Winter Nights

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I got back from our vacation to Orlando on Wednesday night, and after a day of rest – amusement parks are fun but exhausting – I took a look through the kitchen and decided it was past time to do some stocking up.  Our pantry eat-down has had mixed results – we’ve gone through a lot of food, but we haven’t stopped grocery shopping completely – with 2 small children and 2 people working from home on the regular, running out of milk, eggs, fruit, Goldfish and the like just isn’t an option.

Still, our grocery bill dropped a bit, and our pantry and freezer got a good bit emptier.  Which is good on a few levels, as we’re slowly beginning our steps towards springtime, despite the snow on the ground.  My garden seeds arrived, and are waiting for early March to start planting under the living room window.  The baby chicks – 27 of them, gulp – arrive in just a few weeks, and we’re almost ready to order the new coop for mid-April delivery.   Add to that our CSA payment for the season has been made, this time to include a fruit share, and I’m feeling good about the quality of our diet for the coming year.  It will be healthy, varied, and in large part, local.

Despite that, we are tied to the grocery store, and today we needed quite a bit.  Because I’m traveling quite a bit the next two weeks, I bought enough to cover meals at the ready for the days I will be here.  I don’t have a menu at the ready, per se, but I always try to have the ingredients for meals at the ready. This time on my list is:

Macaroni Medley, a family specialty (recipe to come)
Homemade Potstickers, Paleo Scallion Pancakes and Thai Basil Stir-fry
Chicken Parmesan with zucchini and regular noodles
Simple Lentil Sausage Soup
Butternut Squash Soup (using the last of our CSA squash from the fall)
French Onion Soup

All of these meals make enough for us to eat dinner, plus leftovers for lunches and additional servings.  Because it’s cold out, we’re heavy on the soup, as we always are at this time of year.  It’s simple, filling, and can almost always be cooked early in the day and left to simmer until dinnertime.  It’s warmer than it has been but the chill is still with us for a few more months, and last night, after 6 days in the Summerlands, an extra level of warm food was necessary.

Cooking for me is not just necessity, it is also pleasure.  When it’s just Eli and I, I tend to be able to experiment and try new recipes.  Lately I’ve been trying a lot of recipes from HalfBakedHarvest.com, and yesterday’s crib, while my children were in Maine with their grandparents for a couple nights, was her Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen.  I didn’t have the good kind of ramen on hand, so we improvised with my favorite buckwheat noodles, which I prefer anyway.  I doubled the chicken and added a little Sambal Olek for heat, and it was absolutely delicious.

In total, this is about a 45 minute recipe if you include chopping the mushrooms and the peppers, ransacking the fridge for wherever the heck I had stashed the Ginger Garlic Paste and getting the instant pot up to pressure.

One prep tip I highly recommend is to take a freezer-safe baggie, and whenever you are prepping onions or mushrooms, take the stubs or the peels and put them in the baggie in the freezer.  You can add to it freely as you cook, and when you are ready to make chicken or turkey stock, just dump the contents in with the carcass, water, a dollop of vinegar, some bay leaves and thyme, and cook for 7 or 8 hours.  You will end up with the best broth ever. In preparing one meal, you also lay the foundation for another.20190222_170142

Dinner was ready in no time, and this has now become one of our favorite new meals.  Spring will be here soon enough, and with it fresh greens and salads.  But for now, coconut milk, chicken, peanut butter, honey, and noodles fill our bowls.

 

Breakfast Monsters

Mornings here are the busiest part of the day, typically.  From the moment I wake up to the time I get the kids to school, I only sit down if I can find a few minutes to wolf down some food myself.  There’s lunches to be packed, breakfast to be made, kids to get dressed and out the door, animals to feed and water, and plants that need a drink.

Even weekend mornings are busy until the point when I get breakfast into everyone, at which point we start to take a breath. I cook more on weekends, frequently pancakes, bacon and fruit, although blueberry muffins and waffles periodically show up on the menu.

Pancakes.jpg

I like to take the time to make breakfast for the kids, but the leftover pancakes also go right into the freezer to be warmed for weekday breakfasts.  It’s a quick, easy way to get something homemade into the kids when you have no time.

For me, breakfast has become coffee and smoothies.  I had for years had an egg and yogurt in the mornings.  It’s better not to have to think about food first thing than have huge variety – I can go a long time without getting bored of my breakfast, so long as there’s coffee. And I was always the person, when faced with smoothie options, that replied “I prefer to chew my food, thanks”.  But even the worst cynics can be converted.

I switched to smoothies because I realized I wasn’t quite getting in enough fruits and veggies throughout the day, I needed a new vehicle for my yogurt, and I needed to add some nutritional supplements such as Spirulina, Maca, flaxseed, and a superfood protein powder that has wheatgrass and other goodies.   So I started making what I call my Green Monster Smoothies.  In goes all those things, but also in it goes bananas, blueberries, strawberries, yogurt,  a handful of spinach or super greens, a spoonful of peanut butter and some milk (coconut water or almond/soy milk would work just as well).  I’m finding it keeps me full longer, I’m definitely upping my fruit and veggie intake, and I don’t have to eat all those things individually throughout the day.  And here’s the thing – it tastes really, really good.

And I mean so good I’m sad when it’s gone and I have to wait for the next day.  Which for a ‘no-smoothie as meal’ person, is a pretty solid endorsement.

Smoothie prep

I make enough for 2 smoothies in my $40 sale blender (no, you don’t need a wildly expensive one) so I only have to put in the effort once every other day, and I store the rest in a mason jar in the fridge for the next morning.

Smoothies

I hate to say I’m a convert, but I just might be.  I still like to chew my food, but Green Monster – it’s what’s for breakfast.

Green Monster Smoothies:
1 scoop protein powder – I prefer to use a superfood variety
1/2 tsp Spirulina powder
1 tsp Maca (similar to ginseng and it tastes very good)
2 tablespoons flaxseed
1 banana
handful of blueberries
handful of spinach or other greens
5-6 strawberries
1 cup plain or flavored yogurt
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 -2 cups of milk or milk alternative, depending on how thick you want it

Whir.  Eat.  Be happy.

Simple Things – Soup Night

I realize Memorial Day weekend is for grill recipes, but I woke up to 52 degrees yesterday morning, which was cold enough to make me burrow back under the covers for a while, not something I typically do.  The smallish people came home last night, and i knew they would be tired and hungry after most of the day in the car, as well as in dire need of bathing.  Soup is simple and filling, and good for a raw, chilly day.

So I pulled what remained of a roasted chicken and some grilled drumsticks out of the freezer, and started some chicken broth.  Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak is a favorite book around here, and it’s a favorite meal as well.  I do buy chicken broth for various purposes, but chicken soup with rice is always made from scratch, it’s in my parenting rule book.

Chicken broth is easy.  Chicken carcass, with some meat on it, water to cover it, a little vinegar, and some seasoning – I use garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaves, oregano, and fresh tarragon.  I also save onion peels and other bits of vegetables in a bag in the freezer and add them to the broth to flavor it.  Drop it all in a slow cooker for 6 hours on low, and strain into another pot.  What’s left is chicken broth, really good stuff.

chicken soup starts with chicken broth

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Once the remaining chicken has cooled, strip the meat from the bones, chop up whatever veggies you like (carrot, celery, onion, etc) into the broth and cook for 15 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.  After 15 minutes, toss in a cup or so of rice and let cook until soft, about 20 minutes.

It’s really that easy.  It’s also cheap – it’s from chicken you already ate.  And honestly, it’s a truly good meal.

I usually add popovers to it, because they are a personal favorite.  If you like them, I recommend investing in a good quality popover pan, because the cheap ones scratch up easily and muffin tins are too small.

Popovers are as simple as it gets.  Mix together in a small bowl:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Oil the popover pan well.  Fill each well to half full, and bake for about 20-25 minutes starting from a cold oven at 400 degrees.  The cold oven is critical, they won’t rise if you start preheating.  I cover mine with tinfoil until the oven hits 400 to ensure the tops don’t burn.

Popovers are easy and quick and look pretty impressive right out of the oven.  They collapse almost right away, but they still taste great.  You can substitute up to 1/4 cup of Paleo flours (I like Cassava Flour) and they will taste just as good, but they won’t rise as well.  If you make them frequently, expect to replace your pan every few years – eventually they go from non-stick to ‘everything sticks’.

I love to grill, but last night’s dinner was the perfect recipe for a cool, grey day Monday.

Popovers

Adventurous Eating at Home – Sunday Dinner

Sunday’s dinner was a modified version of a couple of recipes I jumbled together with really great results.  It is filled with lots of things you probably have in your pantry, and a couple you might not.  I try to add one or two new menu items a month, things I haven’t tried before but sound good.  I’m a huge fan of trying something and then modifying it to suit my taste buds, pantry and my wallet.  I’ve tried to call out all of the possible modifications.

On the menu was Turkey Meatballs and Asparagus in Lemongrass Broth over Cauliflower Rice.  It can just as easily be served with white or brown rice.  I make mine with Almond Meal (basically almonds ground to flour) but basic breadcrumbs will also do.  What shouldn’t be swapped is the flavoring.  The meatballs and broth can be made ahead and reheated for a busy weeknight, and while they reheat, the cauliflower rice takes about the same 5 minutes to saute.  This is an excellent make-ahead meal.  It’s filling and flavorful, and feeds about 3-4 people, depending on appetites.

Straight up double everything if you want more – extra meatballs can be frozen and served over rice noodles for an asian-esque take on pasta and meatballs another night too.

For the Meatballs:

  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • 1/3 cup Almond Meal (substitute bread crumbs if Paleo isn’t your bag)
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp dried cilantro or a small handful fresh
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper

Mix everything together with a fork.  Form into 1.5″ meatballs and saute in a deep skillet with olive oil, about 8-10 minutes.  Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Make the Lemongrass Broth

  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 2-3 tablespoons of lemongrass paste 
  • 1/2 can diced tomatoes or 4 tablespoons crushed tomatoes
  • 1 shallot
  • Asparagus, cut into 1″ pieces

In the same pan used for the meatballs, saute the shallot until soft.  Add the broth, lemongrass paste and salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and add the tomatoes, meatballs  and asparagus, and cook until the asparagus can be easily pierced with a fork.  If you don’t have asparagus, try bok choy, or even add spinach in just a minute before the food is ready instead.

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While the asparagus is tenderizing, cook the Cauliflower Rice

In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add 1 bag of cauliflower rice (I buy mine at Trader Joe’s) or a head of cauliflower, chopped very small by hand or food processor.  Generously add salt and pepper, and stir, 8-10* minutes until softened.

Spoon cauliflower rice into a soup bowl and ladle broth and meatballs over.  Garnish with fresh cilantro if you have it.

* If using regular rice, start this step before the meatballs.

 

Cold Spring Nights

The weather here at Sithean continues to veer between summer-like warmth and chilly enough to light a fire in the wood stove.  Once, even, cold enough to turn on the heat, and usually I hold the line after May 1st pretty hard.  Sithean has oil heat, which isn’t cheap on the best of days.  Still, it’s starting to warm up generally, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom.  The asparagus bed started producing about 2 weeks ago, and will go another 3-4 weeks.  I missed a few to bolting, but there’s still plenty for eating.

For most people, May probably doesn’t seem like a great time to recommend roasted vegetables.  But it’s an odd time for eating locally, barring making a few really delicious asparagus frittatas (asparagus, eggs, cheese, potatoes for the crust if you want one) from our eggs, and the occasional lettuce wraps. Farmers markets and CSAs haven’t started up yet, I’m basically out of everything I preserved last year, and it’s grocery store bounty until at least June 1.

I take advantage of the cooler nights to fill the freezer – come August when we go on vacation, I’ll take the meatballs I made tonight and froze, a couple pounds of pasta, and we’ll eat it for dinner our first night away with garlic bread and a salad – a tradition we have not broken in at least a decade.  I’ll be making Falafel for the freezer this week too, as well as Bulgogi , a house favorite, especially on the grill.  Food prep means there’s always something here to eat if I do it right, so no one (me) has to capitulate to the Takeout Gods.

There’s a few leftovers from my fall crops lying around too – a couple winter squashes that made it this far, and the last of the half-bushel of sweet potatoes to supplement what we are buying.  The squashes will be cooked down and the puree saved for soup, but the sweet potatoes are inevitably roasted.

I love sweet potatoes, and while there are lots of ways to prepare them, roasted with various spice coatings is my favorite.  It’s also the quickest and the simplest.  I keep spice mixtures on hand to toss them in, but salt, pepper and olive oil also works.

Roasting sweet potatoes is simple – preheat oven to 375 degrees, oil a pan, peel and slice the sweet potatoes into half moons or wedges, sprinkle salt, pepper, your favorite spice mixture and drizzle olive oil on top.  Bake until soft with crispy edges, 25 minutes or so.

My current favorite is Harissa seasonings, a mix of chili peppers and paprika.  I like the smokey flavor it adds.  I use Spice Road brand, but any will do.

Harissa_Silk Road

 

Harissa sweet potatoes.jpg

Another favorite here is Tumeric-roasted cauliflower.  When organic cauliflower goes on sale I always pick up a couple heads.  Cut the florets from the head (the bunnies get to eat the leftovers), put them in an oiled pan, sprinkle with salt, a generous amount of tumeric, and olive oil over the top.  Roast until tender, 45-50 minutes.

The great part of roasted veggies – aside from healthy, cheap and tasty –  is that the leftovers can be warmed in the oven repeatedly with no loss of taste or texture.

If you can’t have a warm spring night, at least you can have a warm spring meal.

Adventurous Eating at Home – An Introduction to Asian Grocery Shopping

I really, really like Asian food.  All the kinds – I have yet to meet an Asian cultural specialty I didn’t want to try, not just to eat, but to cook as well.  I’m game to try almost everything, and my pantry reflects that.   I recently mastered Saag and Indian Butter Chicken.  I make my own Pad Thai, Bulgogi, Potstickers and other things pretty regularly.  I started cooking Asian at home in my 20s out of curiosity, and because it’s a whole lot cheaper than eating out.  I started with simple curries, and eventually ventured into more complex foods as my courage grew after successful meals, and the resulting expansion of my spice cabinet and pantry.

Not far from my house, close enough for a trip every month or two, is a giant grocery store called HMart.  Primarily Korean, but stocked with food from about every East Asian culture, it’s a really fun place to visit.  But it’s also intimidating, even for those of us who have been going regularly for a while – on a recent trip, my son found a sweet pancake mix that he wanted to try, but I had to confess that I had no ability to read the Kanji required to successfully prepare them.    The trick is to treat it like an adventure with some necessities for Asian cuisine tossed in.  I bring a list, but it is the one store where I allow us to go off script every time.  My goal is to try at least a couple new things each time. It helps that I love grocery stores – I try to visit at least one in every country I visit.

When I bring the kids, the new things end up being treats.   Asian candy, especially Japanese, is mesmerizing and the flavor combinations are both perplexing and near-endless.  Sure, some things end up being in the ‘not even good enough to compost’ pile, but then there’s Crispy Matcha-flavored Oreos, which, I kid you not, are a real thing and they are so, so good – I say this as someone basically without a sweet tooth.  I make an exception for these – even the box smells amazing.

Matcha Oreos.jpg

The key to Asian grocery store success is to be open-minded, and not to be afraid of a little failure.  And to ask lots and lots of questions – even of fellow shoppers if you feel comfortable.  Early in my kimchi-buying days, after I had discovered I loved it, I spent a lot of time asking people why they picked a certain type, because I was daunted by the veritable wall of available fermented pickled cabbages, radishes, carrots and other items.  I got an education, too – some because it’s the kind they grew up on.  Others were looking for the hottest, flavor-iest kimchi available, still others just bought the largest quantity they could, because it was a dietary staple they preferred not to make.  I still buy the same brand of coconut milk a woman standing next to me advised me on 15 years ago.  When I asked her why that one, she shrugged and said – ‘good and cheap’.  Hard to beat that input.

If you are going for the first time, pick a recipe you like to make, and then Google brands of the ingredients.  This will help you to a) know what you are looking for and b) help in the event that your only available venue lacks someone who can translate for you.   Be prepared to wander the aisles looking for things – until you get used to it, you need to allot yourself some time.

After you find your stuff for your recipe, go back and re-examine all the things that caught your eye.  Pick one or two to try – the internet is filled with friendly, helpful bloggers who can teach you how to use that thing you bought.  Groceries.jpg

Yesterday, I came home with rice vinegar (I buy it by the gallon), dumpling wrappers, seaweed salad, radish kimchi, coconut milk and lots of other things on my list, but also with Dragon Fruit, which has been on the household list to try for a while.  I also found Tapioca Starch, which is a key ingredient in a whole bunch of Paleo recipes, Acorn Starch, because a friend with a Korean husband sent me a recipe to use it in, and candy that my son picked out.  We know we generally love Pocky, but the Muscat-flavored Gummy Choco thingies were a surprise love for all of us.  They will definitely be reappearing in our vacation goodie bag this summer, after watching my daughter tentatively eat one, and then immediately try to chug them directly from the tube.

Even though we veer off the shopping list every time, I still would offer that I think that our willingness to expand our options is a part of living more frugally.  We don’t spend tons of extra money.  We often find things we really, really like – Black Tea Udon noodles have become a pantry staple for cold noodle salads that get rave reviews every time I serve one up – and I don’t need to order take out very often if I crave ethnic food.  I’ve crossed the line into the land of finding the food better at home a good deal of the time, and that saves me lots of money.

But most of all…it’s fun.  Trying new things, adventuring out of my comfort zone – these are things that make even the simplest of days entertaining.  So the next time you need an adventure, I highly recommend finding your neighborhood ethnic grocery store.  And trust me, it’s a great way to keep a 5 year old entertained for hours.

Connor and peach pop rocks