Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cooking is love

Sorry for the absence, but work travel has been in the way.  We now (finally) have the whole family under one roof.  It is so comforting to have us all back together after two weeks of us being scattered.

A by-product of two weeks of intermittent travel is concentrated cooking come the weekend. After we developed our menu plan for the week, the offspring and I headed out to Trader Joe's and Publix.  Once home, the prep began.

The day ended with a dinner of baked Scotch eggs and homemade mac and cheese with sundried tomatoes.  I didn't follow the recipe linked above, but figured it was best to give some idea.  I boiled six eggs and enrobed them in 1 lb of hot, bulk breakfast sausage.  I dredged the wrapped eggs in flour, followed by beaten egg, and finished with bread crumbs.  I allowed the prepped eggs to rest in the frig for about an hour before baking at 400F until the sausage was fully cooked.  The hubby enjoyed them with some mustard.

I also spent time this afternoon prepping gelato from The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato & Sorbetto.  We had two absolutely fabulous flavors for dessert: chocolate and nicciola (hazelnut).  YUM!  I also grabbed pears while shopping today for pear sorbet later in the week.

When we have been apart, all I want to do is feed my family.  This week's menus are looking like they are full of love.

(I have several finished knitting projects and some new yarn and fiber but haven't had a chance to conduct a photo shoot.  More to come on that later.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose

The motto of the kitchen.  There are so many things we can do in the kitchen to make our lives healthier, happier and easier.

In recent years, I have read several article or listened to news stories about American food waste.  Reducing food waste in our homes is not only good for the wallet, it is also good for society in that food you aren't wasting can be purchased and used by someone else.

The primary waste in the food budget occurs in the produce department.  Often, we have lofty ideals of how much fresh produce we will consume in a given week.  (We have all fallen prey to not consuming the salad we purchased after telling ourselves we were going to eat salads for lunch most of the week.)  The grocery store is smart too.  If they place the grapes and cherries in convenience bags for shoppers, 99% of us will grab the whole bag and go never thinking about whether we will actually EAT all the grapes or cherries before they spoil.  The reusable produce bags I showed in Saturday's post are perfect for getting around this glitch.  Only purchase the produce you WILL use in the week.

Another waste in the grocery store - spending more money than necessary because you don't have a PLAN.  At our house, the menu plan for the week is posted on the side of refrigerator.  Everyone has to contribute one meal idea and I fill in the rest.  I make the grocery list from the plan.  This process cuts down on waste and totally removed the middle of the day "what the heck are we going to have for dinner" feeling.

The ultimate in reuse - leftovers.  Honestly, there are few folks who enjoy having leftovers.  How many times can an adult (kids don't count) eat spaghetti in a week and be happy about it?  Luckily, we have a second refrigerator (family member was getting rid of a old refrigerator - best hand-me-down ever) and use the freezer compartment specifically for leftovers and coffee beans.  I pack leftovers as a meal in reusable storage containers.  Each container is clearly labeled with foods included and dated.  If my husband or I need a lunch for work, we "shop" in the freezer.  Need a quick dinner after schlepping the offspring to practice?  Everyone "shops" in the freezer.

We are a household of three.  I love to cook.  More times than not, there is way more food than we need.  My solution is to "repurpose" the food into new foods!  Having baked chicken?  It isn't any more trouble to bake a "family pack" of leg quarters than it is to cook two or three.  After the meal, I debone the remaining chicken and double wrap portions in plastic wrap, label a gallon freezer bag, place the small packages of baked chicken in and freeze.  The frozen chicken could become: soup, nachos, pizza, chicken pot pie, or pasta topping.  If we want to have beef brisket, I purchase a whole fresh brisket at Sam's and smoke/grill on a Saturday afternoon.  We end up with a wonderful dinner and tons of smoked beef brisket in the freezer.

Recently off the needles:
Plain ol' socks in Cascade Yarns Heritage Paints (color #9903).  Knit on US 1.5 needles.

Coffee cup sleeve.  Knit in my handspun Spinning Awesome Good October fiber club installment (Ghosts and Gremlins).  I had leftover bulky weight yarn after spinning/knitting a hat.  I knitted the sleeve (my own design) then felted it.  After it was dry, I needle felted some remaining yarn on the outside for decoration.

I won't wonder which coffee cup is mine when I am at my next meeting!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cute little dumpling

Prepared syrup
 For years, Apple Dumplings have been my husband's favorite dessert.  Not just any apple dumpling, the ones my mom makes.  Apparently he has brainwashed the offspring also because when the question "What dessert would you like me to make this weekend?" was posed (while my husband was out of the house) the emphatic response was APPLE DUMPLINGS!  The recipe comes from an earlier edition of the Better Homes and Garden cookbook.  I searched their website and they do not include this recipe.
Shortening cut into dry ingredients

Rolled and prepped
Apple Dumplings
1 1/2 c sugar
1 1/2 c water
1/4 teas cinnamon
1/4 teas nutmeg (optional - I do not include)
8 drops red food coloring (I omit)
3 tbsp butter
2 c all-purpose flour
2 teas baking powder
1 teas salt
2/3 c vegetable shortening
1/2 c milk
6 small apples (tart varieties provide best flavor)

Combine sugar, water, and cinnamon (plus nutmeg and coloring, if using) in a medium pot.  Bring to boil, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and add butter.  Set aside.

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.  Cut in shortening til mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Add milk, stirring to moisten all dry ingredients.  On a floured surface, roll dough into a rectangle (approximately 1/4 inch thick).  Cut into 6 sections.

Ready for oven
Peel apples and slice into the center of each section.  Sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.  Dot with extra butter.  Pull dough up around the apple and gently squeeze to seal dough together.  Place in a lightly greased 11 x 7 inch baking dish.

Stir syrup and pour over dumplings.  (The baking dish will be quite full.)  Sprinkle with sugar.  (I prefer to use white coarse sugar.)  Bake at 375F for 35-40 minutes.  The dumplings should be evenly browned.

During baking, the dumpling dough absorbs the syrup.  These are wonderful.  Sometimes I will substitute up to half the flour with white wheat (which can be found in major grocery stores).

Finished dumplings!
The dough is almost a cross between biscuit and pastry dough.  The properties associated with the dough is what allows it to absorb the syrup during cooking.  Therefore, you can not substitute prepared pie crust for the dough.  The results will not be the same.  Making the dough isn't that hard.  Give it a try!

Can't you almost smell them through the computer?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday = shopping (generally)

Saturday morning in our house usually means: menu plan development, grocery list writing, and errand running.  Today was no different, only wet.

I have very strong feelings about plastic shopping bags.  Over three years ago, I sewed my own bags.  I love them.  I refer to them as my "Mary Poppins bags" since you can fit TONS of stuff in them.

I used the Kwik Sew Pattern 2191 and marked down indoor/outdoor upholstery fabric.  The great thing about using this type of fabric is that it is incredibly sturdy and stain resistant.  Of course, my husband likes to point out that my bags look like they came from an old woman's couch.  Eh, I don't care.  It was a low cost investment in a high use product.  Seems like a win/win to me.

As you can see, the bag is virtually identical in size and shape to a traditional paper grocery bag.  The pattern is perfect for someone new to sewing also.  The bag is cut as one piece and sewn with four straight seams (which are subsequently reinforced).  There is a simple fold down hem on the top.

I have made several sets as gifts for friends.  Everyone has enjoyed them and all bags are still totally functional and in great shape.  I throw them in the wash and hang to dry.  I have had a gallon of milk, two 2L drinks and a 2L juice in one bag.  It was heavy, but easily withheld the weight.  There was still room for other items on top of the bottles!

Since I had shopping bags down pat, I became more annoyed with plastic produce bags.  I came across these.  They work wonderfully.  I even store the fruit/veggie/herbs in the frig while still in the bags.  I toss them in the wash and hang them to dry.  I have not had any problems using them at stores.

I fold all the bags and store them in a shopping tote in the back of my car so they are always handy.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tis better to give

One of my husband's colleagues had surgery this week.  (All is well.  Recovery is proceeding in a positive fashion.)  When the work group went to visit her in hospital, they wanted to take a gift.  I volunteered making a gift basket.  Considering she and I both suffer from the same sinus condition that causes us to be VERY sensitive to perfumes/fragrances/scents, I was given the job (and a budget).  [Full disclosure:  I went over budget.  Just a wee bit over budget.]

The whole process took about an hour of running to four stores.  Once home, it took about 15 minutes to put the basket together.

First, the offspring and I ran to Cofers Home and Garden to grab a hydrangea.  I was hoping they would have them in stock.  They have a great selection right now.  ($24.99)  They have a gorgeous white, single petal with fluted edges.  I prefer to give people plants they can transfer to the yard and enjoy for years to come.  Our next stop was Michael's for basket.  Lucky for us (didn't know beforehand) baskets are 1/2 off this week!  (One in picture: $12.50; shredded paper filler: $2.99)  Then we ran over to Target to grab magazines, nail polish, and Neutrogena Fragrance Free Hand Cream (I love this stuff).   The final stop was Trader Joe's for snacks and goodies.

To put the basket together, I first soaked the hydrangea in the sink and allowed it to drain.  I wanted to make sure she didn't have to bother with watering it again until after she was home.  I placed the pot in a gallon ziplock bag to keep it from leaking in the basket.  Next, I cut a section of brown postal wrap (I keep rolls on hand at all times).  I ripped a thin section down the side of each edge of the paper to give a more "natural" look.  I placed the pot in the center of the prepared paper and pulled the sides up around the pot, securing them with paperclips.  I placed the plant in the basket.  I used some of the shredded paper filler to fill gaps around the pot in the corner of the basket.  Next, I rolled the magazines and used a rubber band at the bottom of each to secure them.  I placed the bag of chips in the basket, followed by the magazines.  I used a hunk of the shredded paper to fill underneath the food items and give the basket a fuller look.  I placed the remaining items and back-filled with the shredded paper filler.

I think it turned out well!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oh, the pressure!

There are several pieces of kitchen equipment I can't bear to consider living without.  They rank right up on the list of "will purchase a replacement immediately - no matter the cost".  The one item I never expected to fall in love with was a pressurized rice cooker/steamer.  I purchased our Aroma rice cooker/steamer at Sam's Club several years ago.  The current model equivalent appears to be this.

Honestly, this is a pretty good deal.  I spent less than $40 for ours and use it at least weekly.  Not only do I cook rice, I steam lots of veggies.  One of the great functions is the "keep warm" setting.  After the rice or vegetables have cooked, the appliance switches to a warming setting for an indefinite holding time.  This function allows me to start the appliance, run out the door for the offspring's activity du jour, and return home to a head start on a healthy dinner.

Fried rice with dinner?  Start the rice, onion and peas in the pot and carrots and lima beans in the steamer insert.  All that's left is scrambling the egg in the skillet and adding the rice, veggies and soy sauce to heat thoroughly.  Last night, I steamed the butternut squash for dinner in the basket while the offspring and I were off at practice.  Fresh corn on the cob?  Not a problem.  Break the ears in half and place them in the steamer.  They will be piping hot when the rest of dinner is ready.  The offspring LOVES steamed baby carrots.  Easy as pie in the steamer.  I cook almost a pound at a time and package the leftovers for the offspring's lunch box.  Mashed potatoes for dinner?  Potatoes mash like a dream after steaming.  No messy starch water splatter on the cooktop either!  Steamed potatoes make wonderful gnocchi too.

Clean up is a breeze for this rice cooker.  While the cooking pot can not be placed in the dishwasher (aluminum pot) it does have a non-stick coating which washes easily.

The pressurized component is what makes this style of rice cooker far superior (and cleaner) to the loose lid-style options.  If you don't own one, seriously consider if this appliance could help with dinner prep at your house.