Fun in the kitchen

9 08 2011

One of my unstated summer goals is to keep up with the produce from our CSA.  Sometimes it’s easy; we go through broccoli like crazy and there can never be enough.  But some other things are harder, like greens, cabbage, and beets.  Fortunately, the kids are pretty good about trying new things and they have really embraced kohlrabi and zucchini, and tolerated spinach and swiss chard.  BB and I love to make muffins, so I looked up a beet muffin recipe and came up with this one

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Wow, did they ever rise!  That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give them, though.  That and they used up a beet, so that’s good too.  They were OK and the kids ate them but I didn’t think they were that great.  We might make them again to use up one last tough beet that’s hanging around, but the rest of the beets are getting eaten straight up by the adults. 

For the cabbage, really the only way I like to eat it is in coleslaw.  Now I don’t know why it too me so long to figure this out, but I just shredded it in the food processor, along with a carrot, a little onion, and half a raw beet; look how pretty!

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I dressed it with a homemade coleslaw dressing, which I altered a bit by substituting some yogurt for mayo.  I love how the beet looks like red cabbage, although it makes the dressing turn a screaming shade of pink.  :) 

And because we never get enough broccoli from the CSA, I decided to try growing it this year.  It hasn’t been doing so well, but finally we are seeing some crowns.  It’s beautiful!

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Unrelated to veggies, BB and I made butter!  Just for fun, because I had never tried it.  I got a pint of heavy cream, left it at room temperature for an hour, poured it into a glass jar and we took turns shaking it until it looked like this:

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Then I poured off the buttermilk into another jar and shook it again:

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It made such a nice little cylinder!  Then I transferred it to a small bowl and rinsed it with water until all the buttermilk was out, and kneaded in a little salt.  A fresh loaf of bread and we are ready for a snack!  BB loves bread and butter and this was a fun way to see how butter is made. 

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I checked out “Pretend Soup” from the library and I’m looking forward to letting BB be the head chef on our next round of kitchen adventures.  I think he’ll get a kick out of it!





Homemade ice cream—without a machine

21 12 2010

Our advent activity yesterday was to make ice cream.  I know, you’re probably thinking “Ice cream?  In December?” and usually I would agree.  I never buy it in the winter, and hopefully that helps the calorie balance sheet a little since we overdo the cookies, candies, and hot cocoa this time of year.  But this was one of those happy coincidences…  I have no idea what led me to this, but I found a post about making ice cream without a machine.  And wouldn’t you know it, I had 3/4 a quart of cream left over from making caramel that needed to be used ASAP.  (I had thought of making some other caramel recipes but was put off by the effort involved in that first recipe).  So I put on the calendar “Make ice cream” and thus began our tastiest advent activity yet.  It took a while, but mostly just waiting time, the active time was pretty minimal.  If you want to try, here’s what we did:

  1. Put a 9×13 glass pan in the freezer.  (Making room for that was the hardest part of this project.)
  2. Get your helper to stir up: 3 cups cream, 1 cup milk, 1 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon peppermint extract, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, until all the sugar dissolves.  (The original recipe called for 2 cups each of cream and milk but I needed to use 3 cups of cream). 
  3. Pour the mixture into the chilled glass pan.
  4. Come back every 30 minutes or so and stir it up.  BB started helping with this, but it’s not too exciting so eventually I just took over. 
  5. Once it’s getting solid, melt some chocolate and drizzle it over:IMG_3062
  6. Freeze it some more, and the attack it with a stick blender to break up the chocolate. 
  7. Go and eat dinner and when you are done, scoop up some ice cream for everyone who ate a good dinner!  There was never such a good enticement; I have gotten 2 good days of clean plates from BB.  Even though it was yesterday he is still talking about how we made ice cream, so I would say this activity is a keeper!  IMG_3064




Awesome snack bars

7 05 2010

Ever since I saw this video, I have been sort of on a crusade to eat less sugar, and especially to reduce the sugary foods in BB’s diet.  I have always had a sweet tooth, and we would often make cookies or brownies to have on hand as a snack.  Making them was fun, and of course so was eating them, but I think it’s true to a certain extent that sugar is addictive and I don’t want my kids to grow up hooked on overly sweet foods.  Because once you cut back on sugar, you quickly realize that just about everything is overly sweet.  Granola bars that are more like candy bars, yogurt that is sweet enough to qualify as dessert, fruit snacks that are mostly sugar and sort of fruit flavored…the list could go on.  The most disturbing thing I have seen recently is a “yogurt” in the baby food aisle that had sugar as the second ingredient and was pasteurized after culturing, so all the good bacteria were killed anyway!  Now why do babies need sugary snacks too?

The video is a little bit long, so I will just summarize what I thought was the main point.  (Apparently this was on the news recently too, my parents tell me, so maybe it’s old news to you…)   Fructose and glucose are metabolized by completely different pathways.  Glucose is used by your muscles and brain as food, and excess can be stored in the liver as glycogen.  Consumption of glucose triggers a hormonal response that makes you feel full.  Fructose, on the other hand, is metabolized exclusively in the liver, and the majority of it is converted into fatty acids that are released into the bloodstream.  After eating a lot of fructose, he says, there is a measurable increase in your triglycerides.  This newly synthesized fat is then stored in fat cells around your body.  Also, fructose does NOT trigger the pathways that make you feel full.  In short, eating sugar will make you fat.  Now, sugar is 50/50 glucose and fructose.   High fructose corn syrup is 45/55 glucose and fructose, so it’s a little worse than sugar but not a whole lot.

That’s a long lead-in to my great snack bar discovery, but I feel pretty strongly about it.  Refined sugars are bad bad bad, and they are aggressively pushed on children.  (When was the last time you saw a cartoon pushing vegetables?  Now that I think about it, that would be great; Bugs bunny selling carrots, Spongebob on pineapples… Warner Bros. and Nick, if you take that idea, I want a cut!).  If you watch Jamie Oliver’s show at all you saw the children all drinking sugared milk (!!!); it made me want to cry.  If kids are used to eating less sugar they won’t expect everything to be so sweet.  BB will happily eat a bowl full of plain yogurt because that’s what we have.  Snack?  Fruit.  We just don’t have any cookies or fruit snacks or ice cream, so it’s not even an option.  Of course we have sweets occasionally, but they are not permanent residents on the shelves.

Going out is a little harder, because I like to carry snacks (no, I NEED to carry snacks; if you have a toddler you know this universal truth: never leave home without a snack.)  The trouble with processed food is that they hide sugar.  Like granola bars.  So, I’ve been trying to make snack bars for us and today I found snack nirvana.  These are knock-offs of Larabars, which I’ve never tried, but they must be good!  I found the recipe here and followed it more or less.

I guarantee: call them chocolate snack bars and children will eat them.

Chocolate Snack Bars (my slightly modified version using what I had on hand):

* 1 1/2 c. pitted dates

* 1/2 c. raisins

*2 T. cocoa powder (unsweetened)

* pinch of sea salt

Process the above ingredients in a food processor until they are a paste (it will kind of form a ball).  Transfer to mixing bowl.  Then, chop the following in the food processor (no need to clean it first):

* 1  c. pecans

* 1/2 c. almonds

* a sprinkle of shredded coconut (I used sweetened because it’s all I had, but unsweetened would be great)

The nuts should be ground up to be pretty small pieces.  Then add them to the bowl and mix the date puree with the nuts; it’s a stiff mixture and you will have to knead it to mix.  Finally, line a pan with plastic wrap and press the mixture in.  Refrigerate to set (about 30 min) and cut into bars.  Alternately I guess you could roll them into little balls, or something like that.  I’m trying to replace granola bars, so I wanted them to be bars.  The verdict?  They were AMAZING.  Sweet, chocolatey, nutty… everything you could want in a snack without a whiff of added sugar.  The challenge now is to not eat the whole batch!  They still have calories, after all!  I don’t, in general, like to use the food processor because it’s always too much work to get it set up and then cleaned, but overall I would say these are easier than making cookies or brownies, because you only dirty the processor and one bowl, as opposed to one or 2 bowls, spoons, and a cookie sheet or three.  They are more expensive to make than brownies, cookies, or granola bars, because they are not grain based, but they are cheaper than buying Larabars (or powerbars, etc.), so although they are not cheap, I consider them an all around winner on taste, effort, nutritional value and cost. The only thing I would do differently next time is make more!

PS.  I did not soak and dehydrate the nuts as indicated in the original recipe.  I do like to make snacks, but some things are just a little too much effort for the payoff, IMO.





Library score — Cook’s Illustrated!

20 04 2010

I was peacefully whiling away the morning while BB was in preschool last week, and I stopped by the library.  Outside, they have a shelf of books for sale, and to my utter delight, they had a stack of Cook’s Illustrated magazines too!  If you’re not familiar with this magazine, it’s like the print form of America’s Test Kitchen, my very favorite cooking show.  And if you’re not familiar with ATK, you probably have cable.  ATK is on PBS and I admit I didn’t watch it when I had cable because the Food Network was on 24 hours a day!  ATK reminds me a lot of Good Eats without the theatrics.  They test umpteen variations of a recipe and then show the one that worked the best.  They review kitchen equipment and taste test products.  It’s a super fun show.  I haven’t seen it in ages, so I was thrilled to find a stack of Cook’s Illustrated magazines for dirt cheap.  Yeah, they’re 6 years old, but you know what?  The lemon cake featured on their website RIGHT NOW is in one of my 6 year old magazines.  Good recipes are timeless!  I was so excited, I started with blueberry muffins.  If you know me, you know I like muffins.  A lot.

Of course, I only got to eat one of these, and no strawberries.

Here is a blog with the recipe (I did not dip mine in cinnamon sugar)…although apparently they came out with a “best” blueberry muffins recipe in 2009, so… I guess my recipe is old news.  Anyway, I thought they were delicious!  I may have to try the new one, but it calls for fresh blueberries, so I’ll just have to wait a few more months.

Next up, I decided to try the “Better, Easier, Spinach Lasagna”.  Easier than what, I don’t know!  Granted, the first time going through a recipe can often be a little slow, but seriously, this took 2 hours.  Apparently America’s Test Kitchen does not have 2 small children in it, because they would never have called this easy!  It was amazing though.  But I have already promised my husband I will never, ever, make it again.  Until maybe the kids are in college.  The recipe is out there, and just from reading, I should have known better (OK, can I say it’s a little hilarious I found it on Cooking Light?  This is heavy like a ton of bricks).  It’s only three steps!  Step 1: wash, trim, and cook the spinach, transfer to ice water, then to a towel to wring dry, then chop.  Step 2: Make a Bechamel sauce.  Step 3: Soak noodles in hot water, prepare cottage cheese mixture, assemble lasagna, bake, broil, then let cool.  Easy as pie, right?!?  I make lasagna pretty frequently, so I was all about trying an easier recipe.  Sadly this is not it.  It dirtied pretty much every pot, pan, bowl, knife, and kitchen appliance we own.  In the test kitchen I’m sure they have people who do the dishes, but not here!  My poor family was starving long before it was ready, and I defensively showed my husband, “Look, honey, it says right here it’s “easier”!”  It was easily the best spinach lasagna I’ve ever had, but it’s more of an “impress the boss” dinner than a “Monday night and everyone’s hungry” dinner.  The other taste testers: my husband said it was pretty good (that’s high praise), and BB declared it was DELICIOUS! but only ate about a bite of it.

I may never make you again, but I will see you in my dreams...

So that’s my latest kitchen adventure!  I am super excited to try more recipes from my new collection, though I doubt anyone else in the family is!





Pizza–Nature’s Most Perfect Food.

25 03 2010

I love pizza.  LOVE it.  If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, this would be it, without a doubt.  And, as with most things I like to eat in large quantities, I like to make it myself, for all the usual reasons.  It’s a HECKUVA lot cheaper than calling Papa John’s every week.  (Wait, calling?  What is this, 1995?  They have my credit card info and all my favorite orders saved on their website, and that’s dangerous.)  And it’s a million times better than frozen pizza.  It doesn’t take long to make, and it’s really kind of fun.  Tempted yet?

Yes, there is one plain slice, for the pickiest among us.

The Sauce:

Once upon a time, I found a recipe that claimed to be a Papa John’s copycat recipe, so I wrote it down, and have been using it, modified, ever since.  It makes enough for 4 pizzas, so I divvy it among little Tupperwares and freeze for future pizza nights.  Here goes:

  • 1 can crushed tomatoes (the big kind, 28 oz.)
  • 3 t. sugar
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 t. oregano
  • 1 t. garlic powder
  • 1/2 t. basil
  • 1/2 t. thyme
  • 3 t. olive oil
  • 1 t. lemon juice

Just place everything in a small saucepan and simmer awhile.

The Crust:

Sometimes I do this in the bread machine, and I use the recipe from the booklet for that.  But, if we have time to kill, BB is always up for mixing things, so we’ll make it by hand.  It’s not so hard, especially with a little helper, and it’s fun because you get to get your hands dirty.  My recipe is ever-evolving, but here’s where it stands right now.  It makes just enough for our pizza pan, which I have no idea what size it is (14″?  15″?  something like that).

In a medium bowl, mix:

  • 1 c. warm water
  • 1 1/2 t. yeast
  • 1 T. sugar

Stir to dissolve the yeast and let sit to proof.  Then add:

  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 c. whole wheat flour

And mix well.  Then add in white flour, or bread flour if you have it till the dough is workable by hand (ie. not a sticky mess).  It’ll take about a cup.  Then, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead it, adding more flour as needed, until it is nice and elastic.  It should form a nice ball and spring back if you poke it.  I find it better to err on the side of too little flour, otherwise it gets stiff and hard to work with.  Coat the ball of dough with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise.  I usually pre-heat the oven a little since our house is pretty cold, and leave it there to rise.

Putting it all together:

Once the dough has doubled, and the sauce is ready, it’s time to make pizza!  I just stretch the dough to fit in my (oiled) pizza pan.  Spread about 1 c. sauce, and top however you like!  This pizza had spinach, roasted red peppers, and roasted garlic.  I have to say it was pretty amazing.  And, Papa John’s, as much as I love it, offers none of those fine toppings.

Mmmmmmm..... pizza.....

Bake at 400°F until the crust is browned and the cheese is melty and a little browned… then try to let it cool a bit and dig in!  It’s such a fun meal to have for dinner, and reasonably healthy, depending on what you put on it.  Now, I have read a lot about pizza.  And I have eaten a lot of pizza.  Let’s just say this is a well-researched topic here.  This will not be quite like those amazing specialty pizzas you get at those wood-fired oven places.  Apparently they get those awesome crusts by having an oven that cooks at 800°F!  Not an option for most home cooks.  Unless you are maybe Martha Stewart and you build a brick oven for that purpose, because you will NOT eat sub-par pizza.  But for the rest of us, a homemade pizza is easy, cheap, and pretty darn good.  I would eat it any day!  Or every day!





Homemade yogurt–a photo tutorial

6 02 2010

Today I made a batch of yogurt, and I thought I would share the process for anyone who is interested.  Why make yogurt?  There are a couple of reasons that make it worth the minimal time and effort, in my opinion.  Here they are, in no particular order of importance:

* You can control exactly what’s in your yogurt.  No HFCS, colors, gelatin, nothing you don’t want!

* If you are making organic yogurt, it’s MUCH cheaper to make your own.  Organic yogurt can go for $1/6oz cup.  I can buy a half gallon of organic milk for $3 and make it into yogurt, 64 oz. worth, which is a savings of about $7 per batch. We eat a lot of yogurt, so this is a big savings for us.

* It’s tasty!  And fun!  You get to culture bacteria!

Now that you’re convinced, here’s what you need:

*milk (cannot be ultra pasteurized)

*starter cultures (from a store-bought yogurt, can be any kind; I have been using dannon)

*thermometer

*thermos, or other device that holds a steady temperature.

*a pot and a metal bowl

And on to the photo tutorial, so you can see how simple it is!

1) Heat the milk.  In the past I have just heated the milk in the pot directly over medium heat.  This requires constant stirring though, and I have scorched the milk this way, so I decided to try the double boiler method.  Apparently improvising double boilers is common, because I googled “double boiler” and it suggested “makeshift double boiler”, “improvised double boiler”, etc.  I’ll save you the trip to google: you simmer water in a pot and put a metal bowl on top.  The water level in the pot should be low enough to not touch the bowl.  Then heat the milk in the bowl.  How much milk?  However much fits in your thermos.  Mine holds 1.5 quarts.  Here’s a picture of me heating the milk in my improvised double boiler:

2) Optional: add some powdered milk.  This results in a thicker yogurt.  I like thicker yogurt, so I do this, but I suppose I am diluting the wholesome organic-ness of it all.  I’m OK with that.  It does add calcium and protein, too.  I don’t measure, I just sprinkle, about 1/2 cup.

3) Stir this occasionally and check the temperature.  It needs to come up to 185 F.  It is my understanding that this is to kill any unwanted bacteria (ie. you are re-pastuerizing the milk).  No!  Further research indicates that it is to alter the proteins in the milk so that the yogurt will thicken.  And, that the longer you hold it at this temperature, the thicker it will be.  Now, I am no microbiologist, but I have to imagine that this also kills unwanted bacteria, because even pasteurized milk can go bad, hence it must have bacteria.  I will have to keep looking into this.

4) Now the milk needs to cool to about 120-115 F.  So, take the bowl off the stove, and put it in a pan of cool water.  This will speed up the cooling process.  Stir occasionally to prevent a skin forming on top, and check your temperature. It’s not a bad idea to warm up your starter to room temperature (you can see mine behind the bowl).

5) Now, to make yogurt, you have to hold the milk at about 110F for a long time.  There are lots of ways to do this, but what I have found to be the best is a thermos.  So at this point, I pre-heat my thermos by boiling a cup of water and pouring it in the thermos.  That way, I don’t drop the temperature of the milk by pouring it into a cold thermos.  While you’re at it, make yourself some coffee, because, let’s face it, you’re not getting a nap today.

6) Once the milk is at about 120, dump the hot water out of the thermos, and pour in about half of your milk.  Then, add your starter culture to the milk that remains in the bowl.  I use 2-3 Tbsp.  Again, measuring is for sissies.  Stir them in well to disperse.

7)  Pour this inoculated milk into the thermos too.

8)  Put the lid on, and enjoy your coffee and a little snack of yogurt!  I finish off my last batch when making the next.  Then wait for 6-8 hours, and your batch of yogurt will be ready!

So there you have it!  A fun little afternoon project.  You can flavor your yogurt with fruit or jam, sweeten with honey, or just enjoy it plain.  Some final thoughts:

* The longer you let the milk culture, the more tart and firm it will be.  Also, the less lactose will be in the finished yogurt, since it is consumed by the bacteria.  Theoretically, yogurt is OK for lactose intolerant people if it is cultured for long enough that the bacteria digest all the lactose.  With store-bought yogurt, you don’t know if that is the case or not, so there’s another case for DIYing it.

* You can use the yogurt you made this time to start the next batch, just make sure to save a little!  Or, you can freeze a little bit of it to use next time, if it’s going to be a while before you do this again.  I think next time I might buy a DanActive and culture that to see if their “immunity boosting” bacteria are really all that.

* Why doesn’t ultra pasteurized milk work?  Apparently the process significantly alters the proteins in the milk.  Kind of sketchy, if you ask me.  But it’s what we buy mostly, because we don’t go through milk fast enough to drink it before it goes bad.  Well, that’s another advantage to yogurt, I guess: the good bacteria keep the bad ones at bay, so yogurt stays good for a really long time.

* How long does it take?  Not that long, but longer than you think.  There’s a lot of waiting for things to heat, and then cool.  I like to have something else to work on while I stir intermittently.  This time I was cutting fabric. I’m making a quilt for big brother (he picked the fabric), and I’m cutting lots of squares.  I can’t find my rotary cutter, so I’m using scissors, one square at a time.  It is truly a labor of love.

Anyway, let’s just say it took a lot longer to write this than it did to make the yogurt.