Friday, May 16, 2014

man + fire + food = fulfilled

I am taking a moment today to acknowledge a subject I've hinted at but never really stated outright: I suffer from depression and generalized anxiety. Today is the second day in what seems like months, that I did not feel like every cell of my body was filled with led. When just getting out of bed, and putting one foot in front of the other is literally all the energy I can manage, and life is reduced to a series of Herculean tasks such as shower, get dressed, eat. This is not mental, it is physiological.

I mention this in context of this blog, not to garner sympathy, but as an illustrative paradigm. Food, and specifically cooking, is the rope I rely on to pull myself out of the mire. It helps me feel connected to the earth, life and death, in a very tangible - primal - way. It requires of me enough concentration and care to pull myself out of my head, and it facilitates connection to the people closest to me when I have forgotten how to do this for myself.

Even when the distance between us is only the diameter of the table, everyone can feel miles away when I am depressed. But, if I'm cooking something that tugs at my memories of growing up, my mother's unbanked macaroni and cheese for instance, then even people that are hundreds of miles away, can be brought into the immediate. I can even conjure people who came before me, but who's presence I can feel. When I am making a recipe that belonged to my great grandmother, I can, not just copy but, recreate her experience of eating this cookie, or that casserole.

The past couple of weeks however, I have struggled to do even the simplest of cooking. Falling back on what are some of my worst habits: skipping breakfast, buying lunch, and sometimes also buying dinner. Feeding the depression excesses of sugar, fat, and salt, surrendering to the ease and convenience of fast food, and letting myself feel powerless to lift a spoon, even when I know it is the only way I can dig myself out of the pit I've once again fallen into. I deliberately do not feed my body - and my soul - what it really needs: whole, real, simple food cooked by my own hands.

So, it's back to the stove for me, and back to basics. Go to bed on time, get up at a regular time, eat good food that nourishes my body, and exercise. Write something, every, single, day.

Dinner tonight was pasta with pancetta, peas, and cream: not any more complicated that boiling water and tossing ingredients into a frying pan, but ultimately better than anything that has ever been served at Olive Garden. Later, I'm making sautéed mushrooms with garlic, thyme, and olive oil on thick slabs of toasted Zingerman's country bread.

I have two baking projects planned for tomorrow: Lemon Poppyseed Muffins, and Rhubarb Streusel Muffins. I am also planning to make a Roasted Tomato Soup, and two different mushroom soups later this week, both due to the local mega mart (Meijers) having mushrooms and tomatoes on sale $10.00 for 10. And, for any obligate carnivores reading this, I'll be inaugurating my in-laws new grill with a batch of venison burgers.

I am hoping to fill the week gap between semesters with a little pot stirring, and freezer filling, and may have travel plans for the long May weekend that involve feeding 6 - 8 at my sister-in-law's cabin. Being busy is best for me, even when it doesn't feel like it: I know that much is true.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


There are times when the problems and obstacles seem so large that it seems easier to give up and learn to live with your own disappointment in yourself. But I am not very good with regrets, so I guess I had better put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.

I have just embarked on reading "Cooked," by Michael Pollan. I am hoping that it serves to spur me forward in my culinary pursuits before I stall entirely. It is reassuring and also a bit disheartening to read someone eloquently layout everything you've been thinking and blathering about for the past few years. Mr. Pollan is a professor of Journalism so he knows a thing or two about writing, but that doesn't prevent me from feeling a twinge of jealousy. To say that he'd scooped my book idea would imply that I'd actually been working diligently towards writing a book of any kind in the first place.

One of the ideas I am thrilled to have confirmed is how central to the experience of being human cooking is. There is evidence to support the idea that cooking is the thing that enabled us to evolve our large brains, our social structures, and family groups. Food shapes our cities, and has organically determined where they are geographically according to shipping routes, water access, and availability of arable land. The country and the city are symbiotically connected to each other through food.

This week I have been dedicated to Spring Cleaning, organizing our storage, and donating, selling, pitching anything that I haven't used in more than a year. In short, I feel lighter and dust bunny free. But, I must be emphatic about this, I am ready to get back to pursuing my goals: cooking, baking, writing, and going to the gym. I have also been adapting to new technology in the form of an iPad. I am hopeful that the excitement of a new toy will likewise inspire some action. It has already inspired me to sit down and write a journal entry for this blog.

I will officially return to my previously scheduled life on Monday April, 21st.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

multi-grain bread

I don’t know about you, but, whenever I hear someone talking about multi-grain bread, I think of the Dead Duck scene in the movie About a Boy. Young Marcus (the boy) has been given a home made multigrain loaf so dense and stale that he gives up trying to tare it up in order to feed the birds, that he heaves the whole loaf into the pond, accidentally killing a duck. Whether this resonates with you or not, we’ve all encountered those leaden offerings so dry and gritty that even a thick slathering with butter can’t lubricate it enough to swallow.

While still being a lean dough, this bread is predominantly made from bread flour with the additions of a multigrain soaker and a proportion of whole wheat flour. Unlike many loaves of its ilk, it is a pleasure to eat toasted or in the right sandwich.

Whether your mixing by hand or by machine, it will take additional time to develop a good gluten structure in the dough. Bran, no matter how finely ground, tends to cut through gluten strands, and the soaked grains compound the issue. It is, absolutely possible, but will require a little more effort than a standard “patent” flour dough. If you haven’t built up much endurance for kneading by hand I recommend making the dough in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. It will still take 8 – 10 minutes to sufficiently work to the dough to develop the gluten.

I did not pursue this step in this recipe, but an autolysis stage may help to reduce the kneading time. My recommendation, and what I am planning to attempt the next time I make this recipe, is to mix the final dough roughly, and then allowing it to sit to fully hydrate and begin forming a gluten structure. About 30 minutes should do the trick, before you begin to work the dough.  

*A traditional autolyse method would have you withhold the yeast and salt until after the resting and hydration stage. This dough already has a soaker component and a pâte fermentée so both yeast and salt are already present, and the small additional amounts applied before the autolysis stage won’t harm gluten development.

Recipe following cut:

morning glory muffins

I wish I invented these muffins, but I didn’t. A nice lady, and Chef, by the name of Pam McKinstry, came up with them in 1978 on Nantucket Island. The recipe was first published in Gourmet Magazine in 1981, and a quick search will reveal as many variations as there are cooks. These, are a correlation of multiple recipes I’ve come across and I think they’re the best…even if I haven’t tried all the rest.

I use these as a healthful or at least beneficial combination of meal replacement and energy bar, and you don’t even need to break out your chemistry set to make them. And maybe healthful, beneficial, and meal replacement sound like disappointing diet food, but I assure you they are anything but. Full of tart apple flavor, the earthy sweetness of coconut, dried cherries, carrots, and almonds, accented by salty sunflower seeds, these pack both a nutritive and flavor punch that is 100% crave-able.

Raisins are traditional, but for a Michigan twist I substitute dried cherries. I’ve also tried dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds for a seasonal twist. You can likewise substitute any equal weight of your favorite nuts for the almonds. It’s all good.

Recipe following cut:

Monday, March 17, 2014

sing out louise

I hadn’t planned to take Spring Break off from the kitchen or this blog, but I accept that I probably needed the rest more than I needed to work on my pate a choux technique. The plan was to get a bunch of baking done, the reality was me doing as little as possible to still put food on the table and stick – roughly - to my lifestyle plan.

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, but today I cooked Corned Beef and Cabbage with fresh homemade Soda Bread. I had to drive some distance to get to the nearest Wholelfoods to pick up a nitrite and nitrate free brisket, and it was $10 more than anything I could get in town, but it was worth it to be able to serve up one of my husband’s favorite seasonal treats without making us sick. By sick, I don’t mean having a long term negative effect on our health, I mean sick in the immediate sense of the word. Next year, the plan is to get ahead and cure - or corn - my own. For this year; however, it just was not possible.

I’ve spent a good deal of time  worrying about this blog. It seems to me, that these days you have to have a gimmick to get any attention at all. Whether it’s being a Beer Bitch, or having an encyclopedic knowledge of every Pizza in Pittsburg, or cooking up vegan vittles in full Death Metal costume, it seems the more peculiar the twist the more attention it receives. The trouble is this is cooking, not burlesque, and this blog has no gimmick. It’s just me and an ordinary home kitchen, doing my best to cook and serve delicious and healthy meals to my family while also learning the art of bread, and pastry baking.  Frankly, I haven’t got the energy to try to maintain something more attention-grabbing, and it wouldn’t be true to myself or my approach to food if I did. 

I am a slow food guy. I believe in referencing the past and eating whole real food: reared, produced, and cooked with care. It takes time. It is real work. It has actual value. No Gimmicks! I have a tremendous amount of respect for those chefs who are trying to push the boundaries, but a perfectly constructed morsel suspended in a smoke filled cloche just isn’t the food that will hold up to the test of time. Cucina Povera, Cuisine de Grand-Mere, this is the stuff that we’ve eaten for hundreds if not thousands of years and we still enjoy, crave, and are comforted by, today.

So ok, this might be the Gypsy Rose Louise of the blog world. Tessie Tura, Miss Mazzeppa, and Miss Electra may have a fun song that always brings down the house, but no one wrote a whole score about them either. This blog, and I, are only part of a bigger story. One that, I hope, continues to be told. Of how we all turned back to real tangible values, put food and people first, and moved money and possessions back where they belong: further on down the list of priorities.   

Monday, March 10, 2014

cinnamon raisin bread

2 – 21.5cm x 11.5cm [8.5” x 4.5”] loaf pans, extra-large 7.5L – 11L [8qt – 12qt] capacity mixing bowl, large 6L [6.5qt] heatproof bowl, silicone basting brush, bench scraper, flexible bowl scraper, plastic wrap, 2 - 46cm x 30cm [18”x12“] half sheet pan, 46cm x 30cm x 5cm [18”x 12“ x 2”]500ml [2 cup] capacity measuring cup with a pouring spout, 2 - 500ml [2 cup] capacity small mixing bowl, minimum 60ml [¼ cup] capacity microwave safe bowl or stove top butter warmer, spray bottle with water, 1.5L [1.6qt] capacity saucepan, fine mesh sieve ~ 500ml capacity [2 cups]

460g unbleached bread flour [~3½ cups]
20g granulated sugar [~4 tsp]
10g fine grade sea salt [~1¼ cups]
7g instant yeast [~2 tsp]
4g ground cinnamon [~1¼ cups]
57g egg, lightly beaten [~1 x-large]
30g unsalted butter, melted and cooled [~2 tbsp]
120g buttermilk, at room temperature [~½ cup] 130ml
170g water, at room temperature** [~¾ cup] 170ml
260g raisins* [~1½ cups]

110g granulated sugar
15g ground cinnamon

-canola or vegetable oil for bowl, work surface, and plastic wrap
-unsalted butter to grease the loaf pans

*Rehydrate raisins after weighing.

Mise en place:
Bring the weighed raisins to a boil in enough water to cover. Turn off the burner and allow them to rehydrate for ten minutes. **Pour into sieve, reserving the water to use in the dough. Allow the raisins to sit and drain until needed. Water should cool to minimum 35ºC [95ºF] before using.

Butter the loaf pans and place together on half-sheet pan.

Weigh flour, sugar, sea salt, yeast and 4g cinnamon into the extra-large bowl, keeping the salt and yeast separate. Place this on a clear and clean work surface.

Melt butter in the small bowl for 30 seconds in the microwave and set aside to cool.

Weight/measure buttermilk into one of the measuring cups, add egg, and butter and beat slightly to combine.

Weigh/measure the cooled raisin water into the second measuring cup and set aside. Add tap water if needed to equal the required amount of liquid.

Oil the heat proof bowl and set aside until needed.

Place additional flour near the extra-large mixing bowl, alone with the bowl and bench scrapers.

Combine 110g granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside until needed.

Place the deep sheet pan on the bottom rack of the oven, and adjust the top shelf to the middle position.

Stir the flour mixture together with the fingers of one hand slightly spread. Move the mixed flour to the outside of the bowl creating a well in the center.

Add buttermilk mixture. Using the same hand as before, stir the ingredients together using an orbital motion, turning the bowl with your clean hand.

Add the water and continue to mix as above until you have formed a ragged dough.

Switch to a kneading action, collecting all of the available flour from the interior of the bowl. If needed use a bowl scraper to help you.

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes, or until a smooth ball forms that is tacky but not sticky.

Spread the kneaded dough out on the counter and top with the plumped and drained raisins. Fold this over itself once and begin kneading for an additional 2 minutes.

Place finished dough into the oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and ferment for 2 full hours at room temperature.

Lightly oil your work surface and tip the fermented dough out. Divide the dough into two even pieces by cutting it with a bench scraper. Shape these into two rectangles and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Rest 10 minutes.

Using a lightly oiled rolling pin, shape the dough into a rectangle 22cm x 30cm [9” x 12”]. Carefully sprinkle with half of the cinnamon sugar mixture leaving a 1cm [½”] boarder around the outside of the rectangle.

Roll the dough away from you to form a log, pinch the bottom and sides together to fully enclose the cinnamon swirl. Place in buttered loaf pan and repeat with the second piece of dough.

Cover with oiled plastic wrap and proof 90 – 120 minutes until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 180ºC [350ºF]

Slash loves to allow for oven spring and pour 250ml of water on the deep sheet pan in the oven.

After 1 minute, spray the sides of the oven with the spray bottle and close the door. Repeat this twice waiting 1 minute in between repetitions.

Bake for a total of 40 – 50 minutes.

Transfer loaves immediately to a wire cooling wrack and cool for minimum one hour before slicing.

Make ahead:

Loaves keep for five days in an air tight container or zip top bag. Frozen the loaves will last up to one month, but they rarely last out the week. 

a little rest for the wicked

Weigh in: 252 lbs.

The high today was 46ºF. I’ve been enjoying a little rest for the past couple of days, relying on old faithful but boring dinners to keep everyone fed with minimal effort. I am very sore from working out, I know, I’ve mentioned it before, but with all seriousness, OW! Tonight it’s back to the treadmill but I don’t think I’ll be doing any weight training for a few days.

Tomorrow I’ll be back in the kitchen in earnest. Potage Noir for dinner, and I’m making Morning Glory Muffins and if I can manage it, a Chocolate and Stout Cake. Wednesday, it’s Brioche and pate a choux.

The Cinnamon Raisin bread I made this weekend is more than half gone, as is the boule. I guess it’s time to make more.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

spring forward gently

Yesterday I made another French Boule just to be sure that the first one wasn’t a fluke. I’m proud to say it was not. I also made Cinnamon Raisin Bread. We had breakfast for dinner.

In my last journal entry I was talking about self induced pain and suffering, and since then I’ve gone back for more. Making bread by hand is, in itself, a fairly descent core workout, but apparently I’m a glutton for punishment. True, I’ve been complaining and whimpering this past week but it is remarkable how much cardiovascular and weight training do to help me cope with daily life.

I am not, I can assure you, going to turn into some roughage eating gym monkey any time soon, but it’s clear from everything I’ve done in my forty-five years on this planet, my body and mind are happiest when I move. Whether or not I can use a long genetic lineage of peasants, servants, and fisherment as a reason, the release of Cortisol is essential to my well being. 

I had a vegetarian burrito at a chain restaurant for dinner tonight. I had been planning a vegetable stir fry but life, and my in-laws, had other plans. Spring break is only two days old, I’m behind on the baking projects I wanted to complete, and I’m planning to take tomorrow off from the kitchen to work on  laundry etc. 

Spring forward tonight: I’ve never been a fan of Daylight Savings Time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

orange sweet rolls

Yeild: 12 large rolls

46cm x 30cm [13” x 18”] half sheet pans, parchment paper, rolling pin, large 7.5L – 11L [8qt – 12qt] capacity mixing bowl, 3.3L [3.5qt] capacity mixing bowl, 6.5L [7qt] capacity heat proof bowl, 500ml [2 cup] capacity mixing bowl, 500ml [2 cup] capacity measuring cup with a spout, 60ml [¼ cup] capacity measuring cup with spout, silicone pastry brush, 20cm [8”] sharp chef’s knife, 20cm [8”] offset pallet knife, wire whisk, silicone spatula, 30ml [2 tbsp] pinch bowl, fine microplane grater, large wire cooling rack ~40cm x 50cm [15” x 20”]

90g granulated sugar [~6½ tbsp]
7g fine grade sea salt [~1 tsp]
80g unsalted butter, at room temperature [~5½ tbsp]
50g egg, at room temperature [~1 large]
3g orange extract [~1 tsp] 5ml
460g unbleached bread flour [~3½ tbsp]
8g instant yeast [~2 tsp]
290g buttermilk, at room temperature [1¼ cups] 290ml

110g light brown sugar [~½ cup packed]
16g orange zest [~⅓ cup] *from ~ 4 oranges

180g confectioner’s sugar [~3cups]
40g milk [~3 tbsp] 40ml
3g orange extract [~1 tsp] 5ml

-vegetable or canola oil
-additional flour for dusting

Mise en place:
Weigh butter and sugar into the large mixing bowl and set on a clear work surface.

Weigh flour into the medium mixing bowl. Weigh salt and then yeast in the pinch bowl and transfer to opposite sides of the mixing bowl. Set this on the work surface beside the larger bowl.

Reuse pinch bowl to weight orange extract, and place with others.

Oil the heat proof bowl and set aside until needed.

Weigh butter milk into the 500ml capacity measuring cup and set beside the mixing bowl.

Weight the egg into the 60ml measuring cup and set with the other weighed ingredients.

Using the spatula cream the butter and sugar together until pale, add egg and beat vigorously to incorporate air and blanch the mixture.

Add the orange extract.

Mix the flour, salt, and yeast together with one hand and immediately add these to the creamed mixture in one addition.

With the fingers of one hand slightly spread, use an orbital motion to mix the flour into the butter and sugar mixture turning the bowl with your clean hand. Add buttermilk and mix until dough forms a sticky loose mass. Switch to a kneading motion to incorporate all of the flour and then transfer dough to a floured work surface.

Knead the dough for 12 – 15 minutes, alternating before a traditional kneading motion and stretching and “smearing” the dough in all directions – called Fraisage. The finished dough should be tacky to slightly sticky, supple, and bounce back when pressed with a finger.

Transfer to the oiled heat proof bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and ferment at room temperature for 2 full hours.

Meanwhile, zest oranges and weigh the brown sugar into the cleaned medium mixing bowl.

When dough has doubled in size, very lightly oil a clear work surface and transfer the dough to the counter.

Lightly flour a rolling pin to prevent sticking and roll the dough into a 36cm x 30cm x 1.5cm [14” x 12” x ⅔ inch] rectangle. If dough springs back excessively, cover with oiled plastic wrap and rest for 10 minutes before continuing to roll into shape.

Quickly mix the brown sugar and orange zest and sprinkle over the dough. Use an offset pallet knife to spread the mixture evenly over the dough leaving 1cm [½”] uncovered on the edge closest to your body

Roll the dough gently towards from you and pinch the seam closed. Roll dough onto the seam and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Allow to rest 5 minutes.

Cut into 12 even pieces 3cm [1⅛”] and place these 1cm [½”] apart on the sheet tray.

Cover with oiled plastic wrap and allow to proof for 75 – 90 minutes

Preheat oven to 180ºC [350ºF] with the rack in the middle position.

Bake the sweet rolls for 20 – 30 minutes until lightly browned.

Cool on pan for 10 minutes and then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Make the glaze: Mix confectioner’s sugar, orange extract, and milk together to form a thick glaze that will evenly coat the sweet rolls. Adjust texture with additional milk or confectioner’s sugar as needed.

Spoon glaze over cooled sweet rolls, and allow to set before serving. Approximately 30 minutes.

Make ahead:

Store in an airtight container for up to one week. Reheat individual servings, as needed, in a microwave for 15 – 30 seconds before serving. 

blueberry lemon scones

What can I say about scones? Being a descendant of both English and Scottish heritage scones are prolific in my childhood memories. Just sweet enough to be a dessert but not so sweet you feel guilty eating them as a late afternoon snack. Clotted cream, butter, and jam may be traditional, but these need no adornment at all.

These cream scones have a texture and crumb most American’s associate with biscuits, and are, in fact, more New England than United Kingdom in style. They are rich with butter and lightly sweet, but the tart blueberries and lemon gaze balance that nicely. They are, quite simply, addictive with a cup of tea or any hot caffeinated beverage you choose.

Recipe following cut:

french boule

What the heck is a pâte fermentée? In American English we’d call it a starter. For me, however, that nomenclature has always conjured the notion of wild yeast sour dough breads, which I love, but which this is not. A pâte fermentée is a semi-stiff dough that is fermented for a long period time to improve flavor and stability in lean bread doughs. In contrast to other pre-fermenting methods this is, in ratio at least, a smaller version of the finished dough which is fermented first at room temperature and then stored under refrigeration for between 4 or 5 hours up to over night.

I’ve been making sandwich style breads for a while now. This is my very first, free form bread so I started with the simplest shape, a ball or boule. When I am confident that the results above are not beginners luck, I will move on to the torpedo or Bâtard style, and eventually to the quintessential French bread Baguettes.

Recipe following cut:

self induced pain and suffering

Thursday began at 5:00am, but not on purpose. I tried to sleep until my alarm but my right hip and left shoulder had other ideas. After catching up on the news, via BBC World Service, and with no sign of getting sleepy again, I made some tea. Since I was up, with time to kill, I decided to prepare dinner. I may be flat out exhausted when I get home but at least I won’t have to cook.

Today is also Shrove Tuesday, though perhaps more famous as Pancake Day, Paczki Day, and Mardi Gras. I attended a catholic grade school, and remember our teachers serving the whole school pancakes the day before lent. My Lenten fast may have gone out the window with the rest of my faith, but I do remember Shrove Tuesday as a fun day, that as kids we looked forward to. In honor of that memory, I made pancakes for the family which sufficed as both breakfast and lunch.

I am looking forward to dinner. A Sweet Potato and Lentil Stew with the full body of tomatoes spiced with curry powder and garam masala. Meanwhile, I’ve been busy writing up my recipes from last weekend and planning my next adventure with bread, by which I mean, I bought a traditional fluted brioche mold.


Dinner last night was delicious, and good thing too because I have four quarts of it in the freezer!

I managed to drag my tired self to the gym last night with the intention of doing cardio and a little weight lifting, nothing too strenuous. I felt pretty good when I was done, but I could tell my muscles were fatigued. Today, is another story: I am currently wearing a cap because washing and combing my hair seemed like too painful a task.

Sore as I am, I am also feeling good about finally ripping off the bandage and going. It will, at least theoretically, be easier to go next time. Like all things, I have this idea that I must do a full-on workout every time to make it worth the effort of leaving the house. I need to learn that anything I can do will be beneficial.

Fitness is part of the “fuck it, I’m going to make bread,” plan. At 45 I know I am not old, but I do need to condition my body to be as fit and strong as possible. Otherwise I’ll be signing up for a livelihood of long hours and near chronic pain.

I’ve written up four recipes in the past day or so and will post those as soon as I’ve had the opportunity to put a fresh pair of eyes on them. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

practice, practice, practice

I’ve been going through a bit of a crisis the past six months, mostly in relation to my forty-fifth birthday, which is fast approaching. Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t measure my own life by anyone’s expectations, least of all those expectations I improvised when I was too young to know better. But, it isn’t uncommon for people to reach this age and feel unhappy with where they are, what they’ve achieved, and to some extent what do and don’t have. These are, I’ll admit the ne plus ultra of first world problems. I’m embarrassed to call it a mid-life crisis, but that is what it is. I’ve felt lost, discontented, and worried about what I’m going to be able to achieve with the little time I may have left.  Fortunately, or unfortunately – take your pick - I have an uncommon amount of time to contemplate what I want from my own life, and what I really need to fell content and fulfilled, but there comes a time when just have to suck it up and make a decision.

There are times in life when things fall into place and you feel as if the whole universe is pointing you in the direction you should be going: this is exactly what occurred for me this weekend. As I’ve written; I am happiest when I’m fully engaged, mentally and physically in a task. I have always been attracted to occupations that involve using my hands and creativity for my whole life, and this impulse likely goes as deep as my DNA. I have been reading, studying, and writing about food and cooking full time for years now. Some days I feel as if I don’t have an idea what I am doing, and others I’m more confident I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Now, however, I need to find a way to transition all this learning into some kind of means, by which I mean, money! The answer came to me in one of those rare crystalline moments when I was laying in a half awake state and a voice from deep inside me spoke up and said, “fuck it all, I’m going to make bread.”

OK so not that simple. I have wanted to go to culinary school for baking and pastry, and I still intend to fulfill that dream someday. In the mean time, however, there is nothing stopping me from teaching myself everything I can. I also have a core need to write which I do not intend to disregard. The two are not mutually exclusive. The plan, so far, is to focus this blog and my energies towards making artisanal breads, and pastries. I will be reporting about this process and all the other things that go on in the kitchen, but I will – at least recipe wise – be focused on baking.

As important as I think home cooking and care of the family are vital to a good life, it isn’t economically feasible for me to continue to stay home indefinitely. I’ve spent a great deal of time writing about this in an editorial that I’ll be posting here later so I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag just yet.

The trick, for me, will be keeping my balance, which has never been strong suit. I have a tendency to throw myself totally into whatever I do and when the rewards aren’t commensurate with the effort I’m putting forward, I end up burning out and moving on to a new obsession. Anyone who’s known me for a long time can verify this pattern, and if nothing else comes of this life, I’d like to learn how to break that habit.

At some point, I hope to sell these goods at a local farmers or flea market, or possibly to area restaurants, with an eye on creating a small and sustainable business for myself. In the mean time, however, I just need to practice, practice, practice.

Worst case scenario: I learn to make artisanal breads and pastry for my family and friends. ‘nuff said!

Today’s weigh in: 254lb. Sticking to the lifestyle changes, as far as our diet goes, is starting to feel a little more natural, the trouble of getting myself to the gym still needs to be solved. Then again, perhaps I should give myself a break: I’ve been out shoveling snow every other day for most of the winter. For that reason, I’ve changed the banner of this blog to spring even if it is dressed for the date on the calendar and not the weather outside my door.

Friday, February 28, 2014

before I can do anything

Friday: and also payday! I have two projects on the go today. First, I still have to firm up my menu plan for the coming week in time to execute as much of it as possible later this weekend. Second, I’m making sweet orange rolls. I have a large number of Satsuma oranges that need to be used up. The recipe requires a large amount of zest, but a small amount of juice, so I will be peeling the oranges and storing the segments in the fridge for easy eating later.

I don’t want anyone to be alarmed but I’m actually out of butter. Tragic I know. Before I can make anything I’ll have to brave the wind chill advisory and head out to get supplies. Before I can do that, I must wait for the bank to open so I can visit the ATM and then also put some gas in the car. Before I can do that, I need a long, hot, shower.

Tea for breakfast, with the last of the Blueberry Lemon Scones. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

...including moderation

It’s important that I write my journal before the business of the day begins. I seem to be getting pulled in multiple directions this week, leaving very little time to relax in the kitchen. Last night saw a repeat of the Marrakesh Stew, which was just as good – if not better – than the first time.

Yesterday was a difficult day mentally and as a result I ate too much, a total of three scones spread through the day, topped off with a piece of cake. I never intended to avoid desserts as part of a “diet” but that number hardly reflects moderation. To compensate, I’m having a vegetable heavy salad for lunch, and tonight’s dinner is an asparagus and potato frittata.

Today I will be thumbing through books and formulating a menu/plan for the weekend and into next week. My husband has picked up another class as a substitute for the next two to three weeks. This will extend his workday on Tuesdays and Thursdays, add an hour commute in each direction and it looks like I’ll need to cook ahead for the entire week, not just Mondays and Wednesdays. It makes for two long days in the kitchen.

Spring break is only one week away, and I am ready for a rest from all the driving. It will, however, bring a full week of preparing meals for four instead of two, and it will be even harder to keep to our mostly veggie lifestyle. I am determined to cook the food that I want to eat, but I expect significant resistance from the elder members of the household who adhere to a firm regiment of one meat, one starch and one vegetable.

I’ll have to be clever, and maybe spend some extra time in the gym to compensate for the extra stress. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

sipping bourbon in a recliner

Does midnight count as Tuesday if I’m still awake? I’m sitting in the recliner with my laptop on my lap and contemplating the past couple of days with a glass of bourbon and ginger ale.

My weigh in on Monday was 253lbs. Two more pounds down from my starting weight. Yesterday my husband mentioned to me that since we’ve been eating mostly vegetarian – minimum 4 days per week – he hasn’t had to use any antacid tablets. This is a victory. Today, however I had my first bonafide craving, it was, not surprisingly Fish N’ Chips. So, come payday on Friday, that’s what I’m having.

The Marrakesh Stew was another success with a couple possible tweaks to improve on an already delicious dish, adding more diced tomatoes for instance, and also a little bit more of all of the spices to match our tastes. I am glad it was a hit, because it is also going to be tomorrow night’s supper.

Lunch today was egg salad. I chose sleep over something more elaborate, and tonight’s dinner was Penne and Asparagus in a Garlic and Meyer Lemon Cream Sauce. Hubby thought it would be truly satisfying with a bit of chicken, which I have no objections to per say, but I was perfectly happy without. Best of all, it was dead easy to make and ready in about the same time as it took to boil the noodles.

Finally, lunch tomorrow is going to be canned tuna with tomatoes and salad in pita. Who knows I may beat the fish and chips craving in the bud.

Monday, February 24, 2014

eggplants and flow

The kitchen is my happy place. I realize of course that a happy place is a metaphor for a state of mind, however, achieving that state of mind – at least for me – has a great deal to do with existing in flow. Flow is that time that passes unmarked when you’re completely engaged in something, and your problems, at least temporarily, are put aside. For me this means engaging my mind and my hands.  

It was a productive weekend in the kitchen. I finally managed to make the Marrakesh Stew that I’ve wanted to make for more than a week. I also made a cake, four regular meals, two batches of scones, egg salad for today’s lunch, and started breakfast for this morning.

Did you know that an eggplant can look perfectly fine from the exterior and be discolored and rotting on the inside? I didn’t until I cut into two such specimens last night. At some point I’m going to learn not to buy produce at the big box store, even if it looks perfectly fine. For now, however, I’m out $5.00.

I have four days until our next payday, and I’m a bit ashamed to say, absolutely no plan for what we’re going to eat between now and then. I do know that I haven’t had pasta in more than a week, which is a long time for me. So, there’s a start…

Friday, February 21, 2014

bears in aprons should not throw dough

I have one general complaint about nearly every pizza I’ve ordered from a restaurant or chain: not enough toppings! Since I now live in Port Huron, and Deluca’s Pizza in Lansing refused to deliver here, I make my own. To be fair, there are family owned pizzerias here in town, and they do make a nice pie. However; a good pizza isn’t an inexpensive meal anymore. You can, without being extravagant, drop as much as $40 - $60 on a quality pizza these days, and that’s without breadsticks and all the other trappings. There is also the matter of knowing exactly what’s in your food, which can best be answered by making it with your own hands.

Today I learned a few new things about pizza. It turns out that the pizza dough recipe I’ve been using to make pan pizza, does not, at all, work for hand tossed pizza. Who knew? For a while now I had been making pizza in one of my 13 x 8 half sheet pans and the results were tasty, however, I was always disappointed by the somewhat limp center of the pizza. I had come to accept this as an unfortunately short coming of home made pizzas. I had been curious about the perforated pizza pans that I’d seen in stores, but had never been inspired to buy one, until I found them at a greatly reduced price $4 each at a Homegoods clearance store, and decided to take the plunge.

The first dough was looking plush, smooth and supple, but after transferring it to an oiled bowl to ferment, I noticed it really could use just a drizzle more oil to avoid sticking to the bowl. Cut to me standing over the bowl patting a very oily ball of dough from hand to hand trying to remove as much excess oil while simultaneously shouting for my husband to bring me another bowl. Apparently, I’m not very good at drizzling canola oil right out of the bottle. After slipping the ball into the new bowl I realized there was no way it was going to be salvageable. Into the trash it went.

Batch two went smoother during the mixing and fermentation stage, but I discovered I was in deep trouble when I attempted to divide, and shape the dough to place it onto my brand new perforated pizza pans. After tearing several wholes in the first ball of dough, I decided that I just needed to go for it. I reshaped it into small flat disc, mounted the dough on my knuckles and tossed it gently. It worked, but when it came down it stuck to my knuckles. I laid the dough on more flour, brushed off the excess and threw it again. The dough expanded dramatically, landed over my knuckles, folded down my right arm, and stuck there!

If you currently imagining an angry bear in a white apron, clawing pizza dough off his right arm, you’ve probably got the scene about right. At the end of the comedy of errors I decided to knead the balls of dough back together on a heavily floured work surface, and managed to shape the two balls into one large pizza. I covered that in plastic wrap and let it proof while I finished preparing the toppings. Whether it was the tension in the air, or my growling and grunting that did the trick, my in-laws received a last minute invitation to dinner out with friends and then took it. Being as I now had one pizza instead of two, I was grateful for two less mouths to feed.

In the end, my new pans with the wholes on the bottom worked beautifully. I had a crisp almost crunchy crust that held up to the sauce, cheese and toppings: caramelized onions, cremini mushrooms, roasted red pepper, jarred “cocktail” artichokes, and black olives, and fresh tomatoes.

Sure, I will have to find a new pizza dough recipe, but no one was actually injured, I didn’t have to scrape anything off the ceiling, and no equipment was permanently damaged, so I’m calling it a win. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

drinking tea in my sleep

Sure, I can function on six hours of sleep. Just don’t ask me to drive, or do simple math problems, or count my fingers and toes! This is what I get for going to bed a half-hour earlier than normal? Waking early doesn’t need to mean anything, of course, but it could be a sign that I wasn’t physically active enough yesterday. It could also be a sign that the universe hates me. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the massive quantities of caffeine I consumed yesterday…

I still haven’t quite got the hang of these long days, but I need to get a handle on it quickly. We ate out for lunch, again, I had a veggie sub at Jimmy John’s: healthy, sure, but I not as good as I could have made at home. For dinner, it was beans on toast. So, I’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 on meals prepared by someone else, which leaves me with only $60 to feed us for the next week. This is not impossible, but things could get interesting before next payday.

After reviewing my grocery bills for the past month or so, I’ve discovered I’m not really saving anything by shopping at the big box grocery store. It may be because my bill is predominately fresh produce, but I do better, if not by item than by the total, when I hand pick my foods at a smaller store where I can buy only what I need. With some exclusions, however, I even do better per item.

Tonight I’m making a Farro “Rissotto” with mixed mushrooms. [Shitake, Oyster, Cremini] I’d call it wild mushrooms but let’s not get too affected here; the only foraging I’ll be doing is through the bin at the grocery store. And for lunch it’s…a healthy serving of “I don’t know.” I guess I had better step away from the computer screen and go figure that out.

Yogurt with fruit and granola for breakfast, and of course, tea.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


At the risk of sounding too overzealous about my own cooking; both yesterday’s meals were a great success. I wish that I could say they were born of my improvisational skills, or creativity, but both were based on recipes from Martha Stewart’s “Meatless” cookbook. I can honestly say this is the only vegetarian cookbook that I own, and I own a few, that makes me want to eat the food presented on almost every single page. Not to be overly prejudiced, but I think the magic of this book is that it was put together by a group of talented people, and designed for people who are not full time vegetarians. The recipes are meant to appeal to people who are regular meat eaters.

After dinner last night I cleaned, and tidied, and cleaned some more. This morning I honestly can’t tell that I did anything. Very rewarding…

I am still sore from shoveling and tired from the recent changes to our schedule. Some of my soreness is nothing more than my body reacting to the changes in the weather outside. Still, I’m happy to have some sunlight, and the days are growing noticeably longer. Even if I know the weather is going to turn cold again, and will likely stay that way until late May, a little thaw is helping to boost my spirits and is making think of all the delicious things I’ll get to eat come spring. Tender Asparagus, pea shoots, and the youngest beet greens, Rhubarb, micro herbs and greens, and braised baby radishes. 

Tomorrow is Thursday, and time to re-evaluate my meal plan from this week, examine the contents or the crisper, and clean out refrigerator in preparation for making a meal plan and grocery list for next week. Tomorrow and Friday I’ll do a little shopping and the whole cycle will start again.

I think it’s going to be an early night. Did I mention I’m tired?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

laziness and more snow

There are days, many of them in fact, when finding something encouraging and positive to write about seems impossible. That is, as far as I can tell, how life goes. In my experience, there can be long periods of a culinary life that can be both frustrating and difficult to navigate. Anyone who tells you otherwise, is probably selling something.

Still sore from over-doing it on Sunday, I woke to five inches of snow in the driveway that needed to be shifted before I could take my husband to work. It took me three hours to move all the snow because in certain areas the snow banks are so high I actually have to lift it, shovel full by shovel full, and carry it 10 – 15 feet away to dump it. I am usually enthusiastic about winter and alpine scenes, but enough is enough. I am ready for spring.

The milk and water solution I put on to boil, did just that: it boiled all over onto the stove top while I had my back turned…twice…because I thought turning the flame down and putting the lid back on the pot would solve the problem. I splattered hot milk up my arm twice while I was whisking the polenta into the pot. And, while preparing to make poached eggs, I discovered two eggs with broken yokes, and two more whose albumen (white part) was so old it flowed like water: which, incidentally does not make for good poached eggs! Did I mention I’m spoiled and hate store bought eggs but have no choice until my regular egg lady’s chickens start producing again in the spring? All told, things weren't going at all smoothly this morning, but there is no use crying over bad eggs. I pitched the eggs and started again.

Lunch: soft cooked polenta loaded with parmesan cheese, topped with marinated artichokes, and soft poached eggs, was eye-rollingly comforting and delicious! I’m afraid, that has been the highlight of the day so far. By the time I was done shoveling, and cooking, and cussing, there was barely enough time to eat before I had to get myself ready to go.

I am very much looking forward to tonight’s dinner of Roasted Asparagus and Lemon Risotto. But I am most definitely NOT anticipating having to wash up the pots and dishes from lunch before I begin to make dinner.  I try, whenever possible, to work clean. It is rare these days for me to leave a mess after I’ve finished a meal, ever. This isn’t because I am particularly diligent, rather that I’m lazy. I know if I have to clean up before I start cooking, making dinner will seem more like a burden that I’m more likely to try and avoid. There are many nights that laziness is the only thing standing between me and a home cooked meal.

Then again, maybe I have become a little obsessive in my old age. As I sit here writing about the dirty dishes in the kitchen; I am actually becoming more, and more uncomfortable about the dirty dishes in the kitchen. Maybe the nice people at Starbucks will let me sneak back into their kitchen and wash something…

Monday, February 17, 2014

hurry up, slow down, catch up

Weight in: 255 lbs

I’m pleased that the plan is still working. If I’m being honest, I’ve been even more zealous with the vegetarian days - which numbered five last week - than I had planned.  The thing is, I don’t really miss it. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t image an entire life without roast chicken, all beef hamburgers, or BBQ pork, but for the majority of the time, I’d be satisfied skipping the meat altogether. I’m not in a rush to put a label on myself, suffice it to say I’d be very happy to eat smaller amounts of the good stuff, less often, rather than eat the crappy stuff every day. No surprises there.

And, while I’m being honest, I haven’t been as active as I’d hoped to be either, which I will definitely need to work on. For today, however, I am very sore from scrapping the snow ruts and ice off of the driveway in preparation for more snow that’s coming today. I should also be headed to the gym for some more intense cardio and core strength training, but this winter, snow removal seems to be sufficient to keep me popping Aleve and smearing on the Aspercreme.

What was supposed to be a very productive weekend turned out to be an absolute bust. I won’t go into details, because they aren’t important. A situation arose in which I should have been more assertive, and I was not. Now I’ll be spending the better part of the next couple days trying to get back on track. It all goes to show, you can have the best intentions and planning, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t execute the plan.

My youngest nieces are on spring break this week. It seems obscenely early, but since their grandparents – my in-laws – are going to be out of town babysitting for the next three days, I am not going to complain. Certainly, having less distractions and interruptions will only help me get things done.

I made steel cut oatmeal for breakfast with apples, brown sugar and cinnamon. This is only possible because I use an overnight soaking method on the oatmeal before I cook it. Using a three to one ration – water to oats – I bring the water to a boil and add the oats. Then I immediately cover the pan and remove it from the heat allowing it to soak until morning. When I wake up I have a pan full of plump cut oats. I add one portion of milk, bring the oatmeal to a simmer and cook it for ten minutes.  I add sugar and any spices I want in the last minute or two of cooking, and then top each serving with fruit. The traditional method of cooking steel cut oats is to “cook over medium/low heat for 50 – 60 minutes stirring constantly.” Getting myself out of bed an hour earlier just so I can make oatmeal is a complete non-starter.

For two:
½ cup steel cut oats
1 ½ cups water
- pinch of salt

Bring to a boil, cover and soak over night.

½ cup milk
1 – 2 tbsp brown sugar, honey, maple syrup to taste

In the morning, cook ten minutes over medium/low heat stirring occasionally. Serve topped with your choice of fruit and nuts.

I am very much looking forward to lunch today because I’m eating at Lebanese Grill. They are a family owned restaurant that serves up tons of vegetarian options. It’s real food, made with care, for very little money. Two people can eat, and eat well, for under $20.00. How could you complain?

Friday, February 14, 2014

beer bread

This is the simplest, the best, accompaniment to hot soup on a cold fall or winter's day. Warm crusty yeast bread is wonderful when you can get it, but this recipe can be whipped up in minutes and tossed in the oven while the soup is simmering on the stove top. It is bitter sweet, with the citrus and floral notes of hops. I love a good ale or stout, but I make this with lager, wheat ales, or IPA, anything dark is just too overpowering.

This recipe can be made with the finest quality beer you chose, but if I’m being honest, I tend make this recipe when I have a surplus of cheap beer from a party or family gathering: the stuff I don’t want to drink myself, but don’t want to waste either.

I cannot oversell how easy, and how rewarding this bread truly is.  

Recipe following cut:

veggie burgers

I love a great hamburger, but let’s fact it, great hamburgers are few and far between. The best advertisement I can think of for these all vegetable “burgers” is that I have never managed the patience it takes to snap a picture of them. This is a true vegetable burger that lives up to its name: loaded with shredded carrots, mushrooms, onion, celery and red peppers with just enough nuts and egg to provide complete protein. As with all Veggie Burgers, if you think about these as a flesh free substitute for a hamburger, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Do not fall into that trap. If you let yourself experience these as something different, you will be rewarded with something that is, moist, delicious, complexly flavored, and very satisfying: seriously, I cannot finish two of these burgers without feeling stuffed to the gills.

A cold beer is just as enjoyable with these as it is with a great hamburger, and potato chips are a must, but skip the fries and soda pop. I eat these with fresh sliced tomato, lettuce and all the trappings of a beef burger – even the pickles.

One caveat, these require a firm hand when pressing the veggies into paddies, and then very gentle handling until they are fully cooked. I usually think of the first burger as an experiment, or as the French say about crêpes, “the first one, is for the dog.”

Recipe following cut: 

valentine's day report

Why is it that, Monday through Thursday the alarm goes off two or three times before I finally sit up, and grumble-stumble through the darkness towards the bathroom, but come Friday morning my eyes pop open at 7:30 without effort? At this stage in my life, this is less a complaint that I’m unable to sleep in on the weekend, so much as, I wish I could wake feeling rested and ready to start the day on the days that I actually have somewhere I have to be.

Today is Valentine’s Day, and also pay day. I’ve long since gotten over any desire I have to do something romantic today. I am mostly grateful not to be working in a flower shop. In recent years I have made a romantic meal for two, but somehow a romantic dinner for four – including your in-laws – doesn't have the same desired affect. Furthermore, I’ve never had a Valentine’s Day meal in a restaurant that wasn’t both expensive and a wholesale disappointment. We are, however, heading to Starbucks who are offering a buy one, get one, offer on espresso drinks between 2:00 and 5:00pm today.

Meanwhile, meal planning continues. I probably could make my meal plan less complicated, but when a whole portion of those meals need to be consumed away from home, and another after a long day away from home, and you’re sticking to a Flexiterian lifestyle with a low tolerance for eating in restaurants, things very quickly get complicated. Most importantly, I like knowing what I’m having for dinner each day, it takes the stress out of deciding when I am already tired and hungry, to know that all I have to do is get myself home and execute the plan.

As an abrupt change of subject, it would be really nice if I didn’t have to fight the cat for space in my arm chair. When he was a kitten, I made the mistake of letting him sleep on the armrest while I was using my laptop. Today, my little boy is 21lbs and still insists on sleeping on the armrest while I try to type. Eventually it’s a shoving match, me elbowing him because I can no longer type and him pressing his full weight against my arm because updating my blog is not a priority so long as he wants petting.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

pay day and meal planning

Today is the day before payday. For me, it is a chance to look through the pantry and refrigerator and get organized for the coming week. I am not a naturally organized person; however, over years of planning events, working as a floral designer, catering parties, and cooking for my family I have learned to be. There was simply no other choice!

For me, being organized means sitting down with pad of paper, a pencil, and a very large cup of tea, and making a meal plan and a couple lists. I know that life is going to throw every possible curve ball at me, but starting out organized only helps me keep all those balls in the air and still achieve some of my healthy and lifestyle goals.

I begin by writing the days of the week in the margins of a legal pad, leaving enough space to have separate lines for each meal. I also make a note of any events, birthdays, appointments, etc in the margin underneath the date. I proceed by jotting down the number of people I’m feeding at each meal, so I know how much food to purchase, or thaw, or pull out of the pantry.   

On a separate piece of paper I make a list of anything I have in the pantry or refrigerator that really needs to be used before it goes off. On the same page I note any dishes my family has requested, any dishes I might like to attempt, and dishes that utilize the ingredients from the first list that need to be used before they are no longer viable.

On a third piece of paper, I start a grocery list for the items I will need to complete those meals.

Now that I know who I’m feeding, when, and what I already have in the house, I can plan my week. I put meals that create other meals (leftovers) in the early part of the week, and use those leftovers later in the week. I try have a variety of meals in my plan, not only to serve a balance diet to my family but to avoid fatigue: no one actually wants to each chicken every night of the week.  I also use every resource I have to keep things fresh for me, and the people I’m feeding. I pull recipes from on-line sources, cook books, and favorite stand-bys to keep things interesting. As I make my meal plan, I also jot a note of the source of a recipe, for example: Marrakesh Stew – Martha Stewart “Meatless,” Pg 104. This way I don’t have to remember what book that recipe was in, or flip frantically through the book looking for the right page.

As I go, I scratch off the recipe ideas and ingredients from my list of what I have in the cupboard and fridge, and write anything I need on the grocery list. I also jot a note beside each ingredient if I purchase it from a particular vendor, it is on sale this week, or I have a coupon for that item. 

When I’m all done, I take all three of these lists to the store with me. Using this paper extension of my brain, I can then be flexible to what is available at the store, and what is out of stock. I can also accommodate last minute requests such as my husband saying, “beans are on sale this week, we haven’t had chili in a long time, I’d really like some chili,” which, of course, never happens... 

I can, and probably will, prattle on endlessly about the importance of being organized in the kitchen. Whether you are a home cook or a professional, I truly believe it will make you a happier and a better cook. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

sticky toffee pudding

I am about to unleash three words that will change your life: Sticky, Toffee, Pudding. If France gave us the mother sauces, then this, surely, is one of the mother puddings. Dense, sweet, fruity and flooded with toffee sauce. Of course, you can use the best quality dried dates you can get your hands on, however, because you boil the dates in a significant amount of strong tea, it is a perfect way to use up dried dates that, we’ll just say, have lost the suppleness of youth. Fortunately, dates are something I always have lurking in the back of my pantry, and usually they are bordering on well past their prime. If I’m being completely frank, I need no excuse to make this pudding, but I like to think of it as diligent frugality when I make it in the late autumn to use up last years dates, before I order new dates for this year’s Fruitcake.  

The recipe makes enough toffee sauce for two puddings; you’ll thank me for the excess. If you have self control, you can freeze it and use it the next time you make this, if like me you…do not, it is delicious on ice cream, and can turn a dreary store bought chocolate pound cake into something wonderful. You can also just dip a spoon into the sauce and eat it straight out of the jar. Did I mention a lack of self control? 

If you are not an Anglophile like me, this dessert might seem stogy and terribly, well let’s face it, brown. I promise you it is not stogy or boring. The taste is sweet with just a hint of bitterness and citrus - provided by the tea. The toffee sauce is slightly fruity as well as boozy. This isn’t a nursery school treat, it’s adult, sophisticated and rich.  

Recipe following cut:

cooking as a verb

Cooking is a transformative action, not only of the food that is prepared, but of the cook. From the moment I began to earnestly think about what I put on my table, and into my body, I experienced a fundamental shift in my ideas about food, life, and family.

The provenance and rearing of our food matters: I don’t need a scientific study – though they are prolific – to tell me vegetables grown in healthy soil will be more nutritious and taste better. Nor do I need a study to tell me that happy healthy animals produce meat and dairy products that have a better balance of Omega 3- 6- 12 fatty acids compared to their factory farmed counterparts. Again, the evidence is widely available should anyone choose to seek it out, but it isn’t necessary.  

All that is needed is to taste the product. The flavor of grass fed humanely reared beef is not insipid. Great milk and butter tastes of fresh grass in the summer and hay in the winter, cream is actually cream colored, and butter bright yellow. Egg yolks from organic hens have a darker almost orange appearance, have a much richer taste, and they perform better in baking and omelets. Cheeses made from great milk is deeply complex and does not leach oil at room temperature. As I’ve said often, I do not have a particularly talented pallet, if I can easily detect these differences, anyone can.  

We are, generally speaking, selfish creatures. We act in our own best interests, or at least, we act in what we believe is our own best interests in the moment. I am not saying altruism does not exist but it easy to ignore environmental problems, deceases, and the impacts of big agriculture, when there is little we can do in our daily lives to affect or fix them. However, tell me that I won’t be able to purchase – or afford – salad greens in the middle of winter, for example, and you have got my attention! Suddenly, I’m very concerned about the water shortage in the Salinas Valley of California, and the rising costs of siphoning agricultural water from neighboring states to keep the valley producing food at an unsustainable rate. I am suddenly concerned about finding alternative means of getting what I want, which also, not unsubstantially, benefits others.  

The more my own food bills increase, the more I am aware of how little difference there is between my family and a family that does not have enough to eat. The more, in turn, I become concerned about global food security, and childhood hunger. The more likely I am to use my limited free time to help feed others, and the more likely I am to attempt to grown my own food in whatever patch of dirt I can make. 

When I didn’t cook I saw only the sticker price of a food item. I am not so well off that the sticker price does not matter, but I am more aware – for better or worse – of the real cost of the food in my pantry and on the grocery store shelves. Moreover, I am more aware of its full value, and how amazing it is that I can walk into my local supermarket and pick up a head of lettuce that started its life 2,250 miles away. If I did not cook, I would be less interested in the world around me, and the future of the planet on which, for a brief time, I get to live. 

Cooking isn’t just a means of providing sustenance. Food is the organic building blocks of life. It is the tangible connection between us and the dirt beneath our feet: from which we came, and to which we will return.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

a little enforced quiet is a very good thing

On the introvert/extrovert scale, I am the former, and fairly far towards the extreme. I don’t just want, I need time to myself, and I need quiet. I recharge by doing repetitive physical tasks (cooking, baking, cleaning, laundry, etc) in a quiet atmosphere, reading, or listening to music. Unfortunately, I live with three other adults, and two cats, so I rarely get the space that I need. Seriously, I have cats; I haven’t peed alone in my own bathroom in 23 years! I was therefore, relieved to drop my husband off at work today and head to the library where a nice lady gets paid to keep everyone quiet. 

Feeding four people who range in age from 45 to 68 can be a challenge. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences, but there are also dietary restrictions to consider as well as the nutritional needs of aging adults. For the most part, my in-laws feed themselves breakfast and lunch, and four days per week, they are on their own for dinner. On the weekends, holidays, and in-between semesters, I do all the cooking, and I do feel a certain obligation to make meals they not only like, but are reasonably healthy for them to eat.  

For those reading along - at the risk of being repetitive - lately I have been trying to fit as many meat free and low meat meals into our regular rotation as I can. I have no intention of becoming a vegetarian, but for now, excluding meat has reduced my grocery bill, and allows me to eat more food while still reducing the circumference of my waist. I am learning, in this process, that if I avoid the protein, starch, vegetable structure of the Western meal, I can serve vegetarian food and no one acts as if they’ve been deprived. It can be very disheartening to prepare a meal only to have someone stare at their plate like you’ve just ripped the stuffing out of their Teddy Bear and thrown on the ground in front of them.  

Breakfast/Lunch: frittata with shredded potato, onions, peas, and parmesan cheese 

Dinner: Mushroom Risotto 

That as they say is it for this Tuesday. A bit discombobulated, but fitting for the week. Tomorrow is the first long day of my husband’s new schedule. I am hoping to be able to put together lunch and dinner before bedtime tonight, because I have a strong intuition I won’t feel like cooking come 8:30pm tomorrow night.

veggie burgers and mondays

I’ve been on this planet to experience somewhere around 2,414 Monday’s, most of which, in my adult life, I have dreaded. Today, after a frustrating and busy weekend, I was happy to see the beginning of a new week. I don’t think I can parlay that into anything resembling optimism or a positive attitude, just happy to be moving forward again.  

Weigh in: 258 lbs. So far my food and movement plan seems to be working, and no one, least of all me, has complained about feeling hungry or deprived. There was an incident with a shaky pair of hands and a Milky Way bar, but I put it back on the shelf and got the heck out of the store as soon as I could.  

Without revealing too much about my husbands work life, one of the other professors needs to take a medical leave of absence and he’s been asked to pick up one of his classes. This will extend our schedule twice a week, and will require me to pack lunch for both of us since I have neither the money, nor the inclination to eat out on a regular basis. It isn’t strictly speaking a big deal, except for the fact that packing a lunch has never really been a strong suit for me, and my husband has had difficulty remembering his lunch since the fifth grade. Of course, because of the other dietary and lifestyle changes I’m trying to make and stick to, it has to be real whole food and mostly plants. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich just isn’t going to cut it. 

I have just now come to the realization that I skipped breakfast. For lunch I made veggie burgers from a favorite recipe, and I am planning Tarka Dal, Aloo Gobi, and Basmati Rice for dinner. I also have some chores – more snow – to take care of after dinner, and I need to dig a path out to the bird feeder which is running quite low. 

The Veggie Burgers I make actually live up to the name. They are not bean paddies, or filled with various grains, they are made with carrots, onion, celery, mushrooms, peppers, and ground walnuts, with a minimal filler of Matzo Meal and bound by one egg. I have never been able to muster the patience to snap a photograph of them, which is probably the best testament to their flavor as I can proclaim, but I will post the recipe as I can.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Betty and me

I’ve been reading my way through my mother-in-law’s copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook (circa 1950’s) that she received as a wedding gift. Both covers are now gone, and there are multiple pages missing but it’s still a family treasure. Some of the advice, for instance that you should “Refresh Your Spirits: Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and your family’s too!” And don’t forget to have your crinoline pressed, high heeled shoes polished and always be smiling or the neighbors will gossip! The prescription, “Think pleasant thoughts while working and a chore will become a “labor of love,” likewise seem quite comical in a contemporary context. Refresh my spirits, my ass! Refresh my drink! 

It is, however, still a kind of Holy Grail of cookbooks, teaching the reader to plan ahead, be organized, make meals that make other meals (leftovers) and combine overlapping jobs in the kitchen: all good advice no matter what decade you live in. There are clear and concise instructions for proper measuring, a glossary of common terms and emergency substitutions, and each section contains basic information about the techniques the cook will need to apply in that section. The poultry section, for instance, contains a chart outlining how long to cook a chicken or turkey by weight, and approximately how many diners you can expect to feed.
Advice concerning formal table service, for families who have servants, or the three course breakfast recommendations, is probably best ignored. As are the cartoon drawings of Eskimos, complete with seal pelts, in the freezer section which seem stereotypes at best. But there is plenty of information in old cookbooks such as this, that can be applied in any contemporary kitchen. Many of the recipes contained within its 454 pages, are the recipes that my husband and I still use today. The buttermilk pancakes I make for my nieces are, after being standardized by weight, the exact same basic recipe from this book. And at Christmas time, when I need a recipe for cut out cookies that will hold up to long storage, the decorating talents of a four and six year old commis, passed dinners, and holiday parties, it’s “Ethyl’s Sugar Cookies,” that I make.  

Up there with Fanny Farmer; Betty is part of our culinary heritage, even if she never really existed. Yes, our ideas of both nutrition and sophistication have changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse, but there is a core of solid recipes to be found in its pages. When it comes down to it, books like this are the fundamentals of American cooking and the family meal. The final word, here, still belongs to Betty.  

“Make mealtime a special time in your home by serving appetizing food in a relaxed, happy atmosphere. The buoyant health and feeling of well being that results will be reward enough for the care and loving through you give to your family’s meals.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"golden" rolled oat granola

A top quality granola will cost you anywhere from $8.00 all the way up to $15.00 in a high end health food store. Less expensive granolas, loaded with HFC’s and low quality ingredients and puffed wheat products, don’t even bare mentioning here, other than to say, they are the reason people don’t like granola! Crunchy and mildly sweet, made to your precise tastes, there is nothing that compares to home made.  

This recipe has fast become a favorite amongst my kin. It is easy to make, wheat/gluten free, and made from whole real foods. The simplicity of granola can also be considered its weakness; there is literally no place for pour quality ingredients to hide. That being said, I use Bob’s Red Mill organic rolled oats and oat bran, and I buy wildflower honey direct from the folks who tend the bees.

Flexibility is another one of its assets. You can use any variety of seed, nuts, and dried fruit you think will taste good together. You could also add ground cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, or any other spice that will compliment your choice of dried or fresh fruit. You can even substitute maple syrup, cane syrup, or even agave for the honey in equal proportion without adversely affecting the results.  

Having this stored in your cupboard can be like having a healthy meal insurance policy. I prefer to eat this with yogurt and fresh fruit, as part of my regular breakfast rotation, but it can also be eaten as a cold cereal, take along snack, or even used as an easy dessert topping on ice cream or custard. Late night and lazy evening cravings can even be sated by tossing a handful of chocolate chips or salted nuts into a bowl with this granola, and eating it dry in front of the television or computer screen.

Recipe following cut:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

it is stumped day

Apparently, Wednesday is stumped day…

We received more snow overnight and snow will be an ongoing problem throughout the day. I have to keep the driveway and sidewalks clear, but also I have an hour’s drive ahead of me to get my hubby to work. Thankfully, we’ll be swimming upstream, as it were, against the flow of traffic trying to get home from their 9 to 5 gigs. 

There is some pre-soaked steal cut oatmeal on the stove waiting for me to cook it for my breakfast. Tarka dal seems like a good idea for lunch. I was planning to make a frittata, but somehow a stew of warm spiced yellow split peas sounds more bolstering, which will most certainly be required today. All of the ingredients for the salad I was planning for Monday night’s dinner are now waiting on me in the refrigerator, and that’s dinner taken care of.  

But first, I shovel.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

coca-cola cake

This cake I am told is a Southern classic; being a Canuck and a Yankee, my exposure to it comes via Cracker Barrel restaurants. Its name sake is at best controversial subject in many food circles, but I have a room for everything in moderation attitude when it comes to desert. If you absolutely refuse to use a product containing HFC’s I can’t image any reason that “Mexican Coke” , “Throwback” or any other cola would not work in this recipe. I used the name brand stuff in the red and white can. It’s an indulgence, nothing you do to it will make it otherwise.  

Many of the recipes I’ve encountered – and tried – call for plain unsweetened cocoa, and to me they lacked sophistication: not that sophistication is a strong point in this cake. It is what you imagine it would be, very sweet and slightly rich. Simplicity is its strong suit. Still, I couldn’t help tweaking the flavor to my tastes by using slightly darker and more complex Dutch process cocoa and hint of black cocoa’s bitterness to cut all that sugar. 

The finished cake has a satisfying icing to cake ratio, with a moist but medium/soft crumb, and a mild but complex chocolate flavor. Small or large, no matter how you slice it – pun intended – it really is delicious.
Recipe following cut:

a bunch of lint

Starting Tuesday on five hours sleep isn't my idea of how today should go. In the first fifteen minutes, however, I washed out the tea pot, started a load of laundry, and am now tapping my fingers waiting for the tea to steep. 

Yesterday, after another night of ‘will my phone charge or won’t it,’ I woke to a sad little red battery symbol telling me it was almost out of juice, even though it had been on the charger all night. I did manage to get it to charge, and thankfully I had the time to wait for it. So, I decided after some deliberating, (I talked to my mother on the phone) to screw my courage to the sticking place (I had a very large latte) and marched myself into the Apple store fairly confident that there was nothing that could be done to save my phone. Worst case scenario, I told myself, was that I could shop for a new phone, and be fully up on the features of the newer models, and then discuss our options with my husband.  

As soon as I came in the door I was whisked to some Mac “Genius.” No comment on the guys intelligence but I know people who are actually geniuses and I’ve always though that naming your techs “genius” is cheap, if not completely obnoxious. The genius then takes down some of my information and hands me off to a tech, who asks me what the problem is, and then hands me off to another tech. I’d met three people before I finally managed to tell one of them why I was there.  Then the guy took my phone to the back room to see what they could do. A few minutes later another tech came out and informed me, that “there was a bunch of lint in there, like, I mean a lot,” and they were going to try to clean it out and see if they could get it to charge. Being a natural cynic, I wasn’t at all convinced that cleaning it would work, that’s just not how my life works. But, since they hadn’t tried to charge me for anything - so far - I though, what the hell!  

After a few more minutes of waiting, my hope kept in check, yet another person came out with my phone. They had cleaned the contacts and it was working just fine. I am not sure what the expression on my face was, but I must have looked terribly incredulous, because the guy then proceeded to plug it in and prove to me that it would charge. He did recommend that I upgrade my iPhone, with a bit of an unspoken, I can’t believe that thing is still working attitude, and I probably will do so at some point in the future. I was so elated to have a working phone back, which in essence was like having the ability to choose when I wanted to buy a new phone returned to me, that I almost felt teary: almost. The guy then asked me to sign off on the tablet, in case I had to come in for a similar issue, and sent me on my way free of charge. I though hugging him would be over zealous. 

So, I guess it goes to show you, sometimes when you think you’re dealing with a tragedy, it turns out to be nothing but a bunch of lint.   


Last night's dinner was, drum roll please, Chinese take out! After a two and half hour drive home I was in no condition to cook or speak English. I thought I had developed tourette’s but it turns out, people are just assholes when they get behind the wheel. I ordered "Bean Curd Homestyle," which was tofu, broccoli, water chestnuts, carrots, snow peas, and mini corn, in a soy based sauce.
Roasted Tomato and Tuna Melt for lunch, and I think we’ll be having our leftovers for dinner so that I can get the remainder of my laundry done, and also get myself back to the gym before the snow flies on Wednesday. Sometimes you have to suck it up, and order in, even though I feel like I should be apologizing for not cooking. I did stick to my meatless Monday plan, the reastaurant nearest our house uses no MSG, and as take out goes, Chinese is every healthy. I probably should take it as a win.

Yesterday’s weigh-in was 260 lb. It isn’t about the number, but the number is an easy way to keep track.  

Monday, February 3, 2014

monday perhaps

I feel strangely obligated to complain that it’s Monday. Perhaps it’s a leftover impulse from my working 9 – 5 days, although being in floral design and event planning that kind of stricture never really applied. It truth, the work of a home cook and caregiver is perpetual, which is to say, I “work” everyday. Perhaps it’s just a ploy for validation and solidarity with the working world outside my home, and those around me who must plod off to their weekday jobs.  

The worst think about Monday, perhaps, is the weight my own expectations for the week: the list making and note writing; and the wondering how it’s all going to get done. This isn’t Eastern philosophy, but perhaps Monday’s often suck because I am predisposed to thinking they will, and therefore they do. In reality, today is a cold and bright winter day, the snow from this weekend is still clinging to the trees which will make for a beautiful drive to campus this afternoon. I am, for example, far more upset that the charge point on my iPhone is dying, which is an ongoing stressor than I am about it being Monday. Perhaps, like the Grinch, how I feel about Monday is completely about my own attitude and nothing else, it is, after-all, an opportunity to mark a new beginning every single week.  

Per my iPhone 4 - yes you read that right I’m two generations behind on my technology - the charge point is part of the main circuit board and cannot be repaired. At this point there is a fairly complicated ritual involved that includes the right facial expression, the cord wrapped around the phone at the correct angle, and the correct combination of curse words, to get it to charge. I fear, every single day, that today will be the day it does not work. As for replacing the unit, I know I will have to, but I really am hoping to continue this dangerous dance until our tax returns come in. One final word before I leave the subject, I really think it’s an irresponsible kind of built in obsolescence to put the interface point directly on the main circuit board. I am sure for design purposes it makes perfect sense, however, how many iPhones go into the landfill and recycling* each year because of this flaw? The rest of the technology was perfectly serviceable, is that kind of waste really necessary?  I don’t usually get on my green soap box, but if we’re going to have any kind of a future on this planet we really need to think about how we’re making personal technologies – like the cell phone – now! 

*A great deal of the recycled tech in this country is sitting around in vast warehouses with no one buying and using it to manufacture a new product. Many of the companies end up closing down and the phone you took the time and care to recycle ends up dumped into a landfill, or worse. 

Finally, in an attempt to bring this journal entry back to the main topic of my blog, I talked to the family about my food plan. I don’t expect to impose my ideas on them, I have tried and failed, but since I feed them three or more days per week, I thought it fair to at least give them a head up. In response to that conversation, my mother-in-law came home with half a dozen paczki. OK, it wasn’t in direct response to the conversation about us needing to loose weight, but it was suspicious. My husband had mentioned that we both liked paczki, and that he was looking forward to Paczki Day. She saw the paczki at the grocery store, and bought them: not exactly diabolical behavior! Accept, that I’m the one with no self control who will be lying in bed at night bathed in my own cold sweat, as the paczki call to me from the kitchen upstairs in a creepy, come hither, “I see dead people,” kind of way, until I finally break down and eat one!   

Paczki Day, (punch-key) for those of you unfamiliar with the treat, and the event, is a means of celebrating Shrove Tuesday - the last Tuesday before the Lenten fast. In Canada and the UK it is also known as Pancake Tuesday. This year, it falls on March 4th, but paczki have already begun appearing everywhere here in Michigan, and will be on grocery store shelves until Easter. The fact that they appear so soon, and are kept around throughout Lent, kind of cheapens them. They are meant to be one final splurge before a time of deprivation, not something to dunk in your morning coffee.  

Oatmeal for breakfast; leftover veggie pizza for lunch; and a sweet potato, and green bean salad with yogurt and lentils for dinner.