Sunday, September 18, 2011

Creamy Vegetable Soup

What I really wanted to tell you was how to make "drips and drops" soup--but something about dripping and dropping seems more in line with a weight room than a soup pot. Tonight is comfort food Sunday, so dubbed because of the strenuous weekend we've had generally doing nothing but reading, sleeping, and lounging about.

You could also call this "I threw everything in soup" or "Literally, all the little bits are in here soup" or a personal favorite: "Clear out the pantry and fridge and freezer for the week soup." It's like poetry here.

This soup is really the product of realizing that I am becoming my mother. I mean this in the best possible sense, so please take it that way. My mom's pantry is like that of a food bank, with multiples of everything you can imagine--cherry pie filling, mandarin orange segments, artichokes in water, artichokes in oil, tomato soup, beans (seven kinds), water, chocolate chips, tonic water, barbeque sauce, Gatorade....and on and on. I won't tell you your address; you'd be tempted to go there in a crisis.

My smaller, less impressive pantry has been getting larger over the past few months, and with that comes the realization that I am a) getting older b) getting more prepared or c) forgetting what I have when I buy things. Ding, ding, ding. It's c, folks! No more--not after creamy vegetable soup. After seeing yesterday's Facebook post on Taste of Home's page, I've been craving creamy soup, and as the weather turns sharply to fall, it is indeed time.

And here's the mess of things I threw together to do clean-up duty in my house and make a comforting Sunday supper:

1 1/2 onions, diced (mix of red and purple in my case)
3 carrots, diced
3 celery ribs, diced
2 c. frozen mixed veggies
1/2 c. spinach and artichoke dip
2 T. turkey chili (I know!)
1 can evaporated milk
1 can cream of chicken soup
2 c. frozen shredded potatoes
3/4 serving of KFC mashed potatoes and gravy (need a poll here--will you ever read this blog after this?!)
1 1/2 c. shredded cheddar
1 T. minced garlic
1/4 c. parmesan cheese
1 piece of goat cheese we found--get this--in the freezer...
Salt and pepper to taste
2 t. chicken bouillon granules or 1 cube bouillon
Few splashes cream at the end

Literally all you have to do for this one is toss it all in a pot to simmer. I saved the cheese for the end, but you get the idea. The nice thing about this soup is that it will accommodate whatever you have on hand, and this is the way of cooking that ensures you'll never have to eat out or go hungry.

Have fun with this--make your own creamy soup with vegetables in it. On another night, I might thicken this soup with sour cream, cream cheese, mascarpone, cream, mashed potatoes, regular milk.  I might toss in leftover ranch or onion dip, frozen green beans, canned corn, egg noodles, or fancier spices (like herbs de provence).My basic recipe for soup is core vegetables: onion, celery, carrot, peppers, thickener (potatoes, milk, cream, cheese), flair (spices like cilantro, oregano, italian seasoning, etc; bits of salad dressing, dip, spreads, etc), and substance (noodles, meat, beans, etc). It sounds so appealing that way, doesn't it? if you pressed me to put a ratio on it, I'd guess we're looking at about 3:2:1:2/ But one of the things I like is that soup always comes out balanced and authentic this way--made with love.

We're having this with cornbread mix (another pantried item), and it's rather filling and delicious. Now my fridge, freezer, and pantry are a bit cleaner, though I have to admit that I do pride in knowing that I now appreciate a canned good saved for a rainy day.

What I appreciate even more is that I resisted the urge to type veggie multiple times during the creation of this post...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Taco Piz

A few weeks ago, we enjoyed a lovely weekend afternoon at a winery that served grilled pizzas. The Taco Pizza caught our eye, and while all the flavors were good, this was the run away star of the afternoon for me. (I played DD).

So tonight, we are recreating Taco Piz for date night. Play with this and make it your own!

Crust: We use naan, an Indian flatbread, but you could also try pita, 100 calorie sandwich buns, lavash, tortilla, etc. You get the idea.

Meat (cook this ahead of time!): Ground beef sauteed with diced onion and some frozen corn. Would be equally good with diced chicken, cilantro, and pepper. Experiment!

Sauce: Tomato sauce with a bit of salsa or hot sauce added in. Would be good with all salsa or those Mexi-stewed tomatoes whirred in the blender to make a sauce. We just mixed a small can of tomato sauce with a few dashes of cumin and garlic and about 1/8 cup of salsa.

Cheese: Cheddar, or a mix of cheddar and jack or pepper jack.

Build your pizza with sauce, meat, and cheese, and place in a hot oven (or on a hot grill) until cheese is melted. We do our oven at the hottest temp with the pizzas on a cookie sheet. It takes about 8-10 minutes. Top with shredded lettuce, chopped tortilla chips, a drizzle of sour cream, and if you want, a sprinkling of salsa fresca or hot sauce. Yummy! It's kind of like an inverted taco salad but so much fun. And let's face it--this is great with the sangria I just blogged about, eh? Cheers!

Favorite Sangria

While this blog is certainly not Pig in an Alcohol Store, I have to share our new favorite sangria recipe. It's light and perfect for summer. Even better, it reaffirms the brilliance of buying bulk seasonal fruit and freezing it for a rainy (er, sunny) day when it's no longer fresh. Frozen fruit keeps sangria cold and delicious throughout its time in your glass.

If you're like me, you probably want to save your $20-40/bottle red wines for a good steak dinner. And you probably hesitate to buy a cheap bottle for any reason. However, let me steer you to Tisdale Merlot, which we get for about $3/bottle and is perfect for sangria, where it's not really about the quality of the wine anyway.

This recipe makes one drink. Double, triple, quadruple, etc for a pitcher.

1/2 large glass filled with one (put a full pour of wine in here)
2 squirts Torani ruby red grapefruit or blood orange syrup (Italian soda syrup)
Rest of glass full of icy cold club soda
Frozen fruit and maraschino cherry

Mix all ingredients well with a swizzle stick or similar, and enjoy. I suppose you could use a Tisdale white wine if you like white sangria, but we gravitate toward the reds. If you like your sangria a bit sweeter, you could add a splash of Midori or more syrup, but we usually like the wine to speak for itself (Hi, I'm cheap wine but also delicious!) and the sugar to take a backseat.

This is Southern California in a glass!

Best Beef Pot Roast

A dear friend of ours recently celebrated a birthday and had us over for a special meal. While I wish she would have let us make her a special dinner, I'm secretly glad she showed us on of her family's favorite recipes, which is now an all-star Sunday dinner in our home. Best part? Super simple. Beyond simple.

Pot Roast

2-3 lbs. of beef roast (chuck, for example)
1 envelope onion soup mix, dry
1 1/2 cans cream of mushroom soup

That's it--line a pan with foil, then top foil with onion soup mix (dry). Place roast on top, and then slather with cream of mushroom soup. Bake in the oven, covered with more foil, for 2-4 hours, or until meat is tender. The gravy will be there in the foil, and you just have to put it with mashed potatoes and green beans to complete the meal.

This is so good, and what I like the best is that it is doable on a week night--since the gravy makes itself, it is quick and has no intimidation factor. I've since heard that this type of recipe used to be a staple in households all over, though my family never made it. Which begs the question: What other super simple recipes have gone by the wayside but deserve an encore in today's busy kitchens?!!

Date Night Chicken Dinner

We've gotten to that point where we have date night. Sigh. Every Saturday night, we try to carve out some time together between reading books, running errands, working, and spending time with Helmut, our cat. Last week, we started date night with an argument. But from there, we got back into a cozy place and decided to stay in and cook with what we had, enjoying each other's company instead of going out to a crowded place.

Such a good decision! We happened to have frozen chicken tenders from Trader Joe's, fingerling potatoes, carrots, and frozen spinach, so we improvised a chicken dinner that turned out to be five-star quality. One of the best meals we've ever had.

Give it a try--pre-meal argument optional!

Cover the inside of a 9 x 13 pan with foil and spray with nonstick spray. Toss in cut up fingerling potatoes (peels on) and peeled carrots, all cut into chunks. If you have an onion, slice it up and toss it in too (we didn't.) Massage veggies with a bit of olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper, minced garlic (maybe not best date night choice), and oregano. Top veggie mixture with six frozen chicken tenders that you've tossed with a little oil, salt, pepper, and herbs de provence (one of my fav spice blends).

Put this all into the oven at about 400 degrees, and wait until it smells like chicken dinner to take it out. Check it after half and hour, and it will probably be done by an hour and change, but make sure you check your chicken. If you want to do this faster, par boil the veggies and use raw chicken. Same great flavors.

While this was all well and good, the star of the meal was the creamed spinach. I vaguely recall seeing creamed spinach with corn on a menu or having it at some point recently, though I can't recall where. So we flew by the seat of our pants on this one...put half a bag of frozen spinach and 1/2 c. frozen corn in a skillet. Drop in a tablespoon of butter and a teaspoon of olive oil. Add salt, pepper, cream cheese (we used 1/3 less fat), fresh grated parmesan, 4 T. cream, and a dash of milk. If you have some minced garlic, toss it in, and give it a sprinkle of nutmeg. Cook until creamy. This is irresistible with the corn and a new family favorite.

What is your favorite date night meal?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spinach Mashed Potatoes

I've been looking for ways to lighten up the mashed potatoes we both love by stretching the potato part with other veggies. Our first attempt was broccoli mashed potatoes, and they were delicious with some pureed broccoli and garlic added in. Last night, we made spinach mashed potatoes that were even better.

We love the chance to put all our veggies together on the plate, and I can only imagine that adding low-calorie veggies into traditional mashed potatoes is also a great plan for parents with picky eaters (I was one of those eaters in my younger days!). Even better, you get all the comforting mashed potato flavor and texture with a bit less starch and a lot more nutrition.

Without further fuss: spinach mashed potatoes!

2 large baking potatoes, peeled, rinsed, thinly sliced
2 c. chopped frozen spinach
1 T. Smart Balance butter
1/2 t. garlic powder
1 T. cream
1/4 c. 2% milk
2 T. light sour cream
Salt and pepper to taste (these can take a bit of salt with all the veggies)

Place potatoes into water and bring to boil. Let boil for 10 minutes. Drain. Return potatoes and rest of ingredients to pan and mash with a hand masher. Turn on the heat underneath these for about five minutes to heat through. Give potatoes one final mash once hot and serve.

These potatoes have a lovely spinach color and a delicious consistency.  Wonderful with a chicken breast or a few slices of turkey breast (what we had last night).

Birthday Chocolate Cuppies

We love cupcakes! On vacation a few weeks ago, we had the most delicious Oreo cupcakes that had chocolate and vanilla swirled batter and a delicious Oreo buttercream. I mean, it was a cupcake that makes you appreciate sugar in a whole new way. But since we've both been focusing more on our eating habits, we decided to reinvent our birthday cupcake tradition. For my birthday (the big 30!), I decided to use this recipe as a base and experiment to make it a little different: Hungry Girl's Yum Yum Brownie Muffins. Why not indulge minus the guilt, right?

I tweaked the recipe a bit, as I always do when I'm borrowing one, but the results were so delicious that we'd never go back to regular cupcakes!! Hungry Girl has the best tips and inspired this dish!!

Chocolate Cuppies

1 box chocolate cake mix (we used Devil's Food)
1/2 large can pumpkin puree (not sweetened)
1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
1/2 t. almond extract (really brings out great flavor in chocolate!!)
2 T. cooled brewed coffee

Mix all together. This batter is going to be stiff--don't frest. Pour into 12 lined muffin cups. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15-18 minutes, or until toothpick tester comes out clean. (Set the timer for a few minutes below and check these. You don't want to overbake.) Remove from oven and let cool. These are so moist and rich--decadent!

Cream Cheese Frosting

3 3/4 c. cool whip topping, frozen
3/4 c. whipped cream cheese
3/4 c. marshmallow fluff

Mix all ingredients together and use to frost the cupcakes. I could eat this out of the bowl, but it's so much better to have it with the moist cupcake. This recipe makes enough for all your cuppies, but frost them as you want to serve them. This frosting wouldn't do well to sit on the cakes in the fridge. If you'd like, garnish with chocolate jimmies or shredded dark chocolate. We are going to try a lighter version of another flavor for Doug's impending birthday.

By my calculations, one frosted cupcake has about 230-250 calories depending on the frosting amount. Don't quote me on it--I'm not a nutritionist. But what I do know is that these are so good that you'll never want to go back to those calorically expensive cupcakes in the bakery.


Grilled Zucchini Kabobs

Grilled zucchini can be so-so or one of the highlights of the meal. Sometimes it tastes soggy or dry, so it can definitely be a hit-or-miss veggie. We try to make it a highlight with this recipe.

4 medium zucchini, cut into 3/4 inch rounds.
1/4 c. Italian dressing
1 t. oregano
2 red peppers, cut into chunks
1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese

Wet wooden kabob skewers for 30 minutes in water. Remove from water and then thread with zucchini and peppers in alternating order. Place kabobs on foil-lined platter and top with dressing and oregano.

Grill, turning once, for about 10 minutes (or longer if you like zucchini very soft). Remove from heat and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. This looks so nice on a plate next to our flank steak.

Grapefruit Flank Steak

Ruby grapefruit are fast becoming a favorite at our house. Crisp and refreshing, they pick me up in the middle of the afternoon and make a lovely, bittersweet dessert. When I'm cooking, I don't always want to go get a lemon or lime if I don't have it handy in the fruit bowl. So we've been putting more grapefruit (which we always have around) in everything we cook.

This recipe is the happy product of using grapefruit juice as a flank steak marinade. With ruby grapefruit so readily available in markets, it's an easy, fun twist on traditional steak.

2 lbs. flank or skirt steak (or any cut that's thin and ripe for marinating)
Juice of one whole red grapefruit
3 T. worcestershire sauce
1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1/2 t. cumin
1/8 t. chili powder

Place all ingredients in sealed gallon bag, and massage to marinate. Place in fridge for 1-3 hours to marinate. When you're ready to grill, remove steak, and place on hot grill for 3 minutes/side, depending on desired doneness. Doug would like it if we threw the meat on for 30 seconds a side! Discard marinade.

This is so good with grilled peppers and zucchini and a few tortillas. Yum!!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Grilled Greek Rice

Yesterday, I decided to give rice a try on the grill. And it all fell through the grates! Just kidding. I read on a random question/answer board that real greek restaurants cook their rice in the oven, and it got me thinking, "Hey, I want to make this rice am not going to turn on the oven when we're grilling!" And thus, I thought, why not barbecue it?

Doug loves rice, but I'm not the hugest fan, mainly because I never make it taste as good as it tastes in a restaurant. But I'll be honest--even the best rice doesn't give me a big thrill. Until yesterday! I made a "Doug fave": steak kabobs and rice. It was one of the best meals we've had in a while.

It's such a nice way to fix rice because it doesn't mess up a good pan on the stovetop or require precooking the rice with some butter for better flavor or texture. All in all, a great one dish side you can throw in a pan and forget about. You know, until you need to not forget about it and actually eat.

Here's what you'll need.

Grilled Greek Rice

Nonstick spray
2 c. chicken broth or 2 c. water and 2 chicken bouillon cubes, heated to almost hot
2 t. wooster sauce (Worchestershire?!)
1 1/2 t. dried oregano
1/2 t. garlic powder
Salt and pepper
1 t. dried parsley
1 1/2 t. olive oil
2 T. lemon juice
1 c. rice (if you're using brown, add a little more broth or water than I call for)

Spray a 11 3/4 x 7 12" glass casserole (or similar--whatever you have) with nonstick spray. Add broth, wooster, spices, oil, and rice. Give it a gentle stir to combine well and cover tightly with foil--you don't want to release the moisture. Reserve your lemon juice for a bit later in the cooking process.

Meanwhile, get your grill nice and hot. We use charcoal, so I let the coals warm up for about 30 minutes before putting this on. (Note: I have no idea how this would work on a gas grill, so proceed cautiously unless this sounds like a good idea for a gas grill! :)) Place covered pan on grill rack. Set timer for about 25 minutes, and then check the rice.

At this point, depending on how tightly you covered it and how hot your fire is, it may be done, or it may still be al dente. Add your lemon juice now, and a little extra water if your rice still seems too hard. Cover tightly again. Check in another 10-15 minutes.

When your rice is done, fluff it with a spoon or fork and take it off the heat. You could toss a little feta in to serve it if that sounds good. We didn't this time but want to try it next time. This rice is so easy, delicious, and lemony, and while it sits to rest, you can grill your chicken, steak, shrimp, or whatever else you want to grill along with it. We both thought this was the best rice we've had...period! And no starchy, messy pan scrubbing like we'd have after stove cooking.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Grilled Mango!

Last summer, Doug and I bought a crap grill at a hardware store. While the grill probably would have worked fine if someone else put it together, unfortunately, we put it together. Keep in mind that it takes us two hours to change a bike tire, and that's putting our heads together. While we had fantasies of grilled pizzas, steaks, fish, and fruits, the grill didn't hold up to our ambitions and ended up on the curb for some other starry eyed couple with a little charcoal in their back pockets.

Fortunately, my dad recently came to our rescue. He let us pluck the old Weber family grill from behind his garage. It's over 30 years old, which means it will actually last, and even better, we didn't have to put anything together. Plus, it will be again impressed into service, which I like to think is what all grills really want, isn't it? We just had to clean it, which is, luckily, something we can do. We have this theory that things made a while ago were actually built to last, while today's appliances are built to serve you well for maybe six months. Perhaps one day I will have Doug guest blog about the 1950s toaster he's lugged across the US three times.

So it began today...our grilling season.

We had the usual meal...steaks, grilled potatoes in a foil pouch (what could sound more appetizing!?), grilled veggies. But out of desperation to use our aging mangoes, we decided to throw them on the grill and see what happens for dessert. What a great idea!

The heat intensifies the mango's flavor and really brightens it, waking it up, if you will. We just cut around the pit, left the skin on, scored the fruit, and grilled until it was slightly mushy but not fully mushy (about 7 mins on our grill).

At the same time, I threw a few tablespoons of butter, brown sugar, strawberry jam, and a splash of balsamic in a glass dish and carmelized it over the coals. When it was all done, we topped the grilled mango with a scoop of Haagen Dazs pistachio ice cream, which we had due to a miscommunication before Doug went to the store. :) And then the carmelized syrup. Yummy!

Mango sure adds a burst of flavor to the end of the meal. Hope you get to try this soon.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Clementine's Potatoes

A week ago, we were excitedly on our way up to San Francisco for a conference. We wanted to give ourselves a few days to leisurely make our way up there, so we stopped at our all-time fav restaurant, Clementine's. It's located in the sleepy town of Carpinteria, just a few miles south of Santa Barbara. If you've never heard of this seaside gem, you should absolutely check out the town. And please don't leave before eating dinner at Clementine's.

My dad's parents had a home in Carpinteria during many of my growing up years, so this restaurant and the whole cozy, casual lifestyle of the town feels like a warm blanket around my shoulders. Clementine's is an eating experience--one of the best places to share a meal with your favorite people, and I've been fortunate to go there with many of my favorite people.

Clementine's has the quaint charm of a restaurant that is stopped in time--a good time. A slower, happier time. They start your service by bringing out a fresh relish tray--homemade pickles, pepperoncinis, carrots, and celery. And fresh bread and butter. This is where the meal can start and end for me--the pickles are crisp and fresh, and the bread tastes like it was baked by the Pacific--moist and yet crunchy on the outside.

But there's more to come. Salad or soup (weigh homemade dressing and croutons v. deliciously comforting thick soup...) and your entree. In my younger years, I always ordered steak here, but Doug and I haven't been so hot on red meat lately, so he got the fried chicken, and I got a vegetarian casserole (squash, cheese, corn...yum.)

I tell you all this because you can't go to Clementine's without getting a baked potato with your meal. Their potatoes are the one thing everyone in the restaurant raves most about--as they taste crispy, fried, soft, fluffy--all at once. Several fellow diners asked how they're made, and alas, it's a family secret. Each meal includes a slice of homemade pie (this is my kind of place--are you with me on this?!). Apple, rhubarb, pumpkin, four kinds of cream pie, cherry, peach...the list goes on. Made fresh each morning. Couldn't ask for more. Their meals and relish tray are standouts, but the pie finale is what really escalates each meal for me.

Well, our trip got turned around the next day unforseeably, and we never made it up north. So when I came back, I called Mom to get her take on these potatoes and how we might make them at home. Tonight, I tried my version of these, and voila, here it is. They were remarkably like Clementine's, though I know I'll never get the recipe just right.

Baking potatoes
Vegetable oil

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Peel each potato and rub generously with oiled hands. Prick with knife and place on lined baking sheet in oven. (I know--baked potatoes without peels sounds strange, but trust me. You'll never go back.)

Bake until potatoes are crispy outside (should be hard to pierce) and tender inside (about 45 mins to an hour, depending on size of potatoes).

Remove from oven and serve immediately. If you cover these or wrap them at all, they'll get soggy. Serve 'em fresh. While we enjoyed these immensely with just sour cream and butter and salt and pepper, it seems they'd also be great sliced into coins and served as breakfast potatoes or coined and then topped with a variety of toppings for appetizers. These are just thoughts.

Even without the pie finale, this brought our favorite restaurant home and made us long even more for the road trip we haven't yet had.

Easter Cuppies

My mom carries on her grandmother's Easter cupcake tradition, and this year, she and I made a trial run batch of them together. (As if they might turn out badly...better make a test batch just in case...) When I was a kid, these cupcakes were among my favorite, as I'm a huge fan of white cake with sprinkles, of funfetti, as the boxed mixes call it.


1 box white cake mix
1/4 c. sprinkles or rainbow jimmies
Egg, oil, and water according to box mix
Homemade white buttercream (powdered sugar, milk, butter, vanilla)
Green food coloring
Jelly beans

Prepare white cake mix according to box directions, adding in sprinkles or jimmies. Drop batter into lined muffin tin, and bake according to box instructions. Alternatively, you could use a funfetti cake mix--not quite as fun, but hey, it works.

While the cuppies are baking, make your buttercream, tinting it light green with food coloring. Remove cupcakes from oven, and let them cool. Put about 1 c. cocnut in a jar and drop in 6-7 drops green food coloring, or as much as you want to make it your preferred shade of green. Shake vigorously to disperse color. Pour into shallow dish or pan.

When cuppies are cool, frost generously (or not so generously if you prefer the cake, as my mom does) with frosting. Dunk frosted cupcake in coconut. Then place 3 jelly beans on top. I suppose you could add a marshmallow character on top if you like, but they're not my thing. It would look cute to see it watching over the egg, I suppose.

These are such a fun tradition for us--it's not about the chocolate at Easter in our family. :)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls

Many years ago, I started a little something serious with chocolate peanut butter balls. A wonderful coworker always brings these to holiday Christmas party potlucks, friends make them....they're a big deal in my world.

If you haven't yet had the pleasure, let me introduce you to your new favorite sinful treat. Peanut buttery. Crunchy. Salty. Dark chocolatey. Yum.

3 c. crisped rice cereal
1 c. powdered sugar (a little more or less depending on how sweet you prefer it)
1 1/4 c. natural peanut butter/almond butter (I mixed the two--up to you. You could use regular, I suppose.)
Good grind of fresh sea salt
1 stick butter
3 c. extra dark chocolate chips (we used Guittard)

Melt butter in microwave in big glass bowl. Add in sugar, cereal, peanut butter, and salt. Mix well to combine. Form into balls (or eggs for upcoming Easter). Lay balls or eggs on waxed paper lined cookie sheet. Freeze for 30 mins.

Melt chips in glass bowl in microwave, using lower heat and short intervals between stirs. Remove treats from freezer and dip into bowl of chocolate to coat completely. Note: You want a high quality chocolate chip on this, or you may have mixed melting results. I know many use some shortening or similar to add to chocolate to make it smooth and satiny for dipping, but I just dip the treats into straight chocolate.

The main difference here is that mine look matte when finished and the others look shinier and more professional. My feeling? They're not going to be around long enough to observe how glossy they are, right? Still, if you're taking them to a gathering...

Place dipped balls/eggs back on waxed paper sheet and put into fridge to harden several hours or overnight. When you're done, you'll have several dozen glorious chocolate candies to share at your next family dinner or potluck. These are the very best peanut butter and chocolate can be together, if you ask me.

Hope you try them soon--people will be begging you for the recipe and suspiciously forget all about certain peanut butter eggs that are in check out lines this time of year. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tortilla Soup

If you read this blog regularly (I know, it's just my parents who do this...), you know that we love soup. One of our favorites is chicken tortilla. It's always a bit different, as each pot of soup is a work in progress right up until the last, but here's the basic recipe we use.

1 white onion, chopped
3 ribs celery and its leaves, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
Salt and pepper
4 chicken bouillon cubes and 5 c. water, or 5 c. chicken stock
2 T. dried cilantro
2 T. dried parsley
1 t. dried garlic
1/2 t. dried cumin
Dash chili powder
Pinch red pepper flakes
Dash cayenne
1 c. fresh salsa
1 can corn, drained
1 can pinquitos, drained
2 packets hot sauce (is this ghetto? I love adding this to soups!)
2 c. cheese, shredded
1 avocado, diced
3 c. crushed tortilla chips
4-5 chicken breat tenders, optional

Mix onion, celery, pepper, carrot, spices, and water in stock pot. Add chicken bouillon or stock. Boil for 25 mins. Add salsa, corn, beans, and hot sauce to pan. Cook another 5 mins. If you want, you can throw in 4-5 chicken breast tenders when you start the vegetables. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. If so, take those out and shred the meat, returning it to the pan to cook for another few minutes.

Remove soup from heat and serve with cheese, avo, and chips. Some like to add sour cream, but we usually don't. This soup never fails to make the evening--it's so hearty and warm.

Chocolate Lollipops

Around Christmas, we bought some fancy chocolate from a chocolatier, and Doug made dipped pretzels that were absolutely delicious. So encouraged were we by this exciting chocolate development that we've since made a few batches of chocolate lollipops. We took our cue from Ina Garten on this one, and boy, was it a good decision.

The only problem with these is that they're not the size of my head.

Chocolate Lollipops

3 c. good quality chocolate morsels (we used Chuao) -- don't use chips--they don't melt well
Chopped nuts
Chopped dried fruit
Lollipop sticks
Cellophane bags and ties

Feel free to make this with dark, milk, or white chocolate. We prefer dark and white so usually go with those. Melt the chocolate in 30 second microwave intervals. If you're using good melting chocolate, this should be easy to do within a minute and a half. If you try this with chips, you'll probably get a dry, goopy mess. You're going for a silky, satiny texture with the chocolate. Higher quality is always better here--I say, better to have fewer lollipops that all taste delicious than more that taste like cheap chocolate. Right?

While the chocolate is still warm, use a spoon to drop it into disc shapes on a wax-paper lined cookie sheet. Twirl the stick in the base of each disc while the chocolate is still warm. Working quickly, drop your choice of dried nuts and fruits onto each disc. My favorite is pistachio with dried cranberries or cherries. White chocolate is great with dried blueberries and macadamia nuts. Cashews and dried apricots are good on either. We prefer salted nuts to raw ones, but it's up to you. Then place lollipops in freezer to set.

After about 45 minutes, pull each lollipop out and wrap individually in bag with a tie. I got the sticks, bags, and ties back at a cake shop several years ago and still have them leftover. You could probably find them there or at Michaels. What we love about these is how impressive they look once they're done. We store ours in the freezer and pull out for company. Not really. They don't last that long.

This recipe could make you 10-15 pops, depending on how big you make yours. Enjoy!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bean Soup

I'll preface this post by telling you honestly that I'm not one of those cooks who gets something going early in the morning and labors over it all day. However, Doug and I were fascinated by a bulk bin of dried beans at the market last week, so we decided to get a few pounds and make bean soup. How gorgeous are all those colors?!

The first thing you need to know about bean soup is that if you're using fresh beans, you do not need to do any presoaking, tearing your hair out the night before, letting things sit in water, etc. If this urban soaking myth was true, rest assured that beans wouldn't be in my pantry. Rather, making bean soup is prettay, prettay simple.

And let's face it: At a cost of around $4 for a big soup kettle full of hearty soup, this is a protein-rich, soul-warming dinner.

2 1/2 lbs. dried beans (we used a mix of beans, but you could use just one if you prefer)
1 whole onion, diced
4 carrots, chopped
4 ribs celery, chopped
4 bay leaves
3 large chicken bouillon squares (those ones that are flat and large, not the perfect square small ones)
Water, salt, and pepper to taste

Rinse and drain the beans, picking through them to look for anything that shouldn't be there. (Not like an elephant is going to hop in your colander, but you know what I mean.) Place beans, vegetables, and bay leaves in a large stockpot with enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil, and then turn down to med-low heat.

Simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours on the stove, checking every half hour or so to make sure you don't need more water. When the beans are tender, add bouillon, salt, and pepper to taste. It's important not to add this early on, as the salt in these spices could keep your beans from softening.

When we were satisfied with the taste, we boiled a small kettle of rice so we could put a scoop on top to complete our bean protein. Then we removed the bay leaves and served the soup.  I added a little ketchup to my bowl--family tradition. Doug thought that was ridiculous.

But I'll tell you what--this soup is delicious and filling. I couldn't even finish my bowl. Bean soup is something we don't make nearly enough, but it's such a nice addition to our monthly dinner repertoire. The next day, you can heat leftovers up and add a little chicken stock to thin the soup out (if you want).

I think this soup, after thickening overnight, would be a delicious burrito filling with some additional spices added....or great mashed up as refried beans. These are just thoughts. Lots of possibilities!

Boysenberry Ice Cream

My parents have always had boysenberry bushes. What a treat it is to enjoy those fresh berries right off the vine, still warm from the sun. My mom, never one to let a good crop go to waste, has taken to freezing sheet pans of these berries for future pies, ice creams, and smoothies. I'm not sure that anything excites my dad quite as much as a boysenberry treat my mom's made.

A few nights ago, we made a delicious homemade ice cream with some of these frozen berries. The story goes that my mom took this ice cream to a potluck years and years ago and that it inspired one of the guests to go home and plant boysenberry bushes so he could make his own. I can see this happening.

Here's our boysenberry ice cream. We have this theory that if we eat homemade ice cream, no chemicals, no preservatives, that it's "good for us." After all, it's natural, right? Cream, sugar, milk, food!

1 1/2 c. frozen boysenberries
2 c. whole or 2% milk
1 c. whipping cream
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 carton Yoplait Boysenberry yogurt (red label)

Put half the berries in the microwave to defrost. Mash these up and cool them by adding the rest of the frozen berries (still whole) to this mixture. In a glass bowl, mix milk, cream, sugar, and yogurt. Pour into ice cream freezer. Start freezing according to manufacturer's direction. (We use one of those ice cream makers where you freeze the bowl and then bring it out for the 20-30 mins you need to make ice cream. Then you wash and refreeze--simple and easy!) No rock salt here.

As the ice cream is approaching finished consistency, add the berries to it and mix them all in. (Make sure they are entirely cool when you do this--they should be.) Then enjoy.

Picture this on homemade boysenberry pie. Oh boy. I suppose we could get our own ice cream maker and make these tasty concoctions at home, but the best part of it is gathering around with my parents to enjoy a family treat starring family grown fruit. Such a big believer in making the most of moments like these!

Homemade Butter

When I was a kid, I remember one particular time that a group of us shook whipping cream in a jar to make butter. Then we put it on crackers to enjoy it. Something about this is still so memorable for me. Of course, Doug has been incredulous about this memory and the idea of homemade butter.

So the other night, my mom gave him a jar and some whipping cream and salt to try it for himself. Five minutes of hard shaking later, he had a big pat of butter. We drained off the whey (I guess thriftier people do something with this too), and enjoyed it on LM banana bread. What a treat! Tastes just as good as German butter in the middle of Berlin!!

Doug is now going to make all our butter from scratch. We may even rig him up to a bicycle and do some home churning on a large scale. Just kidding. My dad was thinking of taking this idea to his mentoring group, giving the kids a chance to make butter to put on some bread or tortillas.

Nice to rediscover some of life's simplest pleasures, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Burgers and Fries

I suppose this looks kind of tan and brown in the pic, but we're fascinated by our crinkle cutter. So there you have it. Doug made us turkey burgers and fries tonight for dinner. Boy, were they delicious. My only contribution to the meal was mixing ketchup with jalapeno ranch dressing as a dip for the fries. That was even better--

The excitement never ends over here. :)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Curry Broccoli Chicken

Every family has "that" casserole that may not sound so great but is absolutely genius when you taste it. In my family, it's our curried broccoli chicken. Few things make me so happy after a long day, and while this is a family staple that's been passed from cook to cook, the basic recipe is always comfortingly familiar.

We all have a few variations on this theme, but here goes it:

14 boneless, skinless chicken tenders, cooked
2 crowns broccoli, chopped into florets and steamed
2 cans cream of chicken soup, condensed
Juice of 1 large lemon (to taste)
1 c. mayo
1 c. sour cream
1 c. parmesan cheese
Curry powder to taste
Big crock of steamed rice (10-15 cups, depending on how much your crowd likes rice.)

Mix soup, lemon juice, mayo, sour cream, cheese, and curry powder to form a sauce. Arrange broccoli and chicken in greased 13 x 9 pan, and pour sauce over top. Bake in 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes or until bubbly. Warning: This is going to be cheesy and creamy.

Serve chicken mixture over rice, perhaps with a lovely green salad. Yum!! Sometimes, I vary this recipe a bit and add in other mixed veggies (carrots, peppers, and spinach, for example). Other times, I use lower fat mayo and sour cream and soup mix. Sometimes, we eat it with brown rice or over noodles. You get the idea--curry, lemony delight....can't go wrong.

My recommendation: Enjoy this dish and its many variations, and get some fresh curry powder! This will be one of those family favorites you won't be able to stop eating. Enjoy.

Dulce De Licious Ice Cream

A week or so ago, we had pizza and frozen yogurt. Doug inspired me with his dulce de leche froyo (I hate that term) topped with slivered almonds. However, it gave me the idea that we too could make this rich, creamy caramel concoction at home and have our own dulce deliciousness.

Now, I didn't know what dulce de leche was before about a week ago, but apparently, it's really sweet syrup boiled down from milk. We found Goya brand dulce de leche in the market, and it's a thick caramel syrup that looks like a sugar coma waiting to happen. It's delicious. Really my kind of stuff, as it turns out. And I'm not generally a fan of anything caramel.

So we made some ice cream in my mom's ice cream machine this weekend. Boy, it was tasty.

2 c. whole milk
1 c. heavy cream
3/4 c. dulce de leche (make sure it's thick and legit, not sauce or thin syrup)
1/8 t. real vanilla extract
Sprinkle salt
2 1/2 c. toasted, salted slivered almonds

Combine first five ingredients in a sauce pan and heat on medium just until dulce de leche melts. Stir with a whisk. Cool mixture in fridge until it's cold. (This is important--you don't want to work with this hot in your ice cream freezer--it won't freeze.) That was the voice of experience speaking.

Pour chilled mixture into ice cream canister and freeze according to manufacturer's directions. When ice cream is about the consistency you're looking for, add 1/2 the almonds and mix in well. Serve with garnish of more slivered almonds on top. Go heavy on the almonds--texture is half of this experience.

We love that this ice cream isn't too sweet--other recipes out there will have you using a whole jar of dulce de leche, and I experimented with much less so as not to make it too sweet. As I often say, have fun with it. Once you get the container of mlik, quart of cream, and jar of dulce de leche home, you can make this recipe twice, and believe me: You'll want to.

Here's to starting off spring with ice cream!!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Homemade Granola

One of our close friends is celebrating a birthday today. He appreciates homemade just as much as we do, so we decided to make him a breakfast in bed gift basket. "Spring forward" mornings are some of the best days to lounge in bed reading (or blogging).

With that in mind, we packed a sturdy basket with two magazines, a bottle of sparkling mineral water, assorted fresh fruit, a quart of fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, a quart of homemade granola, a half pint of fresh pineapple jam, one loaf of sourdough bread, and a bag of Starbuck's coffee. I found myself wanting a breakfast in bed basket by the time we were through. Just add some milk and a few pats of butter, and you don't have to go too far for an instant vacation.

While we always love fresh tangerine juice (makes you forget your love affair with orange juice!), the real star of this basket has to be the granola. Ina Garten was my inspiration on this one, but we tweaked the Barefoot Contessa's idea quite a bit to make our own granola that will now be a household staple. Doug couldn't stop eating it off the tray yesterday!

Homemade Granola

2 c. old fashioned oats
1/2 c. chopped almonds
1/2 c. chopped pecans
1/2 c. dried cranberries
1 c. sweetened, shredded coconut
6 T. canola oil
2 T. agave nectar

This is so simple: Mix it all together in a big glass bowl and then spread onto greased cookie sheet. Bake in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, mixing with a spatula every five. This made about a quart and a half of granola all said and done. (I'm guessing here--we packed a quart jar for the basket and Doug ate a few generous handfuls.)

This came out wonderfully. Toasty, slightly sweet, and very comforting. When I've seen Ina make granolas on her show, I've always thought it looked too fussy when you could go buy a package of Quaker at the store. But I couldn't believe how easy this was to make and how astoundingly good it tasted--so much better than chemical cereal from the market. Even better, we eliminated Ina's sweetener (honey) and added our own (agave, and much less of it!).

Now we're eager to try all sorts of fruit/nut combinations with our base recipe: dried mango and chopped macadamias; dried apricots, almonds, and cashews; dried cherries and almonds; raisins, almonds, and pecans. I'll also probably experiment with unsweetened shredded coconut in the near future, as I have about three cups of it in the pantry. You get the idea.

Here's to milestone birthdays and to springing forward with wonderful new traditions!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Broccoli Salad

Ironically, back when I was really thin (yes, there was such a time), I didn't like salads too much. Now that I'm not so thin anymore, I love them. Why things work out this way, I do not know.

Now, one of my by far favorite treats is broccoli salad. Our good friend made us some recently, and hers is my favorite broccoli salad in the world. She says she uses Souplantation's recipe as a base, but subs in different vinegar. I don't know--I love Souplantation's broccoli salad, and my friend's is so much better.

This is how she made it recently, which is very similar to Souplantation's recipe:

1 bag precut broccoli
1/3 c. raisins
Optional: red onion, sunflower seeds, bacon crumbles (she usually adds these)


1 c. mayo
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. white wine vinegar

Mix salad ingredients and dressing separately, and then combine in large glass bowl. Serve right away or let sit for up to a day. (Souplantation calls for apple cider vinegar--I think vinegar choice must be key to this recipe. Just a guess...)

My mom makes it very similarly, but she sometimes adds dried cranberries. She uses red vinegar. I always make mine a little differently.


2-3 broccoli crowns, chopped (or 1 bag precut broccoli)
1/2 c. bacon crumbles
1/4 c. thinly slivered red onion
1/2 c. chopped cashews or almonds
1 c. chopped red grapes


1/2 c. cashews
Juice of a lemon (to taste)
Sprinkle of minced garlic
Water (to desired consistency)
Drizzle honey or agave for sweetness
Salt and pepper

Blend dressing ingredients, adding water to taste. Mix with salad ingredients in a large bowl. Best let to sit for several hours before serving. This is a twist on a raw recipe (notice the lack of mayo), and we honestly like it just as well as we like the full mayo version.

What's fun about this salad is how versatile it is. It can be a whole meal with crackers, a side, or one of several salads offered buffet style for a lunch. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spicy Vegetable Soup

Even though it's starting to warm up in Southern California, I still think of this time of year as "soup days." If you were fortunate enough to grow up in a family where homemade soup graced the table in these cold wintry months, you know just what I mean. There's nothing so comforting as fresh soup simmering away on the stove.

In my family, soup is different every single time we make it; there are no recipes. There are ideaas and there are full fridges and pantries with unique ingredients every time. One of my fondest memories with Doug is making split pea soup together on Christmas Eve four years ago (yes!)with a bottle of wine, some music, and ample tasting spoons. Then I fell asleep while he tended to it. (Not sure how the soup took long enough to warrant a nap, but it did.)

Growing up, I used to boast that my dad could make chili. It didn't occur to me until years later that he warmed it from the can. Dennison's. Yum! But same story--soup on the stove = good times.

Yesterday, I took the day off and treated us to homemade soup that was just right. Slightly spicy, it had a bit of this and a pinch of that. My deal is building layers of flavor into soups and stews--a tablespoon of this and that makes all the difference.

So I give you...Spicy Vegetable Soup, 3/7/2011 style:

Spicy Vegetable Soup

1/2 large cube chicken bouillon (I buy the huge package of big squares that are the equivalent of four little cubes each)
4 c. water
1 can white beans, rinsed
1 can Italian style stewed tomatoes, chopped, with juice (can puree these)
1 whole white onion, chopped
4 chopped, peeled carrots
1 t. minced garlic
4 T. chopped, dried parsley (went a little overboard here but loved the results)
1 chopped large zucchini
2 t. Italian seasoning
5 stalks celery, chopped
1 monster potato, peeled and chopped, or 2 large potatoes peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Three dashes ground red pepper
1 c. dried rotini pasta
1 T. salad dressing (I used Greek Feta)

Put water, bouillon, and all vegetables except tomatoes and zucchini in large soup kettle. Add spices. Bring to boil and continue boiling for 25-40 mins with lid on. (I boil my soups!) Remove lid and add zucchini, tomatoes, beans, salad dressing, and pasta.

Cook until pasta is tender. (If you anticipate having leftovers and don't want your pasta soggy the next day, cook it separately and add it to each bowl to mix into soup.)

Serve with a good piece of sourdough (maybe some pineapple jam?!) and a little grated parmesan on top, if you like. Sometimes, I add shredded parmesan into this soup, but that makes it a little more minestrone and a little less vegetable-y to me. Semantics, I suppose.

Nothing like a comforting vegetarian meal to make the day feel special! We didn't take any pictures--it's soup. You've seen it before. :)

What do you add to your veggie soup to make it special?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Brunch Gone Bad...

Well, I made an awful Sunday brunch yesterday. We threw together and egg dish, oven-broiled bacon, mimosas, strawberries, and oatmeal muffins.

When I say "throw together", I usually mean that I looked in the pantry and went with what I had. But yesterday it was really a throwing together in short order. Results? Not so good. My blessing and curse is that Doug likes everything I make and says it's all "a revelation", but the truth is that this brunch looked and tasted like an amateur cook put it together.

So I wanted to tell you about it in an attempt to build this rapport with you...we all screw up in the kitchen some days. The oatmeal muffins were dry and like a blank canvas for our jam. Partly by intention, partly by mistake. The bacon apparently needs to be flipped at least once on the broiler pan to cook fully on both sides, something we found out 20 mins. after the flavorless egg dish had been out and on the table. The strawberries, though, were delicious.

And the mimosas were the saving grace. . .I ended up eating this instead of our lousy meal:

What's funny is that I even screwed this up. Last week, while in Temecula, I bought this faux-Lunchables from Winco, thinking I was getting real Lunchables. So the "Brunchables" turned "Funchables" (faux Lunchables) wasn't even good. Oh brother. All said and done, Doug and I were left with no choice but to drink four bottles of champagne. Luckily, neither of us got sick from the meal or the champagne!

Don't look now; my humanity is showing.

Bacon & Egg Salad

A great friend of mine set me up on a blind date with bacon and egg salad. Breakfast items in salad, I thought? But we went to the table together and found that, once given a chance to get to know each other, we did indeed have a very promising future together.

Salty, crunchy, rich, and satisfying, this salad is one I always have ingredients for. There are always eggs in my fridge and real bacon bits or a frozen pound of bacon in my freezer. We almost always have some potent cheese (feta or bleu are favs). Lettuce, I'll tell you, seem to have a long shelf life in my fridge, but it's brown and past its prime for many of those days.

Luckily, tonight, the lettuce was still green, and this salad came together so nicely, as it always does. Play with this one to make it work for your's wonderful. Here's my version of this classic:

Bacon & Egg Salad

2 small heads romaine or 1 big bag mixed green salad
3-4 chopped, hard boiled eggs
1 c. bacon, chopped
1 c. pungent cheese (feta or bleu)

Dressing: (I make all my dressings by feel--these are rough estimates. If they seem wildly off, it means I eyeballed this in the with it and taste with lettuce leaves until it's right.)
4 T. red wine vinegar
2 T. olive oil
Pinch herbs de provence
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch garlic powder
Pinch parsley

Whisk together the dressing. Assemble salad ingredients in bowl. (If your eggs are freshly boiled and still warm, all the better!!) Mix all together and toss well.

My friend makes this with baby spinach and that oil-packed feta that is so sinfully good that I can't bring myself to buy it. That feta oil is her salad dressing, which is a nice two-for. Her original salad is crazy good, and its many variations are delicious as well. I'm eager to try this with pancetta and parm and egg, and I've had it with bleu and bacon. All variations are good variations.

This twist on breakfast for dinner is certainly a staple recipe in our house. Thanks, Jonesie!!

Jams and Jelly!

Over the weekend, my mom and I took some time to make jams and jelly. This is something I never thought I'd have the energy to do...or enjoy doing. But it turned out to be so much fun, and the results are not only beautiful in their jars, but a wonderful set of treasures to put away for the rest of the year.

It started out a with a phone conversation where I was going to track down blueberries by the ton and lots of jars. But it turned out that we made three unexpected flavors, mostly using what we had on hand in our pantries. Why go buy fancy ingredients when you have stuff on the counter, right?

So we made Fallbrook ruby red grapefruit jelly, strawberry jam, and fresh pineapple jam. And the only thing we had to buy was one pineapple and the jars to can. Pantry jam! We used two cases of half pint jars and one case of little mini jars (they hold about half a cup).

The deal with jars, as it turns out, is that you have to sterilize them and then throw the lids in water that you boil to soften the lids' seals. My mom usually sterilizes jars in the dishwasher and then heats the lids, keeping the rings out and handy on the counter.

My mom was very skeptical about grapefruit jelly, but she agreed to try this recipe I found:

3 c. ruby grapefruit juice (we fresh squeezed ours)
1 box pectin
4 1/2 c. white sugar

This one is super simple if you have rubies on hand. Squeeze the grapefruits, and set the juice aside. Measure out your sugar, and get your pectin ready. Clean your jars, and fill them with hot water. Throw the lids in a pan of water, and bring it to a boil to soften the seals. Keep the rings handy.

Set up a cookie sheet near the stove, and place the lid rings behind it. Mix your juice and pectin in a pan until the pectin is dissolved. Then turn on the heat, and bring the mix to a rolling boil. (That basically means that stirring it won't reduce your boil.) Once it's at a rolling boil, add your sugar, and stir vigorously. Once the mixture comes back to a rolling boil, set your timer for one minute, and boil for that full minute. Then remove from the heat. Dump the hot water from your jars, and bring them to your cookie sheet.

This jelly won't need skimming, so you can proceed to ladle the hot jelly into jars. We did this using a kitchen ladle and a wide-mouth funnel. Wipe the rim with a hot washcloth to remove anything that might be sticking. Then use tongs to carefully remove a lid from the pan and place on top. Carefully, and with the washcloth, pick up the jar and screw on the ring so that it's tight but not all the way tight.

Then turn the jar upside down for 30 seconds to a minute, and flip it upright again. Move to the next. This recipe yielded 12 of those small jars for us, and they're so pretty! I'm eager to use it to make a quick glaze for hamsteak: mustard and grapefruit jelly. It would also be terrific to throw into crockpot bbq ribs--that grapefruit tang is irresistible.

You get the idea here about the jar prep, the ladling, the lids, and so on. Next, we made strawberry. I'm not a fan of strawberry jam, but we had strawberries, so what the heck. It's too sweet for me. However, as LM, my mom, says, there's nothing better than strawberry jam on toast right after you've made the jam. So, ahead we proceeded...

We used the MCP Strawberry jam recipe for this one...yes, it was like eating a spoon of sugar, but I suppose that's the point.

Strawberry Jam

5 3/4 c. stemmed, chopped strawberries
1/4 c. lemon juice
1 box pectin
8 1/2 c. sugar

MCP says to use 1/2 t. butter too, but my mom says that's nonsense, and she runs the jam show. So we didn't add it--it's supposed to help with the foaming/skimming, but she's not a fan.

Pulse the strawberries in the food processor until they're desired consistency for jam. (How jammy do you like your jam?) Put into pot with lemon juice and pectin, and stir. Turn on heat, and bring mix to rolling boil. Then add sugar. Bring to rolling boil again, and then boil for 4 minutes. Remove from heat, and skim off the foam. This skimming is a little beyond me, so I watched and tried only breifly. Then we filled the jars. Same deal as with the jars and filling for the grapefruit.

We got 11 half pints of strawberry out of this recipe...your results may vary a bit. I'm not sure why, but my understanding is that that happens with jam. :) It was pretty good on peanut butter toast.

Finally, we made fresh pineapple jam. LM was very skeptical about this one, but we were all so happy with the results. We'd only ever seen pineapple jam recipes that use canned pineapple, and we happened to have fresh on hand (and bought a second one). So I searched for a recipe for fresh pineapple jam and was so pleased with this one.

Fresh Pineapple Jam

4 1/2 c. chopped pineapple (two pineapples is all you should need, unless they're small ones...)
1 box pectin
5 1/2 c. white sugar

We omitted the called-for butter in this one too. Same drill--process the pineapple in the food processor to desired consistency for jam. Add to pectin in a pot. Heat to rolling boil. Then add sugar, and bring to rolling boil again. Boil for one minute. Skim a bit. Lots of foam here too. Remove from heat, and fill jars.

We only got 7 half pints out of this recipe, but boy is it delcious and fresh tasting. Just like fresh pineapple. I'd prefer it a little less sweet, but the rule seems to be not to monkey with ratios in jam recipes, for fear of them not setting.

The pineapple jam is by far the prettiest and most distinctive jam we made, and it's great on sourdough toast, English muffins, cheesecake, bread....what is it not good on? It's even good with peanut butter in a sandwich. It doesn't sound great, but it is delicious.

By far, the best part of this experience was learning the art and the pleasure of jam making from my mom, who's been doing it for years and reliably (and magically) produces these wonderful jars that fill our pantry. In our Tahoe move, we lost several of her prized peach jams that very few people get, and of all the things broken in our crazy packing endeavor, it was those jams that I missed the most. Not the plates I'd each peanut butter and peach jam sandwiches on. Not the other cooking utensils that broke. It was the jam.

It's so satisfying to look at a table full of food (okay, condiments....) that you've made and know that you've been the ant saving for the lean months. Would insert picture of me in this play from third grade, but it's not handy at the moment.

As I told my dad, if there's ever some natural disaster and there's peanut butter in the pantry, we're now going to be able to eat well for a very long time! Next time, we're going to try making curds: lemon, lime, and tangerine. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Desperation Chili

I feel like all my posts should begin something like this: We had no food in the house because we haven't had time to go shopping, so we threw together wilted, old, awful things in a desperate attempt to avoid eating a sodium-laden meal out. Do you have nights like this?

We are awful about shopping and stocking our pantry lately, and it has to stop! We have a Trader Joe's right close to us, and we still avoid shopping. Luckily, tonight I found what is probably the oldest frost-covered ground turkey anyone could possibly have in their freezer and was able to piece together a few other things to make chili.

My earliest chili memories center around my mom's dad, who made chili each winter. What was so special about his chili was that he used all his garden canned veggies to make it, so it was full of delicious tomatoes, for example, that we'd helped to pick over the summer. It was a thin, tomato-y, beany chili that he served with Saltines, and it was one of the most special things I remember about being at Grandpa's house. However, Grandpa's favorite part about chili day was getting all of us to come "see the brown bunny under his blanket" after dinner, which meant he'd just passed gas for us to smell.

My dad's dad also made chili, but he made the meaty chili with those XLNT bricks of unknown origin chili meat that are congealed in fat and oil. It was equally good, but totally different. So light on beans that you could count them on one finger, this chili was beefy and comforting. He was making it into his early 90s; it's the one treasured recipe I'm lucky enough to have from my dad's side of the family. The other rumored recipe is a coconut cake that used melted ice cream in the batter--have had no luck tracking down anything like that.

So anyway, here is hodge podge/cupboards were bare chili. Helmut, our cat, isn't going to one day blog about memories of us making this.

Desperation Chili

1 lb. really old, frost-covered ground turkey
2 cans beans, rinsed (I used cannelini and red because that's what I had, but whatever works...)
1 c. chopped, frozen pepper
3/4 onion, chopped
Generous shakes chili powder--to taste
1 t. dried cumin
1 t. dried garlic powder
1 t. fresh chopped garlic (I could be a smart alec and tell you that having both garlics makes a difference, but I doubt it does--read at your own risk!)
2 t. dried cilantro
3 pinches dried beef broth
1 T. greek salad dressing (I go for layers of flavor in chili)
1 t. olive oil
2 chopped, peeled medium carrots
2 ribs limp celery, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
4 packets hot sauce from drive through (I know--go with it; it's what I had!)
2 T. ketchup for sweetness
Salt and pepper to taste
Water to make it as soupy as you'd like
Red pepper flakes to taste

Saute turkey with oil, salad dressing, and spices. Add peppers, onions, carrots, and celery. Cook for 20 mins. Add beans, tomatoes, hot sauce, and ketchup. Add water to suit however thick you like your chili. Cook on low heat for up an hour or a minimum of 30 more mins. Let's face it--chili's an all-day thing, and shorter cooking times are no friend to flavor for soups and stews. You can quote me on that. I know you won't--you'll quote me on calling for "limp celery".

Regardless of the desperate or not so desperate nature of a chili, one thing that always brightens any day is smell of it cooking away on the stove. Of course, you could use fresh veggies and meat that wasn't shoved into the freezer because it was about to expire. Chili says family to me. It also says home. Once we pull out the Saltines, this meal will take me back, just for an instant, to the ones I remember with grandfathers long ago.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Little Ears Pasta

In December, we had a quick weekend trip to the Palazzo in Vegas to meet some of Doug's high school friends. We booked a prestige room package that included champagne and catered nightly cocktail events and the like. Private check in = what I'm talking about! That's where we fell in love with little ears (orecchiette) pasta. It feels like I'm back in elementary school with the spelling. I used to be an editor and had to look this one up.

The Palazzo chef prepared his little ears right in front of us, and it was the best pasta we've ever had. So simple and versatile--my favorite kind of recipe. My only quibble is that these little ears look more to me like seashells.

Simple Orecchiette

Orecchiette pasta, cooked and drained
Parmesan (grate your own--makes the dish!)
Veggie of your choice
Salt and pepper

At the Palazzo, the chef made a simple sauce of cream, butter, salt, pepper, and the veggies. He used finely chopped broccoli. We chop our broccoli that finely in a food processor or blender and add it to the cream and butter. Then he cooked the sauce down to warm the broccoli bits and added parm, tossing the dish with the pasta at the end. We love it this way with a little extra cheese on top--it's literally a revelation, as Doug puts it.

But in the past month or so, we've also expanded our thinking a bit. Sometimes, I don't have broccoli, so I throw in frozen peas instead. It's great with chopped sun dried tomatoes or chopped artichokes and spinach. It would be great with chopped chicken and tomatoes, artichokes, and spinach. While broccoli is still our favorite (the romance of Vegas lingers), we are head over heels for these little ears and all their possibilities.

We get our pasta at Italian markets rather than the grocery store--it tastes so much better and fresher! As a blank canvas, this pasta is a wonderful pantry addition. This little piggy loves it!

Chocolate Cloud Cake

Our house is very divided in the age old chocolate v. vanilla cake debate. Doug loves chocolate and usually wears it as a moustache and beard after licking beaters or brownie bowls. Vanilla resonates more with me--there's something simple and light about it, and it's so much prettier on my cake stand.

But every once in a while, we come together on a chocolate cake idea that's a little out of the ordinary. My recipe was inspired by a delicious cake I had as an intern at a nonprofit years and years ago. A few tweaks and additions later, here's a new spin on it!

Chocolate Cloud Cake

3/4 c. butter (I used Irish Cream and loved the results)
3 large eggs
2 t. vanilla
Splash almond extract
1 1/2 c. milk
3 T. unsweetened applesauce (makes it so moist--worth adding to any darker cake batter!)
2 c. flour
3/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda
3/4 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt
2 c. sugar
1 c. extra dark chocolate chips (60%)

Mix softened butter, eggs, extracts, and sugar in a big bowl. I do this by hand because I hate the noise of a mixer. Add applesauce. Mix dry ingredients (except chocolate chips) together. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk. Fold chocolate chips into batter. 

Pour cake into a gresed 13 x 9 pan, and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 mins. Watch it closely; you don't want it to dry out or burn.

Pull cake from oven, and immediately top with 2 c. mini marshmallows and 2 c. sweetened coconut. Let marshmallows melt on top. (You could substitute enough marshmallow cream to cover the top too--whatever you have.) Alternatively, you could use chopped almonds in addition to or instead of the coconut--play with it a little.

Once the cake has cooled a bit more (30-45 mins), top it with homemade chocolate buttercream. I'm all about the homemade frosting--canned tastes so chalky and chemically. It's worth the effort to mix your own. I never use a recipe for mine, and if I happen to be over at my mom's when I make it, I beg her to do it. Her buttercream is always better than mine, though we mix it the same way and use the same ingredients. Moms are better at so many things.

We start with a stick of butter and add vanilla, a dash of milk or cream, and a few cups of powdered sugar. My mom only uses C&H, but I generally get whatever powdered sugar is cheaper. I guess this could account for the difference in the end result too, eh? Hmm...

This cake is so rich that we had to cut it into thin rectangle slices rather than square pieces, but it's so worth it. The applesauce makes the cake moist, and the marshmallows on top seem to help too. What's even better is that this cake is easy to whip up and uses ingredients most of us have on hand.

Everyone loved it, except our cat, who loves a little vanilla frosting occasionally, but obviously couldn't have any chocolate anything. Doug's going to take one of these to his employees tomorrow. Perhaps we'll start a weekly baked goods ritual to kick Mondays off right at the office. That's a trend I can get behind!

What do you add to make your chocolate cake special?

Guac Tacs

This past week, we had one of my favorite go-to vegetarian dinners: guacamole tacos. My mom spoils us with avocado deliveries from time to time, so we make a lot of guacamole when we have the fruit. I used to work with some wonderful people who made these tacos, and years later, this dish is still a staple in my repertoire. Very simple.

You just need corn tortillas, feta cheese, guacamole, and nuts (optional). With the guacamole as the wild card we don't always have, the rest of these ingredients are basics in our pantry. We make our guacamole with 3 avocados (Fuertes are our favorite), 3 - 4 T. chopped jalapenos, a splash of jalepeno juice, 1 lime's worth of juice, and salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Everyone makes guacamole differently, and it's always delicious, so play with it if you like. A good friend of mine just adds salsa to mashed avocado, and I'll tell you what--it's just like restaurant guacamole. Hard to go wrong with a good avocado.
To assemble, we just put a few tablespoons of guacamole on one half of a tortilla we warm on the burner until it's crispy. Then we top with feta and nuts (only sometimes with the nuts--usually almonds) and serve.

If you're skeptical about a vegetarian main dish, try this with a side of corn mixed with a little butter, salt, pepper, and diced bell pepper. Just as filling as steak or chicken but much lighter--a fun way to welcome spring and summer during these winter months in Southern California.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chicken & Biscuits

Today, the freezer inspired me. How often does this happen? My freezer mainly likes to store a lot of ice--in the ice bucket, on top of things, as a protective coat and mittens on the Haagen-Dazs...

But today it actually housed a few treasures that I turned into Desperation Dinner. A few months ago, we made a delicious chicken pot pie, and neither of us grew up eating this very All-American dinner staple. So I thought, why not give this a whirl again?

This Taste of Home recipe was my inspiration (great magazine--you should check it out). Originally, I got a little ahead of myself and thought, Oh, I love these little cups, and they'll be easy to make. While they clearly seem easy to make, and I'm going to try them soon, I found myself without cupcake tins tonight. (That's a whole other post--where did they run off to?) So I made a big lazy pan of chicken and biscuits rather than the pot pie cups.

Here's the recipe:

4 c. frozen leftover homemade leek and onion soup
1 c. frozen leftover homemade chicken gravy
2 huge boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 t. herbs de provence
1 t. thyme
1/2 t. sage
Sprinkle majoram
1 bay leaf
2 c. chopped carrots
1/4 c. chopped green onions (white parts)
1 c. frozen corn
2 c. frozen peas
2 c. chopped green beans
1/4 c. frozen spinach
3 T. cream cheese
5 T. cream
2 T. mayo (Are we having a heart attack yet? Use light or fat free condiments if you'd rather!)
Salt, pepper,and garlic powder to taste (Generous sprinkles!)

Put soup, gravy, 2 c. water, and chicken in stockpot to simmer. Add herbs.

(Appealing picture, isn't it?) Cook til chicken is cooked and you have a gravy consistency. Pull out chicken to shred. Add veggies and cook for 10 more minutes with lid on. (Should be boiling or close to it.)

Fish out bay leaf. Add cream, cream cheese, and mayo. Mix chicken back in. Then pour chicken mixture into greased 9 x 13 pan.

This is where the lazy part comes in. I'd love to tell you that I labored away making biscuits because Doug was going to be home after a long day of manual labor with a big appetite and because I'm that kind of person. But in reality, we have three tubes of refrigerator biscuits left from the monkey bread we never made. We're those kind of people. The "find three tubes of biscuits in the back of the fridge" type.

So what happened next was me placing individual biscuits on top in even spaces with a little garlic powder on top. Prettay, prettay good. Put into a 450 degree oven for about 10 minutes. But watch the biscuits closely, like they're your children or your cat who likes to get on the neighbor's roof.

This is clearly kitchen sink pot pie, but you get the idea. If you don't have 4 c. of leftover soup from the leek experiment you did four weeks ago, you could use another homemade soup or boxed or canned. When I get little glops of leftover gravy, I put the tidbits in one container in the freezer, and over time, it builds up to a respectable gravy pile. Like money in the bank. If I didn't have it, I might make a bit on the fly or add some canned cream of chicken soup in its place. (Heck, you could go to KFC and buy their gravy--I won't tell anyone.)

The veggies are totally up to you. This is what I had. Normally, I'd add in celery. There was a brief flirtation with the artichoke hearts in the freezer, but we didn't end up dating tonight. The amount of peas is very subjective, and on and on.

Bottom line: This recipe got a lot of frozen veggies and my leftovers out of the freezer, so this is turning out to be a winner day, you know?  The real dark horse in this dish is the herbs de provence--they add a little mellow complexity that really makes you feel like you accomplished something at the end of a long day. Add a quick tossed salad (whisk balsamic, olive oil, jam, and spicy mustard in bottom of bowl; toss in greens, nuts, fruit, and cheese), and you've got a delicious meal. This not eating out business is starting to be a little more fun.

What did everyone else have for dinner? Any suggestions for pot pie or chicken and biscuits?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

V Day Cooks

When I was about 8, my grandma made all of us Fallbrook cousins each a plate of heart-shaped sugar cookies with pink frosting. For some reason, those cookies stick out in my memory more than any others. She delivered them to me while I was spending the afternoon doing my homework at my parents' shop, so it felt like a kid-sized Fedex from one of my favorite people.

And then there was the flavor: crispy, buttery, creamy--and lots of pink icing. Of course, anything baked with grandma magic always tastes better. So in homage to my wonderful grandma, who is 85, this year, my mom and I made pink frosted sugar cookie hearts this weekend.

Here's the recipe we used:

3/4 c. butter
1 c. white sugar
2 eggs
2 t. real vanilla (use the expensive stuff--it's so worth it!)
2 1/2 c. flour (use a little more if the dough feels too wet)
3/4 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
Extra flour for rolling

Cream butter and sugar; add eggs and vanilla. Mix in dry ingredients. Flour a flourcloth for rolling the dough, and dump the dough out for immediate rolling. More practical people will tell you to chill the dough at this point, but I've never been mistaken for practical.

Roll the dough out, and cut with desired cookie cutters. We used a 3" valentine's heart. Then bake at 350 degrees in a preheated oven for 6-9 minutes. I like to pull them out when they're still very light on top and bottom and then let them finish cooking on the cookie sheet for a few minutes.

Pull cookies onto cooling rack and cool. Then ice with a mix of 1/2 cube butter, few cups powdered sugar, and a few tablespoons milk. I mixed in some red gel food coloring to make the icing a deep pink. If you're feeling fanciful (which I was for half the batch), scatter some jimmies or sprinkles on top of the icing.

These cookies were delicious--they're now my go-to sugar cookies. Doug even liked them, and he's not a sugar cookie man. Now my dad will tell you that these cookies are best unfrosted with Mom's homemade apricot jam drizzled on top, but you frosting fans know what I mean when I say that buttercream trumps all.

We ended up eating a few and taking most to Doug's employees, who like homemade baked goodies more than anyone I've ever met (including my 8-year-old self getting Valentine's cookies!!). Just kidding!

Hope you enjoyed your Valentine's Day and have a few warm memories in your heart of those special baked goods that leave such a lasting impression.

And I'm Back...

After such an ambitious initial blog posting, I took a month hiatus from my plan and from posting. How's that for consistency? However, I'm back with slightly more attainable ambitions.

While I made myself these big promises about food budgets and lofty cooking goals for the year, at the end of the day, I'm just like you--struggling to get something on the table tasting half way decent before I gnaw my foot off from hunger.

Tonight is one of the nights that I look my kitchen in the eye and say, "Why did we get ourselves into this complicated, delicate relationship?" I just felt uninspired. After the work day's done, how many of us come home full of enthusiasm to get something exciting going on the stove? So I rooted around a bit in my pantry, desperate to avoid a sodium-laden takeout night. First I found one lone potato that must have weighed close to a pound, so I got that baking in the oven.

Next, I looked in the fridge for a protein and found a 1 lb. package of ground beef that I paid an astonishing $4.99 for. ??!! I think it's fair to say that I didn't even look at prices last time I went to Trader Joe's. Won't be doing that again. So I mixed the ground beef with an egg, grated onion, grated carrot, grated zucchini, marjoram, garlic, salt, pepper, wooster sauce, and some ketchup. Then I made a meatloaf out of it and put chunks of extra sharp cheddar in the middle of the loaf. On top: a drizzle of ketchup and a criss cross drizzle of mustard.

Then a little homemade thousand island to go on each piece as a sauce: mayo, ketchup, sweet pickle relish. Absolutely the best meatloaf we've had in a long time! I've read about cheesburger meatloaf as an idea but never thought it sounded good until I was desperate with my pound of ground beef. Boy, was I missing out for a long time.

We ate it with a side of coleslaw because a bag of shredded cabbage was giving me the same look the kitchen seemed to give me earlier. It was the "use me" look. Just a little chopped banana, mayo, sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice--so simple and good. I love it with Miracle Whip too. In the early winter, I substitute pomegranate seeds for the bananas, in the spring I use pineapple or mandarin oranges (canned), and in the summer, I like this salad with crisp red grapes.Very versatile, and the preshredded cabbage is one of my favorite grocery store finds. It makes it so much easier to use this healthy vegetable.

After all this to do and the sharing of the one potato between two hungry people, I am ready to admit that I'm glad we stayed in. It's wet outside, and there's something cozy about meat and potatoes in the oven. Hope you enjoyed a nice meal with your family tonight too!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

2011: The Year of Cooking At Home

According to the Chinese Zodiac, this will be the year of the rabbit. The golden rabbit, specifically. Not the green one. And it hasn't started yet--the Chinese Zodiac gives us another month of chocolate and champagne before the year kicks off.

The United Nations has also called our year as they see it: The International Year of Forests and the International Year of Chemistry.

But in our house, 2011 will be less about Velveteen fur, pines, and NaCl. It will be more about that 20 square feet of space that houses the canned goods, the pasta, the Moroccan olive oil, the aged balsamic. (Let's talk about 20 square feet for a minute. I'm going to be honest with you: I have no idea how to measure the square feet of my pantry.) After reflecting as long on 2010 as we could without getting a sharp pain between our collective eyes, we decided that the $1,000+ a month we've been spending eating out, enjoying "out" entertainment, getting drinks, and picking up tabs is beyond extravagant. That's just what we spend when we go out! (Plus hundreds at the market on top of that.) It's obscene. It's wasteful. It's even a little bit Gen Y of us, and we figured it's a good habit to kick in 2011.

So this year, then, will be about me (pig) in my pantry. Rooting around. Putting a few things together with everything fresh in the fridge. Seeing what happens. I guess we'll work in some chemistry after all, and if I have any luck at all with gardening, perhaps there will be a modest forest of rosemary, parsley, and thyme in a barrel garden outside. These are lofty goals for me, yes. But it is January. This is the month of dreaming big.

The plan is this: $200/week budget for food, drink, and entertainment. The grocery store will be our new best friend, and the expensive restaurants, not so much. We'll be swapping the individual cans of Diet Coke for 2L bottles. Goodbye, Paper Towels. There's another $12 back in our pockets each month. I have a feeling we're going to get to really know, intimately, the split pea. I'll win a little more often when we're in the meat department because London Broil happens to be my favorite steak, and it's also ridiculously inexpensive. Right now, the nightstand holds an ancient budget cookbook my mom loaned us. In its yellow pages are suggestions straight out of the thrifty life: make powdered milk, find new things to do with hot dogs, get acquainted with jello and canned fruit. Make bread. Use the crock pot. We will!

After all, Doug and I both know how to cook. Rumor has it that when Doug was in grad school, he lived on tuna and peanut butter. The rumor is that he used to drink cheap alcohol too; I'm as suspicious as you are. But from humble beginnings grow the most impressive of flowers. I'm now fortunate enough to be an editor for Taste of Home magazine. Creativity and budgetary conscience should be two of the things I practice on a daily basis. The kitchen should indeed be our family laboratory, the place where great new ideas come to life. Before things got so hectic with work and all the other details, we used to cook ourselves healthy meals every night. Every night! No more restaurants, no more exorbitant spending.

Something tells me that, like rabbits in the pantry, we'll soon find ourselves happily hopping between shelves, counters, and burners to make ourselves the nutritious meals we deserve. What's the worst that could happen? Maybe we'll lose a few pounds, discover a new trick or two, and have a good time relaxing at home. I know that the $800 a month we'll now be spending on FDE (food, drink, entertainment) will be a fraction of our former receipts and money in the bank.

After all, the people you break the bread with are the reason it's so fun to sit down at the dinner table. Like two broken-legged folks walking on borrowed crutches, we seem to have forgotten how to enjoy a meal--the shopping, the cooking, even the cleaning up. We're hoping to say a final sayonara to taking separate books or magazines or cell phones into the restaurant to entertain us through several courses. We've been settling for so-so service and the uncomfortable embrace of the strangers who become our dining companions. What? How about the talking, the laughing, the learning, the discovery? It's time to reclaim family dinner time.

This year, we have big plans: explore ethnic cuisine (Indian is up first), use more spices, make exciting dishes out of the things we have on hand, be able to pronounce the things we're putting in our mouths rather than suffer through the label scrutiny that comes with preservative-laden food.

Food like this looks better.

A delicious grilled nectarine with balsamic-raspberry reduction and fresh mascarpone. It cost about $3.00 to serve these to our guests at the end of summer. And they're so much better than chemical cake from the market. It's so hard to imagine that we deny ourselves food like this for the "convenience" of going out, the contrived sterility of the communal meal.

So, 2011, we have some work to do to bring the flavor and the fresh back into every bite. On $200 a week for fresh and pantry ingredients, my guess is that this will be the year of eating like a king on a pauper's budget. Doug wanted me to work that in somehow. It's how he's planted his flag in our new (perhaps hare-brained) idea. Think golden rabbit.

Welcome to our journey through $800 a month and a lot of inspiration in the kitchen! I hope you'll join me for a year of fresh cooking at home.