My holiday must-have

I encountered these at my former sister-in-law's back in the early 1990s. It was love at first bite -- the first time I had eaten something remotely gingersnap-like without wanting to spit it on the floor. I love gingersnaps now, but for the first three decades of my life they were WAY too strong for me. I guess by my early 30s I had finally killed off enough tastebuds to enjoy them.

I don't have many holiday traditions, but I cling fiercely to the few I do keep, and this is one of them. I have probably made them almost every year since, even though I am usually the only one who eats them. I always use the same two cookie cutters, too; a star and a crescent moon. Makes my inner pagan happy.

As far as I can tell from my one Google search exhaustive research, these are kin to Moravian Spice Cookies; thin and crispy, not too sweet, low in fat, packed with spicy goodness. The flavor has kind of a gingerbread cookie vibe but not as strident.

Oh, the disclaimer: I exercised all due diligence in searching for this recipe online, to no avail.

Spice Crisps
from Bon Appétit, December 1992

Makes 8 dozen, depending on how big you cut them

1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons (= 6 Tablespoons) firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup molasses (unsulfured)
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger (not fresh ginger)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt

(* = See Notes below)

Combine wet ingredients in heavy small saucepan. Cook on low heat until mixture just boils, stirring occasionally*. Cool to room temperature.

Sift dry ingredients into mixing bowl. Stir in cooled sugar mixture. Dough will be stiff. Knead until dough holds together and is smooth*.

(Dough can be prepared one day ahead - wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate.)

Position racks in top and bottom thirds of oven* and preheat oven to 350 deg.

Butter two cookie sheets*.

Divide dough in half. Roll out one half of dough on lightly floured surface to 1/8" thickness. Using a 2" cookie cutter, cut out cookies. Place 1/2" apart on prepared cookie sheets. Scraps can be re-rolled.

Bake 10-12 minutes (swap positions of cookie sheets at ~5-6 minutes) until cookies are lightly browned with slightly darker edges.

Remove cookies from cookie sheet as soon as possible and transfer to cooling rack.

Repeat with other half of dough.

Store in airtight container at room temperature. Can be made two weeks ahead.

  • I cut the butter into pieces and heat my wet ingredients in the microwave, a minute at a time, stirring in between. Use a good-sized bowl because the mixture will bubble up quickly once it gets hot.

  • I am kind of a spice snob - I grind most of my spices as I need them. I think it makes a difference. I even have white peppercorns! Maybe I should get some mustard seeds for next year....

  • The recipe doesn't state it, but I've found I need to refrigerate my dough awhile before rolling. Maybe because I can never wait until the sugar mixture is completely cool before proceeding.

  • Instead of buttering the cookie sheets, I line my sheet pans with baking parchment. Then I can slide the whole parchment sheet over to the cooling rack. I haven't tried a Silpat yet.

  • My oven is old and cranky. I only bake one cookie sheet at a time, on the second from the top rack.

One blog I read states that when properly rolled, a stack of 16 Moravian Spice Cookies is one inch thick. Sounds like a challenge for next year!


Bold declarations

Hey, it's almost the end of the year! Time to make pronouncements about what I will do differently next year. I reviewed my goals for 2009 only to realize that I am not quite there.
  1. I did cut back my decaf consumption... on weekdays. I bring a travel mug of coffee from home to work and I haven't been to Sbux for a supplemental dose in months. Weekends are a different story, but oh well. I give myself 60-75% accomplished on this one.

  2. Sugar? Well... not so much. I got pretty lax about treats. I kind of, ummmm, forgot about this goal somewhere along the way. Zero per cent accomplished.

  3. Didn't do so well limiting grains and bread, either. I'll give myself a generous 10% accomplished here, only because I try to limit my pasta/rice to one cup per meal. Sometimes.

On the other hand, I did make a few (and I mean few) other changes I hadn't thought of in January:
  • I cut my diet soda consumption by perhaps 75%.

  • I became more vigilant about avoiding HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) only to read this article which made a lot of sense but confused the issue even more for me. I do still try to avoid HFCS, but I would probably be better off avoiding sugar, honey, and sweeteners in general.

  • I decided that non-nutritive sweeteners were bad news too and have (mostly) eliminated them. I bought some Truvia, the new stevia-based sweetener, and am using that in the few instances I used to use Splenda. Still using sugar in my coffee, though.

What about 2010? I'll keep working on my 2009 goals and am considering adding another. Inspired by Alton Brown, I'm close to declaring 2010 a French Fry-Free Year. I don't eat them often to begin with so it should be an easy goal. If I really wanted to put some teeth into it, I should include potato chips, which I do indulge in more often than I should. Can I live without Black Pepper Kettle Chips? I'm not sure, but I could stand to try.

My cheese consumption could stand some scrutiny, too. I was doing pretty well back when I decided cheese was to be treated like butter, but I fell off the wagon somewhere along the way.

Speaking of sweeteners, I had planned to post my favorite cookie recipe today but left it at home. Would it be bad form to post it after all my grand posturing about cutting back on sweeteners? As long as I do it before New Year's Day?


Risotto di Zucca (rice with squash)

Emboldened by my success with Riso alla Pitoca, last weekend I tackled another of the elusive* recipes from the 'Lidia's Italy' episode called Notto Risotto.

Here's the recipe as I guesstimated from the show.
Risotta di Zucca (Rice with Squash)
(adapted from Lidia's Italy TV show, ep. Notto Risotto)

Serves 4

1/2 lrg or 1 small onion, roughly chopped
1-2 carrots, peeled & roughly chopped
1-2 stalks celery, cleaned & roughly chopped
Aim for approximately equal amounts of onion, carrots, and celery. Toss all in food processor and chop until fine but not completely pulverized.

Main Ingredients
2 Tblsp oil
3-4 cups cubed butternut squash (peel, cut into ~1/2" cubes)
4.5 cups water, hot
1.5 cups rice (arborio, other short grain?)

To Finish
2 Tblsp butter, room temp.
grated parmesan cheese to taste
salt & pepper to taste (See note)

Heat 2 Tblsp oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. The heavy bottom is important as it will keep the rice from scorching during cooking.

Add pestata, (salt,) cook for a few minutes.

If it seems dry, add a little more oil, then add the squash cubes and four cups of the water. Hold back 1/2 cup for adjustments along the way.

Bring to boil, cover, and cook for 5 minutes or so.

Stir in rice, (salt.) Cover, reduce heat, simmer for 15 minutes. If you're worried about scorching, stir every 5 minutes or so. Check rice and squash for doneness after 15 minutes. Cook 5-10 minutes more if needed.

When rice is just done:
- If it's too wet, remove lid and simmer until it reaches desired consistency.
- If it's too dry, add a little more hot water. It will continue to thicken as it sits after adding the cheese and butter.

Remove from heat and add 2 T butter, stir in vigorously. Lidia called this step 'mantecare'. Stir in parmesan cheese.

Serve immediately, as this does not improve over time.

I meant to weigh the squash before I dismembered it but forgot. It was not a large squash, maybe small-to-medium, and I had enough cubes left over to freeze for later.

Try to make the squash cubes as consistent as possible. Large ones will take longer to cook.

I salted as I added each step to the pot and didn't need to add any salt at the end.

There's no way this qualifies for Project Weeknight due to the veggie prep, but if I had some pestata and squash in the freezer... hmmmm. Might have to give that some thought.

True confession: I didn't cook the recipe as demonstrated. Instead, I added a generous tablespoon of curry powder with the pestata and subbed a can of coconut milk for 1.5 cups of water. I also skipped the mantecara at the end since the coconut milk was full-fat and had an impressing chunk of solidified coconut fat on top. It was really good. The coconut flavor did not dominate, but I still think it was worth it. Next time I might try a can of low-fat coconut milk.

* As you may have noticed, I usually try to respect copyright and link to recipes I feature instead of reprinting them, but it really pisses me off when a cooking show doesn't make the recipes it demonstrates available online. The recipes from this episode don't even seem to be in the companion book! In my mind, that makes it OK for me to present my best guess.

Rationalize, much?


Here we go a-gain

Get it? a-GAIN? Heh.

The other day I got on the scale for the first time in a couple of weeks. As you may remember, my scale died so I am now using my SO's husband's scale, which weighs 6.5 pounds heavier than my old scale and probably three pounds heavier than is strictly accurate. Even taking that all into consideration, I found myself staring at a new all-time, non-pregnant, non-postpartum high. This is not good.

So the roller coaster has one again rocketed to the peak, as it seems to do every two years, which means it's time to figure out how to get it going down again. I refuse to try any more gimmicks or major lifestyle changes. I already know a LOT about what I should and should not do. I just have to figure out how to do it. Oh yeah, and I have to make myself move through space. That's going to be critical, especially as...

I have a MAJOR birthday in about a week. Which one? The one that brings an invitation in the mail to join a particular organization full of MUCH MUCH older people. I thought my last major birthday brought some physical changes, but from what I hear, I ain't seen nothing yet. I am considering this my last best chance to get my act together before I succumb to my genetic heritage, which, unfortunately, seems to come not from my mother's slimmer side, but my father's more pear-shaped side.

I am going to take advantage of this milestone as an excuse opportunity to buy a new toy. We're getting a Wii for Christmas and I simply had to have a Wii Fit Plus (w/Balance Board) because this magical device will fill all my exercise needs. OK, it won't, but it can't hurt and it looks like fun.

But yeah, new toys aside, I am disappointed. I can't even tell you how many times I have been at this point. And just as advertised, every time I reach a peak it's five pounds heavier than the last one and the gap between where I am and where I want to be gets a little wider. Just like my ass.

Will this time be different? I certainly hope so. I just have to figure out how to make it different without doing the same things over again and expecting a different outcome. I guess that means no new 'diet/nutrition' books, no bold declarations of major lifestyle changes.

How anti-climactic.


Project Weeknight: Riso alla Pitoca (rice with chicken)

I never watch Lidia's Italy on PBS but I just happened to catch an episode this weekend. She was doing rice dishes with risotto-type rice (arborio or whatever) that didn't require the traditional risotto cooking technique. The last dish she showed was 'a traditional chicken and rice'. It looked so simple yet so amazing. It made me salivate.

So I did what I always do: I headed to the intertubes to find the recipe. Oh, imagine my frustration when I discovered that not only was it not to be found, but it didn't even seem to be listed in the table of contents of the companion book to the series!

Luckily the episode aired again later that day and I managed to record it. I pored over it, trying to recreate the recipe. The big sticking point was how much rice and stock she used. She didn't say and I haven't made enough risotto to know.

Well, now it became a point of honor. I would figure out that recipe! It took several more intertube searches and a lot of guessing, but I made my interpretation of it last night and it was fab-ulous.

It could be considered flexitarian because I used so little meat but it's neither whole grain nor high in vegetables. Oh, and it's fairly butter-intensive. I figure it's a once-in-a-while treat.
Riso alla Pitoca (Pitocca?) (Beggar's Rice)
(adapted from Lidia's Italy TV show, ep. Notto Risotto)

Serves 3

1/2 lrg or 1 small onion, roughly chopped
1-2 carrots, peeled & roughly chopped
1-2 stalks celery, cleaned & roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
Aim for approximately equal amounts of onion, carrots, and celery. Toss all in food processor and chop until fine but not completely pulverized.

Main Ingredients
2 Tblsp butter
2 chicken thighs, boned and cubed (See note)
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken stock, hot
1.5 cups rice (arborio, other short grain?)

To Finish
2 Tblsp butter, room temp.
grated parmesan cheese to taste
chopped parsley
salt & pepper to taste (See note)

Heat 2 Tblsp butter (or swap out some for olive oil) in a heavy-bottomed pot. The heavy bottom is important as it will keep the rice from scorching during cooking.
Add pestata, (salt,) cook for a few minutes.
Move vegs to side, add chicken, (salt,) cook until starts to brown.
Add bay leaf, wine, bring to boil, simmer until alcohol smell is gone.
Add 3.5 cups of the hot stock, bring to boil, add rice, (salt.)
Cover, reduce heat, simmer for 15 minutes. If you're worried about scorching, stir every 5 minutes or so. Check rice for doneness after 15 minutes. Cook 5-10 minutes more if needed.

When rice is just done:
- If it's too wet, remove lid and simmer until it reaches desired consistency.
- If it's too dry, add some of the reserved hot stock. It will continue to thicken as it sits after adding the cheese and butter.

Remove from heat and add 2 T butter, stir in vigorously. Lidia called this step 'mantecare'
Add parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, stir.

Serve immediately, as this does not improve over time.

For 4 servings, use 2 cups rice, an extra bit of wine, and 5+ cups hot stock, reserving 1/2 cup for adjustments at the end.

I used only maybe 4-6 ounces of meat, max. You could use up to 1 pound, depending on how meaty you want it.

I salted as I added each step to the pot and didn't need to add any salt at the end.

As for Project Weeknight status, it ended up on the table half an hour late. Mostly it was because I decided to use chicken thighs from a whole chicken I had broken down for stock, and getting rid of all the little gross tendony bits was a huge time sink. Next time I'll just buy boned skinned thighs. Otherwise I think I could have had it on the table in 45 minutes.

As for acceptability, both my guys loved it, which is always good. There were two other recipes in the episode, rice with sage (riso alla salvia) and rice with squash (risotto di zucca). Yes, they're on my list.




Wow - that was crazy. I spent most of the last month focused on getting married, then I went and got married and took a week off work. I'm back at my desk today and trying to get plugged back in, but feels like I've been gone forever!

Oh yeah, did I mention I'm also in the middle of NaNoWriMo? I have to admit, it's suffered over the last week or so. Let's just say I'm a few days behind. But I digress.

Anyway, during our trip to Las Vegas for the wedding, I experienced another 'hotel mirror moment', which is what propelled me to start this blog in the first place. Has it really been almost two years? I don't know how I thought that I could gain all the weight back and not look it, but I guess that's the beauty of having no full length mirrors at home. Ignorance was, indeed bliss.

I know my recent problem is that even though we're eating primarily vegetarian, we're not eating many vegetables. I've fallen into a beans and grains and cheese and whole grain bread and peanut butter rut. I kind of burned out on raw veggies in 2008 but I need to find a way to rekindle the love.

I'm always looking for a cool new solution, and luckily, Daniel at Casual Kitchen has my back. He's just finishing a seven day raw foods trial and it's caught my eye. I wouldn't try to go 100% raw, but a raw smoothie in the morning might be a good way to get back my veggie love. Who knows? I might even get my guys to give it a go once in awhile.

Has anyone tried it? I'd love to hear from you.



As part of my halfhearted attempt to shake at least a few of the ten pounds I've regained over the past year -- or at least preventing any more from piling on -- I'm trying to cut back on my usage of 'diet dark' (aka Diet Coke and/or Pepsi). Why cut back on diet drinks while dieting? Let's just say I'm becoming more and more convinced that the regular consumption of calorie-free sweet treats without consequences is about as plausible as a truly free puppy.

Cutting back on diet soda sounds easy enough, but boy howdy, there's nothing quite like cracking open a cold one in the middle of a long afternoon at the day job, you know? Yeah, water is the gold standard, but I already drink a fair amount of it and besides, it's just not the same. Some days I just want a cold bottle/can of... something, and beer is generally frowned upon in the workplace.

I recently realized that bottled iced tea could fill that void quite nicely, if I could find one that 1) tasted like tea and b) didn't have high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. I'd even drink something with (gasp!) real sugar before either of those, as long as it wasn't too sweet.

Luckily, both Lipton and Snapple put out products that fit the bill. I don't think the Snapple version of lemon tea would be recognizable as tea in a blindfold test, but it wasn't bad enough to spit on the floor. Lipton has both a plain unsweetened tea (as a Northerner, I'm OK with that) and a lemon tea with sugar. I haven't tried the lemon yet but the unsweetened stuff tastes like tea, which is kind of the point.

Sure, I feel stupid paying a dollar-something for 16 ounces of plain tea, and sure, I could make my own damned tea and drag it to work and drink it from a glass like normal people, but if spending a few bucks on some glass bottles helps keep the diet dark monkey off my back, I'm all for it.

It's just a drop in the sea of compromise, but I need all the drops I can get.


Salted yogurt and cold bananas: Who knew?

(No, not together!)

I've had a couple of revelations recently that I must share with you.

First, at the ripe (ha!) old age of 49, I just learned that you can indeed keep bananas in the fridge. Yes, they end up looking like hell, but that's just the peel -- the fruit stays perfectly firm. The cold slows the transformation from banana to fruit fly farm to a crawl. Unfortunately, I've also learned I have a problem eating cold bananas, so I have to let them come to room temp before peeling and enjoying.

If I had a dollar for every banana I've thrown away because I didn't know this....

And, if I sort through my freezer to cull all the baggies full of frozen over-ripe bananas, we could eat banana bread for months. That's not such a bad idea, really.

Secondly, last night I made Veggiecakes. This time I used a medium russet potato (grated), the same amount of grated sweet potato, and maybe a slightly larger quantity of grated zucchini (because that's what I had) along with the other ingredients. I didn't have sour cream but wanted something to plop on top, so I reluctantly turned to the full-fat plain yogurt. I've never been a big fan of subbing yogurt for sour cream because, not matter what they say, it's not "just the same".

However, this time, thinking of the raita I had last time we went for Indian food, I threw a little salt in it. And you know what? It was pretty darned close. Both my son and SO went for it, big time. The fact that it was full-fat didn't hurt -- I don't think low-fat yogurt would have been as well received. I doubt we saved any calories, but I felt so much 'healthier' telling myself I was eating my practically-deep-fried Veggiecakes with yogurt rather than sour cream. Calories notwithstanding, salted yogurt earned a big thumb's-up all around. It's well worth a try.

The last bit of news is rather sad: My trusty digital bathroom scale has finally given up. I can't bring myself to run out and buy a new one as we already have another perfectly good scale but, if you remember, it weighs SIX POUNDS heavier than mine.

Let's just say I was very sad this morning when I stepped on board.

Hey, have I mentioned we're getting married in about a month? I suppose, according to the traditional model I should be freaking out about my weight, but in reality I'm pretty sure it really doesn't matter what I weigh. Unless they've installed scales at the entrance of the Office of Civil Marriages in Las Vegas, I'm pretty sure I'm OK as is.

Truthfully, it would be nice not to gain any more. Thanks to that damned scale I already feel like I gained six pounds overnight.


Unventing Faux Mexican Rice

Admin note: Since I'm only posting sporadically, it doesn't make sense to stick to the 'day of the week' titles, so I hereby decree that I will, from this day forth, use descriptive titles on all my posts. Yippee! Release the pigeons!

Yeah, I'm still here, and yeah, I'm still struggling. I'm still eating flexitarian, mostly ovo-lacto-vegetarian (not much lacto, tho) with occasional meat. And I have gained back just about all the weight I lost last year.

All together now: Heavy sigh.

A big component of my problem is my activity level. There are a few quasi-valid reasons (read: lame excuses) that I won't bore you with, but overall, even though I am eating pretty well, I am simply taking more in than I'm expending. Yeah, I could stand to tweak a few things, food-wise, and from time to time I actually try to do so, but until I increase my activity level I'm pretty much screwed.

One major disappointment: I still can't break my romaine aversion. I don't seem to be able to eat it more than once a week. I am pretty upset about that. It seemed such an elegant solution!

But enough about my most recent failures, let's talk about food.

I have a new recipe for you! To be precise, the dish is not new but I have found a quick and easy way to approximate it. And I can't even say for sure I'm the first person to think of this, although I haven't seen it anywhere else (that I remember). Let's borrow a term from the online knitting community and just say I 'unvented' it. That's shorthand for 'I discovered this recipe/pattern/technique but can't say definitively that no one else has ever come up with it before, so I'll claim credit only for my incarnation of it.'

Recently I fell in love with that pink rice stuff you often see in Mexican restaurants. I think it's technically called Spanish Rice. I learned Spanish Rice recipes call for white rice to be cooked in broth and stock, which -- white rice issue aside -- just wouldn't to work for me on a weeknight. I usually keep pre-cooked brown rice frozen in 2 cup portions since brown rice takes approximately forever to cook. So what could I do?

In reviewing the ingredients list, I realized I had a lot of the things pre-mixed at my fingertips. Cooked tomatoes, onions, spices... sounds like jarred salsa to me! It only took a few trials to get it just the way I like it. It ain't perfect, but it sure is quick.

Faux Mexican Rice

2 cups pre-cooked brown rice, at room temperature
1/2 cup jarred salsa, your preferred level of spice*
Splash of water

Place rice in a microwave-safe container. Add a splash of water if the rice is a little dry. Add salsa, combine. Add more salsa until it's the color you want. It should be a little saucy; remember the juice will get absorbed by the rice.

Cover and microwave for two minutes. Stir. If it's not piping hot throughout, nuke for another minute or so. Stir and check for piping hot-ness. When it's steaming hot, remove from microwave and let sit, covered, for a few minutes.

The goal is to heat the rice to steaming to, uh, loosen up the starch in the rice, then let it cool down to give the rice a chance to absorb the liquid.

* I like the jarred Pace Picante because, well, I'm a Northerner. Also, it has a nice sauciness to it that works well in this application. And it comes in mild, which my son will eat.

Serve and enjoy!

Now that hot weather is a distant memory (heavy sigh again) I'll probably be posting more often, so come back and see me soon, OK?


Project Weeknight: Black-Bean Burgers

My SO found this recipe one evening when we were completely clueless as to what to make for dinner. They were so quick to put together, and you know what? They weren't bad.

We made it as written (except subbing parsley for the - ptui! - cilantro).We had some problems keeping them from falling apart, and they were a little bland, but acceptable for something that had a prep time of less than ten minutes.

I went back and read the reviews after. Subbing an egg for the mayo as many reviewers mentioned would probably solve the integrity problem. Sauteed garlic and onion would help. One reviewed mentioned adding some corn. I liked that idea a lot, especially some corn that's been pre-roasted in a skillet... maybe with some red peppers... and avocado on top... mmmm!

Didn't get to try these on my son, but I think they will pass that test, especially with the mods. This one is definitely worth a do-over



Discovery of the day: Be careful what you ask for

It might be because I have now gained back ALL THE WEIGHT I lost last year, but I've become fixated on how calorically expensive eating out can be. Lucky for me it's all over the news, with lots of blogs and books talking about our Great American Crisis. As most restaurant chains now post nutritional info on their websites, I have lots of ammo at my fingertips to fuel my self-loathing.

Just kidding. It's not outright loathing as much as severe disappointment and discouragement.

I get partial credit here, though. Over the decades I've learned not to eat to the point of pain. (Don't laugh. It happened fairly regularly in my twenties.) Sometimes I do let myself get to the point of feeling over-fed, but rarely anymore do I end up curled up in a ball fearing for my life. I thought I was doing pretty well, overall.

But on a recent visit to Red Robin (a chain like Applebee's, TGIF, etc.) I splurged on a crispy chicken strip salad. Hey, it's a salad, right? And I love me some mass-produces crispy chicken strips. Later, on a whim, I went to their website to look up nutritional information.

OMFG! 1400 calories. Without the dressing? Still a whopping 1014, and that doesn't count the fries I ate off my son's and SO's plates. Considering my caloric intake FOR THE DAY should be less than 1700 cals, it qualified as a disaster.

It's everywhere, too. Last time I traveled for work I made my usual morning trip to the shrine of Sbux. This one had the calorie counts conveniently posted by each of the little snacks in the pastry case. Now I have been known to get a slice of banana bread or lemon loaf on occasion, but JFC! At 480 cal and 390 cals respectively, that's a meal! Oatmeal cookie? 370 cals. Even a plain butter croissant is 310 cal. And you don't even want to know about the coffee drinks.

BTW, none of the Sbux in my area post the calorie counts.

This Washington Post article by Ezra Klein explains a lot. Yeah, we know all that food is a dietary disaster, but DAMN is tastes good, and that's what we react to. There's really no way around it, either, unless you can discipline yourself to leave half your food on your plate or piss off your SO by insisting you split an entree.

We are both trying to motivate ourselves for the slog back to the straight and narrow. But it's hard. We both struggle with comfort eating, reward eating, and depression, all of which combined can make it really tough sometimes to smack yourself on the hand with that wooden ruler.

What, you don't do that? Oh.

Problem is that as hard as one works, it never seems to get easier. As soon as the amount of available mental energy decreases, it gets too hard to do the right thing every single time. Even the healthy changes I made last year (some of which actually stuck) haven't been enough to keep me out of my fat pants.

At this point my goal is to minimize any further damage and not reach a new all-time high.



Discovery of the day: Italian Layered Vegetable Casserole

You might be surprised to learn I did cook during my hiatus. Not a lot, but I did add a few new recipes to my repertoire. Take, for example, this Italian Layered Vegetable Casserole from Susan V's Fat-Free Vegan Kitchen. With all the slicing and dicing it doesn't quite qualify for Project Weeknight, but it's definitely worth doing.

It's pretty much lasagna with sliced veggies (eggplant & zucchini) instead of noodles. The recipe as written uses a creamy bean filling, but Susan notes that it wasn't as well-received as the tofu filling from her lasagna recipe. I'm not terribly concerned with being either fat-free or vegan so I subbed ricotta for the tofu and we were pretty pleased.

The only other mod I made was to omit the sugar from the tomato sauce and throw in just a 1/4 teaspoon or so of baking soda. I can't remember where I learned this trick - maybe from my SO? - but it knocks the acidity of tomato sauce right down. It's a little scary to watch your sauce foam up, but it's kind of fun too.

The thing I most appreciated about this recipe was her tutorial on how to pre-cook the eggplant slices in the microwave. I don't cook with eggplant often because, frankly, it intimidates me. But even I can overcome my fears to throw the eggplant slices in the microwave for 8-10 minutes.

To summarize, I used a good-sized eggplant, about 3 cups of sliced zucchini, and the sauce (omitting sugar, adding 1/4 teaspoon baking soda), along with her tofu filling (subbing 1 pound ricotta for tofu). Any marinara sauce and ricotta lasagna filling recipe will do, really.

Oh, and by the way, when a recipe calls for putting hot stuff from a saucepan into a blender or food processor, just say no. Please. Simply hit it with your trusty stick blender and save yourself from another large piece of kitchen equipment to clean. Seriously, a stick blender can be used in most instances. Just watch for splatters.

Hey, it feels good to be back.



Discovery of the day: I miss this! I really do.

Life has calmed down and I have realized that I really do need to keep posting, mainly because this modest blog has turned out to be my virtual cookbook. This is where I turn when I have no idea what to cook, or when I can't remember what my final white bean chili recipe turned out to be.

So I'll be back, at least whenever I try something new that works. I've got a couple of recipes backlogged to post as soon as I find my notes.

Besides, this is so much tidier than the stack of stained and torn sheets of printed-out recipes in the corner of my bookcase! Only downside is that when the power goes out I'm stuck with PB&J.



Discovery of the day: How much is too much?

I want to post, I really do. I compose entries all the time, in my head, but I seem to be unable to complete the loop from brain to fingers to keyboard to Blogger.

I have a lot of stuff going on right now and my brain is way too full. I had set myself a goal of posting here every workday, but that little promise has turned into something big and ominous and dark hanging over my head. Where's the fun in that?

I'm pretty stubborn about not giving up on things I want to do, but over the years (OK, decades) I've learned that when my list of 'have to do' and 'should do' items gets long enough, the 'want to do' stuff sometimes has to be jettisoned overboard for ballast. This project is one of those 'want to' things.

So I'm going to spare myself a few ounces of agony and guilt and take a brief hiatus from this blog. It should only be a couple of weeks at most. And who knows? Once I take the pressure off, I may find myself popping in with an occasional post anyway. Because writing about my eating habits is fun! :)

In the meantime, eat well and please check back from time to time.



Discovery of the day: Another MIM success!

I am pleased to announce that I successfully made a batch of yogurt last weekend that came out (almost) exactly the way I wanted.

All it took was a quart of whole milk, one-third cup of dry milk powder, half a cup of yogurt (the starter), a small cooler, some hot water, and about eight hours. Oh yeah, a pot and a stove, too. And a thermometer.

(Do I need to mention the spatula, small bowl, and tiny whisk? Probably not? OK, then, let's get on with it already!)

I read a bunch of different recommendations for amount of powdered milk and starter, but decided in the end to follow the proportions given here. I'm not a stickler for organic, but I did have some Nancy's organic yogurt that I'd bought because it had, like, six different types of cultures. And more has to be better, right?

(Now that I've written 'six', I am doubting my memory. I feel compelled to double-check the carton tonight.)

I heated the milk in the pan on the stove to 170 deg., stirred in the dry milk, then set the pan in cool water until the temp of the milk hit about 110 deg. I took a cup or so of the milk and whisked it into the starter in a small bowl, then poured that back into the pan.

As for my container, I had a clean, one quart peanut butter jar that I'd run through the dishwasher then filled with boiling water (sanitized for your protection). While the milk was cooling I dumped the water out of the jar and let it air dry for a bit.

I poured the milk into the jar, but a quart plus half a cup equals more than a quart so I had a little left over, which I dumped, reluctantly. The jar was capped and placed in my 9 quart cooler. I poured hot water (120 deg) into the cooler until the water level was an inch or two below the level of the milk in the jar.

Then I let it sit. I worried about whether the temp would drop below 104 deg., so I found a small two-piece indoor/outdoor thermometer I had around, one where the outside component relays the temperature to the inside display. I put the outside component in one of my long plastic bread bags, dropped it in the cooler, draped the open end of the bag over the side and shut the lid on it. Then I carried the readout component around with me for the rest of the day.

Overkill, much?

The temp wasn't 100% accurate since the outdoor component floated on the surface, but it gave me an idea of when the temp had dropped too much. I probably went way overboard pulling out a portion of the water and reheating it, but I wanted to be sure it stayed warm enough.

Apparently it did, because when I pulled it out eight hours later, I had a beautiful, firm clump of yogurt. The only thing that bugs me is that it's a little more tart than I hoped, but I know that's related to the long incubation time.

Next time, I'll find my probe thermometer and track the water temp instead of the air temp. I'll also pull the yogurt out after six hours and see if it's firm enough.

I've been toying with trying to find a yogurt maker but the one I want (Salton YM9) apparently is no longer made, and other makes seem to run about $50. Thanks, but for $50, I'll stick with my homemade rig.

Yay, yogurt! Now that I've got it figured out, I'll be making it regularly.



Discovery of the day: Hitting the fan

If you read my other blog, you know that I've had a couple of familial wildfires pop up in the past week and they've kind of knocked me sideways. I'm guessing my posting here may well be sparse going forward but I'll check in as often as I can come up with something to write about. Like today.

I have a minor victory to share: I found the perfect bread bags. I've been sticking my sliced sandwich loaves in resealable bags, sucking out the air, and storing them in the freezer. But gallon bags don't exactly fit right, and over time the slices end up going every which way and they tend to get bent, etc., which annoys the crap out of me.

Saturday I found the solution at the restaurant supply store. I knew they had an assortment of oddball plastic bags, and sure enough, I found a 5" x 4" x 18" model. I wasn't sure if it would fit, but at $4.00/100, I figured it was worth the gamble.

Got them home and the universe did smile upon me -- my loaf slid in pretty as you please, just like the bags on store-boughten bread. I have this bad habit of saving the plastic clippy-things from bread bags and was pleased as punch to be able to use one to hold the bag closed, although a twist-tie would work just as well.

I later decided to double up the bread bags 'cause the plastic was rather thin.

I had another success last weekend but you'll have to check back for that one.


BYOB: Whole Wheat Buttermilk Sandwich Loaf

Well, I've cranked out enough loaves of our default whole wheat sandwich bread that I now feel I've got it mastered. In my bread machine, anyway. :)

I wasn't at all confident I would be able to produce a loaf that my SO and son would embrace so I was particularly thrilled to have good, repeatable results. We haven't bought sandwich bread in over six weeks!

So here's my recipe, in all its simple glory:
Whole Wheat Buttermilk Sandwich Bread (1.5 lb loaf)
Adapted from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, p 439, for the Breadman Ultimate machine.

1¼ cup water (warm for molasses, hot for honey)
2 Tablespoons honey or molasses
2 Tablespoons oil or cold butter
1¼ teaspoons salt

3 cup less 2 Tablespoons whole wheat flour (red or white, not pastry flour, 14.3 oz by weight)
3 Tablespoons buttermilk powder

1½ teaspoons yeast

Pour water into bucket of bread machine, add sweetener and stir to dissolve. Add salt to bucket, stir. If using oil, add it also.

In a bowl, combine flour and buttermilk powder. Whisk to combine, add gently to bucket.

Make a small well on top of the dry ingredients, add yeast.

If using butter, cut into four chunks and drop one in each corner of bucket on top of dry ingredients.

Plug in bread machine.

Bread machine settings:
  • Whole Wheat (not rapid). Display will show 3:27.

  • 1.5 lb loaf

  • Light crust
De-pan bread to a cooling rack as soon as possible after timer goes off. Paint top with melted butter or oil to keep crust soft (optional). Let cool to room temperature on rack before slicing.

I've only had this recipe fail a couple of times, and that was when instead of using the fresh-ground whole wheat flour from the fancy-pants grocery, I opened a bag of whole wheat flour I'd had in the pantry a little past (OK, 6 months past) the 'best by' date. We had three loaves fail before I figured it out. They just didn't rise properly. They might have even risen and collapsed. That was the first time I'd experienced such a visual demonstration of what happens when you use old flour and I won't make that mistake again!

Some random bread tips:
  • I love using the buttermilk powder for baking! I keep the little cardboard canister in the fridge and it's always there when I need it.

  • I keep my yeast in an airtight container in the freezer. I bought a one pound bag over a year ago and it's still going strong. I test it every few months just to be sure it's still active.

  • I've found that the SAF brand yeast seems to make better-tasting bread than the Fleischmann's, but YMMV.

  • I use an electric knife to slice my bread. It's the only way I can even hope to slice it thin enough.

  • As soon as it's sliced, I bag the loaf in a resealable plastic bag, suck out excess air, and freeze it.
Yep, I freeze my sandwich bread. It's the only way I've found to keep homemade bread fresh past a day or two. We just pop out the slices we need and either toast them or nuke in the microwave for 10 seconds or so. If you are opposed to nuking, you could put them in a plastic bag and let them thaw on the counter.

I bought my bread machine at a silent auction and it sat in a closet for two years. I am now in love with it and can't imagine making sandwich bread without it. Heck, if it dies I might actually go pay full price for a new one!



Discovery of the day: Going granular

Made some granola the other day; the first step to making granola bars to replace the ones I buy my son from time to time. I used Mark Bittman's recipe/guidelines, given here. I used rolled oats, ground flaxseeds, pecans, walnuts, almonds, raisins, dried cherries, apricots, and honey. I also used a combo of unsweetened and sweetened coconut since I had both on hand. It came out well. Next time I might look for a rolled seven-grain cereal or something to add to the oats, just for fun.

Then I tried gluing some of the granola together into no-bake bars using the recipe given here and that was, uh, not a total win. I added some puffed brown rice cereal for some of the granola, and I used peanut butter instead of the brown sugar. The puffed rice worked great, but even omitting the brown sugar, they were so sweet that my son wouldn't eat them. If they're too sweet for a nine year old, that's pretty damned sweet! Good thing I only made half a batch.

I'm betting the honey could be cut back some, but honey is so sweet to begin with -- there has to be something else I could use of a similar viscosity that wouldn't be quite so cloying. I finally determined that corn syrup or brown rice syrup might be a good choice. I have good old Karo syrup at home, but that certainly doesn't sound very sexy, so today I paid over $6 for a jar of brown rice syrup.

All I can say is it had better taste absolutely fantastic.

So next time I'll use maybe 1/2 cup brown rice syrup (3/4 if I have to), 1/2 cup peanut butter, maybe a tablespoon (or two) of oil, 2 cups granola and 1 cup of puffed brown rice cereal.

Fingers crossed!



Discovery of the day: Waffle-icious

We found a reasonable replacement waffle iron this weekend, and boy, was that a much larger hassle than I expected. The goal was to find a plain old waffle iron (don't need three kinds of 'plates') that makes regular (not belgian) waffles, is made of decent quality materials (not plastic outside), costs under $80, and could be purchased locally.

It took visits to four stores, but we found precisely one that fit all criteria, and it was on sale for less than $30. Score!

We fired up our new Cuisinart 'Classic' on Sunday to see if we could make waffles to replace my son's beloved Eggos. We used the recipe in the book but cut the oil in half, which turned out to be a mistake. They were edible, but not spectacular. I ended up with four to freeze for the week, and other than having to separate a waffle into quarters to get it to fit in the toaster, it worked out OK. I'm just thrilled that my son will eat them.

Next time I'll try a recipe from Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian that looks particularly promising.

Another staple for the MIM list - yay!

As for the waffle iron itself, I am not in love with it. It feels flimsier than the old one. We'll see how it holds up.



Discovery of the day: You have got to be kidding me!

We took my son to the Seattle Aquarium yesterday and decided to grab lunch at Red Robin. Along with the large, brightly-colored menus was a smaller, rather plain black and white menu-looking thing with no photos. I ignored it at first, but picked it up when I realized it was nutritional information.

Can I just say? Oh My Gah.

I was astonished at the calorie counts, especially of the items I thought would be relatively harmless. I didn't take notes and my memory is crap, but I swear most of the 'salads' came in near or over 1000 calories! The only one that was even worth considering was the Asian Chicken Salad, which I think was under 600 calories.

For my SO, the biggest shocker was the Whiskey River BBQ Wrap which was something like 1700 cals, at least! He had assumed a mere 'chicken wrap' would not be an entire day's worth of calories. I mean, heck, it had lettuce in it; practically a salad, right? Poor disillusioned guy.

I was stunned that even the Garden Burger (veggie/grain patty) clocked in at over 700 cals. The only part of the menu that wasn't terrifying (calorically, at least) was the kids' meals, and I'm sure that was simply due to portion size. I didn't even look at the sodium. If I had, we would have had to leave. Sometimes it's better not to know, you know?

I got the Asian Salad with dressing on the side and my son ate most of the chicken. My SO ended up getting a salmon burger. I can't remember what the calorie count on that was, but at least it was grilled salmon. My son got the mac & cheese and mandarin orange segments, which I ate.

We split my SO's fries between the three of us, but everyone knows that those calories don't stick if you rinse them down with Diet Coke. ;)

So major kudos to Red Robin for putting it out there, but Cheeze Louise, guys!



Discovery of the day: You got your quinoa soup in my tamale pie!

So what do you do when you dump a scoop of leftover Quinoa Soup (drained, sans avocado) on top of the leftover filling from the previous night's Tamale Pie?

A surprisingly tasty and filling lunch, that's what. The scoop of Quinoa Soup didn't even require much in the way of draining, since the quinoa had already sucked up almost all of the broth, as it is wont to do.

Oh yeah, and last night my son has decided he's not fond of quinoa. :(

BTW, that Tamale Pie filling is going to be a pretty versatile product. I can think of several uses for it, and that's making me hungry again.



Discovery of the day: Tracking it back

Poking around on the Casual Kitchen blog the other day, I found Daniel's post on Stacked Costs and Second Order Foods. I had read it when it was new but had forgotten about it. In hindsight, it was one of the factors that pushed me onto the Make It Myself path. Purchasing as many first-order foods as possible appealed to me on a very basic level.

Maybe it's because I grew up during the Cold War and always was reading books like 'The Boxcar Children' and 'Little House on the Prairie' where folks had to 'make it or do without.' Sure, I grew up with Shake-a-Puddin' and casseroles made with cream of mushroom soup just like (almost) everyone else of my generation, but in the back of my mind was always this notion of figuring out how to make things myself.

As I got older and read more science fiction & fantasy than could be considered strictly healthy, I was drawn to the 'after the bomb' and other post-apocalyptic tales where people had to start over from nothing. Because of this urge, I learned to knit, and eventually to spin and dye yarn. I learned to make soap and at one point I even had a small business selling it. I learned cake decorating (although I'm not sure how that relates to this discussion, but hey, you never know.) Hell, I even raised chickens for awhile, and I'm a city girl! Unfortunately, I've learned the hard way that I'm too lazy to be a good gardener or you can bet I'd be all over that too.

The yarn and soap and cake and chickens have faded into the past, but Daniel's concept of First Order foods must have pushed that button again. Read it and tell me you don't at least think about what you buy and what you might be able to make.



Discovery of the day: Just say no!

One of the many reasons I'm into the Make It Myself thing is that I am cheap. I pretty much stopped buying sugar cereals years ago, although I admit, occasionally a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch will jump in my cart; strictly for dessert use only, you understand.

However, after reading this excellent treatise by Daniel over at Casual Kitchen, I may have to re-think even that rare treat.

Give it a read, then go look at the cereal in your cabinet. Dare you.



Discovery of the day: Rolling my own

As you might have noticed, my loyal reader, I've been on a 'make my own stuff' kick lately. It's actually a mindset I've drifted in and out of over the years. I like to figure out how things are made, and occasionally those things have been food. But this time it's serious. I'm slowly working up a list of previously-purchased prepared foods that I am awarding permanent 'Make It Myself' status.

I work full time and have a short attention span, so for a regularly-used food item to make the MIM List, it not only has to be acceptable to everyone in the household, it also must be able to be made quickly and efficiently. So far, mayonnaise, jam, bread, and yogurt have been removed from my shopping list. Future projects include making flour tortillas, and probably most critical, replacing our dead waffle iron and figuring out how to replicate the Eggo waffles my son has eaten for breakfast almost every morning for five years. That's a lot of Eggo waffles, my friend.

So what do you think? I'll be blogging about the recipes and techniques that work best for me so that you can try them too, if you're game.

C'mon, it'll be fun! OK, it may not all be fun, but I guarantee it will be easy.



Discovery of the day: A crack in the ice

I actually brought a BAS for lunch the other day, the first time in a l-o-n-g time. Not only that, but we had BBBAS for dinner the night before! I was shocked at the resistance I felt as I was chopping up that head of romaine, though. Where did this anti-lettuce attitude come from, anyway? I have no idea.

Now that things look to be settling down a bit at home, I plan to slowly work myself back into the BAS thing. I think it's critical to getting my weight back on track. I have let my veggie consumption drop way too low.

Speaking of weight, I just found Joy's What I Weigh Today blog and am wondering if I should make myself publicly accountable for my weight. Maybe not every day, though. Maybe once a week? I don't know. Strong feelings both ways (weighs! ha!) The other thing that I think is cool about her blog is that if you add 18 lbs and 18 years, in some ways she sounds like me. Except I'm not in the food industry. Maybe that's a good thing. If I'm having this much trouble controlling my weight now, I can't imagine....



Discovery of the day: Tamale pie

Finally got around to trying the Polenta Tamale Pie I mentioned a few months back and it was a grand success, even if it wasn't quite Project Weeknight-worthy as written. I made a few mods and was very pleased with the results.
Polenta Tamale Pie
Adapted from Epicurious.com

2 15-oz cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1½ Tablespoons chili powder
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 16-oz bottle salsa (I used mild)
1 15-oz can refried beans
1 to 2 cups* liquid (water, veggie stock, chicken stock)
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley (optional)

2 pounds fresh-cooked polenta or 2 one-pound rolls prepared polenta, sliced into 1/3"-thick rounds (I used quick-cooking polenta)
2 cups shredded cheese (I used monterey jack)

* The more liquid you add, the longer it will take to simmer to the desired thickness. More simmering = deeper flavor. You need at least enough to keep it from scorching.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine first six ingredients (beans, spices, salsa, liquid) in a saucepan over medium-high heat, mix well. Simmer until mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Add cilantro/parsley, season with salt and pepper.

Oil 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Spread (or place) half of polenta (slices) in dish. Top with filling and half of the cheese, then spread (place) remaining polenta (slices) and cheese.

Bake, uncovered, until heated through and sauce bubbles, about 35 minutes.

Since there are just three of us, I made a whole batch of filling and used half of it in a 9"x9" pan. I froze the rest of the filling. Next time I'll just make a batch of polenta to use with the thawed filling.

Since the oven time is what knocks it out of Project Weeknight contention, next time I'll try this: Make the polenta, press it into a hot oiled skillet and fry it a little to get some crunch. Plate individual servings of the polenta and top with a scoop of hot filling and cheese.

Acceptability was high -- it got thumbs up from my guys. If you love cornmeal and beans -- and who doesn't? -- I predict it'll be thumbs up for you too.



Discovery of the day: To AB5 or Not to AB5?

So with this whole Bake Your Own Bread thing I've taken a shine to, you are probably asking yourself "Why doesn't she just get the 'Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day' book and be done with it?"

I hear ya, believe me. Having a tub of bread dough in the fridge would make it a snap to bake whatever sort of delicious bread product I needed at a moment's notice.

And that, my friends, is the problem.

I have issues with bread and grains in general. I heart them. I could eat them three times a day for the rest of my life and be happy, happy, happy. And I would weigh 300 lbs.

When I tell myself 'but they're WHOLE grains', I promptly fall right into the Snackwell trap. Remember that? Everyone got on this big fat-free kick back in the early 1990s. Fat was the devil, and anything fat-free was king. Snackwell came out with their fat-free sugar bombs. Hey, it's fat-free, so we can eat as much as we want right? Well, I gained 15 lbs on a fat-free diet.

It took me a long time to learn that the only 'free' foods are veggies. Everything else has limits. And grains, for me, must be especially limited.

That's why I can't have a tub of AB5 dough at my disposal. That's why I can't have bread with dinner every night, or even more than once a day on a regular basis. And it's not just bread; pasta and rice suffer the same limitations. My recent lack of consistency in this area is one of the major reasons I've gained back 10 of the 15 pounds I lost last year.

Honest, AB5. It's not you. It's me.

BYOB: Close Enough Rolls

I mentioned last week that an otherwise perfect Project Weeknight dinner was delayed due to rolls. Fortunately, it was worth it.

At first I'd planned to make focaccia using my default recipe from 'No Need To Knead' by Suzanne Dunaway. I've used it for some years now and it's great -- one quick rise and it's in the oven. But if focaccia is quick, then rolls made from the focaccia dough would be quicker, right?

Uh, no.

I forgot that rolls need to rise again after shaping. But by the time I figured that out, I was committed. I was pretty skeptical about how well they'd come out because I cut the last rise short, but they exceeded my expectation, big-time. They got a 'multi-thumbs up' rating from my guys.

When will I learn to stand so that my shadow doesn't fall into the picture??

The only change I made to the recipe was to sub out a cup of white whole wheat for a cup of bread flour.

(I solemnly promise that the recipe will go here, as soon as I remember to bring it in)

In a perfect world, I'd plan ahead and get some 100% whole grain dough done ahead of time. Oh well, there's always next time.


Project Weeknight: Pasta e Fagioli

Ha! Project Weeknight is back, in a big way. I tackled Pasta e Fagioli last night. I combined elements of two recipes and came up with something I was pretty happy with.

The dish came together very quickly, but I sabotaged myself by pretending I could make yeast buns from scratch in time. I couldn't, and dinner was a good half-hour late because of it. Not that it wasn't worth it, though.

But first, the recipe!
Pasta e Fagioli
Adapted from The Innocent Primate Vegan Blog and Rachael Ray

2 Tablespoons oil/butter (your choice)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
6 cups total stock/water
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
2 cans (15 oz) cannellini or kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1/2 tsp fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 small zucchini, cut in quarters lengthwise then sliced 1/4"
1/2-3/4 cup small pasta (I used small shells)
1/2 cup frozen peas
Salt and black pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated

Heat oil and/or butter in soup pot, then add onions and a dash of salt. Saute until soft, then add garlic, carrots, celery, and red pepper (if using). Saute for another few minutes until celery starts to look translucent.

Add stock/water, tomato paste, beans, herbs, and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Add pasta and zucchini, simmer another five minutes. Add peas and simmer until pasta is done. Adjust salt & pepper.

Serve with grated parmesan.

Sara at The Innocent Primate recommends cooking the pasta separately and adding it to each bowl if you're going to store leftover soup, because the pasta will continue to soak up liquid and grow if left in the soup. I leave the pasta in, but only because I take the leftovers for lunch and I appreciate the more stew-like consistency the next day.

I used all chicken stock, a quart of Evil Corporate stock and two cups of homemade. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it was almost too chicken-y. Next time I'll use a cup or two of water.

As I mentioned above, the 'fazool' cooked up very quickly but we had to wait for the bread. I'll be writing about that next, because it came out pretty well despite the rush job.

How good was it? My son gave it an 'all thumbs up'. I'll take that, even if he did eat around every single piece of zucchini in his bowl. Oh well.



Discovery of the day: Slacker

I realized I haven't done a Project Weeknight post in almost a month. I'd best get on that, eh?

I'm not sure why, really. I'm still saving links to recipes in my Recipe Purgatory and they all look really good, but when it comes time to cook I can only seem to come up with just enough enthusiasm to meet the minimum requirements.

I haven't yet managed to consistently follow through on my threat to pre-select the week's meals and I think that's half my problem right there. But tonight will be different! I have a recipe lined up and I even have all of the ingredients.

Here's hoping....


BYOB: Hot Cross Buns

As you probably guessed, I did make Hot Cross Buns last week. Thursday night I put together half a batch of the AB5 brioche dough -- subbing one cup of white whole wheat flour for a cup of the AP flour -- and set it in the fridge. I wasn't sure I wanted to make it all into buns so I made the brioche dough plain, as written. I decided to use half the batch for the buns and save the other half for whatever. I figured I could freeze it if inspiration failed me.

I wanted to have the buns for breakfast Saturday but I didn't want to have to wait for the dough to warm up and rise after shaping (or get up early enough to make that doable) so I thought I'd be clever and shape them the night before, then put them on the (cool) sunporch overnight.

I pulled out approximately half my dough (¼ batch) and kneaded in my goodies. I cut the lump into eight pieces, formed them into balls, and set them out on the Silpat-lined sheet pan. Then out on the deck they went.

Next morning, I brought them in to warm up while the oven preheated. They were looking more spread out than puffy, but I was hoping maybe they'd rise in the oven.

Nope. They didn't. I ended up with Hot Cross Discs. And since I was too lazy to make the icing for the cross, they were just Hot Discs. They tasted fabulous, though, and the texture was nice.

What went wrong? They may have over-risen and collapsed. Maybe the sunporch wasn't as cool as I thought. Good thing I had the other half of that dough in the fridge!

It took us a few (very few!) days to make that batch disappear and I was ready to go again. Monday I took the rest of the dough, kneaded in the goodies, formed the balls -- nine this time -- and set them in a 9x9 inch baking dish I'd sprayed with baking spray. They rose beautifully and I felt confident enough to snip the cross into the top of each bun.

They baked off without a hitch and were finished off with a honey butter glaze straight out of the oven, just as their flatter brethren had been. The lemon icing crosses were added once they cooled.

Results? Oh yeah, that'll work.

Here's what I added. It's only slightly modified from the AB5 version.

Hot Cross Bun Additions
For approximately ¼ batch of plain AB5 brioche dough.
Makes nine buns.
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 cup currants or raisins, soaked in hot water until plump, drained
1/8 cup dried apricots, cut into raisin-sized pieces, soaked in hot water until plump, drained
1/2 teaspoon orange zest, or a few drops of orange oil (not orange extract)
Honey Glaze: Melt approximately 2 Tablespoons honey and I Tablespoon butter just until butter melts. Stir well to combine.

Lemon Icing: Combine ½ cup confectioners sugar, 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, and either ¼ teaspoon lemon zest or a few drops of lemon oil (not lemon extract). Stir to combine. Adjust consistency with more confectioner's sugar or lemon juice, as needed.

Method: Knead the additions into a chilled 1 - 1½ pound piece of AB5 brioche dough (approximately ¼ batch). Cut into nine equal pieces (use a scale) and form into balls. Place balls in a 9x9 inch baking dish sprayed with baking spray (or lined with a square of parchment). Cover with a towel and let rise for an hour or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When buns have risen, snip a cross into the top of each using scissors. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until done. (Note: My oven is way off, so I have to use a thermometer to check for doneness. I baked them until the temp in the center bun was ~195 degrees)

Remove baking dish from oven and brush buns with honey glaze. Let buns cool in the baking dish, then pipe the lemon icing onto the snipped crosses using either a spoon, a plastic bag with one corner snipped off, a piping bag, or a parchment coronet. Whatever works.

p.s. Then try not to eat them all in one day. Good luck with that!



Discovery of the day: Going au natural

I don't have the HCB post done yet, but I do have the results of another experiment to share.

The gray eggs on the left were dyed using beet juice. (They were s'posed to be red, honest.) The golden eggs were soaked in a dye made by boiling yellow onion skins and a couple of teaspoons of turmeric. Pretty cool, eh? Next year I'll try red onion skins for red/purple, and I've heard red cabbage will give a blue dye.

No, I have no idea why I decided at the last minute I wanted to color my eggs using homemade dyes, but it turned out to be a fun little project. I can't find the link to the site I used Saturday, but here's one link, and another link, to instructions for next year.

In the meantime, save those onion skins!



Discovery of the day: Menu Recap

Well, it could have gone worse. Just to refresh, we volunteered to take Easter dinner to a friend who had surgery a few days ago. The request was for ham and a few veggie side dishes. Easy, right? Yeah, you'd think. I sure did, but somehow I still ended up spending almost the entire day in the kitchen!

The big-ass ham was marvelous. My SO glazed it with 1/2 c maple syrup and 1/2 c orange juice, reduced on the stove and finished with 2 T coarse dijon mustard.

Glazed carrots w/orange & ginger: Well, something weird happened to the ginger and it ended up being way more HOT than gingery. Of the half we kept for our dinner, we ate a small portion and did not save the leftovers. I actually emailed my friend's daughter and apologized for them. And it was a Mark Bittman recipe, too! Very disappointing.

Napa cabbage salad/slaw: This came out pretty well. I used only one apple for the amount of cabbage I had. Since we weren't sure of our friends' feelings about the blue cheese, we served it on the side. We decided the dish was a little sour without the cheese, but with the cheese it was very nice. Might use a different dressing next time, something with rice wine vinegar. Not sure it was worth buying a whole pint of cream for the two tablespoons called out in the recipe.

Molasses whipped sweet potatoes: I can sum this up easily: Too Much Cumin, and I am a big cumin fan. Maybe because I used fresh-ground seeds instead of jarred? Also, not sure I fully appreciated the three different sweeteners. That said, I can't stop eating it!

Roasted potatoes & asparagus: Great idea, and they looked wonderful coming out of the oven, but then I remembered they were destined to be reheated at their destination. Not a good dish for that. Our half tasted great but lost the just-out-of-the-oven roasted goodness after being stored and reheated.

Fruit crisp: My SO made this, his standard from The New Best Recipe. Even though we didn't get any of it (hard to split a dish of crisp without it looking ravaged) I could tell it rocked, because it always does.

My SO gets a gold star for his dishes. I think I probably get a B-, and that's generous. That'll teach me to compose a dinner I'm delivering to friends out of new-to-me dishes.

Oh, you want to know about the Hot Cross Buns? Check back tomorrow.



Discovery of the day: The Menu

Here's what I'm making for this Sunday's dinner:

Not sure if we're doing dessert, but if so, it will probably be a fruit crisp. The Hot Cross Buns will be for breakfast. :)

Have a fun and veggie-filled weekend!



Discovery of the day: Conflicted, much?

Oh, I am so in trouble. I'm getting the baking bug, which is a Very Bad Thing. I was snooping around the Artisan Bread in Five site and decided I desperately want to make a batch of brioche dough and whip out some Hot Cross Buns, and maybe some cinnamon rolls, for Easter.

It doesn't matter that I don't really celebrate Easter. It doesn't matter that the last thing I need is approximately FOUR POUNDS of eggy, buttery, brioche dough in my possession. I really, really want those damned Hot Cross Buns!

Strange but true: When I was little, my favorite nursery rhyme was Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns... I'd never ever had them and didn't even know what they were, but there was something about the word 'bun', I guess. Apparently I was a future carb-aholic in the making from the get-go.

Will I do it? We'll see. If I do, I'll swap a cup or two of the AP flour for whole wheat flour for which may assuage my conscience a little. And I could probably palm some of the goodies off on friends, if I can pry them out of my SO's hands.

Or not.



Discovery of the day: An opportunity to serve

Let's be frank here. I'm not a super-social person. I have a very small circle of close friends. Two or three is a circle, isn't it? And they don't all live on the same coast, either.

But even though I don't have a hopping social life, I do care about people I know, even if we're not close. I just don't put those thoughts and feelings into action like I should. I have good intentions, but am lousy on follow-through.

This weekend I have an opportunity to actually do something of value for someone I care about. This person is kind of special to us -- she's one of only a very few people who knew both me and my SO before we got together. We've been intending to socialize over the past couple of years, but everyone's busy, and blah, blah, blah... well, you know.

Anyway, she is having surgery for breast cancer today and my SO and I are bringing dinner over for her and her husband on Easter. I've been talking to her daughter (who's about my age) about preferences and quantities and such, and I think it's going to work very well since the foods they're thinking of match nicely with stuff we like to make. There will be a Big-Ass Ham, of course, and per their request just a few simple veggie sides. I can do that!

I'm anxious for them, hoping that they make it though today with minimal stress. And I'm happy for the opportunity to be of service to them.



Discovery of the day: Not the worst choice

I still haven't figured the salad thing out so I'm still scrambling for lunches most days. I bring leftovers if I have them, and one day a week I hit the (expensive) salad bar at the fancy pants grocery. Other days I've taken to running to the store for a frozen entree.

I was pleased to learn that Kashi has entered the frozen market. I haven't done the research so I can't prove they're nutritionally superior to any other frozen meal, but they do have interesting vegetarian choices, which sucks me right in.

Nah, they won't be mistaken for homemade, but they're not bad. I like them because they are portion-controlled and contain whole grains. Close enough, and I'm guessing they're a better choice than a Whopper Junior.


BYOB: English Muffins

For my first try at making English Muffins, I chose Alton Brown's method. Not a whole grain in sight, but the recipe seemed approachable for a first attempt and reviews were generally favorable. And I like Alton Brown. :)
Of course there were a few modifications: I didn't have powdered milk so I used powdered buttermilk. It took me a while to work out the conversion since I figured it couldn't be 1:1 and besides, powdered buttermilk is expensive! After much head-scratching, it worked out to six tablespoons of buttermilk powder, which still seemed like a lot, so I used five tablespoons. I set the dough up the night before and let it rise in the fridge overnight. That seemed to work just fine.

Next morning, I made rings out of aluminum foil following instructions in one of the reviews. I started with two scoops of batter, using a #20 disher as instructed. They cooked up well although they were tricky to turn because the dough was so wet. Two scoops produced some thick muffins! I could only do three at a time on my small griddle so for the second round I used 1.5 scoops of dough. That seemed to work better, although to be fair they do shrink a lot after they're cool. Probably the hardest thing was keeping the cast iron griddle temp near 300 degrees on the electric stove. Argh! That alone got me thinking about buying an electric griddle, although I have no other use for one. And if you watch Alton Brown, you know how he feels about uni-taskers.
The verdict? They looked right and tasted OK, although I swear I could taste the buttermilk powder. In hindsight, I would cut it back to three tablespoons. What I missed, though, was the chew. Even though they had the 'nooks and crannies' we expected, they were rather delicate -- almost biscuit-like -- and lacked the tough, chewy texture I enjoy in an English muffin.

One of the reviewers said these were actually crumpets, not proper English muffins. I don't know from crumpets, but that may be it.

Will I make them again? Probably not as written. I want to look for a version that is at least partially whole-grain, with a heartier texture. And if I could bake them in the oven, that would be a total bonus.

But I made them myself, and the family ate them. BYOB Score!



Discovery of the day: Avgolemono again

I'm actually becoming quite fond of the Greek Lemon/Egg soup (aka Avgolemono) I mentioned a while back. I have a complicated relationship with eggs, and anything that hints of an unusual (to me) usage makes me nervous. So for me to develop a liking for this soup shows that I have grown as a human being, right? OK, maybe not. In any case, it works.

We each have specific dishes that are 'ours' to cook, and this is my SO's. He made it again last night, adding 1/2 cup uncooked quinoa to the stock and cooking it mostly to done before adding the rest of the ingredients. (He remembered to swap the proportions of cumin & turmeric which are obviously wrong in the recipe.) He was going to incorporate some of the ingredients from Mark Bittman's version in 'How To Cook Everything' but we didn't have any carrots. Next time.

The other change I'd like to make eventually is to use home-cooked chickpeas instead of canned. I think the taste of home-cooked would be much better. I'm a big fan of canned beans and all, but in this case I think it would make a difference.

So when we get our final version figured out, I will post it here. In the meantime, it is definitely Project Weeknight-worthy.



Discovery of the day: From scratch

Two blog posts in a row -- yay, me!

One of my goals over the past year has been to make as much stuff as I can from scratch. So far we've got the mayonnaise thing nailed; we now make small batches on demand. Did you know it's just egg and oil? Amazing. I also have hazy plans to conquer dried beans, but first I need to get a freezer so I can make batches and freeze in can-sized portions. Jam is another thing that's perfectly do-able, since we don't eat mass quantities of it. I've make small batches using frozen fruit, and freeze it so I don't have to 'can'.

The other biggie is bread.

A few years back I was knee-deep in a major bread/pastry phase. I went to work in a bakery then moved on to cake decorating, and even had dreams of going to pastry school. Luckily that didn't pan out (ha!) -- I had to pack away my pans and pastry bags due to weight gain and the full-time day job, but I've been itching to get back to bread baking, at least.

This last week I pulled out the rarely used bread machine and decided to try for a whole wheat sandwich loaf. I tried the recipe that came with the machine and was under-impressed, so a few days later I pulled out my copy of 'The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book' and flipped to the bread machine section. I decided on the buttermilk loaf, subbing white whole wheat flour and powdered buttermilk. Miracle of miracles, three hours and twenty-seven minutes later we has us a sandwich loaf, and a darned tasty one at that.

I brushed the top with butter as soon as it was de-panned and wrapped it in a towel to cool. I then used my electric knife to cut the 1.5 pound loaf into thin slices similar to store-boughten bread, bagged it, and stuck it in the freezer. Sounds weird, but I've found it's the only way to keep homemade bread more than a few days, especially since we don't eat that much bread.

So I think we're on the right track. Next up is tortillas -- we eat those fairly regularly. I've made corn (masa harina) tortillas in the past and even have a tortilla press, but I need to make up enough in advance to freeze for weeknights. Also, I need to conquer flour tortillas. I currently buy nice whole wheat (blend) tortillas that are made fresh at the fancy-pants grocery. I'd like to come up with something close to those. When all is said and done, someday soon I want to be able to say with confidence "Why yes, in fact I do BYOB."

Problem is that breads, even whole grain one, are danger foods for me. After all my moaning about my weight gain (verified today at my doctor's visit - crap!) it probably seems pretty stupid to get into bread baking again, but I never said I was smart.

If I stick to the stuff the other members of my household eat regularly, I shouldn't get in too much trouble... I hope. We'll just have to see how slippery this particular slope turns out to be.



Discovery of the day: Enough!

OK, ten days is long enough. I've got to get back to it. If there's one ting I've learned in the past year, it's that writing about eating makes me think a little more thoughtful about what I put in my mouth.

Yeah, I have excuses, and I have reasons. But at the end of the day, they don't matter. I'm up eight pounds, which equals a pants size. And I'm not happy about it at all.

Problem is, I haven't been junking out; I've been eating pretty much decent stuff. What I haven't been doing is 'moving through space', as my sister puts it. I've been a lump, a slug, an immobile block of flesh. And my metabolism, after years of yo-yo dieting, has learned exactly what to do when my activity level drops.

It stops.

Yeah, I could cut my intake back to 1000 cals/day, but I've tried that and it just makes it worse. I'm far better off being a little more conscientious about my food choices (read: eat salads for lunch, dammit!) and walking at lunchtime.

So I'm on the cusp of making a bold declaration. Starting April 1st, I am thinking about maybe committing myself to a moderate plan of action.

(Is that vague and loose enough to let me sleaze out without feeling too guilty?)

Stay tuned!



Discovery of the day: Well, that was unpleasant

I found out today what happens when I run out of food in my desk, which forces me to miss my 10:00 am post-coffee snack, and then I have to postpone my lunch till 12:30 because we're short-handed.

Pizza is what happens. A slice of pizza and a Diet Coke, to be precise.

Part of the problem is that I think I'm still dealing with ulcer-ish issues. I used up the rest of my old prescription and I keep forgetting to take the OTC stuff. Throw the better part of a quart of decaf coffee on top of that, and yeah, I pretty much set myself up.

So here's my to do list for this weekend:
1. Buy peanut butter, Wasa crackers, and bananas. And possibly whole-wheat Fig Newtons.

2. Grab a week's worth of acid-reducers from the medicine cabinet.

3. Bring them to work on Monday.

Funny how 'Cut back on decaf' never quite seems to make it on the list, eh?


Project Weeknight: St. Paddy's Day Feast

I read somewhere along the way that corned beef isn't a traditional Irish dish. I was a little disappointed, but not enough to stop me from making it yesterday to acknowledge my teensy-tiny bit of Irish heritage. I haven't cooked any corned beefs for many, many years, but I remembered it would take several hours. I couldn't leave it on the stove or in the oven all day, so the crockpot seemed to be the way to go.

I chopped up an onion and a few garlic cloves the night before and stashed them in the fridge. Tuesday morn, I dumped those in the pot, added the corned beast (trimmed of some of the fat), the little seasoning packet that came with it (allspice? peppercorns?) and a couple of bay leaves. Finished it off with a cup of Guinness and some water, and let 'er rip. I kept in on high for the hour or so that I was home, turning it to low before I left.

I returned ten hours later, sniffing nervously for the scent of charred flesh, only to be greeted by the lovely aroma of a slow-cooked brisket. I was afraid that it might not have cooked long enough to fall apart but my SO discovered that wasn't a problem when he went to pull it out of the put and it broke in two. So I didn't screw it up after all!

Instead of the usual accompaniments, I got a wild notion to serve Colcannon, where the cabbage and potatoes and carrots are combined into one dish. We have it occasionally and I can't believe I haven't written it up for Project Weeknight, although I did mention it here and here. Go figure.

So here's my latest version of an old Irish dish.
St. Paddy's Day Colcannon
inspired by several recipes

Serves 3-4

4 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced
1/4-1/2 cabbage, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1/4 tsp mace
butter, milk, salt, and pepper as needed

Put the potatoes on to cook in the usual manner for mashing.

Meanwhile, heat 2 Tblsp oil or butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and a dash of salt and saute until onions are translucent. Add cabbage, carrots, mace, and another dash of salt. Stir until everything is coated with fat, then lower heat and cover, steaming for 5-10 minutes until carrots are cooked through, stirring occasionally.

Mash potatoes in the usual manner, stir in veggies. Check seasoning.

Serve, and be disappointed when there aren't enough leftovers to fry up in patties; only just enough for one lunch the next day.

The amount of cabbage is dependent on how much you like cabbage. I had a large cabbage and used only 1/4. But I was only serving three. I think we've decided we like the cabbage better than the kale. If I wasn't serving it with corned beef, I would have used a slice of bacon for flavor.

Dinner was on the table on time, and there was enough Guinness left for us each to have a small glass. And it was good.

I also made Irish soda bread but there was no way we'd have room to eat it with dinner so we had it for dessert, spread with butter and honey. It was just as good as it sounded.

A Project Weeknight-compliant St. Pat's Day feast! Who'd'a thunk it?



Discovery of the day: Less than stellar moment

I have been going to physical therapy three times a week for the last month or so. Today I had to do some exercises standing up and the tech wheeled over a full-length mirror so I could watch my positioning.

Oh. My. Gah.

First thing I thought was that I really need to get rid of these jeans, or at least put them away until I get the latest 6 pounds off. Let's just say they're not exactly flattering. But if I do that, I'll have only two pairs that fit. I wear jeans every single day, so that means I'll have to shop. Ick.

Next thought was that my SO's scale -- the one that weighs 6.5 lbs heavier -- is probably correct.

Lastly, I realized that there is a reason I do not have a full-length mirror in my house.

(Notice that nowhere in there was the thought that I needed to start exercising again!)

I keep forgetting how disproportionate I am, even when my weight is not in the red zone. I blame thank my dad's family for this. I am a bona fide pear shape, a good size larger below than above, although as I get older and pack more weight around the middle that gap is closing fast.

Since I doubt I'm going to be running any time soon, I should probably cut my self (and my community) some slack and buy some jeans that fit well. A mis-fitted pear shape is not a pleasant sight.

In other news, our houseguest is leaving this weekend. I'm ready. Ten days is a l-o-n-g visit, no matter who it is, but it has been nice not to have to cook.

Next week I hope to climb back on the Project Weeknight wagon and find a few more for you. In the meantime, have a nice weekend and keep thinking those Spring-like thoughts.



Discovery of the day: Houseguests rule!

I am very lucky that our houseguest is a foodie and enjoys the same sort of foods we do. Since my SO and Guest are home this week while I toil away here at work (snort!) they are in charge of planning and executing dinners. I win!

Sunday they made this Barley Soup with Mushrooms and Kale from the NY Times. Instead of dried porcini, they used some of the pounds of dried shiitakes I bought at Costco many moons ago. We had extra kale (about 13 oz) and added a can of diced tomatoes and some chopped carrots. I was surprised that we already had everything on hand except the fresh mushrooms. That was pretty cool.

It was darned tasty, and I didn't have to make it! Next time I would either use just the recommended amount of kale, and/or increase the liquid. Lets just say there wasn't a lot of available broth when all was said and done. Also, Guest it very sparing with the salt and I would probably use more, especially at the beginning to build the flavor. This soup did put a serious dent in my chicken stock stash, though. Next time I'll use a quart of stock and the rest water.

Speaking of stock, my initial batch is down to one lonely 2 cup bag in the freezer already. Next time I might make a double batch, if I have a pot big enough. Sounds crazy, but I just might -- SO used to brew beer. Once I get that batch done I'll post my recipe, I promise.



Discovery of the day: Salad!

I figured it out! The way to get me to start eating salads again is to have a houseguest make them. I had two salads this weekend, which may well be more than I had the entire month of February. It was a little embarrassing -- one of the bags of romaine hearts in my fridge had a 'sell by date' of Feb 1st. It was mercifully discarded, unopened. The other, dated Feb, 28th, still had some life left in it and proved to be quite tasty.

Our guest is here for the rest of the week, so maybe I'll get a few more salads in me. After that perhaps I'll be ready to take responsibility for my own greenery.