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Monday, January 31, 2011

Meatless Monday Mexican Menu

I am making black beans and yellow rice, a staple around here, the baby would literally eat nothing else if given the choice. I made a side of sauteed yellow squash and zucchini, something I jokingly call "Mexican Ratatouille" and I made fresh pico de gallo. I love pico de gallo! It is a chunky salsa made from tomatoes, onions, jalapeño pepper, and lime juice. You can zhush it up with some diced garlic if you like, or add some green peppers or cilantro to it too, but I like it very, very plain. The colors remind me of the Mexican flag, red, white, and green!

My sauteed squash dish is very versatile and it is a go-to side dish in my home. Simply slice or chop up some yellow (or summer or crook-neck) squash with or without some zucchini. Sautee it with some sliced thin onions, and some sliced tomatoes (or canned tomatoes) and season them all over with adobo until they are getting some brown spots and everything is quite soft. It pairs well with beans and rice or chicken.

I am also making a side salad, since I planned on making QUITE a bit of salad over the weekend and forgot to make it completely. We had so many vegetables for the cheese dip and on the veggie kebabs that I sort of just bungled it. On the plus side I was introduced to the most delicious variation on tzatziki dip with pistachios in it and a really awesome garlic dip that literally had me moaning in ecstasy over it while I dipped strips of bell pepper! I have to get the recipe from my friend Cami.

I was going to make some fresh tortillas, but we have some homemade biscuits leftover from Sunday, so I am going to use those instead. Hope you all have a good Meatless Monday too!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dinner redux

I had a big weekend. Family Fun Day event at the Community Park Saturday afternoon, party on Saturday night, Sunday morning church and Sunday school, Sunday afternoon cleaning out the shed and re-organizing it (after we discovered a snake in there), then calming down and stopping screaming, then the darling girl's basketball game, then back to the shed, then going to see a friend's new baby. And now dinner!

The best thing about parties is leftover party food, am I right? I took the veggies off the kabobs and started stir-frying them in a pan with olive oil and spicy sesame seed oil. I shredded a bit of red cabbage and added that to the pot and added some salt and pepper and soy sauce. When everything got nice and soft I added the bag of boil in bag rice I'd made. At the very last I added the chicken teriyaki kebab meat and stirred everything together.

You know what? Fun makes me tired! Goodnight!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fondue Party!

Tonight we are having a fondue and kebab party, AKA the night of Food on a Stick®. My pal Cami is bringing the cheese fondue course and some veggies and homemade bread, my pal Gina is bringing the shish kebab meat and veggies, I am providing a big salad and some chocolate fondue with fruit for dipping. I am also making a pineapple orange punch, and I have never made it before. I'm nervous. I wanted something sort of fun that the kids and grownups could drink, but more special than just sodas.

Here is the punch recipe: (My own invention!!)

Orange-Pineapple Punch

1 bag of frozen pineapple tidbits
1 (12 oz) can of frozen orange juice concentrate
(1) 2 liter of lemon lime soda
1 46 oz can of pineapple juice

A long time ago, when my husband and I were still pre-kids, we drove out into the countryside near Gainesville looking for this mythical flea market that was supposed to be amazing. We had some of our friends with us and the drive took us through gorgeous rolling green countryside, past horse farms and ranch homes. We even saw a single lonely and jet-black alpaca on the way, just grazing and gazing out at the road. We all squealed and pointed but my husband (the driver) had missed him we urged him to turn back to go and see the little, llama? I am never sure which animal is which, llamas and alpacas, I mean it could have been a "Push-Me-Pull-You" for all I knew, but still an amazing thing to see randomly on a lonely country road. But by the time we turned around and went back, whatever animal it was, it had gone! We all looked around in every direction to see where it had gotten to, but we never saw it again. My husband looked at us all as if we had pulled some sort of elaborate llama prank, but of course we all insisted we HAD seen it, right there on that patch of grass. There was not so much as a tree or a shrub for the thing to hide behind, so all I can assume is that alpaca-llama-yous are incredibly fast and it had beat feet to its house.

When we finally reached our destination there was a flea market of sorts, but really it looked more like a run-down farm with vendors in the old horse stalls of an ancient barn. Still, we HAD driven all this way, so we all piled out to look around. Almost immediately I saw it, jumbled among some chipped coffee mugs, and some battered tin ware; a glass punch bowl and about a dozen mismatched punch cups. I knew I had to have it. Still I played it cool, circling around, picking up stained and scarred ash trays, turning over ceramic plates. I finally asked the vendor how much he wanted for "that old punch bowl"? He named me a price and I wrinkled my nose and asked, "Is that with the cups too?" He affirmed. I nodded and walked away. I cornered my new husband away from the vendors. Hubby looked sad, probably still wishing he had seen the llama thing. I demanded that he give me $20 for the punchbowl and cups. He looked at me patiently and started to object, but I hastily informed him that we needed this punch bowl. He questioned me about the last time I had either prepared or consumed punch. I explained that I would OF COURSE make punch if only I had a punch bowl to serve it in. OBVIOUSLY! I mean what woman of 23 doesn't need her very own PUNCH BOWL and besides he had not heard the BEST PART! This punch bowl looked EXACTLY like my mother's punch bowl that she had received at a wedding shower a mere quarter of a century before. This punch bowl was filled with historic significance and it was OBVIOUSLY fate that had brought us here a'purpose to purchase this EXACT punchbowl. The llama-paca had surely been a sign, a portent of things to come. Punch to come.

I got the punch bowl.

I think I made punch once before we moved 4 years later. I carefully packed the punch bowl away, wrapping it in newspaper and bubble wrap and tape. I have since moved it 3 more times in as many years since we arrived here in the Keys. Today when I unwrapped it, I couldn't find a date on the paper, but Lindsay Lohan was ALL over the headlines... for her fabulous role in "Mean Girls". Poor Lilo. Anyhow, making punch tonight. Thinking about my Mom. Wondering where I will be in say, another 7 years?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake!

So my kid has a long history of asking for crazy things for dinner when she makes good grades on her report card. One time she requested a cupcake frosted with macaroni and cheese with propellers on top. I made a meatloaf cupcake, with extra sticky mac and cheese and then crisply fried bacon propellors. Bacon propellors... it's what's for dinner. Today she requested a cake for dinner. So I decided to go with the meatloaf thing, as it had worked before. It is a sort of shepherd's pie actually, I baked a meatloaf in my 8" round cake pan, taking care to pack it firmly into the pan. What I did NOT do, but SHOULD have done was grease the pan! Whoops. It took about 40 minutes for my "cake" to bake, but pulling it out of the pan was a challenge. It stuck all around the edges and sort of fell apart. There might have been a mild swearing and spatula flinging break at this point, I can't quite remember. Anyhow I managed to peel some of the meatloaf out of the pan and plug it into the broken spots and then I frosted it all over with cheesy mashed potatoes. I added a cup (maybe a cup and half) of shredded cheese to the hot potatoes, a little bit of butter, but no milk to make it thick and sticky and spreadable. I sort of "spackled" the cake together. Then I scraped a carrot clean and made some carrot curl "rosettes" for the top. This wasn't the prettiest experiment I have ever made, but the Girl of Honor ate two helpings, so I am sure it was all fine.

I also made a box mix of chocolate cake for dessert. I baked it in two round 8 inch pans. I need to go make some vanilla buttercream frosting to finish it now that it is cool. Have a good weekend everyone!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pressure Cooker to the Rescue!

So, I sort of didn't have a plan for dinner. It was a super busy day and I knew dinner needed cooking (not a surprise at this point), but still suddenly I looked up and it was time to go get my kid from school. And then times moves at supersonic speed until my husband gets home; plus we had 6-7 basketball practice. So you know, your basic mad dash of chaos, insanity and carpooling.

I decided my pressure cooker might be able to save my butt in this instance so I used my google-fu to look for a recipe that contained "chicken rice vegetables and pressure cooker". The first page was virtually useless and then I saw this little gem! and I knew it would be a good choice.

Here's the thing, the recipe called for 1 can of cream of mushroom, and one can of cream of cheddar soup. I had no cream of anything on hand, so I thawed the chicken cutlets, seasoned them and threw them in the pressure cooker to brown covered with chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Then I measured in 1 C of brown rice and stirred it all together. I made a quick white sauce to compensate for my lack of soups. White sauce is when you take butter, melt it, add flour and whisk, and then add milk and whisk some more until it is thick and lovely. I also add salt and pepper (or in this case more House Blend® Paula Deen). Then I made a mistake, I had the stove burner on too high and my flour was not whisking in, it was just making these maddening little lumps there in the milk. Mocking me. I whisked harder and faster, and still they were not cooperating. So I threw down the whisk and got out my "stick" or immersion blender and beat the hell out of that smug flour. POOF, white sauce! I added that to the pot as well as 1 1/4 C of water for the rice. At the last minute I thought, "Oh, I have some cheese!" and I added the very last dregs of my giant bag of shredded 4 cheese blend. I gave it all some more salt and pepper, a hopeful stir, then I put on the lid and set it on high for 25 minutes. Then I was out the door for basketball practice.

When I came home I gingerly opened the lid to see what had happened in my absence. I stood over it cackling, "It's alive, It's ALIVE! BEHOLD MY CREATION!" for a few moments and then microwaved a bag of frozen broccoli to serve on the side.

The main dish was really good, it was a bit like a chicken and rice casserole but studded with veggies. The carrots made it sort of cheerful and the brown rice gave it some nice texture and flavor. The kids snorked it down, the hubby approved, all in all a good experiment. But yeah, as much as I am a "fly by the seat of my pants" girl, no amount of experimentation is a good substitute for an actual meal plan.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kayla's ABC pasta

I got this recipe/technique from my BFF Kayla and now I am going to share it with you.

Take an onion and chop it into itty bitty pieces, then start browning it in a pan with olive oil. (Doesn't that smell good?) When it is translucent throw in some chopped fine garlic and a bit of sea salt. Then throw in 1 pound of whatever ground meat product you are using (beef, pork, chicken, turkey) Add in some fresh chopped tomatoes (canned if you don't have fresh) and let that all simmer. While it is simmering chop whatever other vegetables you have on hand. I use a "Vidalia Onion" chopper, like you've seen on the infomercial, basically a gadget that presses the veggies through a metal grid to get uniform pieces. I use the finest (smallest) grid I have to get more itty bitty pieces. Chop 1 great big carrot, 1 small zucchini, 1 big stalk of celery, half a big green pepper and when you add in the onion, tomatoes and garlic it is well over 3 C of vegetables! Take the meat mixture and pour off the excess fat. Then add the vegetable mixture to the meat and stir it up with some oregano and some House Blend and then pop a lid over it and turn the temperature down to low. Since the meat is browned at this point you can let the veggies just steam in there. This only takes 10-15 minutes on low. Then you stir together the meat and veggies with one small can of tomato sauce, let it heat up, taste and adjust the seasoning if need be. While the tomato sauce is heating up, boil some water and cook the ABC pasta (only half a box!). I know it looks small and like a tiny amount of pasta but it makes a surprising amount. The last step is to simply add some pasta to the bowls, top with sauce and then mix it together. Because the pasta, the veggies, the little pieces of ground meat are all of uniform size and cunningly covered in red sauce and maybe some cheese, this goes down a treat for veggie phobic kids. My children would eat this all day every day if we had it.

You can serve this as a one dish meal since it has protein, carbs and tons of vegetables. I think if I were to make a vegetarian version of this I'd sub in some cooked lentils for the ground beef and make a vegetarian red sauce, but what say you my full-time vegetarian friends?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My kid is amazing.-- Updated

My older kid got straight A's today. I am so tickled. Dinner will be baked fish, fresh wraps, lettuce, onion, tzatziki sauce, and falafel. And Daddy is picking something up from the store for dessert. YAY! Recipes and such later!

Okay, last night in addition to my veggie chili I also rolled some fish fillets in flour, egg and seasoned bread crumbs and baked them. Then I put them in the fridge to use tonight. Other things on the menu, making falafel from a mix (just add water!) and homemade flat bread (not unlike tortillas) and some delicious tzatziki sauce.

I took about 1 1/2 C of plain yogurt (could also be Greek yogurt) and seasoned it with chopped garlic, House Blend seasoning, fresh chopped dill and then added 1 shredded cucumber. To keep your tzatziki from getting too watery, take the shredded cucumber and place it inside many thicknesses of paper towels and squeeze it out over a bowl or over the sink. Squeeze and squeeze and squeeze! You could also use a clean dish towel (that you don't mind dyeing green) or some cheesecloth. When it is wrung out you can then add it to the yogurt mixture. Stir together and let sit for a few hours or even overnight.

Then I made the flatbread dough, (I sort of cobbled together some recipes and mixed it with my tortilla recipe) and then I made the falafel mix. Had I to do this meal over again, I would have made the flatbread earlier in the day (or just bought some!) and then made the falafel as the very last thing, while the fish warmed up in the oven. As it was the falafel got a little cold from waiting for me to finish the flatbread. I had the hubby shred some lettuce and we called it a meal. In a few minutes I am headed into the kitchen to share in the world's tiniest chocolate cake with white icing and pink buttercream roses to celebrate our kid's awesome All A achievement.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Meatless Monday Menu: Veggie Chili

So tonight I made vegetarian chili with 12 oz. of cooked black beans, yellow squash, carrot, onion, zucchini and garlic. I cooked the beans in my pressure cooker for 20 minutes, then I opened it up and added 1 small can of tomato sauce, 1 can of diced tomatoes, and the chopped vegetables. For spice I used 1 TB of chili powder, 1 TB of Emeril's Southwestern Seasoning Blend and 1 TB of my in-laws magical, mythical spice rub. I also added some sea salt. I put the lid back on the pressure cooker and brought it up to pressure and cooked it for another 5 minutes, then I let everything come back to pressure naturally. (As opposed to releasing the pressure manually.)

I served it with shredded cheese and sour cream toppings and that's it. Normally I'd make some corn bread or something, but this is so full of vegetable-y goodness and due to our busy schedule I just declared it a one-dish meal sort of night. If you like you could also serve this lovely chili over spaghetti noodles or rice or with a side of salad and tortillas. YUM! Other toppers could be saltine crackers, goldfish crackers (my kids love that) and onions or scallions or even cubes of avocado.

Ever notice that chili taste better the second day? My father (a native Texan) remedies that by cooling the chili off and then reheating it on the same day the better to let the spices fully blend! It is a good trick and when I have the chance I do it too. It never fails to impress.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hoop Dreams

So I am going to do something a little bit ridiculous tonight. I am going to make a themed dinner. Today will be my daughter's very first basketball game, so I am going to make her "Slam Dunk Spaghetti and Meatballs"; where the meatballs will represent the basketball and I will make a little "basket" out of the spaghetti noodles. I am going to add some chopped fine carrot to the meatballs (or maybe even carrot puree?) to give it a slight orange color, maybe a backboard made out of garlic toast; and a side of "Free Throw" (tossed) Salad. Is this silly? Yes. Over the top? Sort of. Will she love it? YES, I THINK SHE WILL! So I am ON like Donkey Kong for this one. I will post pictures when I am done.

One question though? What should I make for dessert???

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kid-friendly Dinner

I am making the kids macaroni and cheese, steamed carrots and broccoli, applesauce with cinnamon and fresh bread for dinner tonight. It is sort of a "thank you in advance for being good for the baby-sitter" dinner, since I am getting to GO OUT for a drink with my HUSBAND tonight! This (in case you missed the DRAMA CAPS) is a big deal. My husband and I are in possession of your standard two year old and frankly she has been too high maintenance until recently to entrust to a teenager. But now that she has been successfully potty-trained for 6 months and has recently been a bit more reasonable we have decided to chance it. So here's the story, we're going to go out for drinks at a restaurant and piano bar that is within walking distance of our house, the babysitter will have my hubby's cell number, the 8 year old will have my cell phone, the baby-sitter's mom lives one street over from us. I think we will probably only be out for an hour or two at the most, including walking time. Perfect window for a first time trial for baby-sitting, right? Right.

So, a note about macaroni. Once upon a time my fomer boss told me the secret to all fabulous macaroni was to replace half the milk with sour cream. Like whatever recipe you use, just use half milk and half sour cream. Well, I had his macaroni and cheese and I have to say it is delicious! But seriously, I can't make mac and cheese like that all the time, not with a straight face anyhow. However the idea stuck with me and since then when I have been making macaroni I have been thankful for having that little nugget tucked away. For instance there have been times when I have been low on milk and been able to pull the half sour cream/half milk trick as an extender. I was once completely out of milk and I subbed in some half and half, that totally worked too. I even used half heavy cream and half water and THAT worked. So if you are anything like me and the thought of jumping in the car to retrieve ONE ITEM (drama caps!) makes you feel like kicking inanimate objects, maybe you can file these away as emergency substitutions.

The bread that I made today is from the aforementioned "A Year in Bread" blog. They have a wonderful bread there called "Farmhouse White" and they have full instructions and pictures and can basically walk you right through making this wonderful treat. There is also a Farmhouse Whole Wheat bread recipe, but I usually make the basic Farmhouse White, but I use soft winter whole wheat to make it. When you see bread called "white wheat" that is usually what it is. The best thing about this bread recipe is that it makes 3 loaves at time. One to devour immediately with butter, one to cool and store, and one to give to a friend! At least until you get to the wondrous stage where making bread is "no big deal", you do it all the time, and then you get to cool and store 2 loaves, but I still like to give one away. Another thing I like is that it is a very basic recipe that lends itself easily to all sorts of wonderful experimentation. Add some honey instead of sugar or even add molasses, use milk or water or a mixture of milk and water if you want, add in some oat flour or a few wheat berries, it is very versatile and makes great sandwich bread.

The (ex)Expatriate's Kitchen: Book Giveaway! The Cleaner Plate Club -- UPDATED

The (ex)Expatriate's Kitchen: Book Giveaway! The Cleaner Plate Club
I am so excited about this book, this author is a friend of a friend of mine and she has blogged extensively about eating well for families. We all know how hard it is to get healthy yet appetizing food on our tables and actually get the kids to eat. Beth brings you tips, hints, techniques and recipes to take the stress out of dinner time. I simply adore her writing style and her down to earth approach.\

If you leave me a comment here that tells me why you love cooking for your kids, why you love Beth Bader, why you think it is important to make healthy meals for your family YOU COULD WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK! The actual winner will be chosen by my 8 year old on or about February 1st. I will contact the winner to get a mailing address to send the book. THIS IS TOTALLY EXCITING AND YOU SHOULD COMPLETELY DO THIS RIGHT NOW! (extreme drama caps!!) Now get on it and write me a comment below!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Screw it, I made popcorn.

I forgot to defrost the fish. The kids and I were exhausted from swimming for 4 hours and then dance class. I made popcorn on my stove top and then we're going to go to bed early. And here's the thing, the Mom police are not going to come and get me. My high school nutrition teacher will never know. The kid's teeth will not fall out from scurvy, nor will they spontaneously develop rickets from one meal of popcorn. I get a nice break and the kids get to have a treat that they can eat, smack dab in the middle of the living room watching "Wizards of Waverly Place". This has been a super busy week and I think we are all a little worn out.

A note on the popcorn; I make mine on the stove-top because I think it tastes better, I can control the salt and oil content, and it is way cheaper to buy a jar of kernels than bags of microwave popcorn. It doesn't take significantly longer either, though you do need to be there for the entire time.

How to Make Stove Top Popcorn:
Place a few tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a heavy bottomed skillet. Add 1/2 C of popcorn kernels to the pan and place it on medium high heat. Put a lid on it. Wait till you hear popping sounds and start gently shaking the pan back and forth. When the popping stops (more than 3 seconds goes by between pops) remove from heat and serve.

My dad would take the fresh popcorn and put it in a clean paper bag from the grocery store with salt and small pats of butter and then close the bag and shake the heck out of it! This distributed the salt and butter very evenly. I don't usually have any paper bags handy, so I add half the popcorn to the bowl, pour on some melted butter, shake on the salt and then add the other half of the popcorn to the bowl and stir it up. This works almost as well.

What is your favorite, No-Cooking Dinner? Cereal? Sandwiches? Cheese and crackers? Does your family look forward to these breaks from the routine or is everyone sad you didn't cook?

Fish Fridays

So I have some frozen fish I am going to use tonight in my Fish Friday dinner. I have to say I am always a little bit intimidated by fish, it seems so much less forgiving than say, beef or even vegetables. It cooks really fast, it can be easily overwhelmed by other flavors if it is a mild fish and it can be overpowering of simple side dishes if it is really "fishy". Other than the heart healthy benefits, I think that is why salmon really took off. It is a fishy-fish, but it comes in those comforting and easy to use "steaks" and since it has so much good oil in it, it stays moist under much less skillful handling than does say, yellow tail snapper.

So tonight, just for the halibut, (ha!) I am going to approach this from an ethnic foods angle. I am going to do some Greek Fish applications, which from my cursory research seem to depend on salt, lemon, tomatoes and olive oil. And than sounds pretty good to me! I can make some flat bread (been meaning to all week) and a nice salad, maybe some hummus too. I think that by looking at it as an experiment with a cuisine that I love to eat, but haven't actually MADE a lot of I can sort of take the "fish fear" out of it and have more fun with dinner as a whole.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chef Salad

Chef Salad, along with the Swedish Chef and of course, Chef Boy-R-Dee, is one of my favorite chefs. :) I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

Actually I am boiling some eggs right now, chopping some lettuce, and slicing some lunch meat to make everyone a salad to go tonight. I have PTO at 5:30, my husband is coaching basketball from 6-8, and somehow we need to feed ourselves and the kids. Normally this would send me running straight into the arms of Mickey D, but this challenge is making me plan just a little bit more to make sure I can get a nutritious homemade meal into everyone regardless. I mean, don't get me wrong, I can eat some McDonald's, but the reality is we will be having twice a week basketball and once a week dance lessons for the next 6 weeks, and eating out that often would really REALLY add up quick.

Tonight's salad will feature romaine lettuce, ham, turkey, provolone, carrots and croutons with a choice of dressings each on their own plastic, lidded container. Juice boxes will be served and bottled waters. I really need a good water canteen or container that is easy to clean, insulated, doesn't "sweat" too much and is a good size. Any recommendations out there? We recycle our water bottles, but I'd rather not have them in the first place.

Lunch time!

I'm home with my 2 year old still. So that means in addition to packing a lunch for my school-ager I am also making lunch for the baby. In response to a request from a good friend of mine; here are some things I make for the baby (and me) for lunch.

* Leftovers. Seriously. We're home, we have a microwave, we eat that.
* PB and J's, I buy organic all natural peanut butter and organic real fruit jelly and I put it on whole wheat bread. Am I the least fun mom ever, or what?
* Oatmeal, she would eat it 3 times a day if possible.
* Crackers, cheese sticks, baby carrots and sliced lunch meat. (Or what Lunchables would look like if they weren't nasty.)
* Lunchables (shame-face)
* Graham crackers with peanut butter, sliced strawberries and chocolate milk. (She;'s not crazy about white milk.)
* Yogurt and granola with fresh fruit.
* Hot-dogs, mac and cheese, and apple sauce.
* Chili with crackers (a home made chili can have LOTS of vegetables in it!)
* Chicken nuggets, broccoli and carrots.
* ABC pasta with homemade veggie red sauce and a sprinkle of real parmesan cheese
* Homemade bread pudding, studded with nuts, blueberries, and whole oats, SO GOOD!

If you involve your kid in making these foods too, even simple PB and J you are teaching them things. How to cook, ingredients, sorting, colors, shapes, textures, nutrition, order of operations, math, geometry, culture, history. I mean *talk* about your multi-tasking! My littlest one knows you always wash your hands before you cook for instance and that knives are sharp and only for Mommies. Whereas my 8 year old recently brought ME lunch one day when I was sick and in bed. That's the picture accompanying this post. If you have any lunch related questions, please hit me up in the comments section. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I don't want to write this post.

When I was younger I had big, exciting dreams about all of the remarkable things that would happen to me in my life. Every crazy chance I took was another chapter in what would surely become my best-selling memoirs. I dried my eyes after every failed romance, and felt sure new possibility was always just around the corner. I drove thousands of miles in my rattle-trap car going nowhere in particular and anywhere at all but alway sure I was heading somewhere amazing.

After I had my first kid I realized I didn't dream in quite the same way anymore. I had adventures and thrills to be sure, but not of the hare-brained "leap before you look" variety. Kids taught me to be cautious, to be sensible, to be measured. This was not a bad thing, to be sure, it was a necessary step in my development, but it was a befuddling step for me to make.

Tonight I went to the memorial service for a three year old boy. He drowned in a backyard pool in just 4 feet of water. His older brother and sister are so sad and confused. His poor parents are bereaved and shaken and sick with hurt. His grandparents are longing for the little life they had only just begun to know. His teachers are grief-stricken. The entire community came out tonight. I saw people I know only by sight, what you might call a "nodding acquaintance" bowed and wracked by grief. Other parents that held their preschoolers a little tighter in the crowd. One mother was just quietly sobbing as her little girl, obviously a classmate of the child's, kept saying, "Look Mommy, there's M!" as she pointed to the pictures scrolling on the overhead screens. Such a short, small life. A tiny flame snuffed out, blown out, gone in just a moment; in just a breath.

My dreams are different now. I want nothing remarkable. I want an ordinary life. I want to cook for my kids and make Halloween costumes, and drive them to dance class. I want stupid yelling fights with them at age 13. I want sleep-overs and gossip and driving lessons and prom. I want to talk about their majors in college. I want to know what their favorite books are and listen to their favorite music and meet their significant others. I want vacations and dinners and phone calls and letters. I want grandchildren and visits and Thanksgivings and to see who they become. I want to die an old woman, in my sleep, knowing that my kids are okay. That seems to me to be the best dream, the only one worth having.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It is a free night!

Because other than reheating my roast leftovers, roasting some new potatoes and microwaving some "in the bag veggies", I am not really "cooking" tonight. *high fives herself* Honestly after the three day weekend it feels good to be taking it comparatively easy today. Leftovers, pressure cookers and crock pots are all my saving graces, if you are going to get dinner on the table every night, these are your go-to helpers.

Things I am going to do with my free time:

• Noodle around on the internet
• Paint fingernails
• Make some bread (no, really I find it relaxing)
• GO to bed early

If you are in the mood to try baking your own bread I cannot recommend the "A Year in Bread" blog highly enough. Super good info there. Also the books, "Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day" and "Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads" are great primers.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Meatless Monday tonight! -- updated

I think I am going to make black bean tacos with rice and tomatoes and a side of mixed veggies. Oh, and homemade tortillas! Check back later for details!

Okay-- now it is later. The yellow rice is cooking, the tortilla dough is resting, and the beans are heating up and getting ready to be reheated and mashed. Operation Meatless Monday is underway.

Here is my Mom's tortilla technique

Use 1 C each of all purpose and self rising flours, blend. Add to that a fat of some sort, lard or crisco, something solid. My mom's measurement is "as much as will fit in your hand, rounded up on top." My best estimate of that is somewhere between 1/4 and a half C of solid fat. Mix in into your blended flours until all the flour is coated in fat and has the consistency of "Moon Dough" (a terrible toy my daughter once suckered me into buying her.) Then get a cup full of very hot tap water and pour as much of it as you need to get a sticky dough. This varies by your location and relative aridness or humidity. I use anywhere from 1/2 C to 2/3 C depending. Work the dough until it becomes smooth and somewhat elastic, not unlike bread dough. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes before shaping it into about a dozen small round balls. Then on a floured surface roll out the dough balls very thinly. Cook in a hot dry pan until the bubble on one side and then flip. Turn a tortilla only once, or else it gets tough!

To make vegetarian re-fried beans, simply take some beans (black beans, pinto beans, red kidney beans, whatevs) and get about a half an inch of vegetable broth and a few table spoons of olive oil sizzling in the bottom of a heavy skillet. Add your beans directly to that and get them good and hot, then mash with a potato masher until you have achieved your desired consistency. Myself, I had a couple of cups of homemade black beans in my freezer so I used those. You could use canned, rinsed beans too of course. I season my black beans with Adobo spices and maybe some cumin, you can use just salt and pepper too and they will be fine.

The tacos were great! We just used the black beans as the base for your usual tacos accompaniments, chopped lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream. I was out of salsa and out of tomatoes to MAKE salsa, but it was still good. I made the rice with 2 C of vegetable broth and it was great. All in all a very successful meatless Monday.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Take this lying down

I am making a standing rib roast today and I have never made one before. I am following Paula Deen's recipe, pretty much exactly here, so you can use your google-fu to get it. Let me just take this opportunity though to talk about Paula Deen's "house blend" (which miraculously does not contain butter!) House blend is her go-to seasoning and it is becoming one of mine too. It is simply 1 C of salt, mixed with 1/4 C of pepper and 1/4 C of garlic powder. I have seasoned everything from artichokes to zucchini with this stuff and I mix it up and put it in a little shaker that I keep by the stove. Terrific, easy flavor.

I am also making Yorkshire Puddings, which are not "puddings" in the American sense, but are in fact a quick light pastry, steam-risen (no leaveners) similar to a popover. My friends from Scotland showed me how to make these once when they came to visit.

This is a proportional recipe, so no exact measurements. Take 4 large eggs and place them into a liquid measuring cup. Take an equal measure of milk, and an equal measure of flour. Mix the eggs with the milk and let them sit with a pinch of salt in them for about 10 minutes. Then sift in the flour and beat until completely lump free. You can break up any lumps with a sieve if needed. Then let the batter sit for at least half an hour but you can let it sit for several hours if necessary. Take a 12 cup muffin tin and melt a small amount (pea sized) of oil, beef drippings, or bacon fat in the bottom of each muffin well by placing the tin in an oven set at 450 degrees F. When the fat is smoking remove the pan and place equal amounts of batter in each cup. Place back in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes.

I plan on making mashed potatoes, and then making some roasted brussels sprouts and carrots. I will place the baby cut carrots and the already pre-steamed brussels on a baking pan, mist with olive oil, season with house blend and roast them after the meat has come out of the oven. This gives the meat a chance to "rest" and let the juices go back into meat. I had leftover brussels from yesterday so I am using them up today. I might also add some chunks of onion to the pan as well.

I like making a big meal on the weekends, something with more sides than I do, or a more complicated recipe. I really do enjoy cooking but my weekdays are too busy for any serious experimentation. Also, I make a BIG meal on Sunday, for instance, I will more likely have leftover for lunch or dinner the following day, which means less prep time on a busy weekday night.

One of my go-to Sunday dinners has always been roast chicken for that reason, roast a chicken with veggies on day one, use the leftover chicken meat the next day in a casserole or in another dish (Stir fry, chicken quesadillas, etc.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Carmel? Caramel?

Tonight we had chicken alfredo pasta with steamed carrots and caramelized brussels sprouts. I realized I say "carmel-ized" when properly it is spelled "caramel-ized". But I have seriously never heard anyone say anything but "carmel". do people say, caramelized?? But I digress! The pasta was good. I used a bottle of alfredo sauce my husband bought. Frankly since I figured out how easy it is to make alfredo sauce I haven't used a bottle or a mix, but he saw it and wanted to use it, so it was fine. A good little time saver. We sauteed the lightly seasoned chicken tenderloins in a grill pan and then threw the jar of sauce over it to warm, easy-peasy.

The real treat was the brussels sprouts! First I chopped off the tough stems and removed a few of the outer leaves. Then I put them in a glass bowl and steamed them in the microwave for 3 minutes, just enough time for them to get slightly soft, but keep the bright green color. While they were cooking I started about half of a medium onion, sliced, cooking in a pan with some olive oil. To truly caramelize onions you need to cook them on low heat for about 20 minutes. I was running short on time, so I added a bit of kosher salt to soften the onions and kept them on medium. I also added about a teaspoon of brown sugar to hurry things along. Then I threw the sprouts in then pan too and let them get a good sear while the onions continued to cook. At the end of the cooking time I added several splashes of balsamic vinegar to deglaze the pan and add a bit more sweetness. Then I put the pan in the oven with the oven light on to stay warm while I finished dinner.

I chopped some baby carrots into rounds; this is totally unnecessary. Baby carrots steam just fine the way they are, however my kids sometimes like their food in itty bitty pieces, so this was a kid-friendly concession. Plus, small pieces cook faster, so it was also a time saver. To the carrots I added a sprinkle of kosher salt, 1/2 tsp of sugar and a splash of olive oil. I covered the carrots and cooked them for 6 minutes in the microwave, checking on them and giving them a stir after 3 minutes. You could also add an herb at that point like some fresh dill for instance or perhaps some ginger, but I left them plain.

When they were done the pasta was also done and ready to be strained. The kids loved it. They didn't eat the brussels sprouts (of course) but they each tried a bite, and that is all I ever ask them to do. They each wanted seconds on the carrots and the pasta. All in all a good night. Tomorrow is a busy day, after church I peruse the sales circulars for our local stores and clip any coupons I deem necessary. I am not a coupon queen by any stretch, but on things I know we use all the time, I feel like its silly not to at least grab those. Then I go through and make a really quick menu for the week, trying (though often failing) to keep in mind the eccentricities of our schedule for the following week. Dance class and basketball and PTO nights and all the same stuff that seems to slip my mind more and more thee days. I have to say "Using the calendar" was at the top of my New Year's Resolutions this year. I hate to flake on something just because I didn't plan ahead. But then again, "planning ahead" goes against my very nature... ah, the drama. :)

My husband played in a softball tournament today and the way he is moving I may need to plan a menu of things that are easy to pick up and chew. He went from being a fairly healthy man in his mid-30's to Methuselah in the course of a double-header! He is walking like the Tin Man pre-oil can and is complaining about aches and pains in a way that one expects to hear from an old folk's home. Weekend-Warrior's menu.... hmmm. (I kid because I love! Lord knows you didn't see ME out there chasing down balls and sliding into second base!)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Picnic in the Park

Went to the municipal park to see my husband and some of his team-mates play a little softball to warm up for the tournament tomorrow. Between the all of the parents there we have 6 daughters. The girls were thrilled to be playing together on the playground. I made my MIL's "picnic sandwiches", which are really more of a technique than a recipe, but here ya go.

Chopped picnic sandwiches

Chop half pound of sliced deli ham
Chop half a pound of sliced deli turkey
Chop half a pound of provolone (or your favorite sliced cheese)
Chop up 2 hearts of romaine lettuces
Chopped dill pickles to taste (optional)
Pour over all your favorite Italian or vinaigrette dressing, and toss together, serve on your preferred bread.

You could make this a variety of ways, serving a single type of meat, adding sliced chicken to the mix, or go completely, deliciously veggie by using some sliced olives, chopped onion and chopped marinated artichoke hearts and serving it in a pita pocket. These are great for a picnic, because you carry the sandwich filing in a tupperware bowl or a ziploc bag and serve it there. No soggy sandwiches! Plus the dressing negates the necessity of any mayo or mustard, so you have less to carry.

I served tortilla chips and fresh salsa, red grapes and mozzarella cheese sticks as sides and brought bottled water for everyone. Super fun, super cheap and a great night out with friends. If you are shivering in the cold right now, please forgive me for this post, but the great weather is one of the reasons we live in Florida. On the downside, in the summer we have to deal with mosquitoes bigger than your average Volkswagen -- so there is always a trade-off.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Someone had a baby, I'll make a ham!

Actually, I am making a casserole, but it is such a Southern tradition, you know a friend or acquaintance or anybody in your circle, no matter how tangentially, new birth, loss of life, devastating injury, somebody, somewhere is making some food. In fact the nicest present I got after my first kid was born was that my great-grandmother took a 10 pound bag of potatoes and made 10 pounds worth of twice baked potatoes. Then she individually wrapped them and put them in my freezer. So while I was in the midst of the hazy, crazy days of baby *if* I remembered to eat all I had to do was pull one out and microwave it. Sometimes I added some frozen broccoli to it or some leftover chili, but basically I ate potatoes and nursed the baby and that was how I spent my first 3 months postpartum.

So tonight I was able to fulfill my Dinner Every Night commitment AND go out for wings with some friends because a colleague of my husband's had a baby last week! So veggie/chicken casserole was made and frozen for delivery. Hopefully when I drop the casserole off (with some homemade bread and a bag of salad greens) I will get a chance to see the new baby too! She looks glorious from all of the pictures. But then all babies are amazing little creatures.

I usually make a casserole in 9 x 13 pan, but if I am making for a new little family like this I make the same casserole in 2 disposable aluminum pans so that it can be more easily frozen and they don't have to defrost the whole thing all at once.

Chicken-Veggie Casserole

3 C of cooked rice (I usually make some brown rice in my pressure cooker)
2 C of assorted vegetables, cut up (mine were broccoli, onion, and carrots)
1 -2 cans of cream of something soup (or an equivalent amount of white sauce)
2 chicken breasts, well-seasoned, cooked and cubed
1 C of shredded cheese (swiss works well, as does 4 cheese Mexican blend)
breadcrumbs for the top (optional)

Mix all of the ingredients together, place in lightly greased pans, add bread crumbs to top; cover and freeze. Write in Sharpie marker the heating directions right on the aluminum foil lid. "Heat in oven at 350 degrees 1 hour or until brown and bubbly around the edges, then remove foil and allow to brown under broiler for just a few minutes."

If you season the chicken well, and cook it until JUST done and make the rice in veggie or chicken broth it helps the casserole come out much tastier. If you are making this for a family of vegetarians skip the chicken, use only veggie broth in the rice and increase the amount of vegetables and cheese.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Belly up to the Bar

The salad bar that is! Today I put out a big bowl of green, hearts of romaine lettuce leaves, washed and torn. Smaller bowls containing baby carrots, shredded cheese, Bacos (soy bits), croutons, goldfish crackers, cherry tomatoes, onion slices, broccoli,chopped mixed nuts and thawed frozen kernel corn. I let the kids and the hubby graze according to their preference. We also had a small selection of salad dressings. Thus fortified with vegetables I let them have a slice of pizza and a juice box that was provided at our monthly library PTK night. PTK stands for "parent to kid" and is a chance for kids to read with and to their parents and then put their name into a drawing for free books. Every kids that attends receives a free book of the next day during lunch too. It is a great program!

What are your kids favorite salad fixings? Are they more fruit than veggie eaters? Are they currently living on Flintstones vitamins and air? If your kids won;t touch ANYTHING green; ask them to grate a bunch of carrots and have them help you make this recipe.

Carrot-Raisin Salad

2 c. grated raw carrot
1/2 c. raisins
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 c. diced celery (optional)
1/4 c. chopped nuts (optional)
Salad dressing to taste (recipe to follow)
lettuce leaves (optional)
pineapple pieces (optional)
sesame seeds (optional)

Dressing: Mix 1 C vanilla yogurt with 1 TB of honey (or less) and 1/4 C of either orange or pineapple juice, whisk together. YUM! Add more juice if you want to make it thinner. Also good with bottled honey-ginger dressing.

Grate or even better peel in long strips with a vegetable peeler about 2 C worth of carrots. Toss with raisins and lemon juice. If you want you can also add the optional ingredients. Serve on lettuce leaves if your kids will eat them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Parmesan Crusted Chicken -- an experiment

I have never made this particular dish before, heck, I've never even HAD this particular dish before, but my husband saw it on a commercial for an Italian eatery that is at closest a 2 1/2 hour drive from here. (Seriously, I live closer to Cuba than I do a Walmart; but I digress.) Anyhow, through the wonders of the internet I was able to find some promising sounding recipes. I cobbled a recipe of my own from about 3 different internet links since I didn't have ALL of the ingredients in any one, or I wasn't willing to do something (like pan-fry) in another.

So without further ado, Parmesan Crusted Chicken!

I flattened 2 chicken breasts to a uniform thickness by placing the chicken in between two pieces of cling wrap and pounding them with the underside of my iron skillet. Then I salted, peppered and onion powdered the breasts. Then I took them through a standard 3-step dredge, first flour (shaking off the excess) then 2 beaten eggs, and finally my own bread crumb mixture, a blend of dried parsley flakes, oat meal, bread crumbs and freshly, finely grated parmesan cheese. Then I placed the breasts into a baking dish, lightly lubricated with olive oil. I popped them in the oven at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes.

For side dishes I am making some sauteed spinach with chopped onion and finished with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Also a simple steam in a bag mix of veggies, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. Should be good. I will let you know how it comes out.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Quick hit -- Apple Brown Betty

I made the title of this post a link to Cooks.com where I found a recipe for a pressure cooker Apple Brown Betty. It reduces the cooking time from 45 minutes down to 15 minutes! Every day I love my pressure cooker more, I swear.

This recipe required butter and graham cracker crumbs, if one were to make this vegan you could use margarine and some sort of egg-less bread crumb. I think that next time I will sub out some of the graham cracker crumbs for old fashioned oatmeal. Also I would use more cinnamon than the recipe calls for and I would take the 1 cup of crumbs and butter and parcel it out into 1/3 C measurements, since you need three layers of crumbs all together.

We served the Apple Brown Betty warm in bowls topped with a wee bit of whipped cream. YUM! Plus a good dose of apples and raisins are always welcome. The kids ate it up and it made a nice amount for a family of 4, not too much at all!

Failed Dinners

Okay, so I think I used the wrong cut of beef last night on my brisket because although it looked and smelled JUST LIKE every other time I have made it-- it tasted exceedingly bland! I just used the roast I had on hand and did not go and get a brisket, so I have only myself to blame. But here's the thing; I can eat a mediocre meal one night, but then I have the leftovers to deal with and you have to figure out what went wrong and fix it.

But first you have to start cooing the item that takes the longest to make. There was a leftover bag of collard greens from my husband's lonely little New Year's Day feast (the kids and I were out of town) so I fixed those in my pressure cooker. To the bottom of the pressure cooker I added 1 chopped onion, 1/2 C of vegetable broth, 3 cloves of garlic minced, 2 TB of ketchup, 1 TB of balsamic vinegar. I rinsed and picked over the pre-chopped bag of greens and removed any large stems or blemished leaves. I tossed the leaves with 2 TB of salt and 1 TB of sugar. Then I packed them down in the pressure cooker and cooked them on high for 20 minutes.

So last night's "meh" brisket got thrown into a sauce pan and covered in BBQ spice rub, then I added some BBQ sauce and heated the whole thing up. Instant pulled beef sandwiches, just add buns!

I just took some frozen corn niblets and microwaved them with salt, butter and 1 TB of water, just like you do. They were fine.

I threw the buns on the plates, added the BBQ, side of corn, side of greens. My baby wanted cheese on her sandwich, my 8 year old requested some pickled okra on the side and we were ready to eat.

The greens were so dang good I think I might make them that way from now on. The kids loved the sandwiches. My husband loved ALL of it and no one had to eat any under-spiced brisket for dinner! YAY!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Crockpot Mexican Brisket and No-Fail Beans and Rice

Crock pot beef is my favorite food to eat at Christmas, well, maybe tied for first with tamales. My Mom's crock pot beef, oh dear Lord, the smell of it is filling the house right now and causing my mouth to water in an alarming way. Anyhow, here is how you make it. Trust me, you're going to love this.

Buy a piece of beef labelled as a "brisket", if you do not see one ask the butcher what you can use. The genius part is that an expensive cut of beef will not work, it has to be a tougher and cheaper piece of beef to withstand the crock pot and break down into yummy delicious pieces.

Place your brisket into a proper sized crock pot, (not too small). Then season it all over with the Adobo "con pimienta" and then get to adding cut up red, yellow or green peppers (as you like, or mix them up), at least one good sized onion, 2 fresh cloves of garlic, smashed, and enough water to cover the brisket. Set that sucker on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 8-10 hours and when it is done cooking it will fall apart into flavorful shreds, much like a pulled pork. Honestly though, you can't really overcook this, it just gets more and more tender and the flavor gets more and more concentrated. You serve this on tortillas with your favorite taco fixings.

I usually serve black beans with this as well and I always make my beans from scratch. Here is my basic method.

Sort your beans and discard shriveled, busted or discolored beans, rocks and other foreign objects. Rinse the beans in a colander and place into a stock pot. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes, then turn off heat and let beans sit, covered for one hour. This is the "short soak method." Alternatively you could soak them overnight without boiling at all. Just discard the soaking water whatever you do and cook the beans in fresh water. To the beans I add a smashed garlic cloves, onion, and carrot at a bare minimum. DO NOT ADD SALT until the beans are nearly done. Added too early this can make your beans quite tough!

I always make my beans and rice vegetarian for 2 reasons. 1) You never know who might come to dinner and it is always a good thing to have options for your guests. 2) I never really notice the meat being gone on black beans, so why bother?

Yellow rice is my go-to for Mexican food as well. I buy the yellow plastic tubes of Mahatma rice from Costco in a 6 pack I use it so much. Here's how I make it. I chop up fine some carrot and onion. I open a can of tomatoes and drain them into a measuring cup, reserving the juice. To the juice I add enough water and salt to make the recipe and I microwave it all together to get it hot. I lightly toast the rice in an oiled wrought iron skillet. Then when it is sizzling I add the liquid to the rice as well as the chopped carrot and onion and the tomatoes from the can. I stir it all together and let it boil for one minute and then cover and reduce the temperature to low for 20-25 minutes. Depending on what I am making I have also added frozen green peas to the pan in the last 4-5 minutes of cooking time. The kids eat it up and ask for more. The tiny cubes of carrot and the round green peas are are lovely pops of color in the cheery yellow rice and the tomatoes pretty much cook down to nothing and help flavor the rice really well.

If I am making a vegetarian meal, I let the beans and rice take center stage and make a side dish of sliced sauteed zucchini and yellow (crook-neck or summer) squash, mixed with chopped onion and tomato and seasoned with salt, pepper and cumin. It is all sauteed together in a hot pan with olive oil and then deglazed with a bit of vegetable broth and allowed to steam for a few minutes until the vegetables are soft and the flavors have melded. You can serve that just as is for a vegan meal or add a bit of queso blanco (a soft white cheese) to the top for added flavor. Really let the veggies get some good brown sear before you deglaze to get the best flavor! It is sort of a Mexican ratatouille if you can imagine. :)

That's about it for me today. I need to go dive head first into some other project so that I am not tempted to lift the lid on the crock pot and start "tasting" the brisket. Happy Sunday everyone!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Every day is a celebration.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and injured today in the terrible shooting in Arizona. I cannot imagine how harrowing and devastating this has been for all involved. The title to my post pre-dates this tragedy, but I find it more important now than ever.

Today we were reunited with the our closest friends here in the Keys. Due to all of the holiday busyness and our travel schedule it has been over 2 weeks since we last saw them. They have lovely twin daughters the same age as our older daughter and the wife of the couple is Godmother to our younger daughter. Our husbands get along "like a house a'fire" as we say down South. It's just really, really cool when you are friends with the parents of your child's friends.

Anyhow, our daughters had their first day of Municipal Basketball practice today, a skills test/lesson and a chance for the coaches to see the kids and assess their skill levels so they can be placed on teams. We saw a lot of parents we know this morning, out supporting their kids, enjoying the gorgeous weather, chatting and catching up. The park where we were at is beautiful and tree lined and shady. At times the atmosphere seemed almost like a convivial cocktail party with people laughing and talking and mingling. Some of us decided to go get lunch all together at a seaside burger joint with gorgeous unimpeded views and an ocean breeze.

At lunch I decided to invite the whole clan to dinner at our house on the spur of the moment, since our husbands would be at softball practice together that afternoon, anyhow. After softball I came home and made spaghetti and red sauce, steamed green beans, some frozen heat and serve french bread. I am sure you all have your own favorite spaghetti recipe, but I encourage you to bring it out when you are feeding a big crowd. One box of spaghetti, a can of sauce, a can of tomatoes, some chopped onion and garlic is a pretty economical (and kid pleasing) way to feed a crowd. We asked out friends to stop by the store on the way over and pick up ANYTHING they liked dipped in chocolate for a surprise dessert!

For Christmas we received a small Chocolate Fountain (cue choir of angels: ahhhh!). Let me tell you, if you have ever harbored Augustus Gloop levels of fantasy about chocolate, as I have, you can well appreciate the awesomeness of the aforementioned Chocolate Fountain (ahhhhhhh!) It is simply the most fun you can have fully clothed and in the company of minors. (Ahhhhh... hem.)

Our friends brought bananas, blueberries, strawberries, dried mango, marshmallows, pretzel sticks and apple slices. These were all lovingly bathed in glorious chocolate and consumed with much "mming" and "ahhing" and some more unintelligible grunts of pleasure. The kids all took turns, the big kids helped the little kid spear her blueberries, there wasn't much spilled on the tablecloth; and then after we were fully sated on fruit and endorphins the grown-ups played MarioKart and the kids played dress-up.

All in all a pretty normal day, laid back, nobody did anything crazy or remarkable, but I promise you I will always remember it. One of the few things I know for sure is it doesn't much matter WHAT you do as much as it matters who you are with when it happens. Few things in life are as pleasurable as sharing a meal with folks that really get you, your husband, your sense of humor and your love of oregano. Few things in life are amazing as being around other adults who think you have really awesome kids and you love their kids in return. Few things are as precious as the time we spend with those we love. Friends are the family you make and that should be celebrated; on birthdays, holidays and even random Saturdays.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Beef Stew and Beer Bread!

I love my pressure cooker. I think I have mentioned that here before oh, maybe eleventy million times. I did have a big hunk of roast beast to deal with today, a beef round tip roast. It was approximately the size of 2 regulation basketballs put together. We got 2 nice sized roasts out of it and 3 bags (at 1 pound each) of stew meat. We had just under a pound of meat left so that went into tonight's stew.

This is the basic preparation method.

Dredge stew meat pieces in seasoned flour (salt and pepper). Then brown it in 1 TB of oil in your pressure cooker. Let the meat really sit there and sear to get the maximum flavor. Turn and let the other side brown as well. To this add 1 small chopped onion, 2 C of beef broth (or water, or water with a bullion cube in it) 1 TB of Worcestershire sauce, a couple of shakes of liquid smoke (optional), and a tsp of dried marjoram. Put the lid on your pressure cooker and bring it up to high pressure for 15 minutes. Release the pressure and add your choice of stew vegetables. Add any or all of the following, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, garlic, mushrooms, green beans, hunks of zucchini, yellow squash, and 1 can of diced tomatoes (or of course, fresh chopped tomato in season). Put the lid back on and then bring up to high pressure for 5 more minutes. The stew is ready in about 30 minutes total and tastes like it simmered all day!

Easy Peasy Beer Bread:

3 C of flour (can be half and half white and whole wheat)
1 TB of sugar (optional)
1 t salt
1 TB of baking powder
1 12 oz bottle of beer
1 cup of finely grated cheese (I did 4 cheese Mexican blend)
2 tsp of chopped fresh or dried rosemary

Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl, add the beer, mix together and pour into a greased baking pan and bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. SUPER YUMMY! Bread is done in about an hour counting baking time! Please try it sometime, because it is quick and easy and delicious!

Back up and punt

I had my week planned. Cooking at my MIL's house and cooking at the rental house until I left Sunday morning and returned home to make a triumphant Sunday dinner at home with my husband. And then... yeah. That didn't happen. My poor MIL's cold turned into something much worse. She couldn't sleep for the terrible coughing and breathlessness and of course I couldn't ask her to watch my energetic children when she clearly needed to rest. So I skipped out on my conference and headed home. I got a late start and so we didn't get home until 10 p.m.

I made cereal for dinner.

At first I felt defeated and sad but then I thought about it. There was cereal in the house, and milk and bread to make sandwiches for my daughter's lunch. There were vegetables in the crisper, potatoes in the bin, and fresh meat in the meat drawer and in the freezer. There was a new case of juice boxes and lunch snacks in the storage over the cabinets.

Who caused this joyous accumulation of well-planned and nutritious foods? My husband. While I was gone he had done our quarterly trek to Costco and bought all of the supplies we were running low on; a chore we normally do together. When I came home the dishes were washed and the kids drawers were stuffed with clean folded laundry.

So even though my plans fell through, I have a partner who keeps things going for me and thinks ahead about my needs and the needs of our family. That is pretty sweet and makes even cereal for dinner feel like a feast.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

At my MIL's house, steak and asparagus

My in-law's are big on steak, and I love them for it. 1 rib-eye at their house can easily feed me, my husband and one of our kids. They also do an incredibly simple seasoning and marinade routine that I think everyone should know about.

Season steaks all over with Montreal Steak Seasoning Blend, then marinate the steaks in half Worcestershire sauce and half soy sauce. Turn the steaks half way through whatever marinating time you have as little as an hour even, though these are really great the longer you marinate them. I think I accidentally marinated them for 2 days once and they were delectable!

So the steaks were seared in a hot pan and cooked on the stove-top and were great, as usual. The real star of the show was this new asparagus recipe my MIL wanted me to try and make. She got it from Pier 1 and it called for some ingredients that come from the Pier 1 store. Well, we didn't have any of the ingredients, so here is the recipe with notes on what I subbed in for the missing stuff.

Grilled Asparagus

1 bag of Pier 1 Apple Cider (yield 2 cups) -- I used 2 C apple juice
1/3 C Pier 1 Apricots in White Vinegar (use a few pieces of apricot) -- I used my MIL's homemade pickled peaches
1/4 C fresh squeezed orange juice -- I used 2 rounded tablespoons of OJ concentrate
1 TB fresh thyme chopped -- I used 1 tsp of dried ground thyme
3 TB sugar
1 TB salt
1 tsp pepper
32 stalks of asparagus (are you KIDDING me? I used 2 packages that totaled about 2 pounds. Who has time to COUNT asparagus??)
Oil to coat
Garnish with organic baby greens, feta (we used bleu cheese) and orange segments (didn't have any, skipped it.)

Make apple cider with 2 C of water, let steep for 10 minutes. (I put the juice right in the blender.) In blender combine cider, vinegar with apricots (vinegar with peaches), OJ, thyme, salt, sugar, and pepper. Puree and reserve. Grill asparagus for desired amount of tenderness (4-5 minutes). (I cooked my asparagus on the stove top in olive oil and butter with a dash of coarse grained salt.) Place on serving tray and pour vinaigrette over them, garnish with greens cheese and orange.

These were possibly my favorite asparagus of all time and I LOVE asparagus. They are so tasty and awesome it is worth having funny smelling pee later. The lovely little mesclun salad on top with the creamy, dreamy bleu cheese was a wonderful combination of tastes, textures and temperatures. I literally could not get enough of the stuff. I did not pour the dressing over all as I like to let people add their dressing to taste, so I think you could safely halve this recipe and have plenty to put a few tablespoons over each portion. As it is we had lots of leftovers, but we are going to put it in the fridge for a salad tomorrow. What a treat! A great new side-dish for dinner and freshly made salad dressing for the next day! SCORE!

****If I were doing a vegetarian meal with this, I'd pair the asparagus salad with a nice warm rice pilaf and some crusty bread and call it a day!! ****

Amtrak -- what we ate

So the kids had a late lunch/early dinner by having pizza before we got on the train, but I knew they'd be hungry later. Fortunately my Mom and I packed the World's Most Awesome Snack Bag for dinner. I have an insulated tote bag so we froze some water bottles and packed some:

*juice boxes
*yoo-hoo chocolate drinks
*baby bel cheese
*pepperoni slices
*ritz crackers
*small bags of peanuts
*red grapes
*gummi fruit snacks
*Go-gurts (yogurt in a tube)
*toaster pastries
*nutri-grain bars
*cheez-its (individual bags)
and one coca cola for me!!!

The kids ate a good cross-selection of the contents of the bags, especially the grapes which were great. I made sure they had plenty of juice and water as well as their "treat" of Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drinks because I think children can get dehydrated on trips very easily. I know I do anyway, and if I am cold they have to wear a sweater, and if I am thirsty... well, you get the picture. The food lasted us for our "dinner" as well as a decent breakfast which we ate unbelievably early on the train.

Despite not falling asleep until well after 11 p.m. the kids woke up at 6:30 in the morning (!!!) because they were SO EXCITED to be on the train and heading home. They were up almost an hour before the dining car was even open and they woke up hungry! I woke up craving a large coffee and a voluntary coma, but I made do with a toaster pastry like a champ. Like a champ who's right butt cheek had gone numb or possibly had permanent nerve damage from "sleeping" like a pretzel to accommodate a a grouchy toddler. Seriously, if I were not such a CHAMPION butt-sitter I am sure my tailbone would be permanently fused to the metal bar that separates the two Amtrak seats from each other. OY! On the other hand, if Butt-sitting becomes and Olympic sport, then I am going for the GOLD, for my COUNTRY, for my glorious peasant butt, long may she reign.

What are your road-trip staples? Do you get food on the go or do you pack a hamper or some combination of both?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Okay, I am going to be out of pocket for awhile

Tomorrow night I am making dinner and breakfast on the Amtrak train back to Florida. For dinner we will be having muchos, muchos snacks. Cheese, crackers, pepperonis, a can of vienna sausages, cheez-its, juice boxes and Yoo-hoos. Complete balanced nutrition? Oh hell no! A way to stay quiet and entertained on a train with a five child to one adult ratio? You betcha! Breakfast will be Pop-tarts, grapes, and frozen yogurts in a tube (AKA go-gurts) and more juice boxes. Mommy will probably have a coca-cola and a Vicodin. We will be on the train 13 hours, most of it HOPEFULLY sleeping. We get into Orlando around 10 a.m.

I will be making dinner the next night in my mother-in-laws GIANT marble counter topped kitchen with her full range of appliances. Her stove/oven has more dials and buttons than the Starship Enterprise. Her dishwasher is a quiet, efficient, stainless steel interior dream machine. I covet it like I have never coveted anything in my life. It's a good thing the Bible only mentions wives and asses or I'd be in real trouble! The rest of the week I will be sharing a rental house with some women from my church as we attend a spiritual retreat and workshop. I will be making dinner at the rental house! Looking forward to learning some new recipes from my friends too!

I went to last year's conference and completely enjoyed it, even though it didn't seem like the kind of thing I'd really like to do. I sort of went out a sense of duty, and then was completely shocked to find it entirely peopled with my kind of folks! Life can be surprising like that. I learned I am not the only foul-mouthed, free-wheeling, liberal Christian on earth. Of course I am not some special freaking snowflake! Good times all around.

I hope you get to do something inspiring in this first month of the New Year, be it a new job, new hobby, new book or even a new haircut (hoping to get one of those too!) I'll be making some short but sweet posts from my phone if internet connectivity is a problem. Later!

The skinny on casseroles

Here's the thing, in the depths of winter (and winter in NC is pretty depthy to me) I want comfort food. Casseroles, stews, soups, roasts, baked goods, basically anything that warms the soul and the house makes me happy. Casseroles are not the most elegant or sophisticated of dishes but they are tasty and filling and just the very definition of home-cooking. I mean when is the last time you saw any type of casserole on a restaurant menu?

Today's casserole takes the very last bits of the New Year's day feast and transforms them into a bubbly, cheesey delicious main dish. Serve with a side of steamed veggies or salad depending on your climate and enjoy.

Ham and Rice Casserole

Chopped ham
3 cups of cooked white rice (can be leftovers from NY dinner)
1 cup (or more) of shredded cheese (I like a 4 cheese blend)
1 can of cream of something soup (or make a white sauce) (Or more than one can if you like a moister casserole.)
Panko, cracker or bread crumbs for the top
Melted butter

Mix cooked rice and chopped ham, cheese, and soup and place in a buttered 9 x 13 pan (or smaller if you aren't cooking for a crowd. You can cut this recipe in half and make it in an 8 x8 pan.) Cover with bread crumbs of choice and pour some melted butter over the top. Bake at 350 degrees (170 C?) covered with aluminum foil for 30 minutes. Take off foil and brown for 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

If you do not eat ham or meat simply replace the ham with broccoli florets or chopped spears and follow the recipe as indicated. You can also make this with cooked brown rice and it is even better. I can't tell you how many times I have intended to make my MIL's famous broccoli and chicken casserole and FORGOTTEN TO PUT IN THE CHICKEN. This has happened so often as a matter of fact that it is known in my house as "Chicken Surprise-- Surprise! There's no chicken in it!"

I will serve these tonight with a side of steamed broccoli and cauliflower which I am fortunate that my kids love. My sister-in-law's kids won't eat them plain, but they do like them with cheese sauce. Another friend's kids won't eat them cooked but will eat them raw with ranch dressing. My sister's kids won't eat them AT ALL but clamor for more of my Mom's spaghetti sauce which is packed with (you guessed it) broccoli, carrots, onion, and celery. My Mom was the Sneaky Chef way back in the 70's.

**UPDATE** The casserole dish I was using was SO BIG that I added the frozen vegetables right into the casserole. I did take the extra step of cutting them up a bit into smaller, uniform pieces and they cooked beautifully right in one dish. Even the strenuous anti-vegetable crowd at the table couldn't resist them. Score!

Hope your dinner is really good tonight and that you have one of those good parenting days that don't make you fantasize about a long restful stay at the local hospital!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Day after dinners

When you make a BIG meal on one day, like Thanksgiving for instance, you get the benefit of guaranteed leftovers the next day. You can always use those leftovers just as is, which is terrific, or you can get creative. I mean, who doesn't love a turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving?

For New Year's Day leftovers here are some of my favorite ways to enjoy leftover greens, beans, and pork.

* Chop leftover ham and heat it up in barbecue sauce and make BBQ sandwiches.
* Use leftover black eyed peas to make "Cowboy Caviar" it is a sort of fabulous "pico de gallo" with your leftover black eyed peas. Mix cubed avocado, chopped roma (or other smaller) tomatoes, cilantro, red onion, and kernel corn together. Top with some fresh lime juice, a bit of apple cider vinegar, a splash of good olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Stir gently and serve with tortilla chips. Add some tabasco if you think it needs to be a little bit spicy.
* Hopping John stir fry, fry leftover white rice in some peanut oil in a wok or large skillet. Mix in fresh chopped onion, peas, and a moderate amount of well-drained greens. Add a lightly beaten egg and stir fry together. YUM!!!
*Mix leftover, well-drained greens into cheese grits, press into a well-greased baking dish and bake until edges are set. Cut into cubes and serve for any meal, even breakfast. DEEEE-lish.
* Mix creamed corn into a thin batter made from about 1 cup of flour, one beaten egg and maybe 1/4 C of milk. Make thin corn pancakes and pour onto a hot greased griddle. Serve as pancakes with or without syrup.

I really hope the New Year is already treating you well. Here is a brand new recipe for you, another great Southern American dish.

Gramma Tallent's Ambrosia Salad

Take 3 pounds of small Florida oranges, cut off the skin and outer membrane. Pull sections from their membranes and drop into medium mixing bowl, Squeeze leftover bits of orange over the bowl to extract juice, but strain with fingers to keep seeds out. To the sections add 2 small handfuls of chopped coconut. Then add 1/2 C chopped pecans (or more to taste) and the juice of 2 more oranges. Stir together and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. Serve chilled. A delicious fresh appetizer, salad or breakfast dish, even a light dessert!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

It begins! New Year's Day menu

Hello and Happy New Year!!! Today begins my Dinner 365 challenge and it has already been, um, challenging.** The kids stayed up to ring in the New Year and still woke up early, so they are a little it cranky already. I am in my parent's tiny cabin in North Carolina, super charming, but space is at a premium. There are 5 kids here under the age of 10 and 3 adults. The kitchen doesn't have a garbage disposal or a dishwasher and the counter space could best be described as "miniscule" but we forge ahead. I have a friend in Australia cooking her New Year's dinner over a camp fire today, so things could be a mite more challenging still.

The menu:

Baby Back ribs; the kids' preferred method of eating pork and a catchy jingle of the late 90's, ("I want my baby backs, baby backs, baby backs..." )These are liberally seasoned with my trusty Adobo seasoning blend "con pimienta!" and then squeeze a fresh lime over all. I wrapped them in heavy duty foil and they will sit and "marinate" for awhile before we cook them "low and slow" in the oven. 275-300 for maybe 3 hours should do it.

We also made a picnic butt roast, a small but fatty piece of meat. We rubbed it all over with my father-in-law's super secret dry rub and tented it with foil in a shallow baking pan. Use any good BBQ spice rub or make your own seasoning blend with salt and spices, some people even use brown sugar in their rubs. The roast went in at the same temperature until a meat thermometer reached a minimum of 140 degrees. When you bring the meat out of the oven to rest the temperature will rise by 5-10 degrees.

Collard greens; the greens are best purchased pre-washed in the bag if available. They will still need an extra rinse or two, collards, mustard and turnip greens are notoriously gritty. If you like the frozen ones work well too. Greens are great with a bit of tabasco sauce or peppered vinegar, or my preferred way, just a dash of salt and pepper.

Plain white rice; I usually make brown rice, yellow rice or wild rice, but on New Year's Day it is typical long grain white rice for me. This is one of those recipes I have memorized, 2 cups boiling water, 1 cup of rice and salt to taste (maybe a teaspoon). Boil the water, add the rice, bring back to a boil for 1 minute then turn down, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Black-eyed peas; these can be taken dry from the bag, rinsed and then placed in a large stock pot with salted water. You can also add a bit of onion and garlic to the water. Usually mine are boiled up with a piece of ham, ham hock, or bacon, but I also make them vegetarian by adding chopped carrot, onion, celery and garlic and maybe a bay leaf for flavor and then adding a few tablespoons of olive oil when they are almost done. They take about 45 minutes. Today, due to space and time constraints we made frozen field peas with snap beans (aka black eyes peas with green beans). They were my first attempt at using frozen beans and they were great actually. If I had more freezer space I'd probably make them that way more often.

Cornbread, use any mix or recipe you like for the cornbread, but my tip to you is to get the pan hot in the oven with some oil or grease in the pan. When the oven is preheated, the pan will also be hot and ready. Pour your batter directly and quickly into the pan and let it bake according to your recipe or package directions.

Creamed corn; again, a frozen food I was not aware even existed. When I make creamed corn usually I am cutting corn off the cob and then "milking" the cob by scraping it with a spoon. Then I cook the corn for 25 minutes in the microwave with an entire stick of butter and some salt and pepper. Here my mom just took a frozen package of creamed corn, mixed it with a package of kernel corn and microwaved it all in about 10 minutes. It is not as good as fresh corn off the cob, but it is winter time and not the season for fresh ears of corn and it makes a fine winter substitute.

Our garnishes were home-made salsa and chow-chow from a local farm store. Chow-chow is a sweet relish and terrific with the beans and rice.

If you wanted to make this meal vegetarian, it would still be delicious. Skip the pork, use extra spices in the greens and beans and rice, for instance, using vegetable broth to make the rice (super flavorful!). Mixed black eyed peas and rice is it's own special dish called Hopping John, round out the plate with the hot cornbread and that is a wonderful meatless meal.

** Right after I wrote this post, we put the meat in the oven, set the temperature to 275 and left to take the kids swimming at the Y since the weather was so miserable today. We returned from the Y prepared to make rice and cornbread, heat up the greens and eat only to discover the oven had never turned on!!! We quickly cranked the heat in the oven to 350 degrees and cooked everything for an hour less than planned. We staved off hunger with a big platter of cheese, crackers, sliced meats, and grapes. The kids were remarkably calm after ingesting the entire platter in about 5 minutes and then ate a good dinner when it was finally ready. The cabin was quite cold so the meat had stayed fresh and probably the extra time "marinating" in the spices made them even better, so alls well that ends well!