. Lunches have been pastas, leftovers or sammies. For dinner we've had grilled pork chops, an Asian chicken dish, pasta, split pea soup and a neighborhood potluck.

04 April 2011

Whatever you do, make this

A couple of weeks ago I stood in my quiet kitchen while the boys napped talking on the phone with my friend Kim. It was one of those conversations that would have left the husbands wondering was wrong with us. Our conversations range from her No. 1 reason to not push potty training on her youngest son (Porta Potties at big brothers' baseball practices) to me describing the way I split and freeze the Costco pork chops.

But we also talked through a good way to braise some beef for pasties. A pasty is basically the old, old school version of a Hot Pocket, only way better. The meat-filled pastries were sent in the lunchboxes of mine workers from Wisconsin to Wyoming, and it just so happens, I've got friends from all of those states who have introduced this regional dish to me.

A few days later I got to try Kim's beef pasty and was blown away by how delicious it was. I'd suggested she use some red wine or beef stock to braise, but this woman doesn't come from wine country. She's a beer gal to the heart, so she popped open a bottle of dark beer.

Once I heard that, I knew I had to make one soon, and just because I didn't want the work of the small, hand pies, I decided I'd make one large one. No one in my house was disappointed, and even though the calendar says we're into spring, we've still got some cold weather lingering around here. That's enough of an excuse to keep this recipe around for a little while longer before I store it up for the fall.

Beer Braised Beef Pot Pie
makes one 9-inch pie, serves 5 to 6 adults
1 pound beef, trimmed into 1-inch cubes, patted dry (choose stew meat or some other cut intended for slow cooking)
12 ounce dark beer
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 large carrots, sliced
1 medium union, diced
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/2 cup frozen peas
olive or vegetable oil
About 3/4 cup flour
salt and pepper
pastry crust (click here for a recipe)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the beef and flour in a bowl just enough to lightly coat. Using a large heavy-bottomed pot (preferably one that you can transfer directly to the oven), heat a couple of tablespoons oil on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the beef. Add a generous pinch of salt and dose of pepper. Let beef brown and begin to develop a slight crust on all sides by stirring only occasionally. Do not constantly move the meat about with a spoon, this won't allow the meat to caramelize. Once the meat is browned, turn heat to low and add beer. Using a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pot to remove the browned bits. Add the carrots, potatoes and onions. Stir to combine.

Place a tight fitting lid over the pot or wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Put the pot in the pre-heated oven for one hour. Check meat and vegetables for tenderness and cook longer, if needed. If the meat seems tough, cook it longer, as that will break down the connective tissues and make it tender. Remove from oven once meat and veggies are fork tender. Add peas and corn. Pour the mixture onto a large sheet tray or glass baking dish and refrigerate, uncovered until just cooled (this first step of cooking could be done a day ahead and refrigerated, covered, overnight).

Pour the cooled mixture into a prepared, unbaked pie crust and top with a second crust. Bake at 425 degree for about 30 minutes, or until crust is nicely browned and pie is hot throughout. You may need to cover the edges of the crust with a pie protector or aluminum foil to keep them from burning. Let set 15 minutes before slicing for service.

01 April 2011

Can I make it on $25 a week?

I've been feeling like a slave to the grocery store lately. You know, where I can't think of what exactly I need to buy, but it's Friday, and I always go on Friday, so I rush to change diapers, pack snacks and load kids in the car.

So today we're starting something new around here. For the month of April, I'm going to be more resourceful with my pantry. My goal is to spend no more than $25 a week on the essentials. Dairy, fresh produce, some meats and coffee. I do, believe it or not, still have my sanity, but given the baby's nighttime feeding demands and my 2-year-old taking the "Up 'n' at 'em" phrase literally with 5:45 am wakings, coffee is considered essential around here.

Here are a few of the ground rules I've given myself. And one more thing to note, you can now find The Dinner Hour on Facebook. This blog will still be the place to come for stories and recipes, but on Facebook you can find out more about what I'm cooking that day, links to food news and other fun kitchen tidbits.

Back to those ground rules:

  • The purpose of my one-month challenge is to be more resourceful with what I've already got in my pantry.
  • I love saving money. No doubt about it. But this challenge is not about finding the cheapest thing possible. I will absolutely shop sales and use a coupon, but I will not spend my Sundays clipping coupons.
  • I last made a trip to the grocery store about a week ago. I spent about $80, our usual weekly bill. I did not do additional stocking up to prepare for this.
  • I shop at regular grocery stores, no Whole Foods, New Seasons, $10-a-pound-cheddar-cheese stores.
  • My pantry is well stocked. I've got pastas, rices, dried beans, at least eight types of flour and a few pork chops and cooked shredded chicken in the freezer.
  • I don't typically buy many processed foods, and that will continue.
  • I serve three meals a day and snacks to my family of two adults, one kiddo and one baby has just started to spit oatmeal all over the kitchen.
  • We treat ourselves to a restaurant meal about once a week.
  • I'm not perfect, and I can't vow that I won't break my own rules. If I do, I'll tell you.
If you've got a great meal idea, shopping tips, similar strategies, let me know. I already admitted I'm not perfect. I might as well also tell you I don't know it all.