Post #559 Menus O’Plenty

January 28, 2018 at 4:57 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now is focus on quick, fast, tasty, and nutritious meals.  When I was in college, I necessarily ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches due to budget and time constraints.  Once, I got home from work and was sitting on the couch and thinking about everything I still had to get done that evening, meal prep and eating being one of them.  Just as I was setting about getting my butt in gear, a plate of steaming lasagna appeared in front of me.  My roommate said, “Here.  You look like you could use this.”  It helped.  He could throw a pan of lasagna together fast than anyone I’d ever seen.  And he could make enough for two people only, or one person twice.  It was amazing.

Since I’ve started working full time, meals during the week tend to be on the fast side and I try to make them nutritious.  Here’s a typical day.  Partner/Spouse wakes up at 4:30am and gets ready for the day.  Neither the dog nor I rouse much although we’re both aware of his absence.  About an hour later, he shakes my shoulder, kisses me goodbye and leaves.  I get up cuz I’m awake and take the dog out, then feed him.  I get my breakfast and clean the kitchen if I left it messy from the night before.  About 6:15 or so I start working on my computer so I don’t get behind.  I get ready about 8, throw my lunch together, take the dog out once more, and meet my ride, and I’m at my desk about ten minutes before 9.  The day goes forth and I get off at 6:30, if I don’t get any last minute calls that take me past my end of shift, which happens fairly often.  I meet Partner/Spouse in the parking lot.  He may or may not have been home yet.  It’s 7 or later by the time we walk in the door.  Dinner has to be made, the dog has to be taken out then fed, we both have to change and get comfy, and because our day starts early, we usually want to be in bed by 9:30 or so.  So there’s basically two and a half hours or so from the time we walk in the door till trying to get some sleep.  Weekends are worse.  So.  Dinner needs to be fast, plentiful, easy, tasty, and help us sleep.

Initially, I thought about making several things on the weekend and freezing them, but our freezer space is limited.  I do have soups and sauces frozen.  But neither of us is big on leftovers.  I can make quick and tasty dishes but I’m always looking for variety in our diet.  So last week, this is what we came up with.

Monday – grilled pork chops and salad:  I took the chops out before I left for work so they were completely thawed out and waiting for us.  I started the pan heating before I took the dog out, so by the time I was ready to cook, it was blazing hot and cooking even thick chops was a matter of minutes in the sizzling skillet and then the oven.  Making a salad is even easier while the chops finish in the oven.  Partner/Spouse will cut all the meat off his chop and throw it on top of his salad, while I do it all on the plate while I’m eating.

Tuesday – Taco Salad:  I took the hamburger out of the freezer the moment I got up and put it into the fridge when I left the house.  By the time we got home, it was thawed and ready to cook.  I threw it into a skillet after taking the dog out and cooked it up quickly.  I drained it off completely, and added a half-full container of cilantro salsa we’d bought the previous week for tacos.  It was a chunky salsa and had loads of onions, chili peppers, and other great ingredients.  I mixed it all thoroughly and let the juices simmer off and the salsa thickened into a nice chunky sauce.  Then it was just a matter of putting our salads together and putting the hot beef mixture on top.  I had cut lettuce, cheese, fresh tomatoes, more fresh salsa, the beef mixture and cheese on top of that.  I forgot about tortilla chips, but didn’t miss them.

Wednesday – ham and eggs and biscuits:  A long while ago, we’d bought a spiral cut ham on the bone for an amazing price when it was on sale.  Then I cut it all off the bone and packaged it in portions we’d actually use.  So one of those came out of the freezer and into the fridge.  When we got home, I immediately started the oven and took the dog out.  While I’m walking the dog, Partner/Spouse always puts his dinner together and sets it on the floor so when we walk in the door and I unharness him, Buddy runs to his dinner.  I put the skillet on to heat and take four frozen biscuits out of the freezer.

Have I told you about these?

They’re one of the success stories of modern freezing technology.  Faster and better tasting than refrigerator tube biscuits or rolls, we keep them on hand all the time.  You can make as many or as few as you want or need.  We typically cook up four at a time.  While they were cooking, I was searing several thin pieces of spiral cut ham.   In between time, I was beating six extra large eggs for scrambled eggs.  That seems a lot, but some go to Buddy, and by this time of the evening, we’re really hungry.  Lunch seems like days ago.  By the time the biscuits are done, the ham is heated through and the eggs are cooked dry, the way we like them.  Time to chow down.

Thursday – Arroz con Pollo:  Arroz con Pollo is one of those things when done right is ambrosia, and when done wrong is still pretty darn good!  I took the chicken out of the freezer the night before and let it partially thaw then put it in the fridge before going to bed.  By the next evening, it was ready to be cut up.  We have a European style water heater for tea and coffee but we use it to boil up a few cups of water when we need it for something else.  I sprayed a casserole dish with a glass cover with vegetable spray and put a cup of rice in it.  I mixed in some garlic powder and dry chicken bouillon granules.  The water got to boiling while I cut up the chicken into bite sized pieces.  I put a cup and a half of boiling water into the casserole with the rice and stirred until all the flavors were mixed.  Then I added about a cup of basic jarred salsa and the chicken.  I stirred to combine everything, then covered it.  The oven was at 400 so it went in to cook for 45 minutes.  Make sure the chicken is completely cooked (which is why I cut into smaller pieces.)  You can stir to mix it up, or just scoop it up.  It was delicious.  The rice was cooked perfectly and the flavors were great.  I took a big bunch to work the next day for my ride-share friend and he said it was the one of the best things he tasted.

Friday – Take out Chinese:  I got chicken pad thai.  The place was busy so we didn’t get home till just after 8.  A glass of wine with the chinese, slightly later bed time, but all was good.

Saturday –  The chicken pad thai from the day before wasn’t sitting well with me.  We had the last of our frozen biscuits (bought more today) and the last of the ham (bought more today.)  We ran a ton of errands, bought some fun stuff, went to an antique store, took Buddy with us and generally had a good time.  We had planned to grab lunch during our travels but since my stomach still wasn’t feeling up to snuff, we had lunch at home, but late.  Late enough that we really didn’t feel much like eating any dinner, so dinner was foraging.  I had crackers, I think.

Sunday –  Today, we’re having the last of a prime rib roast we bought at Christmas.  We’re cutting it into two thick steaks and grilling it on our cast iron grill pan.  We’re also having Yorkshire pudding, and some fresh tomatoes and cucumber.  Gravy on the Yorkshire pudding.  Yorkshire pudding is basically flour, egg, and water stirred at intervals throughout the day and baked in an very hot oven to get a giant poof, then reduced to cook through.  It’s thick and gooey and very good with gravy.

So that’s our week of meals when time is critical.  Except weekends (Friday included in that weekend thing) when time isn’t critical, it’s usually less than 40 minutes from stepping in the door to dinner on the table.  This upcoming week I’m going to play around with some pasta meals and let you know how those turn out.  We’re not starving, and we eat balanced, nutritious meals.  Sometimes later than we should but it’s better than going to bed listening to our stomach growl.  If you have any favorite “go to” meals for a busy weekday, please share.  I’d love to hear about them!

And, as always,

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Post #558 Yup, Bread Again!

January 21, 2018 at 12:48 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s no secret in this blog that I love bread.  I really do.  Yesterday, for breakfast, I ate two biscuits with butter and local raspberry preserves and was happy all morning.  Then for lunch, we had french bread slices with brie and veggies and sliced meats.  Dinner was a little heartier, grilled and sliced steak with salad, but there were croutons in the salad so that counts.  Pizza is one of my favorite things and it’s really just bread dough with cheese and tomato sauce.  And don’t even get me started on cheese sandwiches, hot or otherwise.  This morning for breakfast, I ate two pain au chocolat, basically french croissants with bittersweet chocolate inside them although rolled a little differently.  So, yeah.  Bread.  Good stuff.

I’ve had a search on for a couple of years now to find the easiest and most satisfying recipe to make “regular” white sandwich bread.  I found one from Julia Child that fit the bill, but was a little complicated.  I used one from America’s Test Kitchen that was good, but intricate though reliable, as all their recipes are.  I had just settled on one that made a good serviceable bunch of sandwich rolls in an easy manner, when someone from the food group I’m in on FB (Food Interactive, if you’d like to get involved) shared a recipe that made two loaves of a tender but well structured loaf.  It was an easy recipe, hands on, and versatile.  I took it on and I’ve made easily 50 loaves using this recipe.  We’ll go through the first loaf in a couple of days, and the second (when we start getting tired of toast and sandwiches) over the rest of the week.  Partner/Spouse doesn’t eat as much bread as I do, but eats his fair share.

So somewhere along the line, I decided I was a bread baker.  For Christmas this past year, I got two books on baking bread, three Banneton bread proofing bowls (French willow baskets used to create round or oblong rustic loaves), and a couple of other baking implements.  And I’ve been working on trying out various recipes.  Cuz that’s how I roll (mmm, rolls!)  When I wanted to learn how to make a good cake, I made cake over and over again.  I got so I could from an urge to make to cake to the finished product in under an hour.  I can throw together a batch of chocolate chip cookies and have them cooling on a wire rack in under 45 minutes.  Brownies from start to eating is about four hours because you have to add in the three hour cooling time it takes to keep from searing the inside of your mouth.  I did the same with spaghetti sauce and Italian cooking.  And there was a time when I used the gas grill outside far more often than the stove.

So here I am now with bread.  Cuz I love bread.  And bread, in its simplicity and complexity and variety, is truly one of the great challenges in the baking world.  It’s easy to learn and hard to master.  There are subtleties to making it.  The ingredients can change the finished product depending on their age.  And those changes can make the bread a tremendous success or a rousing failure.  It’s tough to tell what’s going to happen.  I used to keep a jar of yeast granules in the fridge to keep them fresh.  Now I keep the vacuum sealed packages instead so they maintain their freshness longer.  I imagine one of these days, I’ll be making my own sourdough starter.

So one of the books I got was from America’s Test Kitchen, their Bread Illustrated Book.  After devouring it with my eyes, I noted a recipe for brioche.  Brioche is a light textured bread with a crumbly interior and a very lightly sweet taste.  It makes a wonderful breakfast bread to toast or to eat plain with butter and jam.  It makes a good french toast, or a bread pudding.  I wanted to try my hand at it, just to see what I came up with.  Here’s how to make it.

  • 1 2/3 cup bread flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp rapid rise yeast
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (one stick) butter, melted and cooled to room temp
  • 1/4 cup water, room temp
  • 3 tablespoons sugar

In a medium bowl, stir the first three ingredients together with a whisk to fully incorporate.  When first putting the ingredients in the bowl, do not allow the salt and the yeast to touch.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together last four ingredients until well blended and the sugar is dissolved.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry and using a rubber spatula, gently incorporate the wet into the dry.  The best way is to move the spatula under the flour and lift up through the egg mixture.  Turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat.  Keep gently mixing until there are no dry ingredients, and everything is mixed.  Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rest at room temp for 10 minutes.  Then, using a plastic bowl scraper or your fingers, fold the dough into itself by lifting from the bottom of the bowl and pressing into the center.  Turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat.  Keep repeating until you’ve turned the bowl a total of four times.  Cover and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.  Repeat this three more times, allowing the dough to rest for 30 minutes in between each folding process.  Cover tightly and place bowl in the fridge to rest for at least 16 hours or up to 48.  (I let if rest for about 20 hours, overnight into about mid-morning.)  My fridge runs a little cold so at the next step, I allowed 15 minutes to make the dough more pliable.  Remove dough from bowl to a well floured surface and cut in half.  Cover one piece with plastic.  Using your well floured fingers, roll the piece into a ball then flatten into a four inch disc.  Fold the top into the middle and press firmly but gently.  Turn a quarter turn and repeat until all four corners have been pressed into the middle and a rough ball is formed.  Using your cupped palm, roll the dough into a firm ball and set aside.  Cover with plastic from other piece of dough and repeat process with that piece of dough.  Cover both dough balls with plastic and let set at room temp for 5 minutes.  Prepare an 8×4 loaf pan by spraying with vegetable spray.  When five minutes have passed, repeat the process of flattening each dough ball and reforming.  Place each dough ball in prepared loaf pan and cover loosely with plastic.  Allow to rise until they reach a half inch below edge of pan which can take 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours.  Allow ample rising for lighter texture.  Just before rising is completed, heat oven to 350.  Brush loaf with an egg wash and bake for 35-40 minutes (I did 40 minutes but turned the oven off for the last 5.)  Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool for 3 hours.

Here’s how mine turned out.  I forgot the egg wash so it’s darker than expected.  The interior crumb was good, and the flavor was excellent.

It also didn’t rise as high as I’d hoped, but I put that down to my own inexperience and lack of technique.

So, that’s my latest adventure in bread.  Not sure what my next will be except I’m sure it’s going to feature our new stand mixer and the Banneton bowls in some way.  I’ll be sure to let you know what happens.

As always,

Post #557 Our Pack is Less Today

January 14, 2018 at 8:13 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Nearly ten years ago, Partner/Spouse and I, and ex-wife, went to a dog adoption show.  It was the same group where I had picked up my previous cocker spaniel rescue, Sporty, who had left us several months earlier.  We were there with the intent of adopting another cocker who looked identical to Sporty.  While I was walking him around the parking lot to see if he and I were going to be friends, Partner/Spouse had wandered around looking at other dogs.  When I walked back in, there was a small, black, curly haired spaniel mix sitting on his feet.  He looked at me with excited eyes and a sheepish grin, and asked, “Can we take home two?”  That was how I met Jack.  Oddly, the other spaniel didn’t work out for us.  He was a one-person dog, and we weren’t his one person.  No harm, no foul, we got another one who stayed with us for years and years.

They told us Jack was around five years old, but every vet I talked to agreed with that he seemed older.  The adoption people didn’t have any history on Jack since he’d been dropped off during the night with no information of any kind.  Jack was a bundle of energy.  He loved life, but had the attention span of a nanosecond.  He worked his way into our hearts then into our bed in no time.  Everyone who met him loved him immediately.  I always said it was easy to love Jack because he made you do it.

The first visit to the vet was a bit of an eye opener.  I’ve had cocker spaniels since the mid-80s, but not one of them has ever been any trouble medically.  Jack was different.  The first thing the vet said was, “He has ear trouble.”  And we were launched into a never ending struggle to keep his ears clean and infection-free.  It was a losing battle.  We never got ahead of it, despite the amount of money we threw at it, and the amount of time spent working on it.

Jack was the cutest dog ever.  He had some poodle in him so his hair curled.  A month after a grooming session, he looked like a Disney character.  But he was a trucker.  He burped, he made the air unbreathable, he snored, he napped like an Olympic athlete.  He couldn’t leave paper towels alone.  He’d practically take one off your plate to chew it up and swallow it.  He knew he wasn’t supposed to do it, but it was way too tempting to resist.  Once, we were all sitting in the living room watching TV.  Jack was sitting at ex-wife’s feet and she suddenly yelled in surprise, “Jack!”  He quickly spit out the bit of paper towel in his mouth and said, “What?” in all innocence.  His face was so expressive.

Jack also had a sensitive stomach and would vomit for no apparent reason.  He also had the intermittent bouts of loose stools which led to the treatment of rice dinners.  Nearly any upset stomach a dog has can be fixed by mixing a quarter cup of cooked and cooled rice into their regular food.  They’ll love it.  Of course, if the problem isn’t corrected in a couple of days, get ’em to the vet.

Jack took everything that came at him with an equable attitude and a certain air of puzzlement.  Something was different; he couldn’t explain it; he rolled with it.  When we got another dog to add to the pack, he looked quizzical, then wagged his tail, and took a nap.  When we went on long road trips and ended up in a new house, he sniffed around a bit, pooped in the yard, and took a nap.  When we switched out dog foods to keep weight under control, he looked aggrieved, took a bite, ate what was in the bowl, then took a nap.

Jack suffered from seizures.  Not many, about once every nine months or so.  The first one scared me to death.  We talked to the vet who said if it didn’t repeat on a constant basis, we shouldn’t worry too much about it.  We all got expert at timing them, and taking care of Jack afterwards.  He was a goofy dog, and his seizures were just part of his charm.  I can’t imagine anyone giving him up.

Until this winter.  His chronic ear infections finally took their toll about a year or so ago, and he became deaf as a stump.  I used to think he was putting us on because he always seemed to hear the word “Treat”, but it became more clear that he couldn’t hear.  His naps became longer and deeper.  He responded well to hand signals, and with his normal quizzical look, he soldiered on in a silent world.  We kept a closer eye on him so he wouldn’t get into too much trouble.

But this winter, things took a down turn.  He’d always loved winter.  We would groom him in November so that by the time harsh winter arrived, he had a short thick coat of fur to help him withstand it.  He would play in the snow, digging tunnels and chasing invisible squirrels until he looked like a snowman.  Or a snowdog.  This year, he wasn’t enjoying it much.  We kept a very close eye on him, and realized he was losing his sight.  He would walk into the walls and wander around until he found the water dish even though it hadn’t moved.  Then he had another seizure, and it seemed worse than the others.  His condition grew worse.

Then I saw that his tail wasn’t wagging anymore.  He wasn’t having a good time.  He still ate pretty well.  He pooped, peed, napped, but didn’t engage like he used to.  Even Buddy, our other dog, couldn’t seem to rouse him.  I carried him around a lot and he seemed to appreciate that.  He cuddled a little more than he used.  He napped at our feet rather than on the dog bed.  We decided it was time.

So this week, our pack is one less.  Jack was a happy-go-wacky kind of dog who brought a lot of joy to our lives.  He wasn’t the dog we would have chosen, so we were lucky that he chose us.  He drove us to distraction at times, but the joyful, quizzical, accepting, happy nature he exuded won us over every minute of every day.

Sorry, no recipe to go with story, but a memory of a happy dog who enriched our lives from the moment we met to the moment we said goodbye.

Post #556 Winter Food

January 7, 2018 at 3:33 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So we made it through the first snow storm of the year and the subsequent wind chill factors in the sub-zero range.  It’s still cold, but the snow is gradually going away.  The dogs hate it, but that’s the normal state of affairs.  They both tend to get snow crystals in between their toes and start limping.  We don’t stay outside too long.

Work schedules have normalized for the moment, but in another week, I should be getting my final schedule, and we start the next phase of the work process, assessments.  We’re supposed to receive assessments on our work quality at 30-, 60-, and 90- day periods with guidance and success plans.  So far, it’s been a little challenging, but fun.  And we’ve been dealing with the subject of dinner with creativity and patience.

Since the bitter cold has set in, we’ve been eating soup fairly often.  Decades ago, when I was young, my family lived in upper state New York.  One of the major soup companies ran an advertising campaign where kids would be outside playing in the snow and yelling back at the house “Is it soup yet?”  Mom would shake her head as she stirred a pot on the stove, then finally shout out, “It’s soup!”  The kids would run inside and enjoy a bowl of hot soup and a sandwich for lunch to brace themselves for an afternoon of playing hard in the cold outside.

It was a brilliant campaign.  It made kids all over New England ask for soup for lunch and I’m sure they sold a ton of dried instant soup.  My mom even got into the swing of things and served us reconstituted chicken noodle soup a few times a week with our PBJs.  More importantly, it started a life long love affair with soup for me.   And we’ve been enjoying several pans full of hot bracing soup during this bitter cold.

Partner/Spouse used the crockpot to make a form of Tortilla soup that was to die for.  He started with a blade steak, added Mexican seasonings and dried peppers, some tomatoes, and let it all cook overnight.  The next night, while it reheated, he fried up some corn tortilla strips as a garnish.  Hot soup, a sprinkle of cheddar cheese, and tortilla strips, what a great meal!  It was so good.  The meat was shredded perfectly, the flavors were spectacular.  It was like eating a taco in a bowl.  Just the right amount of spiciness.

Another soup is one a ripped off my mother in law years ago.  It’s mostly a cabbage stew, but it’s so much more than that.  She developed it to stretch her food budget.  It’s made up of leftover meat, a head of cabbage cut very fine, and a can of diced tomatoes.  The only herbs and spices per her recipe was a tablespoon each of vinegar and sugar.  You put it all in a large pot over medium-low heat and cover it.  Let it steam and stew until the cabbage is soft.  Stir it occasionally to keep it from scorching and to blend the flavors.  Over time, I played with the make up.  I added some salt, some pepper, some basil or thyme.  I played with the meats, added cooked rice, sometimes cooked pasta.  What I ended up with was a soup-stew that warms the body any time of the year.  Chop the cabbage fine.  Slice two cleaned leeks across the grain into thin disks.  Cut whatever cooked meat you like into bite-sized pieces.  I use roast beef most of the time, but ham is good, as chicken, but add that towards the end or it will fall apart.  I typically use cider vinegar, but sometimes use a fruit infused vinegar.  Just before serving, I toss in half a cup of cooked rice or pasta.  If you use pasta, try to use one that is small and bite-sized.  Ditalini is good, and there are many small versions of the regular pastas you’re used to.  Get everything heated through, and serve with bread of some kind.  Good stuff.

One of my favorites is one that I learned from a mix.  Wild Rice soup is so good.  It’s a creamy soup, but since Partner/Spouse and I don’t like cream based anything, or milk for that matter, I use a roux.  So, cook no more than a 1/3 cup of wild rice in a separate pan per package instruction and set aside.  Dice one small onion very fine.  Slice one medium stalk of celery very thin.  Chop one small to medium carrot very fine.  In a large dutch oven, heat one tablespoon high quality olive oil to shimmering and add the vegetables.  Cook until softened about five minutes  stirring often.  Add 3 tablespoons of butter and melt, then stir in a third cup of flour.  Stir until a roux forms.  Cook for a minute or so to eliminate the raw flour flavor, but try not to let the roux turn brown.  Add simmering chicken stock a half cup at a time, stirring to remove lumps.  Be careful when adding the first couple of additions of stock as the pan will cause the stock to sizzle and steam.  Keep adding when lumps are smoothed out until you’ve added about six cups.  This will produce a medium thick, creamy broth with the vegetables floating in it.  Add the rice directly from the pan including any remaining cooking liquid from the rice.  Add a pinch of rosemary and stir to combine.  Simmer for about ten minutes to heat everything through.  Serve with croutons on top.  I’ve also added small pieces of chicken breast either cooked or not.  If not cooked, I add it when I’m cooking the veggies.  If it’s already cooked, I add it when I’m adding the rice.  A thought just occurred to me that I could add the chicken to the rice cooking process and add some extra flavor that way, too.  You could also switch up the veggie combo to include garlic, leeks, shallots, whatever you think would taste good.

 

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