I am currently blogging about everything. Jump in where you are and thanks for coming by!

Friday, December 17, 2010

In which I launch an audacious plan

So here's the thing. I make dinner for my family a lot. I make dinner almost every single night. I make entrees, side dishes, salads, soups, sometimes even breads and desserts. Sure, we have the occasional pizza or once in a while a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, I mean those are staples. However we almost never go out to dinner unless we are on vacation or something. This as not always the case mind you. When I was working full time and my husband was in law school we were "regulars" at our local Mexican place. We kept stacks of what we called "emergency back up pizzas" in the freezer. We routinely cadged meals from my in-laws after work/school and ate at more fast food restaurants than you could probably even easily name.

Since then I have had the time to really teach myself how to cook and even though there are still those nights that I want to wave a magic whisk and have dinner appear magically on the table, (or you know, call out for some Chinese food) I have come to really (mostly) enjoy the process. I am a Stay at Home Mom, which helps FOR SURE, but I too have to have dinner on the table quickly. Those hours from 5 to bedtime go by awfully fast for everyone, and with dance classes and after school activities and PTO meetings and church and homework it is essential for everyone to be on their GAME in maximizing that time. In fact some of my best dinners have been inspired by having "something come up" and I suddenly have only 20 minutes.

Of course you can make a meal with all day to cook and a full refrigerator. What do you make when the cupboard is bare and you have literally no time (or often) no money to run to the store? That's my inspiration right there! A moment of grace as life teeters on the edge of catastrophe...

So for the next year, starting January 1st, I plan on cooking dinner for my family every night. In fact, if you stay with me on this journey of culinary self discovery, we can learn together the answers to the questions, "What makes a good weeknight meal?'" "How long does it take to make pot roast?" "Leftovers, again?" and "Who put the ram in the ramma lamma ding dong?". I have a lot of fun ideas!

I plan on making Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) into a vegetarian period for my family, excepting the fish on Fridays tradition I was raised with. And of course kicking that time off with a real New Orleans style crab boil on Fat Tuesday! Cinco De Mayo will bring us an entire week of Mexican food; favorites from my family, as well as recipes that I have never tried. St. Patty's day we will travel beyond the realms of Corned Beef and Cabbage and try some authentic Irish cuisine; sweets for Valentine's Day, a simple anniversary dinner, and of course what to feed your little ghouls and goblins before they go out to Trick or Treat! I'll bake bread, I'll toss salads, I'll flambé a dessert or two. Perhaps even some intentionally! And along the way I am hoping you guys chime in with your favorite recipes, trick and techniques to getting the food on the table.

Disclaimer: **Some restrictions apply, offer not good in the District of Columbia** I am reserving a total of 14 days to not cook dinner. There will be one (glorious) 5 day period where I am going to be in a hotel room in Washington D.C on vacation with my family. We will be making simple breakfasts that week since we will have access to a refrigerator and a microwave oven. The rest of the days I am reserving in case I come down with Bird Flu or Swine Flu or One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest or something. There will be pictures, there will be recipes, there will be jokes made at the expense of myself and others. Join me, won't you? Please? Pretty please? I'll make you dinner!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In which I write a post for wikiHow

I recently wrote an article for wikiHow, a wiki that I end up on a lot when I am searching for clear, concise How-To instructions on just about anything! Here is the article in its entirety.

How to Sterilize a Kitchen Brush

from wikiHow - The How to Manual That You Can Edit

If your kitchen brush is dirty, how can you be "cleaning" anything with it? A brush's bristles are the perfect place for bacteria and germs to hide and multiply, so let's make sure it is clean and safe to use!


  1. If your brush is a firm, solid heavy plastic brush you can simply place the brush in the top rack of the dishwasher and run it through on a sterilizing cycle with the rest of your dishes.
  2. If your brush has a wooden handle or is made of thin plastic that is inappropriate for washing in the dishwasher, run the brush (handle and bristles) under hot running water to remove any large particles of dirt, food or debris. Then use some dish soap to thoroughly remove any grease or sticky substances. Rinse brush under more hot running water.
  3. To sterilize the brush simply make a bleach and water solution to soak your brush. 3/4 of a cup of household bleach to 1 gallon of water is a good solution for sterilizing hard, non-porous surfaces and everyday items like brushes or even countertops or cutting boards. You can soak your brush for 10 minutes and be confident that it is sterile and ready to use.


  • Chlorine bleach should only be used in a well-ventilated area. Use caution when working with chlorine bleach as it can irritate skin, lungs and eyes. Bleach (obviously) can remove color from clothes so make sure you do not accidentally splatter yourself with your sanitizing solution. Wear old clothes for housekeeping just to be on the safe side.

Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Sterilize a Kitchen Brush. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dinner: Hit it!

Tonight's dinner is : Sauteed chicken with onion and zucchini, brown rice with tomatoes. Side dish of either mandarin ornages or slice apples, your choice.

Take boneless, skinless chicken breasts and season on all sides with adobo and extra pepper or favorite peppery spice blend. Place in a hot iron skillet with olive oil and onion slices. Brown meat on all sides. Slice zucchini with a mandolin and place all over and around chicken (you can also use a mixture od zucchini and summer squash or just summer squash). Cover with a lid and reduce heat. Let it all steam while you prepare rice.

Add to your pressure cooker, 1 can of diced tomatoes, 1 C of brown rice, 2 1/4 C of water, 1 bay leaf, salt, 1 thread of saffron (if desired) 1 smashed clove of garlic. Put on lid and cook according to manufacturer instructions. In my Cuisinart pressure cooker brown rice cooks for 10 minutes under pressure, and another 10 minutes under natural pressure release, before you manually release the steam, stir and serve! Brown rice in 20 minutes y'all! Everything will be ready at once, hearty and satisfying and QUICK this is on your table in 30 minutes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I have a cold. I hate having a cold. I sneeze and sniffle, my head feels like it is full of buzzing bees, my eyes get teary. It's a whole thing. Lucky for me I only get sick about once every three years or so. Anyhow, while cleaning out our refrigerator (AKA leftovers for lunch) my husband found half of a rotisserie chicken. We set it aside to take the meat off the bones and while I was warming up leftover pasta and chicken for the kids lunches, my awesome hubby cracked open the Emeril's New Orleans Cooking Cookbook and started making chicken stock.

You guys? I could have cried. I love that after 10 years together, now when he sees bones, he thinks SOUP! I mean as opposed to, "I need to throw these away!" I really make broth; just throw various vegetables and bones into a pot, add herbs, salt and pepper and call it a day. However DH has a different style; he wants a recipe to follow, and that is cool too. This is how he did it, inspired by Emeril's basic chicken *stock*.

He browned the vegetables in oil first, (onion, garlic, celery; and since we were out of carrots, a diced parsnip). He also added 2 bay leaves (Emeril calls for 4!) We used 1/2 teaspoon of italian herbs (Emeril calls for dried basil), we skipped the thyme (we were out), 1/2 tsp of dried leaf tarragon and 1/2 tsp dried oregano. We used 1 cooked chicken carcass, Emeril's calls for 2 pounds of raw chicken bones, necks and entrails. We lacked whole black peppercorns, we used ground black pepper to taste, we added salt to taste and just filled up a good sized sauce pan with water, enough to cover everything by at least an inch.

Bring it all to a boil, then reduce and simmer for -- oh, about as long as you want. As it boils sometimes this weird, foamy scum will rise to the top, simply skim it off and keep going. This really only happens to me if I am for some reason using raw chicken bones (as Emeril suggests) but I almost always just have some carcass from a rotisserie chicken that needs using up, so there ya go. When the stock is ready, you can strain it through a colander or a wide strainer into another container for refrigeration. I suggest cooling the liquid down before you put it in the fridge to avoid warming the other foods already being stored. Emeril suggests (and this is so good I wish I had thought if it) strain the stock into a storage container that is nestled in a sink filled with ice and then store it. I have been known to put broth in wide shallow pans to cool down quickly on the counter-top before being placed in the fridge. I think E's way will work beautifully though.

Darling husband of mine just kept on trucking and made his version of Emeril's famous chicken soup since I have the aforementioned COLD FROM HELL. He actually let the stock simmer while he went to the store for supplies. Write this down, because you will LOVE it.

2 Tb of Olive Oil
Some chicken cut up into chunks (we used leftover cooked chicken and 2 raw chicken breasts)
1 C chopped onion (or in our case 1/2 of a big onion chopped)
1/2 C chopped celery
1/2 C chopped carrots
1/2 C chopped green onion (4 green onion stalks, white parts and some green)
2 TB of minced garlic (for me 3 cloves or so)
1/4 C fresh parsley leaves (Chopped a goodly amount, parsley is cheap!)
1 TB fresh chopped basil (smells AMAZING)
4 bay leaves (EW! 2 bay leaves)
1 TB Emeril's Creole seasoning (We had some Emeril's Southwest seasoning on hand, used that, but any nice spicy blend will do.)
2 C assorted chopped veggies (examples given were beans, zucchini, yellow squash, cabbage or whatever is in season.) We used a bag of frozen Gumbo veggie mix blend that had been lurking in the freezer waiting for a chance to get out!
1 C. firmly packed, rinsed and torn, spinach leaves (We did 2 C of spinach leaves, moderately well packed.)
1/4 tsp of crushed red pepper, (we didn't have any, just used David's BBQ spice rub in the same amount. You could also sub in some tabasco sauce.)
2 C cooked noodles
3 quarts of chicken stock

We chopped up the raw chicken breasts and added them to the stock pot, already heated and waiting with the olive oil. We added the salt and pepper, and sauteed the heck out of it all. Then we added the cooked chopped chicken meat, leftover from our rotisserie chicken. Next we added the chopped celery, carrots, green onions and garlic. Then the basil, bay leaves, and southwest blend seasoning. After this all had a chance to sautée we added the bag of frozen veggies, the torn spinach and the spice rub and let that all come together. Then we added the strained stock and let it all go to a boil, brought it back down to a simmer and let it shmoozle together for 20 minutes or so. We cooked the noodles (about half a bag of egg noodles) separately about 5 minutes before the soup was done. Then we added a small amount of cooked noodles to each soup bowl before ladling the soup on top. I prefer to cook the noodles separately because the noodles do not over cook, nor when you store the leftover soup (and a family of 2 adults and 2 small kids will have leftovers) the noodles swell in the broth and get horribly overdone.

This soup was a tonic for the soul. Fragrant, steamy, and lovely it just cut through the cloud of confusion on my head. Emeril's recipe calls for browning the soup bones and using chopped fresh veggies, but honestly I am not sure it could have been THAT much better than what we had tonight. Delicious. Hubby swept and mopped the kitchen floor while it simmered and we all got a very healthy serving of flavorful vegetables and lean protein. All in all this was a perfect Fall weekend dinner. For dessert we had an autumnal spice cake, but I will save that recipe for another time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Easy Peasy Lunch

I pack my kids lunch every day. And my oldest girl has carried a lunch with her since she started daycare at 14 months old, so its been quite a few lunches now! I have run into several lunch time dilemmas and here is how I solved them. First of all, remember to pack the lunch the night before, make sure you have lunch items on your weekly shopping list, and always look to see what comes back untouched from the kid's lunch box. No sense in packing something your kid won't eat, right?

1. Out of bread

Send in peanut butter crackers as a change from the usual PB and J. These can be made on many types of crackers including graham crackers, saltines, Ritz or even smear a bit of peanut butter on a rice cake! Other "non-sandwich" sandwich options include rolling peanut butter, jelly and banana in a tortilla, sending in a generous slice of banana bread (w/ or w/o a nut butter of some sort). You can always forgo PB and J completely by sending in sandwich meat rolled in lettuce leaves or cheese or both. Simply lay out a slice of sandwich meat, layer a slice of cheese (my kids like provolone) and roll up. I stash these in a reusable sandwich container. One time I started a "trend" at my daughter's school by smearing peanut butter on a hot-dog bun and putting a whole peeled banana on the bun. I called it, "Monkey Hotdog" and all of her little friends quickly followed suit.

2. Can't find the Ice-pack

It is hard to keep the contents of the lunchbox fresh and cold without the little ice packs that many lunch boxes come with, isn't it? I have used double baggied bags of ice, frozen her juice box the night before (it thaws by lunchtime) or even resurected old teethers from the back of the freezer and sent those in as well. Do you have a re-freezable "boo-boo" bunny? He has served as a lunch time ice-pack on more than one occasion here!

3. Out of Juice Boxes

I have packed water bottles, small sippy cups of our own juice (cheaper too) and when she was "too old" for sippy cups, I bought her a sports bottle we could fill at home. I hardly ever buy a true juice box anymore. Refillable containers are cheaper and create less waste. If all else fails your child can usually buy milk or water at school too!

4. What side dishes?

Baby carrots or small broccoli florets, with a separate container for ranch dressing, cheese sticks, small boxes or baggies of raisins, bags of granola, frozen grapes (help keep lunch cold too), a banana, cherry and grape tomatoes, slices of salted cucumber (also great with ranch dressing), whole wheat crackers, small container of cottage cheese. I sometimes send in a small baggie of potato or corn chips, just for fun. Everything in moderation, even moderation!

5. Dessert?!

To be honest, I love, love, love dessert and it is something we have at home quite a bit, but at my daughters' school they often have cookies for an after school snack, so I usually don't pack anything sweet in her lunch. But after Halloween (for several weeks) I put one small candy per day in her lunch box, or sometimes homemade oatmeal or peanut butter cookies (I'd send chocolate chips, but sometimes the chocolate melts). A piece of fruit is usually all my girls need, but sometimes we get them jello or pudding cups too. Don't stress this one!

6. My kid won't eat sandwiches at all!

Well, mine sometimes doesn't either. I have been known to send in greek style vanilla yogurt with some granola as a "main dish" or some cheese sticks and assorted fruits. My kid has taken a green salad with cubed chicken on top, soup in a thermos, trail mix (included cheerios, peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and a few M&M's) cottage cheese and fruit, cold, cut up chicken strips, Babybel cheese and carrot sticks, and even a lunch called "Make your own Lunchable" where I cut up lunch meat and cheeses into little circles and let her eat those with Ritz crackers. Just make sure they get an opportunity to eat some protein, carbs and fat in every meal and that they have plenty to drink and your kid will have the energy to get through the day!

Monday, August 16, 2010

French Onion Soup "recipe"

It really is more like a french onion soup "technique" than anything.

Here's what you'll need:
Onions (if possible different varieties)
vegetable oil
broth (chicken, beef or veggie or combo)

Heat oil in a stock pot over medium hugh heat. Cut onions into halves and then cut halves into thin strips. Put the onions in the oil with 1 TB (more or less) of butter. Salt and pepper generously and cook over medium heat stirring often until onions begin to brown. After 25 minutes or so (you may need to reduce heat) onions should be taking on a lovely brown color and be mostly softened and lovely smelling. Add 1 tsp or so of marjoram, stir. Add some chopped fine garlic and cook for maybe 3-5 minutes longer. Then simply deglaze the pan with some broth, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to get up any browned bits. Then add more broth to make soup. Simmer for 15 minutes. Serve by ladling into oven proof bowl, topping with hearty bread and cheese and broiling until cheese is brown and bubbly.

Okay amounts, right? How much broth? How many onions? I'd say six medium onions to a quart container of broth should do it. The onions get pretty small after cooking so add broth till you achieve your preferred onion to broth ratio! I usually use whatever homemade broths I have on hand be they chicken beef or vegetable, and if I don;t have enough of one I will add some of the other. The flavors meld in a nice way during the simmering phase.

My get up and go just got up and went

Motivation. This is what I lack. I think I am going to be glad when my oldest returns to regular school this fall. Homeschooling was fun and educational for both of us and I am glad we did it, but the structure of the school year helps me focus and that in turn gives me better motivation.

Also, she will be glad to have Mommy be Mommy and Teacher be teacher. I think having me be both ended up stressing her out.

Things I have to do this week:

*Clean dining room
*Sweep and Mop floors
*Issue invitations for Sunday night dinner
*Plan and prep Sunday night (Back to school) dinner


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stress cleaning

My great grandmother died this summer... just two weeks ago actually. There was a flurry of panicked trips back and forth from my home 5 hours away from her home. I managed to get there in time and say good-bye. Today, I got some bad news about a friend, it was sudden, completely unexpected. He leaves behind 2 daughters and a loving wife. They live several states away, so I am not headed there yet, but I probably will be soon. Today I am going to get in the kitchen and clean the hell out of it. It needs to be done yes, but I need to be doing something and there is nothing I can do for my friend right now. So I am going to clean and I am going to pray.

So if you want to walk this through with me, here is the game plan.

• Load and unload dishwasher until all dishes are done.

• Put away everything on the countertops,.

• Wipe down countertops with borax and water.

• Sweep floor.

• Mop floor.

• Put down area rugs.

• Sort through all of the papers/odds and ends on the fridge. Toss expired coupons and the like.

• Wipe down all appliances.

• Wipe exterior of cabinet doors.

• Put away food.

• Clean out refrigerator.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Waste not, want not

I have been dying to get back here and write some long and involved bit of culinary wisdom, or some funny anecdote about my life as a Mom, daughter, volunteer, sex kitten (part-time), domestic engineer. But the actual Moming, daughtering, volunteering, sex-kitten thing got in the way. I'd like to say my duties as a domestic engineer got in the way too, but frankly, you'd just have to look at my house to know that ain't true.


So today I am going to write about something near and dear to my heart recently and that is making sure you do not waste food. Food is a pretty big part of my limited budget and nothing irks me more than having to throw away my hard earned money with food that has gone past its prime.

The biggest things that go bad for me are fruits and vegetables. I have very little time to write today, so this post will focus on the vegetables and the next one will be about fruit. *Note: I have never had any ice cream go bad.

My best tips for preventing food waste are:

• Make a list, not only of what you need to buy, but also how you are going to use it. So you need to make a menu for the week, noting what side dishes you are making to go with what. Try to use your most perishable veggies first, but be flexible, if that broccoli is starting to "bloom" early (it develops a yellow color) then use it up quick.

• Make substitutions. Tonight's dinner was going to be chicken and rice plus broccoli and squash, but oh look a tomato is going bad (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes bad!) and needs to be used up. Cut off the bad spot and chop it up into the rice side dish. Chopping it and adding salt helps break it down and by the time it has cooked with the rice it merely becomes a flavoring agent for the rice. Good times.

* Make soup/stock. I have a freezer full of old bones. No, I am not a serial killer with grisly trophies (but you know I totally would be on Criminal Minds). I just love to make stocks. I therefore have LABELLED ziploc freezer bags of chicken and beef bones and very occasionally fish bones and crustacean shells (shrimp and lobster mostly). Now to these animal parts one must add vegetables. Do you have wilted celery? Put it in the freezer. When you cut off the tops of the onion, put it, skin and all into the freezer, more garlic than you can use all at one time? It freezes beautifully. Very pungent vegetables, like broccoli or asparagus get frozen in separate bags also LABELLED for use in what I call the "Great Green Soup" (featured elsewhere on the site, keyword green soup).

* Make a meal of them. If you find yourself, late in the week with a bevy of quickly aging produce, make fajitas or stir-fry or even a casserole or two. Cook finely shredded carrots into a tomato sauce, chop zucchini into zucchini bread, roast an entire pan of assorted vegetables with sea salt and olive oil.

* Make a rescue attempt. Sad, wilted greens can be briefly revived using the scientific principle of turgor pressure. Basically those lettuce leaves have dried out in your refrigerator. Give them a brief rinse and set them stalks down in a large container of ice water that you have dosed with a liberal slug of white vinegar. They will be perky and presentable in 20 minutes or less. Then spin dry or pat dry the leaves and serve yourself a great big salad that night.

* Make compost. Sometimes despite our best efforts, stuff goes bad. Return it to the earth by starting a simple compost pile. I had one on my balcony that was completely contained in a large rubbermaid tote. Besides vegetable matter I added egg shells and coffee grounds, plant clippings, shredded newspapers, paper towels, grass cuttings and the like. I was rewarded with dark rich compost for my container garden. You can also google search for how to start your own "vermiculture" composter (worms) and something intriguing I read about called a "bokashi" bucket.

Vegetables are cheap and abundant this time of year, so take advantage and buy up your summer favorites. This summer I am going to be investigating some home canning options, (yay strawberry jam!) and maybe even parching my own sweet corn. Wish me luck and I will keep you posted.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Broth : A Primer

So my daughter decided to be a vegetarian this week. We naturally eat a lot of vegetarian food, sometimes by accident and sometimes be design (e.g. "oops I forgot to defrost something" or many times during Lent.) Vegetarianism is not an everyday thing here though. Today my limited options (needed to go to the grocery store but couldn't due to baby's nap schedule) led me to ask Darling Girl if she wanted soup or macaroni and cheese for lunch. She said, "Soup please."

This required some thought. Seeing as Darling Girl is only 7 years old I could have made her some soup with my packages of free-range organic chicken broth, she would never have known. But I decided to make a vegetable broth and stick to the spirit of this experiment. When I chop the ends off of a carrot, I stick the ends in a plastic bag that lives in the freezer, same things with the tops off of onions, or the ends off of celery. I don't keep discards from cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli as these flavors would not suit most broths. I moved recently so my usual hoard of frozen soup veggies was sadly lacking. All I could roust out of the recesses of its frosty heart were some tough ends of asparagus, half a carrot, two parsnips, a couple of onion tops and a pint sized yogurt container of mushroom water. Here's the thing, when I am paying exorbitant rates for CSA organic vegetables, I want to get my money's worth. When you bend and snap an asparagus to remove the woody parts you lose quite a bit of what you paid for. However boiled in water, they add lovely additional flavor to asparagus soups. I had been hesitant to try them in a general vegetable broth, but now I really had no choice. And mushroom water is simply what you get when you rehydrate dried mushrooms, like porcini. You freeze the steeping water and use it to give a wonderful layer of flavor. It isn't excessively "shroomy" but adds richness.

I put everything in the stock pot with an additional fresh onion (quartered), a bay leaf, 2 cloves of smashed garlic and some salt and pepper. I used enough water to cover everything and let it all come to a boil. I reduced it to a simmer after a few minutes and let it go for an additional 30 minutes. After everything cooks together nicely, you just strain out the veggies and retain your lovely broth.

I made a soup today (recipe follows) but you could freeze the broth in quart sized baggies (after it has cooled) or even in ice cube trays, because there are myriad uses for broth. Bullet points!

* use broth instead of water for rice
* broth added to mashed potatoes for flavor/fluffiness
* a cube of broth to deglaze a pan
* make/thin gravy
* add a bit of broth over top of rice before reheating to prevent drying out
* use as a base for some sauces
* cook pasta in broth
* make soups/stews
* steam vegetables

The pasta in broth is an absolute gimme, just cook the pasta as normal in the broth, drain, toss with butter and top with parmesan cheese and voila an easy week night side dish.

Today's soup was adapted from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook by Jack Bishop. The title of this post is a link that will take you to Amazon to buy this wonderful resource or to learn more about it.

Pasta and Black Bean Soup with Garlic and Rosemary

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp minced dried rosemary (there abouts, I didn't measure.)
1 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
salt and freshly ground pepper
7 C of vegetable stock (see above)
6 oz of small pasta (I used elbow macaroni)
4 C of cooked black beans

Heat the oil in stockpot, add the garlic and rosemary and sauté until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and lotsa salt and pepper. Simmer till soft. Add the stock, simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions, add your cooked beans in the last couple of minutes of cooking time. Portion out into bowls and drizzle tops with jarred pesto or a sprinkle of real parmesan cheese.

Hints and tips: I chopped the garlic and the rosemary at the same time on the board. I sprinkled both with salt, it helps break it all up. In the future, even though the pasta was delicious cooked in the soup, I might cook it separately in the future and add it to the individual bowls, if you are going to have leftovers (and this makes a lot of soup) then pasta doesn't do that well leftover in soup, it can get mushy and swollen! I ended up storing the broth separate from the solid ingredients of the soup in the fridge. This soup, served with a salad and a crusty loaf of bread would be a perfect dinner.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Moving Experience

I recently moved from one house to another. From a three level house to a one level, from a great big kitchen to an itty-bitty kitchen, from 2 big bed rooms to three medium sized bed rooms, from 2 and half baths to 2.

We have driven CARLOADS of stuff to the Salvation Army, I have taken huge rubbermaid totes of toys and construction paper to the local preschool. We had a gigantic garage sale on Saturday and Sunday. People took so much stuff away. They bought things I was planning on throwing away! I sold an empty box that used to hold stationery for a dollar.

Last night hubby and I cleaned out the last of the debris and detritus of a mostly empty house. We found another load of stuff for the Salvation army, a few boxes for the Domestic abuse shelter, and another box for the school. We threw out several cardboard boxes last night, 2 huge contractor's bags of garbage, and three 40 gallon trash cans FULL of trash. It actually was breaking my heart.

I try so hard to recycle and give leftovers to charity and honestly I don't buy a lot of stuff. I feel like I am undermined by a wonderful, but frankly, more materialistic husband, loving but over-gifting grandparents and a culture that cannot conceive of a simple children's party without freaking gift-bags. I am not a paragon of virtue when it comes to "Ooh, shiny!" but I need to do better and inspire my family to do better.

Because as much as I need to organize, the best way to have a clutter-free life is to not have clutter in the first place!

What are your tips, tricks, ideas for living more simply?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What we had for dinner, 2/16/10 (Fat Tuesday!)

Well, we ate, drank and were comparatively merry last night. My in-laws had given us some gorgeous, (but huge) rib-eye steaks so I marinated them in 50% - 50% mix of soy sauce and Worcestershire and then 20 minutes before cooking I removed them from the marinade and salt and peppered them generously. I let them sit on a cookie sheet while I prepared the rest of my dinner.

Last night's experiment was in the mashed potatoes. I have made mashed potatoes dozens of times. Sometimes I use cream, sometimes milk, sometimes chicken broth or sometimes a combination of these. My real issue with mashed potatoes is getting the perfect blend of fluffy/creamy in the texture and properly seasoning the spuds. Last night I used my handy-dandy Vidalia chopping wizard, a contraption I have taken photos of elsewhere on the blog. I changed the blades to the large setting and then chopped the potatoes into uniform cubes. I added the cubes to my stock pot with generously salted water and started them out on medium heat. I wanted the potatoes to eventually come to a boil, but not boil too hard or too long as it makes the potatoes just fall to mush. To these perfectly cubed tubers I added three scraped and chopped parsnips. A parsnip is a root vegetable that sort of looks like a white carrot. I really like them simply roasted with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, but no one else in my family has come around to my way of thinking (yet). I had my oldest daughter scrape and chop the parsnips, so she knew she was eating them later. She even tried an experimental bite of raw parsnip. These were boiled together till fork tender and then mashed with a hand masher. Last night I added a tablespoon of butter and some whole milk to the vegetables as I mashed them. I always add a little a time until they come together as I don't like them to be too soupy.

I have tried mashing with an electric hand mixer and it is simply too easy for me to over-mash them. The resulting potatoes are thick as wall paper paste and are unpleasant to eat. I also once tried a potato ricer, but while they were wonderfully creamy, the resultant texture was insufficiently fluffy. So the hand masher is the way to go for me.

The steaks were cooked on the stove top, two in a cast iron skillet and two in a stainless steel pan with a copper core. The sear and color I got in the iron skillet were wonderful. I had heated both pans over very high heat to seal in the juices on the steaks. The stainless steel pan nearly burned the outsides, while the iron skillet simply browned the meat beautifully. After the meat was seared all over I reduced the temperature down to medium on each burner until the steaks were done. I use a probe thermometer to tell me when the steaks are at the appropriate temperature. I make the children's steaks almost well done while hubby and I like ours medium. Meat continues to cook as you let it rest, so I usually take the meat off the heat after it has come to with 5 degrees of my desired doneness. Due to varying steak thicknesses and fat/meat ratios I don't have an exact time for how long it takes to cook steaks. Grilling or broiling the steaks also take different times; overall a good probe thermometer is the way to go.

I reheated some leftover lima beans for our green vegetable and after the steaks were done and resting on a plate I quickly sauteed some mushrooms and onion slices in the pan juices. Deeee-lish!

Our family ate till we were full on two steaks, the other two steaks will be turned into fajitas later this week with more sliced onions, mushrooms, zucchini and slivered carrot. Or you could also turn leftover steak into a a nice stir fry with cabbage, sliced water chestnut, snow pea pods and carrots.

PS I always give up chocolate for Lent, so last night before bed I had a couple of handfuls of M&Ms! Decadent, I know. But today I read where a friend's Mom had always written a letter a day to a different person who would not be expecting a letter. 40 letters in 40 days! I am also incorporating that into my Lenten observance this year.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What we had for dinner, 2/11/10

Homemade Pizza and Green Salad

I get my pizza dough recipe from the AMAZING "A Year in Bread Blog". http://ayearinbread.earthandhearth.com/2007/03/kevin-pizza-dough.html
Three fabulous bakers decided to post a new bread recipe every day for a year. They all three submitted pizza dough recipes but I like Kevin's best. Here it is with notes on prep by me. If you click on this posts title "What we had for dinner" it will take you directly to their wonderful blog. Go for the bread, stay for the awesome writing.

Pizza Dough
Adapted from a recipe by Mitch Mandell of Fabulous Foods.

bread flour 3 1/2 c | 0.8 l | 18 oz | 500 g
warm water (between 95 and 115 F/35 and 46C) 1 c | 240 ml | 8.5 oz | 240 g
instant yeast 2 1/4 tsp (1 US pkg) | 11 ml | 1/4 oz | 8 g
honey 2 tbsp | 30 ml | 1 1/4 oz | 36 g
olive oil 1/4 c | 60 ml | 1 1/2 oz | 48 g
salt 1/2 tsp | 8 ml | 1/8 oz | 4 g

Combine the honey, warm water, and oil, stirring to mix. The water should be about 95 to 115° F. It should feel very warm, but not uncomfortably hot. (I use hot tap water. Also measure the oil in the 1/4 C measure, then measure the honey up to the middle or 1/8 C measure in the same cup. The oil keeps the honey from sticking to the measuring cup.)

Put the 3 cups of flour and yeast in the bowl and, using the paddle attachment, mix on low for about 20 seconds. Add the salt and mix on low for another 20 seconds. Note: salt is poisonous to yeast, so you want the yeast well-distributed before adding the salt. (I do all of this stuff by hand, I mix the flour and yeast with a whisk. And then I whisk in the salt.)

With the motor running on low, pour in the liquids. Continue mixing until a shaggy dough begins to form. Clean off paddle and switch to dough hook. Continue mixing on low until the dough comes together. (I stir with a wooden spoon.)

Increase speed to medium and knead for eight minutes. The dough should completely clear the sides and bottom within 2 minutes if it is too sticky, add additional flour 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more flour is needed. If the dough seems too dry, spritz with water from a spray bottle a couple of times, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more water is needed. continue kneading for 6 minutes. You'll find the dough wraps itself around the hook, so every 2 minutes, stop the machine, scrape the dough off the hook, and then continue kneading. (I stir until it the dough comes away from the bowl, then I add a little flour on top of the dough and to my hands and I knead it.)

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it a few more times by hand to be sure it's tight and elastic. Form the dough into a tight ball.

Wash and dry your mixing bowl then mist it with oil. Place the dough, seam-side down, in the bowl and lightly mist top of dough with baking spray. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rise (ferment) in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in size — 45 minutes to an hour. (I do not wash and dry the mixing bowl, I just put some oil in it and roll the dough around in the oil.)

Punch the dough down and transfer to a lightly floured board. Knead for about half a minute, then reshape into a ball. Respray bowl lightly, return dough to bowl, spray, recover, and allow to rise again until doubled in bulk — an hour to an hour and a half.

Heat the oven to 450F (230C).

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into two equal portions. Set 1 aside and cover with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out. Shape the other portion into a round by hand.

Place the rolling pin in the center of the round and push outward. Rotate the dough 1/4 turn and repeat. Continue until dough is about 12 inches across. Alternatively, you can stretch the dough by hand, which I do. The dough is quite elastic and will want to shrink, so don't rush it. Pause every now and then while shaping (whether by hand or with a rolling pen) to allow the dough to relax. (Yeah, my dough doesn't get to rest much. I'm brutal.)

Coat with sauce, cheese, and toppings. Then, ideally, let the pizzas stand, covered with plastic wrap, for about 30 minutes before baking. This delay highlights the bready character of the dough. Before baking, use a knife to poke holes in any noticable bubbles. (I have never let it rest that long, the crust is delicious nevertheless)

I bake one pizza and wrap the other dough very tightly with plastic wrap and then in a plastic bag, and then freeze it for later. When defrosting, simply lay on a counter for an hour or so till dough is room temperature and ready to be rolled out.

My kids (even the 19 month old) like torn romaine lettuce topped with Ranch dressing. They will pretty much eat anything topped with Ranch dressing. They might even eat rocks as long as it had Ranch dressing on it. I also peeled two apples for them to eat.

Pretty simple diner, the kids played outside with DH as I topped the pizza dough. I called them inside when the pizza was ready. The whole house smelled amazing!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Meatless Monday Menu

I am taking up the Meatless Monday gauntlet thrown down by Michael Pollan. We eat vegetarian pretty frequently here so that is not the challenging part, but planning a specific day to eat a specific way, eh I'm not so good at that.

Monday's Menu was Black beans and yellow rice and a simple salad, but tricked out with some yummy additions.

The black beans were made in my handy dandy new pressure cooker, a terrific appliance for the forgetful mama. I sorted and rinsed the beans and added them to the pot with a small onion, a single shallot and 2 smashed cloves of garlic. I also added a handful of dried oregano. Follow your pressure cooker's instructions on how much water to add and how long to cook. In my cooker it took 30 minutes after the cooker came to pressure.

Meanwhile I melted some butter in a large skillet. When melted and foamy I added the package of yellow rice and let it brown and toast as I quickly chopped a half of an onion and one large carrot in my handy dandy chopper. I drained a can of chopped tomatoes into a measuring cup and added enough water to accommodate the rice recipe. I threw in the drained tomatoes and stirred and then added the tomato juice and water (after heating it to boiling in the microwave). Then I threw on the lid and turned off the heat entirely. I have a copper core sauce pans that retain heat very well, so not sure if that would work for everyone. Another nice addition to the rice is a cup or so of frozen green peas in the last 5 minutes or so of cooking.

When the beans were done cooking I added salt to taste. I never add salt to the beans during cooking because it can inhibit them from softening. The rice was also ready at the same time. I served the beans and rice with a sprinkling of cheese on top, sometimes I also serve it with a dollop of plain greek style yogurt as well. The kids also got half a banana with their green salads.

All in all, even my meat loving hubby thought the food was great. By adding sufficient spices and vegetables to these plain foods you can create great flavor and texture as well as nutrition.

What are your favorite beans and rice combinations? Red beans and rice? Cuban con gris? West african style beans and rice? Please leave a good recipe in the comments!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Culinary Solidarity

A few years ago my parish sent home a Lenten calendar of recipes for the various countries that received aid from Catholic Relief Services. They were our Lenten charity that year. Most of the recipes were vegetarian (or very nearly so) and great to try on a Friday night. I like preparing different ethnic and regional cuisine, so this was right up my alley. Thinking of Haiti this week I decided to look up and prepare some traditional Haitian meals. I used my brand new handy-dandy pressure cooker to make some Red Beans and Rice or Riz et Pois. It didn't come out as well as I would have wanted, the lovely melding of flavors of good red bean and rice came to taste overwhelmingly of pepper.

Here instead is the traditional method of preparation.

Sort, rinse and soak beans. Drain beans and cook them by bringing to a boil and then reducing heat, keeping beans at a bare simmer for 1-2 hours (depending on amount you are cooking.) I like to add some chopped onion, bay leaf, chopped carrot and garlic to my beans. I add salt at the end of cooking to avoid tough beans. If your beans haven't achieved the state of soft mushy fall apart goodness, feel free to mash a few with a potato masher or fork. Do NOT blend or puree! Drain beans and reserve the cooking water (don't pour down the drain.) Melt some butter or oil in a cast iron skillet, add rice to pan and allow to cook to a golden brown. Add the amount of reserved cooking water you need to your rice (for instance making 1 C. of rice use 2 C. of water.) If you have it on hand add a bit of chopped green bell pepper to the rice. When rice is done, mix with beans and serve. For spicier beans and rice add cayenne pepper or tabasco to taste.

A few nice side dishes would be fried plaintains and maybe cornbread and salad.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What Would Ma Ingalls Do?

Besides have an irrational hatred of Native Americans and wear a hoop skirt anyway?

I have undertaken a lot of things in the last year, started teaching Sunday School, baking my own bread, cooking nearly everything from scratch (including sour mix, more on that later) and recently homeschooling. Needless to say my own lax standards of house keeping are compromised by my schedule and the daunting destructive capabilities of my toddler daughter. My seven year old doesn't help much either, but at least she stays out of my way more often than not.

So I started thinking about all the various chemicals, appliances, and modern conveniences I have and I wonder how come I can never seem to get on top of my housework? What would Ma Ingalls do? She had no running water, had to grow her own food, sew her own clothes, linens and even toys for the children and her house was always clean. Of course how much dusting could there be when she only had the one what-not and the single china shepherdess? However, my point remains the same; why does house work always take all day? Did cave women grunt, "Me need to clean cave, but exhausted from big mammoth hunt?"

Needless to say the last thing Ma Ingalls would have done was write a long blog post about it. So if you'll excuse me I am off to polish my what-not and bake some cornbread.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Winter Meals

I know, I know I live in South Florida and I don't know about cold. Yeah, can we take the Yankee smearing of my fortitude and lack of grit as read? But the truth is there are only a few weeks all year where it is cold enough here to make truly hearty winter foods and last night was one of them!

Menu: Pulled Pork, collard greens, black eyed peas, cornbread, coleslaw.

The pulled pork recipe was adapted from Paula Deen's pulled pork recipe, basically you take a a pork shoulder and rub it all over with spices and brown sugar. I use my husband's TOP SECRET no TELLIN, *ever* dry rub and some brown sugar to coat the meat. Alton Brown and Paula Deen both have excellent dry rubs that you can use, there are also commercially available dry rubs. The real "secret" is to let the rub sit on the meat for at least 2 hours if not all night. Then you add a mixture of 2 tsp. garlic powder, salt, 2 TB worcestershire, 1/2 TB of liquid smoke, 1 C of cider vinegar and 2 C of apple juice to the dutch oven or roasting pan. Add the meat to the pan. Cover the pan with heavy foil and then put the lid on that. Slow roast this in the oven for 4 hours at 325 until you are able to shred the pork with a fork. You can eat the pulled pork as is or top with barbecue sauce.

Collard greens are so simple it is embarrassing. Fry bacon in a stock pot, add some finely chopped onion if you like. Toss rinsed, chopped, de-ribbed (only the really large tough ribs) collards in the pot, stir until wilted. Top with water or stock and heat through. They sell pre-chopped collards in a bag these days which makes it even easier.

Black-eyed peas were the big experiment of the night. I had forgotten to start them earlier in the day and I was stumped till I remembered I had received a pressure cooker for Christmas. I have never used a pressure cooker before so I was a little leery. I followed the directions and assembled the cooker, added the sorted, rinsed beans, a half an onion, a chopped carrot and 4 C of water. You lock on the lid, hit high pressure, and time and let it go. The beans came out delicious, soft and flavored well in only 24 minutes!!!. I did not add salt as the beans were cooking as this can inhibit the beans from going soft, but adding salt at the end seasoned them well. A piece of ham hock or bacon would have been good, but I had used my bacon for the collards.

I took the easy way out with the coleslaw and bought a pre-shredded bag of cabbage and carrots. Let the mix stand in a colander over the sink sprinkled liberally with salt for 20 minutes. After it has released its moisture toss the mix with 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp of sugar, and a sprinkle of your dry rub. Then mix together 1/4 C of mayo with 1/4 C of Ranch dressing, pour over the mix and toss till coated. I can't stand soggy coleslaw so this may be too dry for you, adjust amounts as needed.

And now the final piece of the meal, fresh hot cornbread. I realized I was out of Jiffy corn muffin mix which is my go-to for cornbread, but I did have some cornmeal on hand. I used the recipe (more or less) on the back of the bag.

Golden Yellow Corn Bread
1 C corn meal
1 C sifted flour (I used bread flour and did not sift)
1/4 C sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 C soft shortening (I used some smart balance and some cold solidified bacon grease I had in the fridge. Yes, I did.)
1 C milk
1 egg beaten
3 tsp baking powder

Mix dry ingredients. Cut in shortening (or whatever you use.) Mix egg and milk together and add to dry ingredients with a few quick strokes. (Seriously, do not over beat corn bread batter!) Bake in a greased 9x9x2 inch pan at 425 for 20-25 minutes. (I only had an 8x8 pan and I baked it in a 350 degree oven due to the meat cooking and it came out fine.) When cornbread is brown around the edges and pulling away and a a toothpick inserted comes out clean it is done. I don't see why you couldn't have the dry ingredients for this pre-mixed and ready to go in your pantry at all times. It was lightly, lightly sweet and delicious.