» Archive for the 'Foodlike Things' Category

My crowded recipe box

Saturday, April 27th, 2013 by kara

So my recipe box is getting crowded. A few years ago, after I’d experienced this same problem with my sticky, tatty metal recipe file box inherited from my mum, I went out and bought a very nice dark-walnut stained wooden recipe box (very grown-up looking!), and I sorted through my recipes, making tidier copies of some of the scribbled ones, and getting rid of the recipes I had never used, but had looked good when I’d bothered to add them to my collection.

The new box is getting crowded again, though, and when I was looking for my peanut butter cookie recipe, I discovered that I’d left old copies of my favorite recipes in with the newer, tidier copies. “Sheesh, can’t believe I was so stupid to leave those in there,” I muttered to myself, and sorted through the cookie recipes to find six duplicates.

I prepared to throw out the old, untidy copies, and recalled that most of those had been scribbled when I was in high school, or even grade school. Swamped by this wave of nostalgia for the younger, foolish-er me, I hesitated to put the old copies in the recycling bin.

Does nostalgia for my silly, loopy handwriting from high school and grade school make these copies worth keeping? Or is their age and provenance of value? When I was originally going through my recipe cards, I had several that belonged to my mother and grandmother, and to see their handwriting and know that they touched those recipe cards made me feel closer to both of them. I had split them up and divided them between myself and my sisters, copying the cards I thought I’d actually use and sending them on for my sisters to enjoy.

But for recipes I’d written for myself, I don’t have anyone to pass them down to, so does my own historical handwriting have value to anyone but me? Are they really worth keeping, for that glimpse of the person I used to be? I’m still wrestling with that idea, but the old copies are getting closer to the recycling bin.

Something else I’m wrestling with in my recipe box are the recipes that I’ve copied because they LOOKED good, but which I’ve never actually made. I hate making new foods because I don’t know how the recipe will turn out. If it’s an awful recipe, I really resent wasting the time and the food to make it and then just turn around and throw it away, so many times I will just copy something that looks appealing but then tuck it away into that wooden box to languish.

Take banana oatmeal cookies as an example. They’ve always sounded sooo gooood to me, but I hadn’t made them because with many recipes, there’s no way to tell how something will turn out–or how you can screw it up. I found FOUR DIFFERENT banana oatmeal cookie recipes in my recipe box today, but when I finally made the darned things for the first time last week, I used a completely different recipe I found on the web. (Oh, and by the way, I screwed that up by not using the right type of oatmeal the first time I made THEM, but the recipe was so lovely even after I’d ruined the cookies that I gave it a second try yesterday–works so much better when you use the quick-cooking oats the recipe calls for, instead of old-fashioned oats which require four hours of cooking–thanks, DivasCanCook.com!)

Because I’m a tad OCD, I treasure things like a tidy recipe box with uniformly-sized cards. No, I don’t go so far as to use the same colour ink when I’m writing a new card, and I’m not going to make a new card if I get something on it while cooking or baking. The different stains and battle scars on a recipe card add to its appeal, and serve as a rating system–the more battered a recipe is, the more often I’ve used it successfully.

But it is nice to be able to flip through all the recipes in a section and not have smallish bits of paper escaping to flutter to the floor, or not being able to find the recipe you need only to discover that it had been left behind in its respective slot because it’s so much smaller than the other cards.

I’ve made a resolution, just now:  From now on, I will only write out a recipe card for recipes which I’ve actually made and liked. I will make notes ON THE CARD about changes that I’ve found useful, and I’ll actually keep track of where the recipe came from. No more wondering where I got the recipe for divinity, or trying to recognize handwriting that’s not my own, my sisters’, my mother’s, or my grandmother’s.

Now, what should I do with all the recipes I’ve already copied and filed because they looked good? Shall I retire them to a “recipe limbo” from which I’ll randomly pluck one to try it out?  And if it turns out to taste as good as it “read,” then it will earn a permanent place in my recipe box? I think that’s what I’ll do from now on, but I’ll go through the rest of the recipes later. Right now, I have to go make some peanut butter cookies.

Gut instinct and gambling on new recipes

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by kara

The Pumpkin and I have been working toward cooking all of our own food, for frugality and health. I say that we are ‘working toward it’ because let’s face it, there is a place in our world for Wanchai Ferry dinner kits and Jet’s Pizza. But we are trying.

We’ve collected tried-and-true recipes that we enjoy and that make it into the weekly menu rotation on a regular basis, but lately we’ve been branching out and trying something different. So when we see a recipe that looks appealing, we clip it from the newspaper/scribble a new recipe card and magnet it to the fridge.

Like my mother did, I enjoy reading new recipes, and then collecting them, but  hadn’t actually made any real effort to try them out. And until you actually try the recipe, you don’t know if it will turn out well. Sometimes a recipe that looks good in print just doesn’t make it in real life/the pan/slow cooker.

We have been spanked by recipes that seemed like a good idea at the time, and having been burned, we’re a little shy about trying new stuff. A recipe that fails is a waste of time and food, and wasting money on food is especially heinous. Then on top of that, one must scramble to put something on the table in lieu of the experiment.

Back when Rick and I first got together, I was determined to be a good little homemaker, and to that end I bought a set of recipe cards (plus handy filing box, only $29.95 plus shipping!) that were named something similar to “Lite and Fit American Favorites!” The idea behind the collection was to substitute lower-fat seasonings and ingredients for those pesky-but-tasty staples that make us corpulent. (The lesson here is unrelated but simple, something similar to ‘don’t buy recipe cards that are oddly shaped and require their own special recipe box, because the author’s conscious effort to be different with the cards and recipes themselves will result in cooking sorrow.’)

One of the recipes was for a version of tuna noodle casserole that should have been a hit. After all, who DOESN’T like tuna noodle casserole? That’s pretty impossible to mess up, right?

Yeah, no. In my determination to be the good little homemaker, I indulged my OCD urge to follow the recipe to the letter, and in doing so, I ignored my gut instinct to leave out the tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce that was hanging on to the tail end of the ingredient list, like some cut-and-paste mistake or afterthought.

WHY would one want Worcestershire sauce in tuna noodle casserole? It just didn’t make sense, and my cooking instincts were screaming “Don’t do it! It’ll just be a mess!” But no, I had to follow the recipe to its bitter end, and as I dumped the tablespoon of savory liquid into the casserole, it showed me immediately how wrong it was by turning the entire casserole battleship grey.

Okay, so it wasn’t a pretty casserole any longer, but it might taste good (or maybe just okay), right? That was a lot of food to throw out just because it wasn’t visually appealing, so I gritted my teeth and put the casserole on a cutting board in the middle of the table.

But nothing can bring a dish back from battleship grey, not even garnishing it with buttered breadcrumbs and baking it for the proper length of time.

Rick stared at the casserole for a minute, peeking between the appealing breadcrumbs to the unappealing noodles and cream sauce underneath.

“What IS it?” he asked me, finally.

“Tuna noodle casserole, silly!” I was trying to brazen it out, reaching for the spoon and plopping a healthy portion onto my own plate. The Worcestershire even muted the spring-green of the peas to a colour closer to death than springtime.

“What’s wrong with it?” Rick asked, still measuring the risk with his eyeballs.

“Nothing is ‘wrong’ with it. I followed the recipe to the letter!” I explained, as though complete compliance could protect us from untasty food.

He hesitantly followed my lead, cursing his plate with a spoonful of the greyish glop. We both forked up a bite at the same time…and shuddered, pushing our plates away. Just as it might be difficult to explain what Worcestershire sauce tastes like, it was difficult to explain exactly how it polluted the casserole. Maybe ‘metallic’ is the right word to describe the taste…eh, let’s just say that it put both of us off tuna noodle casserole and Worcestershire sauce for a while.

To this day, he is scarred by the Worcestershire sauce in that casserole, and delights in reminding me.

Another recipe ‘fail’ came from our local newspaper a few months back. This potato-and-zucchini soup recipe read like a champ, containing cheap seasonal ingredients and spices that I thought we’d like.  Rick saw it first, and clipped the recipe, so it got added to our weekly menu rotation. Again, I followed the recipe as closely as I could, my only substitution being Mrs. Dash seasoning in place of the rosemary–but Mrs. Dash has rosemary IN it, so that should have worked, right?

Meh. Even with the EXTRA seasoning from adding more Mrs. Dash than the recipe called for, the resulting glop was tasteless and hunched ponderously in the stomach, like a wad of plaster threatening to set permanently in the shape of one’s gullet.

Yet another fail comes from a menu/shopping planner service called E-mealz. The good folks at E-mealz produce a weekly menu and shopping list for subscribers, helping busy people manage their food budget and saving them time, while putting healthy meals on the table. This is a useful, frugal idea, and I highly recommend it. I enjoy being able to turn over menu planning to E-mealz. Most of the time, that is.

One E-mealz sandwich recipe called for pastrami and ciabatta rolls, along with a can of SHOEPEG CORN. That was one recipe that just screamed “wrong” to me, but we’re game, so we tried it in hopes of experiencing something really different and good.

The sandwich would have been enjoyable had it NOT been for the shoepeg corn, which added a weird aftertaste to the sandwich ingredients. Though I was hungry (seriously hungry!) I was unable to finish my sandwich, even after scraping off the corn.

But another recipe from E-mealz, called Greek Style Skillet Supper, was an unconditional win. It incorporated several ingredients that I’d never put together on a whim, but combined into a savory, interesting dish that’s one of my current favorites. This cheap and easy dish combines ground beef, onion, oregano, cinnamon (yes, cinnamon!), garlic, beef broth, tomato paste, penne pasta, spinach and feta cheese into a meal which is very easy to overeat.

Sometimes you can look at a recipe and have an idea how it will taste when it’s all put together, like the recipe for Thai Peanut Noodles that came recently from E-mealz: Angel hair pasta, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, chicken broth, chopped/cooked chicken breast, and chopped almonds combine to create an appealing, protein-rich main dish that satisfies sweet and savory cravings alike.

Or consider this recipe for Sausage and Lentil Stew from Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, A Year of Slow Cooking. I can skim through this ingredient list and actually taste how this stew will turn out, and know that we will enjoy it.

Sometimes a recipe is a gamble, nothing more and nothing less, and we just have to cast the dice and see what happens.

I guess the best practise is to try to know each ingredient individually, so that we can accurately imagine it in partnership with other ingredients in the recipe. And, of course, to listen to our gut instincts even when a recipe reads well, but sets our teeth on edge. But even with losses of time and groceries from dinnertime fails, it still pays to take chances now and then–our food world would be awfully small otherwise.

Burning the split-pea-with-ham soup

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011 by admin

I like to make food from scratch, partially to prove to myself that I can, but mostly to save some money. Today I put a pot of split pea soup on the stove, with garlic and onions and carrots and a wonderful, meaty hambone that I’d saved from our Christmas ham last year. Mmmm.

This should have resulted in enough satisfying food to last us for at least two meals. And because the ham bone was essentially ‘free’, the split peas were purchased on clearance for 50 cents a pound, and carrots, garlic and onions are not terrifically expensive, this really should have been a mondo-affordable meal.

I had everything set up and simmering, and because I wanted it to reduce a little bit, I turned the burner up to medium instead of medium low; I then proceeded to the Batcave, where I became engrossed in Facebook. Bad idea. The peas were already cooked by then, and everything was starting to thicken more than I thought, so without me there to stir it every several minutes a layer of ham chunks and peas scorched themselves to the bottom of the stockpot.

Several minutes later I was pulled out of my computer stupor by the barest whiff of burning; I hurried out to the kitchen, and (gasp) saw wisps of smoke (not steam) spiraling up from the surface of the soup. I hurriedly ladled off the bulk of the soup, and hoped I was in time–there was only a seven-inch scorched spot in the middle of the pot–but it was too late. Even though it looked wonderful, the soup was permeated with burnt-ness. Sigh.

Like the kids on Hell’s Kitchen, I tried to brazen it out; I hoped it wasn’t really that badly burnt. Unable to tell if the burning smell was from my nose or from my tongue, I tried it out on the Pumpkin, but after a few spoonfuls I had to admit that it tasted primarily of scorch.

“It’s got a smoky flavor,” The Pumpkin said thoughtfully, after rolling a spoonful around on his tongue. He’s such a good guy.

I replied, “Yeah, it’s smoky, but it’s smoky in a bad way, like ‘Who’s burning leftover construction material scraps in their leaf pile?’, not a good smoky-ham taste.” So I devoted a half-hour to flushing this big batch of soup down the toilet. It takes quite a while to flush three quarts of soup, ya know.

It’s probably not as big a deal as I make it out to be. After all, what was I out, maybe two or three bucks for the electricity for the range, and the veggies, and the 50-cent-bag of split peas? My time is another matter, but I’m incapable of calculating the cost of that, so I won’t include it.

I think the greatest disappointment is not having two wonderful meals of soup, from that beautiful, meaty ham bone, and the loss of having two meals which cost us next-to-nothing. When you’ve been working really hard to be frugal and save money, one of the things that can make you feel cosseted and indulged is a tasty meal, and if you make a lot of food from scratch, it’s possible to have wonderfully satisfying, nutritious sustenance for very little. So the more food I can make for the least money, the greater ‘kick’ I get.

Except this time, I gave myself a kick right in the seat of my pants. Dangit.

Knife sharpening kit saves money, makes cutting safer

Friday, April 8th, 2011 by kara

My trusty old Olfa Touch-Knife, plus brand new edge, courtesy of the Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker 204.

So I came down with some type of lung crud and can’t muster up a lot of energy to do anything today, but I did manage to get my hair-cutting shears sharpened in preparation for our fuzzies’ weekly grooming session. Everyone will get the hairs between their toes trimmed THIS SUNDAY, whether they like it or whether they don’t, so I got out my Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker 204 Kit and went to town.

And as long as I had the kit out, I decided I might as well sharpen EVERYDARNTHING in the drawer. Now our chef’s knives, Grandpa Plagens’ meat carving knife, all the paring knives, and even the fershlugginer vegetable peelers are all sharp and fresh! Joy!

Everybody who uses a cutting implement of any type will tell you that a sharp knife is easier and safer to use, because you don’t have to apply as much force to cut successfully, so there’s less risk of fumbling the cutting implement and losing control–along with a limb or eye or something else equally useful. Sharpening is something that should be done on a regular basis.

In the beginning I didn’t sharpen my knives regularly, though. Sharpening knives used to be very intimidating for me, because I didn’t want to do it wrong and ruin the edge.  Yes, I knew that if I screwed it up, I could always take it to a professional and have a little snack of crow while they fix my mistake. But you gotta remember that I don’t like to screw up in the first place. Hence, I never tried.

Plus, I hate to pay someone to do something for me that I should be able to do myself. Having the kit at home means that I can (and should) sharpen my knives myself on a regular basis. Along with saving money on medical care for accidental knife wounds, this saves money by letting me keep the very good quality knives I’ve selected and not purchasing new ones to replace them merely because they’re dull.

I’ve really got no excuse for avoiding this task. I’ve got that amazing sharpening kit, sitting right at the back of the knife drawer, of which I can’t speak highly enough. The Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker base holds two brass safety rods and the triangular ceramic sharpening rods at exactly the correct angle (35 or 40 or 12 degrees, depending on what you’re sharpening) and it comes with a comprehensive manual and even a DVD for Pete’s sake. One would truly have to have a glass eye and wooden banana (in the words of my sainted mother, Norma) to screw it up with the 204.

And you can use the kit to sharpen just about anything that has an edge or functional sharp point. Have a wood plane that needs some refining?  You can use the 204 to sharpen that blade–just be careful, because the brass safety rods don’t deploy for the configuration to sharpen a plane blade. Does your ice pick, awl, or upholstery needle need a new point? It’ll do that as well, along with thinning and pinking shears, and my little Olfa Touch-Knife craft cutter. Honestly, I think I bought that darn thing when I was in high school, and I still have it–I just use the 204 to put the edge back on it every once in a while, and it’s ready to help me clip coupons every Sunday.

Plus, it is such a joy to use a sharp implement. Makes me want to go back out to the kitchen and cut cauliflower and broccoli and cucumbers for broccoli salad, and maybe find some fish to fillet, maybe a roast to trim. Eh, maybe after my nap.

Alternative to no-calorie sweeteners?

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011 by kara

Recently I was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder which screws with my moisture-producing glands. Quick-and-dirty version is that my body is trying to kill any tissue in itself that produces saliva or tears or mucus or digestive fluid or the like. More on that particular joy later.

My stomach is also giving me grief, and whether this is related to the Sjögren’s or not, I’ve had to make some changes in my intake. It seems that I can no longer tolerate either the carbonation or the artificial sweeteners in the gallons of Diet Coke or Coke Zero which I used to drink on a daily basis, so I must move to uncarbonated beverages which do not contain aspartame or sucralose. Given that I absolutely detest the “sugar mouth” bad-breath aftertaste I get after drinking beverages sweetened with sugar, I must then move to either an unsweetened beverage, or one that’s sweetened with stevia, which was recommended by my rheumatoid specialist.

Just to add to all this fun, I have also found it necessary to drastically cut down on my caffeine intake so that my freaking heart does not break out of my sternum and gallop off without me. Apparently this must mean my days of being able to chew No-Doz for faster absorption without any undesirable side effects are also behind me. Gettin’ old, fallin’ apart…

The obvious successor to Diet Coke/Coke Zero is iced tea, which is readily available unsweetened commercially, both in fountain and bottled versions; but what is NOT so readily available is DECAFFEINATED unsweetened iced tea. Top that off with the fact that I’ve become a bit of a tea snob, and I’ve become really difficult to quench.

So when I know I’ll be away from home, I provision myself with home-brewed, unsweetened, decaffeinated iced tea.  I’ll fill up my 32-ounce Speedy-Q travel mug with ice, wedge a straw in there, and fill the negative space with freshly-brewed decaff iced tea. I’ll fill up a metal Sigg-like bottle with the same, and the travel mug helps retain the ice cubes, so that during an eight-hour work day I might have to get just a little more ice from the machine at work. I try to avoid the water and ice at work, however, because it tastes to me like PCBs and carcinogens. Yes, I know I’m probably being foolish, but I can’t help the image of dumping industrial waste down my throat, and with the Sjögren’s I’m drinking quite a lot of whatever.

“But Kara,” you ask, “Why don’t you just drink water or fruit juice?” Good question.  I do drink water, and if it’s from my refrigerator (in-line filter + very cold) or from a Brita filter (very well-filtered + very cold) or from a refrigerated bottle, I drink a lot of it. But sometimes you want something with a little more flavor, like Coke Zero…mmm…no.  NO. NOT like Coke Zero.  Like orange juice, or water with lime twist, or…tea. Only problem with fruit juice is that a lot of it isn’t JUICE, it’s high-fructose corn syrup, and why would I want to drink a ‘fruit cocktail-style beverage’ that has more sweetener than a Pop-Tart? I’m trying to take care of my pancreas, here. Adult-onset diabetes is common in my family, and I’m really not wanting to hasten that at all, at all.

So I’m drinking more water, and experimenting now with things like iced mint tea sweetened with honey. I’m still working on where to get stevia in sufficient bulk quantities so we can experiment with mixing up a gallon of Kool-Aid to see if that will work. Yeah, I know, it’s kind of blasphemous to mix a health food with Kool-Aid, but my 12-year-old palate MUST have sweet. I’ll let y’all know how THAT goes.

Dinnertime

Friday, August 27th, 2010 by kara

So I’m working a job now where I don’t get home until after 8:15 p.m., but Rick is working a more normal schedule. That means that he gets home hungry for dinner three hours before I’ll even be hopping into the Buick Regal to wend my scenic way back to the nest. If I start fixing dinner when I get home, that means we’ll be eating as late as 9:30 p.m., and it’s not healthy for Rick to go to bed at 10 p.m. with a full stomach.

And unless I’ve been exceptionally proactive and motivated that morning, it means Rick is either cooking hamburgers/hot dogs/sloppy joes for himself, or eating (yet another) peanut butter and jelly sammich.

And we all know exactly how proactive and motivated I am in the morning, which is -4 on a scale of 1 to 10, so my Wonderful Pumpkin eats hisself a LOT of PB&J.

“Don’t worry,” he says trying to make me feel better, “I really LIKE peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” That doesn’t really work, because the Pumpkin likes a lot of different foods, but it doesn’t mean that he should eat them for days and days on end. Nutritionally speaking it doesn’t seem balanced, and I worry that it might eventually cause him to snap, and I’ll come home from work to find the entire 7-pound jar of Peter Pan we found at Sam’s Club pasted over the whole kitchen.

Rick insists he can’t cook, which is really not true. The man can make a mean chicken stir-fry on his own, with just the envelope of stir-fry seasoning mix from the store, which is still home-made in my eyes. He could do that before we met.

“But I can’t just go into the kitchen and say ‘Oh, we’ll have pan-fried chicken tenderloins with cole slaw and biscuits for dinner tonight’ and fix it,” he says to me. I have to remind him that I started cooking and baking when I was old enough to hold a hand mixer steady in a bowl of cookie dough, and anyone with 33 years experience in anything is going to be ‘better’ at it than someone with less.

When I was on the fire department in Highland Township, I’d be in the middle of fixing dinner when my pager would go off, and I’d have to abandon everything to respond. In the middle of grabbing my stuff and listening to the address of the call, I’d be giving Rick instructions on how to finish fixing all the food that was in-progress at that moment. “Finish steaming this until it’s fork-tender, drain and mash the potatoes with butter, milk and salt & pepper, and pull the biscuits out when they’re nicely browned on top!”

And when I returned, dinner was always done perfectly. So the man can cook–he just doesn’t know it.

Or maybe he doesn’t want to know it.

But I’ve been fretting lately over how poorly nourished we are, and the more often we opt for pizza or take-out food, the more money we waste on junk that just fills our stomachs without really doing us any good. We’ve got to figure out a way for us to have home-cooked meals with me on this crazy schedule.

The logical thing to do would be to plan the weekly meal menu, and then do as much of the food prep as possible ahead of time, either on the weekend or in the morning. I’d then leave instructions for Rick on how to finish preparing the meal, and he could have a hot, homemade meal when he’s ready for it, and I could have leftovers when I get home.

Again, though, that’s assuming that I can remain focused and motivated to plan all this ahead of time, stick to the schedule, and peel potatoes at 8 a.m. on days OTHER than Thanksgiving.

So we joined E-Mealz, to get their weekly menu plan and shopping list that will allow us to save money while still eating well. We were pretty gung-ho about it, until I looked at the first menu plan.

It sounds lovely, and I’d be very pleased to be working with a ready-made meal plan with such wonderful food, mostly from scratch. But I’m not the one who’d be doing most of this prep–Rick would.

I looked at the first recipe, Chicken Dijon, which calls for two chicken breasts pounded to 1/4″ thickness, and asked him “Are you okay with doing all this prep and cooking?” And then I knew that for this first week, at least, that Rick would be eating PB&J.

This weekend, we’ll take a look at the menu plan and see how much we can collaborate on the food prep.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Toaster oven useful for small households

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 by kara

I love my toaster oven. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s an essential piece of kitchen gear.

It’s not often that I endorse a specific piece of kitchen equipment. Many tasks have been accomplished over the years using nothing more than a good knife, a sufficiently-large cutting board and basic cookery equipment. I’ve never owned a food processor, nor have I wanted one.

Yes, using a food processor can save you a lot of prep time. You could process all the potatoes for a batch of potato soup in a matter of SECONDS. But then the time it takes to break down and clean the food processor offsets that time saved. It’s so much quicker to keep a sink full of hot, soapy water and wash the knife and cutting board as you go.

We DID have a juicer, once. Once. But it was such a complicated travesty of parts and disks and doohickeys that to use and dissemble it to clean it was a multiple-hour task. We weren’t dedicated enough to the idea of juicing to continue to use it.

We do have a breadmaker that I’ve begun to use again, just for the joy of freshly-baked bread. If you’ve read any of my past blog postings, you may recall my battle to make bread from scratch–I really do feel this is something I should be able to do by myself, without the help of a machine…but I’m lazy. I’ll work on the bread skills later.

I don’t want to mislead you–we do have kitchen equipment with very specialized uses. Of course we have a coffee maker, which just makes coffee, and we have several slow-cookers, which only cook food very slowly. We also have a blender, which is used very seldom, and a Fry-Daddy, which is used more often than I care to admit.

But our toaster oven is the most-used piece of kitchen equipment we have. It warms left-over pizza much more appealingly than the microwave, and if we’re having pasta it heats up to crisp frozen garlic bread in seconds rather than preheating the entire full-sized oven, using much less electricity in the process.

Hot appetizers and baked sandwiches can happen in the toaster oven with much less fuss than the full-sized oven, and I can prepare a hot Westminster dip before dinner even though the oven temperature is different than what’s needed for the entrée.

And anytime we feel like a fresh biscuit, we can take some frozen biscuit dough from the freezer and bake one (or eight) up in a snap. I’ve heard that one can do that same thing with cookie dough, but I’ve always just baked the whole batch of cookies rather than putting some aside to freeze.

All in all, a toaster oven with temperature control is a fast, efficient way to bake small batches of baked goods and not use lots of electricity heating the big oven and then cooling the house. I would strongly recommend a quality toaster oven for every small household.

Cheesed off

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 by kara

I’m becoming quite a fan of measuring by weight rather than by volume.  It seems so much more accurate to say “8 ounces of shortening” as opposed to cramming an amount of shortening that you HOPE is sufficient and lacking any sizable air bubbles into a one-cup measuring cup.

And now that I’m buying butter in one-pound bricks from Sam’s Club instead of quartered, paper-wrapped pounds from the grocery store, I’ve had to get good at doing the math in my head to convert volume measurements to weight.  Instead of just slicing off “one tablespoon” from the quarter-pound stick, it’s necessary to run through all the math and weight equivalents in order to calculate that one tablespoon of butter weighs a half-ounce.  And one half-ounce of butter will always be exactly that, doesn’t matter what form it’s in, a half-ounce of butter will always weigh a half ounce. But if I’m slicing a tablespoon off the stick, and the quarter-pound stick wasn’t wrapped absolutely straight at the factory, I may end up with more or less butter by depending on those little lines printed on the paper.

But oi vey, the MATH.  It hurts me sometimes.

As a result I’ve gotten pretty good at guesstimating the volume of food to equal the desired weight.  Doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a solid like butter or shortening, or a grainy powder like sugar or flour, I can get pretty close just by eyeing it up! Cool, no? Or does this count as a “stupid human trick”?

In my younger days I worked as prep cook under an amazing Hungarian woman who could pour an absolutely correct amount of seasoning into her palm straight from the package.  Need a teaspoon of salt? Here it is. A half-teaspoon of cinnamon? There ya go. She might not always wear her teeth to work, but the day she showed me how she could use her palm to measure out tablespoon after accurate tablespoon of parsley, I was her biggest fan. For a long time I worked on being able to do the same, and now after 22 years I might be getting close.

Anyway, I ran to Food City a few days ago to get some beans and cheese for a batch of chili.  Only bought a half-pound of cheese because the price wasn’t that great and I only needed a little bit to grate over the chili.  So I’m studying the cheese, which is labled as an 8-ounce brick.  I’m looking at it, and thinking that it doesn’t look quite like a half-pound of cheese, so I get out my trusty digital scale:

No, it's actually 7 and 8/10 ounces. Not quite a half-pound.

Hmph.  I KNEW it didn’t look like a full half-pound of cheese. Whatever that may look like.

So, what does it matter, you ask?  So I didn’t get a full eight ounces of cheese, even though I paid for it–so WHAT? The problem lies in the fact that if every package of cheese is 1/5 of an ounce short, then the cheese distributor is selling that 1/5 of an ounce twice. We’re being charged for it, but we’re not getting it. The cheese people are shorting the individual consumer so they can make a little more money.

It’s a small bitch, but it’s my bitch, nonetheless. And if everything is inaccurately packed like this cheese, think how much each of us consumers are being cheated.

It’s one thing to watch the size of a candy bar shrink from 3 ounces, to 2.75 ounces, to 2.15 ounces, and remain the same price. It’s a given that food will get more expensive, and either prices must go up or we must get less food for the same price–check out the big tubs of yogurt the next time you’re at the grocery store.  They used to contain 32 ounces of yogurt and now the same-sized tub only holds 24 ounces.  There’s a 3/4 inch gap between the yogurt level and the top of the tub. Mmmm…vanilla yogurt with wheat germ…had to get a bowl as part of my ‘research.’  But I digress.

I didn’t take my digital scale to the grocery store to measure each of the packages of cheese there.  It’s possible that each package of cheese differs slightly, either above or below the listed weight.  Sure, some customers may actually receive 8 1/5 ounces of cheese.  Maybe it was just my day to be on the short end of the stick. But that isn’t ideal, either.  You should get exactly what you pay for, whether it’s eight ounces of cheese or eight ounces of blasting powder, and that package stated that it contained eight ounces of cheese.

Wanna know what 2/10 of an ounce of cheese looks like?  Here ’tis:

Okay, so it's grated. Try to use your imagination and picture it as a chunk.

A bean situation

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by kara

Yesterday I decided to make a pot of bean soup.  I learned two things as a result of my shopping trip that day: 1.) That it’s probably impossible to get a ham bone from the meat counter at a grocery store, and 2.) that a four-pound bag of dried Northern beans makes a HECKUVA lot of beans.

Talked with the guy behind the meat counter at Kroger, and he explained that they don’t save bones anymore, except for the really huge cow leg bones that people want as chewies for their dogs.  He did, however, point me in the direction of pre-packaged, smoked pork neck bones, which will work admirably for the meaty, smoky base.  You really do need the bone in order to get a good, appealing soup stock, in my little opinion.

Next came the beans.  Money’s still kind of tight, so I stood there with my calculator, ciphering the per-pound cost of dried Northern beans in the different-sized bags.  The four-pound bag brought the cost of the beans down to about $1 per pound, so that’s the one I went with.

Bear in mind that I’m not a stupid person.  Intellectually, I know that cooking legumes or grains will roughly double their bulk, i.e. cooking one cup of rice with one cup of liquid results in two cups of cooked rice.  But sometimes I have a little problem with spatial rationalization:  I knew that I’d end up with a lot of beans when I finally cooked them, but I didn’t stop to consider that if I soaked them all, I would not have a stock pot big enough to cook them.

And sometimes I’m just an absent-minded ditz.

So I start putting the stuff together for the soup, starting with sorting and soaking the dried beans.  If you’ve never worked with dried beans before, you should know that before you do anything else with them, you need to sort through them and pick out small rocks, bits of twig or grass, suspect-looking beans and any other ‘stuff’ that you don’t want to eat.  Then you rinse them thoroughly, and do either a fast soak or an overnight soak to rehydrate them.

It took me an awful long time to sort through that four-pound bag of beans.  That should have been my first clue to slow down and re-evaluate the situation.  It felt like I was hunched over that colander FOREVER, picking out discoloured and munched-on-looking beans.  But did I stop and think about what I was about to do?  Aw, hell no!

I got out my four-quart stockpot and dumped the beans in, and filled the rest of it nearly to the top with water.  Yeah, that was another moment in which I could have calculated the volume of beans I’d have to cope with, but I didn’t hesitate there, either.  I was thinking of other things, like our rescue’s Angel Trees at AgriFeed here in Knoxville and Smoky Mountain Feed in Maryville, and how best to print pictures of the adoptable fuzzies from Small Breed Rescue of East Tennessee and Cocker Companions Rescue.  It’s safe to say that I was a bit distracted–not enough so to screw up the soup, but sufficiently to miss the significance of the bean poundage.

To do a ‘fast soak’, put the beans in a large pot and pour roughly twice their volume of cool, clean water over them.  Bring the pot of beans to a boil and maintain the boil for two minutes, then cover the pot and remove it from the heat, letting it sit for the next hour.  Voila!  When you return to the pot, you’ll have rehydrated beans which you can then proceed to cook.

When I came back to check out my beans an hour later, the stock pot was FULL of them.  They’d gladly sucked up almost all the water and climbed almost to the lip of the stockpot, and they overflowed my big white colander when I drained and rinsed them.  All in all, that four-pound bag of dried Northern beans made 8.28635 pounds of beans.  Let’s just call it 8 1/4 pounds.  Which is quite a lot.  More than I had anticipated.  Don’t know what I was thinking.

Anyway.  I fixed a big batch of bean soup with half the beans, and then divided the rest into two big Gladware bowls to be covered with water and frozen. I couldn’t just toss the remaining four pounds of beans, because if I did that, I’d be wasting money–even though my original intent was to save money.  If you buy something in a large package because it’s less-expensive that way, but then you don’t USE it all, you’re not saving money in the long run.  You may as well have just bought a smaller package that didn’t scare you so badly to begin with, and avoided wasting the excess food.

Nice part of this little debacle is that the next time I want to make bean soup, I won’t have to go through the tiresome sorting-and-soaking routine again.  Nasty part is that I don’t really know WHEN I’ll feel like making bean soup again.  If ever.  *sigh*

Turkey bacon is NOT real bacon

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 by kara

For Sunday breakfast, we had home made French toast and turkey bacon.  The turkey bacon is kind of an unusual food in our house, because we both have a deep and abiding love for real bacon.  And aside from being somewhat healthier than regular bacon, there aren’t too many benefits to eating a form of pig meat made of fowl.

But I had a coupon for it and thought we’d give it a try.

It was OKAY.  It looked a little odd, because instead of white fat and red meat, it had strips of tan-ish and brown-ish meat, with one of the edges formed into a regular scallop shape–same shape, same colours for each strip.  It was smoky tasting, like regular bacon, but the texture was different, probably due to a significantly lower fat content.

Rick and I like our bacon crispy to the point of almost being burnt so that’s the way I fixed the turkey bacon.  It produced an astonishing amount of blue smoke and never really got truly crispy.  As far as using turkey bacon in place of regular bacon in a recipe, it should work because the main characteristic of bacon in a recipe is the smoky flavor.  I suppose if we were on medically-necessary low-fat diets, I would consider buying this on a regular basis, but we’re not yet, so I won’t.

Oddly enough it tastes a lot better when it’s eaten out of the sandwich bag while standing in front of the refrigerator at midnight.