Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Strawberry Shortcake Plain, Strawberry Shortcake Fancy

     Oh Happy Day!  The u-pick strawberry patch around the corner, flung open it's gates this week. To me, strawberry season nothing short of downright sacred. Growing up in northern Michigan, we kids would eagerly look forward to early June and strawberry picking day.  Mom would pile us kids, berry baskets, and a picnic lunch into the car and we'd head out.  Standing at the edge of the field, it seemed like the rows stretched away for miles, gleaming red berries peeping out, just waiting to be picked...and popped into our mouths. We'd pick, and eat, and eat and eat.  There was nothing better then those sun-warmed, plump red morsels.  After a while though, the work of picking would wear old. We'd wander off to explore the farm, juice staining our fingers and chins. There was a hound dog who lived flopped on the porch, tail wagging lazy, just waiting for a scratch under the chin. My brothers loved that dog and they'd sit, playing  with him. The dog was good and all, but I couldn't wait to find the other pet that lived by the porch - mama kitty.  Every year, she was there waiting for me, with a new batch of baby kittens. Kittens and strawberries - life didn't get much better then that.
      You can imagine how much I am enjoying  the fact that we have a strawberry patch around the corner. I get to pass along the fun and memories to my own daughter. Ever since she was old enough to toddle, I have been taking her out to one berry patch or another.  Just like her mama, she loves those berries...and exploring the farm.

Now that I've strolled down memory lane - the question is what to do with all the bounty from picking? Well, the end of strawberry picking day as a kid, was just as much fun as the farm itself. We'd come home hot, dirty and tired. Mom would make a giant shortcake for dinner and we'd get to eat as much as we wanted. No salad, no veggies, nothing else, just strawberry shortcake for dinner. We kids thought that was greatest thing ever.  This recipe is the country version my mom made and what I make for my own kids.

Country Strawberry Shortcake:
2 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk
5 tablespoons butter

Heat milk in saucepan or microwave until milk is hot and butter is melted. Set aside. In mixing bowl, beat eggs on high speed until thick - about five minutes. Gradually add sugar, beating until fluffy. Combine flour and baking powder.Add to batter, with vanilla and beat for at low speed until smooth. Slowly add hot milk, beating just until combined.  Pour into greased 8 x 8 baking pan.Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes or until cake tests done.  While cake is fresh from oven, cut into squares. Put a piece of hot cake in bowl and pile on lots of sliced, sugared berries.  Pour milk over all and enjoy

Strawberry Shortcake Fancy
Sometimes though, I need fancy shortcake.  Something for company, you know - kind of impressive. And then, Barefoot Contessa's shortcake is just the thing. Her original recipe is not sweet and rather salty, so I've played around to get it right. Here is my amended version.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons cold butter (1 1/2 sticks), diced
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water, for egg wash

To assemble:

  • 1 cup heavy cream, chilled
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 quart strawberries, hulled, sliced and lightly sugared


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  In mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Blend in the butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is the size of peas. Combine the eggs and cream and quickly add to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough will be sticky. Dump the dough out onto a well-floured surface. Flour your hands and pat the dough out 3/4-inch thick. You should see lumps of butter in the dough. Cut individual shortcakes with a round biscuit cutter. Or, if you are like me and don't have one, use a floured drinking glass to cut circles.
Place shortcakes on a parchment lined baking pan -if you don't have parchment, make sure your pan is greased.Brush the tops with the egg wash. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the outsides are browned and the insides are fully baked. .

To assemble, whip the cream and sugar until soft peaks form. Add the vanilla and continue to beat  just a minute or two more. And for the record - if you consider Cool Whip(or nondairy whipped topping) to be an acceptable alternative here, just stop for  a minute. Pick up a tub of that stuff and read the ingredient list for what you are about to eat. Do any of the items on that list even sound like food to you? 

Split each shortcake in half crosswise and place the bottom half on a plate. Spoon on a pile of sugared strawberries, with lots of juice, then plop on a cloud of whipped cream. Put the top back on and layer with more whipped cream and berries. Serve to the  tune of oooohs and ahhhhs!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Because you NEED a scone

Really, you do.  Here's an idea for Easter morning - or any morning.  Make a batch of scones to nibble on with your coffee while the kids tear into Easter baskets  and smear chocolate bunny smears on their pristine Easter outfits. Scones will take the edge off and make it much easier to pat their little heads and tell them it's okay.

I have been making these scones for years and they are a hit every single time.  Easy to throw together using ingredients I normally keep on hand. My kind of recipe.  Keep in firmly in mind - these scones? They are American scones.  They are about as authentically British as, well, they just aren't British, okay? No respectable scone from across the pond would run around wearing glaze, for heaven's sake!  Appreciate them for what they are. Noisy, sweet Americans, baked up browned and crusty, studded with cranberries and finished off with a decadent orange glaze. 

Orange-Cranberry Scones

1/2 cup dried cranberries
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup butter
zest of one orange - about 1 teaspoon
1 egg yolk
1 cup sour cream

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 tablespoons orange juice

In small bowl, pour enough hot water over cranberries to cover.  Let stand for about 5-10 minutes.  Drain well before using. This step plumps up the dried berries. If you forget this step or don't have time, don't worry about it.  The scones will turn out fine.

In mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.  Using a pastry blender cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Add drained cranberries and orange zest.  About that zest.  How do you get zest off a piece of citrus?  There are many different ways.  I used to use a vegetable peeler to slice off a very thin layer of zest.  Then I would chop it finely before using.  Finally, I broke down and bought a zester from Pampered Chef.  I love this little tool.  It allows me to quickly and evenly remove a pile of zest.

In small bowl, combine egg yolk and sour cream.  Add egg mixture all at once to dry mixture.  Using a fork, stir until combined.  Mixture may seem a bit dry.  Dump the whole bowl onto a floured surface.  Lightly knead for 10-12 strokes or until dough is nearly smooth.  Pat dough into an 8 inch circle.  Using sharp knife, cut into 12 wedges.

Arrange 1 inch apart on sprayed cookie sheet.  Bake at 400 for 10-12 minutes or until light brown. Cool for several minutes.  While still warm, drizzle with orange glaze.  Serve warm.

Orange glaze

Wisk together powdered sugar, vanilla and orange juice.  Use more juice as necessary to make glaze a nice drizzling consistency.

Enjoy your Easter!

Forgiven Much

I am a child of the '80's.  Thanks to growing up in that era, I have lots of great music floating around in my head.  This week, I keep hearing one snippet on replay, over and over, floating through my mind.

"Eyes that find the good in things,
When good is not around"

Anyone recognize those words, that song?

See, the thing is, left to my own devices, I  am not a very nice person. I am selfish.  I like things to be done my way, in my time frame.  I am impatient and judgmental, petty.  I lose it with the people I love best.  I yell.  Complain.  Whine. Make stupid choices.  Give up.  Fall down.  Get overwhelmed and hung up on what everyone else is doing wrong. I say unkind words. Demand that things meet my expectations  Not nice at all.

This week, the week before Easter, I've been amazed,  thinking of all I have been forgiven. How I get to have a fresh start every morning, even oftener if needed. And that I, having been forgiven much, must also, forgive much. Pondering how this cynical heart can look past imperfections to  "find the good in things when good is not around."   Remembering to extend the grace I've been given.  Remembering to view my fellow man with a different, less harsh lens. Choosing to believe the best about people.   Looking for the good.  Call me an eternal optimist, but I am pretty sure the good is there.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Man food

I married a meat and potatoes kind of guy. No two ways about it. Oh, don't get me wrong.  He isn't picky and will happily eat just about whatever I make. But the guy spends his days working hard. Dinner needs to be substantial at this house.  Froufrou doesn't cut it. Thankfully, I have got a sandwich in my arsenal that does the trick every time. Steak, onions, mushrooms, peppers sauteed in butter, piled high and smothered with cheese?  Oh yeah!  Add a stack of oven fries and there is a happy man.

I first saw a version of this sandwich over on Pioneer Woman a couple of years ago.  Her original version calls for a huge amount of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and a full two sticks of butter.  The result was not a hit at this house.  I've played around till finding a combination that works for us.  Juicy and flavorful, the whole family loves this.   I like using cube steak for the meat.  It's an inexpensive cut of beef that has been tenderized and is easy to work with.

Steak Sandwich
2-3 lbs cube steak
2-3 Tablespoons Canadian steak seasoning (like McCormick's Montreal Steak Seasoning)
Worcestershire Sauce
Steak sauce (like A1 or whatever brand you prefer)
1/2 cup Beef stock
1 onion, sliced
1/2  of a sweet red bell pepper, sliced longwise
1/2 of a green red bell pepper, sliced longwise
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 tsp dried thyme
olive oil
salt and pepper
4-6 whole deli rolls.
mozzarella  or provolone cheese slices
 garlic salt

Cut cube steak into long strips, about 1/2 an inch wide. Sprinkle with  steak seasoning and 3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce. Refrigerate for at least an hour or all day if you prefer.

This is a case that calls for a good old iron skillet. They hold the heat like crazy and are great for creating a good, dark sear (aka FLAVOR). If you don't have an iron skillet, a heavy stainless steel one will do as  well.  But this really is not a place for nonstick cookware.  Save that for your eggs.

Over med high heat, add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil to skillet. Let the oil heat for a minute, add sliced onions,  mushrooms and 1/2 tsp thyme.  Stir to coat with the oil  and then let sit for a minute.  Don't be afraid to let a little color develop.  Cook, stirring occasionally for  3 minutes or until onion begins to soften.  Add in peppers, toss with onions, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt & a shake or two of pepper.  Let cook on high without stirring, for a few minutes or until edges start to brown up.   Take onions and peppers out of skillet and set aside.

Back to that beef. Pull it out of the refrigerator and pat dry with some paper towels. Too much left on your meat means it will steam instead of sauteing.  And who wants to eat steamed beef?? Yech! Turn your burner on to a good high heat.  Not all the way up, but mighty close.  Let your skillet get good and hot, then go ahead and melt three tablespoons of butter in there.  Add the meat to the skillet in a single layer and LEAVE IT ALONE. You will want to stir it.  Don't. As the meats sits there, it will begin to caramelize and deep, delicious flavors start happening. After a couple minutes or when the first side is a good, deep brown - not grey - flip the meat over and let it brown on the other side.

When the meat is all browned, add a good 1/2 cup of beef stock.  Sitr until all the stuck bits on the bottom of the pan are loosened. Turn heat to medium and add 3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce, 2 tablespoons steak sauce and 2 tablespoons of butter.  Stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Add in peppers, onions and mushrooms. Cover and let sit.

Split the rolls open.  Spread each  side with butter and sprinkle lightly with a little garlic salt.  Lay butter side up on cookie sheet. Toast rolls under the broiler for a minute or until butter melts and the rolls start to brown. On the bottom half of rolls, layer on meat and veggies. Spoon a little bit of sauce from the pan over the top, then add cheese. Slide back under the broiler for 30 seconds or until cheese begins to melt. Top with other side of roll and there you have it - a delicious steak sandwich. Guaranteed to put a smile on the face of the men in your life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What's in a Yes?

No is such an easy word to say.  Short, quick, it slips off the tongue without even having to stop and think about it.  Since it's so painless, I use that word often. To  my kids: "No, you can't turn on the tv right now.  No, you can't use the couch for a trampoline. No, don't touch.  No, you can't have another cookie.  No, we aren't  painting your room camouflage - that's not even a color! And definitely NO, you can't have a pet snake."  To my husband: "No, let's not eat there. No, I don't know where that is. No, I didn't get the mail." And finally, "No, I have a headache."  To my mom, "No, I don't have time right now, No, we aren't coming home for Easter, No, I forgot about that." And on and on, the NO's keep coming.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons for No. No has it's rightful, proper place. No is necessary and good. It's just, well, habit-forming after awhile.   When I say it, everything stays the same.  No effort, no thought, no mess, so easy.  Uninterrupted, I get to continue on.

But what if I had said yes?  Yes to different ideas, some other way, an unexpected plan.  Would it have been so hard?  Would it really have mattered if things didn't turn out how I anticipated?  What would yes mean to the  person on the other end of the question?  Yes is risky.  It means stepping out, change. Yes means a new perspective, spreading wings, flying. Yes can mean new opportunities, rewards, things I would miss out on, otherwise.

Today I said YES to popsicle making.  The smiles made the mess totally worth it. Talk about reward!

Smoothie Popsicles

I have a collection of Tupperware popsicle molds. I have no idea if Tupperware still makes them.  I've been scrounging people's castoffs for quite awhile.  My mom gave me the ones she used when we were kids, my mother-in-law added hers, a yard sale or two and I have enough molds to make a couple dozen at a time.  If  you don't have molds, you can use a dixie cup with a wooden craft stick.

This recipe is so refreshing  made with delicious summertime fruits.  I love it because it's packed with calcium and  fiber, a yummy alternative to chemical and dye laden frozen treats. It's a yes you can feel good about.  Swap in whatever fruit you have on hand. We love this with peaches, blueberries, raspberries, mangos - whatever is in season.  Locally, strawberries are coming into season, so this is what we used today.

4 cups strawberries, stemmed and halved
2-3 very ripe bananas
2 cups  yogurt
1/2 tsp vanilla
milk (optional)
sugar or honey (optional)

In blender or food processor, puree berries,  Add in bananas and blend until smooth.  Add in yogurt and vanilla.  Blend until mixed well. Taste!  At this point you can pour into mold and freeze, or add a cup or so of milk.  I add enough so the mixture fills my blender container.  Depending on how sweet your fruit is and what kind of yogurt you use,  you may need to add a few spoonfuls of sugar or some honey.  I like Stoneyfield Farms Vanilla Yogurt.  It is sweetened, but just enough that I don't need to  sugar to our popsicles. Be daring!  Do something different.  Make some popsicles!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shepherds Pie - Easy, Hearty, Delicious

There comes a day, when you just don't want alot of fuss and bother over what to have for dinner.  This is the kind of day when you've had to re-navigate your way through the treacherous waters of long division, the dryer started making funny groaning noises, the neighbor stopped by to chat and chat and chat. To top it off, your 15 month old has emptied the kitchen cabinets, poured the dogs water all over the floor, sat in it and pitched a noisy fit every. single. time. things did not go his way.  Which - when you are 15 months old and lacking logic, happens quite often.  Now where was I?  Oh yes, dinner. I need an easy button at the end of a day like that.

This meal is, well, simple.  Not fancy or elaborate, what you have here, is a dish that has stood the test of time.  It seems to have originated in England or Ireland sometime in the 1700's with lamb as the primary ingredient. 300 odd years later, and still  showing up on  dinner tables around the world? This is hearty comfort food at it's best.

Have any clue why I like it?  Because it's a great way to use up leftovers of course!  Mashed potatoes are a kid and husband favorite at this house.  It is easy to make a huge  batch of them to go with roast chicken or beef on Monday  and save enough to top Shepherds Pie later in the week. 

There are as many variations on how to make this as there are  people who like to eat it, so switch it around to suit your tastes.  This is how I make it.

Shepherd's Pie
1 lb of lean ground meat- beef, venision, turkey or lamb all work well
1/2 cup finely minced onion(chopped small enough so picky kids are  not offended)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons of flour
2 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried parley
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup peeled and thinly sliced carrots
3 cups mashed potatoes
2 Tbsp butter(optional)

In large skillet, brown ground meat and onion.  When meat and onion are cooked, add minced garlic and stir just for a minute or two.  Drain grease.  Sprinkle meat with flour, salt and pepper.  Cook and stir on medium heat for two minutes. (if you are using super lean meat like venison, you may need to add a tablespoon of butter at this point) Turn heat up and pour in stock & worcestershire.  Cook and stir until mixture comes to a boil and  thickens up.  Add in rosemary, parsley, thyme peas and carrots. Pour into greased two quart baking dish.  Spread mashed potatoes over top. Dot with butter, if using 

 Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until bubbling and browned.

  • Add 2 cups sauteed fresh mushrooms.  For best flavor and so they don't shrivel away to nothing, these need to be sauteed before adding to sauce.
  • Use 2 cups of frozen pea/carrot mixture 
  • Don't like peas and carrots?  Use whatever vegetable mix suits you. Parsnips are  a great addition
  • Have a bottle of red wine open?  Swap 1/2 cup of red wine for some of the beef stock. 
  • Freeze before baking.  This is an easily transportable dish 
  • Use leftover roast beef instead of ground meat.  
  • Use stew meat or steak chunks instead of ground.  If you do this, brown the individual pieces of meat, add stock and stir to deglaze bottom of pan.  Let simmer for an hour or two or until meat is tender.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


This is a word that has become near and dear to my heart. I find it springing to thought in the most unexpected moments. defines it like this:
 Simple: adjective, -pler, -plest, noun –adjective
1.easy to understand, deal with, use, etc.: a simple matter; simple tools.
2.not elaborate or artificial; plain: a simple style.
3.not ornate or luxurious; unadorned: a simple gown.
4.unaffected; unassuming; modest: a simple manner.
5.not complicated: a simple design. of deceit or guile; sincere; unconditional: a frank, simple answer.
7.not grand or sophisticated; unpretentious: a simple way of life.
Appreciation of this word is something that has grown on me.  It took some years, some upheavals, some face-plants in the dust before  I could fully enjoy the beauty of it.  Lately, simple is a word I treasure.  Turning it over in my mind, holding it up to the piercing light of everyday life - it is flawless and beautiful.
The last few years have given me much perspective on this word.  During this time, I had an opportunity.  My husband and I were building a house for our family and it was up to me to design the kitchen.  I love to cook, to entertain, to have my house crowded with friends, voices, laughter.  Given the chance to create the perfect space for this was a dream come true.  I poured over design books, read kitchen blogs, agonized over purchases, discussed minute details with a kitchen designer.  I slept, thought, dreamed kitchen and house, until at last, the dream came to life and we moved into our perfect house.  It was - perfect.   
Then, the economy came to a screeching halt.  My husband builds houses for a living.  In our county, in the fall of 2008, new home starts went from 200 new homes one month, to one the next.   The market for new houses in our area had totally collapsed.  As our income declined and declined and declined some more, our perfect house became less perfect.  Instead of a dream,  the financial obligation became a nightmare.  We sold the perfect house.  As hard as it was - we were thrilled that it sold. No foreclosure, no bankruptcy, we were able to move on.
And move on we did.  Boy, did we.  Right into a little 1915 southern farmhouse, filled  up with character.  Character. You know what that means right?  Slopping floors,  doors that refuse to latch, drafty windows, a miniscule kitchen with a wiggly faucet,  and horrid green floors.  If you have visions in your head of a gracious southern plantation, please let me explain - this ain't it.  
Life here may not be grand, but it is simple.  And simple is good.  not elaborate or artificial.  Real.  Authentic.  Overflowing with the things that matter. Kids at play in a muddy creek, giant magnolia trees, southern exposure kitchen windows that flood with sunshine.   not ornate or luxurious.  The  patch of peppermint, growing wild, a dandelion picked just for me, chubby-armed hugs, free of deceit or guile; sincere, unconditional. Laughter of children,  purring black cats, a tire swing. not grand or sophisticated, unpretentious, a spot for a garden, an old fireplace, bits of history hidden around here and there. This place suits us. 
I have found there to be much freedom and joy in simple.  Moving here, we downsized our collection of stuff, because there just wasn't room.  Less stuff has been great!   Stuff takes time, thought, energy.  One has to to take care of the stuff, wash the stuff, dry the stuff,  be careful with the stuff, make room for the stuff, organize the stuff, keep the kids off the stuff, buy matching accessories for the stuff, worry about the stuff if it's not the right label or the latest edition.  Not much stuff in the first place is much, much simpler.  
This spring I am celebrating the simple.  Difficult though it has been, I am giving thanks for the road that has taught me joy in the simple, peace in the uncomplicated.  I am celebrating freedom from what could never satisfy, dancing in this beautiful, simple life I've been given.

The best things in life are nearest:  Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.  ~Robert Louis Stevenson


Monday, April 11, 2011

A Cure for the Blues

A goal our family has had over the past years, has been trying to cut out most processed food  and stick with real, whole, fresh, food. This has been fairly successful, although we still have a few old favorites hanging around. The husband loves his Mt. Dew and Cheetos, after all.

Through this process, I have become an ardent label reader. It's tricky business, trying to keep track of what is in those boxes and packages that line the grocery aisle shelves.  Soooo, I've been preaching the gospel of label-reading to my off-spring, because, you know - if there's anything they love and cherish, it is a sermon from mom.  Full of deep wisdom and all that.  "Look at these ingredients, kids! Do you really want to put something takes 23 letters to spell into your body?" In spite of the dramatic sighs and eye rolling, the kids have gotten on the label-reading bandwagon You'd think this is good, right? And it is - usually.  But  of all the things one could choose to read the labels on, my kids had to go and read the labels on Kraft Mac and Cheese.  Childhood classic here.  Dearly loved by kids for it's brilliant orange color and "yummy" taste.  Dearly loved by mom, because when all else fails, there's sure to be a blue box of mac and cheese tucked into the pantry.   Quick and easy, 15 minutes later - lunch is on the table.  Except not any more.  Because of things like powdered cheese and sodium tripolyphosphate, my kids refuse to touch it.  Sigh.  So we have adapted Martha Stewart's version of mac and cheese. To my relief, this takes a couple minutes longer then the out-of-the-box kind, but not by much.  It is so easy to throw together, that my 10 year old daughter makes it on a regular basis. Best of all, the blue box is gone from this house.  We have been cured.

Adapted Martha Stewart’s  Mac-and-Cheese
For the record - this makes a much larger portion then the boxed kind.  The great thing about this is, if you make it one day for lunch, you can reheat and eat for several more days.  Not interested in a mac and cheese-a-thon?  This recipe is easily halved. I like to serve this with a green vegetable and maybe a salad, to round out all the dairy.  Or turn it into a main dish by adding diced ham and peas.  Or crumbled bacon.  The possibilities are endless.

Martha's original version calls for pricey cheese like sharp, white, english cheddar, cave-aged Gruyere and fresh Pecarino Romano.  While those are truly delicious  cheeses that make a wonderful dish, regular extra sharp cheddar and swiss work fine.  I have made this with many combinations of cheese and not been disappointed.  Whatever is hanging around your fridge will be great.

1 pound elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons butter
5 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus more for water
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tsp dry mustard or a good squirt of prepared mustard
3 cups  grated  extra sharp cheddar cheese ( have extra 1 1/2 cup for optional finish)
1 1/2 cups  grated Gruyère or swiss, or more cheddar or whatever cheese you have( extra 1/2 cup optional)

Cover a large pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. Add macaroni, stir well to keep from sticking, bring to reboil.  Cook for 1-2 minute less then package directions

While the macaroni is cooking, make your cheese sauce. Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Or, easier, put it in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. Melt the  6 tablespoons of butter in large saucepan or skillet. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.. While whisking, slowly pour in the hot milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, whisking for 3-5 minutes or until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick. Remove the pan from the heat. There. You just made a simple white sauce - or bechamel.  Easy!  Now, stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, mustard, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyère(or whatever cheese you are using).  Stir until cheese is melted.  Taste the yumminess you just made.  Set aside.

Drain cooked macaroni.  Stir into sauce.   It will look like way too much sauce at this point.  Stir together well.  Let sit for 5 minutes and then serve.

OPTIONAL FINISH : If you would like to fancy this up a bit, pour the mixture into a buttered 9x13 dish. Sprinkle 2 cups of cheese over all.  Take 6 slices of white bread, crusts removed and tear or cut them into little bits.  Toss with 2 tablespoons of melted butter and spread over top. Bake at 375 or until golden brown. This freezes beautifully.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Oh, to be the POTUS

If, for some reason, my husband suddenly found himself occupying the Oval office, able to making sweeping changes with a wave of his hand, I have reason to believe he might echo George H. Bush. “I do not like broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli.” 

So imagine his disgust as it has become apparent that one of his children's most favorite vegetables is - yeah, broccoli.  "What is wrong with them??"  he moans as the kids happily gobble up second, even third servings of  their beloved green.  "Are you sure they're normal?"  Well - define normal.  It is true that broccoli shows up on a regular basis around here. To his credit, the husband manfully downs his share and has, over the years, put up with my inventive attempts to improve his opinion of this maligned vegetable.  Slowly, he's been coming around.

  Through all my experiments, this is what I've learned: DO NOT OVERCOOK.  Is there anything worse then limp, stinky overcooked broccoli flopping around on the end of your fork?  Steam the broccoli, briefly, and don't mess with it too much.  No smothering it to death.  Just a few simple seasonings with the broccoli left a  bit crisp, and you have an easy, tasty side dish.  This version is a  family favorite. It is so unfussy, yet so flavorful, I like to think that even Bush might have been persuaded.

Lemon-Garlic Broccoli
1 head fresh broccoli divided into florets (or a bag of frozen)
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic,  finely minced (about 1 tsp)
Zest and juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp kosher salt

Place broccoli in microwave safe bowl with tightly fitted cover (or use plastic wrap, even though it's not a green thing to do).  Add 1/4 cup of water.  Cook on high for 3-4 minutes until broccoli is crisp/tender.  Meanwhile, in skillet, heat butter and olive oil until butter is melted.  Add garlic and lemon zest.  Cook and stir for about a minute.  Remove from heat.  Stir in lemon juice,  pepper and salt.  Place back over med heat and add steamed broccoli.  Saute just for a minute or until broccoli is combined with butter sauce.  Serve and try to refrain from licking the sauce off your plate.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Breakfast, is it really all that?

Breakfast.  I love to eat it by myself at the local diner, cup of steaming coffee in hand, a fresh copy of the days newspaper to peruse, eggs cooked to my exact specifications, and best of all, a waitress poised to clear up the mess.  In real life however, breakfast is usually noisy, involves spilled milk and likely someone has smeared jelly on the funnies.  The only person to whisk away disasters is yours truly. 

So, I've tried skipping breakfast. Or at the very least, downsizing it.  How about a granola bar?  Won't that do?  Or a pop-tart? Okay, maybe some toast.  My experiments have only served to prove that breakfast is not a thing to be taken lightly.  I feed the troops here, and then I also have the privilege of educating them. I see first hand, the results of breakfast. There's nothing worse then hitting the 10:30am slump.  Just as we are really digging into our lessons of the day, a tummy growls and there go the attention spans. Forget sentence diagrams or math facts when all they can think about is counting the minutes till lunch.  Which, technically,  is math.  Just not the math I am trying to teach. 

What I have found is, my kids do much better if they have a generous serving of protein in their breakfast.  Attention spans are longer, focus is improved, the teacher has a  much better morning. To this end,  I am always on the hunt to find breakfasts that  are easy, relatively healthy and with a decent dose of protein. One that hits all these marks is a simple Fruit and Nut Baked Oatmeal.   Oatmeal may not spring to mind when thinking of protein, but this powerhouse grain will surprise you.  One cup of old-fashioned rolled oats, has 11 grams of protein. This recipe boosts that count even further with the addition of eggs, milk and wheat germ.  Best of all, it is easy to throw together the night before.  The next morning the only requirement is popping it into the oven while coffee brews and the paper is fetched. Fragrant and warm, it's reminiscent of eating a giant oatmeal cookie for breakfast.

Fruit and Nut Baked Oatmeal
4 cups old fashioned oatmeal
1 cup toasted wheat germ (33 grams protein)
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup applesauce
1 1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups dried fruit and nuts - we like dried cranberries & toasted walnuts.

Tip:  Vary the fruit and nut mixture to suit your families tastes.  Diced apples, golden raisins, fresh blueberries, chocolate chips, dried figs, apricots, or cherries are all fun options to try.

Method:  In large bowl, stir together oatmeal, wheat germ, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  In smaller separate bowl, beat eggs, add brown sugar, melted butter, applesauce, milk and vanilla.  Beat together.  Stir wet ingredients into oatmeal mixture.  Add in fruits and nuts.  Stir to combine.  Pour into greased 9x13 pan.  Bake immediately or chill overnight and bake first thing in the morning.  Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until lightly browned.  Serve with milk if desired.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Just a Quickie

My friend came over the other night on a whim.  We wanted something yummy and relatively healthy to nosh on while watching our kids run wild in the warm spring evening.  My fruit bowl had ripe mangos piled in it.  Her fridge had cilantro hanging around.  The answer?  Mango salsa.  This is what we made and boy, was it yummy.  We scarfed it down with chips, but I think it would be lovely heaped on some grilled chicken or fish.

Does the idea of chopping up a mango intimidate you?  For a long time, it did me.  Invariable, I would land up with slimy, stringy bits wrapped my knife and a mango that was a slithery pile of mush.  There is hope! First of all, choose a mango that is soft when you squeeze it.  Not mushy, overipe, but not rock hard.  You want a mango with some give to it.  Next check out the color.  Go for one that is mostly red and yellow. Stay away from green.  Stand the mango on end and slice down on either side of the big stringy seed.  Like this.
 Now take the big piece you just sliced off and score it in a cross-hatch pattern, not cutting through the skin.   Like this:
Turn the piece inside out and slice yummy, juicy mango pieces off the skin.  Like this:
Little bits of sunshine.  Yum!  See, not hard at all.  And so delicious!

For the record, there was no measuring involved when we created this, so here are approximate amounts.  You could change it up any way you like.  Omit the tomato, add in some mint.  Play! It's a fun alternative to standard chips and salsa.

Mango Salsa
4 cups diced mango (3-4 large mangos)
1 cup diced fresh pineapple
1/2 cup small diced sweet onion
1/2 cup chopped grape tomatoes
1 handful minced cilantro
1/2 jalapeno, minced, seeds and membrane removed
1-2 tsp kosher salt
Juice of one lime

Stir together diced fruit, onions, tomato, jalapeno and cilantro.  Squeeze lime juice over all.  Add salt and stir together. Taste for seasoning. Add more jalapeno if you like a little kick. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's That Whole Cook Once, Eat Twice Thing Again...

Yup, I am harping on that whole "planned-overs" idea again. What can I say?  It works.  At this house, by the time 5:00 pm rolls around,  kids are getting hungry and cranky as  we are trying to wrap up the afternoon activities. Usually, it's been a busy day - who wants hours of complicated dinner prep?  NOT me.    To this end, the crockpot has finally become my friend. We had a tricky beginning, crockpot and I.  One too many pot roasts turned to bland mush, pushed me over the edge and I shoved crockpot to the very back of of the cabinet.  The thought of drowning meat in cream of anything, leaving it to burble for hours as it turned into sludge with the consistency of drywall paste gave me nightmares.

Crockpot however, has many charms..  The idea of prep work on the front end, and easy dinner hours later seemed such a simple solution to the 5 o'clock crazies.  A couple of months ago, I cautiously dug crockpot out of the dark corner where he'd been abandoned and we've been finding our way to a tentative friendship.This time though, there's no cream of mushroom hanging around to complicate things.

The first crockpot recipe here is as simple as they come with all of three ingredients. Easy and and tasty, it's something my kids love.

BBQ Chicken in the Crockpot
6 frozen boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 cups BBQ sauce
1/4 cup bottled Italian dressing

Edited to add:   Optional (and tasty) additions to this are, 1/4 cup brown sugar and 3 Tbsp worcestershire sauce.  If you decide to use these, stir together with BBQ sauce and Italian dressing before pouring over chicken.

Place frozen chicken breast in crockpot.  Pour BBQ and Italian dressing over chicken.  Cover with lid and cook on high for 4 1/5-5 hours or until chicken is tender enough to shred.  Take chicken out of crockpot and using two forks, shred chicken.  Place back into crockpot with cooking liquid.  At this point it will seem to have way too much juice.  That's okay - it will absorb back into the chicken.  Cook on high for another 45-60 minutes or until sauce is mostly absorbed.  Serve heaped on buns for a delicious pulled chicken sandwich.  We like our sandwiches layered  with carmelized onions and/or pickles.  This recipe makes a huge pile of pulled chicken!  So you can either feed a crowd of people or save your delicious leftovers for recipe #2. Later in the week, pull out your chicken leftovers to top a BBQ chicken pizza.

BBQ Chicken Pizza
If you really don't want to mess with making your own dough, many grocery stores (Publix) will be happy to sell it to you, freshly made.  But it is so easy to stir together your own.

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon yeast
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup warm water
 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey or sugar

In small bowl, mix together flour, yeast and salt.  Add in warm water, olive oil and honey.  Stir until mixture comes together.  Dump the whole bowl, floury clumps and all onto a floured counter top and knead into a nice ball.  This should take about 5-7 minutes or until dough feels smooth and elastic.  Set aside to rise for 1-2 hours. 

1/2 cup BBQ sauce
3 cups leftover BBQ pulled chicken
1 Tbsp olive oil or butter
One onion, sliced thin (optional)
1 cup colored bell pepper slices (optional)
2-3 cups shredded co-jack or monterrey jack cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.If using veggies, saute onions in olive oil over medium heat for a good 10 minutes or until softened.  Add in peppers and saute for another 5-10 minutes.  Punch down pizza crust dough and roll out thinly to cover pizza pan.*Tip: if your dough is hard to roll out, springing back instead of staying put, just give it a minute.  Stop.  Walk away.  Let it sit there.  This allows the gluten in the wheat to relax and then try again.  It should behave much better after a time out and be easier to work with.

Sprinkle pizza pan with 2 tablespoons cornmeal. This prevent crust from sticking to pan. Place rolled crust onto pan.  Put on a layer of BBQ sauce, then a layer of pulled chicken.  Place in hot oven and bake for 8 minutes.  Pull out, top with sauteed onions and then the cheese.  Pop back into oven and bake for an additional 6-8 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly.  Perfection!