Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scenes from a City

We recently spent a few days in Charleston, SC, a city brim full of history, color and charm. I never tire of strolling the streets, peeping into the almost hidden courtyards, counting steeples, tracing history. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Perfecting a Classic

Chocolate Chip Cookies are The Little Black Dress of baking.  They are simple, classic, and never out of style. Dress them up with a handful of dried cherries and white chocolate,  leave them plain,  or add toasted pecans.  Whatever your way with them, a platter heaped with home made chocolate chip cookies is always a welcome sight.

Finding, however, a well-done cookie recipe is a bit of a trick.  Too often, I have measured, mixed and baked only to bite into bland failure,  more reminiscent of sawdust then cookie perfection.  Couldn't there be a recipe out there that is not dry and crunchy, not dusty, not goopy, but just right?  Golden crusty, crunchy on the edges, soft and chewy in the middle - apparently the stuff that only dreams are made of.  Not that I am picky or anything.  I just want a cookie done right.  What good is a classic if it can't stand up to the hype?

After plenty of trial and error, I've come across one recipe that seems to hit the mark.  Sorta, kinda like the old Nestles Toll-house recipe on  back of the chocolate chip bag, but better.  Soft, chewy, crispy all in one.    Not flashy and overdone, no trendy, over-the-top-ingredients, these are timeless

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 cups dark chocolate chips (I prefer Ghiradelli 60% cacao chocolate chips)
1 cup toasted pecans or walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 325.

Measure flour, baking soda and salt  into small bowl.  Briefly wisk together and set aside.  Cream melted butter and brown sugar.  Beat in  eggs and vanilla until well blended.   Gently stir in the flour mixture.  Fold in chocolate chips and nuts (if using).  Scoop dough by tablespoons onto sprayed cookie sheets.  Bake for 10-12 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.

TIP:  These cookies freeze easily - before or after they are baked. I like to make a double batch, and scoop all the cookies immediately into balls. I bake one or two trays and freeze the rest unbaked.  To do this, I lay the cookie dough balls in a single layer on a wax paper lined cookie sheet then pop them  into the freezer for several hours or overnight.  The next day,I  put dough balls into a resealable plastic bag. Whenever a pan of fresh cookies is needed, I pull the dough from the freezer, place a dozen on greased cookie sheet and bake, adding an extra minute or two to the baking time. This means fresh cookies in 20 minutes.  This freezing and baking trick works with almost any cookie dough.  Who needs the refrigerated kind from the grocery store? You can create the same thing yourself, minus the preservatives.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

That's the plan, Stan

I am not, by nature, a planner.  Left to my own devices, I don't like plans.  I don't want to figure things out ahead of time. No schedules, no lists, no deadlines. Not for me, thank you very much. I want to be FREE.  Free to dream, to come up with brainstorms, to have flights of fancy, to go out on a limb, be spontaneous, go with the flow, live in the moment.  You get the picture, right?  Yeah, then I grew up and had 4 kids.

 Somewhere along the way I figured out that having a plan is essential.  Too many days of using my freedom to not think about dinner until 6:00pm or pretend the laundry doesn't exist until the kids are wearing tank tops in January. Sadly, the short people in this house seem to get "huuuuungry" whether I have a plan or not.  They expect me to figure it out.  And, there is no laundry fairy.  Crazy, right?  So, I've turned to the dark side.  I too - have become a planner. To my relieved surprise, over the years I have found planning to bring a kind of peace to this family, I didn't know existed.  Planning a week or a month of menus at a time, planning grocery shopping, having a daily schedule, a weekly list of chores, having a plan  has become my best friend. Life seems to move along smoother, calmer, more peaceful if I have taken the time to think things through before they happen.  And don't worry - I still love an excuse to toss the plan out the window, scoop up my brood and take off for a random adventure.

What works for me is making Sunday my planning day.  In the afternoon, when it's quiet here, I take a few hours to plan out my week.  I get out the calender, check for upcoming appointments, schedule babysitters if needed, figure out family activities & compare notes w/ the husband to make sure we are on the same page. Then, time to finalize the weekly menu and shopping lists. I find this to be one of the most crucial parts of planning. Without  my trusty menu and list, I wander into the grocery store, spend way too money and still don't know what to make for dinner. Dinner time rolls around, kids are hungry and grumpy,  mom is stressed.  Taking the time to plan on Sunday has been the antidote for me.  Here's a recent example of a weekly menu.

Breakfast: Fruit and Nut Baked Oatmeal
Lunch:  Ham and Cheese pockets, raw veggies, fruit
Supper:  Spaghetti Bolognese, green salad, summer squash with garlic and herbs

Breakfast:  Whole grain pancakes
Lunch:  Grilled cheese & Roasted Garlic Tomato Soup (canned last summer)
Supper:  Crockpot BBQ Chicken, Lemon Broccoli, salad, rolls

Breakfast: Bran muffins and fruit
Lunch: Felicity's Mac and Cheese, carrots and celery
Supper: Ham/Cheese Quiche, green salad, smoothies

Breakast: Eggs & Bacon Wraps
Lunch: PB & J, veggies,
Supper:  BBQ Chicken Pizza, sauteed green beans, salad

Breakfast:  Cereal, fruit, toast
Lunch:  Sandwiches, leftovers
Supper: Ginger Sesame Chicken & veggies, rice, 

Brunch: German Fries
Supper: Grilled hamburgers, grilled veggie kabobs

Breakfast:  Cereal, fruit
Lunch:  Shepherds pie, salad
Supper: deli meat, cheese, crackers, fruit, popcorn

Happy planning!   Remember to throw all plans to the 4 winds and enjoy life now and then.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Here's the Beef

I seem to have raised a family of ardent carnivores. For the most part, they eat their veggies happily and everyone at this house enjoys a good salad.  But just hand over the meat, man - to see smiles all around.  And the meat of choice?  Unfortunately for the budget, that would be steak!  Buying $12/lb rib-eyes for this crowd pretty much destroys all semblance of a weekly grocery budget, so my answer is London Broil.  This inexpensive cut of beef regularly goes on sale for under $3/lb.  Marinated overnight, tossed on the grill or under a broiler and it turns into a flavorful, juicy steak dinner.

London Broil
1 2-3lb London Broil.  I look for a piece that is evenly thick, not thinner at one end.  This ensures even cooking.

1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon (or two tbsp. bottled lemon juice)
2 Tbsp worcestershire sauce
1/8 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp dijon mustard

4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
zest of one lemon
2 tsp fresh rosemary (or dried)

Method:  Combine olive oil, lemon juice, worcestershire, vinegar and mustard in large resealable plastic bag.  Rub around to combine ingrediants.

In small bowl, combine salt, pepper, lemon zest, rosemary and minced garlic. Set aside.

Rinse meat with cool water.  Pat dry with paper towels and lay on cutting board.  Using a sharp knife, score the surface in a diamond shaped pattern by cutting on the diagonal across the meat.  Rub thoroughly with lemon rosemary mixture, stuffing into score lines as you go.  Place meat into bag with the marinade.  Squeeze all excess air out of bag and seal.  Place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or preferably overnight. Pull out about an hour before you are ready to cook and the meat come up to room temperature.  Room temp meat, cooks faster and more evenly. However - if you forget this step and only remember to yank open the fridge seconds before you turn on the oven, breathe.  It will be fine how it is.  Just cook it anyways.
Broiler method:
I prefer making this under the broiler instead of the grill, because it easier to accurately predict the cooking time. You can use a broiler pan for this operation - or if you're like me and don't have one, you can hack your own.  Layer a cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet.  Like this:
 Disclaimer:  Please do not judge this recipe by the beaten and battered state of my cookie sheet.   The old girl has been put to hard use.

Adjust your oven racks so when you put the tray of meat on the top one, the meat will be 6-8 inches from the broiler. Turn on your broiler - to high.  About 500 degrees or higher is what we are aiming for here.  That's right.  Your oven may never have cooked so high in it's life, but it will OK!

Slide the tray of meat on  in there.  Decide how you like your steak.  Well-done, Medium or Rare?  Cook steak for 10 minutes on per side for well-done.  8 minutes for Medium.  6 minutes for rare.

The next part is IMPORTANT:  Set meat to the side.  Cover and let rest for a good 10 minutes. This allows the juices to settle down and redistribute and makes for a juicier bite of meat.  Thinly slice against the grain. Lay on platter and drizzle with juices that collected on your cutting board. There!  That oughta make your meat lovers happy! 

Sides: If I am making this in the broiler, I start a tray of roasted vegetables about 20 minutes before I put in the meat.  Roasted veggies can handle the high heat of the broiler just fine.  Especially since they go on the oven rack under the steak.  I like to do a mixture of white & sweet potato chunks, onion, maybe some bell pepper, garlic, carrot, parsnips or whatever root veggies I have around.  Place veggies on cookie sheet.  Sprinkle with a good tsp of kosher salt, some freshly ground pepper, and a little rosemary or parsley.  Toss with several tablespoons of olive oil.  Preheat oven to 425.  Roast veggies for 20 minutes.  Turn oven to broil, add steak tray to the top rack.  Now all you have to do is throw together a salad while the meat and veggies cook.  Dinner is done!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rotisserie Style Roast Chicken

My family loves a good roasted chicken for dinner.  Served with some mashed potatoes & a little broccoli, everyone is happy. But roasting chicken is tricky!  Roast it at a high temp so the skin is crispy and it's hard to get the inside done.  Roast it too long and the meat gets dry.    After plenty of trial and errors, I finally stumbled on the following  method from  This is my tweaked method.  Roasted long and slow, the meat is tender and falling off the bone.

For those of you not sure if you can face a raw, whole chicken, I have for you the words of the inimitable Julia Child. "Too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food..."   Really, its okay - it's just a chicken!  It's what you've been eating for years!  Nothing to be freaked out about.

When whole chicken goes on sale for .78 cents a pound, I stock up.  Then, as long as the oven is getting turned on to roast one chicken, I  roast another one while I am at it.  We eat one for dinner, then pull the meat off chicken #2 and have plenty of cooked chicken for quesadillas,  chicken salad, casseroles or whatever.  Cook once, eat twice! 

Rotisserie Chicken at Home
2    4-6lb chickens
2   Tbsp salt
3    Tsp  paprika
1    Tsp onion powder
1    Tsp garlic powder
2    Tsp dried thyme
1    Tsp dried rosemary
1 1/2   Tsp white pepper (or black pepper)
1/2   Tsp cayenne pepper
2   quartered onions
1-2 quartered lemon (optional)
Fresh rosemary (optional)


*Updated to add:  After reading this post again - I realized I forgot something important.  This chicken is best when the birds are coated with spice mixture, tucked into a plastic bag or wrapped in plastic wrap, and refrigerated overnight or at least for several hours. Letting the rub marinate the chicken really improves the flavor.

Combine salt, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, rosemary, pepper, and cayenne. Remove and discard any giblets or "extras" from cavity of chickens.  Rinse chickens and pat dry with paper towel.  Rub chicken all over with spice mixture.  Place a few pieces of  the quartered onions and lemons in chicken cavity and place chickens, breast side down in 9 X13 pan.  Scatter around remaining onion and lemon pieces.  If you have any fresh herbs on hand, tuck in some rosemary or thyme. Bake at 275 degrees for 4 1/2 hours.
Gravy (Aka -nirvana)

The skin bakes up nice and crispy.  The pan fills up with lovely lemon and rosemary scented juices.  Pour off this liquid gold into a large clear measuring cup. Set chicken aside, covered. Let the chicken rest 10 minutes before carving.  This gives the juices time to redistribute and makes for more flavorful, juicy meat. Back to that lovely bowl of pan juices you just poured off.  Using a large spoon, scoop the top layer of fat off and discard.  Pour the remaining liquid into a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil. While this is heating up,  put  2-3 tbsp. flour into a small lidded container.  Add a 1/2 cup of milk and shake like crazy. Pour milk and flour mixture into boiling chicken stock.  Wisk. Wisk. Wisk.   Give it a minute or two to cook & thicken up.  Taste for seasonings.  Slice chicken off the bone and serve with gravy.  Delicious with mashed potatoes as a side.

Wait, there's more.

So dinner is over, tummies are full.  Your husband has this blissful, glazed look of satisfaction that only a  meat and potato meal can produce.  And you have - 2 chicken carcasses.  What ever you do, DO NOT toss in the trash.  Toss instead, into a resealable bag and then into the freezer.  The next time you have  a hankering for some chicken stock,  you have the perfect beginning for it.  Directions on that to come.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I love you the purplest


"Mommy, mommy, come and see!!". Yesterday,  Mr. D. the four year old came bursting into the kitchen where I was making bread and keeping an eye on Baby.  Mr. D ignored how busy I was and climbed right into my face, eyes wide with excitement.  "You just hafta see it, mommy - the yard is covered with flowers.  There are ten thousand purple flowers in our yard, RIGHT NOW!!"  Now  10,000 flowers  are not something to be ignored and neither is a little boy, bubbling over with amazement.  I dusted off my hands, scooped up Baby and followed Mr.  D. 

Sure enough. Our (weedy) front yard was awash in purple violets that had sprung up and blossomed overnight. "Let's pick them all, mommy!"   We plopped down, in the front yard, among the violets ooohing and ahhing over their delicate faces and sweet fragrance.  I love moments like that.  When time stops and the to-do list blurs away.  All there is to see is little fingers, wide eyes, innocence.  I drink it in, write the memory of firmly on the tablet of my heart.

And then, the moment lifts.  The clock ticks.  A handful of the violets are smooshed into a haphazard bouquet.  The rest?  In true boy fashion, Mr. D proclaims them to be bombs and uses them to pelt the unsuspecting cat lying lazy in the sun.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Oatmeal Cream Pies

My husband has another woman in his life.   Her name is Little Debbie. She lives in his lunchbox on a regular basis.  He loves the treats she comes up with.  You know the kind, sticky sweet cake-like bits?  Spackled together with shortening based goo, a list of unpronounceable ingredients as long as the box ?  What, you know her too?  I think it's the crackly sound of cellophane that has bewitched people into thinking her stuff is actually food.  When I was a kid, I had an aunt who made oatmeal cream pies all by herself.  No Little Debbie to help. I remember a pail piled full of these little pillows of deliciousness, better then anything that ever came cellophane wrapped.  Recently, I dug out the recipe and they were every bit as yummy as I remember.  Best of all?  I think they have convinced the husband to be done with Debbie!

Oatmeal Cream Pies
The cookie part of this recipe is good enough to stand alone. It makes a moist, chewy, oatmeal cookie that is just right for the chubby hands of the Baby of this household.  And that is good.  Oh, but there's more.  The frosting is what turns this into something memorable, something you will make again and again.  Don't let the flour stop you.  Yes, you read that right. Flour in the frosting. Flour boiled with milk into a paste, then whipped into a fluff with butter and vanilla, resulting in the lightest, fluffiest, unspackling-like frosting you have ever tasted.  What's stopping you?!  Go make them

1 3/4 cup brown sugar
12 Tbsp softened butter
2 eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 cups old fashioned oatmeal
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp baking soda dissolved in 3 tbsp boiling water
In a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar for several minutes or until fluffy.  Add the eggs and vanilla, beat well.  Slowly add the flour, salt, baking powder, oatmeal, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Last of all, add the soda water and beat one final time.  Drop by spoonful onto parchment lined (or sprayed) cookie sheet.  Flatten dough balls just a little.  Bake at 350 for 9-10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.  Cool.

1 cup whole milk
5 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
14 Tbsp salted butter, softened (the real deal - no plastic based margarine)
1 generous tsp vanilla (REAL vanilla - not flavored corn syrup)

In small saucepan, over med high heat, combine milk and flour.  Wisk, wisk and wisk some more or until mixture comes to a boil and thickens.  Wisk until it is good and thick.  Do not get sidetracked by Baby while mixture is coming to a boil.  It WILL cement itself to the bottom of the saucepan and you will have to throw out batch #1 and start over.  Ask me how I know this.  When mixture is thick, turn off heat and set aside to cool.  Let cool completely.  To room temp.

Meanwhile:  In stand mixer, beat butter and sugar very well or until sugar is dissolved and graininess is gone.  This may take about 5 minutes.  Add vanilla, beat in.  When flour mixture is cool, add to butter/sugar mixture and beat on high.  It now look like you have ruined it.  It will curdle and look awful and you will want to give up.  Beat, beat, beat.   You are SO close to deliciousness.  Keep beating on high until mixture is fluffy and has the texture of whipped cream. This is a good 5-10 minute process depending on your mixer. Taste!  Isn't that amazing?!  Scoop frosting into large resealable bag and snip off a small corner. Squeeze a generous dose of  frosting onto one cookie and top with another one. Good-bye Little Debbie!

If you think these cookies will last more then one day at your house, they keep best and stay moist in the fridge.  They also freeze quite nicely.

Vegetable Beef Soup

An old adage I like to keep firmly in mind is "Cook once, eat twice."  Planned-overs are a great way to stretch the time and stretch the grocery budget while you are at it.

The other day, we had pot roast for dinner.  When I take the time to roast any kind of meat, I like to make a large amount. I either purchase the largest roast I can find, or buy two.   It's a great way to shorten prep time later in the week.  Leftover roast makes great Beefy Noodles, BBQ Beef Sandwiches, Beef Nachos, Shepherds Pie, or lots of other options.  This week we had a couple of cold rainy days, so I made a giant pot of soup with the leftover roast.  I served soup for dinner, we ate it the next day for lunch, plus I froze what was left for one more meal.  How's that for streeeeetching?! *TIP - if I know I want some meat left over, when I serve the roast, I will reserve some of the meat before it ever hits the table.

Home made soup is one of life's simple pleasures.  Chock-full of hearty goodness, it bubbles on the stove all afternoon scenting our activities with anticipation.  The simple motions of chopping, simmering, stirring, adding an extra dash of salt or seasoning are soothing. The finished product is comfort at it's finest.  Serve it up with some bread, maybe a salad and dinner is done!

Beef Vegetable Soup

This recipe is variable in just about every way.  You can't break it.  Change it up to suit your families tastes. . Soup is a great way to use up the limp celery at the bottom of the vegetable crisper or whatever else is hiding in your fridge.  If you don't have leftover roast, try using stew meat.

2 onion, diced small
3 stalks celery, diced small
3 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil

3-4 cups cooked, diced/shredded beef.
8-10 cups assorted chopped vegetables
        I used: 12 ounce bag frozen peas & carrots
                    1  quart green beans (canned from last year's garden)
                    10 ounce bag lima beans
                    1.5 cups of corn
                   1-2 cups finely chopped cabbage
4 cups tomato juice
       V8, canned tomato puree, or straight tomato juice all work here.  I used tomato/vegetable juice canned last summer from our garden produce.
4 cups low sodium beef stock
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 generous tsp rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp salt(more or less) Be careful if your beef stock is not low sodium.
1 tsp black pepper

On medium heat, saute diced onion and pepper for 10 minutes or until softened.  Add garlic.  Stir and continue cooking just for a minute or until garlic is fragrant.  Turn up heat, pour in tomato juice, stock, meat, veggies and seasonings.  Bring to a boil.  Turn heat down and simmer on low for 3-4 hours.  Taste for seasonings.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

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"What's to eat?"

I hear this phrase alot.  Like about 1 zillion times per day. Hang around for more then 10 minutes and someone is guaranteed to be hungry.

I enjoy preparing healthy, satisfying food for my family.  There is something about the act of sitting around the table, connecting with each other, enjoying a meal made with love that is grounding.  Steadying.  Comforting.  And, reality is, with the variety of ages we have around the table, it's also noisy, messy and sometimes stressful.

Oh, but worth the commotion for the memories we make, the ritual we ingrain into our lives.  Stopping the hurry to give thanks, to break bread, to connect with each other.
Over the last few years, I have been trying to eliminate the majority of processed food from our diet and return to whole, unprocessed, traditional foods.  Sure, I still use canned this or that from time to time, but our consumption of prepared food has dramatically been reduced.  Food should be real, with ingredients you can pronounce, flavors and colors  found in real life.  This is food that will truly nourish the body, and the heart.

Eating healthy  means making choices, sometimes changes.   One thing I choose to do, is buy our eggs from a local farmer.  Startling  in their bright yellow-orange yolks, the flavor is outstanding.  These eggs are laid from chickens who run in the grass and eat organic feed.  The chickens aren't on antibiotics or sick or squeezed into rank, dark chicken houses. Eggs from a standard, large producer are 20 times more likely to house salmonella.  Plus,  these eggs are usually dipped in a  chlorine bath & the shells coated in oil before the eggs are packed and shipped.  When the egg is cracked open, chemicals on the outside of the shell come into contact with the egg you are about to eat.  No thanks!  I can do without a side of chlorine with my breakfast.  Find a local farmer and support their efforts.  Buy their eggs! Or if you really want to get serious about this, try your hand at raising chickens.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to

Something I hear pondered often is the HOW of caring and feeding a family. Sometimes it's the voices in my head pounding the questions, sometimes the voices of people around me.  How do I get it all done?  How do I stay in a budget and feed my family healthy food? How do I decide what to make for dinner? How do I keep clean undies in all the underwear drawers in this house?  How do I have open arms for the ones I love most when days are wearying? How do I keep up with it all and find joy in the process?

This blog is simply my story, a documenting if you will, of trial and errors.  The things that have been a success and the things that have flopped miserably.

4 curious, noisy, busy children live in this house.  Big Sis is 10, leader of the pack, bubbling over with creativity and ideas.  If she is quiet it's because her nose is buried in the pages of her current book.  Engineer is the oldest boy at 7 years old.  He is full of energy and questions about how the world works.  He thinks deeply and always is seeking  to understand the why.  Mr. D is 4, laid  back and full of funny comments and sweetness.  Baby is 15 months.  Intense, speedy and into everything, he keeps us on our toes.

I have been married to  The Rock  since April of 1997.  For 14 years, he has been the ying to my yang.  His calm, steady, thoughtfulness is the perfect antidote to my impetuous, happy-go-lucky spontaneity.  Our differences have caused plenty of fireworks over the years.  Slowly but surely we've learned to tolerate and even appreciate how very differently we look at the world.  Together, it's a beautiful, perfect balance.

Looking forward to sharing our adventures and lessons learned.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Test post

Stepping out.  Jumping.  Trying something new