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Old Cats and Small Portions

Sabrina, the oldest of our four cats, is around 13 years old now.  It’s hard to believe because she still looks the same as she did when we adopted her in 2005.  We actually got a discount on her adoption fee because she was ‘old’ already, at nearly four years.  Ironically, we went in with firm intentions of adopting a kitten, and then old lady Beanie won me over with her sweet personality.

Sabrina, our fluffy girl (also called Beanie)

Sabrina/Beanie, years ago…looking the same as she does now.  😉

So anyway, she’s getting up there – nearly 68 in human years, according to this chart the vet gave us a few years ago.  For the past couple of weeks, we’ve noticed she’s having trouble jumping onto the couch and our bed.  A couple of times she’s leaped and then gotten smacked squarely in the chest by the couch, so now she’s unsure of herself.  She’ll sit in front of the couch, start to crouch for a jump, then spring up and put her paws on the couch instead.  Kind of like how I used to run toward the vault in gym, then flinch and stop right before I hit the springboard.

At night, I’m sometimes woken up by a thump against the bed.  The first time this happened, I awoke and instinctively reached over for Toby, our dog.  Toby, who died a couple of years ago, did this exact same thing when he started aging.  He’d jump up, kind of flump against the side of the mattress, then slide back down to the floor.  When you’re in bed, sound asleep, it is VERY startling and it will instantly wake you up.  Even though I can’t hear anything at night – he could have been barking at me, for all I know – I immediately woke up when I felt the impact against the bed.  That’s how it felt when Sabrina started doing it, even though she’s much smaller than Toby.

For a while I’d just wake up, get out of bed and pick her up.  (She likes to sleep between me and Dave, with her head and paws on the left side of my pillow, above my head.)  Then I mentioned it to Dave, and he engineered a brilliant solution:  he brought up the hassock from downstairs.  It’s about six inches shorter than the bed, the perfect height for Beanie to jump onto.  As he placed the hassock at the end of the bed, he sighed and said, “I’ll bet I forget this is here and trip over it in the middle of the night.”

Guess what happened the night before last?  Poor Dave.  Hopefully his toes will survive until he gets used to the new bedroom furniture.

* * *

I have just a little, bitty pet peeve to sound off about:  food portion sizes.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a recipe boasting something like ‘Only 279 calories per portion!’, then you read the recipe and see they’ve divided it into seven miniscule portions.  THAT DOES NOT HELP.  Either you eat the one tiny portion and a million other things to keep from starving, or you eat four tiny ‘portions’ in order to get a decent amount of food, feel satisfied, and eat nearly 900 calories instead.  It’s crazy.

I was already aware of that trick on packaged food – you’d see, I don’t know, something like one bean burrito in a package, read the calories (“Oh, 300 calories, not too bad”) and then realize it says there’s two portions in the one-burrito package.  So you eat the whole burrito, for 600 calories, and feel kind of piggish because damn, you ate twice the serving size.

Recipes, though, are just as bad.  I just made a recipe that consisted of some veggies and eight ounces of pasta.  We don’t have soup or salad with dinner, and with a pasta meal we don’t have a side dish – that’s it.  Dave might have a piece of bread with pasta, but I usually forgo it.  I know one serving of pasta is two ounces (ridiculously small) but we usually eat eight ounces of pasta between the two of us – sometimes we have leftovers if there’s a lot of extra stuff mixed in.  I looked at this recipe and saw it was calculated at NINE SERVINGS.  Less than two ounces per person.  And it’s meant to be the main dish of the meal.  I call bullshit.

I have to recalculate just about every recipe I make, and turn it into a normal-human-being portion size.  I have my ways of saving calories – a little less cheese, plain fat-free yogurt instead of sour cream, less butter, less oil – and the calories become manageable while the food stays tasty.  I would rather eat one 600 calorie portion that will fill me up.

I know it’s not that big of a deal, and I know it’s a scam the recipe sites use to make things look low-calorie, and I know how to get around it.  But I don’t want to get around it.  I want them to stop being idiots.

Okay – I’ve unfolded my arms and stopped scowling.  I feel better now.  I’m off to make some creamy zucchini soup for lunch … using the recipe that I’ve changed to four servings instead of six.

On Making Pies and Doing Math in My Head

Dave and I were grocery shopping for Thanksgiving yesterday, and I needed heavy cream.  It’s not something I usually buy but I don’t count calories on Thanksgiving, so there I was, peering at the carton of whipping cream and trying to do math in my head.  “Hey hon, how much is a half pint?”

Dave looked up from the dairy case, thought for a moment, and then walked over.  Taking the little carton from my hand, he said, “Oh, there — it’s 236 milliliters.”

I tilted my head and gave him my best, “What you talkin’ about, Willis?” look.  “HONEY.  If I knew how much 236 milliliters was, would I be asking you this question?!  How many cups are in a half pint?”

Dave laughed.  “Well, it’s one cup, see?”  He turned the carton over and over, then said, “Well, huh, I guess it doesn’t say.  But it’s one cup.”

“Why don’t they just put ONE CUP on here instead of a half pint?!”  I shook my head in wonderment and placed the carton in the shopping cart.  One of these days I’m going to associate ‘half pint’ with one cup instead of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Things are gearing up to be busy here, and as I made my pie crusts yesterday I started thinking about this entry from almost a year ago.  I’m going to repost it here today; I think it’s a good time of the year for it.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

* * * *

Either last year or the year before, I can’t remember, I set a goal to learn how to make pie crust.  I knew it was simple ingredient-wise, but something in the actual technique just eluded me.

Every now and then I’d make my own crust, and it was okay…nothing to write home about.  I’d flop it into my dish and smash in all the pieces that broke off so that they actually covered the surface of the dish.  It made a huge mess and was basically a pain in the ass and, to me, it didn’t taste any better than a store-bought pie crust.  Why go to all the bother?

I make a couple of savory dishes that use pie crust (chicken pot pie, sombrero pie) and we like fruit pies as well, so I make pie crust often enough that it started to bother me that I couldn’t conquer this simple recipe.  I mean … flour, water, a fat of some kind, and salt (sometimes sugar).  Why is it so hard?

So anyway, I set this goal:  I was not going to be afraid of pie crust anymore.  Every time I read about people succeeding in their pie crust endeavors, they would say you need to practice.  After a while you get the feel of it.  That makes sense, so I decided I would not buy any more pie crust.  I would make all of them, and I would learn from my mistakes, and I would not give up.

And so it goes.  I did some reading to figure out what recipe might become my go-to recipe.  What fats are better:  all butter, all shortening, all lard, or a mix?  I tried them all to see what tasted better.  As I did this, I worked on my technique.  Did I find it easier to mix everything by hand, or did I prefer doing it in the food processor?

It was slow going, folks.  I made a lot of pie crusts that were, um, interesting.  I learned that I need some shorter countertops in our next house because, at barely 5’1”, I can’t get the leverage I need to work the fats into the flour by hand.  (I would often take the bowl and pastry cutter over to the kitchen table, which is 6-8” shorter than the countertops.)  That’s why I avoid anything that involves kneading or rolling things out – Dave makes all the bread, and sometimes I need to get a step stool out when I roll out the pie crust.  Frustrating!

But I didn’t give up.  I chose my food processor as my preferred mixing method.  The pie crusts slowly got better, and I narrowed my recipes down to two and then one, which was simple and quick.  I fairly quickly eschewed shortening in favor of butter and leaf lard.  I did a lot of reading on lard, an ingredient that used to make me gag when I thought of it.  I found out the grocery store lard is very different (and very bad for you!) compared to lard that you render yourself (or buy from someone who renders it).  We tried rendering lard from regular pork fat, which wasn’t bad, and then we happened to find a local meat packing place that had ever-elusive leaf lard for a really good price.  Dave and I were shocked to find out how easy it was (and inexpensive!) to render our own leaf lard, especially after we researched prices and locations to buy it already-rendered.

In November, I was getting ready to make an impromptu apple pie and a King Arthur Flour catalog happened to be lying on the counter.  There was a recipe for pie crust inside and I figured, what the heck … I’ll give this a try since it’s right here.  I’d had months and months of pie crust success, and it was going to my head a bit.  I got started and right off I noticed that their recipe used less fat in relation to flour than my usual recipe.  It didn’t stop me though; after all, King Arthur Flour had to have a good pie crust recipe, right?!  So I went along, and as I worked the fat into the flour I could tell something was wrong.  I should have just added more butter and lard but nah, I stubbornly pressed on.  I added the amount of ice water the recipe called for and still just had a big floury mound.  I finally added about four times the water in the recipe before I could get it to hold together.  The kitchen was a mess from all the fussing I was doing with this dough, I was frustrated and pissed off, and I had a bad feeling as I slung the round Saran-wrap covered disks into the fridge to chill.

When it came time to roll out the crust, I really knew something was off.  All that practice was paying off, to the point where I could just feel the way the dough should be as I rolled it out.  The texture was wrong, it was too stiff … hoo boy.  I still made the pie, but I warned Dave that we might be picking out the filling and tossing the crust in the garbage when we ate it.

My friends, it was the worst pie crust I’ve ever made in my life.  It was a shining example of how truly bad a pie crust could be.  We could barely cut through it with a knife, much less a fork.  You had to vigorously chomp down and tear the crust like a wild animal just to get a bite.  It was bad.

I really needed that, you know?  I needed to see how much I’d learned in my pie crust education, and I needed to realize it was better to trust my instincts than to just blindly accept what I knew was probably not right.  I knew that I’d finally reached that point where I could tell how a pie crust dough should look and behave.  I went back to my tried and true recipe.

So last night, New Years Eve 2012, I made an apple pie.  I had another new recipe, one that came at the end of a very informative article on why pie crust behaves the way it does, how to achieve the flakiness, how and why you want the fat incorporated into the flour.  I liked the article – it made sense – and the recipe appealed to me because it gave the flour quantity by weight rather than cups, which I think is more accurate.  It was just a touch fussier than my go-to recipe but not enough to put me off.  I was wary as I went along, knowing what happened the last time I tried a new pie crust recipe, but as I shaped the two balls into discs to be refrigerated, I knew it would be okay.

That was my best-ever pie crust.  It was what I’ve been working toward all this time – flaky and tender and delicious.  It confirms that I will never again say that store-bought pie crust is just as good as homemade.  Practice makes perfect.  (Or pretty darn good, anyway.)

Here’s to 2013 and more perseverance, more knowledge, and reaping the good rewards they bring.

We call this one 'Angry Pie'

We call this one ‘Angry Pie’

Canning Food – A Neophyte’s Perspective

My first exposure to canning came early in my relationship with Dave.  He’s from Michigan, and every fall we took the kids apple picking in his home state.  (He was still living there until early 2000 so originally we’d go to his apartment in Buchanan and travel to local orchards from there.)  The kids were always enthusiastic and we’d bring back huge quantities of apples.

The first year, as we stood in the kitchen surrounded by sacks and boxes of apples, I realized we could not possibly eat enough fresh apples, apple pie or apple crisp to get through them all before they went bad.  Dave, however, didn’t even blink an eye.  The next day he put us all to work, peeling and slicing apples.  Then he made applesauce.

Up ’til then, I was a Motts girl.  It really never occurred to me that you could make your own applesauce; why would you, when you could buy it in the store?  Then we tasted Dave’s applesauce.  The kids went NUTS and I was just stunned into silence, it was that good.  We probably could have finished all his applesauce between the four of us, but he took it a step further and brought up canning jars from our candle workshop.  (Clean jars, not ones we’d made candles in!)  He set to work canning all but one quart of applesauce, and at the end of the weekend we had enough applesauce and apple slices canned to last us until the following autumn.

I didn’t participate in the canning; he kind of shooed me out of the kitchen and I was only too happy to oblige.  Like gardening, I figured this was his domain.  It felt a little like witchcraft, with the boiling cauldron and possibility of grave bodily harm if done incorrectly.  Better him than me!

Canning wasn’t something he did every fall, but he’d pull the equipment out every few years and can some goodies.  Once we started gardening more (a few years ago) he started canning tomatoes every year in late August or September.  The tomatoes were really a godsend – the flavor was incredible, and we use store-bought canned tomatoes ALL the time so we went through our home-canned tomatoes fairly quickly.

Around the start of August this year, Dave got that gleam in his eye and started talking about all the things he wanted to make with our tomatoes, canning-wise.  I had tried to get more involved with the garden this year, but it just isn’t my thing; my participation pretty much involved helping pick out the seeds we ordered, and helping with the initial seed planting in little peat pots.  Dave took over from there and I, having lost interest at that point, was only too happy to let him.

But canning … canning is more on the cooking spectrum, and I love to cook.  I realized this might be something we could do together, something I wouldn’t wimp out on less than halfway through.  So I told Dave I wanted him to teach me all about canning this year.  No shooing me out of the kitchen!

We stopped at Goodwill and I was lucky enough to find a great book for just 89 cents –Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda Amendt.  I sat down and read the whole first section, before the recipes, so I could really understand what was involved and why certain procedures were followed.  I started learning the lingo (Headspace!  Hot and cold pack!  Boiling water and pressure canners!) and as I read, I realized it wasn’t as hard as I originally thought.

Speaking as a complete neophyte, here are some of the things I learned:

The lids, those round things with the red rubber around the bottom, don’t get reused.

The rings, the part that screws on, come off after processing is done and you can reuse them on your next batch of jars (after you clean them, of course).

Confession:  I keep calling everything ‘lids’ and confusing Dave.  I’ll say, “Hon, can you get me some lids from the dishwasher?” when I really mean rings.  (The lids stay in a little pot of water on the stove, simmering, and get pulled out one at a time as you need them.)

When we went shopping for our canning supplies this year, I laughed at the idea of using a lid wand (a plastic stick with a magnet at the end).  It was only 97 cents but I thought that was ridiculous.  (Even funnier considering we were buying a pressure canner at the time … 97 cents was a pittance compared to what that cost!)  After our first canning session, I turned to Dave and pleaded, “PLEASE can we go back and buy a lid wand?!”  Ugh, trying to get those slippery lids out with tongs is a huge pain.  Pay the 97 cents and get the lid wand!

You can’t just can your own recipes.  I had no idea how this all worked, but recipes need to be tested for a certain acidity to determine their safety when canning.  It’s worth it to buy a specific book with canning recipes (check Goodwill).  Another great recipe resource is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.  We got our (current) copy when we bought our canning supplies at Wal-Mart; it was less than seven bucks.  Don’t try to mess with the recipes!  You can add dry spices fairly safely, but anything else is playing with fire.  This is not the time to get creative; follow the recipe as it’s written so you don’t mess with the acidity level and accidentally serve a big batch o’ botulism to your dinner guests.

Canning is NOT hard.  I mean, seriously – not rocket science.  You just have to follow the rules; there’s not that many of them and they aren’t hard to remember.  Follow your recipe and you’re good to go – it will tell you everything you need to know, and the best method for processing your food, so there’s no guesswork.

It’s not hard, but it is time-consuming.  More than once so far we’ve had grand plans for the day (we’ll can glazed carrots AND apple slices AND apple jelly AND caramel apple butter wheeee!!) and then after one batch is done, we realize it’s halfway through the afternoon and Dave’s eyes are shutting.  (He’s a morning person and prefers to do all of this earlier in the day; by 2 pm he’s ready for a nap.)

If the recipe says you have to pressure can the jars, you can’t use a boiling water canner.  You also can’t use a regular pressure cooker; it has to specifically be a pressure CANNER.  (The pressure canner, however, can do triple duty:  it serves as a canner, pressure cooker, and boiling water canner.)  Pressure canning is not scary for us; I use a pressure cooker fairly regularly so I’m used to how they work.  It’s just on a bigger scale.

You don’t need fancy equipment to can, so it’s budget-friendly after the first big expenditure to buy what you need.  Since we wanted to can veggies, we did buy the pressure canner (you need that for low-acid foods) and that was our biggest expense, at less than 70 bucks.  We already had a lot of jars and lids/rings, a jar lifter, funnel, food mill, sieve and a water bath canner with rack (found that at Goodwill).  We did buy the bubble remover/headspace measuring tool (we use that ALL the time, and it was only 97 cents) and, eventually, the lid wand.  We picked up some liquid pectin for when we do jams/jellies, and some Fruit Fresh.  Next year all we’ll have to do is buy replacement lids, basically, since we can’t reuse those.

Everyone wants to know how hard it is and I’m here to tell you, it’s so easy to can your own food.  If you can set aside a block of time on a weekend, you’re good to go.  Give yourself 30 minutes to read up on how it’s done (the Ball Blue Book, again, has all of that info plus the recipes), get some basic supplies and give it a shot!  It’s a great feeling to see all those jars when you’re done, to know exactly what’s gone into each one; even better if it’s food you grew in your own garden, but we’ve taken advantage of great prices on bulk local produce when it’s in season and canned that as well.

And homemade ketchup?  OMG.  It tastes SO good.  We made that last weekend and I was kind of thinking I probably wouldn’t like the way it tasted, with my picky tendencies.  I sampled some after we were done filling the jars and I couldn’t get over how delicious it was.  (I’m deliberately adding roasted potatoes to our dinner menu tonight so we can have ketchup with them!)  Also, the faux pineapple recipe, where you peel and dice zucchini and then can it in pineapple juice and lemon juice?  Tastes exactly like pineapple.  It even feels like pineapple when you’re chewing.  We highly recommend that if you’re drowning in zucchini and want to put some up for the winter months.  It’s delicious!

Today we made glazed carrots; our apple plans got pushed to tomorrow (Dave is napping as I type this).  So far in the past few weeks we’ve canned applesauce, green beans, tomatoes, ketchup, faux pineapple and glazed carrots.  We’re canning barbeque sauce tomorrow morning, then moving on to the apples:  slices (for pies and crumbles and such), jelly and caramel apple butter.  Next weekend we should have more tomatoes so we’re going to try a hot pack with those, since they’re paste/roma tomatoes and should hold their shape okay.

The fruits of last weekend's labor:  Ketchup (three pint jars in front, still with lids because they'd just come out of the canner); faux pineapple; tomatoes (lurking in the back)

The fruits of last weekend’s labor: Ketchup (three pint jars in front, with rings still on because they’d just come out of the canner); faux pineapple; tomatoes (lurking in the back).

Ironically, most places recommend starting with a basic jam (strawberry is popular) and I have yet to make jam of any kind!

If you’re like me and really like to study up on something before you start, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a great, FREE online course called ‘Preserving Food at Home:  A Self- Study.’  Sign up at https://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/food/nchfp_elc/ and then wait a few days; they’ll send you an email with login information.  I’m on the third section right now and I love it!

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Testing Recipes

I’ve mentioned before that we test recipes for Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s not as glamorous as it sounds – totally voluntary, no payment or glory or anything.  I just thought it sounded like fun; it would give me a chance to maybe learn some new cooking techniques and try some new ingredients, since I’m trying to reform my picky-eating ways.

It was fairly easy to join; I just watched their Twitter feed until they announced they were looking for new recipe testers, and I applied via the link they provided.  Within a couple days they were welcoming me to the team.

Every now and then, they send me an email with a recipe to test.  There’s a link to a survey that you fill out after you test the recipe, as well as a link to the recipe itself.  They ask that you not share the recipe when it’s in the testing phase, although once it’s been published you can share as long as you give them credit.  They ask you not to test the recipe if it’s something you normally wouldn’t like (and I avoid anything with fish, since Dave is allergic to it).  They give you a deadline, usually 2 or 3 weeks away, and ask that you test the recipe and fill out the survey before that date.

So that’s how it works.  Pretty simple!  So far I’ve probably tested 2/3 of the recipes they send me.  I learned the hard way to take a pass on recipes that are loaded with unusual ingredients.  At first I was drawn to them, since one of my goals is to broaden my culinary horizons.  After a couple recipes that cost me around $20 in ingredients that are now languishing in my pantry, I’m now more discerning in the recipes I test.

Sometimes the ingredients are new-to-me but not expensive and/or hard to find, like the bean dip that used pink beans.  I’d never heard of them, but there they were, cheap and easy to find, right there with the canned pinto and navy beans.  (The recipe also called for frozen lima beans, which I HATE; they were great in the dip (mashed up, thankfully) but the rest of the bag hung out in the freezer until The Great Derecho/Almost-Four-Day Power Outage/Heatwave of 2012, when we lost everything in our fridge and freezer.  I was not sad to see them go.)

Usually what happens is the recipe will call for a miniscule amount of a really expensive ingredient that you can only get in a big size.  Or a miniscule amount of an ingredient that I can’t figure out what to use in anything else.  Perfect example:  I have a bag of cracked wheat, sitting in my pantry for over a year, from a really horrible vegetarian chili that we tested.  The chili was so bad that I’m scared to even look up ways to use cracked wheat in other recipes.

Sometimes I just can’t find the ingredient they’re calling for.  Off the top of my head, I can remember this happening with a specific type of vinegar and also French green lentils.  We shop at an international produce/grocery store that has just about everything, but I could not find either of those things.  I’m not willing to drive 40 minutes to Whole Foods, so I crossed those recipes off my list.

Normally I would just substitute that ingredient for something similar that I could get my hands on.  When I’m testing a recipe, though, I follow it religiously:  no ingredient substitutions; I time all the steps to see if they match what the recipe says; and I make sure the pans and skillets and such are all the same size and type called for in the recipe.  (Case in point:  I just got a cheese soufflé recipe to test that I had to pass on because we don’t have a soufflé pan.  Plus, the cheeses were Parmesan and Gruyere, and I absolutely detest both of them.)

Usually we like the recipes we test, and we’ve kept quite a few.  I tested an amazing filled peanut butter cookie and delicious Italian Florentine cookie, the aforementioned bean dip, pan roasted potatoes, berry trifle, steak and, oh, the cauliflower soup with little vinegar-soaked roasted cauliflower pieces as a garnish.  I really went out on a limb with that one, because although I’m fine with vinegar as an ingredient, I don’t eat it ‘raw’ (as in a salad dressing, for example).  The smell just gags me, and I can’t get past it.  But I really wanted to do the whole recipe, including the garnish, so I started out with just two little florets floating on top of my soup.  The vinegar smell was overpowering and I was afraid it would make me hate the soup, so I ate the florets first to get them out of the way.  And I loved them!  (And went back for more).  I couldn’t believe it.  Why does vinegar have to smell so bad?!  I would probably eat it more if it smelled better.

We tested a few recipes that were good but just such a hassle that we would never make them again.  One of those was for turkey burgers, which required us to buy a turkey leg and cut it into pieces and then put them in the food processor with butter to make the ‘ground turkey.’  The butter completely coated the food processor, it took Dave 30-45 minutes to cut up the damn turkey leg, and the other ingredients I had to mix in just didn’t want to mix – the butter repelled them.  We finally got the burgers made and they were delicious, but I had to report that I’d never make it again (and why).

By the way, when that recipe finally got published, it was nothing like the recipe I tested.  I noticed right away that the butter was gone (I can’t remember what they ended up using in the final recipe, maybe gelatin).  I don’t always see the final, published version of the recipes I test, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been changed in some way from the version that I had.  Even the ones that I gave rave reviews – which makes me wonder if other people complained about things that I thought were perfectly yummy.

Now, some of these recipes are duds.  It happens rarely, but for some reason, the vegetarian recipes I’ve tested have not been good.  It seems like they really want to make it seem NOT vegetarian (the cracked wheat was supposed to simulate the mouthfeel of ground beef, for instance) and it ends up being too convoluted.  After we worked all afternoon on the vegetarian chili recipe (and had a huge vat of it to show for our efforts), Dave took one taste, made a face and spit in the garbage.  I tasted it and thought it was pretty icky but not necessarily inedible.  Dave, however, was grievously offended…and he’s not even the picky eater in the family!  He’s like Mikey…he’ll eat anything.  We decided to toss it; there was no way it was all going to be eaten.

And then a couple nights ago, I tested a vegetarian bean enchilada recipe.  We have a couple of bean burrito recipes that we really like, so I thought it sounded promising.  I showed the recipe to Dave, and he immediately agreed that we should test it; he especially liked the ‘mole-type sauce’ that we were going to make to go with it, since he’s never had mole sauce.  (Neither have I.)

I should have known, just by reading the ingredients and the recipe steps, that I wasn’t going to like it.  There were some unusual ingredients that we don’t normally keep on hand (pumpkin seeds, guajillo chiles, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce) but that didn’t deter me because I can think of lots of other things I would use those (leftover) ingredients in.  Mainly the enchilada consisted of the sauce (pureed smooth in a blender) and a can of pinto beans.  There was nothing else inside – no fresh veggies, no cheese (other than what was blended into the sauce).  As we cooked the beans and sauce together, most of the beans smushed and it was just a brown puree-type filling with no other texture.  Because of the bittersweet chocolate in the sauce, it was an unappealing dark brown color and it truly looked like we were smearing the contents of a baby diaper on the corn tortillas.  But we kept on, following the recipe exactly, baking the enchiladas in a bath of the nasty brown sauce.  We pulled them out and topped them with a chopped scallion from our garden (finally, a fresh vegetable, and some COLOR!) and some crumbled queso fresco, which was a new cheese for both of us.  (We loved it, thankfully – this was one good outcome from the recipe, since we now have a new cheese to enjoy.)

We sat down to eat, and I wasn’t optimistic but I tried to hide it.  I jokingly said, “Hopefully they’ll taste better than they look!”  I took a bite, chewed, and contemplated the flavor:  muddy and murky were the two words that came to mind.  There was no texture (beyond a slight crunch from the ends of the corn tortilla, although most of it was soggy from the sauce on top and bottom).  The flavor was bitter and just flat-out horrible.  I looked at Dave and said, “You try it.  If you like them, I’ll finish mine.  But otherwise I’m going to recommend that we order a pizza for dinner.”

Dave took a bite and started chewing.  And chewing.  And chewing.  After he finally swallowed that bite with a big gulp, he said, “Um, yeah…let’s order a pizza.  These are terrible.”

It was a wasted hour in the kitchen, meticulously testing each step of this recipe, but that’s what we signed up for so we were just bemused.  I gave this recipe the worst review I’ve ever bestowed, and recommended that they ditch the sauce altogether and just use fresh vegetables with the beans.  (Of course, that makes it a burrito and not an enchilada, but whew, the sauce was bad!)  I’m kind of hoping I get to see the final recipe when it’s published; I’d love to see if there are big changes.  I have to wonder if I’m the only one who had such a bad result.

Now I’m eyeing the zucchini lining my counter, thanks to our bountiful garden.  Hopefully they’ll be sending some tester zucchini recipes my way soon…

How I Learned to Stop Ordering and Love to Cook

I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I wasn’t always that good at it.  I was enthusiastic, yes, but I didn’t have enough practice or years of tasting behind me.  I cooked here and there (mainly sweets) when I lived at home, and I was just shy of 21 when I got married the first time.  I was still a very picky eater; corn and green beans were the only vegetables I didn’t consider to be suspicious.

I copied some recipes from my mom and had a few things I made regularly for dinner.  The first cookbook I remember buying was The Frugal Gourmet – I liked the word ‘frugal’ in the title.  I learned how to make a decent Chicken Marsala and how to make chicken and beef stock.  I followed recipes precisely.

For all those years, cooking was just a thing I did – I was working full time and didn’t feel like experimenting or devoting a lot of time to cooking once I got home.  Then the kids came along, and dinner became an afterthought.  Once I became a single mom, working full time, dinner for me was always after the kids were fed and in bed, and it often reflected my exhaustion – usually a bowl of cereal or soup.

It wasn’t until the kids grew older, I was remarried and working from home that I started getting interested in food beyond what I absolutely needed to do to keep my family nourished.  I have to give some credit to food blogs and cooking shows – I was introduced to so many ingredients I’d never heard of or never thought to cook with.  Things like fennel, jicama, leeks, kale…and I have to sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until just a couple years ago that I cooked with fresh mushrooms, broccoli, squash or cauliflower.  (I told you I was picky!)  The internet filled in when I wasn’t sure how to chop or prepare a certain vegetable.  (Bok choy, I’m looking at you.)

I can’t tell you how many nights I was prepared to make a certain meal and then realized I was missing just one crucial ingredient.  Those were the nights we ended up ordering takeout.  (A local pasta/pizza place kept us fed for a few very busy years in the early days of the candle business.  They’ve since gone out of business, probably because we stopped ordering from them when I started cooking more.)  There were also nights I planned on making something that I just couldn’t even consider cooking when the day rolled around, usually because it was just too hot to cook.

We were starting to order out just a little too much for my comfort, and I was getting frustrated by the many times my plans to cook were thwarted by missing ingredients.  I did get more creative, learning what I could and couldn’t substitute…but sometimes you just NEED that item and nothing else will do.  So I decided it was time to get more organized.

What has saved my sanity over the past few years, helped our budget and kept me from recipe burnout and the What the heck should I make for dinner tonight? conundrum is this:  A spreadsheet of menus.  It took me maybe 30 minutes to initially put together.  I sat down with my cookbook and went through all the recipes I knew my family liked.  I made sections on the spreadsheet for Beef, Chicken, Grill, Soup, Pasta, and Other.  In each section I typed in the names of the recipes that used that main ingredient.  (‘Other’ has things like homemade pizza, vegetarian dishes, grilled cheese, breakfast for dinner.)  To the left of the recipes, I have the days of the week listed, Monday through Sunday, and a space next to each day where I type in the recipe I’m planning to make.

To plan menus, I open the spreadsheet and I open the weather forecast in my browser.  I take a look at the temperatures coming up and plan my weekly menu accordingly.  I also have a tab in that spreadsheet that lists all the extra things I have in my freezer – any veggies, meat, etc. that I already have, so I know what I have on hand to work with.  If it’s going to be warm but not warm enough to have the A/C on, I pick something that we can cook on the grill, in the slow cooker or oven…basically anything except the gas stovetop, which heats our house up like a bonfire.  If it’s going to be really cold, I plug in something warm and hearty like chili, beef stew or soup.  I alternate so we aren’t eating chicken three days in a row, and so that at least two or three days are meat-free.  Once I nail down the menu for the week, I type a shopping list in another tab of the spreadsheet.  By now I have a lot of my recipes memorized, but if not, I reference the recipe and check my cabinets/fridge to make sure I have what I need.  Anything missing goes on the shopping list, along with any staples we’re getting low on.

Since I’ve started this, I almost never have a night when I either don’t feel like cooking or can’t make what I planned.  I get those meals set ahead of time and don’t have to think about what to make for dinner on a daily basis.  The most I might do is switch some meals around if the weather changes drastically or we have something planned that’s going to prevent me from having the time to cook.  If I know we have a busy afternoon planned, I’ll plug in a crockpot recipe so I can get dinner started in the morning before we go out.  I always have the ingredients I need on hand, and I don’t end up with three bottles of vanilla because I forgot I already had some in the pantry.  (Not anymore, anyway.)

If things start getting boring, I check around on my favorite cooking/recipe sites and add some new recipes to the mix.  In my quest to try more vegetables and ingredients I’ve never cooked with before, I’ve come across some recipes that are now family favorites.  I also signed up to test recipes for Cooks Illustrated, as a way to make myself try new things and practice new cooking techniques.

A big part of what makes cooking so fun is the appreciation of my family.  The kids aren’t living at home now but when they did, they never hesitated to rave about a meal they liked (and they still do this when they’re here for dinner).  It makes me feel good when they request certain meals; I know now that they have fond memories of mom’s cooking, and that they look forward to the things I make.  Dave is my biggest fan, really.  He will just stop eating, look at me and say, “This is AMAZING.”  He’ll rave about the flavor or the meal in general.  Positive reinforcement really works…it’s so much more fun to cook for someone who absolutely appreciates it and lets me know.

I know his praise is genuine because he doesn’t hesitate to tell me when he doesn’t like something; he would never lie and tell me something was tasty just to keep from hurting my feelings.  I always warn him when we’re trying a new recipe, “Tell me the truth now, because if you like it then it’s going in the repertoire and you’ll be eating it again!”  In other words, if you secretly hate it, you’re going to be stuck eating it again in the future unless you speak up.

I think the biggest complaint I hear from friends and family who don’t like to cook is doing the dishes that it creates.  For whatever reason, doing dishes just doesn’t bother me.  I find it kind of relaxing.  I tend to clean as I go, and Dave is almost always there with me in the kitchen (he’s a great sous-chef) so between the two of us, we have most of the dishes cleaned up before we even sit down to eat.  Sometimes we do the whole ‘whoever doesn’t cook is the one who does the dishes’ thing, but since we generally work together on a meal, we work together on doing dishes too.

We don’t always eat fancy, but we do always eat good and yummy.  Tonight it’s just homemade sloppy joes (I used to use Manwich until I found a simple, delicious recipe that puts it to shame) with potato wedges roasted in the oven.  In the summer, we’ll be eating zucchini and tomatoes in almost everything, as long as our plants thrive.  Some days we just throw together a scramble (eggs, diced potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, maybe mushrooms) and call it dinner.  Sometimes it’s lasagna – something that seems so fancy but is really very simple to put together.  For all of it, though, the key for me is organization.  I can’t make that lasagna if there’s no ricotta cheese in the fridge, and the scramble isn’t possible without eggs.

If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, or you just aren’t that into meal planning, I can highly recommend finding a recipe site that lets you search by ingredients.  (I know my favorite site, Allrecipes, has this feature, and I’m sure there are others out there too.)  If you’re feeling like having a chicken dish with a few key ingredients, you just plug those in and you’ll get a bunch of recipes to choose from.  Anything to make dinner time easier, right?

By the way, I found the homemade sloppy joe recipe because I didn’t have Manwich on hand…so sometimes it works out well when an ingredient is missing!

The Runny Egg Yolk Experiment

“You know, we really should eat this bread today.  I made it a while ago.”  Dave pulled the bread keeper towards him and brandished the loaf in my direction.  There wasn’t much left, maybe one-fourth, but he was right – it had been sitting there for a while.

“French toast?  Um…maybe Toad in the Hole?”

Before he finished speaking, I was waving my hands at him in excitement.  “How did you know I was going to say that?!  Oh my God, I was totally going to suggest that!”  The weird thing is, we’ve never ever had Toad in the Hole for breakfast (or Egg in the Hole, or whatever else it’s called – where you cut a hole out of the middle of a piece of bread, warm some butter in a skillet, then crack an egg into the hole in the bread and let it cook on both sides).  Dave has talked about it before, so I assumed it was something he’s eaten in the past, and I’ve seen my mom make it (and seen it featured on Pioneer Woman’s cooking page).  But I’ve never had it in my life, and it was just so strange that we both happened to be thinking of it this morning.

Turns out that Dave has never made (or eaten) it either, which kind of shocked me.  It just totally seems like the kind of thing he would eat.  So I glanced quickly at Pioneer Woman’s page to make sure we had the right idea, we grabbed the biscuit cutter to cut the holes, and we had enough bread for me to have one slice and Dave to have two.  Then we discussed strategy.

“Now, I want you to cook mine long enough so the yolk isn’t runny.  Just leave it so that it cooks all the way through,” I instructed.  I’ve always been completely grossed out by a runny yolk.  Partly because it just looks like an uncooked egg, which makes me think salmonella.  Partly because the texture thing is just icky…you have this solid section and then a totally liquid section and ewww.  Dave knows this is one of my food quirks so he wasn’t surprised by my request.  He regularly makes fried eggs with runny yolk for himself and he knows if he’s making me an egg, I like it cooked all the way through.

He used the cast iron skillet which can be tricky temperature-wise – it really holds the heat once it gets hot and it’s easy to overcook things if you don’t turn the flame way down.  He started my bread and then cracked in the egg; I added some salt and pepper to the top and also tossed my circle of bread into the pan because I wanted it toasted too.  Dave shook his head at my ‘goofiness’ and then went to flip over my toast circle.  It was already dark brown on the one side, so he flipped my Toad in the Hole and started cursing because he thought it was overcooked.

He turned down the flame and kept cooking until things were starting to get a little smoky.  He was sure he’d burnt the second side (he didn’t) and started offering to make me another one, but I reassured him that it was fine.  It’s kind of like when you make that first pancake and it takes a while to get that groove going between a little too brown/burnt and just right.

So we sat down to eat, and as I cut into the middle of my egg, the yolk started oozing out.  It wasn’t like a gushing river, it was kind of thick, but it was definitely not set.  “Hey look, I have a runny yolk!”  I held up my plate for Dave to see.  I could see the look on his face; he thought I was going to start freaking out, and he was getting ready to apologize and say he’d make me another.  Before he could speak, I added, “I’m kind of excited…I’m going to try it!”

We watch a lot of cooking shows, and at some point almost all of them feature someone cutting into a poached egg and raving about the yolk as it runs all over the food it’s served with.  I’ve seen this enough times that it started to make me curious, wondering if I’ve been missing out on something amazing.  I wasn’t curious enough to deliberately make myself an egg with a runny yolk, but since I’d been accidentally presented with one I decided to make an adventure of it.

So I dipped my toast circle into the yolk, dragged it around and took a bite.  And it was good.  I mean, my eyes weren’t rolling up into my head in ecstasy, but I also wasn’t gagging and regretting my decision to be adventurous.  It was fine and pretty yummy, kind of like having a little gravy or something.  Not a gross, slimy texture the way I imagined it would be.  Not a super strong flavor, either – definitely nothing offensive.  I ate it all, happily, and gave Dave a high five over my “tried something new today” accomplishment.

I’m still a picky eater, but I’m slowly making advances.  On Mother’s Day we were at my mom’s for dinner, and she ordered a few pizzas.  Plain cheese for the kids; for the adults, she got one with half pepperoni and half sausage, and one with fresh spinach, mushrooms, Roma tomatoes and a mixture of mozzarella, Romano and cheddar cheese.  I had one piece from each of the ‘adult’ pizzas on my plate and my brother could not believe I was eating the spinach/mushroom/tomato pizza.  He’d been traumatized by my pickiness on family vacations, having to pull over and wait at Burger King or McDonald’s while they made me a plain hamburger because I wouldn’t eat one with anything other than ketchup.  (Actually, I still eat my hamburgers that way.)  The look on his face when I told him I actually like fresh tomato, spinach and mushrooms on my pizza (as well as onions, green peppers…pretty much anything but anchovies) was priceless!

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