Why we had Banana Bread and Black Bean Soup for Easter dinner

We’ve never established a traditional Easter dinner for our family.  Partly it’s because we don’t eat lamb or ham, but the biggest reason is that for the past 15 years I’ve been heavily involved in the Easter celebrations at church.  The Easter Vigil service is late Saturday night, followed by a festive reception, and then there’s the Sunday morning service, followed by another festive reception!  As hospitality chairperson, I’m in charge of recruiting people to bring food for the receptions, organizing the array of food, setting up, and cleaning up.  Also, I’ve often read one of the scriptures in the Easter Vigil service, and this year I was a chalice-bearer (serving the Communion wine and, unexpectedly, lighting 14 candles–but that’s another story).

After all that, not only am I tired and burned-out on food management, but we’re not coming home hungry after church!  We eat during the reception, and then there are always some odds and ends left on the serving platters that are easier to eat than put away.  We don’t need another meal until Sunday evening.

We do have to eat then, though.  The extent to which I had planned that meal was thinking, “I’ll bake the last two sweet potatoes, and we’ll eat them with…something….”

I ended up not baking the sweet potatoes. Read more of this post

DIY Vegan Bacon from Potato Peels!

I’m excited to share this recipe because it seems to be unique or at least not well-known.  I did some web-searching, seeking tips for perfecting my recipe, but all I found were recipes for making vegan bacon from other (more expensive) ingredients or for making stuffed potato skins using store-bought vegan bacon.

We had this idea when we were peeling a lot of potatoes to make cream-of-potato soup.  We were talking about how the tastiest potato soups have a little ham or bacon in them, and about how a crisp slice of bacon makes a delicious garnish on top of a bowl of soup, and meanwhile we were looking at all these long curly strips of potato peel . . . and someone, I think it was 12-year-old Nicholas, wondered aloud if maybe we could fry up the potato peels into something kind of like bacon.

potato peels fryingYes, we can!  Even our first try was pretty good.  After several rounds of experimentation, we’ve decided that we’ll never be able to get anyone to think this actually is bacon, but it’s a yummy, smoky, salty, greasy, crispy food that makes a better substitute for bacon than anything else you can make out of garbage in 5 minutes!

It’s especially practical if you want something bacon-ish to go with your potato-based meal.  But if you’re peeling potatoes for something else, and you want the “bacon” for another meal, just stuff those clean peels in a glass jar and refrigerate for a day or two until you’re ready to cook them–or cook them right away, refrigerate, and reheat in a skillet when ready to eat . . . or just eat some out of the jar with your fingers every time you open the fridge, because they really are that good.

What you see here is a 12″ skillet containing the peels of 4 medium-sized potatoes.  This produced a little over 1 cup (loosely packed) of finished “bacon.”  This recipe is not written with specific quantities because the amount of peel we’ve been working with has been different each time, and the seasoning is really a matter of taste. Read more of this post

Kale Marinara Sauce

This is a very easy way to add nutrition to a convenient, inexpensive, real-food meal anyone can cook!  Other dark-green leafy vegetables, such as Swiss chard, can be substituted for kale.

To make 2 servings, you will need:

  • a big handful of spaghetti noodles (For more protein, fiber, and B vitamins, use whole-wheat spaghetti.  We buy the 5-pound bag from Gordon Food Service; it’s affordably priced, tastes good, and has a smooth texture.)
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups of prepared spaghetti sauce (In most grocery stores, it’s easy to find affordable sauce that doesn’t contain soybean oil or added sugar and that’s high in Vitamin C and fiber.)
  • 3 or 4 leaves of raw kale (This is a great way to use leftovers after making another recipe with kale–most stores make you buy kale in big bunches!)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cooking pots, and a lid for the larger pot
  • spaghetti twonger or fork
  • large spoon
  • colander (pasta-draining sieve)

Fill the larger pot with water, place over high heat, and cover.

Wash the kale.  Tear the leafy part away from the main stem.  Compost or discard the stems.  Tear or chop the leaves into small pieces.

When the water boils, remove lid and add spaghetti (breaking in half if desired).  Turn down heat a little.  Stir occasionally with spaghetti twonger/fork until cooked to desired softness.

Cook kale in oil in the smaller pot over medium heat, stirring frequently with spoon.

When kale is noticeably less fluffy and beginning to brown at the edges, add sauce.  Mix thoroughly.  Heat until bubbling.

Drain spaghetti in colander.

Divide spaghetti onto plates and top with sauce.  (If you happen to be fighting off a cold, crush a clove of raw garlic onto your portion and stir it in!)  Eat!

 

Adding kale to spaghetti works for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop and Real Food Friday for more great meal ideas!

Get FREE Breadcrumbs for All Your Recipe Needs!

Did you make a new year’s resolution to waste less food, to do more cooking from scratch, or to buy less over-packaged food?  If you did, or if you have ever bought a canister of ready-to-use breadcrumbs, this article is for YOU!  And if you don’t fit into any of those categories, but you do eat bread and there is any chance that you’ll ever make a recipe that uses breadcrumbs, you should read this, too!

The thing is, breadcrumbs are just bread, made into crumbs.  It’s easy to do!  When you buy breadcrumbs, you’re paying to have machines crumble the bread for you and pack it in a container.  Crumbs are much more expensive than the number of slices of bread required to make that many crumbs.  Furthermore, when you buy crumbs as a separate product, you’re buying different bread than what you already have at home (some of which likely goes to waste from time to time, when it gets stale before you can eat it or because nobody likes to eat the bread heels) and you’re buying whatever quantity comes in a package–so after using the amount you need in your recipe, you’re likely to have some left, and if you can’t think of a use for them quickly, they’re going to go to waste, too.

bread in fridgeHere’s what was on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator one Saturday last fall when my son Nicholas (then 10 years old) decided to document in photos our process of converting unwanted bread into useful breadcrumbs.  In the center is an entire baguette that my partner Daniel bought, planning to make a specific sandwich–but then he got sick for just a couple days, and a baguette gets stale very quickly!  You also can see other bread bags, one with the current half-used loaf of bread but most nearly empty.  We took the heels out of that half-loaf bag but left the rest of the slices for our fresh-bread uses.  (Also on the shelf are tortillas, a jar of olives, and some kind of parsley or something, which you can just ignore.)

The first step is to inventory your breads and sort out what is no longer good for fresh eating but could still be used for crumbs.  Discard any bread that looks or smells moldy.  But bread that is damp from being in the refrigerator can still be salvaged! Read more of this post

24 Ways to Use Thanksgiving Leftovers–Not Just Turkey!

My partner Daniel’s cousin Mike has just concluded a 25-year tradition of inviting all the extended family to Thanksgiving dinner at his home in upstate New York.  We’re planning to get together next November, too, but it’ll have to be somewhere else because Mike is selling his house and moving to Florida.  As one of only a few family units living close enough to New York to travel there by car instead of airplane, we’ve enjoyed a generous portion of leftovers each year–this time, we brought home a big cooler and two small ones and a couple of grocery bags of surplus food!  Here are our tips for using up the kinds of goodies that tend to be left over after a big celebration like this.  (Thanks for all the great food and happy memories, Mike!!)

  • Freeze stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cooked vegetables in quart buckets.  On a boring weekend toward the end of winter, defrost them, bake some fish, open a can of cranberry sauce, and have a Fishgiving Feast!
  • Chop up leftover turkey and use it in Tetrazzini.  This recipe also absorbs mushrooms, peas, bell pepper, olives, cheese, and butter, if you have any of those left over.
  • Use leftover baked or roasted sweet potatoes or squash to make New England Yam Bake or Butternut Squash Burritos.  (Both recipes work with either vegetable.  Squash that has been baked with the skin on, rather than diced and roasted, usually needs to be drained so that it isn’t too wet.)
  • Add leftover corn to your burritos or other Mexican meals, such as Mexican Pizza, or to Cheesy Zucchini Casserole (using that zucchini you probably froze in the summer when there was too much of it around!).
  • Here are 4 ways to use extra bread, even if it’s stale!  Cheesy Vegetable Bread Pudding also accommodates assorted bits of vegetables and cheese.
  • Crackers from the appetizer tray can be crunched up along with bread to make breadcrumbs for use in recipes like Cheesy Walnut Burgers.
  • Most types of vegetables work in High-Protein Vegan Pasta Salad, Pasta Prima Becca, and/or Flexican Cornbread Pizza.  If you have at least 1 cup of a raw vegetable, shred and freeze for later use.
  • Shred excess carrots and onions and make Apricot Lentil Soup or Masoor Dal or Grildebeen Burgers.
  • Serve extra desserts at church coffee hour or a similar event.  Thanks to Mike’s generosity with desserts–he always buys some cheesecakes and ice cream, in addition to the pumpkin and apple pies that come with the catering package and a couple of homemade desserts–we brought home two complete apple pies and one pumpkin pie and a big chunk of cheesecake!  Because nobody had signed up to host Sunday’s coffee hour, and we were due home Saturday night, I’d sent email to the parish announcing a “share your Thanksgiving bounty” coffee hour, and thus we disposed of one of our apple pies.
  • Stuffing is a delicious side dish to sauteed mushrooms–which have been our Thanksgiving protein the years we didn’t go to Mike’s house.
  • Leftover nuts from making pecan pie, or from appetizers?  Make Nutshroom Burgers!
  • Make leftover fruit–even if it’s bruised or past its prime–into a pie filling or a versatile fruit sauce.
  • Puree leftover cranberry sauce, apples, sweet potatoes, squash, and/or other fruit and use in place of the applesauce in Raisin Bran Bread.  You don’t have to cook the fruit mixture before adding it to the dough.  I did this shortly before Thanksgiving with some excess baked buttercup squash and the good parts of a few old apples, and the bread is really good!
  • If you have 2 or 3 extra raw sweet potatoes and a bunch of greens, make this amazing soup!

We’re mostly vegetarian, but we do eat turkey at Thanksgiving when it’s the main course…but we’re nervous about taking leftover meat on a 10-hour road trip, and anyway Mike usually has estimated the group’s turkey appetite more accurately than most of the other dishes so that there isn’t a whole lot of turkey left.  That’s why only one of our tips involves turkey.  Oddly enough, most of the “using Thanksgiving leftovers” articles I’ve seen focus on the turkey–which is why I’m hoping to write a helpful resource for people who have other foods left over!

Do you have more ideas for Thanksgiving leftovers?  Please share in the comments!

Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop and Works-for-Me Wednesday and Real Food Friday for more great tips!

3 Ways to Save on Fair-Trade Coffee

Daniel and I both drink coffee, at least 3 cups a day each.  That adds up!  We support human rights and environmental stewardship by buying only fair-trade*, organic coffee for our home.  My church also buys fair-trade, organic coffee.  This coffee is more expensive than the big mainstream brands.  How can we get the most value for our money?

*(Yes, I have heard that fair-trade certification isn’t always perfect; I’m also willing to buy coffee from companies that “have a relationship” with coffee farmers and treat them well but have not obtained official fair-trade certification; what I’m looking for is some acknowledgement that the coffee is grown by people in a place and that these people deserve fair compensation for their labor and this place deserves not to be ruined.)

UPDATE: A fourth way to save money on coffee is to buy loose coffee grounds instead of individual pods!  I knew pods were bad for the environment and our health, but I had no idea how much more expensive they were until I wrote this investigative article!  If you’ve been buying conventional coffee in pods, you can actually save money by switching to fair-trade, organic coffee by the pound.

Buy in bulk.

Organic coffee in the supermarket often costs $10 or more for a 12-ounce (3/4 pound) bag–and then what will you do with that bag?  Years ago, Daniel and I made coffee one of the things we routinely bought in reused containers from the bulk section of our local food co-op.  Just recently, after he read my post about buying by the case, we talked about other products we might be able to get cheaper if we ordered a case.  It turns out that the co-op’s “case” price for coffee is a 5-pound bag.  We use about a pound of coffee a week, so 5 pounds is not an unreasonable amount to buy at once, especially since it’s whole beans that we grind shortly before brewing–it won’t go bad or anything.  This month, Equal Exchange Breakfast Blend is on sale for $8.99/pound; after the 20% discount for buying a case, our 5-pound bag costs $35.96, which is $7.19/pound–almost half the price per pound of the supermarket coffee! Read more of this post

Four Weeks of Pesco-Vegetarian Dinners (winter, with a baby)

A pesco-vegetarian is someone who eats no meat except fish. That’s what we do when we’re at home and most of the time when we eat in other places.  Our 8-month-old daughter, Lydia, is abstaining from cow’s milk until after her first birthday, because I have some family history of dairy allergies that may have been triggered by too-early exposure to cow’s milk.  However, she’s an enthusiastic eater of just about everything we’ve let her eat!  We also have a 10-year-old son, Nicholas, whose preferences have some effect on our menu.

I highly recommend the book Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, not so much for the specific recipes as for a laid-back, nutritious approach to feeding a baby, toddler, or preschooler.  I’ve been looking at it often to get ideas for ingredients we could set aside or prepare a little differently for Lydia, and to support my conviction that we can (again) raise a child who’s open to trying lots of interesting foods.  The Picky Eater’s 30 Family-Friendly Recipes are great inspiration, too!  Unlike Nicholas when he was little, Lydia is not keen on being fed ground-up food with a spoon but prefers to feed herself, so we’re constantly looking for soft foods that can be picked up in blobs and for foods that are firm enough to be cut in chunks but soft enough to be bitten and chewed without teeth.

Here’s what we ate for dinner for four weeks in December and January.  I plan our menu up to a week in advance and do the weekend cooking and some ingredient preparation during the week, while Daniel cooks our weeknight dinners so that we can eat as soon as I get home from work.  Lunches are usually leftovers and sandwiches.

Week One:

  • Sunday: Masoor Dal over rice and lettuce leaves left over from making the salad to go with our Christmas Stuffed Shells. Plain yogurt on top for the dairy eaters.  Lydia loves Masoor Dal as much as the rest of us!  We didn’t even tone down the spices for her.  She was wearing a large bib, and I kept pushing up her sleeves, but still she managed to mash oily, turmeric-seasoned lentils all over her clothes.  I changed her outfit and doused the stained one with Bac-Out immediately after dinner!
  • Monday: Sauteed mushrooms and kale, in lots of olive oil with lots of garlic, over whole-wheat couscous.  I mixed some nutritional yeast flakes into mine.  Lydia sampled a mushroom slice but had trouble with it–she doesn’t have any teeth yet–so her main course was leftover Masoor Dal.
  • Tuesday: Falafels made from bulk mix.  Cucumber slices.  The last of the lettuce.  Yogurt.  Lydia was happy eating just the falafels.  We make them small (easier to get them cooked all the way through without burning or crumbling) so they were an appealing size for her to pick up, hold, and gnaw on.
  • Wednesday: Japanese Udon Noodle Soup with daikon radish, sweet potato, mushrooms, and nori seaweed.  I got to cook this meal, after leaving work early on New Year’s Eve.  I made the daikon and sweet potato into strips about 1″ x 1/4″ x 1/4″ and cooked them soft, but not falling apart, so that Lydia could hold and eat them.  She loved them!  Each of us older people also had a scrambled egg in our soup.
  • Thursday: We thawed out quarts of Mexican rice and black beans that I’d brought home in November, when somebody had ordered far too much food for an event at work and the leftovers were up for grabs.  The only meal cheaper than beans and rice is FREE beans and rice!  We also had avocado with this meal.  Avocado is a great baby food, and I remember Nicholas loving it, but Lydia ate only a few strips in favor of totally chowing down on the beans!  We couldn’t believe she packed such a large volume of beans into her little body!  An almost equal volume of beans was scrubbed off her highchair, face, neck, hair, arms, and floor…and the hideous black stains were completely removed from her clothing by Bac-Out!  I expected some diapers filled with masses of obvious black beans, but in fact she digested them quite fully.
  • Friday: Whole-wheat spaghetti with homemade marinara sauce from the batch I’d made for the Stuffed Shells–similar to this sauce.  Lydia ate a lot of saucy spaghetti (as well as admiring the wiggly noodles and tossing them about) and 24 hours later had a diaper rash from too much citric acid.  We need to be more careful about tomatoes and other acidic foods until her digestion matures.
  • Saturday: We visited Daniel’s grandfather in Ohio for his 99th birthday!!!  We had an excellent brunch of baked oatmeal and various egg dishes at the Green Marble Coffee Shoppe, where Lydia enjoyed the fruit served on the side–it seems cantaloupe is her favorite–as well as a jar of apricot baby food.  Then we visited with Herschel at his home until late afternoon.  We got home around dinnertime and decided to go out to the New Dumpling House, the Chinese restaurant near home, for hot and sour soup (contains pork), tofu with black mushrooms, and mixed vegetables in garlic sauce.  Lydia had been asleep in the car, fell asleep again as we walked over to the restaurant, and stayed asleep in the sling carrier while I ate most of my dinner!  That was nice.  She woke up in time to enjoy some tofu.

Read more of this post

Flexican Cornbread Pizza

Meatless MondayTasty TuesdayHearth & Soul Blog HopWorks-for-Me Wednesday

This recipe has a history.  It started with my mom’s trusty recipe for Mexican Pizza.  Then came my serendipitous discoveries that (a) it can be adapted to a non-Mexican-flavored version, which my family loves just as much as the Mexican version, and (b) it can be baked in a toaster-oven.  More than a year ago, I opened a contest to name this recipe…but none of the suggestions really grabbed me.  Meanwhile, my life-partner Daniel has referred to it at least once as Flexican Cornbread Pizza, which I think is a pretty good name, and he’s been kind of depressed lately, but he really enjoyed this meal when I made it last night, so…

THE WINNER IS DAN EFRAN, CREATOR OF COOL STUFF TO BRIGHTEN YOUR DAY!!!  YAAAYYY!!!

Absolutely no nepotism was involved.  It’s really more about my fondness for words that combine two other words.  This recipe is flexible and can be Mexican in flavor, and it’s like a pizza with a cornbread crust, so Flexican Cornbread Pizza is a perfect name.  Unless we come up with something even punnier.

This recipe can be adapted to the vegetables and herbs you happen to have on hand.  You could even use leftovers!  That makes it very frugal.  Here is the Mexican version, and here is an Italian version I made on a hot summer day, and below is the recipe with general guidelines plus specifics on last night’s cozy January dinner.  It’s vegetarian and can be made vegan.  From start to finish, you can make it in 30 minutes or less, even if your onions or other vegetables are frozen shredded–they’ll thaw easily in the first stage of cooking.

These instructions are for baking in a standard oven, on a cookie sheet with sides.  See the above Italian version to adjust quantities to make a 9″ square pan to bake in the toaster-oven.

To make 6 main-dish servings, you will need:

  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked and rinsed beans. I used pinto beans last night; I rinsed 2 cans, set aside 1/4 cup for the baby’s dinner (she also had black olives and Cheerios), and used the rest on the pizza.
  • 1/4 to 1/2 onion, or 1 or 2 green onions.  I used the last bits left over from a sweet white onion we’d cut up for other meals.
  • vegetables.  I used 4 big leaves of kale, 8 large white button mushrooms, and a big handful of black olives.
  • herbs, fresh or dried.  I used 1 stalk dried rosemary and 2 stalks dried thyme.  (Did you know?  Most fresh herbs will turn into dried herbs if you just put them in an open-topped plastic bag in the refrigerator and forget about them.  It doesn’t work with basil or parsley because they’re too wet and will get moldy.)
  • other seasonings to taste.  I used about 1/4 tsp. each of sea salt and white pepper.
  • Optional: 1 cup marinara sauce.  We didn’t use any this time.  Another option is to leave it off the pizza but serve it on the side.
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil.
  • Grease for the baking pan. I used coconut oil.
  • 1 cup cornmeal.
  • 1 tsp. salt.
  • 1 cup flour.  I used whole-wheat flour.
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder.
  • 1 cup plain yogurt, applesauce, or pumpkin puree. I used yogurt. (If applesauce is sweetened, omit syrup/honey.)
  • 1 Tbsp. sorghum syrup or honey.
  • Optional: 1 egg.  The crust holds together better if you use egg than if you don’t.
  • Optional: 1 cup grated cheese.  I used mozzarella.

Dice onion, any fresh herbs, and vegetables.  Saute them in 1 Tbsp. olive oil, in a skillet, for a few minutes, crumbling in any dried herbs and adding other seasonings.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425F.  Grease the cookie sheet, bottom and sides, from one end to about 3 inches from the other end.  (If you want your crust really thin, you can grease the whole pan.  I prefer to make it thicker.)

Mix cornmeal, salt, flour, and baking powder in a bowl.  Make a well in the center and put yogurt, syrup, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, and egg in it.  Mix them together and then mix with the dry ingredients; don’t mix too long or hard, just until combined.  (Over-mixing will pop the bubbles created by the baking powder, resulting in less fluffy cornbread.)

Pour the batter into the pan–start at one end and spread batter toward the other end, using a rubber scraper, until you begin having trouble getting it to stay together–it should be about 1/2 inch deep.

If using sauce, spread it over the batter.  Sprinkle vegetable mixture and beans evenly over the batter.  Sprinkle optional cheese evenly on top.

Bake 10 minutes.  Check to see if you can lift the edge of the crust easily with a spatula.  If not, keep baking and checking every few minutes until it’s done–typically 15-20 minutes.

Cut into rectangles and serve with salad or fruit for a nice meal.  Leftover pieces easily reheat in the microwave or toaster-oven.

Tetrazzini

This rich, filling casserole is a wonderful comfort food for chilly days!  It’s made with real ingredients–no canned soup–yet it’s fairly easy to put together.  Turkey Tetrazzini is traditional, but my family usually doesn’t eat meat other than fish, so we most often make Tetrazzini with canned Alaskan salmon.  We’ve also made it with cubes of tofu.

I started with a recipe that I copied out of a magazine (I think it was Redbook) when I was in college.  I’ve made a few modifications to the seasoning and rewritten the instructions in an order that I can follow confidently–instead of finding that I’ve forgotten crucial steps so that the sauce gets lumpy while I race around insanely.  I’m a person who usually avoids making white sauce, but it’s worth it for delicious Tetrazzini!

This recipe is easily modified to use odds and ends that you happen to have on hand.  Only the sauce ingredients really need to be measured; all the other quantities are approximate.  Don’t have peas?  Cauliflower or broccoli or some other vegetable can be substituted. Don’t have as much salmon (or alternative protein) as the recipe says?  Throw in more vegetables.  Use up pasta, fish/meat, cheese, or vegetables left over from another meal–it’s a great way to make Thanksgiving turkey taste different!–or purposely cook extra of these ingredients when making another meal and then make Tetrazzini a day or two later.  The quantity of bell pepper in this recipe is less than a whole pepper, so it’s perfect for using up a random leftover chunk. Read more…

5 Tips for Green Lunch Packing

It’s back-to-school season!  If your child brings a lunch to school, now is the time to think about how to pack that lunch.  If you bring your lunch to work, this is a great time of year to rethink what you’re packing, too.

Choosing the right lunch-packing habits can make a big difference in how much garbage you create.  Reducing waste often saves money, too. If you shift from eating out of plastic wrappers to eating out of washable containers made of glass, metal, or other safe materials, you’ll be taking in fewer harmful chemicals.  So it’s a win all around, not just for the environment!

Here are a few main ways my family makes our school and workplace lunches more environmentally friendly.  This is not a sponsored post.  All of the specific products mentioned here were chosen by my family and purchased at full price, and all opinions are our own.  These tips are written as if you, the reader, are the lunch eater, but they all apply to packing kids’ lunches, too!

1. Use what you have.

The greenest type of reusable item is one that you don’t buy new, because even the most ecologically-produced objects take resources and energy to make.  Here are some things I’ve repurposed for packing my lunch: Read more…

Fishgiving: A Feast from the Freezer!

Last weekend, my family enjoyed a spontaneous and somewhat silly holiday feast.

A few days earlier, we had finally gotten around to baking an acorn squash and two butternut squashes we’d received in our CSA farm share back in November.  Each of the three of us ate a big chunk of squash as a side dish to the Honey Baked Lentils we baked at the same time.  Actually, I like to eat my lentils in the mashed and buttered squash, and I packed up another portion for my lunch the next day.

Then we were left with 5 servings of baked squash and no more lentils.  On Saturday I asked my nine-year-old Nicholas to help me decide what to make for dinner with the squash–Butternut Squash Burritos?  No, he wanted it to be a side dish to something.  Okay, how about fish?  We had 4 fillets and some odd bits left in a big bag of frozen pollock.  Nicholas agreed to a meal of fish and squash.

Suddenly he said, “Can we make the squash like Grandma’s sweet potatoes?”  I was sure that we could adapt the New England Yam Bake recipe to the squash.  Nicholas and his father Daniel were planning to go to the supermarket in the afternoon anyway, so I checked the recipe and the pantry and put canned pineapple on the shopping list.

I was getting out the fish to thaw when Nicholas had another inspiration: “Since we’re having the squash like at Thanksgiving, can we have cranberry sauce?”  We happened to have a can of cranberry sauce in the pantry–and thinking of Thanksgiving reminded me that we still had a quart of stuffing and a quart of mashed potatoes in the freezer!  (We were among the few relatives who traveled by car rather than plane to Daniel’s family’s large Thanksgiving gathering, so we brought home all the leftovers we could manage.)  I got those out to thaw, too.

We baked the fish plain, with just a little olive oil for moisture.  We scooped the squash out of its skin and mashed it into a large flat baking pan, put the pineapple on top, and mixed up the crumblies according to the Yam Bake recipe.  Nicholas coaxed the cranberry sauce out of the can onto our official cranberry sauce server, which Daniel and I bought at a yard sale years ago when we were first living together because we just couldn’t resist the idea that for only 50 cents we could own a crystal plate and silver serving tool specifically designed for the elegant serving of canned gelatinous cranberry sauce!  (We think it’s from the 1950s, judging by the art on the box.)

Fish with Thanksgiving side dishes is just as good as turkey.  The squash bake was excellent.  We really enjoyed our festive meal!  Nicholas began speaking of “Fishgiving Dinner,” and I tried to make up a legend about how this was the commemoration of how the Indians taught our ancestors to eat fish, but he wasn’t buying it.  We had enough left over from our meal of leftovers to reprise Fishgiving Dinner on Sunday night.

Enjoying the autumn harvest to the fullest, with a random celebration in March, works for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more food-related articles!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

How to use long-frozen cookie dough

When my parents visited us the Christmas before last, my mother made her grandmother’s traditional animal cookies: a buttery dough that you roll out and cut with cookie cutters (they don’t have to be animal shapes, of course) and bake and frost.  The recipe makes a huge batch, so she divided it and froze two portions, and we made cookies from the rest.

My son Nicholas and I defrosted one blob of cookie dough last spring and baked cookies for church coffee hour.  But the other blob was still sitting in our freezer, 15 months later.  I was beginning to wonder if it was still good and how we might get around to baking some cookies, because I’m seven months pregnant and would like to be filling that freezer space with leftovers to eat postpartum, but I’m so tired so much of the time that rolling out cookies does not seem to be within my capabilities.

One evening last week, nine-year-old Nicholas ate a healthy dinner and then asked for a bowl of berries (we have a big bag of frozen organic mixed berries from Costco, which we’ve been defrosting in the microwave one serving at a time) with yogurt.  I had to tell him I had finished off the yogurt at breakfast.  He was upset.  Berries with milk would not be as good.  We did not have ice cream.  After a while he started asking for “a bready topping”.  No, NOT oatmeal!  Finally I thought of the cookie dough.

We removed the blob of dough from its plastic bag and put it on a plate in the microwave on “defrost” setting.  After 5 minutes the dough was workable.  We defrosted about 2 cups of berries, warming them just to the point where they weren’t stuck together or too icy to handle.  Nicholas formed the dough into 7 pancake-like circles and wrapped each one around a handful of berries.  We put the blobs in a baking pan, poked the tops with a fork, and baked at 350F until they were crusty on the outside, about 15 minutes.  They got larger and stuck together, but they were easy to separate with a spatula.

The result was a sort of dumpling that could be hand-held while eating.  They tasted great!  The cookie dough was sweet enough that the berries didn’t need additional sugar to taste like dessert.  The dough wasn’t stale or freezer-flavored at all.  (I’m impressed, given that our refrigerator+freezer malfunctioned for several months last year before we decided to replace it, so everything from the freezer got semi-thawed and refrozen at least once.)  A little bit of berry juice had leaked through the crust, but the dumplings weren’t soggy, probably because Nicholas ate the last layer of berries at the bottom of the bowl and most of the juice from thawing was down there.

Using the old cookie dough to make fruit dumplings worked for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more food-related articles!  Visit Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

My Top 3 Kitchen Time-Saving Tips

Katie at Kitchen Stewardship is asking everyone to share our top 3 kitchen time-savers this week!  I work full-time outside the home, and although my partner Daniel has been doing more than half the cooking in the past few years, I do most of the planning, shopping, and preliminary preparations.  He works from home and tries to continue getting work done after our nine-year-old comes home from school, so it’s important to him to be able to spend less than an hour making dinner.  Here are our top tips:

Prepare ingredients for multiple meals at once.

When you’re going to the trouble of cutting up some food, using cutting tools that will have to be cleaned, you may as well cut a whole lot of it!  While you’re at it, measure the portions you’ll need for several recipes, and wash the measuring cup just once.  If you preserve some of the food (we freeze any we don’t plan to use within a week), you can stock up when it’s on sale and use it over a long period of time, instead of buying smaller amounts at higher prices.  Here are some specifics: Read more…

Use those last drops of cooking oil!

One of the annoying things about recycling food containers is that you’re supposed to get them relatively clean and rinsed-out before you put them in the recycling bin.  This is particularly difficult with cooking oil because it clings to the inside of the bottle, and it doesn’t mix with water to rinse out, and if you use soap to get it off then you get suds inside the bottle that drip out and make a sticky (still-oily) mess in the bottom of the recycling bin.  It’s also frustrating to see just how much oil is left in the bottle when you’re no longer able to pour out reasonable amounts for recipes–good quality oils are expensive, so I hate to see any amount going to waste!

I used to try to drain the last drops from the old bottle into the new bottle.  There are two problems with this.  One is that old oil, if it is getting on toward rancid, might spoil the new bottle.  The other is that it’s really difficult to balance one oily bottle on top of another, and if it falls, the oil will probably splatter around the room.

Now I’ve come up with two ways to use the last few drops of oil in the bottle!  When a bottle becomes too empty to pour from, remove and discard any shaker-top (if you can’t get it loose with your fingers, put a chopstick through the hole and push diagonally upward; this will remove any top that isn’t factory-sealed onto the bottle), put the cap back on the bottle, and set it aside for these two purposes:

  1. After washing dishes, turn the bottle upside down against the palm of your hand to get a small amount of oil.  Rub it into your hands to moisturize skin and cuticles.  Save money on hand lotion!
  2. After cleaning and drying a cast-iron skillet, turn the bottle upside down in the skillet.  Rub the oil into the skillet with your fingertips.  Let dry.  It will help to season your skillet to prevent food from sticking and prevent rust.  An almost-empty bottle will give you just about the perfect amount of oil for this purpose–it doesn’t take much, and if you use too much oil it can make your skillet gummy or rancid-smelling or attract dust.

I’ll admit that this is one of those times I’m posting good advice on the Internet to help me remember to follow this good advice myself!  At the moment we have four almost-empty oil bottles cluttering the counter next to the sink in our small kitchen!  I keep forgetting to moisturize my hands after washing dishes, until I’ve gone to bed and I feel my scaly dishpan hands snagging on the sheets.  I keep forgetting to remind Daniel (the usual skillet-scrubber in our home) to use the dregs of oil instead of new oil to season the skillets.  Let this be a reminder to both of us!

Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more cooking-related articles!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for more handy tips!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

No-Bake Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie for Summer

This is not so much a recipe as an example of how to work with the food, and the weather, that you happen to have.  Last weekend was very hot and humid, and we had some ingredients that needed to be used, including just two potatoes from our farm share–not enough to make a baked potato for each member of our 3-person family.  When I mused to Daniel about what to do with the potatoes, he suggested shepherd’s pie, which has mashed potato as the bottom layer.

The trouble was that shepherd’s pie is baked.  There was no way I was going to turn on the oven in this weather!  We don’t have air conditioning, but even in an air-conditioned house, it’s silly to use the oven in hot weather because it will make the AC work harder and waste energy.  I wondered if I could just make the mashed potatoes (only a small amount, so not too steamy) and briefly cook some other food and put it all together in a casserole dish.

It worked!  My casserole did not hold together particularly well when served, but a baked shepherd’s pie usually doesn’t, either.  All of us liked this main dish, served with a side of grapes.

Our eight-year-old Nicholas took this picture of the starting ingredients:
20130902-163958.jpg

Read more…

A Week of Vegetarian Lunchbox Lunches

Daniel is the lunchbox-packing parent in our family. He was in charge of grinding up leftovers for baby Nicholas to eat at childcare, and he has packed a lunch for Nicholas to take to school every day for the past three grades and to day camp every day for the past two summers. We love the Planetbox lunch kit and just recently replaced the carrying bag after three years–the box itself is still going strong, along with the Little Dipper and Big Dipper containers for holding moist foods.

When Daniel went camping for a week, I took charge of packing Nick’s lunch. I had noticed in the preceding few weeks that Daniel was grumbling about having trouble thinking of things to put into the lunchbox that Nicholas would eat. For a long time, I’ve been irked at Daniel’s tendency to ignore the lunchbox when it comes home and not clean it until the next morning, just before repacking it–and then complain that any uneaten food in it is no longer edible and therefore wasted, and that it is hard to clean because food has dried onto it. I also knew it was crucial to allow time for packing the lunchbox, since it’s not part of my normal routine and the public transit schedule this summer is such that leaving the house just a few minutes late means Nicholas and I have a long wait for the bus and get to camp 15 minutes late!

Therefore, I set myself up for success: Each night after getting Nicholas to bed, I poured the remaining water in his water bottle onto the garden and put the bottle in the dish drainer, then opened the lunchbox, ate any remaining food, cleaned out the box and Dippers with a soapy cloth, and set them to dry. While I was doing this, I thought about what I might pack for the next day’s lunch and maybe made a few notes. I listed what I packed each day at the side of my dinner menu page for the 4-week period, to help me remember what I’d already packed that week, to have some ideas to pass to Daniel when he got back, and to be able to write this post! I set my alarm clock 10 minutes earlier than normal so I’d have time to pack the lunch in the morning.

Why didn’t I just pack the lunch the night before? I’ve often seen this advice. But we were having refrigerator problems that caused unpredictable puddles of water; I didn’t want the lunch to get soggy. I wanted to pack some foods that are stored and eaten at room temperature; if I refrigerated them overnight, they might get wet with condensation when they came out into the hot, humid weather. In my experience with packing my own lunch, some foods change texture or just seem “less fresh” if cut up the night before.

Here’s what I packed in the five lunches:

Read more…

CONTEST: Name This Recipe!

I’ve developed a main dish that my family really likes, but we can’t figure out what to call it!  “That non-Mexican-flavored Mexican Pizza that fits in the toaster-oven” or “Beans and veggies and herbs baked on cornbread” is too cumbersome.  Surely someone on the Internet will be able to think of the perfect, short, catchy name for this delicious food!

UPDATE: The winner is Dan Efran, creator of cool stuff to brighten your day!  This dish is now called Flexican Cornbread Pizza, and if you click that link you can read another variation on this versatile recipe.

This recipe is flexible and can be adapted to the vegetables and herbs you happen to have on hand.  You could even use leftovers!  That makes it very frugal.  I’m writing the recipe with general guidelines plus specifics on what I used the last time I made it. In an appropriate pan, it will fit into a toaster-oven, allowing you to bake it using less energy and heating up your home less than the full-size oven.  The baking time is short, which makes it ideal for warm weather and busy days.  (I’ll admit, though, that when it’s 92 degrees and humid, like it is here in Pennsylvania this week, we don’t bake anything or even make toast!)  Serve with salad or fruit for a nice meal.  It’s vegetarian and can be made vegan. To make 4 main-dish servings, you will need: Read more

Freezing Cheese

We love cheese!  However, with only three of us in the family, a block of cheese in the refrigerator can get moldy before we finish eating it.  We came up with a cheese storage method that reduces the risk of mold, but it wasn’t good enough for those times when we have either a large amount of cheese in open packages or some cheese that’s been handled or exposed to air (for example, left over from church coffee hour) so that it probably has more mold spores on it.

The obvious solution is to freeze excess cheese, killing the spores.  But when I tried it, I found that a thawed block of cheese has a different consistency than one that was never frozen–it’s much more crumbly and seems more likely to get condensation on the surface.  However, grated cheese survives freezing and thawing just fine!  Once thawed, it gets moldy or dried-out more quickly than a block of cheese because of the greater surface area.  (This is true of grated cheese that was never frozen, too, unless it’s the kind that’s sold pre-grated, which is usually sprayed with a mold inhibitor such as the antibiotic natamycin, which is thought to be safe, as well as some kind of anti-clumping powder such as potato starch that I’d just as soon avoid; I think home-grated cheese tastes better!)

To make the most efficient use of our cheese, I leave no more than 1/2 pound in the refrigerator after the package has been opened, unless we have immediate plans for it.  I grate the extra cheese and freeze it in portions we can use in recipes: 2 or 3 cups for a big batch of burritos, 1 1/2 cups for Cheesy Walnut Burgers, 1 cup for Stuffed Shells, 3/4 cup for Mac & Cheese.  As with our homemade frozen vegetables, having convenient ingredients ready to thaw helps us keep cooking at home even in busy times. Read more…

Fast, Frugal, Fruit-Flavored Oatmeal (or, how to use up the jam stuck to the jar)

When a jar of jam is depleted to the point that it’s difficult to gather up enough jam for a sandwich or a slice of toast, it’s tempting to just chuck it.  If you’re going to recycle or reuse that jar, though, you need to remove every bit of jam…and if you’re removing it, you may as well eat it, especially if this is not really “jam” but expensive organic juice-sweetened fruit spread…so maybe you stick that jar back in the refrigerator and open a new one to use in your sandwich.  Pretty soon there are a lot of almost-empty jam jars taunting you about how you never get around to scraping them.

Years ago I read in The Tightwad Gazette that the solution to this problem was to fill the jar halfway with milk and shake it, creating tasty strawberry milk (or grape milk or boysenberry milk or whatever).  It sounds good, but I found that cold milk doesn’t dissolve much jam; you still have to scrape the jar, and even then the jam tends to settle to the bottom, so you’re drinking mildly strawberry-flavored milk and then having a lot of cold clots of jam slide into your mouth.  Not so great.

I have now found a solution to the jam-jar problem!

  • Boil some water in your electric kettle or other boiling device.
  • Put some quick-cooking oatmeal in a bowl.  I don’t like to measure stuff before breakfast, but I use about 1/2 cup.
  • Pour boiling water into the jar until it is half full.  Don’t fill it more because you need to leave room for steam.  Hold the jar with an oven mitt.  Put on the lid and shake until all jam is loosened.  Alternatively, leave the lid off and stir the water with a spoon or butter knife until all the jam comes off.
  • Using oven mitt, pour jam-water from jar over oatmeal.  Stir.  If oatmeal is not wet enough, add more water.
  • Optional: Add some dried fruit, some milk, or some fat (butter, flax seed oil, coconut oil) to the oatmeal.

Making tasty fruit-flavored oatmeal and getting the jar clean without wasting water works for me!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday for other waste-reducing tips!

Four Weeks of Pesco-Vegetarian Dinners (early spring)

A pesco-vegetarian is someone who eats no meat except fish.  That’s what we do when we’re at home and most of the time when we eat in other places.

Here’s what we ate for dinner (plus weekend lunches) for four weeks in March and April, including Easter, trying to make the most of seasonal produce sales (mushrooms, sweet potatoes, string beans, kale) and leftovers from my church’s Easter receptions and Daniel’s family Passover seder.  I plan our menu up to a week in advance and do the weekend cooking and some ingredient preparation during the week; Daniel cooks our weeknight dinners.

Week One:

  • Sunday:
    • Lunch: Leftover Mexican Pizza.
    • Dinner: I made this Thai soup using vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, tofu instead of shrimp, kale instead of spinach, and regular orange sweet potatoes.  It was pretty good.  I liked it better than the guys did, so I had the leftovers for lunch Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday!  When I bring soup as my lunch for work, I put it in a reused salsa jar, which seals well and can be microwaved–I just need to use my napkin as a potholder when I pick it up because the jar gets hot.
  • Monday: Whole-wheat spaghetti, sauce from a jar (Classico makes many varieties that have no added sugar, soy, or corn) with extra tomatoes (left over from a bag of frozen diced tomatoes that I’d thawed to make the Mexican Pizza), and sauteed mushrooms.
  • Tuesday: Tangy Honey-Apricot Tofu, Salty String Beans, and rice.  It’s unusual for us to have tofu twice in one week, but this time we did.  This is one of our favorite meals.  Daniel cooked extra rice to use the next day.
  • Wednesday: Fried Rice with carrots, mushrooms, and cashews.
  • Thursday: Spinach sauteed with garlic and olive oil and chopped pecans, over baked potatoes.  The spinach was frozen; I put it in the refrigerator to thaw the night before.
  • Friday: Bean Burritos.
  • Saturday:
    • Lunch: We attended the memorial service for a friend who had been an enthusiastic participant in our church’s many food-serving events, so of course the service was followed by a reception with sandwiches, fruit, orzo salad, and other goodies!
    • Dinner: I had the idea of trying to make a different flavor of baked lentils, using a lentil recipe as a guide for the ratio of liquid to lentils and using a tetrazzini recipe as a guide to flavoring.  Unfortunately, this didn’t work out so well.  The lentils absorbed all the water and didn’t burn, but they also didn’t cook completely, and they sank to the bottom while all the tasty stuff went to the top, so we had crunchy bland lentils with a yummy topping–and the guys liked it all right, but I was very upset!  I think that eating undercooked lentils may have a physiological effect that makes me anxious and depressed, because I have reacted like this before to lentil experiments that went wrong. 😦

Read more…