A humorous, optimistic blog about Food, Family, Friends and Faith

Archive for April, 2011

Back to the Grind

Last week there was no meal plan at our house. The “usual” menu went out the window, because our daughter was traveling in Europe, my husband had an irregular work week that included lots of traveling, and I was on Spring Break from school. Rick and I bought a pizza, had some leftovers, sandwiches and cold cereal – that was enough for our culinary week.

This week everything is back to normal. It’s time to do some serious planning again.

My husband Rick likes meat. There’s nothing he likes more than a thick, juicy, grilled steak and a salad. Throw in some grilled zucchini and he’s a happy man, indeed. I feel guilty sometimes (not often, mind you) subjecting him to totally vegan meals, but he’ll be the first to agree that he feels better when he eats lighter. Since cholesterol is also an issue with him, it’s beneficial for him to eat vegan a few days a week.

Louise, on the other hand, is totally turned off by blood and flesh sitting on the table, so I cook as little meat as possible out of respect for her food choices.

Here is what is planned for the coming week, followed by two recipes. Louise didn’t have a great food experience in either Turkey or Greece, so I’m going heavy on the vegan food this coming week to restore her nutritional balance and get her digestive system back in good working order. I’m trying several new recipes, two of which I offer here. Fortunately, my family doesn’t mind being the subject of my culinary experiments. They are remarkably open to trying new flavors and textures, for which I am grateful.

DINNER MENU

  • Fried tofu with Thai peanut sauce
  • zucchini patties
  • breaded chicken cutlets
  • cheesy broccoli casserole
  • twice baked potatoes
  • TVP/beef tacos
  • zucchini/corn mixture
  • lemon/pepper baked tofu
  • Tuscan beans with fresh sage
  • chard and figs with pignoli
  • spinach quiche
  • spinach viche (vegan quiche – get it??)
  • mesclun salad with shaved red onions, sliced almonds and oranges with a lime vinaigrette

The first time I make a new recipe, I follow it to a ‘t’. Then, if I feel changes are needed, they are made. I confess – I tweak recipes a LOT. Ingredients get swapped for new ones, cooking times and methods change, new flavors get added. A lot of alterations happen before a recipe becomes “final” in my mind. Even then, I’m always open to revision. Should I encounter a new ingredient, it invariably works its way into a tried-and-true recipe.

Hopefully some of these new recipes will find their way into our regular rotation. I hope you try them. If you do, let me know how you would change them, or if you would change them at all.

Easy Lemon/Pepper Tofu

  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 T tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pkg (14 oz.) firm or extra firm tofu, drained, pressed and sliced 1/2″ thick
  1. Mix all ingredients except the tofu in a container. Set aside.
  2. Place tofu in a single layer on a baking pan. Pour the marinade over the tofu, then lift the pieces of tofu to get the marinade on the bottom sides.
  3. Cover the baking pan and marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
  4. Turn the tofu at least once while marinating. Preheat the oven to 350F. Uncover the pan and bake for 30 minutes.

Rainbow Chard with Figs

  • 2 pounds rainbow chard, ends trimmed
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried figs
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  1. Coarsely chop chard and add it to a pot of boiling salted water. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes, Drain well and set aside.
  2. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add figs and pine nuts and cook until pine nuts are lightly toasted, about 1 minute.
  3. Stir in reserved chard and season with salt and pepepr to taste. Cook until hot, stirring occasionally.

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Earth Day

As a Taurean, I feel a strong connection with the earth. I love to feel the rhythms of Nature, to watch as animals and plants go through their annual cycles. It makes sense that Earth Day is in the early Spring, during the time of birth and rebirth. Yesterday I saw a robin fit to bursting with eggs – she was VERY territorial. I imagine today she’s sitting on those eggs in her nest. I also noticed that the Queen Anne’s lace is aggressively pushing up in the flower beds – it’s a survivor weed, for sure.

Here are some fairly painless things you can do to honor Mother Earth every day.

  1. Switch out those lightbulbs and be vigilant about your electrical use! Using compact fluorescent bulbs is an easy way to save electricity. Some people say the light from cfls is too harsh. However, they come in all sorts of strengths, so there is one out there for you. Turn off lights when you leave the room. You don’t save electricity by leaving a lightbulb burning – that’s an urban myth. Unplug your cell charger and coffeepot if you’re not using them. Get a power strip for your computer and turn it off when you’re done with the computer. Hang your clothes on a clothes line. The less electricity we use, the less is generated and the less pollution from that generation. This is especially true in the US, where 70% of our electricity comes from coal and natural gas. Now that hydrofracking is a real and awful way to extract natural gas, we have to be especially vigilant in our use of electricity, because we are now polluting our water supply to feed our hunger for electricity. Another 20% of our electricity comes from nuclear, which is a whole other Pandora’s box.
  2. Compost your food scraps (not animal based scraps, though)! Even if you can’t have an actual compost bin with worms and everything, make a pile in the woods and cover it periodically with dead leaves and grass clippings. Put coffee grinds, egg shells and vegetable peels in your flower beds. The less that is discarded, the less goes into landfills.
  3. Reuse, reuse, reuse. Wash out the Ziploc bags that didn’t contain meat products and use them over again. Keep your takeout containers and use them to store EVERYTHING. Make cloth napkins from old clothing and stop buying paper ones. Use cloth kitchen towels instead of paper towels. Cut up junk mail and use it for scrap paper. (I keep a supply of this near the phone.) Stick used dryer sheets in your sock drawer or in the shoes of the stinky-footed people in your house. You can also use them to scrub the bugs off your car! Donate your used magazines to schools or libraries – art teachers LOVE old magazines. Donate clothing to a thrift shop or the Salvation Army so someone else can use it. Use that cute little tote bag from Bath and Body Works as a lunch bag until it falls apart. Then recycle it. Before you throw ANYTHING away, ask yourself if it has another use. Chances are, the answer is “yes”.
  4. Recycle, recycle, recycle. Everything. Plastic, paper, metals, cardboard, glass, motor oil, cell phones, computers and printers, plastic grocery bags, tires. They are ALL recyclable. Seek out the places where you can do this. Check with the Family & Consumer Science teacher at your local high school to see if they have any ongoing recycling projects.
  5. Trade in your car for a more fuel efficient one. I drive a Honda Fit. It averages 40 mpg. It replaced a van that got – max – 25 mpg. I didn’t really need a van anymore, because I sold my harp. It feels good to drive this little car.
  6. Buy recycled products. Get the recycled all-purpose printer paper. Buy recycled Reynolds aluminum foil. Get toilet paper and tissues made by Marcal or Seventh Generation. There are so many products made from recycled materials on the market these days, it only helps to buy them and increase the demand for recycled products. It puts less in the waste stream.
  7. READ LABELS on your cleaning products (including personal grooming products). Go with the ones that have little or no sulfates. Go with ones with biodegradable surfectants. Eliminate petroleum usage wherever you can. This is hard, because a HUGE amount of personal grooming and cleaning products contain petroleum in one form or another. Laundry soaps, shampoos, makeup, body washes, moisturizers, lip balms, all have petroleum bases. Find ones that don’t and use them. The less oil we use, the better.
  8. A little discomfort goes a long way. In the summer, use fans in your house instead of air conditioning. We have 3 super strong fans that circulate the air in our house and one up in the attic that sucks the hot air out of the attic. Close the windows and shades on the east and south sides of the house in the morning, then the south and west in the afternoon. Yes, you’ll sweat and eventually turn on the air conditioning, but every minute you can put it off is a gift to the earth. On super hot days, we go into the basement in our house. It’s underground, has a tile floor and is always at least 10 degrees cooler than upstairs. Don’t use the oven in the summer! Rely on your crockpot and toaster oven that use much less electricity and generate much less heat. If your house is well-insulated, it can be hard to get rid of the heat in the summer, especially when the temperature is above 80 for weeks at a time. Here in the Northeast, we open all the windows on breezy days and get the hot air out.
These are only a few of the things that you can do to effect a positive change in the health of our planet. Consider the fact that billions of people are sharing the same resources you are. Homo Sapiens is the only species on earth that takes and uses more than it needs. We are wasteful and should correct that. We determine the future health of our planet.

Bloom Where You Are Planted

This time of year my thoughts turn to birth and rebirth. The crocuses poke their heads out of the cold earth that has only recently lost its mantle of snow. Flowers of every color and shape begin to bloom. Pinks, purples, yellows, and whites are sprinkled across the ground even before the trees consider unfurling their tender young leaves.

It was planned that way, you know. In the dreariest, drabbest, most depressing days of the year, when the rain doesn’t stop and the ground is muddy, the most startling proof of the coming abundance of summer reveals itself. Those who are “religious” say that God reveals himself (herself) at this time of year more than any other time of year. This is when the promise of the future comes to light.

Those of you who know me well know I don’t do a lot of God gushing. I believe that “God” exists, but that God is not an old guy sitting on a throne watching people praise him (how boring would THAT be). I think the great religious traditions of the world are all shooting for the same thing – a peace and harmony to life, a belief that there is something better than the mundane and often painful lives we experience. I believe what we call God is our collective consciousness. God is us – all of us, humans, plants and animals – we’re all connected and the idea of God is the amalgam of our pooled wisdom. Heaven comes from the belief that we can be compassionate and loving and kind, and Hell is simply the absence of that connection and love. Jesus, aka Issa in the eastern spiritual traditions, was a great teacher who wanted us all to put love, compassion and forgiveness at the forefront of our experience. He absolutely got that right. I believe the Buddha did as well, as did Muhammad. I don’t think that any one tradition can hold sway over any other tradition, but that they all have value and can make our human existence more relevant. I’ve always found it amusing that the sacred Christian holiday of Easter was named after the pagan goddess of fertility and renewal, Eastre. Fertility and birth become rebirth and new life. It’s a nice connection between spiritual traditions.

This time of year I tend to get impatient with my life. I itch to break free of the dreariness of winter and move forward. It always happens around Easter, when resurrection is in the air. I question what I am doing with my life and wonder how I can change it so there is less dreary, repetition and a little more living going on. I want to LIVE, not exist.

Yesterday as I was driving home from a lunch date, I saw a daffodil blooming in the most ridiculous place. It was on a rocky space at the side of the road, suspended several feet up from the ground. It was an awkward place, but the bloom was vigorous and determined to show the world its beauty. That got me thinking about the maxim, “Bloom where you are planted.”

I always want to bloom somewhere else. What I am doing is never quite good enough. I am forever tormenting myself with the questions, “How can I make my life more meaningful?” and, “What am I supposed to be doing here?” Especially as I approach the age of 50, I realize that my time here on earth is about at the midpoint and I feel a push to figure it out and head in the right direction. However, the daffodil makes me wonder if I’m not already in the place I should be, doing the things I should be doing. Is my work with Special Ed children the work that will make my life have meaning? Does the fact that I love to feed people matter? Are my relationships with my husband and my daughter going to change the world in any way? What is my purpose? Why am I here? Have I been planted in this barren place, on rocky ground, so I can bloom and show the possibilities of life to everyone I encounter? Is this what my life plan is all about? I don’t have the answers to those question yet. I may never have the answers.

Thank you to whoever planted that daffodil in that odd place. You have started a dialogue.

Happy Easter everyone!

P.S. The Easter lily is actually a summer-blooming plant. It is forced to bloom in the Spring for the Easter market. Take from that what you will…

Nibbles for Company

This is one of the times of year when we find ourselves doing lots of visiting. People come to your house and stay for a few hours, you go to an Easter church potluck dinner, or your family winds up at Grandma’s for Passover. You’re running and often need something easy and portable to take along as a gift or as part of a buffet dinner.

This first recipe is from the 1960s. My parents used to have lots of cocktail parties. Their friends would get dressed up and come over for food and drinks. Most of the food was nibble-and-circulate finger food; I don’t remember too many sit down dinners in those days. My sisters and I were always banished to the basement, but could (and would) sneak up the stairs to snatch bits of food off the tables. I loved Mom’s rumaki and curried tuna turnovers, but this recipe remains one of my favorites.

This is a great recipe for large gatherings. It doubles and triples well, and makes a lovely gift if put in a mason jar with a fancy lid or a tied with a ribbon. This is the original Chex party mix, and does NOT contain mini cheese crackers or bagel chips – they didn’t exist back then! It is MUCH less salty than the commercial mix available today. I pour the cereals with a generous hand, and frequently substitute onion and garlic powder for the salts, but that’s your call. Enjoy!

Cocktail Hash

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 tsp. celery salt
  • 1/4 tsp. seasoned salt
  • 1/2 tsp. onion salt
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
  • 1 cup plain Cheerios
  • 2 cups Rice Chex
  • 2 cups Wheat Chex
  • 1 cup Corn Chex
  • 1 cup Kix
  • 1 cup pretzel sticks, broken in half
  • 1/2 cup mixed nuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 250F.
  2. Put all cereals, pretzels and nuts in a large bowl. Melt the butter in a saucepan and whisk in the worcestershire and all the seasonings. Pour over the cereal in the bowl and mix well. Pour onto two half sheet pans (12″ x 18″). If there’s any butter or spice left in the bowl, drizzle it over the mix on the sheet pans. Bake in the center of the oven for an hour, stirring every 15 minutes to redistribute the mix. (If you use two shelves, be sure to switch shelves after half an hour to ensure even cooking.)
  3. Let cool on pans and store in airtight containers.
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This next recipe is adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. It’s a simple, yet delicious recipe that doubles or triples easily and travels well. Throw it in a plastic container or Ziploc baggie and you’re good to go. If you are driving, get cut off in traffic and the container goes plummeting to the floor, no worries. It’s still good (unless, of course, the container splits open and the pasta goes everywhere. Then you have a problem.).

You can use this as a basic pasta recipe. Substitute any sausage (the first picture I show uses turkey sausage), chicken strips, ground lamb, etc. for the Italian sausage. Use ziti or fusilli instead of gemelli (as in the second picture). Substitute any green for the chard (although chard is my favorite). Any dried fruit can fill in for the raisins – diced dried apricots are a great choice. Pine nuts are interchangeable with slivered almonds or chopped walnuts – whatever you like. As always, parmesan and romano easily substitute for each other. You just need a hard, grate-able, salty, aged cheese. If you can find queso anejo, use it! Play with this until you find a combination that suits you.

Pasta with Sausage, Swiss Chard and Pine Nuts

  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 1 pound gemelli or other short pasta
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 12 oz. sweet Italian sausage (or any sausage you like), casings removed
  • 1 pound Swiss chard, tough stems removed, cut into thin strips
  • 2 cloves smashed or minced garlic
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry skillet
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
  1. Soak the raisins in 1 cup of boiling water for 15 minutes to plump them. Drain and set aside.
  2. While raisins are soaking, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water before draining. Drain pasta and return to the pot.
  3. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage, breaking it up as it cooks, until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add chard and garlic and season with black pepper. Cook, tossing, until chard wilts, between 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add sausage mixture to pot with pasta. Add raisins, pine nuts, Parmesan and 1/2 cup reserved pasta water. Toss to combine. Add enough additional pasta water to create a thin sauce to coat the pasta.
  5. To serve, divide among four pasta bowls and top with more cheese. Mangia!
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Happy Easter, y’all!

Good Friday

Ever since I can remember, there were food traditions in the Cooney house during the holidays. Christmas there was always a sour cream coffee cake, Easter was always a gooey, cheesy lasagna. I’m sure my mother cooked something special on Palm Sunday, but that escapes me now, 30 years into my adulthood.

A crystal clear memory, however, was Good Friday’s spaghetti and alici, a garlicky, salty dinner of spaghetti, olive oil, garlic and anchovies. Coming from a Catholic Irish/Italian family, we had to have fish on Fridays during Lent, and a special Good Friday meal every year. I thought this dinner was perhaps the single most disgusting meal ever created on the face of the earth! It was even worse than tuna, although I always made an exception for my mom’s tuna cheddar chowder. Chunk light tuna, while it’s an economy product, has a bad fish smell. To this day I can only eat white tuna or fresh tuna. To my adolescent nose and palate, spaghetti and alici was tuna doused in salt and heated, which only served to amplify the fish funk. Blech.

It was only many years later that I began to appreciate the warm, fruity olive oil perfumed with garlic, and the delightfully salty anchovies melted down gently in the oil, tossed with a perfect al dente pasta. It is now one of my favorite dishes, one that, fortunately, my husband Richard appreciates as well. It’s not just for Good Friday anymore; it’s a regular fixture on our table. Sometimes I add some chili flakes to make it interesting. If you love anchovies, use two cans in the same amount of oil – it’s all good.

Spaghetti and Alici

  • 8 oz. long pasta (any kind)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 huge, juicy cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled and minced
  • 2-oz. can of anchovies in olive oil, undrained
  • 1/8 – 1/4 tsp. red chili flakes, optional
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  1. Cook pasta in boiling, salted water according to package directions. Remember that this is your only chance to add flavor TO the pasta, so be sure to salt that water.
  2. Put olive oil and garlic in a cold pan (I use a frying pan). Heat them together over medium heat. When the garlic is sizzling and giving off a nice aroma, add the anchovies and their oil. As they heat, break them up using a wooden spoon and stir occasionally until they have melted into a paste. Add chili flakes and turn off the heat.
  3. Drain pasta when it’s done and put in a warm serving bowl. Add alici, using a silicone scraper to get every last bit of oil out of the pan. Toss well to distribute anchovies and garlic and then sprinkle with parsley. Toss again and serve with a green salad on the side and a loaf of crusty bread.

Leftovers are great in a frittata the next day (assuming there are any leftovers, that is).

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Ain’t He Sweet?

How many of the readers of this blog have ever heard of Walter Breuning? He was a dapper resident of Great Falls, MT until last Thursday, when he passed over at the ripe old age of 114. He was born in the 19th century and had strong memories of his grandfather telling him about killing Southern men during the Civil War, a distasteful memory for him. He bought his first car when he was 23 – a second-hand Ford – for $150.00. He worked for the railroad for over 50 years, from age 16 to age 67. He said that “one of the worst things a person can do is retire young.” After retiring from the railroad, he became manager and secretary of the local Shriners chapter, a job he kept until he was 99. He was married for 35 years, but his wife died in 1957. He thought about remarrying, but didn’t, and he had no children. He owned property in Montana once – he and his wife bought it for $15 right before the Depression. They never built on it and sold it during the Depression for $25, making a nice profit.

Walter was flexible, embracing new technology like radios, cars and computers. He was born in a house with no running water or electricity. He flew only once, preferring to remain a railroad man for all long trips.

Walter was a simple man and had a simple philosophy of life – one that we would do well to follow.

He said:

  • Embrace change, even when the change slaps you in the face. (“Every change is good.”)
  • Eat two meals a day (“That’s all you need.”)
  • Work as long as you can (“That money’s going to come in handy.”)
  • Help others (“The more you do for others, the better shape you’re in.”)
  • Accept death. (“We’re going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die.”)

I like Walter. I wish I had met him when I was younger. I would like to have sat with him and heard his stories about coming through the early years of the 20th Century. I would love to have talked politics with him. A lifelong Republican, he said every president he recalled did something good, except G.W. Bush, who got us into a war we can’t get out of. The first president he experienced was McKinley, and he lived through 20 different presidencies. That’s quite remarkable, especially when you consider that he experienced the work of almost HALF of the presidents this country has ever had!

After 114 years, he said in one of his final interviews that he doesn’t regret anything about his life. Nothing. That’s remarkable.

I want to live life looking ahead, with no fear and no regrets when all is said and done. I want to be like Walter. Someone, please remind me of that next time I start moaning and groaning.

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Honesty in the Food Industry

I have a bone to pick with manufacturers and marketers and other food industry folk who seem to be driven by greed in this era of economic crappiness. It concerns downsizing. Not downsizing of the companies themselves (which I think may be in order), but the downsizing of containers, without a commensurate downsizing in price.

“Why I Oughta…”

The other day I bought a quart of mayonnaise for $4.59. Hellmann’s is the only mayonnaise I will buy – ever – and I had run out so I bought a new jar. I got it home and noticed something disturbing – it’s no longer a quart! It’s only 30 ounces! For more money! WHAT!? You can mess with a lot and I’ll be tolerant, but mess with my mayonnaise and I get steamed.

That got me thinking about what else has been downsized. A can of tuna is now 5 ounces, not 6. That’s not enough for 2 sandwiches, but rather one and a half. It is a travesty to have more bread than tuna in a sandwich, so now I must make 2 cans at once and get 3 sandwiches from them. However, that means that the price of tuna has gone up about 20%. (gulp!)

Tofu is a staple in our house. Back in the day a typical container held a pound. A nice, round number, easy to calculate recipes from. Now a container of tofu contains 14 ounces, an increase of 12.5%. AND the price has increased for the tofu, because guess what? It’s a healthy food! … Must… Charge… More…

How about yogurt? Anyone notice the container has shrunk by 25%, from 8 oz. to 6 oz.? Of course you have, but have you noticed that the price has also gone up on regular, boring yogurt? Now if I need a cup of yogurt for a recipe, I have to buy 2 containers (which is no doubt what the manufacturers want), and the remaining 4 oz. goes unused until it turns into a technicolor science experiment in the fridge. The Greek yogurt enthusiasts may be willing to pay $1.25 for a puny container of their yogurt, so it follows that we must be willing to pay more for plain old lowfat yogurt… not!… I haven’t bought yogurt since they raised the price. It’s not worth it to me. I am considering investing in a yogurt maker, however, but I hear it’s a stinky process.

Let’s talk about ice cream. 56 ounces? Used to be ice cream came in gallons and half gallons. Now it’s 56 ounces. There’s that 12.5% decrease again. And what happened to the price? When the price of gas went up last year, the cost of a “half gallon” of ice cream shot through the roof. Can you say “fleecing”?

At what point are we as consumers going to stand up and say “ENOUGH!”? Stop ripping us off; stop thinking that we are too stupid to notice that you are putting less in the box and charging us the same price? Stop thinking that we need your product so we will pay any price to have it. Stop thinking nobody notices that you are raking in the profit while we are paying more for less. We, the American people, are NOT stupid! We know we’re getting ripped off. We’re just voiceless, because we need to eat and most of us are slaves to our tastebuds, which you know.

What’s next? 10 eggs in a carton? A 4.5 pound bag of flour? A 10 ounce bag of chocolate chips? How about 7 Tablespoons of butter in a stick? Fewer Girl Scout cookies in every box for more money? (oh wait, that already happened.) There’s no end to the potential downsizing of food products. We need to speak out and tell the manufacturers and advertisers that we notice and are mighty miffed by their tactics.

Next time you notice that the giant box of Cheerios is only half full, take the box and draw a line on the outside with a Sharpie marker. Label this line “Total contents after shaking to counteract settling.” Then draw a line up near the top of the box and label it “Total contents if you were honest about your product.” Collapse the box and mail it to the CEO. Tell them that you would buy more of their product if they were honest about the labeling and presentation of their product.

Then go make some French toast.

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