Thursday, December 29, 2011

Psychology: New Years Resolutions

I only have about 2 more days to think of New Years Resolutions that I might actually stick to.  Last year's were a dismal failure to the point that I can't even remember if I made any or not.  Most likely, my traditional resolution list was hit with:

  • lose weight (ha!)
  • keep my car cleaner

Both of which I failed at. Miserably.  (Though I have lost approximately 10-15 pounds, depending on the holiday weight that I refuse to face.  My size-down jeans still fit comfortably, but is that stretching or actual weight loss?)

Things I really SHOULD resolve to do:
  • be better to my husband.  You know, make a concerted effort to pay attention to him in the evenings instead of burying my head in a nice warm laptop and staring at facebook as if it's better than crack (which it sometimes is).  But I chose to spend the rest of my life with him, not facebook.  So I should definitely fix that.
  • Lose weight to the point that my size 10 clothes fit again.  By Christmas next year, I should resolve to fit into my (amazing, awesome, and perfect) cashmere-wool-blend coat that is entirely too tight right now.  If a coat happens to be my motivation, I think it's fine, as long as I actually lose the weight and get healthy.
  • Find some form of exercise that I stick to.  I was doing well with walking for a while, but now that the weather is actually cool and it, um, precipitates rather often, I've been bad about going.  The guilty looks from my husband and the sweet stares of the dogs saying, "oh, Mummy, please come with us," are still not enough to motivate me to actually put on my hiking shoes, earband, and coat to go.  I need to fix this about myself.  (Note: Zumba, Wii Fit, and other aerobic routines along with yoga have all failed me.  Or, rather, I failed them.)
  • Keep the house and car cleaner.  Let's face it.  I'm a clutterbug.  I'm terrible at putting things away until it gets to a certain point, and then I go on a cleaning rampage.  I'm getting better, but I'd like to avoid those cleaning rampages and keep a more consistent clean would be good.
  • Run out of wine once in a while.  Let's face this fact, too: I'm a complete and ridiculous wino.  My husband (bless the man) pointed out once that the only thing we don't run out of in this house is wine.  We have run out of milk, bread, eggs, dog food, and many other essentials including prescriptions.  Not running out of wine but running out of these things is appalling, and I need to fix that.
So that's what I'm pondering.  They're boring, but they work.  They involved a process of self-examination, which is what I think the purpose of resolutions is anyway.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Food: Christmas Dinner

I am blessed every Christmas with a dinner beyond compare.  Last year it was made by my (late) father and involved steak, grilled scallops with a ginger-wasabi glaze, roasted potatoes, and some kind of uneventful vegetable.  This year it was cooked by my husband's family, and involved prime rib, oven-roasted potatoes, scalloped corn, deviled eggs, cabbage salad (cole slaw essentially), and hot dinner rolls.  It was a veritable feast.

 The prime rib...

 The White Christmas Cake...

The roasted potatoes... 

The scalloped corn

Indeed, it was delicious and amazing and insane and fantastic.  I feel almost as if I'm still full.  Heaven!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Food: Mac and Cheese experiment

Christmas Eve is traditionally an evening of feasting at the in-laws' house every year.  This year promised to be no different, and I had the opportunity to invade my (amazing, awesome, generous, and dear) mother-in-law's kitchen to cook some kind of experiment.  Normally I operate on recipes and recipes alone for special occasions, but I had some ingredients on hand that were begging, nay, pleading for an experimental combination.

It started with dog-paw shaped pasta from Pastabilities that mommy-in-law got me as a gift.  Then I realized that we had applewood smoked cheddar and Adirondack cheddar in the house.  And onion.  And panko breadcrumbs.  Plus pantry staples like butter, seasonings, and flour.  Lo and behold, a plan for mac and cheese was born.

What I had on hand:

  • about 6 ounces applewood smoked cheddar, rubbed with paprika (from the fancy cheese section of Wegman's)
  • 8 ounces McAdam brand Adirondack cheddar
  • 14 ounces dog-paw shaped pasta from Pastabilities
  • a large white onion
  • a stick of butter
  • flour (I used about half a cup)
  • black pepper
  • mustard (spicy brown, a tablespoon)
  • about 3 cups milk
What I did:

First I boiled the pasta in salted water for the 6 minutes it says to on the package and drained.  Then came time for the cheese sauce.

I melted a stick of butter in the pasta pot, added the chopped onion, and cooked on low heat until the onion was translucent and sweet-tasting, but not brown.  Then I added the flour and stirred it around until it made an onion-y roux.  Once the roux reached a golden color, I stirred in the milk and brought this all to a nice simmer on medium heat and the roux turned into a thick delicious saucey looking thing.  Added the mustard, added the black pepper, and inhaled.  Something about black pepper makes me euphoric.

Anyway: then I busted out mom-in-law's salad shooter (the only way to grate cheese, for real) and grated the cheese into the pot, stirred it up until melted, and stirred in the pasta.

The next step is obvious: pour it into a casserole dish, top with panko bread crumbs, and bake for about 30 minutes (we were close to 45) at 350, until the crumbs are golden and the cheese is bubbly and delicious.

So how was it?  Smoky.  Paprika-y (remember the paprika on the cheese).  Cheesy.  Delicious.  Oh, it was a treat indeed.

And yes, I'm eating its leftovers for lunch today, with a side of Croghan Bologna (a Northern NY delicacy) and cheese curds.  Bring on the cholesterol!


Friday, December 23, 2011

Food: Gram's English Toffee

Neither English nor toffee, Gram's cookies were always my favorite of her cookie assortment.  It's a brown sugar cookie bottom covered in chocolate and (optional) nuts.  (I don't do the nuts because I don't like them.)

You need:
1 stick butter or margarine
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup brown sugar
3 egg yolks
1/2 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups sifted flour (sift it and then measure)

a whole bunch of chocolate.  For me, it was 2 10-ounce bags of bittersweet chocolate chips.  For Gram, it was 12 Hershey bars.

First, cream the butter, shortening, brown sugar, egg yolks and vanilla together.  Add the flour.  Press this dough into a jelly roll pan or small cookie sheet.  Mine was 10.5"x15" I think.  Bake at 375F for 10 minutes.

Once you remove the dough from the oven, put your chocolate on it immediately.  As the chocolate melts, spread it around with a spatula.  (For the chips, I returned it to the turned-off oven for about 2 minutes and then spread things around.)  At this point, if you want nuts, sprinkle them on top of the chocolate.  I don't.

Cool completely and cut into squares.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Food: Pan seared beef tenderloin steaks

The fanciest-sounding dish I make is a pan-seared beef tenderloin steak with a red wine reduction sauce.  What's hilarious about this is that it is incredibly easy to make if you have a basic knowledge of cooking, and it tastes amazing.  It's a little expensive if you use actual tenderloin instead of sirloin, but it's worth the expense if you want a flavorful, tender, medium-rare steak.

To make this dish you need:

  • 1 beef tenderloin steak per person eating
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • about a tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
  • 2 cups red wine (or thereabouts - I just pour from the bottle)
  • 1 heaping teaspoon beef-flavored Better than Bouillon
  • 2 tablespoons butter (unsalted)
First thing's first: get your steaks out and DRY them with a paper towel.  Wet beef will not brown properly.

Warm your pan to pretty hot.  Place the dry steaks in them.  Let them sit for a few minutes, or until you can feel the steak "release" from the pan.  Then flip and do the same thing on the other side.  Usually this takes about 5 minutes per side on my steaks, but it will depend on the thickness of your steak and how well-done you like things.  Regardless, make sure your steak has a nice golden brown crust on it before you flip it to the other side.

Once the steaks are done to your liking, remove them to a plate and cover them with foil.  You might have to pop them in the oven at 300 if you like a more well-done steak to finish them off.  This is up to you, not me.  I like mine pretty bloody.

Anyway - there will be a beautiful crusty accumulation on the bottom of your pan.  Throw in your 2 tbsp of butter and scrape this up with the butter.  Then throw in the shallots and garlic and rosemary and stir constantly until barely brown.  Then add the wine.  Keep scraping up the bits from the bottom of the pan.  Stir in the Better than Bouillon.  Bring to a boil and cook until the wine mixture is reduced by at least half.

Serve over the steaks.

Sorry no photos - I never have time to photograph what's going on while I cook this.  But try it.  You'll like it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Food: Chicken Soup

Every time I get a cold, I crave old-fashioned chicken soup.  Nothing fancy, just plain old chicken soup.  Today after teaching for a full day and straining my vocal cords with elementary-school-aged children, I looked forward to nothing more than a bowl of chicken soup.  So I stopped at the grocery for the ingredients and made it.  This is what I did.

First: chop up 1 heart of celery (leaves included), 2 medium onions, and half a pound(ish) of carrots.  Saute all these in a bit of olive oil in the bottom of your soup pot.  When the onion becomes translucent, add 5 cloves minced garlic.  Yes, 5.  Garlic is good for a cold.  Go ahead and add more if you want, but never less.

When the smell becomes almost too much for you, but before the garlic has browned, add 2 quarts chicken stock.  Since I didn't have my usual handy-dandy chicken stock boxes around, I made my own out of Reduced Sodium chicken flavored Better than Bouillon.  It worked just fine.  Add in: 2 bay leaves, about a tablespoon fresh rosemary (I just snipped off a sprig and threw it in the pot), and about 3 tablespoons of freeze-dried shallots from (you guessed it) Penzey's. 

Next: tear all the meat off a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.  (My reason for not roasting my own chicken?  A whole rotisserie chicken was cheaper than a whole raw chicken by about a dollar.  And it saved me a few hours time.  And I wanted chicken soup TODAY, not tomorrow.  If I had a raw chicken, I would have made roasted chicken for dinner today.  I digress.)  Stir the meat into the soup.  Bring to a simmer.  Oh yeah - don't put the chicken skin in the soup. Ick.  Season with seasoned salt and pepper to taste.

About an hour before serving, add 1 cup uncooked white rice.  Stir occasionally until it is time to serve.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Domesticity/Random: 50 things

I just discovered this article of 50 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, and I decided it's time for me to see just how competent at life I really am, based on those 50 things.  They all appear useful and wonderful, so I'm going on a self-examination discovery in the hopes of upping my self-esteem a bit, since I'm feeling a bit down today.  So, with blatant apologies to the original writers, here is my self-examination based on your list.

1.  Build a Fire – check.  I can do this.
2.  Operate a Computer – check.
3.  Use Google Effectively – check.
4.  Perform CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver – I have a rough idea, but no check.
5.  Drive a Manual Transmission Vehicle – epic FAIL.  My mom tried to teach me once and it ended in tears and swearing me to secrecy that I ever tried to drive my dad's car.
6.  Do Basic Cooking – I own this.  Basic cooking is my thang.
7.  Tell a Story that Captivates People’s Attention – I can totally do it for little kids, does that count?
8.  Win or Avoid a Fistfight – I'll say avoid.
9.  Deliver Bad News – If I can write it, I can do it gracefully.  If I have to speak it, I usually fumble.
10.  Change a Tire – If put to the test, I bet I could.  But I'm not giving you directions on it now.
11.  Handle a Job Interview – I was once told that I interview well, so I'm confident with this one.
12.  Manage Time – I *can* do this.  I just choose not to most of the time. ;)
13.  Speed Read – I'm told I'm a fast reader, but I don't think I can do it like that guy on Criminal Minds who turns a page every 2 seconds or so...
14.  Remember Names – Elementary teacher skill, dear Watson.
15.  Relocate Living Spaces – Living with the husband that I do, it is simple to move.  His family has it down to a science, and my job is to unpack boxes and clean.  Perfection!
16.  Travel Light – Okay, I'll admit it.  Husband and I pack like princesses.
17.  Handle the Police – I've never had to very much, but I do know the first answer is to be polite and tell the utter truth.
18.  Give Driving Directions – I have to do this to tell anyone to get to my house, as it is weirdly situated.
19.  Perform Basic First Aid – I should brush up on this.
20.  Swim – Swimming lessons since I was 10 months old until I was a teen.
21.  Parallel Park – I can do it, but like most drivers, I tend to avoid it unless I have to.
22.  Recognize Personal Alcohol Limits – I have yet to barf from drinking.  And I never will. *pride*
23.  Select Good Produce – Go to Wegman's.  The end.
24.  Handle a Hammer, Axe or Handsaw – I can do all but the axe.
25.  Make a Simple Budget – Our budget is incredibly simple: don't buy what you don't have money for.
26.  Speak at Least Two Common Languages – English? yes.  Francais? oui.
27.  Do Push-Ups and Sit-Ups Properly – *rolls on the floor laughing*
28.  Give a Compliment – Have I mentioned how beautiful your uvula is lately?  No?  Oh, well that's because that would be an improper compliment.
29.  Negotiate – I tell you what: I'll bake you brownies if you do this for me.  Oh, wait, that's bribery.
30.  Listen Carefully to Others – This is a skill that everyone who has met me says I need to work on.
31.  Recite Basic Geography – Another area for improvement.  I can only use the "I'm new to the area" excuse for so long...
32.  Paint a Room – Can do.  But hate.
33.  Make a Short, Informative Public Speech – I liken this to presenting a new concept while teaching.  So I can do it.
34.  Smile for the Camera – This is difficult for me.  I have to recite to myself, "think of something happy, look into the camera lens, and let yourself REALLY smile."
35.  Flirt Without Looking Ridiculous – For me, this should be changed to "do ANYTHING without looking ridiculous."
36. Take Useful Notes – check.
37.  Be a Respectful House Guest – check.
38.  Make a Good First Impression – I have no idea whether I do this or not, but I'll say yes because I'm told I interview well.
39.  Navigate with a Map and Compass – As long as you let me turn the map to orient it in the direction I'm going, I am totally fine with this concept.
40.  Sew a Button onto Clothing – My great-grandma would roll over in her grave if I couldn't do this.  Check.
41.  Hook Up a Basic Home Theater System – I have not done it myself unless you count the system being simply a TV and a DVD player.
42.  Type – Does 56 wpm count?
43.  Protect Personal Identity Information – I am a victim of identity theft.  I have finally picked up all the pieces, but I know one thing: you're sunk if anyone knows your SSN.
44.  Implement Basic Computer Security Best Practices – check.  Please don't test me on this.
45.  Detect a Lie – Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.  And sometimes I get a false positive.
46.  End a Date Politely Without Making Promises – I'm married, so I proclaim this one obsolete.
47.  Remove a Stain – hairspray works GREAT on ink.  Zout is my method of choice for everything else.
48.  Keep a Clean House – I'm still learning but it's getting there.  It's just SO much work!
49.  Hold a Baby – check.
50.  Jump Start a Car – This needs a refresher course.

Uncategorized: Sick

I have a cold.  A chest cold.  A very nasty coughing-is-excruciating chest cold.  (Note: at this point, Husband will step in and say I'm a wimp and that my cold isn't that bad because my temperature is a tenth of a degree under 100 and I'm able to walk without passing out.  But I am a grumpy patient, and so I'm gonna coddle this cold today.)

All I want is Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup and a fleece blanket and Mucinex DM.

Alas, I have no canned soup in my house, nor do I have chicken or fixin's to make chicken soup.

I am hideous and unwashed in fleece sweatpants and an old hoodie and a thermal underwear shirt.

I'm not venturing out.

Dinner shall be fish tonight with salad, and we'll be lucky if I can stand it.  Maybe I'll make fish for Husband and make scrambled eggs for me.

But all I really want is that darn chicken noodle soup.

Today I have eaten about 10 Christmas cookies, 8 Triscuit crackers with melted American cheese, 2 cups of coffee, and 2 liters of water.  And I'm not that hungry.

Except for chicken noodle soup.  Gimme, now.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Food: Frangelico Cheesecake

I made this for my dad's penultimate birthday cake and it turned out great.  I haven't really made it since, but it's delicious.  It's a cheesecake laced with frangelico, topped with frangelico-laced chocolate ganache and fresh raspberries.  It's  also probably the fanciest thing I've ever made.

For the crust, you need:
1.5 cups chocolate graham cracker crumbs (I used chocolate-flavored goldfish and crushed them - they're chocolatier than Oreos)
1/4 cup sugar
6 tbsp butter, melted
a pinch of Cassia cinnamon (or just regular.  But I use the Cassia variety because it's spicier than Ceylon cinnamon.)

Do the things you need to do to turn this into a graham-cracker crust (mix it together with a fork), and press it into the bottom of a springform pan.

For the filling, you need:
32 oz cream cheese (by weight), softened
3 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup Frangelico liqueur

Blend the ingredients together with a hand mixer.  Pour over the crust.  Bake at 350F for 40 to 50 minutes and remove from oven.  (It's often cracked on top, but the ganache fixes this!)

For the ganache topping, you need:
8 oz bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp Frangelico liqueur

chop the chocolate and set in a medium bowl to the side.  Bring the cream and butter to a boil on medium heat and then pour over the chocolate and let it sit for 5 minutes.  Whisk together until blended.  Add the liqueur and whisk until blended again.  Pour enough of this over the cheesecake to cover it.  Eat the rest with a spoon while it's warm, or refrigerate it and roll it into balls later for impressive chocolate truffles.

While the ganache is still warm, put fresh raspberries all over the top of the cheesecake.

Voila.  YUM.

Food: Cream Cheese Frosting

I just improvised cream-cheese frosting and it literally tastes like cheesecake!  YAHOO!  Here's what I did:

1 stick butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
---> cream these together until completely mixed.
1 cup confectioner's sugar
----> mix in well until it looks like frosting
1 tsp-1 tbsp vanilla extract
----> mix that in until it looks like frosting again.

I put it over a boxed carrot cake (the Duncan Hine's extra-fancy version where you rehydrate actual carrots and raisins).  We shall see how it goes.  I would have baked a real carrot cake, but I wasn't feeling THAT motivated today.  And everyone knows that frosting is the best part, right? ;)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Food: Nutmeg Cookies

Nutmeg cookies are a Christmas tradition I started 3 years ago, after having bought a giant book of Christmas cookie recipes.  They are simply a sugar cookie dough with 2 tsp of nutmeg added.  (For copyright concerns, I will not be including the actual recipe here.)  The cookies themselves are flavorful, crumbly, tender, and delicious.  The dough smells amazing as you handle it.  The house smells amazing as you bake them.  And the recipe makes one veritable ton of cookies.  You can get the book here and bake nutmeg cookies to your heart's content.  They call them "Nutmeg Bells" but I didn't have a bell-shaped cookie cutter, so I used my favorite star cookie cutter instead.

Yesterday I made the dough.  Today I rolled it out, cut the cookies out, and baked them.  Then I frosted them after dinner.  Here is a small sampling of them.  I couldn't bring myself to frost stars in any color other than yellow, and I am a lazy cookie decorator, so they get just a simple icing of corn syrup, confectioners sugar, milk, and almond extract.

The icing recipe?  Easy:

  • 1 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 2 tsp milk
  • corn syrup, enough to make it icing-y (I'd guess a scant quarter cup)
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract
  • food coloring of your choice - a few drops
Stir together until it turns into icing.  Use immediately.  It dries hard and shiny, but takes at least overnight to dry.  The color stays bright too. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Food: A Tough Nut to Crack

'Tis the season for Christmas cookies, fa la la la la...

And this year, I decided to embark upon a recipe that requires me to have 3 cups of hazelnuts.  (Raspberry Linzer Thumbprints - a hazelnut cookie with seedless raspberry jam in the thumbprint middle - ooooh!)  I dutifully went to my neighborhood Wal-Mart, because it is prohibitively expensive to shop elsewhere in the nearby grocery store pantheon, and lo and behold!  They don't carry hazelnuts in any form.

Off I went to Wegman's, the 40-minute-away foodie mecca and most perfect grocery store I know (their generic food is almost always just as good as - if not better than - the brand names).  Surely they would have them, and they did, in both whole form (un-shelled) and in bags of pre-shelled and pre-chopped goodness.  Upon price comparison, we decided to save $2 per pound and shell them ourselves.  Couldn't be too hard, right?  I got a big ol' bag of them that would surely yield three cups, and went on my merry way.

Today was a nut-cracking morning, I could see that.  It is cookie-baking weekend here in the Fussy Foodie house, and so I decided to embark upon nut-cracking first.  Before you read on, keep in mind these things about this adventure:

  • I don't own an official nut-cracker
  • Husband has a hammer called the Death Stick
  • I'd never shelled nuts before
So I got out the Death Stick and the nuts and the cutting board and proceeded to crack nuts and dig the meats out of the shells.  This soon became a very annoying and tedious task because
  • I'm not what you would call a "strong" person.  As in, I have little upper body strength.
  • The Death Stick is a heavy hammer
  • Hazelnuts are slippery and very tough to crack with a hammer.
As a result, I broke a lot of nuts, sent many shells flying (which Oliver loved chasing), and wound up with a measly 1 and 3/4 cups of nuts.  Upon discovering this, husband and I decided to run an errand to get the nuts.  Meanwhile I would start the nutmeg cookie dough while he finished his video game mission, and all would be well.  Ingredients?  sugar, butter, nutmeg, vanilla, eggs, baking powder, salt.  I started creaming the sugar and butter together and was making my mise en place while the sugar and butter creamed, and guess what?

I'm out of baking powder.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Food: Lasagna my way

It's lasagna night, oh yes.  Before I go into the intricacies of how I make my (totally inauthentic yet delicious) version of lasagna, I must establish my paradigm from which I'm cooking:

  • I'm Irish-German but grew up in a village that has a large Italian population, so Italian food is no stranger to me.
  • I don't cook my lasagna noodles, ever.
  • My dad was famous for his lasagna, even before we moved to said Italian-American village.
  • I'm a fussy eater who refuses to eat mushrooms in any form, so if you want mushrooms in your lasagna, be prepared to be disappointed.  Also be ready for not many bell peppers in this recipe.
  • I have not had much "authentic" lasagna because the one time I had it in one of those hole-in-the-wall restaurants that has a cute little old Italian lady making the secret-recipe red sauce, I was disappointed.
  • I like a lot of sauce and cheese.  My lasagna weighs at least 10 pounds.
So with those in mind, I bid thee to keep reading my process.

First, we need sauce, and a veritable ton of it.  To begin, brown your ground beef in a LARGE pot:

And add about this much chopped onion:
When the beef begins to look like this:

See?  The beef is crumbly, but not brown all the way yet.

After that, add a bunch of garlic:
at LEAST this much.  You can pop it through a garlic press, mince it, or do like I do and SLAP-CHOP it!
Make sure all that garlicky goodness is in that pot.   Ohhhh, yes.  YUM.  Stir.

Next, add the cast of (simple) seasonings: seasoned salt, black pepper (freshly ground of course), and "green stuff" (also known as Italian seasoning).  Do it to taste.  I have no measurements for this process, but do remember that the flavors deepen slightly after you bake the lasagna.

Next, it's time for the sauce.  I always make too much sauce while creating lasagna, but this is the sauce-mix ratio that I find most pleasing (and you can always use the leftover sauce for a terrific sauce for spaghetti later):

For those of you who don't have Wegman's around you, more's the pity.  But "Grandpa's Sauce" is simply a tomato sauce with Italian Sausage, roasted red peppers, and wine.  It is oh, so good.  If you can't find Prego traditional, I'm terribly sorry and question your grocery store.

Pour it all in:

YUM.  Turn the heat off because you don't need to simmer this long, as long as you let the lasagna rest a few hours before you pop it in the oven.  If you're cooking it all at once, simmer this sauce for a good 30 minutes.

Next, it's time to assemble the ricotta cheese mixture.  This is a very simple mix of ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, and two eggs.  Mix 2 pounds of ricotta with about a cup of parmesan and the two eggs until it looks like this:

Now that you have your sauce and your cheese mixture, get out your big huge lasagna pan (mine is actually a turkey-roasting pan), your noodles, and your (8 cups of grated) mozzarella.

Assembly goes like this.
First, coat the bottom of the pan with sauce:
Add noodles:
(the reason I love this pan is because it fits 6 noodles perfectly with room to expand in the cooking process.)
And spread a third of the ricotta mixture on the noodles:

Cover that with some of the mozzarella.  Continue in this fashion:
  • generous amount of sauce (cover that cheese!)
  • noodles
  • ricotta
  • mozzarella
  • sauce
  • noodles
  • ricotta
  • sauce
  • the rest of the mozzarella
Finally, you should have a full pan and a lasagna that looks like this pre-oven:

Wow, the lighting sucks on that photo.  But that's how full it is and that's what it looks like.

According to a chef my mother-in-law knows, this whole she-bang is supposed to rest in the fridge overnight. I don't necessarily rest it overnight, but I do let it sit for several hours.  This saves me sauce-simmering and lets me cook the lasagna in advance of the dinner party I'm having, so I can greet my guests with a glass of wine and the lasagna happily in the oven.

Now, for baking.  I do it at about 300 degrees F, for at least 90 minutes.  Keep it covered with foil for at least the first hour, and then take off that foil to allow the top layer o' cheese to brown up a bit.  And remember!  Let it sit for about 5 minutes OUT OF THE OVEN before you serve, otherwise your poor lasagna will run all over the place!

Ohhhh, yes.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Domesticity: Nativity Set

My very favorite Christmas decoration is my nativity set.  I got it as a Christmas gift one year (I think 2008 but I'm not sure), and I absolutely love it.  It's made of hand-carved olive wood from Israel, and I think it is perfection as far as nativity displays go.

The whole set 


Closeup of the Holy Family.

What I think is neat about this set is that it came direct from Israel, wrapped in newspapers in (gasp!) Hebrew.  I probably should wrap the pieces in moving paper or something without the newsprint on them, but I felt compelled to save this paper to remind me of the origin of this beautiful set that I treasure so much.

One of my favorite things about this set is the deliberate obscurity of the figures.  There are no facial details, and few things to give you a pre-conceived notion of what Mary, Joseph, the Magi, the Shepherd (I only got one with this set), and the Christ Child looked like.  I like that specifically because it allows room for imagination and speculation.  Because we can never know what they looked like, except in our hearts.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Food and Domesticity: menu planning

When hubby and I first got together, we operated on the "so what do you want for dinner tonight?" form of menu-planning.  Grocery shopping had a small list but we also bought many things off that list that just "sounded good."  It was the beginning of an economic downfall.

Before we could get good and broke, I got sick of flying by the seat of my pants and wondering what I'd be cooking the next day, so I enacted the menu-planning system my mother had.  That is, she planned out all the dinners (including leftover usage) for a week or so, and used that to dictate her grocery list.  You know what?  It works.  It saved us a bundle at first, but now it is old hat.  I can only imagine what we would spend if we had no list, especially with Wegman's nearby.

So what are some of my favorite menu planning tricks?  Well, first fill in whenever you have a meeting at night and make those the days you prepare easy/fast meals.  I stick to fish or leftovers almost every Wednesday as I have a meeting every Wednesday night at 5:30 to 7, and it's 45 minutes away, so I am NOT going to eat at 8:00 or later at night!  After that, start thinking of things that sound tasty to you.  Fill those in on the nights you know you will have time to cook.  Finally, save weekends for the big projects of cooking that yield many leftovers, like stews, lasagnas, big cauldrons of long-simmering soups, fancy things that require tons of dicing and chopping, etc.  And if you still have space left, do my time-honored tradition of filling it in with fish as a protien and salad as a vegetable.  It's fast, easy, and doesn't take too much time.  I can't say it's delicious as I generally dislike fish, but it's good for you, so we eat it anyway.

What's in my oven tonight?  A giant amount of boneless skinless chicken breasts, seasoned only with seasoned salt.  I swear these things are the most useful culinary article in my arsenal yet.  Tonight we will each have a baked chicken breast with barbecue sauce (an old standard).  Next time some form of chicken is on the menu, 4 of them will be made into chicken tortellini soup.  On another "chicken" night, the rest will be simmered into butter chicken curry.  (This is the best butter chicken sauce I've ever had besides at a real live Indian restaurant.  It's also my go-to recipe when I want something fancy-tasting that takes little to no time and tastes homemade.)  See?  Chicken breasts are magic.  I could continue about other gajillions of things I'd make with them, but I'll leave it at three for now.

What are your most utilitarian foods?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My first goulash

For years, the dear husband mentioned "goulash" to me as a food he likes.  I had no idea what goulash was, and an internet search yielded so many differing results that I couldn't be sure.  The Joy of Cooking seemed to pose no help either, because that version of goulash was not what he meant either.  I finally settled on asking him what the heck was in it, and if it didn't sound too bad, I'd try to make it.  He described it as some kind of pasta dish with tomatoes (canned), peppers and onions, and ground beef with a thin sauce.  He was completely vague on spices.  So I took those ingredients, performed a kitchen experiment, and the results were pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

To make this version of goulash, which is neither authentic nor Hungarian, you need:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 3 small onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed (I used my garlic press)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes (I used the onion and garlic flavored ones at Wegman's)
  • 1 pound pasta
  • about a quart of warm water
  • seasoned salt and black pepper, to taste
The process:
Start browning the ground beef.  Once it has started to brown and get crumbly, stir in the bell pepper and onion and cook until the onion is almost translucent.  Add the garlic and stir.  Pour in the can of tomatoes without draining them, and simmer for about 20 more minutes.  Season with seasoned salt and black pepper.  I used a lot more seasoned salt than I thought I would.

About 20 minutes before serving, stir in the pasta and pour in enough warm water to cover everything.  Bring to a boil, cover, and cook the pasta.  Once the pasta is cooked, uncover the pot to boil down the "sauce."  My sauce thickened by some miraculous act of foodie voodoo, and I hope yours does too.

Serve with parmesan cheese, if you like.  That's all husband.  I ate mine plain and was happy as a clam.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Food: chicken tortellini soup

One day that I was substitute teaching, I had the good fortune to stumble upon having lunch with the weekly lunch club in the faculty room. The home and careers teacher had made chicken tortellini soup and it smelled sooo good. Next thing I knew a bowl was in front of me and I was having some of this heavenly concoction. Upon demanding the recipe, here is what she gave me.

You need:

  • 2 quarts chicken stock (not broth)
  • olive oil (enough to coat bottom of pan)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, diced (I tend to use extra)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, not drained
  • 1 pound frozen spinach
  • 2 to 3 large, cooked boneless skinless chicken breasts (or the right chicken equivalent)
  • 1 pound (approx) fresh cheese tortellini
  • salt and pepper to taste
First, saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil until the onions are translucent.  This smells phenomenal.
Add your 2 quarts chicken stock, chicken, diced tomatoes, and spinach.  Cook about a half hour on medium to medium-low heat.
About 15 minutes before serving, add the tortellini and let them heat through.
Add salt and pepper to taste.  I use seasoned salt and a lot of pepper.

Eat this delicious substance:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Psychology: Sleep Study

Anyone who knows me well knows that I sleep in excessive, long, extreme marathon sessions, and that I am an opportunistic napper.  As in any afternoon that I can have a nap, I take one.  After years of complaining about this sleep habit to my doctor (because I really do feel I absolutely need this absurd amount of sleep because darn it I'm tired!) and multiple blood tests later, she sent me on a lovely sleep study, which happens tonight.

What's a sleep study?  Well, I go to the hospital, have my own private room and bathroom (much like a hotel room, they said), and my job is to sleep.  Now, granted, I'm going to have all kinds of stuff strapped all over me including nodes on my chest, head, and things in front of my mouth and nose to gauge my breathing, and wires poking out of all these things.  But I'm still required to sleep.  Then all those things strapped and stuck to me generate a report, and from there they figure out if I have some kind of sleep disorder.

The general suspicion is sleep apnea, because I snore like a freight train, even when I'm on my side.  We shall see.

My fear is that it's all psychological and tied to the depression from which I suffer, and that this sleep study and suffering today and tomorrow will be all for naught.  It is completely true that I do cope with depressive episodes by sleeping even more excessively than when I'm not having an episode.

Suffering? you ask.  Yes, suffering.  Today, for example, I must abide by the following absurd and evil conditions:

  • no caffeine after noon.  (WHAT?)
  • no naps (this, to me, is pure torture)
  • only normal exercise amounts (not a problem, though I am moving a lot more to keep myself from falling asleep)
  • no alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers (this I can handle)
  • avoid unusual physical exercise or meals (does eating mashed potatoes for lunch count as unusual?)
So actually, not too bad except for the nap thing.  I'm told I'll be awakened between 6:30 and 7 tomorrow morning to be kicked out, and that I may want to shower after the study, because they put goo in your hair to hold down the nodes.  I do have to shampoo my hair and use no conditioner on it tonight.  (Which is not a problem because I use no conditioner anyway.)

But that's only today!  Tomorrow I fear I will be napping most of the day to make up from my sleep study the night before.  Except for my narcoleptic friends (I have 3 friends with narcolepsy), I'm told it's not a great night's sleep.  But I'm willing to give it the old college try and see if I can give them a good reading.

Here's hoping.  Sweet dreams, y'all.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Food: Raclette - it's what's for dinner

So Raclette, you ask?  What the heck is it?
Well, it's one of these:

And you cook dinner on it at the table.  It's very interactive, a la fondue or something like that, only this puppy cooks meat and cheese at the same time.




First, you put bacon on the turned-on raclette to season the surface:
(and oh, yes, you eat the bacon later.) 


Once the bacon is done, you load it up with various meats.  We used chicken, shrimp, beef, and pork this past Raclette-abration:
Notice the little black thing with cheese in it at the bottom left of the above picture.  It picks up the heat from the element and melts your cheese, which you then dump over your tasty, delicious, amazing boiled potatoes. (Potatoes in any form are my favorite.  Boiled red ones?  Heaven, especially with melted cheese.)

And then you feast.  The meat is served with all kinds of fun sauces for dipping, and we had crab dip and artichoke dip for our crackers as well.  And wine, and bread, and oh it was a grand feast.

Cheers.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Food: Cooking with Mom

Yesterday I cooked Thanksgiving dinner with my mommy.  That's her hands rolling the crescent rolls.  She did it so fast that I had to have her pose for this picture.

Mom is so uber-organized that she makes a timeline on the same paper every year and dates it.  Inside the cookbook below the paper, she has several years worth of timelines saved. 


This dog found out that he LOVES turkey because Mom "dropped" some on the floor.  Sneaky Mommy. 


This year, the turkey was not brined, but merely stuffed and cooked.  And you know what?  It was wonderful.  It was moist, flavorful, and delicious.  I know that if I ever cook a turkey I'll probably brine it, but this turkey was just perfect without the brine.  Foodies across the nation may be freaking out about me saying that, and be wondering about my unrefined taste buds, but I'm telling you: last year's brined turkey was delicious, and this year's unbrined turkey was just as good.  Maybe Mom is magic.

On our Thanksgiving menu:

  • turkey
  • stuffing (mom's secret recipe)
  • mashed potatoes (made with locally grown Yukon gold potatoes, butter, cream, milk, and secret seasonings including but not limited to fresh parsley from my garden)
  • broccoli-cheese casserole (ohhhh yes)
  • sweet potatoes a la mom
  • corn with butter
  • cranberry sauce - "that good stuff that comes from a can" (that's what the Uncle says)
  • crescent rolls
  • gravy
  • pumpkin pie
  • cranberry-nut pie
  • chocolate peanut butter pie
  • Toasted Head Chardonnay
  • Water
And royal shame on me for not photographing the table.  It was busy in that thar kitchen.  But I had a wonderful time sharing the experience with Mom and family.

Love you, Mommy.