December 26, 2011

Spaghetti for Christmas... Sort of

We decided to make up a big batch of our spaghetti sauce on Christmas day.  The idea was to have a nice, filling dinner and plenty of leftovers to eat for lunches. 

I spent the bulk of the afternoon making the sauce, but late in the afternoon, Juli realized we didn't have any spaghetti!  When making the list for the previous day's shopping list, we'd made sure to list all of the sauce ingredients we didn't have on stock, but somehow we forgot to add spaghetti.

Thankfully, we did have some macaroni on hand, so we had our spaghetti sauce with macaroni.   This made for a good meal, though perhaps not quite as nice as if we'd had the spaghetti.  We served it up with garlic bread and a side Caesar salad.

All in all, this made for a good first Xmas dinner in our new home.

December 25, 2011

Soup for Christmas Eve

Yesterday (Christmas Eve), I was really in the mood for my Mom and Dad's Italian Vegetable Supper Soup.  I thought it would be the perfect light dinner to have after playing for the 6 PM service at church.

I went to our new neighborhood HyVee, and man, were people ever grouchy.  Not the clerks, mind you- just the customers!  And every employee I interacted with commented how grinchy people had been all day long.  So, I went out of my way to be pleasant, even when there wasn't garlic bread or Graziano's sausage left.  I just bought some French bread, and we garlicked it ourselves.  I also bought Hyvee's in-house Italian sausage.  Christmas was not ruined.  Heh.

I left Jeffrey cooking as I went to church, but he unintentionally didn't quite follow the recipe.  And now a new classic is born!  It's kind of like Jonas Salk discovering the cure for penicillen by accident.  But in our case, without the mold.  Serendipity!

Jeffrey's Italian Vegetable and Bean Soup
yield = 6-8 servings 

1                package (1 pound) soup bean mix
1                pound lean ground beef
1                tablespoon olive oil
1                large white onion, finely chopped
1                cup peeled, diced carrots
1                cup diced celery
2                cloves garlic, chopped
1/2             teaspoon dried basil
1/2             teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2             teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2             teaspoon dried oregano
1/2             teaspoon thyme
1/2             teaspoon table salt
1/4             teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 
8                cups chicken broth or stock
1                medium unpeeled zucchini, chopped
1/2             cup small shell pasta

1.  Bring 6 cups of water to a boil.  Add beans, cook 2 minutes, then cover and remove from heat.  Let the beans sit for 1 hour, then drain.

2.  Brown and drain the ground beef.  Set aside.  Add olive oil to a large skillet over medium heat.  When shimmering, add the onion, carrots and celery and cook until the vegetables have softened and started to lightly brown (about 10 minutes).  Add garlic, spices, and seasonings and cook, stirring, 1 minute.  Remove from heat. 

3.  Add chicken broth or stock to a large pot.  Add drained beans, cooked vegetables, and ground beef.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook 1 hour.  Stir in zucchini and pasta and cook an additional 15 minutes.  Serve with warm, crusty bread and enjoy.

Notes:  This is a great, thick, chunky soup.  If you want to make it brothier, we won't tell.  We like it chunky, but to each his own. :)

December 11, 2011

Christmas Coffee?

We continue to work on the move from small-town Iowa to the Des Moines metro.  I was so pleased that Jeffrey brought me my coffee maker last night- but then this morning I realized there wasn't any sugar!  Kind of.  I had my choice of decorator's sugar in six different shades, or powdered sugar.  I went with the green sprinkles. Heh.

I'm trying to decide if it's worth putting up a Christmas tree when there are still boxes and their contents everywhere.  It would be my first treeless Christmas ever.  My romantic side says it's worth the time/money investment, my practical side says we've had enough expenses and wouldn't it be better to use that time to just put everything away?  Not sure yet which side will win.  I will put up my nativity set no matter what, and really, that's more important to me.

I hope to have pictures for you soon, we don't have internet set up at the Dollhouse yet.

December 06, 2011

Hoops Have Been Jumped!

And....the house is ours!  Wow, do we have a lot of kitchen stuff to move!  It will take us some time to get everything arranged to our satisfaction, and then we'll be back to blogging.

When my head stops spinning from all the details I have to remember, the bank accounts and mailing addresses to change, the things that we have to buy to make the house functional (like curtains, curtain hardware, towel rods for the bathroom, a mailbox....) I will have a funny story to tell you about prepping for the move.


November 22, 2011

An Update/Status Report

Jeffrey here.   I just wanted to let you know that a) we're still around, and b) we haven't forgotten about blogging,  The simple fact is, we've been very busy with our home purchasing - I don't recall it being anywhere near this complicated last time I bought a home - with family matters and with a recent vacation.  We honestly haven't had much time to do any cooking.   We will hopefully be closing on the new home around the end of this month, though, and after that we'll be doing a lot of cooking in our nice, new kitchen, and since we'll then have something to blog about again, my plan is that we'll start blogging again shortly after the move.

So, next time you hear from us we'll hopefully have moved, or at least started the process, and maybe we'll be able to show you our new kitchen.

October 25, 2011

Home sweet home?

We may have a new home in the Des Moines metro.  Or not.  Depends on how many hoops we can jump through and how fast!

It's cute, though, isn't it? :)

October 10, 2011

A New Focus to Our Cooking! (For Awhile Anyway)

If you're a faithful reader, you may have noticed that we haven't posted for 3 days, thus breaking our year-plus record of never missing a day of blogging.  There is a reason for this.

Somehow Jeffrey and I haven't adapted to our usual fall routine, wherein we both work late twice a week, and also put in Sunday work hours.  I'm not sure why we're not jumping back into formation, but we *have* been making time to do things we enjoy, so that we're not always slogging away at the grindstone.  After work hours we play cards, I've been going to a knitting class, and we've been busy practically every Thursday for a month with something else (more on that in a bit). Doing this has actually translated into even more late nights in Des Moines, and we've found that our commute has become more burdensome than ever.  And it's not even winter yet!

That brings me to our Thursday jaunts.  We've been house-hunting, in Des Moines (that's the Thursday night activity)  We've seen some really spooky-bad houses, as we've tried to find a home in a neighborhood that's 1: not scary, 2:  is convenient for our jobs, and 3:  is affordable.  It's been kind of fun, looking at all the different kinds of homes people make.  We finally found one that might be workable, although it has its share of problems. 

The biggest problem is scraping up a down payment when our own house isn't ready to sell.  Before you try to convince me what a very bad idea it is to buy a house when you still owe on another, I might tell you that our current house payment is less than a car payment.  Anybody's car payment.  One realtor even suggested that we keep our small-town abode as a weekend home (!!!!), and it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.  But hey, in this market, you never know!

So, we have had to do a rethinking of our budget.  With so many extra hours away from home, it's become very difficult to cook on a regular basis. Yet- we have to start to make better attempts to do this, because we have to save every penny we can, and eating out is expensive (and not very interesting to read about on a cooking blog!).

So, I give you tonight's dinner:  Grilled cheese sandwiches and a Caesar salad.  Neither of which require recipes. 

Our food budget has room for drastic cuts, and now we've got excellent motivation to do so.  I would love to read your suggestions for low cost meals.    Please help?



October 06, 2011

Juli's Most-Used/ Favorite Cookbooks

Yesterday Jeffrey gave you his top picks for favorite cookbooks, so I decided that today was my turn.  You'll notice that there is zero overlap!  Jeffrey admires the Cook's Illustrated cookbooks, while I find their recipes impossibly long and tedious, and full of what I think are questionable techniques (the pie crust recipe they dote on is horribly difficult to make, for instance, and doesn't taste nearly as good as my Dad's plain-jane recipe).  I guess my main complaint with the recipes is that they tend not to use any cooking shortcuts at all, and take far longer to prepare than I would like.  I also am by and large unacquainted with Indian cooking, which Jeffrey has included in his cookbook picks.  I love Indian food, I just haven't done any of the actual cooking.

Sometimes I like to read cookbooks for fun.  One I'm enjoying currently is Jessica Harper's The Crabby Cook Cookbook:  Recipes and Rants. I've also enjoyed the Mennonite More-with-Less cookbook and the Sondheim/Sloan collaboration  A Dinner a Day, although some of the last cookbook's recipes are really terrible.  But for menu-planning ideas, it's a great book!

Anyway!  Here are my favorite cookbooks:

Betty Crocker's Cooky Book was published in 1963, and is one of the few cookbooks I remember from my childhood.  I loved paging through and looking at the color pictures and illustrations, and reading the "flavor text".  For example, the cookie called Joe Froggers starts off with this:  "Our adaptation of the famous molasses cookies made long ago by old Uncle Joe of Marblehead, Mass.  The cookies are as plump and dark as the little frogs that lived in the pond near Joe's cottage".  These texts made cooking seem like a fun activity, and encouraged me to experiment with baking.

When I was a high school student, in the summertime my sister and I took turns doing a lot of the household chores, since by then Mom had taken a job outside the home.  It was fun to do the menu planning and shopping, and having control over what we all ate for dinner!Pillsbury's Bake Off Main Dish Cook Book (published in 1968) was one of my go-to books.  Cece and I tried quite a few of the casserole recipes during those years.  Recipes we especially enjoyed included Hungy Boys' Casserole, Beef Burger Bar-B-Que, and Chicken Almond Party Bake.

This is a church cookbook put together by the Catholic Ladies Union in Cherokee, Iowa in 1982.  This book is filled with plain, filling, delicious home cooking, and doesn't rely on a lot of expensive convenience foods or unusual ingredients.  I'd be very surprised is there is a single recipe here that takes longer than an hour, start to finish.

This cookbook is a sentimental favorite, being a collection of computer-typed pages that my Grandma gathered from lots of my relatives.  She enjoyed typing on the computer and putting in the pictures and recipe categories.  Recipes include her own prize-winning Deluxe Potato Soup and Dad's Italian Vegetable Supper Soup, which are both really outstanding!  If you don't have a collection of recipe gems from the cooks in your family, you should!

The last cookbook is simply a 3-ring binder of the best recipes that Jeffrey and I have created.  The recipes are all ones we rate at 5 stars (totally trough-worthy).  I make an extra set of these recipes for my son to have and present them to him at Christmas time- his binder is a bright spring green.  I put each full-page typed recipe in a plastic sleeve, so hopefully the books will stay nice for a really long time.

October 05, 2011

Most-Used Favorite Cookbooks

I was looking for a recipe a couple days ago, and having no luck in finding it until I realized it was in one of my lesser-used cookbooks.   That got me thinking about how despite owning a lot of cookbooks - a whole small bookcase full, in fact - I get a lot more use out of some of them than I do others, and particularly tend to rely on a small number of them for a lot of my cooking. 

Probably the top of my list of go-to cookbooks is the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, currently in its third edition.  I own the Cookware Rating edition, which - naturally enough - features suggestions for "best of class" and "best value" among the various sorts of cookware available.  Want to know what the ATK folk think is the best value for a chef's knife (you might be surprised to discover they recommend a relatively low-cost brand) or which non-stick skillets hold up the best to regular use?  Then this is the book for you.   That said, the real value is in the rest of the book, which includes tons of good cooking tips, 1200+ recipes and lots of great illustrations.  Most of what's presented is pretty standard stuff, but there are the occasional surprise recipes, plus a lot of useful "root recipes" one can use as the basis of a lot of variations.  I've found this helpful for pie crusts, among other things.  All of the recipes have been rigorously tested by the America's Test Kitchen staff, and I've not yet found one that wasn't good.

Also from the ATK/Cook's Illustrated folk is The New Best Recipe.   Whereas the ATK Family Cookbook presents everything in a very straight-forward, no-frills manner, The New Best Recipe is intended for cooking geeks.   Written in the technical Cook's Illustrated format, it features in-depth discussion of recipe testing and lengthly sections about various cooking techniques.  It also features a somewhat fancier and more esoteric bunch of recipes, over 1000 of them.  If you are just looking for stratightforward recipes, you would be better off with the ATK Family Cookbook, but if you're interested in comparisons of how different techniques interact with different cuts of meat, or find food science fascinating, this is one you will want. 

I am also a big fan of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook 125th Anniversary Edition.  This is another basic cookbook which covers a lot of the same ground as the ATK Family Cookbook, but from a somewhat different perspective.  I often find it helpful to look at several recipes for the same dish when developing my own version, and the two I tend to rely upon the most are this one and the ATK Family Cookbook.   Looking at commonalities between different versions of the same recipe, and also paying attention to the small differences that can make a big difference in flavor or ease of cooking, has made me a better cook.  Considered exclusively on its own merits, the Good Housekeeping Cookbook is a great deal, featuring 1275 solid, well-tested recipes, many of which have withstood the test of time. 

My next favorite is the Complete Step-By-Step Cookbook.  It is available in different editions by two different publishers, but as far as I can tell the contents are functionally identical, even down to identical illustrations.  For what it's worth, I have the Salamander edition, but again, I think the Thunder Bay Press edition is identical.  The promotional blurb about this book including everything the home cook could possibly hope for is a bit hyperbolic, at least in regard to this particular home cook, but I've been pleased by every one of the 800-odd recipes in this book that I've gotten around to making (probably about 50), and it has given me a lot of good ideas for my own recipes and for use in customizing standard recipes.   It features concise instructions and beautiful illustrations, and I can't imagine an amateur or home cook not finding some good stuff here.  This book has been around for awhile, and it is readily available for cheap at Amazon.

I've mentioned the next favorite before, but it's worth mentioning again, because Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India truly is a great book.  This has become my go-to book for Indian cooking.   It features a great opening discussion of Indian culinary traditions and philosophy, and in terms of recipes, I've not yet found a book that features a better range of dishes drawn from the various Indian regional cuisines.  Plus, in addition to the "50 great curries" advertised in the title, this one features lots of recipes for Indian breads, sauces, vegetable and rice sides and so forth, putting the total number of recipes closer to 100.

October 04, 2011

Marathon Cooking Results

Well, we were all set to do tons of cooking last Saturday when fate, questionable choices, and prescription side effects intervened.  Basically, we ended up disregarding all the advice I gave to you last Thursday about how to make a marathon cooking day a success!

First of all, we decided to play cards Friday after work.  I can't exactly say that this was a bad decision, just a questionable one.  Jeffrey is teaching me how to play Magic:  the Gathering, an experience I find equally frustrating and enjoyable.  MtG is described as "an exception-based card game", which basically means the rules change continually, practically with each card as it's played.  This is what makes the game challenging, and the learning curve is super steep.  

Anyway, we toddled off to Mayhem.  I was playing horribly and was beginning to catch some negative effects from a very powerful prescription antibiotic, and was ready to leave by 10:30, but Jeffrey neglected to inform the gamekeeper of this, and we got roped into another round.  Well- Jeffrey did! He was paired up with another player, but as I was the best at losing hands that evening, and there was an uneven number of players left, I had to sit out that last round. It ended at midnight!  I was really glad I had some knitting with me.

The next morning, I felt even worse and Jeffrey ended up doing a double batch of Cook's Illustrated's Chicken Pot Pie all by himself.  I am not a very good patient at best, and I was exhausted as well.  I did have all the fixings for Crockpot Curry Beef on hand, but didn't pull myself together to begin making it until Sunday evening.  I was thankful Jeffrey helped me.  We got the meat all cooked up, and cut the dried apricots so they were ready for assembly:

Browning the spiced meat.

Cutting up the apricots with a kitchen shears.
Then on Monday morning I put the prepared meat and dried fruit in the slow cooker and added the diced tomatoes and coconut milk, leaving it to cook all day on low heat.  The slow cooker transformed our inexpensive beef roast into meat that was deliciously tender and flavorful.  A really good double batch!

Topped with shredded coconut!

 Here is part of what we did over the weekend.  It just took us longer than one day, and we only got the two dishes prepared.  Still, it yielded a much fuller freezer!

I doubled the recipe below.  You'll need at least a 6-quart crockpot to fit it all in.

Crockpot Coconut Beef Curry
1/2 cup flour                
2 teaspoons sweet curry
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds extra-lean stew meat
1/4 cup butter
3 ounces dried apricots, cut into thirds (about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 14.5 ounce can petite-diced tomatoes
1 14 ounce can coconut milk
6 servings cooked Basmati rice
flaked sweetened coconut

Combine flour, sweet curry, ginger, ground coriander and salt in a gallon-size re-sealable plastic food storage bag.  Add the stew meat and seal the bag, leaving a little bit of air inside.  Holding the bag at the seal (just in case!), shake the bag to coat the stew meat with the flour-spice mixture.

Melt butter in a big fry pan, then add the beef, being very careful not to hold the plastic bag so close that it melts in the pan (ask me how I know this).  If there is any extra flour mixture, leave in the bag for now.

Sauté the beef pieces, stirring to make sure all sides are cooked evenly.  Now you can pour any remaining flour mixture on top.  Spoon the beef mixture carefully into a large crockpot.  Stir in the dried apricot pieces, golden raisins and the cans of diced tomatoes and coconut milk.

Cook at least 6 hours on low heat.  I've cooked this up to 9 hours without a problem.  Just stir it all up before serving.

About 30 minutes before you want to serve dinner, make the Basmati rice according to package directions.  Serve over hot rice.  This is also great with naan, (or any crusty bread) to soak up the yummy gravy.

Garnish with shredded coconut.

October 03, 2011

Chewy Granola Bars

Awhile back, I wrote about my experience with another blogger's recipe for Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars.  As I noted at the time, I wasn't entirely satisfied with those bars, but my coworkers raved about them, so I planned to eventually tinker with that recipe, to make it more to my liking. 

Well, that eventually happened this past weekend.

When I made the original recipe, I didn't think the result tasted very much like a granola bar, and I was displeased with how much the bars crumbled when I cut them into individual servings.  I resolved to make some changes to the recipe that would provide a bit more flavor and hopefully bind the bars together better.  Toward this goal, I added a bit of molasses and some chopped-up dried fruit (cherries and apples), thinking the stickiness of the molasses and the dried cherries might help the bars hold together.

I think I achieved the first goal - I am much happier with the flavor of these ones than I was the first batch, though Juli still isn't too thrilled by them.  I was less successful in regard to the second goal.  These ones didn't crumble quite so much as did the ones made with the original recipe, but as you can see in the picture above, they were still pretty crumbly.  More than I'd prefer.  So, progress, but not quite all the way there.

I'm happier with this recipe, but I think it still needs some work.   If any of our readers has any ideas how to make the bars hold together better, I'd be quite interested in hearing from you.

Chewy Granola Bars

1          cup chunky peanut butter
1/4       cup honey
1/4       cup maple syrup (not pancake syrup)
2          tablespoons molasses
1          teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2   cups old-fashioned oats
1         cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2      cup dry roasted peanuts
1/2      cup Rice Krispies or similar cereal
1/2      cup shredded coconut
2         tablespoons dried apples, finely chopped
2         tablespoons dried cherries, finely chopped

Prepare a 8"x8" baking dish by lining it with aluminum foil and spraying the foil with nonstick cooking spray.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the peanut butter, honey, maple syrup. molasses and vanilla extract.  Stir in the oats to completely cover them with the liquid mixture, then add in the chocolate chips, peanuts, Rice Krispies, coconut and dried fruit.  Stir to mix thoroughly. 

Pour the mixture into the baking dish and press it into the dish tightly and evenly.  Bake for 35 minutes, then remove from oven.  Let cool completely in the pan before inverting and cutting into bars.

October 02, 2011

Best Laid Plans

A couple days ago, Juli posted about our plans to do a lot of cooking this weekend. 

Unfortunately, things didn't work out quite as planned.  Things came up, priorities got shifted and we didn't get everything made that we'd planned.  We still did some big cooking, but I haven't had any time to write about it.  More of that "things came up, priorities shifted, yada yada" routine.

So, we'll have some cooking to talk about over the next few nights, but tonight... not so much.  Sorry.

October 01, 2011

Chicken Pot Pie with Savory Crumble Topping

Today I revisited a recipe we discussed some time back, Chicken Pot Pie with Savory Crumble Topping.  Last time I made it with turkey, but this time we made it as per the recipe, with chicken. It turned out just as excellent as last time.   Indeed, this is one of the most reliably good recipes I've found.

The recipe was originally printed in the September/October 2010 issue of Cook's Illustrated.  It has also been featured on the America's Test Kitchen TV show.  I've seen the recipe mentioned elsewhere, which isn't surprising, given how good it is.

Some unusual ingredients for a dish of this sort - Parmesan cheese, tomato paste, mushrooms and soy sauce - give this pot pie a really rich flavor with lots of depth.  The rich sauce and tender bits of chicken and vegetables are all good, but the crumble topping - made with lots of butter and cream, plus Parmesan and seasonings - is what really makes this pot pie stand out.

I could go on and say a lot more, but really, the best thing I can say about this recipe is that it comes with our highest recommendation.  We love it, and we're sure you will too.

September 30, 2011

Chicken and Vegetable Stew with Rosemary Dumplings

Last night I made something a little different.  I got the idea from the 125th Anniversary edition of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook.  They had a recipe in there for Chicken with Rosemary Dumplings.  I used that recipe for a starting point to make a version of my own.

The result was a thick, hearty stew full of vegetables and bits of chicken, served along with wonderfully flavorful dumplings.  The entire dish had a rich chicken flavor.  With Juli and me working together, this dish didn't take too long to make, and even if it had taken a lot more time, it would have been worth the effort.

Try it.  I'm pretty sure you'll be pleased.

Chicken and Vegetable Stew with Rosemary Dumplings

yield = 5-6 servings

3           tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided
5           pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-
                size pieces
8           ounces cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
1           teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1           teaspoon salt
4           large carrots, peeled and sliced thin
2           large stalks celery, finely chopped
1           large onion, finely chopped
1           cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2           teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2     teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1           large egg
1 1/2     cups milk
2 1/2     cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/4     cups water
2           cups frozen peas

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until very hot.  Add half of the chicken pieces.1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/8 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring often, until golden-brown.  Remove chicken to a bowl.  Repeat with the remaining chicken.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to drippings in the Dutch oven.   Add mushrooms, carrots, celery and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are golden brown and tender, about 10 minutes.

While the vegetables are cooking, prepare the dumplings.   In a small bowl, combine 1 cup flour, baking powder, rosemary and 1/2 teaspoon salt. In another bowl, beat together egg and 1/2 cup milk.  Stir egg mixture into flour mixture until just blended.

Return chicken to Dutch oven.  Add chicken broth, water, remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.   Drop tablespoons of the dumpling mixture on top of chicken and vegetables to make dumplings.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes.

Remove dumplings, chicken and vegetables to a serving bowl; keep warm.  In a cup, blend remaining 2 tablespoons flour with remaining 1 cup milk until smooth. Stir into the broth remaining in the Dutch oven.  Heat to boiling and let boil 1 minute or until slightly thickened.  Stir in peas and heat through (3 minutes). 

Add individual servings of chicken, vegetables and dumplings to bowls.  Ladle sauce over each serving and serve.


September 29, 2011

Gardening for Lazy People: The Cardboard Method

I recently read about a totally chemical-free way to get rid of weeds and grass in your garden.  It's so simple I can't believe it I haven't heard about it sooner! Now that it's time to rip out all the tired, dying plants lingering in our veggie patch, I thought we might try this technique.

Here's what you do:  First of all, clear all the big stuff out, like the sad droopy caged cherry tomato plants you can't even bear to look at any more, or the dried out string bean plants.  If your garden is like ours, there will be plenty of weeds and grass left.  Pull or clip any tall stuff, and go get yourself some old cardboard boxes- the bigger the better.

Break down each box into one big flat piece of cardboard, and put them on top of the garden, covering the entire surface.  Get out the garden hose, and soak the cardboard.  Anchor down with big rocks at the edges.  Water lightly once a week or so.  When frost threatens, water one last time.  Leave anchor rocks in place during winter.  (Don't forget to unhook your hose from the outdoor spigot and put it away for the winter- you don't want your pipes to burst!  Ask me how I know.  Sigh).

If you're even busier (or lazier) than us, wait until about April to do the cardboard coverage.  You should have a nice weed-free garden by planting time.

September 28, 2011

Planning a Marathon Cooking Session

I've been fascinated by Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) lately- probably because I would love to have our meals all ready to heat and eat, and have minimal meal clean-up. For a whole month! But this hasn't happened lately at our house.  Quite the opposite.  Sigh.

If you have a school-age child, or have activities that revolve around the school year, you'll know that your life changes significantly when September rolls around.  I am still struggling to adapt to the changing responsibilities that back-to-school time brings! 

For some reason, this year has been harder than usual to change our routine.  I think the problem may have started when we took a little weekend getaway over Labor Day Weekend.  That was enough to get us out of the cooking habit, and we've now eaten all our freezer lunches and have had to start going out for lunch. Ick!  Doing that costs more, takes up part of our limited lunch times, and the takeout food is usually lacking in vegetables, fruits, and -well- nutrition.

This Saturday Jeffrey and I have planned to do a lot of cooking.  We'll be making Cooks Illustrated's Chicken Pot Pie, which is actually more like a chicken casserole; 

either lasagne or spaghetti sauce

 and Crockpot Curry Beef

What do you have to do to have a successful cooking marathon?  Well, the first thing is to start with a clean kitchen, with all the countertops cleared of anything that's not essential.  For us, this usually means putting away the dishes that have been air-drying, and wiping down all the countertop surfaces.  We'll also get out any appliances we might need, such as the slow cooker, and make sure they're clean and ready to go.

You should also start with an empty kitchen garbage can, because you may end up with a lot of trash, and you'll want to concentrate all your energy on the actual cooking.  You will be cleaning up pots and pans and other dishes as you go, but emptying the trash can be a dirty job and is best avoided while you've got so many other things to keep track of.

Next, you'll need to pull together all your recipes, and make absolutely sure you have everything you need to make them.  When making up a grocery list, put like items together for ease of shopping.  So, all the meats would be listed together, all the canned vegetables, all the fresh produce, etc.  Make sure the shopping is done at least by the night before.  If you want to start kitchen prep the night before, that will help speed up your marathon cooking session, too.  For instance, we thought about making both a vegetable beef soup and the crockpot beef curry, and discussed getting a chuck roast and cutting it up for both recipes the night before.  The roast might be less per pound than the usual stew beef we use, so it's worth checking that type of thing out during the grocery phase.

Get plenty of sleep the night before- you're going to be on your feet for several hours, most likely, and if you're over-tired, the marathon will seem even longer!  Get up as early as you usually do during the week- you'll have more of a sense of accomplishment when you see just how much you've completed by mid-morning.

Make sure to dress comfortably and wear supportive shoes that won't hurt your feet.  I wear very comfortable sneakers, and I know better than to wear anything that might stain from tomato sauce or several bags worth of carrot peelings.

Hopefully all will go well, and we will have lots of pictures to share with you to show the fruits of our Saturday cooking spree.  Not to mention, a fully-stocked freezer!

September 27, 2011

Black Bean and Butternut Squash Chili

All in all, I rather like fall.  You can still grill outside pretty comfortably a good bit of the time, and it is cool enough that cooking will make your house more comfortable, not less so.   It's a great time of the year to start doing more baking and making hot soups, stews and chili.  Today's recipe is one example.

This chili doesn't include any meat.  Instead, it's based on one of the best fall vegetables, butternut squash.  This is just the thing to warm up a cool autumn day or evening.  It's rich, flavorful and hearty enough that you won't miss the meat.  Plus, it's easy to make.  It does take a fair amount of time to cook, but most of that time is spent with the pot simmering on the stove, which means you can spend most of the time doing something else - baking, perhaps, or even something outside the kitchen! - other than occasionally stirring. 

Black Bean and Butternut Squash Chili

yield = 8-10 servings

2             tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2             large onions, chopped
3             hot chili peppers (cayenne or serrano), minced
2             tablespoons minced garlic
2             tablespoon2 hot chili powder
1             tablespoon ancho chili powder
1             tablespoon ground coriander
1             tablespoon dried Mexican oregano, crushed
1/2          teaspoon ground cumin
8             cups low-sodium chicken broth
2             cups water
2             cans (14.5 ounce) fire-roasted tomatoes
1             pound dried black beans, rinsed
1             tablespoon (packed) light brown sugar
1             butternut squash (2-3 lbs), peeled, seeded and
1/2          cup quick-cooking bulgar
1 1/4       teaspoon table salt
1             teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper (to taste)
               sour cream and grated cheddar cheese,
                    as toppings

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high heat.  Add onions and chilis and cook until soft and beginning to brown.  Add garlic, chili powders, coriander, oregano, cumin, cook 30 seconds, then stir in. 

Add chicken broth, water, tomatoes, black beans and brown sugar.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer with lid slightly ajar, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender (about two hours). 

Stir in butternut squash, bulgar, salt and pepper and simmer uncovered until the squash and bulgar are tender (about 1/2 hour).   Serve in bowls topped with sour cream and cheese.