Monday, February 27, 2012

Sunday afternoon cooking school

Late winter, early Lent, and a Sunday with nothing to do. The weather has been breaking out in nice days, but it seems that it does not coincide with the weekends. So I wind up sharing my morning coffee with these guys, who have a bit of natural assets to deal with the newly fallen white stuff
Something about ducks in the snow makes me feel sad. Makes me think of the movie Dr Zivago , and being banished to Siberia
Yes, I am dating myself with that reference. What can I say - I am an old person. Almost. Numerically that is.

So while the ducks wandered across the frozen land and "Somewhere my love" kept filling my head, I started to think about dinner. Chicken was planned, but I wanted to do something a little more exciting. A little more interesting. A little death defying. And then I realized that what I needed was to spend this meal prep time teaching my son some knife cuts and a simple way to garnish. Yes, I know how to do these things, but normally it seems like putting on a string of pearls and a matching sweater set just to step into the laundry room . When no one else is there. At 2 am. It's nice but not nessisary.
We were planning to eat some cucumbers with dill, so it made a very nice medium to teach the three most basic knife cuts- slice ( top left) dice ( bottom two) and julienne  ( top upper  right). Ripe cucumber, sharp knife, basic safety rules like curl your fingers under away from the knife and it makes for a safe, satisfying lesson. He was wowed. Then I moved on and showed him how to make a cucumber look "fancy" with a zester. Run lines down the peel, slice and it looks purty
 My son adores any kind of food that is made to be eye appealing.Garnishes, bento boxes, tomato roses- he gets super excited about . If I teach him how to do any of these , it gets stuck in his memory forever. I was on a roll with these tricks, so I decided to teach him another fun sort of trick- polenta in an artsy way. Polenta is basically broth brought to a boil , and cornmeal whisked into the broth and seasoned with herbs, butter, cheese and so forth. It can be poured in a bowl and topped, poured on a serving platter and topped or poured on a cookie sheet, chilled and cut. Polenta was on the menu , so I decided to show him the last option
Polenta cooling on a cookie sheet
Polenta cut in circles with a biscuit cutter and a few leftover bits cut into squares.

Next came a veggie. Asparagus has been inexpensive here, but it is one veggie he is still not crazy about. I keep telling him that the trick to find how to like a veggie is to investigate different ways to prepare it. He watches a lot of TV cooking shows and was fascinated when some chef used this idea. It's asparagus! It's bacon! It's fancy !

Remove the woody ends from the asparagus stalks, grease a cookie sheet and wrap each stalk in a slice of bacon in a spiral sort of fashion. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes and serve

Put it all together with your favorite recipe for chicken parts, and it makes a nice( and fancy sort of looking) meal
Dinner cooked, lessons taught, bellies full , ready to conquer a new week.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Pizza Joust

There is something about pizza and the weekend that belongs together . I think one reason  is that pizza today is one of the easiest foods to have delivered to your door. Another is that it has an almost universal appeal. Unless there are people in the group that have to avoid gluten , you can get custom toppings that can fit almost any dietary requirement. Pizza is basically fresh warm bread with stuff on it, and who does not like fresh warm bread ?

So here begins the tale of what could be seen as one of the biggest tragedies of our lives at the moment. Once upon a time, about 5 1/2 months ago, there was a family who lived in a town with perhaps the biggest percentage of pizza restaurants to population ratio in the Chicago suburbs. So many tasty pizza choices that it produced the heaviest contestant on The Biggest Loser ( shout out to Mike Ventrellia , who won that season). Then the family moved to a town with greater opportunities, the blessings of first floor living  and many wonderful things. There was a drawback, however. The new land had  but a handful of pizza places and most of them very bad. So bad that after ordering from a couple the mother decreed that there shall be no more carry out pizza . The family was sad , for memories of previous pizzas still danced in their memories.

All was not lost. The Mother had the skills to make a very good pizza dough, but kept getting sabotaged by the concept that pizza must have sausage or pepperoni on it. While those toppings are tasty, an extra step must be done to them or pizza became very greasy ( and the extra step made for a flavor compromise). Then one day the mother discovered a pizza topping combination that was so wonderful that it transformed the home made options into something better than could be purchased in any take out pizza place. Having such success with one alternative, she began to explore others, investigating real Italian dishes for flavor combination ideas. . Armed with this information ( and inspired by a Nadia G episode titled Dysfunctional Family Pizza Night), an evening was set aside to uncover which topping would make the Fairest pizza in the land. A Pizza Joust was declared  ! ( hey...if Bobby Flay can have throw downs, I can have Jousts !)

Dough was easy to create.For one crust, take 1 cup warm water, 1 tsp yeast, 1 tsp of olive oil and a 1/4 tsp salt and mix with enough flour to form a smooth, elastic non sticky dough( depending on the humidity this can be anything from 3-5 cups of flour) Place in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise till double in bulk in a warm place. Inside of the oven is a good place, on top of your refrigerator is another- just pick some place that has a little heat and is out of drafts. It will take about 40 minutes to an hour to rise , depending on the air temperature. meanwhile, start cutting up your toppings. Next , roll out your crust to the desired thickness and begin to top. Once topped, bake in a 425 oven for about 20 minutes. This step really is determined by how hot your oven runs. A thermometer makes it foolproof, but it seems to be one of those things that few people have. What is the most reliable thing to judge "done-ness" is your nose- when it smells like a pizza you get delivered, it is very likely done ( unless the cheese has spilled on the floor of your oven.

Four brave contestants were chosen for the joust.
The first was Potato with onions and rosemary ( thanks Nadia G for this idea !). With a mandolin ( of very competent knife skills), slice a russet potato and two white onions very thin.Strip the needles of 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary. Spread olive oil on the crust , layer on the potatoes and brush with a little more olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss on the onions and sprinkle with rosemary. The bottom middle section of this one was christened with some fresh mozzarella that slid from the pizza above it, but judgment was based on the non cheese adorned portions.
Second option was pesto with fresh mozzarella. I used Amore Pesto ( I simply had to use up the leftovers in this very excellent tube) and sliced fresh mozzarella. For those who do not know, fresh mozzarella comes in a ball, usually packaged in water. It tastes far superior to any shredded or bricked mozzarella, and once you taste it, you will be spoiled for the rest of your life. It is less salty, more creamy and when raw has a sort of cheese curd tooth feel. You must sluice it yourself, and toss out any idea of shredding this- it is too tender.

Third contestant was a Meyer Lemon, black olive , basil and Parmesan cheese option. This was based on the numerous Carapagio recipes out there. I would have never considered putting lemons on a pizza a year ago , but these flavors work together in a very interesting way.

Final option was something we called Caprese Pizza but the rest of the world would know it as a Margahrita Pizza. Brush the dough with olive oil , tomato paste and balsamic vinegar glaze. Sprinkle on fresh basil that has been cut into a chiffonad ( fancy french term that means rolled up and then sliced into ribbons), the cherry tomato halves and mozzarella cheese.

The winner ? The Potato Pizza. Something so wonderful seems to happen when potatoes and onions meet with rosemary and warm bread ! It's a carb lovers paradise to be sure that would work extremely well as an appetizer. The same is true for the pizza with the lemons and olives.Something about that combo is very cleansing to the pallet and makes your digestive tract sort of wake up. All options were very delicious, and all will be served again in this house. It was a lot of fun trying these combos head to head, and such competitions can make for the centerpiece of a family fun night. You become the food critic, and you participate in the assembly of dinner.

And thus, happiness returned to the land for the moment. There will be other dragons to slay though. Will pizza success force the mother to long for a wood burning pizza oven  ? Will the neighbors become suspicious of the smells coming from the apartment and begin to show up asking to borrow a cup of sugar and hoping to be invited in for a slice ? Will there ever be a home oven big enough to cook 4 pizzas at once ? Tune in tomorrow, where the answers to these questions will be completely ignored  in the attempt to deal with other dilemmas !

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pasta and boys on the side

Sometimes , when you are cooking every day, you can get stuck in a sort of food rut. The same way to make chicken, the same way to make pork chops, and after a time it seems the same ole salad mix and pasta or rice the same ole way.With pasta it seems you think either butter and Parmesan cheese or tomato sauce or the ole cheddar cheese standby. In desperation you reach for a can of cream of whatever soup, the family is happy, but something deep inside screams for a new idea for a side.

I think you need to look no further than the Italians for a millions tasty, creative ways to make pasta exciting, usually with very common ingredients. I had come across this  combination many times, but something about it made me thing it would be too weird or too "carby". Last night for dinner I was feeling daring, and a little stuck for a side with a most excellent piece of cod. I do know it has an Italian name, but for the life of me I cannot remember what it is. Lets simply call it Pasta with breadcrumbs and walnuts. Call it whatever you will- just as long as you don't forget to call me to eat when it is ready !

                             Pasta with breadcrumbs, walnuts, parsley and garlic- serves 4-6

1 lb pasta with ridges ( Rigatoni works nice)
1 handful italian parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and then chopped
2-8 cloves of garlic, germed and chopped ( to taste)
1/2 c olive oil

In a big bowl combine the breadcrumbs, parsley  and walnuts. Cook the pasta to al dente. Meanwhile in a small pan saute the garlic in olive oil, being careful not to burn. Drain the pasta, reserving a small amount of water. Add pasta to the breadcrumb mix, toss, add the reserved water, toss and then pour on the olive oil. Toss and serve. No need for cheese here as the breadcrumbs give the mouth feel of cheese, the walnuts and olive oil give the smooth texture of cheese. It is lick the plate, mixing bowl and utensils yummy ! I served it with a simple peice of cod, seasoned with a little salt, pepper, dill, pats of butter and lemon slices, baked in a 425 oven for 12 minutes and placed on top a bed of baby spinach

The boys in the house ( as well as this mom) loved it ! Simple, nourishing ingredients make a satisfying meal.  After discovering yet again how well these Italian flavor combinations work, I am becoming brave enough to tackle one of the very few foods I have never tried- anchovy ! I hear mixed reviews about these, and I am beginning to believe that it is the way they are combined with other flavors that makes then loved or despised. The guys in the house don't seem to have the same desire I have for new culinary horizons. Don't get me wrong- they are happy as anything with the results coming out of the kitchen since I began cooking just real food. However , they do not look at cans of artichokes, wondering if they would work in a tuna salad or get giddy over the prospects of fleur de selle ( fancy french sea salt). They simply get excited when something smells really good in the kitchen and the clock says that they will be eating it in a matter of minutes. Not a bad thing , really.They are always ready and willing to pitch in and help if I need it, do the dishes just because and go on shopping quests for all kinds of nifty ingredients. Like a side car on a motorcycle, they make the journey a whole lot more fun- and keep me happily stocked up in hugs, kisses and love .

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mussels of Love !

I grew up in the Chicago area. A land with a lot of ethnic neighborhoods, fantastic hot dog stands and places that always cut pizza into squares. The first time I saw pizza cut into a wedge it felt like I entered a different dimension or something. Fridays at that time meant Fish Fries of haddock, trout, cod and assorted whitefish. Fried clam strips were also very popular, but today it seems no one offers them.  Bivalves like oysters, clams and mussels were available in canned form only- unless you were willing to pay a very hefty price. Then sometime in the late 80's, greater options , including fresh bivalves at a reasonable price became available. I had seen them in the fish counters, but did not buy them for a long time because I thought you had to take a special knife, shuck them and in the process potentially lose a finger due to the lack of a chainmail glove and improper knife. Turns out that unless you are speaking of oysters, scallops or abalone, I was mistaken. You only need to steam these babies, and it can be done in a variety of different liquids.

Mussels and clams are super easy to cook and prepare ! Today , the ones sold in the fish counter of supermarkets are often cleaned and ready to cook. Bring them home , remove the plastic and store them in the fridge for a day. Because these fellas are alive and require seawater to remain alive ( do not store them in fresh water, or you will kill them), they are best cooked the day you buy them. Remove any plastic wrapping, give them a rinse, discard any that are open ( exception- ones that are slightly open but you can push closed easily are okay) and remove any stringy things on the outside of the shell ( this is called the beard.). With a little effort and some basic vegetables, you wind up with a dish that looks beautiful, plentiful and tastes absolutely wonderful ( and is very nourishing !)

                                                    Steamed Mussels

2 lbs black mussels, washed and picked to discard any open ones
3 cloves garlic, peeled, germed and sliced
1/2 stick butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1 small handful parsley, chopped
1 lemon , sliced
1/ 2 bottle white wine OR 6 cups water ( I prefer the water)

In a dutch oven melt the butter, add the olive oil and saute the onions and garlic. Add the wine or water, the lemon and parsley and bring to a boil. Add the mussels, cover , and let cook for about 3 minutes, or until the mussels are opened. Remove from the heat and serve- discard any that have not opened. To eat, simply suck out the mussel or pick it out with a fork. These guys are so delicious you could easily consume pounds of them in one sitting.

My only problem with these is that I want to figure out a really neat use for the leftover shells ! Too big for earrings and not flexible enough for make shift castanets, and too big to incorporate in something like a seashell tissue cover. Perhaps I should fire up my glue gun and make one of these:
I could hang it in my kitchen as an homage to my love of these tasty little guys ! Or perhaps I should dream of a way for my husband to land a job somewhere on the Atlantic coast and spend my days combing the rocks on the beaches for mussels and cook them on the spot. This would probably pose an environmental hazard over time, so it is probably best that I just remain content to live in the midwest and buy them from the supermarket as often as I can.

I understand that clams cook in a similar fashion. I believe I should do some investigation and experimentation with this.All in the name of education, after all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lemon pasta and other loves

Today begins the 40( plus change) day journey known as Lent. For those of you who are old school Catholics, the word Let brings up images of a scmear of ashes on the forehead, weeks of trying to give up whatever vice you have become best friends with and Meatless Fridays. To some people, the idea of life without meat is like cruel and unusual punishment, and for others it has come down to thoughts of "how can I make this blue box stuff taste any better". To these people I say meatless meals can be not only tasty but very filling, and the blue box stuff could be used as a charcoal lighter so you can grill a nice piece of salmon or something ( that may be the only way it leads to something that tastes good). Giving up meat for a meal or two ( or more) can enable you to investigate some wonderful options that will show you more flavor than you ever dreamed possible.

One very yummy option I learned from watching David Rocco. Let us all take a moment to bask in his flavor... !

A good looking man who knows how to cook ? What is not to love !  He features very authentic Italian dishes that use olive oil, rosemary, pasta ,tomatoes,veggies, fish and lemons quite frequently. If there is any culture that knows how to use a lemon to a masterful level , it would be the Italians ( followed closely by the Greeks). Lemons grow wild in Southern Italy and Greece, and have had the benefit of thousands of years worth of human ingenuity on how to best use them. Thumbs up to the concept of using local ingredients. It is in this way that you eventually discover things like olive oil. Here in the states this means a rich opportunity for someone to finally discover a use for Garlic Chives ( Jack by the Hedge).

 Or create that great Teasel Casserole using this beautiful person.

When I saw Rocco make this dish for the first time my mouth began to water, and I deeply craved it because of my perception of how these flavors would combine. It was a few days before I was able to make it, but the result was so worth the wait. It is sort of like elevated Mac and Cheese, and so good you may look for many occasions to create this simple but delicious dish  !

                                                          Lemon Pasta- feeds 4 as an entree

1 lb pasta
1 clove garlic
2 lemons
handful fresh parsley
5 T olive oil
1 cup grated cheese ( I like asiago)

Start your water to boil , and assemble your veggies. Take one clove of garlic, slice and rub the inside of your serving bowl with this. Discard the remaining clove. Zest the two lemons, chop your fresh parsley and place these in a bowl.
I use a little micro planer to zest the lemons. You want to get the rind only- that is where the flavor and aroma lies. The white part is bitter - kind of like an older woman reflecting on how she never became Miss State Fair  or married that Donald Trump guy.

In the bowl combine the olive oil, juice from both lemons and salt and pepper to taste. Using a wire whisk, whisk together and then mix in your grated cheese. Cheese and lemon together you say with horror ? Think cheesecake- and relax. They work together !

When the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the bowl with the lemon and cheese mixture. Toss well and plate. Top the pasta with the chopped parsley and lemon zest, and additional grated cheese if desired.

The result is something that tastes so fresh and light that you might never eat macaroni with a cheddar sauce again.If you want it less green, use less parsley. Myself, I find that I could eat whole bunches of raw parsley, so I go a bit overboard. Whatever- that is the beauty of making your own food. You can add as much or as little of a seasoning as you desire ( or leave it out entirely). It's your meal- it does not impact me  !

Tasting dishes like this kind of makes me wish that the meatless customs of Lent could go year round. However that sort of idea could lead to the need to place something on your head when you walk into church- like that kleenex in your pocket in cases of an emergency. In these days of Aloe and Lanolin anntibacterial tissues, I would worry about how that might react with my super fluffy/shiny/speaks in fratalian conditioner. It is probably not a good thing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New adventures in Asparagus

We spent a really nice day yesterday with a visit to one of my favorite local places, The National Shrine of St Therese. While it probably has a deeper meaning for my husband ( and completely different one for my son), I enjoy visiting because the place is so peaceful and visually pleasant. Lots of artifacts from the life of St Theresa, displayed in a way that could serve as a good tutorial on how to decorate. It's not about placing everything together in a kind of cluttered fashion, but rather place each piece in a small area where it stands out alone. I could take a lot of lessons away from that !
 Later that day we came home , and eventually it was time to make dinner. I had planned a meal, but forgot to factor in a very strange personal phenomenon in the planning. For some very odd reason  I have no problem cooking very good meals when I have spent the day at home, but put me in an afternoon outing and I seem to lose all desire to cook. It's something that strikes me a just very odd- and perhaps the reason why I do not like going a lot of places. However, when you are the Mom and the one who usually cooks, such things must be overcome, lest children and husbands become like ravenous zombies and threaten to devour you . Well, not exactly true, and my husband is more than happy to run out and pick something up any time I choose not to cook. I worry about the expense, the additives, the possibility of learning he has formed a meaningful bond with Wendy, and so I buck it up and cook most days.( and just kidding about the Wendy Affair- it would more logically happen if a certain local sandwich chain turned out to be founded or named after a woman, and only after a prolonged period of time - and that I cannot let happen). I had planned to make Polish Sausage and Steamed Asparagus. Only I did not wish to drag out the steamer. And I did not have a bottle of beer to cook the sausage in. Oh Bother- what is a Mom to do ?

Brainstorm- if you can fry a potato and a green bean, why can't you fry an asparagus ???
Cut the woody ends off
Fire up the deep fryer on the counter and toss those babies in the fry basket
Deep fry at 375 for about 3 minutes, drain on paper towels and salt. Verdict ? It removes the weird asparagus over taste, and has a crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside kind of taste. Not bad, but not something I would make all the time because it was too delicate tasting for something deep fried. However, if young children were involved this could be a good way to get them to eat asparagus ! Then came the polish sausage issue. I sliced up a couple of onions, sweated them in a pan with some olive oil and tossed them in the pan, covered, and hoped that between the onions and the sausage grease it would have enough moisture to steam cook. A few minutes into the process it became clear that some aid was required. No beer available ( best flavor option), water would just be too whimpy, only stock in the house was frozen, so what to do ? My brain scanned through the available options and realized that polish sausage is simply seasoned pork in a casing and that people use soda often to make pulled pork. Therefor, a can of soda just might work here. A can of Sierra Mist was sacrificed for the cause, and I would rest easy on the fact that my guys are usually pretty good sports about eating my experiements.

The results ? A winner ! The soda took out something that normally gives me a brief headache when I eat polish sausage ( or any sausage other than Italian), and made the onions turn to a really nice caramelized, warm smooshy consistency. This one is a definite do again kind of dish .

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why did the chicken cross the road ? To escape being cooked for Sunday Dinner !

There is something very laid back about Sundays. Even in this day and age of bizarre shift work, cross country families and heavy commitment schedules, there is something about the very word Sunday that makes you think about slowing down a little. Pause- linger- eat something that takes a little more time and effort. Much of this stems from a time when Sunday was the day everything was closed, services were attended, and you just might go visit Grandma or other family member. It was a good thing- people were sort of guided towards relaxing , and a grand body of things that would fit Sunday Dinner Fare was well known, Every family had a Sunday Gravy, Sunday Pot Roast or so forth. If nothing else, there was the Sunday roast chicken, with all of it's possibilities for broth, sandwiches and chicken and dumpling sort of dishes to follow. Yum !

Sadly today , there are many people who do not know how to cook beyond opening a can or boiling water, and there are others who have been brainwashed by the forces of EVIL cooking , who create recipes with no fat ( and no taste) because they themselves have been seduced by the lie that fat is unhealthy.  You need fat- real NATURAL fats ( butter, olive oil, peanut oil), not factory fats( canola, vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil or margarine). It not only adds actual taste( and satiation) to food, but it allows all of those fat soluble vitamins ( A and D amongst them) to be absorbed by your body. Without these, it would be the same thing as you attempting to enter a locked building without a key ( or a blowtorch- but that's another story).

One of the things I like to make on Sunday is Roast Chicken with Roast veggies. One pan, easy clean up, deliciousness ! For several years I would roast veggies with a simple drizzle of olive oil, and they would come out about as tender as wood chips, and have as much flavor as a partially burned box. My loving family would politely gnaw on these , smile, say "yum", and eat very small servings. Then I discovered how to REALLY prepare roast veggies and the family would smile , devour nearly all that was made, in silence, with looks of satisfaction on their faces. Let's face it- isn't that the kind of thing you want to see happen when you put a meal on your table ?

                                Chicken and Roast Root Veggies -2 1/2 hrs prep and cook time                                                

First, get a roasting pan  and assortment of root veggies that are in season, available, your family favorites- no rules here except they should all be root type veggies for similar constancy and cooking time ( spinach takes less time than potatoes so they would not be a good mix). Here I am using a mix of beets peeled and cubed, yukon gold potatoes unpeeled and cubed, onions and a big sweet potato unpeeled and cubed. Sprinkle  the mix with salt and pepper. Now here comes the different part- step over to your stove, grab a half a stick of butter, a serious glug of olive oil ( about a quarter cup), and cook on low heat till the butter is melted.Pour over the veggies, mix, pour  and place in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.After 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and place a whole chicken , washed , dried and seasoned on top of the veggies.
I season mine with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika and I like to tuck a couple of halved lemons and sprigs of rosemary in the cavity for flavor and an aroma that flirts with you while it cooks. Forgive the poor picture- I was using my new phone's camera to see if I could streamline life a little. Placing the chicken on top of the veggies acts in the same way as placing a chicken on a roasting rack- it raises it so the heat can come in contact with more of the surface, and you get a crispy skin.In this case the veggies benefit from a flavor boost gifted to them via the chicken drippings.  Reduce the heat to 375 and slide the pan with bird and veggies back into the oven for 1 1/2 hrs. Trust me- the veggies will not turn to shrapnel and the bird will cook nicely without basting, foil coverings, voodoo or anything else.Frequent opening of your oven to baste does nothing more than repeatedly reduce the temperature inside of your oven, potentially making for an underdone bird. Go annoy your cat, snuggle with your husband, take a bubble bath, heckle the squirrels on your porch or anything else you might fancy. It will cook perfectly without any meddling .

In a mere 90 minutes, after it has tempted your senses and made you so hungry you will wish to eat the gasket on the oven door as an appetizer, your meal will be done. Remove the chicken, check the internal temp with a meat thermometer to be sure( 180 degrees) and transfer to a serving plate  and let sit 10 minutes before carving. Try hard !
Then place your roast veggies in a serving bowl:

Then slice up that bird and consume ! Try not to break into fist fights over who gets the last piece of skin - after all, it is Sunday Dinner and you should play nice ! You can save the bones, any liquid in the pan and any left over veggies to make a pot of bone broth ( the base for so many other wonderful things). Put em in the freezer if you are not going to make this in a day or two. The left over chicken( if any) makes a great chicken salad. Or casserole. Clean up is just one seriously dirty pan and one you used to melt butter. It's a beautiful thing ! It's a quick trip from this satisfying dinner to an evening of yelling at The Apprentice. What's not to love ??

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some good things

It has been a mild winter, but there is still an excitement that fills you when you recognize signs that say spring is right around the corner. Two of them have happened her- the songbirds are beginning to return for the spring  and Mardi Gras happens this coming Tuesday
Mardi Gras- or Fat Tuesday, is the day before Ash Wednesday  ( the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter), and is marked by different forms of pastries, pancakes, and a giant party in New Orleans where girls go wild and show off their assets for a string of beads :
Okay- maybe not quite the same thing here, but there are pastries involved in this picture :-) This year we are going to take a mini retreat sort of thing to kind of catch our breath before Lent. Yesterday, being a Saturday  meant a day of food prep for a stress free week with healthy options available for quick snacks. Yes, snacks. Meals are not a problem, but my son still is a snacky creature, and I refuse to fill him up on less than healthy foods that are more lab experiment than anything else. My husband brown bags breakfast and lunch on working days and when he is called to sing for a funeral ( very often these days), and he needs a breakfast that he can eat in the car, in the parking lot, while waiting for the guest of honor to arrive,so to speak. Gruesome sounding, but true. My solution for all of these has been to spend a few hours on Saturday , armed with ingredients and containers, and create a smooth week ahead. Here are some things that work very well:
                                Cottage cheese and cereal, which gets mixed together as a neater and more substantial alternative to cereal and milk. Oat Squares this week because it is his favorite.
A set of 3 meals of these and some bagel sandwiches in the freezer to be heated at the office works very well.
Veggie snack kits- an assortment of cut cauliflower, celery and baby peppers in individual containers, accompanied with small containers of dip. I used to cut these up and store them in big containers, and they would go forgotten or neglected and uneaten. Anything that was packed in a single serve sort of way on the other hand, would be devoured, so I decided to pack veggies this way .  Once again they are heartily consumed. I think it's a kind of lunchables mindset or something !
You know those Jiff to Go things ? Makes for a really nice way to take peanut butter for a snack or as a dip for veggies, but they can get pricy- and all those disposable things become a not so nice contribution to the environment when you toss them. Better solution- invest in reusable containers, buy a big jar of peanut butter and create your own.
For reasons I do not completely understand, if I buy the above and keep it in a very convenient place, it will not get eaten. Everyone loves fruit and loves the taste of these fruits, but it seems it is too much commitment ( or something about the mess factor) with the melons and pineapples. So I do this:

                  or this:
Yes, I have a juicer and I am not afraid to use it ! Fruit and veggie juices happen throughout the week, and cut up fruit salad is just a streamlining step here. One of the things that is nice to do this time of year is to mix different citrus fruits with dark greens like kale to create incredibly tasty and nutrient dense juices.

Be it a week of school, field trips or anything else, having these things on hand makes life a little easier here, and adds to a healthier lifestyle. I keep looking for ways to add good things to our life. Anything that allows me to spend more time enjoying life with my guys or exploring one of my many passions is a good thing !

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Italian Invasion

It seems kind of funny to me that something I used to do at least once a day has become something that I completely forgot I ever did for the last 4 months. !

I blame Facebook !

It is all to easy to determine you will spend "only a couple of minutes" checking on your friend's and family, and suddenly realizing that it has been four hours and two leisurely cups of coffee since you sat down and the house elves have not done the laundry or vacuuming or dishes or... So you get up feeling full of guilt, start doing chores and somehow forget that you were going to write about that fantastic meal you made last night , or the belly dancing moves you tried get the picture ! I must confess to stumbling upon an episode of The Pioneer Woman on the On Demand offerings, watching her, remembering that she has a great blog, suddenly remembering I also have a blog, and discovering it has been 4 months since I posted anything.

So what has been happening ?

The journey has been much more about cooking  nourishing, authentic food than anything else. I have fallen in love with authentic Italian cooking, hanging on every word of people like David Rocco,

 and dreaming of a million ways to use grape tomatoes.
I am beginning to think that anything in the world would taste beyond wonderful with the addition of grape tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic. I have to say I liked garlic a lot, but  this woman
Nadia G, showed something on her show that taught me a way to elevate garlic to an almost God-like quality . You must de-germ your garlic ! What is the germ  you ask?

It is the part of a garlic clove that is the beginning of a new shoot. Most garlic is grown in places like China , and has sat on the shelf for quite some time. As it sits, the germ within begins to sprout, and it form an incredibly bitter , evil taste. If you peel your clove, split it down the middle and remove the germ from the clove before slicing, it removes everything evil and allows you to add a wonderful flavor to your food. Fiddly, yes, but worth every second of effort !  Armed with this secret weapon, life in my kitchen has become a font of all things wonderful . Really.

As far as weight loss goes- I have no idea. We no longer own a scale, but I do know I have needed to buy underwear 2 sizes smaller since our move, and my clothes are looser. Bob and Nick are also wearing smaller clothes, so that would indicate weight loss all around. It is no longer even a consideration in this household, but some have asked. If we want sweets, we eat them. If we want pasta, we eat it. We follow our appetites and eat real food- things with whole eggs, full fat milk, cream, fried in peanut oil or with butter and olive oil if pan fried. Life is good