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Finally- Homemade Macaroni and Cheese!

It has taken me YEARS to find this recipe.  I have tried many homemade mac and cheese recipes over the years in my quest to find THE recipe.   I have tried simply winging it, I’ve tried stove-top, baked, and crock-pot recipes.  Yet none of them would convert my mac-and-cheese loving son to the homemade variety.  Always, when he requested macaroni and cheese for a meal, he would add a qualifier.  You know, the shells and cheese, Mom.  Meaning his favorite macaroni and cheese not only was from a box, it was the kind made with Velveeta- the cheese that is not that different from plastic.   Every once in a while I would buy the blue box to make a quick lunch for the kids, and while they ate it, they never really cheered or got excited about mac and cheese.  Honestly, I would take dehydrated powdered cheese over plastic cheese sauce, but neither one was really a good option…

In my quest last year to remove as much fake stuff from our diet as possible, I stopped buying the occasional box of shells and cheese, but somewhere along the line I decided it would make a fine side dish for whatever I made that day.  So I bought some and brought it home.  Several hours later I had some very serious and awful digestive issues, and I very clearly knew that it was a direct result of that non-food hitting my system, and I swore never to buy it again. And more importantly, to never feed it to my kids again.   I began in earnest to hunt down recipes, but just wasn’t finding something I hadn’t already tried!

I did manage to narrow down that Zander was not a fan of baked mac and cheese. While that will forever be my favorite, as I love the crispy toppings, the crispy toppings did not work for my buddy.  He wanted creamy and extra cheesy.   Surely this was possible?

Turns out it is definitely possible.  Andy was gone one evening for dinner, and the kids requested macaroni and cheese.  I don’t even remember what we had with it, but I do recall sitting down at the computer, determined to find THE recipe that would rock our mac-n-cheese world.   I spent quite a bit of time on different recipe sites looking at recipe after recipe, trying to determine what would qualify it as perfect homemade macaroni and cheese?  And then I saw a picture.  I saw macaroni literally drowning in cheese sauce, and I knew at that moment that I had met a contender.   Allrecipes came to my rescue with a recipe created by Pam Anderson- I’ve actually made recipes from her before, and they turned out pretty good.  I read the recipe, and then I read a ton of reviews to see what other people changed, and decided this was the one.  Even better?  I had everything on hand.

I followed the recipe for Creamy Macaroni and Cheese pretty closely.   For the first time making it, I decided I did not need servings for ten people, and opted to cut the recipe in half.   The only real change I made was that I did not use the amount of Dijon mustard called for- I cut that in half again, using just one teaspoon of Dijon mustard.  It was the perfect amount.  It added a discernible tang, but you could not identify where it came from.   The recipe came together quickly enough- I had the sauce made before the macaroni was finished boiling up, and I knew I had a winner if it would maintain its creamy texture.

I loved the magic that using Parmesan and Sharp Cheddar together did- I did use Sharp Cheddar cheese instead of the Extra Sharp called for, as that’s what I have on hand.  Plus, here in Wisconsin, extra sharp is pretty sharp, I wanted a kid-friendly mac and cheese.    It was cheesy, but not heavy in the least.  The evaporated milk kept it creamy without separating at all, and overall, it was the kind of macaroni and cheese that you keep going back for another bite, because you cannot believe how good it is.    I found that the half batch was the perfect amount for our family, so that is the recipe I’m going to share at the bottom.  As a side dish, this would make about six generous servings.  As a main dish, maybe closer to four.

I made this again a week later when Andy was home.  This time I added 3/4 of a pound of macaroni to the sauce, and interestingly, I found that it was better with the original 1/2 a pound of pasta.  Specifically, as a leftover.  My kids actually ate leftovers!  This macaroni and cheese, re-heated in a microwave made a perfect lunch from leftovers, and the extra cheesy sauce is what made it work so well.  So if you’re planning to eat it all, you can use a little more than the 1/2 pound of pasta if you’d like.  Actually, if you prefer a less saucy mac and cheese, by all means, make a full pound of pasta for this amount of sauce.  But as written, it’s spectacular the day you made it, and it’s great as a leftover.  Now if I can only find some large enough thermoses for the kids, this would be the perfect meal for them to take on the road with them.

I have no picture, as I didn’t really think this was a mind-blowing recipe until I made it for the second time and Zander gobbled it down.  I believe I have finally succeeded in beating out that neon orange plastic cheese product.

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound elbow, shell or other bite sized pasta shape
1 (12 fl. ounce)can evaporated milk
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon prepared Dijon mustard
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 pound grated sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese

Directions:

Bring 2 quarts water to a boil in a large pot.  Add salt and pasta, cooking according to package directions until al-dente.  Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the evaporated milk and chicken broth together until hot and steamy- do not boil.  Use a microwave or a small sauce pan.

Melt the butter in an empty pot over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour until fully combined, and then whisk in the hot milk mixture. Continue whisking over the heat until the mixture is thick and bubbly- roughly 3-5 minutes, depending on how your heat is.  Whisk in the mustard, black pepper and Parmesan cheese.  Once fully combined, turn off the heat and stir in the cheddar until fully melted and combined.

Add the drained pasta to the cheese sauce.  Stir together until fully combined- if it’s too thick for your taste, add a small drizzle of milk to thin it a bit.  Serve hot.

 

Purple Sweet Potatoes

I feel like my family does not eat near enough sweet potatoes.  They truly are one of my favorite foods, but I don’t prepare them too often because one person doesn’t like them much.  (It’s interesting how that one person can affect the family dining habits.) Earlier this week I was at the store to pick up some regular potatoes for making scalloped potatoes when I saw the display of sweet potatoes.  I wandered over and considered picking some up when out of the corner of my eye I spied some more exotic varieties.  In particular, the purple ones.  They were priced at only $1.99 per pound, which is a little high, but normal for this particular store.  I hadn’t recalled ever hearing about purple sweet potatoes before- I needed to know about these!  This past summer I got over my fear of eating blue potatoes (yes, I really couldn’t eat them), so why not try these out too? I picked out four of the healthiest looking ones and added them to my New Year’s Eve menu.

I decided to roast them in the oven in their jackets and then mash them afterward.  I wanted to lightly sweeten them and top them with marshmallows- I had this visual in my head of purple potatoes with a crown of white marshmallowy goodness and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

So I poked them with a fork, put them on a baking sheet and popped them in the oven.  Here they are, freshly pierced and ready to cook.

purple pots 1

I baked them for about an hour- which was apparently a touch too long, as one of the potatoes burst their jackets, but I was seriously surprised by how purple they were on the inside.  Like play-dough purple.   And they were insanely sweet.  In a delicious way, but there was no way I was going to add any brown sugar or top with marshmallow.  I added a few pats of butter, a drizzle of milk, and a tiny pinch of cinnamon, salt and pepper, and mashed them up.  Here they are in their serving bowl- I stuck a white handled knife in so you can see how purple these really are.

cooked pots

These really are delicious sweet potatoes.   The sweetest I’ve ever had, and they also had a denser texture- it must be all that sugar, because they were almost sticky.   I will totally purchase these potatoes again when I see them.  My picky child still didn’t like them, but Andy and I loved them, as did Abigail.  Abigail was saddened to learn these would not get their crown of marshmallow, so I allowed her to add a dab of marshmallow cream to the top- she said the flavors went together perfectly.

I will suggest that if you do find these and want to cook them up that you make sure they are on a baking sheet or a layer of foil for baking.  They oozed a lot of purple goo that would have made quite the mess on the oven bottom.   I want to get them again soon and see if they retain that vibrant purple color when boiled, or if they drift closer to a blue tone.   But seriously, as I ate these last night I thought about some crazy potential for these potatoes.  I recently had some amazing red velvet cupcakes where the red dye was actually beet juice, and all I could think about was some delicious sweet potato cupcakes made with these purple potatoes.   I also couldn’t help but think about how purple in fruits and vegetables equals a high level of antioxidant goodness.   These have to be some kind of super food- I wonder why I’ve never heard of them?

Have you ever seen or had these purple sweet potatoes?

 

New Bread For A New Year

I can make my standard sandwich bread with my eyes closed.  I love this bread, and acquired the recipe from my trusty old Joy of Cooking- one of the first cookbooks my mom bought for me.   It’s become the standard by which I measure all homemade bread, yet there are a few things about it that has kept me looking for more.  One is that it deteriorates in quality really quickly.  It’s best eaten the first day it is made, good for sandwiches the second day, but beyond that it’s good for grilled cheese or toast only.   The second thing I have been musing about removing from the bread recipe is the milk.  Now, I agree that the milk enriches the bread with added protein and nutrients, but there are times where I am trying to make a gallon of milk last a few more days, and I hate adding that 1 cup of milk to the bread.  Powdered milk has never been a solution for me, as it’s pricey and I’ve heard such conflicting information about using it.

In all truth, what I’ve really been wanting was to find a way to turn delicious white sandwich bread into a vegan option.  I eat vegan from time to time, and a slice of toast with nut butter makes a great breakfast when I’m eating that way.   There’s nothing worse than commiting to eating vegan for a week and realizing halfway through your sandwich or piece of toast that the bread you are eating contains milk or butter.

I was flipping through one of my Amish cookbooks and looking at the breads.  This happened to be the same book I found the Oatmeal Bread in, and sure enough, there was a recipe for plain old white bread that made two loaves.  Two loaves is a must- if I’m going to go to the trouble to bake bread, it best make more than one loaf!   I read through the recipe- the fact that there was no milk intrigued me- would the bread suffer from it’s omission?   I put a batch together, but as I did so, it occurred to me that 1/3 cup of sugar was a lot of sugar.  The finished bread had an amazing texture!  Even better, it was still soft and delicious the third day after baking.  However, it was really sweet, and we didn’t even really want to finish that second loaf.

So I’ve been tweaking and playing around, and yesterday I perfected the recipe.  It’s perfect.  It makes a great white sandwich bread that is soft and chewy, and it maintains a great texture for three full days.  I have settled on honey as my desired sweetener- I am sure you can use sugar instead if you’d like, but we thought the addition of honey gave the bread a depth in flavor. ( I realize that the honey actually makes the bread non-vegan for someone who is a vegan in every facet of life, but for myself who chooses to eat like a vegan from time to time, I’m good with the honey. ) The recipe also calls for 2 1/2 tablespoons of shortening.  I use my organic palm shortening, but I think you can easily sub in whatever fat you would like.   The un-tweaked recipe called for it to be melted, so even oil would be a fine substitution.  I found that the palm shortening didn’t need to be melted first and could simply be worked into the dough as is.

This is my new standard sandwich bread.  It’s really not that different from my old recipe, but the improvements seem to make a huge difference!  I do plan to play with it just a touch more by swapping out some of the white bread flour for whole wheat flour and finding a good way to do a whole wheat loaf that way.  I need to refresh my whole wheat flour supply, and then I’ll be doing that.  As an added bonus, my previous favorite bread called for two rises plus a third rise in the bread pans.  This recipe skips the second rise- the rising does take a little longer, but it is well worth it.

new bread

Basic White Bread

makes 2 loaves of bread.

1/4 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (or 1 packet)
2 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 tablespoons organic palm shortening
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups warm water
5-6 cups bread flour

In a large mixing bowl, combine 1/4 cup warm water and the yeast.  Let sit for 5 minutes.  Add the honey, shortening, salt and water, and mix well.  Add 3 cups of the bread flour and stir until the dough is smooth.

Now start working in the flour 1/2 cup at a time.  Once it become difficult to work with a spoon, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead by hand, adding flour as needed.  You’ll want to knead for 7-10 minutes total, or until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky.  (If you use sugar instead of honey, this will take less flour.)

Place the dough in a bowl that has been oiled and turn to coat.   Cover the dough and let rise for 2 hours.

Grease two loaf pans with your preferred grease.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide the bread in half, and roll each half into a loaf.  Once shaped, place the loaves in the prepared loaf pans.

Cover, let rise for 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.  Place the bread in the hot oven and bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown.

Cool completely on a rack before slicing.

 

Buh-Bye 2013

Seriously.  And don’t come back.

While this was a spectacular year on the food front here at home with our diligence in seasonal eating, it was not a spectacular year on every other front.  It seemed like every area of our lives was tossed into upheaval at one point or another.   It was a year of moments that we don’t want to relive… ever… And then on top of all those horrible moments, it seemed like those who would be our biggest supporters and cheerleaders decided this was a good time to pile on the life criticism as well.   Honestly, 2013 just was a rough year to get through.

And yet, we DID get through, and not only that, I feel like we passed some major tests with flying colors.  What we’ve learned this year is that when God decides to prune, sometimes He really prunes and the cuts go deep.  But on the other side of that pruning, there is vigorous growth and vibrance, and it really is true that that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.   We absolutely love the life we’ve chosen for our family, and this year completely reinforced our decisions.   To some people looking in from the outside it may not seem so great, but to us, we’re experiencing heaven here on earth.

We’ve survived 2013, and expect only good things for 2014.  2014 is going to be such a year of goodness, and I do hope for a year with a bit more restfulness to it.  For me personally, I am making a resolution to focus on the number TEN.  It may sound like an odd resolution, but the idea of ten has really been speaking to me for the last few days as I roll around what I’d like to change for next year.   How many times do we put off housework that could be done in that ten minute time span we have?  How many times do we just sit and rest for ten minutes?  What are ten food items I’d like to see removed from our household?  What ten food items or vegetables would I like to incorporate more in a healthier lifestyle?  Where can I find that extra ten minutes to do something active.  After I eat a meal, I should wait ten minutes before going for second helpings and give my stomach time to register that it’s full.  Do I really want that snack?  I should take ten minutes to make myself a mug of tea and analyze whether I truly need that snack, or just want something for my mouth to do.   How would my Christmas fund be next year if I could set aside just ten dollars a week?  How much blogging could I get done in just ten minutes?  There are so many places where being mindful of TEN could pay off in big benefits.

So 2014 is going to be the year of TEN.   It’s going to be the best year yet, and I’m looking forward to it.

And You Thought Canning Season Was Over!

Leftover week is going quite well so far.  Last night I made a delicious pot of soup using leftover crudite veggies, turkey, wild rice and frozen corn on the cob.   Lunch the last two days for the kiddos has been leftover BBQ cocktail sausages wrapped in biscuit dough- kind of like pigs in blankets.  Tonight’s leftover remains to be seen.  I really want to do something creative with the mashed potatoes, but so far I’m not coming up with anything too exciting.  If I don’t come up with something soon, it will be squash pancakes for dinner with applesauce and cranberry sauce on the side.

One of my goals for 2013 was to overcome my fear of pressure canning.  Early in the year I splurged and bought myself a Mirro pressure canner.  What frightened me the most about pressure canning was food safety.  With water bath canning you use high acid foods like fruit and tomatoes and add even more acid to ensure their safety on the pantry shelf.  With pressure canning, you are relying on pressure to force out all the air that can trap bad bacteria.  You also have to be insanely precise with recipes- you absolutely may not deviate from a given recipe for pressure canning.  Any deviation to the left or right can cause big bad nasties to grow in those sealed jars. That’s a little scary to me!  Last winter, however, I took a free food safety and canning course through the National Center For Home Preservation and by the time I was finished with the course, I was ready to attempt pressure canning.

It took a little trial and error to figure out exactly how my canner worked, and I honestly could not have figured it out as fast as I did without the help of a few master canners at the Gardenweb forums.  The first thing I pressure canned was a batch of chicken stock, followed closely by a batch of baked beans.  I was instantly hooked!  Except shortly after that our lives were plunged into chaos, and once the garden season emerged, it was back to pulling out the boiling water canner.

But a few weeks ago Andy came down with a rather yucky cold.  At the time, I wished I’d had some good homemade chicken soup on hand, and apologized as I reached into the cupboard and found a lone can of store bought chicken noodle.  Andy was grateful for that, but the more I thought on it, the more I decided I needed some home canned chicken soup on my pantry shelves.   An entire Thursday afternoon was devoted to that process, but I was insanely excited to have 16 pints of homemade chicken soup in the pantry!

Fast forward to this week, and my turkey carcass made a fabulous tasting turkey broth.  I used some last night for soup, but I determined that today I would can up the rest of that delicious stock.  It is cloudy, which I suspect is a result of the apple cider used in my brine.  I can’t think of what else would cause that, but the first batch came out of the canner just a short while ago, and I couldn’t be happier!

turkey stock

I have four more pints in the pressure canner as I write this.  I’m also eyeing up the leftover ham and considering making a ham and bean soup of some kind to put in the pantry as well.  Pressure canning does take considerably more time than firing up the water bath canner.  The stock pictured above needed to be held at pressure for a full 25 minutes- and that doesn’t include the time to get up to pressure, and the cooling time.   A batch of baked beans holds at pressure for a full 90 minutes!

But it is fun, and armed with a pressure canner, all I need now is an endless supply of canning jars and few more reliable sources for recipes for pressure canning.

canner

Thanksgiving Reflections

The best food holiday of the year is already behind us, and just like that, it’s December and Christmas is just three weeks away.  I know the media has been saying that the Christmas shopping season was short, but I didn’t realize just how short until I actually flipped the calendar today.  Yikes!

This year our Thanksgiving celebration landed on Saturday so that all family who could attend was able.  As the week went on, I wasn’t so sure I liked that.  I was a little jealous of people who were discussing their feasts while we dined on chili and party food.  But then Saturday happened.

I kept the meal straightforward and simple.  I could do no cooking ahead this year, as our extra fridge in the basement has been acting up, and while we could put beverages in it, I was not going to put any part of the meal in there due to the fact that at any moment it could stop working.  Our meal consisted of my cider-brined turkey, a simple ham, several sides, and 16 assorted pies for pie hour.

I do still love the concept of Pie Hour.  Instead of lunch, we feast on pie.  It just works so well!  We are able to enjoy the pie, eat several slices, and by the time we have room for more food, Thanksgiving dinner is ready as the evening meal.  Anyone who wants can cap that off with more pie, but there is no longer that obligation to eat small slices of pie.  We all love Pie Hour, and as long as we are able, I think we’ve created a real tradition for our family.

As we wrapped up Saturday evening and said our goodbyes, I still wasn’t sold on the Saturday Thanksgiving idea.  But then Sunday morning happened.  The kids enjoyed pie for breakfast, lunch was with family, but then our late meal on Sunday was a few snackies from the weekend.  The light was slowly dawning.  This morning another round of pie ensued for breakfast.  Lunch was ham sandwiches from our leftover ham, and dinner…

Well, the light bulb has fully blinked on!  The best part about a Saturday Thanksgiving?  Now that family is gone and we have a regular week ahead of us, I have a fridge full of leftovers, and the entire week to consume them!  Normally, with a Thursday or Friday Thanksgiving, those leftovers sit while we visit with family the rest of the weekend, and by the time we get to them on Monday, the clock is ticking on using them up.  Not so this year!  It is my intention to utilize every scrap of leftovers for this week’s meals.  On top of that, I doubt I will even need to visit a grocery store!

Tonight’s leftover repurposing is a pasta dish.  I’m boiling up some fettucini, which I will toss with a sauce made from leftover Broccoli and Cauliflower Gratin, Chopped Turkey, and leftover Cheeses.  It’s delicious, and the first of several creations I intend to concoct this week.    (By the way, that Gratin from Eating Well?  Quite tasty- everyone at the table enjoyed it.) We’ll have some cranberry sauce on the side tonight along with some toasted baguette.

This morning I also made turkey stock from the carcass- it’s outside on the deck for the night to chill and allow the fat to rise to the top.  Once it’s skimmed, some will be used for a soup night this week, but if there’s enough left I plan to pressure can a batch of homemade stock.  It will be lovely to add that to the basement pantry.

Anyway, Thanksgiving was lovely.  I love that we stretch it out to encompass a full four day weekend.  I trust that your Thanksgiving celebrations were just as wonderful, and as we are thrust full steam ahead towards Christmas, I hope we can all find the time to really enjoy the season.

The Joys of Seasonal Eating

Today is a beautiful day.

I bought the first bag of new crop mandarin oranges this morning.  I didn’t even have my coat off yet and the kids were in the bag, peeling their first one.  That first wedge was popped in the mouth, and all eyes were closed, as that first taste of the season filled the mouth with a burst of freshness.  Zander promptly peeled a second one, exclaiming that he was clearly in need of Vitamin C.   Pure bliss.

This year I made it my goal to follow through on intentional seasonal eating when it comes to the fruit basket.    People always wonder how seasonal eating can truly be accomplished- and here in the land of the frozen chosen, we can’t always rely on seasonal eating.  But if we do it when we can… The real secret to seasonal eating and doing it successfully is also preserving and putting those seasonal products by for when nothing else is available.   I have a freezer packed with a spectacular variety of berries that were picked at the height of perfection.  I have a pantry filled with jars of preserved stone fruits and apples, delicious, and wonderful to eat all year long.

In this day and age, you can buy most fresh produce every day of the year.  Modern refrigeration and growing techniques make this all too possible.  It’s not terrible to want fresh strawberries in December, but they aren’t going to come even close to the quality of a fresh June-grown local strawberry.   Here in the United States, we have the added bonus of several growing regions, so it is possible to have fresh, organic strawberries in February that have been grown in Florida.   And there certainly is a time for that.  But I wanted to know what would happen if we really purposed to eat as little fruit out of season as possible.   So without saying a word to anyone in my family even, that it what I have attempted to do this year.

Basically, here is how it worked.  As a fruit would come into season, we would go a little crazy indulging.  Truly.  When those strawberries first ripened in June, it was no holds barred, the kids were free to eat as many as they could hold.  By the time their interest in strawberries was waning, the blueberries came in, and the raspberries.  Next came the peaches and pears, followed closely by the cherries and plums.  Melons made a brief appearance, and next year I am mindful to purchase a few extra melons to chunk and freeze for smoothies.   (Which my kids are slowly coming around to.  I’ve learned to not put yogurt in the smoothies.  They like just the fruit and ice- but I need a bigger badder blender if we’re going to continue with the smoothie making.  The cuisinart just isn’t cutting it.)

Apple season arrived just in the nick of time, and oh, we had a good time with that this year!  We visited two orchards regularly, and sampled about 15 different varieties.  I still don’t think we have a favorite.  All told, we went through about 120 pounds of fresh apples this year.  Seriously!  About half of them were made into applesauce and apple pie jam, but the rest we ate out of hand, or baked into delicious goodies from the oven.   We still have a small pile from our last trip to the orchard, but we’re at that point where apples are losing their lustre.

Fortunately, over the last few weeks the grapes have been spectacular- did you know there was a season for grapes?  They’re always available, but fall is when they are the sweetest and the biggest- and most importantly- grown here in the U.S.A.   We’ve sampled the green, the red, the black, and they’ve all been delightful.

Then this morning, as I spied the new pallet of fresh from Calilfornia Mandarin oranges, I got so excited!  Can it really be time for the citrus to start up already?  Oh, I know, you can buy citrus year round, but I don’t.  Unless I need it for a recipe (and I’m not counting lemons and limes which I buy frequently year round) you couldn’t get me to buy any citrus out of season.  Those cuties you bought in August?  Yeah, they’ve been sitting in a gas filled warehouse since they were harvested last winter to prevent them from turning to mush.

These little mandarin oranges are only the beginning of the winter fruit season.  We’ll have grapefruit and navel oranges and pineapple and pomegranates, making us think of tropical breezes on a cold winter day.   I saw pineapple today for a ridiculous price, and I’m wondering if it would be worth it to pick up a whole pile and try home-canned pineapple.  Yes, it’s a cheap product to buy at the store, but home-canned fruit has thus far proved superior to me… How will the pineapple fare?

Which brings me to the bananas.  Bananas, a perfect snack and food loaded with nutrients essential to our body.  As far as I know, there isn’t really a season for bananas, and most of the bananas we find at the grocery store are not grown in our country.  One could easily argue that with true seasonal eating, one should skip the bananas.  The bananas are my between-season filler.  When nothing else is fresh and good, that’s when I buy a bunch of bananas.   I’ve bought them so seldom, that when I do buy them, they’ve been a delightful treat to have for a few days.

The real question is, do we miss the fruit that we are not eating?  Not really.  We’re not missing the strawberries because we’re so busy indulging in whatever is next.  And when we do get a hankering for strawberries, I only need to go to the freezer, pull out a bag of strawberries, and we’re instantly transported to the summer day that we spent at the patch picking them when they are at their best.   By the time we get to the point where we’re really missing the strawberries, the organic ones from Florida should be ready, and we can get a brief little preview of the summer to come.  I like that we’re not eating fruit that’s been gassed and held in storage since who-knows-when.

It’s like that with every fruit we’ve gone through this year!  It’s truly been an experiment of joy, because it’s been wonderful eating our way through the calendar of fruit.  And it’s been a great year for fruit as well- I think we were truly blessed to have such a great year be the year I decided to do this experiment.   It’s also a way of eating that I’ve decided is absolutely worth it.  I have a few more fruits on my list that I’d really like to find good sources for.  Kiwi, plums, blackberries and mangos come to mind as fruits that we need more of when they are juicy and delicious.

Ultimately, we’re also drastically reducing the expense of keeping fresh fruit in our diet.  It is WAY cheaper to buy what’s in season when it is in season.  Fresh pineapple is the perfect example.  When it’s at its best, I can buy a good whole pineapple for between $1.49 to $1.99, depending on where I am.   When it’s out of season, one pineapple can cost $4.99 a pop.   The fresh apples we indulged on (all 120 pounds of them!) were enjoyed at just one dollar a pound.  That’s a way better deal than the $6.99 for a two-pound bag in the month of April.   One of the things I may do in 2014 is attempt to keep track of the cost of seasonal eating, and see how it would compare to a more traditional, American way of buying it when you want it.

I did attempt on a smaller scale to do the same thing with vegetables, but without a good garden this year, that was not as easily done.  Maybe next year I’ll be able to work in the vegetables.  That would be my ultimate goal- though it will certainly require another freezer!

Seasonal eating.  It makes me insanely happy, and brings my children great joy.  It’s a great way to eat.

 

Smothered Pork Steaks

There should be more of these in the world!

The other day I had decided that a nice fall-inspired dinner was in order, and smothered pork chops were going to be the centerpiece.    I’ve made a few different recipes for it, and actually, I think I could successfully just wing it and put together some acceptable smothered pork chops.  But this time, when I went to the grocery store, they didn’t have the pork chops I wanted.  I wanted thick cut chops- thick and meaty, with some substance to it.  All they had were boneless chops or skinny anemic thin-cut chops.  I stood there for a minute and chastised my choice of grocery store.  I chose the one closest to home, when I should have gone to the one that has the meat department I prefer.  But I was there, so I surveyed the offerings and my eyes landed upon the pork steaks that were on sale.  The wheels started turning and I couldn’t see why I couldn’t take pork steaks and smother them the same way I do chops…

The obvious accomodation that needed to be made was with the pans.  Pork steaks are rather large, and there was no way I was going to get four of them in my largest saute pan.  I needed to brown them in batches, and then I would put the browned steaks in a 9×13 pan.  Once the steaks were nicely browned, I would finish the sauce in the saute pan, and then pour that over the steaks in the baking dish, and slide the whole thing in the oven to finish.

I used an old recipe from Cooking Light for Smothered Pork Chops with Thyme as my base recipe.  I only made a few minor changes, and pretty much stayed with the recipe.  My first change was that I doubled the spices I sprinkled on the steaks- these were big steaks, so they needed more seasoning.  I also added a good teaspoon of fresh thyme to the sauce, and finally, I gave the onions a little more time than indicated.  I wanted a good level of caramelization on the onions, so I probably gave them a full ten minutes before finishing the sauce.

This was seriously good eating.  The pork steaks turned out tender and completely delicious.  These were a hit, and I would totally make them again.  If you do opt to make this with a thicker cut of pork like I did, you’ll need to either simmer them on the stove in the sauce for a few minutes to ensure they are cooked through, or do what I did and pop them in the oven for about 20 minutes or so.  Either way, this is a great recipe, and it gets dinner on the table rather quickly.

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Smothered Pork Chops with Thyme

1 cup beef broth, divided
2 tablespoons  milk
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 (2-ounce) boneless center-cut loin pork chops (about 1/4 inch thick)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped onion 
1 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
 

Directions:

Combine 1/4 cup broth, milk, flour, mustard, salt, and pepper in a small bowl; stir with a whisk. Set aside.
Sprinkle one side of each pork chop with paprika and thyme. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add a good drizzle of olive oil to the pan. Add half of the pork to pan; sauté 1 1/2 minutes on each side or until pork is done and lightly browned. Remove pork from pan.

Repeat procedure with remaining pork.

Reduce heat to medium. Add chopped onion; sauté 4 minutes or until lightly golden, add the fresh thyme and allow it to cook with the onions for a minute or two. Add remaining 3/4 cup broth; bring to a boil. Cook 2 minutes. Add milk mixture, stirring with a whisk. Add pork, turning to coat; cook 1 minute. Sprinkle with minced parsley.

Stuffed Acorn Squash

I’ll confess.  When I’m standing at the farmstand, looking at all the amazing winter squash available, the acorn squash is not one I usually reach for.   My preference, when it comes to winter squash, are the varieties that are really dense and thick with that squash/pumpkini flavor.  My ultimate favorite it buttercup, with butternut running a very close second.  Pie pumpkins and kabocha squash are also in the running, but I just usually find acorn squash to be watery and bland- though they do have their applications.

Well, the weekend before last, one of my favorite farms was advertising that you could fill a bushel box with your choice of winter squash for just $14.00.  That was too good to pass up, so I drove over and filled a box with delicious squash goodness.  But as I was packing the box with butternuts and buttercups, I saw these small acorn squash and I decided I just had to add a few of those as well for stuffing purposes.  I’d seen too many recipes as of late for stuffed acorn squash, so I added a handful of acorns as well that day.

Once Andy had seen this bushel box of squash later that day, he asked me why I didn’t get two boxes at that amazing price.  So, wouldn’t you know, the next day after church we swung by the stand again to fill a second box- this one I added a few more acorn squash too, as logistically they filled in the corners.  I wasn’t allowed to overfill the bushel box, but I was determined to maximize the space.

squash haul

My first thought for stuffing acorn squash was that I wanted to try an idea that the kids might eat.  Abigail has come around to eating squash, Zander is still not a fan, but it’s always worth a shot.   This is a non-recipe method, because of course, you can use what you have on hand, versus exactly what I used to stuff these small squash.

The first step though, was to pre-bake the squash.  Had I stuffed them still hard and raw, the filling would be burnt like crazy by the time the squash was soft all the way through, so I wanted to bake the squash partway first.  I cut the squash in half, removed the seeds and membranes, and then rubbed coconut oil over the cut side of the squash.  Then I placed them cut side down into a pan and popped them into a 350ºF oven for about half an hour.

Next, I assembled a really simple filling.  I took three small golden delicious apples, peeled and cored them, and then diced them.   I added some golden raisins, almond slivers, and then a small scoop of brown sugar, followed by a dash of cinnamon and some salt.   I mixed this all together in a bowl and then filled the hollows of the squash with the filling.   The crowning touch was a pat of butter, and then they went back into the oven.  Another 30 minutes passed, and then we had some delicious stuffed squash.

stuffed squash

Somehow I forgot to take a picture of the final baked product, but it’s not that different from the pre-baked one.  This was very delicious stuffed acorn squash.   Andy loved it, I loved it, and Abigail really enjoyed it too.  Zander told me that I should just make the filling part next time- I guess this didn’t win him over to the squash dark side yet.

Up next for the acorn squash I’m honing in on a good grain-based autumnal stuffing.   I have a few recipes that I’ve gathered so far, we’ll see what happens…

Delicious Grape Chutney

It’s that time of year again for the Waz Fam here in Wisconsin.  Fall has arrived, which on the plus side, means it’s squash, apple and cranberry season.   On the negative side, Andy is not working again.  He was supposed to work until Christmas, but after the government shutdown, they shut down a lot of the jobs and he is currently not working.  It’s not the official lay off (meaning no official notice from the boss) yet, but since he has only worked three days all month, I would say that we are in the soft lay-off period.  Which, for us, means we go into hunker down mode and tighten every purse string we can find.   For myself, it means a heightened vigilence in the kitchen as far as food waste is concerned.

Meaning, we waste as little as possible- every leftover gets taken into account with meal planning.  When this time comes every year (which it does when one’s main source of employment is a seasonal construction job), this is when I look back on all the food preservation from the year and all I can do is smile big.  Our freezer this year is jam packed with fresh fruits- blueberries, cherries, raspberries, and cranberries.  The pantry is burgeoning with canned pears, peaches, pickles, tomatoes, salsas and more jams than you can imagine.  I have two bushels of winter squash waiting for the canning pantry to be finished so they can have a home.  Once a week I will go through them, and any that seem to be starting to turn will be baked, and then used in a dish, or frozen for adding to a million things.  It’s amazing how many foods you can enhance nutritionally by adding a cup of squash puree !

I am so thankful for those things that we took the time to harvest and put aside for later.  When I try to think about what our winters would be like without those precious canned goods… well, it frightens me a little.  Those delicious and healthful preserves often become the main focus of a meal- or they round out something that isn’t so spectacular.   Have you ever had sour cherry pancakes?  Or a pumpkin scone studded with blueberries?  How about a fresh from the oven slab of cornbread smothered with apple butter.   Oh man, just thinking about that?  I tell you, while I don’t enjoy not being able to spend what I’d like on groceries during lay off season, we always do our best eating this time of year.  Always.

Which brings me to today’s recipe that I want to share.  This recipe for Grape Chutney was in the October issue of Eating Well magazine.  It attracted me right off the bat because it was simple- the ingredients are few, the picture was stunning, and I always love a good chutney.  The grapes have also been quite good as of late, and the idea of grape chutney meant, to me, that a curry dinner was in order.  The one thing I didn’t have on hand for making the chutney was dry sherry- an item I usually just skip in recipes, but in this case, I made an exception, and I bought a bottle.  Hey, with all the recipes that call for it, maybe I’ll discover that I really like what it adds!   Then I waited for an opportunity to present itself to make this grape chutney.  I’d bring grapes home and they’d get eaten- they’ve really been delicious!

Finally, we had some grapes sitting around that had lost their lustre.  They were getting soft, some were turning into rotten raisins,  and they simply weren’t going to be eaten out of hand.   On top of that, it was Thursday night, which is a night the kids eat at dance, so it was the perfect opportunity to put together a spicy curry which they wouldn’t want to eat.

The Grape Chutney was as easy to put together as I thought it would be.  First I finely chopped some onion and got it sauteeing in some olive oil just until it started to brown.  Then, I chopped two cups of grapes in half- both green and purple grapes- and put them in the pan with the sherry, some rice wine vinegar, mustard seeds and salt and pepper.   This all simmered together for about 20 minutes, when the grapes had kind of mushed up and most of the liquid had vanished.  Oh my gosh, this was magic!  It was so good- it had that oniony/mustardy flavor that I associate with chutney, but then there was this huge POW of grape flavor, and it was simply delicious.  While it was delicious with my curry, it would be equally good served with some cheese for an appetizer, or served with a pork roast.   I was really glad I thought to buy the sherry some time ago, because with a drastically reduced grocery budget, it would have never come home with me.  Now I’m anxious to try it in other things and see what it adds.

One note about the recipe.  The directions indicate that you just want the shallot (or onion) to soften a bit.  I took it further and let the onion start to carmalize, and I think that took this chutney to an even better level.  It gave it an extra depth, and the bites with a bit of the browned onion were my favorite.

chutney

Grape Chutney

from Eating Well, October 2013

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup minced shallots
2 cups halved seedless purple or red grapes
1/2 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar or rice vinegar
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add grapes, sherry, vinegar, mustard seeds and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the grapes have broken down, 10 to 20 minutes.

 

 

 

Make Your Own… Chimichangas!!

Some time before our crazy spring arrived, I had this bright idea to buy a box of pre-made chicken and cheese chimichangas from Sam’s Club.  I had been out all morning and told the kids I’d bring lunch home.  I thought the chimichangas sounded fun, ignored all the yucky ingredients on the box, and took it home with me.

To say that was a bad decision would be an understatement.  They decidedly did NOT like these frozen chimichangas.  I didn’t think they were bad smothered with sour cream and salsa, but they did taste fake and the tortilla themselves had a funky flavor to them.  What I really wanted was a REAL chimichanga, you know, those burrito-like objects that are essentially deep-fat fried and glorious?  Flour tortillas make magic when they’re bathed in hot oil, but deep fat frying is something that we only pull out two or three times a year for fish or egg rolls (and we may eliminate those soon, we’ll see).

But one day, not too long ago, I was looking for something different to make the kids for lunch.  We’d recently had a taco night, and a few leftover variations, but I really, really wanted to turn leftover taco fixings into chimchangas.  As I thought about this, I wondered what would happen if I put my fillings in a tortilla, rolled it up, and then brushed the entire exterior with olive oil before baking them.  Could this work? Or would the fillings run out all over, or would the tortilla taste like some low-fat cooking spray experiment. (Come on, I KNOW you’ve tried baked egg rolls coated with cooking spray- the texture of those things are nasty!)

I decided to go for it, and I am so glad I did!

I used the largest flour tortillas I could find.  I mixed together taco meat, shredded cheddar cheese and a small bit of salsa, and then used this for my fillings.  I was very careful to be sparse with the filling, as I didn’t want it bursting out all over while it baked up.  I rolled up the tortillas snugly, and then I took them all and brushed them all over with olive oil.  All told, I probably used 1 1/2 tablespoons for 8 chimichangas- that’s not a whole lot of oil.  I placed the chimichangas on a rack set in a baking sheet.  I’m still not sure if the rack was necessary, but I wanted any excess oil to be able to drip off so they didn’t end up greasy and unappealing.

I baked these up at 350ºF for about 20 minutes.  They came out golden brown, and a few had started to leak their innards, but very little.  For the most part, they were intact.   Then we proceeded to taste them.

chimichangas

Amazing!  The tortillas had that crispy browned deep-fat fried tortilla flavor, the insides were hot and melty, and they were absolutely delicious.  They were a huge hit with the kids too.  We had some leftover, so those I put in the fridge, and a few days later pulled out and popped in the toaster oven to warm up for a second lunch.  Once again, they were perfect.

A few weeks later I made them again- this time for a dinner meal with the hubs around.  These ones were filled with shredded chicken, cheddar cheese, peppers and rice.  Once again, a hit all around.  More than a hit, actually.  Everyone absolutely loved them.  I’m still not sure the baking rack is absolutely necessary- if you don’t have one, don’t sweat it, and just bake the chimichangas up in a baking sheet.

Lesson learned.  The next time I’m looking at a frozen meal type thing, I should take the trouble to make my own.  And now I’m thinking about those baked egg rolls again.  Could it be possible for them to turn out delicious if I brushed the exterior of each one with olive oil?  Stay tuned…

 

This. Is My Love Language.

Surely you’ve all heard of the concept of love languages?  Many years ago we did a study on the five love languages- how people show their love, and how they best see someone else’s love for them.  Some people show their love by giving gifts, some show love through an act of service.  Some prefer a physical act, like a hug or hand-hold, some people show their love through words- and through receiving them.  And then some people show their love through the idea of quality time.  When we did this study, it was of no surprise to anyone that Andy and I both ranked an act of service numero uno.

Well, with all due respect to Gary Chapman, who penned the book we read, I don’t think he quite covered all of the possible love languages.  While my love language may technically BE an act of service, it isn’t always, sometimes it can walk the line between an act of service, quality time AND gift giving.  Of course, this love language that I speak of is the act of cooking.   Preparing food IS my love language.  Every day when I prepare meals for my family, I do so because of the deep love I have for them.  Because I desire them to eat wholesome, nutritious and delicious food that will help ensure their health in the long run.  Yet, it’s so much more than that, because when I cook to feed someone else, it’s as if something magical comes over me.  I pour every once of love I have for someone into the dish I’m preparing.   There really is a seasoning that is added when I am cooking for others versus just for myself.

I love that.  A pot of chili on a cool fall day is truly something special to be enjoyed, but I’ll tell you, that pot of chili takes on another layer of deliciousness when I am cooking it for a guest at our dinner table.   We had family visiting a few weeks ago from out of town- I can’t tell you how excited I was at the prospect of out of town guests.  Do you know what that means to me?!  People need to eat! I know how expensive travel can be, and how eating out meal after meal can get old really, really fast.  To be able to spend a few days cooking up delicious meals and honoring our guests with the best our larder has to offer?  Oh my, that is priceless.  It makes me wistful that our time was all too short- I could have cooked for another week!  I get giddy just thinking about doing it again soon.

But you know, I think the majority of people I know truly don’t understand how deep this love language goes for me.  For far too many people, cooking is a chore- something to be endured to put food on the table.  Not so for me. Every second that I spend chopping, dicing, stewing, roasting, baking, etc, is a moment of pure pleasure for me- especially as I think on the person or persons we will be sharing with.  Do you know, I even enjoy the cleaning up afterwards?  I think it’s because I know our guests are filled with delicious food, and now they can sit and relax and enjoy one another’s company while I fulfill my secondary love language- the act of service.

It’s my love language whether I am cooking for you in my home, or giving you a jar of homemade salsa or jam.  It’s my love language when I give you that loaf of blueberry bread, pecan pie, or package of delicious cookies to take home and share with your family.  It’s my love language when my new teenager comes to me with a request to bake a few items for her youth group’s upcoming bake sale.  I was all over that, despite that week being one of our busiest of the year.  If my beautiful daughter wants me to bake something, I’m going to bake something.  And because it was for the youth group, teenagers and young adults whom I love, no plain old cookies were going to do.  The love was coming out in full force, and we were going to prepare something truly special.

Abigail took her time and checked out a boatload of cookie and brownie cookbooks from the library.  She has fallen in love with the extensive cookbook selection at our library, and always is bringing home stacks to pore through.  She reminds me of myself when I was a teenager and excited about the prospect of cooking delicious recipes. ( Except that by the time I was her age I was a very angry teenager, and my recipe hunting was to compile a cookbook for the second I could move out of my parents home and be on my own.  Sigh.  I am so blessed to have a thirteen year old daughter who still loves her family and still wants my input in every aspect of her life.) Anyway, she was really impressed by one book in particular, Crazy About Cookies by Krystina Castella.

crazy cookies

We decided to make two cookies from this book- the first being a Toffee Chip Cookie.  This book went so far as to suggest you make a homemade batch of toffee first to put in this cookie!  Alas, time was against us, so Abigail decided it would be okay if we bought some Bits O’ Brickle and use that instead.  What a thoughtful assistant!  Those cookies turned out really, really good, and made me excited to try the second cookie she chose…

White Chocolate Macadamia Cream Cookies seemed a little daunting to me at first glance, but as I read through the recipe, it really was pretty straightforward, with the exception that in the end, you sandwich two cookies together with a smear of white chocolate frosting.    We used 4 ounce Ghirardelli White Chocolate bars for the chocolate we melted, and then instead of coarsely chopped white chocolate chunks, we simply used Ghirardelli White Chocolate Chips.  When it came time to fold the chips into the frosting, I did give them a rough chop with my knife, as I thought it would make spreading the frosting easier.

Oh. My. Gosh.  LOVE! These cookies are spectacular!  The macadamia nuts and the white chocolate come through, and they really are not as overpowering sweet as you would think either.  I used my large 2 tablespoon cookie scoop to make larger cookies, and I was so glad I did.  We got about 20 large sandwich cookies out of one batch- obviously, you’d get more cookies if you made them smaller.

What I especially loved about these cookies (and the toffee chip ones) was that they came out exactly as they looked in the cookbook- that hardly ever happens.  It so impressed me that I headed directly onto Amazon and bought my own copy of this book to keep- there are 300 cookie recipes in this book, and we’re really looking forward to trying more of them.   There’s such a variety!  There are cookies that use whole grain ingredients, vegan cookies, gluten-free cookies, and the everyday bad for you white flour/ white sugar cookies.  I can’t wait to try the next one.  Maybe it will be an act of love that prompts us to bake up something special for someone special?

You must try these cookies.  They are definitely good enough for a holiday cookie platter, should you be on the prowl for this type of thing.  They completely sold out at the bake sale and were a huge hit!  They also are a great everyday cookie, and have become an instant favorite.

cookies

White Chocolate Macadamia Cream Cookies

White Chocolate Cookie Dough:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons butter, softened
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
3/4 cup coarsely chopped white chocolate
1 cup macadamia nuts
White Chocolate Cream:
4 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup coarsely chopped white chocolate.

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Butter 2 cookie sheets (or line with Reynolds non-stick foil).

Make the white chocolate cookie dough: Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl, set aside.

Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until fluffy.  Beat in the eggs and vanilla until blended.  Stir in the melted white chocolate and chopped white chocolate, then the nuts; finally, add the flour mixture.

Drop 1 1/2 tablespoon mounds of dough on the cookie sheets 2 inches apart.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden around the edges.  Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

Make the white chocolate cream: Combine the melted white chocolate and the confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl, stir until blended.  Stir in the milk, vanilla and salt.

Beat in the butter until smooth, and then fold in the white chocolate chunks.  Refrigerate the cream for 15 to 20 minutes to thicken up a bit.  Spread the white chocolate cream between two cookies.