Three square meals a day

I’m usually pretty good with food for my family. Most of the time I cook a fair deal, and enjoy feeding people. I get a farmshare about a third of the year, which helps get the creative juices (by which I mean sheer panic) going. But I’ve been in a serious cooking rut the last few months. There’s the constant battle with the kids about what they will and won’t eat. (They philosophically know that veggies are good for them, but Grey’s current favorite food is the whitest of white bread with JIF peanut butter – which is basically peanut butter candy.) There’s the ever present time constraints. And honestly, I just got sick of all my recipes. I recently attempted listing them in a spreadsheet to see if there were any I wasn’t sick of, and there are 37 of them on my list. I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten.

But I was definitely sick of all of them.

I trolled through my cookbooks looking for new or forgotten recipes, and considered how much things have changed. My earliest recipe book, the Whitehouse Cookbook, called for difficult to acquire ingredients. Like bear. Or possum. And it made rather large presuppositions about my cooking facilities – I have rather a dearth of earthen pits. But I have plenty of recipe books that lean rather heavily on cream of mushroom soup, as a genre. The cookbooks I got when I was first married, like Betty Crocker, still hold up in some arenas, but are on the whole more processed, less vegetably and not so healthy as I want to eat. (They’re tough to beat in the pie-zone though.)

So I ordered a bunch of new cookbooks, and complained on Facebook.

Whining

What I really want is a cookbook that does all of that:
– Pairs ingredients that are available together seasonally (like brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes)
– Uses the stuff I get a lot of (hellloooo kale!)
– Can feed between 4 – 12 people (the range of eaters at my table)
– Can be made in an hour or less
– Is healthy
– Doesn’t use extra weird ingredients (looking at you asafetida)
– That my kids will like
– That my husband will like

In this season of whining, my friends really came through for me. Prior to my Facebook posting, one friend sent me a free week of Hello Fresh, which did end up making two very tasty meals that fit all my criteria. I’d tried Blue Apron before, but found it really hard to work in a meal service PLUS a CSA. I think that I may sign up for another meal service in the fall when my farmshare is done.

Another friend actually found the right cookbook for me. Two of them actually. And she sent them to me, which was incredibly kind of her. My own explorations were not nearly so successful. They’re both from America’s Test Kitchen (as is about 70% of my in-rotation cookbook collection). And they look AMAZING. Nutritious Delicious seems very much a response to “oh crap, my farmshare sent me kale again”. I particularly appreciate the nutrition information, but sadly it doesn’t tell me recipe prep time. I’ve definitely missed a “simmer for two hours” instruction before in recipes, so I really like the prep time estimates, even though I always assume they’ll take a little longer.

A package waiting for me

But the one I’m *really* excited about is “Dinner Illustrated“. This is the cookbook I’ve been waiting for all my life. OK, for at least a few years. It’s done in a meal-plan style, where the sides are included in the recipe. All the recipes take an hour or less, soup to nuts. There’s step by step picture instructions. There’s a huge section of vegetarian recipes, making reducing your meat intake an appealing prospect. I was a little disappointed to see that it didn’t have nutritional information on the recipes. I don’t normally care, but my father is visiting me and he’s working on handling his diabetes with better nutrition. (Given my life at work is helping people manage their diabetes better, I’m fully in support!) So knowing how many carbs are in a recipe is important. But then I flipped to the back and discovered that there’s a full accounting of the nutritional information in a handy table, helping me find lower carb, higher protein options. FTW.

I just came up with my meal list for the week, and I’m very excited. Rut, busted.

All this made me feel happy and grateful for my good friends. It also made me remember to stop and think of how lucky I am. My oppression by the boredom of my favorite recipes, while a real problem for me, is the very best problem one can have with food. I can afford healthy food. I have easy access to a wide range of fresh ingredients. I have time to cook healthy food. I have a fully equipped kitchen, ready to zest, peel, slice, blanche and otherwise prepare healthy food – and I have all those skills to do it. (Although my knife skills are no better than meh.) I don’t need to consider any eating disorders. My family does not need a specialized diet – no food allergies or intolerances or religious restrictions. Then to top it off, I have friends who are able to help me out. Not for any dire need, but even for small things recipe malaise.

How fortunate I am. How easy it is to forget. So today, as I write out my grocery list, I am grateful. And remembering that the list maybe should include some of the things my local food pantry needs, too.

Pantry Challenge: Week 1 Report

So we’re just about at the 1 week mark of the Pantry Challenge. So far, I’ve run out of bananas and am perilously short on ice cream.

I expected the first week to being something of a non-event, since I buy groceries weekly. But I learned something after all. (That’s the point of an experiment like this, right?) We eat out or get takeout more often than I realized. It was hard going a full week with (almost) all the food we ate being food I made. Usually there’s pizza (or fast food) on Mondays for Library Pizza night. And then maybe sometime mid week we’d go out to eat. There’s walking to get ice cream at the Dairy Dome, a cappuccino at Kushala Sip… many small purchases over the course of the week. But not this week.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I ended up getting a coffee at Kushala Sip, but I paid for it out of my own allowance. And Adam asked for and got some Five Guys fries which I again paid for out of my allowance. But he’s recovering from a minor surgery and it seemed like it was only the right thing to do to get the poor guy some fries.

It will be interesting to see what genre of food I run out of first. I thought a lot about all the different kinds of dinners I can make, but I suspect that lunch-making materials will actually run out first. I have these thoughts of baking snacks instead, but the kids have a poor track record of eating the moderately healthy things I could bake. Breakfasts might also run out first, but Adam’s bread toasted makes an amazing breakfast, and we have enough ingredients to make that for the full run of the month, even if we eat a lot more than usual.

So here’s what we ate for dinner this week. Just as a reminder, you can follow all the fun during at The Pantry Challenge site! I am not sure I’ll post regular updates here (because I suspect they’re boring).

Monday –
Last Peapod order arrived! Last restaurant trip made on the way back from camping. I meant to take a picture of all the crazy bags scattered across the kitchen floor, but we were in the middle of a board game, so I didn’t.

Tuesday –

Taco day!
Taco day!

Mostly compliant with tacos to use a box stuffed in the back of the cupboard plus perishable veggies. After everyone pointed out it wasn’t June yet, we got one last round of ice creams. Mine is always a twist cone dipped in chocolate.

Dairy Dome twist cone
Dairy Dome twist cone

Adam also baked a batch of scones for his coworkers, several of which didn’t quite make it to work. That led to our first (and so far only) from-budget purchase. He got a pint of heavy cream, sultana (golden) raisins, lemonade, a cumcumber and a lime.

From the Empress Hotel recipe
From the Empress Hotel recipe

Wednesday –
On Wednesdays we often host a number of our friends for gaming. I have thought a lot about how I can feed 10 people a nice meal on this restrictive budget. I think if I plan ahead, I can do it. But it definitely takes forethought. This Wednesday’s meal was sponsored by the color beige. Chicken pot pie is a fan favorite and was spectacular as usual. Adam’s home made bread will be a staple of our penury – he makes it every week and it never gets undelicious. (We have enough peanut butter and home made jam to last far more than a month!) Then we had the scones from Tuesday for dessert. So much delicious beige…

Pot pie and bread
Pot pie and bread

Thursday –
Fried rice is a farm share staple for me, and plays an important role in my standard cooking repertoire. See, you buy a rotisserie chicken (which can often be as inexpensive as $5 if you catch it on a sale night). You strip it and use the meat in fried rice (often along with the “what the heck do I do with this” vegetables from your farm share). Then you take the remnants of the carcass and pressure cook them (along with more random vegetables) to make chicken stock. A tremendous number of my recipes rely on a constant, large supply of homemade chicken broth, so I do this pretty often.

Dietary staple
Dietary staple

Friday –
Pizza night. Honestly, it wasn’t as good as the violet pizza I made last time we had homemade pizza! But it was still pretty darn good.

Pizza - store bought dough. We can make our own though.
Pizza – store bought dough. We can make our own though.

Saturday –
I used this amazing technique called “get invited over to a friend’s house and eat their delicious food”. Like most of the techniques I’m using to not spend money on food, this is probably harder if you live in an impoverished community. But man, it was tasty.

This whole plate was delicious
This whole plate was delicious

Sunday –
I make chili (and cornbread) very often on Sundays. Maybe even as often as every other Sunday. The rest of the family eats leftovers for lunches. (My company provides lunches for us, which is an amazing perk.) Chili makes premium leftovers for lunches, and we all love it. I’m thinking that I’ll run out of ground turkey (which we use instead of ground beef) first of my dinner ingredients. It’s used in a ton of my recipes.

The color filter is off in this picture - too yellow
The color filter is off in this picture – too yellow
Company lunch. No complaints.
Company lunch. No complaints.

Mocksgiving Recipes

Mocksgiving has come and gone, leaving in its wake only memories, dirty dishes and two inexplicable pounds. Mmmm… I love Mocksgiving.

This makes me hungry just looking at it

A post-party call was made for some of the recipes served. It occurs to me this might be particularly useful pre-Thanksgiving information. So, without further ado:

Cranberry Sauce with Pomegranate Molasses
Originally from Bon Apetit
1 1/3 cups sugar
3/4 cup red wine
1 12oz package fresh cranberries
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (recipe below)
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
2 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Stir sugar and wine in heavy saucepan until sugar is dissolved. Boil for about 8 minutes, until syrupy. Add cranberries, and boil until they pop (a minute or two). Off heat, stir in pomegranate molasses and basil. Cover and chill. Add cilantro directly before serving.

Notes: this is a very tasty relish, but a little goes a long way. Most people served themselves 2 – 3 tablespoons of this. I would say this could serve 15 or so people. I doubled it this year — I won’t do that again.

Pomegranate Molasses
2 cups pomegranate juice (1 bottle POM wonderful)
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 cup lemon juice

Heat mixture until dissolved. Simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until syrupy. Store refrigerated. (NOTE: I store this in a canning jar. It might be an interesting preserve long term.)

Chocolate Chip/Peanut Butter Bread Pudding
Originally from Better Homes & Gardens Prizewinning Recipes
3 cups white bread cubes (stale is good)
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate pieces
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup peanut butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash salt
2 cups milk

1) Place bread cubes in a greased 2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle with chocolate pieces. In with electric mix, beat sugar and peanut butter until well mixed. Beat in eggs, vanilla & salt. Gradually add in milk. Pour over bread, pressing bread down to make sure it’s all moistened.

2) Bake in 350 oven for 40 to 45 minutes.

Serve hot with vanilla ice cream. Feeds about as many as a pie.

I was also asked for my peach pie recipe and my bread recipe. The peach pie filling is Betty Crocker. (What? Betty Crocker is awesome!) The pie crust & bread recipes are light on ingredients and heavy on technique. I’ll share them if you really want, but the best way to learn how to make those things is to come and make them with me.


Thomas ready for carving

Some other notes… this was quite possibly my best turkey ever. It was a Butterball, so no secret in procurement. I think the trick was that we let it rest significantly longer than usual — probably twice as long. And I think that it would be even better yet if I had given it another 15 or so minutes. Don’t be afraid of the turkey getting cold. It won’t. Put tinfoil over it and let it sit for half an hour or 45 minutes before carving and it will reward you.

I also have a secret for making one turkey provide more gravy than turkily possible. I didn’t do it this year, and I now deeply regret it, as I have everything required for hot turkey sandwiches except (SOB!) gravy. When you put the turkey in the oven, add two cups of chicken broth. (Note: this is for a like 22 pound turkey. If you are making a more reasonably sized bird don’t add as much.) It will totally taste like turkey after you’re done basting, and the result will just be 1.5 cups more gravy at the end of the day.

Finally, a question. Hey mom? My lemon merangue pie crust ALWAYS schlumps. I blamed it on the pie pan I liked to use, but I didn’t use it this time and it still schlumped. How do you make an unfilled pie crust stay up on the sides? Oh well, only one thing to do with an imperfectly schlumpy lemon merangue pie. Someone hand me a fork?

My brother indoctrinated my son in Space Duck... as if I hadn't heard enough about Space Duck when my BROTHER was 5!

I love data

I usually think of myself as a liberal arts kinda girl — all about poetry and language and music and history. But back in high school, I took the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) in order to get out of class and (this is the real reason) because I always liked taking standardized tests. (I know! I’m sorry!). Anyway, the results of this test weren’t wildly surprising except one: I aced the code-breaking section. According to the military and my fuzzy 15 year old memory, I was unusually good at translating one list to another. It indicated that I might be a capable computer programmer. I scoffed.

And here I am, a computer programmer. Go figure. I guess what I’m saying is that my image of myself as a words only person is just that: an image. I actually do have this well of unappreciated ability in the less subjective. One of the places this shows up most is in data sets.

I just cannot resist real numbers. If it can be measured, it makes me happy. For example, as you may recall, I carefully measured and calculated my milk production while pumping at work, doing my best to note and avoid problems with my data set. Why? Um, because data is cool? And of course, halfway through you think of other data you should’ve collected (time spent pumping, quality of audio book being listened to, frigidity of server room and impact on milk production).

So for Christmas my brother bought me a Wii fit. It plays exactly into my weakness. Oh, the Wii throws off fantastic data! It has charts and graphs. How much of the time I spent in my workout was done using strength training exercises? How consistent have I been? How many calories did I burn doing X activity? What is my BMI, with a precision of 2. Love! Love love! Data! It gets even better for me, because I find data highly motivational. Give me a measurable objective and watch me make it and then exceed it by a little bit because, um, that’s just how I roll. So fantastic, right?

Well…. there’s just one problem. Let’s say I have half an hour to workout (aka: a miracle has occurred). Which activity is likely to produce the best fitness results: Wii fit, or a half hour fitness workout (I have a Bollywood dance workout DVR’d I’m dying to try)? Chances are the non-Wii workout will get my heart rate higher longer. But! But but! It won’t provide me with the delicious, delicious data I crave. I’ll have to go by estimates and feelings! Bah!

Exercise isn’t the only place where I face this conflict between the measurable and the likely more effective. This happens all the time in food. For example, which one of these is probably all-over better for you: the delicious turkey-burgers my husband made for dinner last night, or a frozen Healthy Choice dinner? Right. Homemade food from actual ingredients has numerous benefits over prepackaged “food” products – not the least of which is taste. Now, which one of these is easily quantified? That would be the prepackaged one, of course. On the other hand, this “from scratch” food may have nutritional surprises. I’m pretty sure that the turkey-burgers were pretty healthy, but what about the chili that I make about once every two weeks? I think it’s pretty decent nutritionally, but I could be wrong.

So I can rigorously and accurately count calories, or I can make my food from scratch.

The last time I set about losing baby-weight, I accomplished it through rigorous calorie counting in both intake and output. I believe that I switched the way I ate from a mostly home cooked to more prepared. That’s harder now, because there are more people eating the food we cook. I don’t think I’m willing to do that again. (Also, the site I used for calorie counting is still stuck in Web 1.0 and has a painful interface. Oh, for an iPhone with a food and exercise log app!) It will be interesting to see whether I can pull this off: reduce calories and exercise regularly without constant data streams and numbers. So motivational do I find numbers, I’m actually not entirely sure I can.

What about you? Do you love data or find it irrelevant or constrictive? What pointless data sets do you obsessively maintain? What are other circumstances are there conflicts between an optimal outcome and a measurable outcome? Which one do you pick when they are in conflict: optimal or measurable?

No-knead wheat bread

My husband’s recipe for wheat bread was called for after my post yesterday, so here I am being obliging.

We have some dedicated gear for this. My husband makes it in batches of two, so we have two large Rubbermaid containers for rising it in. I apparently lack the vocabulary to force Target.com or Amazon.com to disgorge the exact version, but it’s kind of circular, tallish, has those snaps on the side, maybe 3 quarts, and has a red lid. That should do you. We also have two dutch ovens (they’re expensive, but I got one for Christmas last year and another one at Costco for cheaper – I bet they’re a dime a dozen at yard sales).

He usually makes the dough in about 15 minutes at night, and then bakes it on his work-from-home day so he has fresh bread for lunch. Tough life.

It makes FANTASTIC pressed ham sandwiches and toast. Also, for reasons that are unclear to us, the whole wheat version of this bread seems to stay soft and tasty much longer than the regular version. This bread is a rock-star with a good soup. Enjoy!

No Knead Bread
Ingredients
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour
1/2 Tbsp salt
1/2 tsp active yeast or bread machine yeast
1 cup very warm water
1/2 cup beer (I use Budweiser, Sam Adams light is also nice)
1 Tbsp White vinegar

Instructions
Whisk together dry ingredients and then stir in wet ingredients until all ingredients combined and a shaggy ball of dough forms.

Leave in a large, airtight container in a warm place to rise for 8 – 12 hours (I leave it overnight).

On a lightly floured surface form dough into a ball and knead 15 times.

Shape into a ball, spray surface of dough with oil, and leave to rise on a piece of parchment paper. While rising, put a large pot with lid (I use a cast iron Dutch oven) into oven and preheat to 500 degrees for 30 minutes.

At end of 30 minutes, reduce heat of oven to 425 degrees. Slice shallowly through top of dough and, picking it up by the ends of the parchment paper, place it inside the preheated pot. Re-cover pot and replace in oven.

Bake for 30 minutes. Remove pot lid and bake uncovered for an additional 20 minutes.

Remove bread immediately to wire rack to cool.

Note: if you want to make this recipe without the whole wheat flour, replace it with 1 cup of bread flour and reduce water to 3/4 cups.

Things I like

The internet can be full of negativity. Twitter feeds and Facebook updates are often either a) inscrutable b) what’s happening at ComicCon or Blogher (what happens if you want to attend both?!) or c) complaining. I confess, I’m just as guilty of this as the next girl. Well, that and coffee-related posts. I had a few whiny posts playing around in my head. They involve having to schedule time to shower and the utter insanity of my next 7 days.

Instead, though, I thought I’d give a list of some things that please me, and continue to please me.

Mt. Rainier and Adam, two of my top favorites
Mt. Rainier and Adam, two of my top favorites

1) The great outdoors. Ok, this is no surprise given that half my posts this summer are OMG CAMPING! But I had forgotten or underestimated just how restorative and joyful it is to look at a horizon of mountains and trees and breathe an unhurried breath.

2) Lois McMaster Bujold What can this woman not write? And it all translates beautifully to audiobook (not universally true). This is how I’ve gotten through, uh, 6 months of pumping in the server room.

3) Sateen sheets. I already have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but when my sheets are sooooooo soft and comfy it seems completely unfair. Then I get two boys bouncing on top of me, and I narrowly avoid a foot to the face and I get up. But man, those sheets are awesome.

4) My house/town. Every time I walk up the steps I’m happy. Every time I take a two block stroll to post some letters and make a deposit at the ATM, walking home past the crowds coming out of the local theater well… it’s an awesome home in a great location filled with the things I love best.

5) Northwest Art. I just love looking at it. It seems mysterious and ancient and reminds me of my long-childhood daydreams. Did you know that the NW was once called New Albion? If I’d known that when I was, say, 12, I might possibly have died from overexcitement. Two great tastes that taste great together.

6) Advice columns. I can’t get enough of them. My favorite was when two letter writers sent the same problem (from their opposite perspectives) to Anne Landers and Dear Abby on the same day.

7) The internet. It’s great time-sink, but it helps me feel connected and informed. Plus, I don’t think I ever would’ve written, despite wanting to, without the maybe-audience of teh intarwebs.

8 ) America’s Test Kitchen. Their recipe books are fantastic. I love how they not only contain really good recipes, but they define their criteria for good and explain the different things they tried to combat the different problems that arose. So now I have not only a great recipe but an understanding of what I can do if I ever want to branch out on my own.

9) The concept of tea. I still have this fantasy about the perfect pot of tea, the quiet moments, the stillness and listening, the poetry. Even when so many of my other daydreams have abandoned me, this one somehow remains.

10) Christmas. It never gets old. I never get past it. It is always a hallowed, golden time to me — full of light, possibility and the sensation of being set apart. I start wishing it was Christmas in about June.

What about you? What’s something in your life that continues to bring you pleasure?