Surviving Catastrophic Life Changes

I'm sure most of you (if there are any of you left) already know that things went downhill fast and Hubby passed away near the end of September. It's impossible to believe it was almost two months ago.

I'm not going to whine about how much it sucks (lots) or how hard it is (very) 'cause I already have other outlets for that. Here, I can write about other things, like, say, food.

So let's do precisely that, shall we?

Once Hubby was no longer able to eat, my diet consisted mainly of Diet Coke and fast food. Surprisingly, I didn't gain any weight but didn't lose any either (blast you, comfort eating!) Then came condolences in the form of food gift baskets and of course I had to eat those. It would be rude not to, you know. Let's just say I got REALLY used to not cooking.

So now, two months post-apocalypse, I'm digging myself out of the trench, food-wise.

The first order of business has been to get back into getting real food on the table on weeknights. I am so grateful for my Project Weeknight archives! Yeah, I still pulled out a few more Blue Boxes than I'd like to admit, and once I even resorted to stacked cans of faux-Chinese food (FAIL!) but I'm getting there.

Now that the food gifts and Halloween candy are gone, I'm trying to get some weight off. Fast food has been officially demoted to emergency status only. I'm not quite ready to give up my daily Diet Coke, although this cold weather we're having is stifling my urge to run out and get a tall frosty one, IYKWIM.

Since lunches at work have been notoriously fast-food-centric, I'm using my Blendtec blender (LOVE!!) to make myself a green smoothie to take to work every day for lunch. It's only been a week, but the scale is starting to inch down just a bit.

Basic Green Smoothie
Based on Angela's Green Monster Smoothie and Alton Brown's Buff Smoothie

Makes ~32 fl. oz.

8 oz. frozen strawberries/mixed berries, by weight
4 oz. frozen mango or peaches, by weight
1 med. banana, sliced (~ 4 oz.) (see note)
2-4 oz. greens, by weight (see note)
12 fl. ounces milk of choice (I use unsweetened almond milk)
Other add-ins as desired (flaxseed, protein powder, whatever)

Blend following your blender directions, treating the frozen berries/mangoes as ice.

  • Since steamed greens are more easily digested, I buy raw kale and spinach, rough chop, and steam in the microwave. I then freeze them in zip-top bags in thin layers. Then I just break off what I need. I also sometimes include some romaine lettuce; raw, of course. It adds a really, um, earthy flavor, but I learned in my BAS days that romaine is amazingly full of nutrients so I suck it up.

  • I buy bananas in large quantities, let them get fully ripe (or even a little past) then peel them and freeze them in a single layer in a zip-top bag.

  • Also, since I am very lazy in the morning, on the weekends I'll portion out several zip-top sandwich bags containing 8 oz. frozen berries + 4 oz. frozen mangoes/peaches. Then all I have to do in the morning is grab one of those, one banana, break off some greens, and I'm ready to whirl.

  • My blender instruction say to put the liquid and unfrozen stuff in first, then the frozen stuff on top. If I have frozen bananas, I thaw the frozen berries/mangoes in the microwave for a minute and put that in first, then slice the frozen banana on top. If I have a room temp banana I put it in first and the frozen fruit in last.

I don't know how long it's going to take me to get sick to death of these things, but if it gets me through the holidays, I'll be happy.

My latest discovery has been homemade Larabars. I completely burned out on bars during my briefly-successful-then-disastrous attempt at Atkins some years back so I'd never even had a Larabar, but for some reason I decided I had to try making some. They are fabulous and, miracle of miracles, my son loves them too. I made a small batch of Fudge Babies for dessert last night and they were perfect!

I'm taking the fact that I even care about real food a good sign. Here's hoping I can keep it going for awhile.


Where it's at

Hi, I'm back! Here's how I spent the last six weeks, in three acts:
Act I: Hubby gets cancer diagnosis. Ahhhh! Run around hysterically, rend garments, ululate a little (in private, of course). Tests are run, no one knows WTF is going on. Fall into depths of despair. Screw 2012 -- world will certainly end before that.

Act II: Information dribbles in. Puzzle pieces sssllllowly drift into place. Aha! We have a villain! To battle! Gird loins, check armaments, etc. Adrenaline is pumping. Treatment begins, side effects are minimal. We will vanquish the foe!

Act III: Wha-huh? It's gonna be weeks before we know if there are any results? Side effects start to appear. Hmmm... looks like this will be a marathon, not a sprint. Recalibrate stress hormones, stow battle gear and ashes/sackcloth. Try to get a handle on what The New Reality looks like.

Aaaand... cut to the present day.

Initially Hubby had a few weeks of ravenous appetite from massive doses of steroids but those days of him shoveling chow like a seventeeer-year-old are now but a distant memory. These days, the challenge is feeding someone who can't always tolerate the smell of food and can only eat a small amount at a time. Luckily (or unfortunately, really) there are lots of resources on the interwebs for info on feeding chemo patients and some are proving to be very helpful.

Overall, I'm torn between wanting to feed him only the absolutely healthiest food imaginable and indulging him with whatever comfort foods he wants, while being limited by what his stomach will allow. I am very fortunate that meat and fatty foods are pretty much a no-go for him which, conveniently enough, allows me to stick with the whole flexitarian thing (aside from the occasional trip to Dairy Queen, which I am not even sure contains dairy).

Since it's still summer (more or less) I think smoothies are going to be the mainstay of the next few weeks. I've been using my trusty stick blender but I'm actually considering spending the BIG BUCKS on a "real" blender, like a Vitamix or Blendtec. But YIKES! Have you seen how much those things cost?? However, if it will pulverize a green smoothie to the point where we don't have kale flags stuck to our teeth, it might be worth it. And, if I'm going to go for it, I should do it before the medical bills come in. I've seen some of the EOBs from the insurance company already and, well, you don't want to know.

Now that things have settled down slightly -- meaning nothing scary has happened this week -- I have to get my act together and start cooking consistently again. I also need to get back to posting recipes here on the blog. I didn't realize how much I count on this blog to help me keep my notes together until I went to recreate a successful dish only to realize I never posted it.

So I have a new focus, and I hope you're willing to come along. It's always more fun with someone riding shotgun.


As the world turns...

Funny how life sometimes take an abrupt left turn as you were leaning right, isn't it? Here we are, cruising along nicely after our wedding last November, and out of nowhere my husband finds out he has a fairly serious illness. So instead of beating ourselves up over those extra twenty ten pounds, we get to figure out how to deal with nastiness like tests and scans and treatments and specialists and clinics. I can say with authority that it's not much fun.

As for how this relates to what I put in my mouth, a few things stand out already. First, Hubby had been losing his appetite for a few weeks before The News, which means I have not been cooking as much. Add that to the stress of wrapping our heads around the whole mess and I've lost five pounds.

Secretly, I'm pleased, but I do NOT recommend this as a weight loss plan.

Second, I have fallen back into a few bad habits. I've probably had more Diet Coke in the last two weeks than I've had this year so far. And today I stopped at Sbux for the first time in months. Oh I know it could be worse, but these are not habits I want to pick up again long term. I can probably nip the Sbux thing in the bud but I'm afraid the DC thing is here to stay for awhile. One bright spot is that I seem fixated on fountain drinks only and am not lugging 24 packs home.

The storm has not yet hit the shore so I don't know how bad things are going to get, or how quickly, so if you don't hear from me for awhile, that's why. I will probably be writing on my other blog more frequently because I let myself use bad words over there.


(Sorry, just had to get that out of my system.)


Why I >heart< the interwebs

(Like the new banner? That's what happens when I'm stuck at my desk with a paint program on my computer and no real work to do.)

How did I ever manage to cook before the interwebs were invented? I constantly scour my favorite food blogs and websites for recipes. I keep track of them in a blog that I use as a virtual shoebox. I write them up here so I can find them when I lose the scribbled-up printout in the pile that is my hard-copy recipe collection.

BTW, do people even say 'printout' any more?

The interwebs came to my rescue again, when I was trying to figure out what to cook for my first dinner post-freakout, I went into an absolute search frenzy and ended staring at a wonderfully simple veggie chili recipe on Chow.com. Even though I already have many vegetarian recipes, I felt the need for something new, and it fit the bill perfectly.

Of course I had to fuss with it so it's not quite so basic any more. Here's what I got.

Post-Freakout Bean & Veggie Chili
Adapted from The Basics: Veggie Chili on Chow.com

1 Tablespoon oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled & diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
6-8 oz mushrooms, finely diced (opt.)
1 bell pepper, seeded & diced (I prefer non-green)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup frozen corn, thawed
1-2 Tablespoons ground cumin (to taste)
1-3 teaspoons chili powder (commercial mix or otherwise, to taste)
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder (opt.)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (opt.)
1 med. zucchini, diced
1 - 16 ounce jar salsa, you choice of heat
3/4 cup water (more if needed)
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
2 - 15 ounce cans of any kind of beans, drained & rinsed
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a pot over med. high heat. Add onions, celery, and carrot, season with a little salt & pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions start to brown.

Add garlic, mushrooms, corn, and bell pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms start to brown. If the corn starts to brown, that's even better.

Add spices, stir until spices are warmed and fragrant.

Add the zucchini, salsa, water, tomato paste, and beans. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and simmer for 10-15 minutes (minimum) until veggies are all cooked and chili reaches desired consistency. Adjust seasonings.

Serve with avocado, grated cheese, sour cream/yogurt, whatever floats your boat. I often serve chili over rice.
  • The longer you simmer, it the better it will be.

  • I used a can of pintos and a can of black beans, but just about anything will work. Well, I'm not so sure I'd use chickpeas, but that's just me.

  • The original recipe calls for canned tomatoes but they are usually too tart for my guys. My new trick is to use salsa + water + tomato paste and seems to do the trick.

  • I added diced mushrooms for a fake ground beef feel. You can leave them out if your audience objects.

  • I like to add smoked paprika for that smoky flavor without the heat of chipotle, but YMMV.

  • I have been known to thicken chili with a little masa harina/water slurry right at the end. Didn't do it this time, but I might next time.
So there. It's a fair amount of chopping, but it did get done in time to qualify as Project Weeknight.

Everyone ate it. And that's why I >heart< the interwebs.


What to eat

I'm so predictable, aren't I? You knew that if you just waited a few days I'd calm down, and I have.

Even though I am no longer completely freaked out, the message from the book did stick with me and I'm making good strides at incorporating some changes.

(Could that sentence be any more non-committal?)

Seriously, in the last week or so I've struck most of the sugar, cheese, butter, and meat from my diet, and it wasn't as tough as I thought. Except for bacon, the meat was easy to eliminate since I don't it cook much of it anyway. However, I do have to figure out what to do with the two pounds of bacon and three pounds of chicken thighs in my freezer. The butter? Well, insert heavy sigh here. I still indulge occasionally but I'm trying not to make it an automatic part of my meals any more.

More importantly, I've made good strides in adding more vegs to meals. My go-to meals had become increasingly bean-n-grain-centric and that is a really hard habit to break 'cause more vegs => more prep work. It may be a little early to declare Mission Accomplished, but it's been going OK, at least for the past week. Hubby suggested we sign up for a CSA to kind of force us out of our rut and it's been a good move. The one we signed up with is fairly customizable so I won't end up with a box full of celeriac, fennel bulbs and Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts aside, I am making an effort to expand my repertoire. For example, this week we got mustard greens, which I've never even had. Now I just have to use them before they turn into green goo in the crisper drawer.

But enough about that -- I am way behind in sharing recipes! Back in March I made Penne w/Butternut Squash & Sweet Italian Sausage and it was really good. Now I would have to cut the sausage way back, but it would be worth trying.

Also, I have another couple of 'post-freak out' recipes that worked out pretty well. I'll post my final versions of them soon.


Desperately seeking right

You can relax -- I haven't yet succumbed to the temptation of Shakeology. I haven't gone to Weight Watchers, either. Why? Well, I've had a few interesting experiences that have forced me to reconsider my course of action.

In other words, right now I'm conflicted as hell.

A few weeks back I started acupuncture to (hopefully) treat a jaw problem. Part of this treatment plan is a nutritional evaluation under the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I don't know what that sort of nutritional evaluation consists of, but it might turn up some useful information so I'm holding off on making any radical changes until that happens in a couple of weeks.

Secondly, part of my Welcome Aboard packet from the acupuncture clinic was a copy of The China Study. A co-worker told me about this book a couple of years ago, but from her description, it just seemed so... extreme, you know? But I figured since I now have it in my possession, I should read it.

Can I just say, OMFG!?! We're all gonna die.

OK, I'm overreacting slightly, but if even half of what this guy says is correct, then Americans are in big trouble. Worst part is that the guy's credentials are top-notch. This isn't some random guy looking to market weight-loss products on TV.

I'm starting to think that Western medicine is not set up to solve the problems Americans are now faced with. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and I've always been a fan of "better living through chemistry", but I'm starting to see where The System might not be particularly motivated to promote the things we need to know to really be healthy, instead of just giving us pills to make the numbers on our tests look right.

I'm not giving up my internist, I'm just sayin', is all.

Long story short, what this book says is that no matter which way you turn it, animal products are strongly correlated to disease, particularly the ones Americans are facing in larger and larger numbers, in just about every manner you can think of.


So here I'd been thinking maybe my 10%-flexitarian plan was the reason I've gained twenty a few pounds in the past year or so. What I'm thinking now is that I'm not doing it right. If I was really eating only 10% of my calories from animal products, I wouldn't have gained tw... all that weight.

I know you might find this hard to believe, but I've been deceiving myself.

Also, sugar. It's a problem for me. Yes, sugar is not an animal product and it is fat-free, but it's also not exactly nutritionally dense, either.

Hate to say it out loud, but if I really want to be healthy and not have the next fifty years of my life be marked by one prescription after another, each trying to counteract a cascade of side effects, there's really only one thing I can do, and it ain't gonna be easy.

Worse still, even if I don't follow the advice in the book, I can't un-read it. If I don't act on it, then each time a new health problem rears its head, I will know that I might have been able to do something to prevent it, if I had only made different choices. To quote one Amazon review, "The China Study is the red pill."

Sorry for the obscure Matrix reference, but that really does sum up how I feel right now.

So all I need is to find a way to approach a major lifestyle change that won't leave me discouraged, overwhelmed, and at odds with the rest of my family.

Piece of pie, eh?


Donkey on the edge

I can't believe I'm actually considering this...

After whining profusely about by weight and swearing up and down (well, OK, here) that I was not going to do any more diet gimmicks, I am, uh, considering a diet gimmick.

Why? One word: Desperation.

Since I wrote that post almost five months ago, I'm even heavier. I've had to buy larger pants, the first time I've ever worn this size. I'm afraid to look through my journals to verify it, but I think I'm at the weight I was when I walked into the hospital to deliver my daughter almost 27 years ago. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.

So what happened? As far as I can figure, the mostly-meatless diet worked fine when I was eating lots of veggies, but since I got burned on Big-Ass Salads, my food selections have morphed into the mostly-carb diet. Mainly good carbs, but still too many carbs. And have I mentioned I have a problem with carbs? I teeter on the edge of insulin resistance and somewhere along the way I kinda forgot about that part. Oopsie! My bad.

Something has to change, and I can't get a grip on it without sticking my pole in the sand and declaring This Is It.

I will probably start back on Weight Watchers since I'm a Lifetime Member from 20 years (and 40 pounds) ago. It seems like the least radical choice. But in the short term I have this very strong urge to do something drastic, to jump start the process. Mentally more than physically, really.

So... (gulp!) I'm actually considering doing the Shakeology thing; in particular, the three-day 'cleanse' I learned about from a former co-worker. I know, I know... it's drastic and extreme (and expensive!!) but I can't find any bad press about it on the interwebs and it seems like the safest drastic thing I can find.

Please note I'm not a believer in the whole 'cleanse' thing and the flushing of all these imaginary (and somehow unquantifiable) 'toxins', but the idea of drawing a line in the sand, drinking what seem to be fairly well-balanced shakes (blended with fruits and almond or soy milk) three times a day -- with salads + lean protein for dinner -- for three days, and maybe seeing the number on the scale go down for a change? It's pretty damned appealing.

And yes, I am that desperate.

I have two sample servings of the Shakeology shakes in hand, and if they are the least bit palatable, I may pay the big bucks and try it. Then I'll go back to Weight Watchers, I promise.

So here we are, two years after I started this blog to chronicle my last major weight loss initiative. I enjoyed a short run of success, a long slide into denial, and now I'm admitting defeat. The roller coaster has indeed gone all the way back around. Hate to say it, but I can't stay here, so it looks like I'm taking 'er around one more time.

Buckle up your seat belts, folks! Hey, it'll be fun. Besides, it will give me something to write about.



Killer 'quiles

I often go on these random blogwalks that land me in the most unexpected places. A most recent one landed me on this recipe for Chilaquiles, which I learned is a Mexican comfort food, a way to use up stale tortillas, and often eaten for breakfast. Kind of like French toast (aka pain perdu) without the syrup.

I am always looking for an excuse to eat corn tortillas so I had to give it a try. I knew frying the tortilla chunks and making homemade salsa would not be Project Weeknight-friendly, so I opted for a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of a nice-looking salsa verde (green salsa).

Assembly was ridiculously simple. I dumped the salsa (16 oz jar) into a skillet and heated it to simmering, then added chips until it seemed like it wouldn't take any more, about probably five ounces by weight. I started to worry it would be too dry so I added about a 1/3 cup or so of chicken stock. I turned the chips over to be sure they were coated, then let them soak and heat through for a few minutes.

I had sold it to my son as a way to eat nachos for dinner, so I carefully moved the mass into a small casserole dish, added a layer of dry chips, and grated a half cup or so of Monterey jack cheese on top. I slid that into the toaster oven until the cheese melted. I served it with our favorite black bean and corn dish, avocado, and chopped tomato.

I'm sure it was not the most health-conscious dinner I've served (carb, much??) but it was pretty darned good. I could probably bake some plain tortillas next time, but the lure of opening a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa and calling it dinner is pretty irresistible.

Hey, I haven't posted our now-standard black bean and corn concoction. I'm sure I learned it as a component of other recipes (like maybe this or this?) but it has kind of morphed into its own thing. We now serve it any time we make Mexican food. It pretty much takes the place of ground beef for us.
Black Beans and Corn
1 cup frozen corn
1 Tablespoon oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 bell pepper (red, yellow, orange), chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1-15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

Heat a skillet really hot, then add the frozen corn and bell pepper and toast until, uh, it starts getting brown and toasty. Set aside.

Heat the oil in the skillet. Saute the onion and garlic, add the corn and bell pepper, then add the spices and cook until fragrant. Add the beans and heat through.

Anyway, Husband and son both loved the chilaquiles. I thought my son might balk at the green salsa but he didn't even seem to notice. I may try my trusty Pace Picante next time.

Next time you're tempted to toss a bag of chips and a jar of salsa on the table for dinner, try chilaquiles instead. It's much more civilized.


What's old is new again

Our holiday-ish dinner worked out pretty well, really. The iceberg wedge was an excellent Thousand Island delivery mechanism, the ham was good even though there wasn't much of it, and artichokes are always fun. The pan-fried sweet potatoes were a bit of a hassle, and were indistinguishable from oven-fried, which would have been a lot less hassle. Oh well.

This weekend, however, is my most favoritest faux-holiday of all time and the premier dinner event of the season: The Ides of Meatloaf! I've written about it in excruciating detail on my other blog and don't want to cross-post, so click on the link to read all about it.

It's pot luck so the complete menu will be a surprise, but the iceberg wedge w/Thousand Islands will make another appearance, along with the now-traditional Meatcake and -- if I can find it -- possibly even Spamburger appetizers, an heirloom recipe from my Midwestern MIL, may she rest.

Can't you taste it now? Be sure to check back for the results. It'll be a real hoot.


Kind of a menu

I was reading back over my posts from last April, particularly the Hot Cross Buns and the holiday dinner we made for friends, and I was shocked at how motivated I was. This year it looks like I got nothin'. I ordered Hot Cross Buns from a small local bakery (they were great!), I didn't color eggs, and we just now decided what we're cooking for Easter dinner tonight. I'm not sure I can even call it Easter dinner since we don't celebrate Easter, but old habits die hard.

Yesterday we took a drive down to a local butcher shop to see if by some fluke they had any hams left. They smoke their own and from what I remember they are fabulous. Unfortunately they only had HUGE hams that would feed the three of us for about a year so we just picked up a ham steak and called it good. We'll probably just broil it plain.

What about sides?

We have a couple of sweet potatoes laying around, and the Hubby suggested we try simply pan-frying slices. He'd had them that way once and gave it many thumbs up. That'll work.

I have recently become enamored with roasted cauliflower. I'd recently seen a recipe for a whole cooked (steamed, really) cauliflower, and it took just one quick search of the interwebs to find the method to roast a whole head on Epicurious. We'll skip the dressing, though, and just use the homemade mayo we'll already have on the table.

Ummm... homemade mayo? It's for the artichokes I'm hoping to find, mayo being the traditional accompaniment for artichokes in Hubby's native (northeastern California) cuisine. We haven't had artichokes in awhile, and this seems like a good excuse. BTW, artichokes are an excellent mayo delivery device, if you're too embarrassed to eat it off a spoon.

We needed one more side. Hubby suggested a salad, but I am embarrassed to admit I am still pretty burned from the Year of Salad. We finally decided on a simple iceberg wedge with homemade Thousand Island dressing, just because it's fun and includes more homemade mayo. And sometimes you just need a huge hunk of iceberg, you know? Or is that just me?

I'd like to say I'm making/baking a delicious dessert, but we're going to have to settle for a buffet of the three pints of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer. Don't judge, they were on sale. :)

It's pretty low-key, but I'm excited to try the roasted head of cauliflower. I'll let you know how that works out, 'k?


Project Weeknight Update: Faster Santa Fe Rice & Beans

OK, I haven't been real fired up in the cooking department, but I did figure out a way to make a fast, easy dinner even faster. You know the saying about if you want some thing done efficiently you should find a lazy person to do it? Well, that would be me.

Last night I wanted to make my Fast Santa Fe Rice & Beans but I didn't have a can of tomatillos, and I didn't feel like chopping an onion, but I did have a jar of mild salsa in the pantry. I knew from my experience with this quinoa soup recipe that salsa is simply tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs already chopped up for you. Score!
Even Faster Santa Fe Rice & Beans
(Based on this and this)

Serves 4

3 cups cooked brown rice, reheated
1 bell pepper, red, orange, or yellow, diced (Opt., but I had it on hand)
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels
1-2 teaspoons chili powder
2-3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 - 16 oz jar salsa (I use Pace Mild because it's what we like. Shut up.)
1 - 15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1-2 teaspoons lime juice (opt.)

Heat a dry skillet on medium high heat until fairly hot (no oil), then toss in the corn and bell peppers. Toast them, stirring and shaking the pan, until you start to see scorched bits.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the dry spices, stirring to coat. Then add the jar of salsa and the beans. Bring to simmer, reduce heat, and let simmer for a few minutes. Add a little water as needed.

Add the preheated rice, stirring to combine, and heat through. Again, add water as needed, just enough it keep the rice from drying out. Taste, add salt and lime juice as needed.

Serve with some grated cheese and diced avocado if you have it.

Have I told you my favorite way to reheat rice? Stop me if you've heard this one: Place rice in a microwave-safe dish. Add a splash (no more than a tablespoon or so) of water per cup of rice. Cover (but not so tight that the lid will pop off) and nuke on high in two minute increments until the rice is nice and steamy throughout.

I wonder how many nights a week I can get away with making this dish?


Canning the cans

Back when I revamped my eating style, I stopped buying canned soup. It was a pretty easy step actually; I can't remember the last time I cooked with canned soup, and I quickly found suitable replacements for my old standby lunches: tomato soup (Note: do NOT add the cloves!) and bean & bacon soup.

But every once in awhile, there is a dish that screams for canned cream of mushroom soup. I grew up in the Midwest -- canned cream soups are part of my heritage. So what to do? It took a little research to realize that a well-flavored white sauce like you use for a pot pie fills the bill nicely.

Husband made the recipe below for us the other night and it took all of my willpower to not scarf up the remaining three servings (of 6) all by myself. What can I say? Sometimes a gal just needs her a big mess of some tuna hot dish.
No-cream-soup Tuna Noodle Casserole
(Adapted from The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles by the Editors of 'Cook's Illustrated'.)

For topping:
1 cup bread crumbs, crushed potato chips, saltines, grated cheese, or whatever your native culture requires. If you're using bread crumbs or saltines, combine crumbs with 1.5 Tablespoons of melted butter (in addition to the butter below)

3/4 lb noodles (uncooked weight)
2 Tablespoons olive oil (or your cooking oil of choice)
1/2 pound button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thin
2 medium onions, finely diced
1 non-green bell pepper (or 1 cup frozen pepper strips,) diced.
4 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup AP flour
3 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced (opt.)
12-14 ounces canned solid white tuna, drained (oil or water packed, or pouches)
2 cups frozen peas

Heat over to 350 degrees. If using bread crumbs or saltines for topping, you can bake the butter-crumb mixture in oven 15 mins. or so if desired.

Cook noodles per package directions in salted water. Dump the peas into the pot for the last minute or so, then drain and pour noodles and peas into a 13" x 9" baking dish.

While noodles are cooking, saute the vegs: Melt 2T oil in skillet (med. heat) and saute onions, peppers, and mushrooms until onions are soft and mushroom liquid evaporates (~10 mins.?) Add salt and pepper to taste, add to noodles and peas in baking dish.

Melt remaining 4T butter in skillet (med. heat) and cook until foaming stops. Whisk in flour and stir constantly fir 1 to 2 minutes until flour starts to turn golden. Still whisking, slowly add chicken stock. Raise heat to med. high, bring to simmer, and cook until sauce thickens, 3-4 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and add the tuna, lemon juice, parsley, and salt & pepper to taste. Pour over contents of baking dish and stir gently to combine. Sprinkle with desired topping and bake for ~15 minutes until heated through and the topping is golden.

TIP: To meet Project Weeknight guidelines, you can skip the baking dish and the oven. Just dump the drained peas and noodles back into their pot and add the other ingredients as you go. If desired, sprinkle with some grated cheese or crumbled potato chips when you serve.

No, it's not as quick as the canned soup version, but even with all of the butter, it's a heluva lot better for you and it tastes pretty damned good. Burp!


Truffles for everyone!

OK, so this next recipe isn't exactly in keeping with my dietary goals, but I made it for Valentine's Day so I get a free pass, right? It does, however, fall squarely into the Make It Myself category of things that are much cheaper to make than to buy.

Make what? Truffles, of course! I swear, it is so easy that the next time someone tries to sell you a $5.00 truffle you will toss back your head and laugh in their face. I know, it is dangerous having this knowledge at your fingertips, ready to go at the slightest hint of craving, but think of the money you'll save.

Truffles for Everyone
Adapted from a bunch of sources

1/2 pound (8 oz. by weight) of the best quality chocolate you can get your hands on*
1/2 cup (4 fl. oz) heavy cream
1/2 cup or so of cocoa powder, unsweetened*

Using a good-sized knife, carefully chop/break/shave the chocolate into small chunks and slivers, no bigger than a peanut. Place in medium sized non-plastic bowl (ceramic, glass, or stainless, please) and set aside.

Measure heavy cream into a slightly oversized microwave-safe container. (Slightly oversized in case of boil-overs.) Heat cream to boil in microwave.

Pour hot cream into bowl of chopped chocolate.

Cover bowl and let sit ten minutes.

After ten minutes, remove cover, and with a spoon, spatula, or small whisk, start in the center of the bowl and gently whisk the now melted chocolate and cream together in small circles until they start to combine, then gradually work outwards until all the cream and chocolate are completely transformed into smooth, silky, goodness.

Congrats! You have just made ganache.

Cover the bowl again and place in the fridge to cool until the ganache is the consistency of shortening or slightly softened butter -- solid enough for a glob to hold its shape. Depending on how deep your bowl is, it can take an hour or more to cool so be patient!

In the meantime, line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet or waxed paper or whatever. Try not to check the ganache too often. :)

Once the ganache is solid enough to scoop, use a regular teaspoon (the kind you eat with, not a measuring spoon) or a disher to scoop out modestly-sized globs (1 to 1.5 inch diameter) of ganache onto the lined sheet pan. They don't have to be round at this point, you're just portioning them.

Place the sheet pan in the fridge until the globs are completely set up. They need to be as solid as they're going to get before the next step.

While waiting, measure out a half cup or so of unsweetened cocoa powder (natural, dutch process, whatever) into a shallow bowl or paper plate. The ganache balls will be rolled in the cocoa powder to keep the truffles from sticking to our hands while we shovel them into our face.

When the ganache balls are solid, roll each one between your palms for a few seconds to round it up (it won't be perfect) then roll the ball around in the cocoa powder to coat it, tap off the excess, and return to the sheet pan.

When they're all done, return the pan to the fridge to let them firm up again after all that handling. After they set up again, transfer them to a covered container. You may want to keep them in the fridge because of the cream, but if you let them warm up to room temp before eating they will taste so much better.

And that's it!

* Now for the chocolate lecture: Use the best chocolate you can afford. Be sure it's the kind of chocolate that makes your eyes roll back in your head when you put it in your mouth. Otherwise the calories simply ain't worth it!

I am lucky enough to have access to Callebaut chocolate in the bulk bins at the fancy pants grocery store, and it's usually less than $8.00/lb. That's a LOT less than buying the Guittard bars in the baking aisle, and it tastes a lot better IMHO.

But if you love Hershey's, use Hershey's. Just note that milk chocolate will be fairly soft and squishy when set, so try cutting the cream back to 1/3 cup or substitute some semisweet chocolate for some of the milk chocolate.

The cocoa powder can be the natural Hershey's in the brown tin, a fancy dutch process, or whatever. Just don't use a cocoa mix -- Swiss Miss will not work!

Once you get the basics down, you can search the web for ways to fancy them up with flavorings and whatnot, but this basic recipe is my favorite.

Enjoy, but not too often, you hear?


Hanging on

Yep, it's February, all right. My mental energy is at its absolute lowest. I'm lucky enough just to get the things done I absolutely have to do -- there's not one shred of motivation left for anything extra.

It makes no sense, really. We're gaining several minutes of daylight every day. It's no longer dark when I leave the house in the morning, and it's not dark when I leave work although it is dark by the time I get home. I can't even blame the weather, as we've had the warmest January on record. February is shaping up to be more of the same. Not a flake of snow this winter, and I haven't had to scrape my windshield since December.

(Those in the rest of the US can throw snowballs at me -- I deserve it, I know.)

But even with medication and no snow, February is my lowest month. I don't think it's always been this way, but I know it's been a problem since I moved up to the northwest corner of the country almost twelve years ago.

I suppose this is just a really long excuse for why I'm not posting. I've decided that I just have to be OK with that. I think February is now going to be known as Let Myself Off The Hook Month.

I will be back, I promise. I'm still cooking and eating and have more recipes and revelations to share.

Just not this month.


Smooth moves

I'd been pondering out how to get my son to eat fruit other than Cuties or apples, and Alton Brown has come to the rescue. With his guidance, I have figured out how to make high-quality fruit smoothies in the morning quickly, with a minimum of muss and fuss. It does require some advanced prep work, but that's just the way it goes sometimes. It's so nice to be able to put one together in less than five minutes on a busy weekday morning, when my time is at a premium because I can't stop hitting the snooze alarm.

On a recent episode of Good Eats, Alton showed off his Buff Smoothie, which boils down to a banana, twelve ounces (by weight) of frozen fruit, and eight ounces of liquid. Toss it all in a Vita-Mix (What? Everyone doesn't have a $400 blender?) and there you have it: A 24 ounce smoothie.

Well, right away I noticed a few problems with implementing that at my house. The blender I have -- a fairly decent Cuisinart -- is very noisy and a huge pain in the butt. The blades are set way down in a little recess at the bottom of a wide container and trying to keep the contents in contact with the blade is an invitation to frustration. There's no way I'm dealing with that first thing the the morning before my coffee kicks in. I am also not going to pull multiple items out of the freezer and weigh out the ingredients.

I played around with the concept over the weekend and I think I figured out how to make it work. This method required a blender or food processor to make the smoothie base in advance, and a stick blender when you're ready to actually consume the smoothie.

Sometime when you have time and patience, make your smoothie base.
(The following measurements are by weight.)
  • 1 banana (~ 4 ounces)

  • 4 ounces frozen peaches or mango chunks (I buy the bags of IQF fruit)

  • 8 ounces frozen berry mix (IQF), or 4 ounces each frozen strawberries and blueberries
Toss the fruit into a food processor or blender and process until it's fairly homogeneous.

Alton's recipe yields a 24 ounces smoothie but that is a LOT of smoothie so I decided to go with two half-sized portions. Divide the pulverized fruit mash in two equal portions -- should weigh about 8 ounces each -- and package in resealable sandwich bags (I flattened them out so I ended up with a thin frozen disk) or small containers. Toss into the freezer.

When you're ready to complete the act, pull one of your smoothie base portions from the freezer and let it sit on the counter for a few minutes to thaw slightly. I nuked mine for about 15 seconds.

Measure 4 ounces of liquidous ingredients (I used 2 ounces each of soy milk and pomegranate juice, but plain yogurt or milk would be good too) into a tall, deep container like the one that usually comes with a stick blender, or a 2 cup liquid measuring cup. (Safety tip: I haven't actually used a 2 cup measuring cup so it might not be deep enough to prevent splashover.)

Crumble your smoothie base on top of the liquids and stick blend the heck out of it. It takes me maybe a minute to blend it.

Pour into a glass and enjoy, but beware of brain freeze! We discovered an added bonus: Smoothies give us an excuse to use our rarely-utilized root beer float spoons, small plastic spoons with a straw for a handle.

My favorite tip from Alton is to buy the bananas that are fully ripe, peel them, lay them side by side in a resealable bag and freeze. Then you can pull them out as you need them, although you'll want to cut them into chunks before trying to pulverize them. Brilliant!

Now that I have it as simplified as possible, I'm hoping my husband will make one for himself once in awhile. A girl can dream!


Better with bacon

I admit, I am standing proud and tall right in the center of the 'Mmmmm... bacon!' bandwagon, even though it has already been overused to the point of pain. But I can't help it. Bacon is tasty, and just a strip or two adds so much flavor to an otherwise veggie dish that my guys don't even miss a full serving of meat. What's not to love?

It'll come as no surprise then that when I saw a link on one of my regularly-visited food blogs to a recipe for lentils and bacon, I knew it would be mine. And when I clicked through and learned it was adapted from one of Anne Burrell's recipes, it was all over. I have a complete chef-crush on Anne Burrell, and I watch her show regularly. In fact, I had seen this recipe just a couple of weeks ago but the fennel bulb scared me off - I've never cooked fennel bulb. But The Amateur Gourmet's version solved that problem for me. Win!

I started with Anne's original recipe (which apparently has a grievous typo in the amount of vinegar used for finishing) and bounced it against The Amateur Gourmet's mods, which omitted the fennel bulb and corrected the amount of red wine vinegar.

I used the small green lentils, but only because I found a small bag in the pantry that I had bought on spec who knows how long ago. I'm glad I did, too. The green boys held their shape when cooked, where the brown lentils probably would have pretty much disintegrated. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, really.) I also upped the amount of onion/celery/carrot to about 3/4 cup each.

Since I was serving it as an entree, I dished it over brown rice (2:1 lentils:rice) and it was downright tasty. I really appreciated how the bacon fat/red wine vinegar/coarse mustard combined into a dressing.

Next time I will probably add the cooked rice right in, a lá Gallo Pinto. I'll also omit the olive oil in the beginning. I've been cooking bacon for a l-o-n-g time and I just don't see the need to add two more tablespoons of fat to the dish. I may also up the amount of vegs further, to a cup each. And who knows? I might even get brave and try that fennel bulb thing.

With all the veg prep, it takes a little too long to be Project Weeknight-eligible, and I'm not sure my son would eat it, but it was a lovely simple dinner for us adults and it made fabulous, easy-to-reheat lunches as well.

And did I mention? Bacon!


Start making sense

It's about time someone said this out loud. In this post, Marion Nestle at Food Politics writes about what I've been experiencing for years: An extra fifty or hundred calories a day is not going to make that much difference in the long run. It takes a lot more than that to make a significant change in one's weight.

Which, unfortunately, means that small changes in my diet are not going to make this twenty (going on twenty-five) extra pounds go away. I knew it, but I didn't want to have to face it. Oh well.

(Thanks to Daniel at Casual Kitchen for posting the link!)