Rice!

I have recently been on a serious rice kick. We have a 9 year old that loves all things carbs. Getting her to eat food other than carbs and sugar (granted some of those sugars are from fruits) is a challenge. We found ourselves eating a lot of pasta, which constantly made me feel guilty about her nutrition.

Now, rice is not healthier than pasta. Most of my research has said that they are the same nutritionally. (Side note: I can’t eat brown rice.) However, I have found that I can find a lot of creative ways to incorporate protein and vegetables into the rice dishes, and she still eats every bite. So I’m sneaking in some nutrition!

Stir-fried rice is one of my favorites. I can add eggs and basically any vegetable, and she’ll eat it! I’ve also come up with several versions of rice pilaf which include things like peas, carrots, mushrooms, etc.

Rice has also allowed me to expand her spice tolerance. Now, this is not really about nutrition, but I’m desperate to have more flavor in our foods. If I put it in rice, she’ll try it. We’ve been able to add things like turmeric, garlic, and even a little red pepper flakes, and she still eats it up!

As a side note, it has also made life very easy as all of my creations have been done using my instant pot! I put things together, set it, wait 20 minutes and we have dinner!

My next goal is to finally tackle a vegetarian paella! I’ve seen some recipes online, but none that just screamed flavor. I am going to experiment with some of the new meat substitutes to try to really mimic that wonderful flavor profile without using meats!

Food Planning

Two major changed occurred recently in our house. First, we decided to start menu planning at the beginning of each week to avoid the “what’s for dinner” conversation every day and the impulse to just order in or go out. Second, my 18 year old moved back home. These two developments have resulted in me producing too many leftovers. I hear you laughing, because I have so touted leftovers as such a great thing. But I have learned that, in fact, you can produce too many leftovers, and this leads to food waste, a thing I hate so very much!

First, because I’m planning meals every night, we inevitably cook more food than can be used up in lunches and such. This is especially enhanced by the fact that, with our 18-year-old, we never know if she will actually be home for dinner. You all remember that age. Your social life is very dynamic! So I plan dinner thinking there will be four, and there are only three of us. Or I buy things expecting she’ll be home, and she doesn’t come home for half the week, so things like avocados and bread that aren’t shelf stable don’t last!

I’m working on ways to tackle these issues. My husband and I are working on adjusting to more leftover nights on nights when the kids are both out. I’m trying to find more foods that freeze well. I’m going to try making muffins using the avocados I have this week, we’ll see how that goes. But I think muffins freeze well, so this may be a good answer.

I’ve gotten really good at dehydrating fruits and veggies, thought that is starting to pile up in my kitchen. I’ve recently started bags in my freezer of vegetables with the intent to make my own vegetable broth as it’s recently become more difficult to find in local grocery stores. I’m not sure what that is about, but we use vegetable broth in a lot of rice dishes, so this seems like an economical answer to the problem.

I’m also fighting the southern influence from my grandmother that makes me think I have to make sure there is enough on the table that no one could possibly leave feeling like they didn’t get enough of any one thing. So I’ll make the portion for four instead of assuming everyone is going to want seconds. We have fruits, veggies, and lots of snacks around if someone finds themselves hungry after dinner. So far, we have not had to resort to any of those. The portion sizes might actually make sense!

Portioning is an ongoing learning experience for me, but I am determined to avoid food waste, so I’ll continue working on this issue. My biggest challenge is that, as you know if you’ve read previous blogs, I love having leftovers! But if you make a full dinner every night for twice as many people as you have, it just goes to waste! There are foods that freeze and reheat well, like chili, and then there’s stir fry. Stir fry just does not. And some pastas reheat well, but some just do not!

I continue to learn constantly about food, cooking and family, and I have to admit, I enjoy the journey!

Don’t give up

We all get discourage. It happens. I have a 9 year old and know how picky kids can be about food. Ours is compounded by the fact that she’s been raised vegetarian, so the options are further limited. We had been making a lot of progress in trying new things. Then we hit a rut. For the last few months, she’s been back to a very limited palate. This is difficult for me because I go to great lengths to try to create healthy, delicious vegetarian meals for her that are not just carbs and cheese, which are her go-to dishes.

I’d spend time finding, creating and making interesting recipes, all with foods she likes, just in new formations. She’d eat maybe two bites and say she wasn’t that hungry. Or it’s “too spicy” or “not my favorite.” I had a weekday where there was no time and ended up making Trader Joe’s frozen gnocchi. Of course, she had three helpings. I was crushed. It got to the point that I was ready to give up. I mean, why put in all the effort to then just throw out the food, or at best, I end up eating the leftovers because no one else does?

In what was almost a moment of defiance, I decide to make a dish that is basically a vegetarian version of orange chicken using chickpeas in place of chicken. I served it with steamed basmati rise and roasted cauliflower. She ate. She said it was good (which she sometimes does, only to eat none of it), and she actually ate a pretty good amount of it. It wasn’t the “mac n cheese” eat three helpings, but it was a good amount. The dish was actually pretty good. And what she didn’t know is that it had ginger and crushed red pepper, which we thought were reasons for her aversion to dishes in the past. So those spices are back on the table!

I needed this victory to remind me to keep trying. Yes, the kid will always prefer bread and pasta, but there’s a chance I can still help her expand her culinary adventures and try new things! She reminded me that kids challenge us in so many ways. And her challenging me to find interesting meals that we can all enjoy has helped me grow tremendously in my cooking over the past few years!

Instant Pot

An acquaintance told me about her Instapot recently. It definitely sounded like something I would love to try out. Luck would have it that the husband and I stumbled onto a Macy’s going out of business sale and there was an Instant Pot (not the “Instapot”, another brand). This has to be one of the most amazing inventions ever.

First, you can do all the things. Think one pot meal and this is your best friend. You can saute, slow cook, steam, warm, pressure cook…I mean the thing specifically has a risotto setting! Also, unlike most other kitchen gadgets you find, this one can eliminate other items in your kitchen! I’m going to keep my crockpot, but I COULD get rid of it.

The first thing I made with the Instant Pot was my risotto. I was skeptical, but it came out awesome. The best part was that the risotto normally takes over and hour and I’m stuck standing over a hot boiling dutch oven for most of the time. While the work out to my arms is awesome, it’s also exhausting. In the Instant Pot, I sauteed the shallots, wine, garlic and rice, and then just added my saffron, salt, pepper and vegetable stock. I set the pot in the steam function for 20 minutes. The risotto was awesome!

As weird as it sound, I love the Instant Pot for making pasta. It’s really the equivalent of one pan as far as dishes are concerned, so while it sounds like too much for such a simple dish, it’s worth it. The pasta comes out perfectly done. I’ve done a recipe where you make the sauce first and add the pasta and steam. I’ve also done pesto by cooking the pasta in the pot and adding the pesto after it’s done to the hot pot. In both cases, the pasta was delicious.

My next adventure is going to be chicken. I have some chicken thigh thawed and I’ve found several good looking recipes online. I don’t think I’m going to use one of the recipes, but I will use some ideas I got from them. I’m thinking of a garlic, onion and white wine chicken preparation. I’ll try to remember to update you on how it came out!

Pesto Experiments

It turns out that while, yes, the classic pesto sauce we all think of is basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan, you can make many varieties of pesto. I mean, we all know this because we’ve seen them on various menus or in jars at the grocery store, but I hadn’t really thought of experimenting with them.

However, the other night, we were out at Pasta Passion, a new place in the neighborhood, and a member of our party had the Genovese pesto, which was made with walnuts…I think. So I made a basic basil pesto, but instead of pine nuts, I used ground almonds. It came out delicious. There’s definitely a flavor difference because pine nuts have their own particular taste, but it was good. I am super curious to try it with walnuts!

You can also make pesto from a ton of other things. I learned from one of my beloved cookbooks, East Like a Gilmore, that all you need is 1) an herb or vegetable, 2) a nut or seed, 3) cheese, and 4) oil. Most people stick with olive oil, though I have seen some recipes with avocado or grape seed oils. Just use an oil you would eat as a salad dressing.

For herbs, you can stick with basil or use cilantro or mint. Anything that has that same texture profile works. Or, you can use a vegetable like sun dried tomatoes or roasted red or yellow peppers. If you want an Italian flavor, Parmesan is good, but so is Asiago or Romano. But you can go a little Mexican or Greek using cotija or feta. You just want a cheese that is a little harder like the texture of Parmesan. And you can add to these four basic ingredients, if you want for a little sweetness, a little honey. If you want a little spice, jalapenos or red pepper flakes.

Anyway, there are no rules for pesto. Feel free to experiment with flavors you love. Your family is nothing if not your own little focus group. I have to avoid the spicy, but I think I could do almost any other crazy combination of the above basic four categories and throw it on pasta, and my kids would all eat it. But we’ll see…in any case, trust me that it is worth it to make your own pesto. Nothing in the store will ever compare, and it’s super easy. Check out my basic Pesto Sauce recipe.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Yes, the blog title sounds like a recipe. And the recipe can be found on my recipe page. However, penne with vodka sauce is more of a bonding experience with my daughter Katie.

The first time I tried to make this dish was a total disaster. No one, not either of my daughters or their father would eat it. This wasn’t one of those things where people politely pretend to eat it or peck at it. It was terrible. The sauce was so bad that I heard about it for more than a decade after that awful dinner episode. It took years before Katie would even try vodka sauce in a restaurant. She discovered, as we all suspected or knew, that it was her mother and not the dish itself that was to blame for that traumatic dinner experience.

A year or so ago, I decided to try this dish again. This time, I used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe. It was fantastic. Since then, my Katie has periodically requested this dish and, between the story and her love of the dish itself, this has become more of a bonding experience than just a simple dinner.

I recently acquired an instant pot, and there will be an entire separate post on that soon, but I tried making the penne with vodka sauce in it. It was a raving success. And it combined my love of experimenting with cooking with being totally lazy. Throw all the stuff in a pot and see what happens. Add a couple of ingredients and serve.

The best part about making the dish in the instant pot is that I got to just hang out with my daughter, who is going off to college soon, for a half hour and just chat. And when it was ready, we had a classic Italian dinner on the patio with great conversation!

When is this food appropriate?

Some people believe there are certain seasons when you should eat certain foods. For example, soups and casseroles are typically thought of as foods good when it’s cold outside. There are also people who think certain foods are for certain times of the day. The best example of this is that until recently, you could only get a Sausage McMuffin at during a certain time frame because that is a “breakfast food”.

While I will admit that I enjoy some foods more in certain seasons, I am definitely a rebel when it comes to whether my food choice is time appropriate. Yes, I eat more salads and cold sandwiches typically when it’s hot. And yes, I have ordered soup before a meal just to warm up on one of those horrifically cold Chicago days in January. But I will also eat chili for pretty much any meal, any day of the week. I don’t care if it’s 110 outside, I will still eat a bowl of chili. Did I mention I really love chili? And while, no, I won’t bake and heat up my house to make my chicken pot pie (recipe to come, working on a new rendition) when it’s 100 degrees outside, I might smoke a pork roast!

Who decided certain foods were “breakfast” foods. It wasn’t the French. In Paris, omelets are definitely available all day. When I was a kid, one of my favorite meal memories is “pancake night.” My father would make pancakes for dinner. We had the whole breakfast works with it, including the all-star BACON! And in Chicago and the surrounding area, putting an egg on a burger is considered as normal as my southern family would consider cheese. So if you can order an egg on your burger, why can’t you get 2 eggs over easy and some hashbrowns at dinner?

I say go with your cravings. If you want a couple fried eggs and toast as dinner or a midnight snack, do it! If you want to grab a giant t-bone and baked potato at 8 a.m., you should, and who cares that you’re going to need a nap by noon! I like food. I like to enjoy my food. And I think everyone should just embrace the simple joys in life. For me, that is food. For others, who knows. But if what brings you that little bit of joy doesn’t hurt anyone else, eat it up!