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Inconceivable!

12 Jun

My life has been full of surprises this year.

I didn’t expect to move to another state.

I didn’t expect to find a beautiful 100% cashmere, beaded, Oscar de la Renta sweater at The Salvation Army store for $1.99, in my size. Sure, there is a tiny chip on one of the beads. Beads can be replaced, people! Would you give away a classic Mustang because it had a flat tire? I don’t think so.

I didn’t expect to see horizontal lightning while driving home from work. I’m pretty sure they don’t have that kind of lightning back in California.

I didn’t expect to get a bowl of soup with my meal when we went to lunch that day, but there it was…soft yellow, creamy looking, in a little white rimmed bowl, on a little white plate, served with a rounded spoon and two traditional cracker packets. Perfect.

“What kind is it?” my husband asked.

“Cold!” I exclaimed in surprise, “and lemony…or just sour.”

Confusion set in before I realized, with embarrassing clarity, that what I had tasted was not soup at all. This was the Italian dressing for the salad I had ordered.

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Gingerbread House 101, For Those Who Have Experienced Gingerbread House Collapse

17 Dec

Candy decorations courtesy of my eleven year old.

There is one absolutely crucial fact you need to know to prevent structural collapse in your gingerbread home.

It is all about the icing.

If you want your walls and roof to stay where you want them, you MUST get the consistency of the icing right.

Sometimes the directions on the kit will tell you the icing should have the consistency of toothpaste.

Please note: Either they are deliberately lying to you, or else they are brushing with some seriously thick toothpaste! Don’t listen to them.

First of all, don’t even think of it as icing. Think of it as mortar. This will give you a more accurate idea of how thick it should be.

Be very stingy with your water. Make the icing so thick it will bend a spoon. Make it so thick it is like dough, and almost rolls into a ball. Use plenty of it. If you get it thick enough, there is virtually no “drying time”. This best if you have children. Kids like gingerbread houses but they do not like waiting. Waiting is boring. Ask any kid.

Remember that the roof sections of the house will need to fight gravity, unlike the walls. You may need to hold the roof for a few moments, until it sets, to prevent sliding.

When your house is firmly together, you can add very miniscule amounts of water to the remaining icing until it is thickly spreadable, but not at all drippy. Decorate the sides of the house before icing the roof, because it adds weight. The softened icing will allow you to do a little piping (with the bag and nozzle) and ice the roof.

A few other tips:

If your roof has a gap at the top, use more thick frosting and then cover with large gumdrops. No problem.

If you are piping (squeezing with the bag and nozzle) and your icing gets too soft from the warmth of your hands, pop the piping bag into the freezer for a few moments and it will harden up. Just don’t forget it is in there.

To make your house stick to the base, add icing to the undersides of the walls or just add some icing along the bottom edge after it is assembled to prevent slipping. If it looks messy, just slap some candy over it.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun. If it were a job, someone would be paying you. Don’t get upset. It is only gingerbread, not your actual home. If all else fails, just break it apart, frost it, and call it cookies!

“Montreal” Spicy Potatoes and Onions

3 Aug

I like short recipes with very few ingredients. I own a cookbook called “The Best Ever Three & Four Ingredient Cookbook” but I rarely use it, because I often make up my own recipes.

One of my simplest personal recipes is a potato and onion dish. It has four ingredients.

Before it cooks, it looks like this:

“Montreal” Spicy Potatoes and Onions

potatoes (unpeeled)

onions (any color)

olive oil

Spicy Montreal Steak seasoning (by McCormick ‘Grill Mates’)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Cut the potatoes and onions in slices or chunks. (Thickness of the potatoes will determine the cooking time. Leave the onions thicker than the potatoes because they cook faster and you don’t want them to burn.) I like a mix of approximately 3/4 potatoes and 1/4 onion. Use a baking dish large enough to allow for stirring without overflow.

Mix the potatoes and onions in the baking dish with enough olive oil to coat them. Sprinkle generously with the Spicy Montreal Steak seasoning and mix well.

Bake, stirring every 10 or 15 minutes. The time depends on the thickness of the potato pieces and the size of the baking dish. I have found that a convection oven works well and takes about 40 minutes, but the potatoes are less browned than they would be in a traditional oven.

Food Waste: Why We Do It and How We Can Stop « The Frugal Goddess

28 May

Simplify your refrigerator, your grocery cart, and your trash bin — and save money!

Food waste is a common problem in many homes.  I recommend this post by The Frugal Goddess for those of you struggling with “mystery meat” and slimy lettuce.

Food Waste: Why We Do It and How We Can Stop « The Frugal Goddess.

Skipping Through Life (quick potato soup)

4 May

I have set a new goal for myself.

Each week, I want to find at least one way to simplify my life — by skipping something.

I might skip an entire task, or just one step from a complicated one.  I might skip an ingredient in a recipe, if I don’t have it and I don’t feel like driving to the store.  Frankly, sometimes I find that a recipe is better without the missing ingredient!

I already thought of something to skip this week, but I promptly forgot it again.  Forgetfulness doesn’t count as simplification, in case you were wondering.  Now I need to think of something else to skip…

In the meantime, I will share an example from the past.

I love potato soup; my mother made some great soups, and that was one of her specialties.

Please note:  My mother is alive and well, but she doesn’t cook as much these days, which is why I am speaking of her in the past tense in this particular context.

My mother used a fairly long process to make her potato soup, including using an old hand cranked food mill to break down the potato pieces.  This food mill was some kind of antique; as an adult I combed antique stores until I found one like hers.  I believed that this device was somehow key to the potato soup making process.

In recent years, it occurred to me that my food mill took too long to use, and far too long to clean.  I got rid of the food mill.  First, I switched to my modern electric food processor… now I use only a spoon! 

What could be easier to clean than a spoon?

I skip a step in the potato soup making process, thus making a spoon as useful as a food processor.  I cook the potatoes directly in the chicken stock, instead of combining the two after cooking the potatoes, as my mother did.

I slice the potatoes, chop some onions, and dump them all into a pot with some chicken broth, salt, pepper, and whatever other seasoning I may be craving on that day.  Then I boil until the potatoes are just soft enough to crush and crumble with a wooden stirring spoon.  I add a little bit of half-and-half  for creaminess (if this ingredient is not handy, I might skip it!  Who needs the fat?) and serve the soup with a topping of cut chives.  Sometimes, I substitute green onions for chives, but chives are really the best for potato soup.

My methods can alter the texture of the soup, leaving it a little starchier, but it tastes just as good.

By skipping steps, I can make a quick batch of soup for one or two people, in only one small pot, using only a vegetable peeler, a knife, a cutting board, and a wooden spoon.  The clean up is a breeze.

The cold, hard truth is that if I had to make the soup the way my mother made it, I probably would not make it at all. 

I would skip it.

No wonder my mother doesn’t cook as much as she once did…she’s skipping it, too.

Pomegranates: Simplified

12 Jan

When I was young, long before I knew of the various health benefits of pomegranates, I loved to eat them. 

I have not eaten many poms in adulthood, however, because of the hassle of opening them. I guess I’ve gotten lazy.  Or, maybe it has something to do with the fact that adults have to clean up their own messes…

If you have never tried to separate one yourself, and have only bought the bottled juice or the ready-to-eat arils, you may not know how messy and awkward opening a pomegranate can be, or about the dark juice staining your fingers and clothing… and, oh, whatever else it may touch.

Then again, perhaps you have heard about it, and that is why you never bothered to attempt it.

Once, I cheerfully bought a package of ready-to-eat pomegranate, cleverly saving myself the trouble.  Sadly, I wasn’t able to eat the entire package on my own, and I don’t like to waste food, so I encouraged one of the children to try some.  Well, he tried some alright, but unbeknownst to me the arils had been in the refrigerator too long by then, and they had fermented.  Pomegranate wine, anyone?

This wasn’t the first time a child in this house acted like I had poisoned him.  I am a good cook — a safe cook! –  don’t worry.  There is simply a flair for drama around here.  But, you never can tell when it might be a legitimate response, so I ate an aril myself, just to prove that I think they are very tasty, and it wasn’t some kind of mean trick I had played on the kid.

The taste was similar to the smell of rubbing alcohol.  Just…so awful.  I probably made the same pained face that he did.  Another lesson learned.  Now I always taste things before offering them.  Oh, and I don’t eat pomegranate arils if they are purple instead of red.

Oops!  Now I’m making pomegranates sound very unappealing with my anecdote.  Normally, poms are great, I promise.  I especially enjoy them in salads, but I’ll eat them straight. 

Someone recently told me about an underwater method of preparing pomegranates and I decided to try it out.  I was quite pleased with the results.

If you have ever been tempted by the sight of a whole pomegranate in the market, but felt intimidated by it, you might be interested in trying this method.

Basic directions: Cut off the top or crown of the pomegranate and make shallow cuts in the outside peel, following the natural sections of the fruit.  Fill a large bowl with water.  (I used a pot.)  Pull apart the sections and loosen the arils in the water.  The white membrane will float and the arils will sink.  Remove the membrane and strain the arils.  Enjoy.

Readers who prefer to SEE the process can find some illustrated directions here.  (Thanks to eHow.com)

I tried it with a hardened, older pomegranate which is why I didn’t take pictures of it myself.  Mine had lost its luscious red color and looked dry and highly unsuitable for promotional material.  Opening my particular pomegranate was a bit tricky because the skin was no longer flexible.  Ideally, I think the peel should bend back.  It was more of a breaking apart process with my hardened peel, but I was still able to remove the arils underwater without a mess.  I’m sure it would be even easier with a fresher pomegranate.

I tested an aril just to be safe (like I said, lesson learned), but truthfully, I didn’t have a use for so much pomegranate today.  Since I had opened an older fruit to begin with, I was obviously concerned about repeating the fermentation incident.  Luckily, pomegranate arils can be frozen or dried.  I decided to freeze the arils to toss into some muffins at a later date.

Persimmons are pretty good, too… but, I haven’t figured them out yet!

Warning: Don’t Talk to The Chef

29 Dec

My favorite muffin recipe lends itself quite easily to experimentation, which is why it has long been my most oft-used recipe.  I frequently mix and match ingredients, making spontaneous changes to the fruit and nut properties.

While originally calling for zucchini and pineapple with raisins, the recipe has also worked with various combinations of bananas, peaches, carrots, applesauce, strawberries, raspberries, pears, and orange juice.  Sometimes, leftover peanut butter, sunflower seeds or wheat bran have been involved.

In spite of all my baking whims, the only time the recipe didn’t turn out well is the time I had altogether forgotten two crucial ingredients… fruit and flour.

Without flour, the end result was more of a brittle than a bread.

What can I say?

I was distracted…very distracted, and not for the first time.

I am a good cook, but I am not a good multi-tasker. I am not able to divide my attention that way.  In fact, I recently hung a small sign over the stove-top reminding my family members not to speak to me (and most especially not to ask me any questions) while I am cooking.  My high susceptibility to distraction has led to various kitchen calamities and this warning must be heeded, for the protection of innocent foods.

The ever-changing muffins are frustrating for one of my boys.  He doesn’t share my appreciation for the element of surprise, at least when it comes to baked goods.  He likes a muffin to taste the way he expects it to taste.  I know this, but I can’t stop playing with the recipe, so it’s almost never what he expects.  The poor kid has to live with disappointment, batch after batch.

I almost accommodated him this week.  I was sticking to my basic banana bread formula, the one he likes.  Suddenly, I was overcome with a strong desire to add plump, frozen blueberries; I succumbed once again to the sweet temptation of recipe tampering.

As I folded in a big gob of the half-thawed berries, the blueberry juice seemed rather…aggressive.  I added another banana to try to balance the color of the batter.  No change.

The batter was such a solid, deep blue-green, I honestly feared that these banana-blueberry babies would come out looking like they had been baked from Play-doh. Worse yet, no one had distracted me, so it would be exclusively my fault.  Uh oh.

To my relief, the muffins came out a perfectly normal color, and were quite delicious, if a little flat on top.

One of these days, I might try adding pumpkin, or lemon, or dried cherries and chocolate…and I’m sure the muffins will be delicious, as long as nobody talks to me while I make them.

A Tale of Two Measurements

25 Sep

I have a small machine designed to make frozen desserts.  I enjoy using this fine appliance, but I do occasionally encounter some problems.  I must admit that each difficulty has been what my father would call An Operator Problem, rather than a problem with the appliance itself.

The most common Operator Problem occurs when The Operator forgets to store the freezer bowl in the freezer overnight before using the machine.

Not frozen.

In case you are unfamiliar with the idea, a freezer bowl is a container into which one pours a liquid mixture, so that while churning, it may freeze.

Surprisingly, in my boundless enthusiasm for the production and consumption of chilled desserts, I have forgotten this crucial step on more than one occasion…okay, three times.

In other words, I’m a slow learner, and rather easily distracted.  To the amusement of my family, I have mindlessly switched on the machine, set a timer, and returned after thirty minutes–to an embarrassing realization, and a bowl full of liquid.

Not today.  Today…something else happened.

To be honest, today was the third day I had planned to make strawberry ice cream.

On Day One, the children had already gobbled up most of the strawberries…and the freezer bowl wasn’t frozen.  No go.

On Day Two, the strawberries were in full supply, and the bowl was actually frozen! Conditions seemed to be in my favor.  Unfortunately, I had neglected to read the recipe fully.  The strawberries would require an additional two hours to “macerate” ahead of time, before being added to the mix in the last five minutes.  No time.

Today, I carefully allotted time in my busy day to prepare the strawberries, and macerate them for two hours.  This “maceration” business was new to me, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and as I guessed, it is just a fancy term meaning that my strawberries would get soft and come apart easily from soaking in sugar and lemon juice for a long time.  No problem.

Day Three took a wrong turn when I added the macerated strawberries–as directed– to the semi-solid ice cream base, for the last five minutes of the freezing process.  At this point, the ice cream quickly lost its frozen texture… and continued to gradually increase in volume.  I became suspicious.

You can probably guess where this story is headed.

Initially, the pale pink ooze was just around the top edges.  When it began slowly dripping down the sides, my suspicion turned to concern, but I remained cautiously optimistic.  The drips seemed to freeze against the side of the bowl.  There were only a few moments left on the timer.  It would be fine.

After less than four minutes, The Operator turned off the machine, conceding that melted ice cream dripping inside the motorized base might result in the demise of a useful appliance, not to mention a tragic waste of ice cream.

Today would have been an excellent day for detailed photographic documentation, but I was a teensy bit busy, and I didn’t want my camera to get sticky.

In the end, the machine was saved from Mount St. Strawberry, the dessert was stored safely in the freezer, and The  Operator was left to wonder how she ended up with too much ice cream.

Conclusion:  A conversion problem.

I am certain the milk, cream and minor ingredients were measured correctly.

The strawberry requirement, on the other hand, read as: a pint of strawberries, stemmed and sliced.  My strawberry container said 16 oz, which translates to two cups, and two cups is a pint.  However, the amount of strawberries in the container will not fit into a two cup measurement…and whether I slice before or after measurement, a pound of strawberries is not a pint of strawberries.  Of course, I didn’t measure at all, since I read the 16 oz label and decided it was what I needed, without considering the relationship between weight and volume.  Oops.

I actually minored in math, believe it or not– but I never did like conversions!

All’s well that ends well.  The ice cream has a lovely strawberries-and-cream flavor, and as an added bonus, I can now spell the word macerate, and use it in a sentence.

Less is More: Part Two

26 Jul

As I continue to find ways to simplify and get more results from less effort, I begin to wonder if I am being clever, or just very lazy.  Maybe both.

Recently, I made a baked peach dessert that looked very promising on paper,  but sadly it failed to live up to its promise.  My kitchen was a sticky shambles, I had spent a lot of time, and all I had to show for it was a high calorie dessert that I didn’t really like.

Leaving that experience behind, I found a delicious baked fruit dessert that takes less time, less effort and fewer ingredients.  The original recipe (from a British cookbook called Best Ever Three and Four Ingredient Cookbook, by Jenny White and Joanna Farrow) calls for apricots, sugar, cream cheese and gingersnaps.  It’s easy enough.  And yet, I wanted to make it “less”.  Apricots were not handy, so I went for peaches.  Cream cheese is fattening so I went for the 1/3 less fat variety.  I also cut the sugar in half, and I didn’t use the special superfine sugar called for in the book, just some regular grainy sugar from Costco.

I loved the flavor contrast, but it must be eaten fresh from the oven or it separates, leaving the ginger crumb topping a soggy mess.

So, outside of party planning, I will opt for reducing it to cut fresh peaches with crumbled gingersnaps, straight to the plate.  Less time, and a cleaner kitchen will result.  No cooking, no mixing, no fat…  Okay, maybe a small scoop from a tub of whipped cream cheese if I feel decadent.

Less Is More: Part One

11 Jul

Today, I am aware of all the things in my life that I have successfully reduced for the better.

Less complicated, less fattening, less time-consuming, less expensive, and less annoying….means more enjoyment of my life!

Here are three examples of how I have simplified my habits.

(1)   THEN:  Making deviled eggs.

NOW:  Making boiled eggs with Spanish paprika, sea salt and fresh ground pepper.  Less fattening, less work, less time, less mess–more modern, more healthy, more time spent with family and friends!

(2)  THEN:  Wrapping gifts with paper and ribbon selected and purchased.

NOW:  Using simple gift bags, often recycled, with gift tags I make myself.  Less trash, less money, less time–more fun, more creative, more “eco”!

(3)  THEN:  Saving piles of old magazines.

NOW:  Saving individual photos, recipes and articles that interest me, in organized binders with sheet protectors for easy reference.  Less clutter, less forgetting why I saved them–more instant access, more benefit!  (I have already tried some of the recipes, with good results)

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