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.