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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sometimes when I am sad,

I bake things; bread, cookies, cakes, brownies. I am not great at pie, or pie crusts really. There is something comforting about cracking eggs, measuring flour, mixing things together, kneading dough, stirring batters, and then the hit of aromatherapy you get as it warms in the oven. And now a list...

Things to bake when you are sad:

1. Banana bread, make it with 3/4 regular flour and 1/4 wheat germ for an awesome more nutty taste.
2. Chocolate chips cookies, try making it with a combination of semi-sweet and butterscotch chips sometime. Or add some applesauce in place of some of the butter for a moist chewy cookie.
3. Poundcake, I flavor mine with a combination of vanilla, almond and a HINT of key lime by adding some juice and zest to the batter.
4. Bread, try saving some older dough from another batch and mixing it with some fresh dough to give it a sourdough flavor without having to make a starter first.
5. Cornbread, make your normal recipe and then add a tablespoon or so of mayonnaise to the batter. TRUST me, makes all the difference.
6. Apple brown betty, add a dash of freshly grated nutmeg to the cinnamon.
7. Creme brulée, add a tablespoon of Gran Marnier to the custard for nice orangey flavor.

Try not to be sad today, take a walk, call a friend and if you need to, bake something nice.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Potatoes au gratin, pork shoulder roast, steamed green beans and strawberries

So, I had some potatoes that had reached the critical "use 'em or lose 'em" stage. A lot of potatoes. Okay, a 5 pound bag of potatoes... sometimes I just forget things, okay?! Anyhow, I made some potato soup the other night and last night I made spaghetti and meatballs. Since that is a very easy dinner to make I decided to use up the rest of my rapidly aging spuds by peeling and chopping some for mashed potatoes and peeling and slicing some for au gratin. By the by, for making quick uniform slices, I just adore my mandolin!

The mashed potatoes got boiled, drained and saved for tomorrow night's dinner, the au gratin potatoes were placed in a buttered dish and then, I realize, "Whoops. I can't remember how to make au gratin potatoes!" Off to the internet where I am immediately captivated by The Pioneer Woman's delectable looking Au Gratin Potato recipe. Of course I only have about HALF the ingredients, but there ya go. I am more of an improvisational cook anyhow. I just needed to know some technique.

My "recipe" such as it was called for about 1/3 cup each, whole milk, half and half and sour cream, really well blended. I seasoned it with salt and pepper, 2 smashed and chopped cloves of garlic and about 2 teaspoons of flour for thickening. I placed my potatoes in thin overlapping slices on the bottom of the baking dish and topped each layer with about 1/3 of the milk/cream mixture. I baked at 400 degrees for about 20-30 minutes, honestly I didn't keep track I just pulled it out to look at when I could smell the garlic cooking. Then I topped it with mozzarella cheese (3 handfuls or so?) and put some foil on it and set it in the fridge.

Tonight in the last 20 minutes of cooking time for my marinated pork shoulder, I set the au gratin in the oven to reheat and melt and brown the cheese. Meanwhile I snapped and strung about a pound of fresh green beans and placed them in a microwave safe bowl with butter and salt and nuked them for about 5 minutes. (If I can digress on the pork shoulder roast a bit, this was a pre-marinated boneless chunk of meat about the size of 2 softballs put together. As roasts go it is pretty fool-proof and easy enough to cook on a weeknight.)

We rounded out dinner with some fresh Florida strawberries from Plant City and called it a meal. The kids really, really, REALLY liked the strawberries, they actually asked for thirds on those. Of course that would be the one dish I didn't actually COOK, but that's baseball, I guess. We have plenty for lunches tomorrow and the tag ends of the roast may even end up flavoring a pot of beans or something.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cheese Potato Soup recipe and Nacho Mama's Nachos

So, Monday night was the BCS National Championship game, or the Superbowl of College Football, basically. I used to not care about that stuff, seriously, I went to High School football games to hang out with the band. Later I saw a college game and amused my section greatly by screaming out, "THAT'S NOT NICE!!" at two scholar-athletes who had tackled a third in a particularly ungentlemanly fashion. However I did enter into a mixed marriage, since I am Roman Catholic and my husband is a Football Fan, so I learned at least the fundamentals of the game and picked a team to root for and now I watch college ball, SEC in particular and the very rare pro-game. I'm not into fantasy football nor do I even particularly think about football when it isn't in season; sort of like strawberries. Anyhow since "my team" wasn't in the game last night, I basically still didn't care, but it was a big SEC rivalry game so I thought up a menu that was game-worthy.

Nacho Mama's Nachos -- I had two open bags of semi stale chips. These make a terrific bottom layer for nachos since they sort of re-crisp in the oven, but never get shatteringly crispy which can make nachos hard to eat. Cover a 9 x 13 cookie sheet (baking sheet) with the chips. Add a protein to the top, seasoned beans, refried beans, cooked shredded chicken, seasoned ground beef or turkey or TVP. Cover all with cheese and bake at 350, till cheese is melted and chips starting to brown.

Now let your imagination run wild, as we top it with shredded lettuce, homemade guacamole, salsa, and our old stand-by plain yogurt (in place of sour cream). My husband requested (and received) a small bowl of that velveeta and chili dip to off-set all of the wholesomeness. Your favorite toppings might include anything from salsa verde to chipotle BBQ sauce to ranch dressing here.

Tonight's dinner was actually meatless in lieu of having a meatless Monday.

Cheese Potato Soup

Saute in a stock pot with butter and olive oil (olive oil only for vegans) some onion and celery, let it sweat and hit it with a heavy pinch of kosher salt. To this add a quart of your favorite veggie broth and let that all simmer together. Meanwhile, skin and chop about 4cups of potatoes. Add those potatoes to the broth, bring up the heat and let them boil/simmer (your choice) until they are cooked. Take the pot off the heat and finely grate some cheese of your choice into the pot (I used some colby jack because I had it on hand), 1/4 cup at a time, hit it with an immersion blender after each addition of cheese and blend until smooth. Mix about 1 cup of milk with 2 teaspoons to 1 TB of cornstarch, add in several spoonfuls of the soup to the mixture before adding it to the pot. This dissolves and activates the corn starch as a thickener and binder as well as tempers the milk, mix in well with the immersion blender. Taste and adjust seasonings (salt and pepper) and then serve with or without soy bacon bits, salad and bread.

What a Long Strange Trip....

Well, apparently working for a living is hell on my ability to blog. I was hired as a substitute preschool teacher a few months ago and the blog took a big hit. I have been faithfully making dinners, desserts, lunches, breakfasts, snacks, and even homemade punch, but I was incapable of typing about it all.

The experiment has been a great success for me though, I have made about 330 dinners this year all told, short of my goal, but danged impressive I think. I also realized that by using some recipe basics, letting go of my perfectionism, and using my two favorite appliances (the crock pot and the pressure cooker) I have been able to serve my family dinner very nearly every night for a year.

Why is making dinner for yourself or others important though? This is what I have learned from my 365 day experiment.

First of all it is not JUST about providing nutrition, it is about honoring the hearth of your home, the heart of your home. Cooking for one or cooking for a dozen is about nurturing the soul and feeding the heart. Trying new flavors or foods opens you up to a new experience or culture, you can travel around the world at your dinner table. Cooking is an enjoyable skill to learn or to improve upon, it is creative and intellectually stimulating. It is a huge savings to cook dinner at home. Dinner out for the 4 of us is never less than $40 around here, and that is without drinks! I can make dinner for 4 plus use the leftovers for lunches for 2 adults for less than $10 if I have to, and believe me, sometimes I have to do that. Cooking for yourself gives you the opportunity to share with your community, if you are already making a lasagna for yourself, why not make one for the lady who just had a baby, or the family with a relative in the hospital? If you are cooking at home regularly, that means you are shopping more regularly, you can take advantage of sales to stock up on items not just for yourself, but for your local food pantry. Making dinner is a way of saying, "You matter to me." so little else in this life is made for ourselves or others with our own two hands. Dinner is a time to say, "I love you!"

Feeling slightly inspired to cook more dinners? Here are some hints for YOUR long strange trip into cooking.

* KISS or Keep It Simple Sweetie, yes your meringue en flambe is impressive, but do you really want to make it every night? Or even once a week? You'll really burn yourself out (ha!) if you try to make very complex dishes all the time. I saved my labor intensive stuff for the occasional weekend meal.

* Have a plan! The months or weeks that I did basic menu planning, stuff like, "Monday, veggie fajitas with corn tortillas and beans, Tuesday, Meatloaf, Wednesday, Spaghetti etc" were the weeks I flew through dinner prep. The weeks where I had to stand incredulously in front of the refrigerator and the freezer for 15 minutes first and do inventory? Yeah, we had a lot of cheese quesadillas those weeks.

* Be flexible, my recipe is for chicken breasts, but all I have on hand is center loin cut pork chops or boneless chicken thighs... yeah, I can make that work. Try to limit extra trips to the grocery store by thinking outside the recipe box.

* Adjust your expectations. A can of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, yeah, THAT IS TOTALLY A HOME-COOKED MEAL y'all! The important part is the sitting around the table and talking to one another. Also, teaching your kids to clear the table and put their dishes in the sink or dishwasher is way easier if you are all sitting there together.

* Have some "old reliables" always ready. If called upon I can make some sort of pasta and red sauce just from items in my pantry, (anchovy paste, canned spaghetti sauce, canned tomatoes, some smashed garlic, makes a pretty decent puttanesca sauce you know.) Even the tag ends of several kinds of cheese can be grated into a white sauce to make a decadent mac and cheese dinner, throw a side of green beans on the plate and you are home free.

There ya go. I will still regularly post recipes here, but I am planning a new challenge for myself this year, something I hope I can come to love as much as I have loved making dinner. Thank you to all of my readers and friends, I hope you check in with me in about a week to see my new plans. Thank you to everyone who ever left a comment. Thank you to everyone who e-mailed me recipes, comments or commiseration. I appreciate you all!