Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Soup for the Soul

Sometime a year or two ago, I found myself with some chicken breast and bacon and not much else in my fridge for dinner and certainly no time for a big trip to the market. So, in hopes of coming up with something to feed the family, I used the google and found this wonderful Chicken, Bacon and White Bean Soup. I am going to admit it: I cheated immediately and didn't follow the recipe. Even the most amazing SAHM who waits until 4 pm to figure out dinner can't start with dried beans. So I cheated, but it was for a good cause!
This taught me an important lesson, or, actually a FEW important lessons:
First, I can always sneak in an afternoon nap and still look like I had a productive day with a little planning ahead and a good stock of beans, soup stocks and chicken breasts.
Second, unless you just LOVE looking at cookbooks (which I do), you need never buy another cookbook again. The internets is all you need to find healthy, easy recipes which have been rated by (hopefully) people with taste buds. Avoid ANY recipe with more than one negative review, because I figure most people eat crap and if the average person thinks it tastes bad, I probably will too. Also, check out the comments for suggested changes. Sometimes, people find recipes too spicy or too salty. This is a good thing to know before you dive right in. You often won't find these comments in cookbooks, though you do hope the author figured that out beforehand and changed the recipes.
And, finally and most importantly, I learned that shallots were sent down from on high to give soups soul. Seriously, I'd never used a shallot before I tried this soup and now I am hooked; I sometimes add them to soups that just seem to have SOMETHING missing. Notice the depth the shallots add to this soup; shallots give soups a sense of aged wisdom and, especially in the cold and wet of mid-winter, a warmth that will reach all the way to your toes.

Here's the cup I had for lunch today! Mmmmm.

(And, yes, that is a little bay leaf poking it's head up and saying "Hello!")

First, the ACTUAL recipe:
Chicken, Bacon and White Bean Soup
1 lb dried white beans
1/2 lb bacon (cut into 1/2-inch pieces)
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 T minced shallots (Glorious, I tell you!)
1 T minced garlic
2 bay leaves (The recipe called for 2, not me. But you know this was the deal-breaker!)
1 t salt
1/4 t cayenne
8 cups chicken stock or broth
12 oz cooked, diced chicken
1 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
1. Put the beans in a large pot or bowl. Remove any stones or broken beans. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches and soak for 8 hours. (This is when I realized that cheating was necessary.) Drain and set aside.
2. Fry the bacon in a medium, heavy stock pot until crisp, drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 2 T grease (another place I had to cheat). Add the onions and celery and cook over medium-high heat until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, shallots, bay leaves, salt and cayenne, and cook, stirring, for one minute.
3. Add the beans and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, about 1-1/2 hours.
4. Add the chicken and bacon and stir well. Remove and discard bay leaves (EGADS. You know I cheated here.) To serve, ladel the soup into bowls and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

OMG... this soup is sure to be divine, if I ever actually make it this way! I also think that the flavor of the shallots and bay leaves would make this a nice vegetarian bean soup if you just substitute vegetable broth, cook the beans and then change step 4 altogether: Omit bacon and chicken and add some chopped greens, cook until tender. Sprinkle with a GOOD Pecorino Romano and feed your soul.

That said, here is my
Super-Quick School-Night Version of Chicken, Bacon and White Bean Soup
2 cans Cannelini Beans, drained
1/2 lb center-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped celery
4 T minced shallot
2 T minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 t salt
4 cups (1 carton) of Roasted Chicken Stock
4 cups of chicken bouillon
2 chicken breasts or leftover breast meat from Rotisserie Chicken
Grated Pecorino Romano to taste
Lightly spray a fry pan with cooking spray or oil over medium heat. Lightly season chicken breasts and brown on both sides in frypan. Reduce heat and cover. Allow to cook through while you are preparing the rest of the soup. [If you are using leftover breast meat, skip this step, but go ahead and take your rotisserie chicken out of the fridge... no one wants cold chicken in their soup!]
Fry the bacon in a heavy stockpot over medium high heat until super-crisp. Remove and drain on paper towls. Drain all of the bacon grease, except for what you have to actually WIPE out of the pot. Leave the cracklin's too!
Add the onions and celery, cook over medium heat for 4 minutes and add your shallots. Cook for another few minutes, add garlic, salt, bay leaves and cayenne. Saute for a few minutes more.
Add chicken stock, bouillon and beans and cook, uncovered for 15 minutes to allow flavors to mix and cook vegetables through.
Remove cooked chicken from frypan and allow to cool. Dice breast meat and add to soup, along with bacon. Stir in to distribute yummy meaty bits throughout the soup.
Ladle soup into bowls and top with a healthy sprinkling of freshly-grated Pecorino Romano.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Popcorn Picnic

Okay, so I am a little annoyed: Pretty much every children's movie coming out these days is in 3D, which makes it tres spendy to take the family to the movies. Today, we went to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs at 1 pm. For two children and two adult tickets, the MATINEE cost was $39, because the 3D adds $$ to each ticket. Even with our 50-cent bucket of popcorn and a few drinks (which totalled $15), it still made for a pretty expensive afternoon. (Good thing I packed M&M's from home!) Not that we can't afford it, but I think that the movie experience should be available to everyone and I can't imagine that the average family of four will be able to afford this ever-increasing cost.
We try to buy some snacks to support our local theaters, but I think it is time for us to revert back to our former contraband-carrying ways. Yep, you guessed it: The money-saving, BYOB way to make movies fit into a tight budget.

Popcorn Picnic for the Movies
What you will need:
A BIG bag (a great way to re-use that old diaper bag or your backpack from college)
Some cold drinks, like pouch juices, sodas in bottles, water bottles, etc. (We often use refillable sippy cups or water bottles with lemonade in them for the kids, water for me and a can or two of Coca Cola for Tim)
A reusable cold pack from your freezer
1-3 bags of microwave popcorn, divided into paper lunch sacs (number of bags = number or people in your party; amount per bag = amount you can eat in 2 hours)
Your favorite treats. Can include M&Ms, chocolate-covered raisins, snack size Snickers or 3Musketeers, cookies, those damn apples from Rocky Mountain Chocolate, whatever you choose will certainly be cheaper than anything you can buy at the concession stand. Heck, for that matter, lobster tails and filet mignon would be cheaper than ANYTHING at the concession stand.
An interesting treat, like Gummy Octopi, to make the kids feel special and like their parents aren't so cheap.
1. Chill all drinks for a few hours before movie.
2. Pop popcorn according to package instructions. Allow to cool completely in a big, wide bowl. Divide into bags. Fold over top of bag to keep mutant kernels from escaping. Set aside.
3. Place cold pack in the bottom of giant purse or bag.
4. Layer remaining ingredients in this order:
Candy and treats
Bags of popcorn
4. Add some napkins on top.
5. Cover with a scarf to avoid the prying eyes of theater workers.
Et, voila: You have a perfect Popcorn Picnic!
Head to movie theater and, while in line, mention loudly that you wish you hadn't eaten so much for lunch or dinner "just before we came to the theater". Once in the theater, wait for lights to dim, then distribute drinks and bags of popcorn and treats to each member in your party. Chow down!
Other tips for saving $$ at the theater:
If you MUST have theater-popped popcorn, take a few small bowls with you. This makes it easier to share the popcorn among family members and there's less of a chance everyone will catch the stomach bug you have but won't realize it until AFTER everyone's been sharing out of the same giant bucket.
Bring some kids' cups with lids; we save them from trips to restaurants like Mimi's and Macaroni Grill where they give 'em pretty nice heavy plastic ones with lids. This will make it easy to divide a small or medium drink between kids (or adults) instead of having to buy separate drinks for everyone.
NEVER EVER buy candy at the theater. In fact, I don't know anyone who actually purchases candy at the theater. Why would you want to pay $5.50 for a snack-size bag of M&Ms??? I think most of the candy's been there since the early 80's anyway.
To warm your kids to the idea of not purchasing anything at the concession stand (which, to them, looks like Wonka's own paradise), let them choose their candy from home to bring. They can even carry it in their own pockets. Do remind them NOT to mention that they have their own candy in front of theater staff!
And don't forget: ENJOY THE SHOW!!!!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cold Rainy Morning Muffins

It's cold and yucky outside and I am in bed with my iBook and a hot cup of tea, nursing my cranky tummy and head. Don't know what the weekend holds, but I am thinking light comfort food, and I think that these muffins might be just the thing for Tim and the girls to make in the morning while I sleep in!
Love this recipe because they're so easy and you should always have the ingredients on hand. (I often run out of milk, but I am never without buttermilk.) And besides, EVERYONE who tries them loves them, 'nuff said.
I recommend buttermilk and you don't have to use whole wheat flour, but I assure you: These two substitutions are well worth any extra effort.
And don't forget the Golden Rule [of Baking]: ONLY UNSALTED BUTTER IN BAKING.

Mini Cake Doughnut Muffins
1 egg
1/2 cup milk (OR buttermilk)
1/3 cup butter, melted (can use margarine, but why, oh, why would you do such a thing?)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I use 3/4 cup white and 3/4 cup whole wheat)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 T butter, melted
Cinnamon Sugar (1/3 granulated sugar + 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon)

Preheat oven to 350F. In large bowl, beat egg, buttermilk, 1/3 cup melted butter, sugar and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg; mix until just blended. Spoon into greased mini muffin cups. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden. While warm, brush tops with melted butter and roll in cinnamon sugar. Devour. (But they're good cold too.)
Makes 24 mini muffins.

Pictures will come if/when I get out of bed, though I have a feeling if I ask Maggie, she'll take some pics for me!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Save the Bay

Meet my Bay Tree:

Yes, he's tall, dark and handsome. He's sweet and spicy and his scent drives me wild. He adds depth to every dish he meets. He warms up my winter soups and stews. And, yes, for those of you who are still wondering, I am simply mad about my bay tree. ;)
Bay leaves might well be the most under-appreciated herb in cooking. No one celebrates bay leaves; when mentioned in recipes, it's mostly "Drop in bay leaf", or "Remove bay leaf", never "Celebrate the joy that this bay leaf brought to your stew!", which, in my humble opinion, is at it should be.
Last year, when Joe was born, one of our friends brought us a large container of homemade chicken noodle soup. It was lovely: The clear broth, the huge pieces of chicken breast meat, the chunks of fresh celery and carrots. The noodles were served on the side, so as to not overly thicken the stew before its time. It held so many promises, and was a beauty to behold. I heated it up and took a sip, and my heart sank. Here, our friend had gone to immense trouble to make us a lovely dinner, and no one had told him about the joy a bay leaf could bring to his otherwise perfect soup. NO ONE. The soup was good, but it would have been sent into the upper echelon of divine if only our sweet friend had known about bay leaves, my dearest herb.
As many of you know, there are times when subtlety is not my gift. I immediately went out and purchased a nice, plump bay tree for our friend and handed it over along with the thank you note. I told him, simply, "Your soup was wonderful, but you need to learn the joy that bay leaves will bring to your soups and stews." I wanted to add, "Go forth and plant this is thy yard, and ye shall be rewarded, " but thought that might be overkill. I have not heard back from him, but, I assure you: I will corner him and make sure he is using his bay leaves.
And, I must add that not only do bay leaves breathe a life into your dishes that borders on spiritual, but there are other uses for this deep glossy green leaf. Having now gone through my second round of pantry moths, I can also say that bay leaves will defend your home from assault by these grain-eating goblins. After a good cleaning, scatter a few fresh bay leaves on each shelf and you will deter any pantry moth that has designs on converting your whole wheat flour into a summer cottage. Change the leaves every month and you will also have the added benefit of opening your cupboards to the gentle sweet scent of bay... ahhhhh. I also store bay leaves in with my cookie cutters. The pantry moths discovered that I don't always get all the flour off of the cutters, so they set up shop in my plastic containers where I stored them.
Though I am a fan of bay leaf in everything from light and luscious chicken soups to rich and hearty chilis, the recipe that really turned me on to the bay leaf was a simple beef stew. I will admit that the first time I made it, I still didn't eat beef but was making it for Tim to have some sustenance during his first year of medical school. (I was practicing my Italian Mamma skillz!) I nipped a taste of the broth toward the end of cooking to make sure my seasonings were right and was stricken by the rich flavor the combination of thyme and bay leaf brought to this soup. The balance of the earthy thyme and the spicy-sweet bay made me swoon and I've been smitten ever since.
It's promising to be a cool, rainy Fall weekend. Bring on the bay leaves!

The stew with all but the peas...

Beef Stew
2 T whole wheat flour
1/2 t paprika
1/4 t black pepper
1-1/4 lbs stew beef, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 cups beef stock
1/2 t dried thyme
1 bay leaf
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 carrots, sliced
1-1/2 cups frozen peas
2 T chopped fresh parsley
Combine flour, paprika and pepper in bowl. Add beef cubes and toss until coat meat evenly. Heat oil in Dutch oven or soup pot. Add meat and brown on all sides over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden brown. Add stock, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 1-1/4 hours, or until meat is tender. Remove bay leaf and add potatoes, carrots, peas and parsley. Simmer stew 10 minutes longer. Makes 4 servings.
Serve with crusy bread and a pot of whipped unsalted butter.

And don't forget: Whoever gets the bay leaf gets to kiss the cook!

A steaming bowl of beef stew on this cold rainy night!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

All you need is a handful of red potatoes and two onions

I know we've been busy: A lot of traveling this Summer and then plunging straight into the new school year, but it's no excuse: We've been eating out way too much in the past months. And, worse, I have a fridge FULL of food. So, yesterday, as I was reflecting on waste and whatnot, I went through my fridge and freezer and realized that, with a few additions, I had a week's worth of meals just waiting to emerge from my appliances and pantry. All I had to do was run to the market and pick up a handful of red potatoes and two onions.
With that, I give you THIS WEEK'S MENU:
Monday: Pork and Chicken Stirfry with Assorted Vegetables and Brown Rice
Tuesday: Quesadilla Club and Cheese Quesadillas with Mexican Rice, Refried Beans and Mango Salsa
Wednesday: *My All-time Favorite* Shepherd's Pie, Salad, Brownies
Thursday: Ziti and/or Spinach Ravioli (we are a split household on the subject of pasta), Meatballs, Marinara and Salad.
Friday: Homemade Pizzas with Italian Turkey Sausage and/or Pepperoni and Salad
Saturday: Spanakopita and Grilled Lemon Chicken Skewers
Sunday: Grilled Steaks, Wild Rice Medley, and Sauteed Onions, Zucchini and Yellow Squash
And, yes, friends, ALL of this from what already lives in my fridge and freezer RIGHT NOW, with the addition of less than $8 in groceries. I am embarrassed that I have this much just sitting around, waiting to rot or living in purgatory in my freezer. It reminds me that, as a culture, we do not know what it means to go without food, while even among us, there are so many who do. I will admit, it also makes me suspicious that a squirrel is in my lineage, as if I need to store stuff for Winter to be nutty(er).
Which brings me to this week's recipe: Shepherd's Pie. This is, without a doubt, the best catch-all, clean-out-the-fridge dish. It is warm and satisfying; humble is the word that comes to mind. It freezes well and has been taken to almost every home with a new baby, illness or lost loved one in the past ten years, and a dish I will proudly serve when we have guests on Wednesday evening. Something about this dish says "Welcome"; it's breaking bread without the bread.
All that, and it's the best use of flaccid carrots, wrinkled bell peppers, too-long-frozen peas and corn and leftover mashed potatoes you will ever find.

All of the turkey and vegetables sauteed. *sigh* Beautiful.

Shepherd's Pie

4 – 5 fist-sized red potatoes, peeled and cut into 2- inch chunks

¾ cup milk, or more to desired consistency

½ tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

salt and pepper, to taste

1 medium onion, diced (about 2 cups)

1 pound package ground turkey*

1 tablespoon dried basil

½ tablespoon dried oregano

½ tablespoon dried thyme

1 cup chopped carrots, about 3- 4 medium carrots

1 cup chopped green bell pepper, about one medium pepper

1 cup frozen corn

1 cup frozen green peas

2½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or to taste)

¼ cup wheat germ

1½ cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided


2 -3 steamed baby carrots, for garnish (optional)

sprigs of parsley, for garnish (optional)

Directions: Preheat oven to 350oF. Spray a 2-quart deep casserole lightly with cooking spray and set aside.

Make your Mashed Potatoes: Peel and quarter potatoes, place in saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook potatoes until tender, about 12 minutes or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and place in bowl of stand mixer or other mixing bowl for mashing. Cut butter into cubes and drop into potatoes. Start mixer on medium speed and add parmesan cheese. Drizzle in milk until potatoes are uniformly mashed, stiff and fluffy. Reduce speed and add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Make your hash while the potatoes are cooking: Dice onion and add to pan over medium-high heat. Cover and cook for 2 -3 minutes or until onion is sweating. Add ground turkey*, cover and cook until thoroughly browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a spatula to break up turkey. When onions and turkey are browned, reduce heat to medium and stir in basil, oregano and thyme. Stir in carrots, cover and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in chopped green peppers, cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until carrots and green peppers are tender-crisp. Add peas and corn, cover and cook about 3 minutes until warmed through. Remove pan from heat and stir in cider vinegar and wheat germ. Stir in 1 cup of finely-shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust vinegar to taste. Pour turkey mixture into casserole dish and spread evenly. Spread mashed potatoes to completely cover turkey mixture. Sprinkle remaining ½ cup of finely-shredded sharp cheddar cheese over top of potatoes. Sprinkle paprika lightly over top of cheese. Bake uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes, or until turkey mixture is bubbling and potatoes are lightly browned and cheese is melted. Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes before devouring madly. If serving a crowd, garnish with steamed whole baby carrots and a little parsley, arranged to look like a little bunch of carrots. However, the lightly-browned potatoes, melted cheese and paprika on top of a lovely casserole dish also makes for a simple yet elegant presentation and no further garnish is necessary.

*Since this dish started out vegetarian, I thought I should add that peeling and cubing (1/2" to 3/4") a good-sized eggplant and substituting it for the turkey will work just fine. In fact, the eggplant takes up all of the flavors so beautifully, I sometimes wonder why I started using turkey at all!

Servings: Makes 8 hearty servings.

Finished, but not baked. Isn't it lovely???

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The last of Summer and the first of Fall

It's the first cool rainy day of the Fall season and I've not been motivated to do much today. I did, however, find a bit of inspiration in looking out my window: The last of my fresh basil, and I know just the recipe to use some of it up. A nice, hot bowl of Pasta e Fagioli with some crusty bread is just perfect for days like today.

Paste e Fagioli

1 cup ditalini pasta

2 T. olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 celery stalk, minced

1 carrot, minced

1/2 lb smoked ham, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (28-oz) can crushed tomatoes, including liquid

2 (15-oz) cans cannelini beans, drained and rinsed

4 cups beef stock

1 tsp dried thyme

1 bay leaf

dash ground black pepper

rind from a piece of Parmesan cheese

Fresh basil (optional)

Parmesan cheese (optional)

In a large stockpot, heat the oil. Add the onion, celery, and carrot and saute for 5 minutes. Add ham and garlic and cook, stirring, for one minute. Add tomatoes, beans, beef stock, thyme, bay leafand parmesan rind. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Add ditalini pasta and simmer until pasta is tender, about 9 minutes. Serve with a garnish of fresh basil* and parmesan cheese.

*Recommended technique: Chiffonade the basil leaves just before garnishing the soup. Lay several basil leaves one on top of the other. Roll into a cylinder. With a sharp knife, make thin slices of basil. Unroll slices and use them for garnish. If making this soup for a crowd, or if basil is out of season, sprinkle the top of the soup with a bit of dried basil just before serving.

Monday, September 14, 2009

It's Week Two of Blogging and I am still not sure...

Still not sure what this blog is going to be about, but Joe turning one tomorrow got me thinking it might just be time to lose some more of this baby weight. And, because I have no shame:
Katy's Food Log today
Breakfast: Slice of toast. Slice of birthday cake. Cup of coffee with 2T Milk. Make that 1/2 cup milk, that coffee was THICK.
Lunch: Bowl of steamed broccoli. M&M's. Popcorn. Small slice of birthday cake. Okay, maybe not that small. Diet Coke.
Snack: Another handful of M&M's and another sliver of birthday cake, and it really was a sliver this time.
Dinner: Who knows. But I can guarantee it's going to have cheese melted in it or on it, because it's Monday and that's how I roll.
Will revisit this "lose the baby weight" notion tomorrow perhaps.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Yes, in fact, we DO need a public option in any healthcare reform bill. Contact your representatives and tell 'em about it.

Unless you fall into one of the following categories, please contact our senators and congressfolks and let them know you support a public option in healthcare reform:
1. Your crystal ball says that you're going to just drop dead and you really won't need any end-of-life care or all of that silly stuff you might need when you get old and have health problems.
2. You've been oh-so-careful and scrimped and saved and there is NO WAY anything could happen to you that might make you unable to afford good health insurance. Not ever.
3. You plan to leave for Planet Claire on Monday, so you won't be using your current coverage anyway.
4. You are certain you will never get cancer, Alzheimer's or any other illness that might create a need for prolonged care. Because, you know, you're YOU.

So, if you don't fall into one of those categories, please contact your representatives and tell them that you would like to see a public option included in reforming our oh-so-fucked-up healthcare system.

To make it easy, if you live in NC:
An online form to send comments to Senator DICK Burr. *ahem* I mean, Richard Burr:
An online form to send comments to Senator Kay Hagan:
If you're not sure who your congressfolks are:
And if you live in Durham:
Email contact form for our most awesome Rep. David Price:
(Sorry for those who live in the NC 5th District. Since Virginia Foxx probably can't read, she probably doesn't have email either!)

And what might you say? Keep it simple:
We need a public option in any healthcare reform bill. The private sector has had decades to show they can do this right and they haven't, all the while raking in obscene profits while people are denied care and are dying. If they can't compete, too bad. We need a public option, one that gives American citizens access to affordable healthcare.
Write your own letter about the MANY MANY reasons we need a public option.

Thanks so much. Do contact your representatives as soon as possible if you don't want to see the public option eliminated from the health care reform bill. Or, worse, if you want to see a "new and improved" healthcare reform bill written by big insurance companies, errr, I mean, Republicans.