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Chinese Red Cooked Bear

Towards the end of last spring,  one of Andy’s co-workers sent him home from work with a goody bag.  This co-worker is a hunter, and had heard that we  were very curious about playing around with venison and bear meat.  Historically I don’t have a good relationship with venison.  I want to like it, but every time I’ve tried it, I take a few bites and then I’m done.  I just really dislike that gamey flavor that is all too often present with venison.  Bear meat, on the other hand, we’d had exactly once before and were surprised that it wasn’t gamey at all- it was like a richer variety of beef.  Well, this co-worker sent both along, a few different cuts of venison, and a few cuts of bear meat.   We were quite excited to play around with all of these and figure out the best way to prepare them.

Surprisingly, I found very little direction on cooking with bear meat.  I hunted through game cookbooks at our library and many websites, but there was very little out there, with the exception that every source indicated that the bear needed to be thoroughly cooked, as it tends to harbor a dangerous parasite known as trichonosis.   As I was looking and not finding an inspiring recipe anywhere, I recalled the blog known as Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, and I was sure that he would have something on his site about cooking bear meat.   Sure enough, he did, but the one I was most attracted to was the Chinese Red Cooked Bear, though I had bear steaks and not belly to deal with.  I’ll admit, though, I was pretty intimidated by the recipe itself.   So I filed it away in my brain to consider, but then company came calling.  And it was adventurous company, willing to try new things, and I just had to do it.

I did not use the preserved garlic called for in the recipe.  We have several Asian markets in the area that I’m sure I could have found it at, but I decided to just leave it out and see what happened.  Other than that change, I followed the recipe to the letter with the exception that I used less chilies- as we wanted the kids to enjoy it as well.  I want to say I used two dried chilies, and there was very little heat in the end.

The toughest part of the recipe was the second step, where you heat the oil and sugar together.  This turned into napalm very quickly- and it tends to spatter.  My stirring arm still has scars from this cooking adventure- so be careful there.  On my gas stovetop, the caramelized sugar happened within two minutes- not the ten indicated in the recipe.

All told, I think the bear cooked for about 90 minutes, instead of the two hours in the recipe, and I did end up taking out the whole spices after an hour.  The end result was beyond spectacular.  While the technique was new to me, making it seem more tedious at the time, it really wasn’t complicated or difficult once I had everything on hand.   The Chinese Red Cooking was delectable.  The meat was so tender and packed with flavor.  We had it served with rice and another whole meal in case we didn’t care for the bear.   Fortunately Andy had decided to snap a picture of his plate that day.

cooked bear

Maybe not the most artful display, but a display nonetheless.  The bear meat really did cook that dark- it’s not burnt in the least.  It was a great dish, and it could very easily be made with pork, beef, or other game as you see fit as well.  I really think the recipe is highly adaptable to the meat you have on hand.

Rather than copy the recipe here today, I’m going to link you right to the recipe at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, as I changed barely a thing, so did not adapt the recipe enough to warrant a re-posting.

Chinese Red Cooked Bear.

 

Delicious Pizza Bites!

I have a love/hate relationship with pizza.  Mostly, I love it.  Our whole family loves pizza- we could eat it most days of the week and never tire of it.  We love it homemade and we love to get it out as well.  The hate part of the relationship is the pizza-like things that end up not quite satisfying that pizza craving.  Last Christmas I decided to make a hot pizza dip, thinking it would be a huge hit with everyone.  Not so much.  While it did taste like pizza, it just wasn’t quite there- it was more like a pizza flavored something than actual pizza, despite the use of real ingredients.

So the first time I saw these Pepperoni Pizza Puffs at the Noble Pig blog, they called to me, but at the same time, I wasn’t convinced they were going to be true to being pizza.  I filed away the idea in my brain somewhere, but promptly forgot about them.  Fast forward a few weeks, and I was looking at my recipe bookmarks, and lo and behold, there they were again.  As it happened, I had everything on hand to make them, and I thought it would be worth trying out for the kids for lunch one day.

Well, they certainly came together quickly enough.  They are deceptively simple.  Flour, baking powder, milk, egg and your pizza mix-ins.  When I made these, I stuck to the recipe, but you can bet that as I was mixing, my thoughts were turning to the possibilities here.  I was sticking with pepperoni and cheese, but we never top pizzas the same way twice. Y0u could probably mix just about anything into these little puffs.  Sausage and mushroom, broccoli and cheese, baked potatoes and bacon bits, feta cheese and black olives- the list could go on and on!  Regardless of what you want to put in your pizza bites, you must make these!

These absolutely tasted like pizza!  And while I was using these as lunch, they would make an excellent quick snack, or I could totally see them as a party nibble.    Quick and easy, Zander asked me the other day if I would make these again soon, so they clearly made an impression.   I am very thankful to Noble Pig for sharing these delicious pizza treasures.

pizza puffs

 

Pepperoni Pizza Puffs

from the Noble Pig blog

3/4 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup whole milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
4 ounces pepperoni, cut into small cubes (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup pizza sauce
2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Grease a 24-cup mini muffin pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder; whisk in the milk and egg. Stir in the mozzarella and pepperoni; let stand for 10 minutes.

Stir the batter and divide among the mini-muffin cups. Bake until puffed and golden, 20 to 25 minutes.

Microwave the pizza sauce until warmed through, then stir in 1 Tablespoon basil. Sprinkle the puffs with the remaining1 Tablespoon basil. Serve the puffs with the pizza sauce for dipping.

Making An Effort

I made the decision this week to make a hearty effort to get back into this blogging thing.  I miss it- I really do.  Strange as it may sound, I miss the dialogue in my head as I cook and prepare a dish, and start planning the words that will flow out onto the computer screen.  I miss the excitement as I realize how spectacular a dish is and then cannot wait to hop onto the blog and share it.  Honestly, a huge factor in not blogging much has been my camera.  It’s really gotten wonky and it’s so much work to get a picture ready to share.   But since camera replacement is not a possibility anytime soon, I’m just going to have to make the effort.

Yesterday I spent some time trolling through my old food blogging stomping grounds.  I went through my entire blogroll and I became very sad.  Way too many have stopped blogging for one reason or another.   There were also way too many food blogs that simply didn’t exist anymore.   I can always hope that some of those voices will return some day, and I decided that I didn’t want to be one of those empty blogs anymore.  Where people pop in every couple of months and see that no blogging has happened.   So I will try.  As I go through pictures I have on my computer right now, I do have quite a few things to share with you that I haven’t before, so I will start there and see what happens.

I’m trying to set myself some realistic goals.  Daily blogging is not realistic to me.  Once a week is not often enough.  And with school and dance both starting up next week (what was I thinking!) there will have to be some fluidity in my planning.  But I will make it work.  Because I have noticed a very disturbing trend in the blogosphere this last year.  Once upon a time, us voices who started the food blogging movement did so because we truly loved food- and most of us loved cooking.   Now, so many of the popular food blogs of today are… well, they’re not my cup of tea at all.  They’re heavily ad driven.   I can appreciate wanting to make money doing something you love… but enticing readers to subscribe because  subscribers get to enter contests and giveaways leaves an off-flavor to me.  And then they give extra entries into a giveaway because you share it on social media… Blech.    I like to put thought and meat into my blog posts.  I am aghast when I click on one of these “food” blogs and they give a few short sentences about how much they love this new chocolate spread product, and then there are hundreds of comments below agreeing or disagreeing.  That’s not a blog post- that’s an advertisement.

Anyway.  My current plan is to make an effort.  To cook something delicious and pull my camera out and then share it right here.   In fact, I was coming on here to share a recipe when I started on this tangent and decided that I better save the recipe for another blog post.  I’m working on tweaking my website a bit.  There are some areas that I never post in, so I’ve hidden them for the time being.   Of course, it’s been so long since I played behind the scenes that I feel like I’m learning all over again.  My homepage is a disaster area, but hopefully I’ll figure that out soon.

So coming up, a delicious and easy pizza-like bite that works for a quick lunch or snack idea.  Perfect for afters school or to grab when dashing out the door on the way to dance.   I also have a recipe for something really interesting- Chinese Red Cooked Bear.  I almost forgot about that one, but my thoughtful husband took a picture of it, so I must share it.  It’s not everyday you get to sample delicious bear meat.   Stay tuned!

Quick, Easy, Delicious Chicken Marinade

I’ve been meaning to share this really simple recipe for some time now, but first I had to figure out the recipe.  I’ve made this chicken a few times for company, and every time I get asked for the recipe.  So I try to explain how I take a bit of this and a bit of that and do this with it… So this last time I wrote down as I went, but of course, I cannot find the scrap of paper that I wrote it down on.  Nevertheless, I want to share it anyway.  It’s too good to pass up, and while I’ve only used it on chicken breasts, I think it would be great on thighs as well, and possibly pork chops. You can also use this as a dump recipe- putting the chicken in the marinade and tossing it in the freezer.  The chicken can be grilled, baked, or sauteed on the stove top once the marinade has had time to soak in.

Here is the cast of characters for this one:

ingredientsFresh basil, sea salt, fresh black pepper, red wine vinegar, olive oil, honey, and several cloves of garlic.  I believe the measurements go something like this:

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

black pepper to taste

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon honey

4 cloves of garlic, finely minced

If anything, those measurements are a little shy- use more to taste as you tweak this to your own specifications.    Put them all in a large bowl and give them a good whisk.

marinade

My mouth is watering just looking at that.   It doesn’t look like a ton of marinade- but it’s more than enough for any quantity of chicken you have on hand.  On this particular day, I was going to use 2 of those jumbo packs of chicken that you get as Sam’s Club.  But first, because the breasts are so big, I decided to butterfly them.  Butterflying has become my favorite thing to do with these large pieces of chicken.  First of all, it makes one piece of breast a realistic portion, so you’re not overdoing it.  Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it also roughs up one side of the chicken, and it seems to soak up the flavors of the marinade more readily.  Butterflying is really easy when the chicken pieces are so large!

chicken 1

 

First set your breast on a cutting board and grab a nice, sharp knife.  See how I have the knife positioned with the blade facing the largest end of the chicken?  That’s where we’re going to start cutting.  Just do your best guessing as to the midway point on that end of the chicken, and start carefully cutting and sliding your knife parallel to your cutting board.

chicken 2

These particular breasts get thinner as you move towards the pointy end.  I just tried my very hardest to keep the knife at the same distance to the cutting board the whole time.  I did have some breasts that did not cut quite as evenly, but for the most part, once I got into a rhythm it went quickly.

chicken 3

 

See?  Two better-sized pieces of chicken.  Now we’re going to take all these pieces and chuck them into our large bowl that’s holding the marinade.  Use your hands to stir them up as you go- making sure each piece is coated with marinade.  Remember when I said I was using two large packages?  Yeah, that’s a lot of chicken.

marinating

 

Let them sit on the counter, in the marinade for 45 minutes.  You can turn them a few times if you like.  During that time you can get your grill ready for the chicken, your oven preheated and your baking sheets lightly oiled, or get your saute pan out and ready.  On this particular day I took two baking sheets and lined them with heavy duty foil before brushing them very lightly with olive oil.  The foil was purely for clean-up purposes later, as I knew I would have to do two batches.  I baked them at 375ºF for 35 minutes, rotating my pans halfway through cooking.  When the first batch was cooked, I removed the foil from the pans and repeated.

I did not get a finished picture this time, but the end result is a whole bunch of delicious chicken that can serve any purpose you want.  You can eat it just as it is, served with some side dishes and a fork a knife.  It also makes a spectacular addition to a salad or a wrap.  We used some for sandwiches with some delicious rolls and cheeses one day, and honestly, there was one day I wasn’t really hungry for lunch, so I just grabbed a breast out of the fridge cold and ate it just like that.  Fully cooked, these will store in a properly cold fridge for a week, giving you chicken on hand anytime you need some cooked chicken.  Now that I’m thinking about it, we also used some of these on homemade pizzas- one was a chicken BBQ pizza, and another was a chicken-bacon-ranch kind of creation.

Economically, this makes excellent sense.  When I shop at Sam’s Club right now I can get one package of these large chicken breasts for $1.88 a pound. (Around $10 a package, give or take.) A package usually has around 8 or 9 breasts in it.   I butterfly them and instantly I’m up to 16-18 portions of chicken.  So I cook the chicken and say we use 4 of them in salads for dinner.  That leaves at least 12 more pieces to use in other ways.  Even if only The Hubby uses them for sandwiches for lunch all week- that’s still a massive bargain.  But I will use these once or twice more for dinners in various ways, and lunches once or twice as well.   And if we get tired of chicken, back in the freezer they go to pull out another time.

With the grocery dollar shrinking from week to week, this recipe for easy chicken is a must-have.

 

 

 

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.

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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.