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!

Breakfast is Complex

My husband loves breakfast. I mean really loves breakfast. He has a crazy obsession with eggs in most any form. However, I’m really not that into breakfast. Most days I don’t eat it. If I am hungry in the morning, I’ve been known to order the lunch dish if available at local restaurants.

When I was a kid, I remember breakfast for dinner being a big thing in our house. We loved having pancakes for dinner. I don’t even like pancakes at breakfast now. I like eggs, and I occasionally like toast or hashbrowns. However, that is about the extent of my breakfast likes. I mean, I can eat a good frittata or omelet on occasion, but it’s definitely not something I crave or go out of my way for.

I think part of my ho-hum feeling for breakfast is that I find it to be too complex with our multi-diet household. For example, if we make eggs in the morning, my husband turns into a short order cook. He makes fried eggs for he and I and something that resembles the flavorless egg in your fried rice for the little one. If we’re doing scrambled eggs, they either have to be boring and plain or again, we are eating them with ham and cheese and the kid is eating the “flat eggs” referenced in the last sentence.

If we decide to make waffles, pancakes, french toast…all kid favorites, I just suffer through as I’m not particularly a fan and later will supplement with some cheese or meat as a snack. I am also always majorly conflicted on the healthiness of eating a meal that consists of nothing but carbs and sugar. We do things like adding chia seeds or flax and yes, some of the recipes contain egg. But I’m always concerned about carb overload and balancing the diet, especially with kids that would joyfully live on carbs and sugar alone if we didn’t push other things on them. Luckily, they do eat vegetables, but it’s really hard to incorporate broccoli into pancakes!

Going out for breakfast usually makes meeting everyone preferences easier, though if all the kids are with us, we do have to be cautious that the place offers vegan options. It is very challenging to find a place that offers both vegan and carnivorous dishes. There are some places that offer vegan, vegetarian and such that aren’t just solely dedicated to those diets these days, so it’s getting easier. However, the above concerns about the kids diet still exist in that case. I’m just getting more of the food I want to eat, while they’re eating their sugar covered bread.

And don’t even get me started on muffins and donuts as breakfast. Taking the icing off a chocolate cake does not make it a meal. It’s still a cake. And donuts are also covered in icing! These are desserts or snacks, not breakfast. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have them as treats, but these are definitely not what I consider a meal, unless of course, you’re doing something like my Morning Glory Muffins and kind of tricking the eaters!

I do love brunch because it incorporates both breakfast and lunch dishes. I’m sure you can guess which I migrate toward. But if you love breakfast, as my husband does, please enjoy it. Just don’t cringe when I’m eating a steak taco instead of a breakfast burrito! Maybe I can experiment more with making dishes more like my gallette or french toast casserole, which I think both manage to incorporate more brunch like flavors and still have a lot of protein!

Ten Things I’ve learned about food and cooking

This could be a multi-edition posting, as I’ve learned so much over the years. However, these are just a few valuable things I have learned about creating amazing flavors.

  1. When sauteing mushrooms, you need to sweat them first. You need them to release all their natural juices, and then you can sear that off for an amazing sauteed flavor. Put your mushrooms in a pan with your oil or butter (butter is always better, but it’s okay if you want to be healthier) and cover with a lid. Wait until you have a pool of juices bubbling, then remove the lid and cook away the liquid.
  2. Fresh ground spices are better. This isn’t always easy to do, and for some spices it makes more of a difference than others. Grind your own cumin. It adds a couple of minutes to the process, but the amazing smell and flavor will take you to new places. Pepper is another one. Pepper starts losing flavor immediately after grinding. It is well worth it to invest in a pepper grinder. Talk at length to your spice dealers. There is a reason they carry some spices whole.
  3. Chicken fat is gold. I know, I know, we are all supposed to be low-fat and all. But chicken fat is delicious. You can use this to flavor anything. Don’t drain it off when making broth. I freeze the chicken broth and leave the fat in with the broth. This adds rich, amazing flavor to soups and stews. You can also cook anything in chicken fat. I’m telling you that it is almost as good as bacon.
  4. You can roast any vegetable. We frequently roast broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Cut them up and toss them with olive oil and kosher salt. I usually add rosemary, garlic, onions or shallots, depending on my mood and what is lying around. Put in an oven preheated to 450 degrees and let it roast. For most of them, I roast until there starts to be a little blackening, so just past where I’d have thought them done. It’s a delicious side dish to anything!
  5. Potatoes are not just potatoes. It really does matter what kind of potatoes you use, depending on what you want to make. For a nice scallop dish, you really want Yukon gold. Also, I’m pretty sure russets are not good for anything other than a baked potato because you can cover it with everything in the fridge. Yukon golds make way better mashed potatoes. Red potatoes are great for roasting and homefries. And any of the tiny potato varieties are great for roasting!
  6. An instant read thermometer is invaluable. I really knew very little about cooking when I first left my parents’ house. There were some pretty awful disasters as I began to self-teach. My biggest frustration was chicken. I swear it would look beautifully golden brown, but we’d sit down to eat and cut into raw chicken. My instant read thermometers are also invaluable for smoking and grilling all sorts of foods. Also, when a recipe calls for a certain temp on the milk or water, it really does help if you get it right.
  7. Patience. Those that know me will tell you that this is not my strong suit. My first cooking adventure that began to teach me patience in the kitchen was alfredo sauce. You cannot rush it. Hollandaise also had some lessons to share on that subject. I’ve had to develop lots of coping techniques to force myself to allow my flavors to develop and certain foods to come out as they should. Smoking meat has by far been my Yoda of teachers on this subject.
  8. Some people think it is possible to have too much garlic or onion. I am not one of those people. Well, not if your using raw garlic or onions. Dried, granulated, jar stuff you find in the spice aisle can definitely be overdone.
  9. Mise en place is for real. I’m a terrible person about following directions in life, and my mother will surely tell you I tend to dive in headfirst and then worry about whether there are hazards in the water. But all those chefs on Food Network are not making it up. Making sure you have everything before you start will save you so many headaches. There is nothing like being halfway into a dish and discovering you forgot a key ingredient. Going all out, including measuring out spices and such, is also super helpful if you are cooking with a tiny human.
  10. Balance is key. I like hot. I don’t mean I’m a crazy fanatic eating all the ghost peppers and such. Frankly, my stomach couldn’t handle it. But I like spice. However, you want flavor, not just heat. At some point in adulthood, I just stopped liking sweets most of the time. However, if you balance heat, sweet, acidic, etc., you get amazing flavors.

These are just a few things I’ve learned. Most of these more recently (like last decade). I could write a novel on some of the more basic concepts I had to figure out early on in learning to cook. But there are all kinds of cooking for beginners books out there that probably cover those. I probably should have picked up a few!

Beer and BBQ Fest – the Event

It’s here. It’s the big day. I’ve slept maybe 3 hours. I hear “Jen, it’s 3:30, I’m gonna shower”…and I am immediately up and in the bathroom. I get ready and head upstairs in minutes. We get back to the site where our team member has already left and our brewer is manning the station.

We end up pulling the meat at around 6:30 am, so it’s been going about 16 hours total. It is beautiful. We, of course, sample a few bites, and it is amazing. The pork is fall off the bone tender and the flavor is outstanding. You can taste the smoke. You can definitely taste the seasonings. And you can taste the bourbon-aged whiskey stout. It’s incredible.

John wraps the meat and we put it to rest in the warmer. We now have nothing to do. It’s too early to prep much else and the meat is just sitting. We need water and a few other ingredients, so we go back to John’s. Oh, some beautiful person gave us iced coffee somewhere in that whole time. We go back and pick up the smoked poblanos and some other equipment and decorations and such.

We get back to the site and start prepping. I minced an enormous amount of cold smoked poblanos. I have a battle scar from this as our knife was not as sharp as would be ideal, and smoked poblanos are kind of harder to dice.

Owen, my wonderful husband and Eleanor, our 9-year-old, show up about 10:30 a.m. and start immediately helping. Eleanor is very excited to be a helper, but there’s not much for her to do until it’s time to start cooking the smoked poblano arepas at 11. Owen jumps in to help John pull the pork.

At 11 am, we start making the arepas. At first, it’s a bit of a challenge. We hadn’t thought about the fact that John was the only one that had actually made them up to this point, and he has other duties as the head of the team, like schmoozing the crowd to get the people’s votes! But after some trial and error, we get it down. Two more teammates, Cooper and Kelly, appear on the scene to help as well. We are ready to serve at 11:45 am as instructed. Kelly and I are mainly on arepa duty. After we get into a rhythm, she’s mixing up the batter and making arepa patties. I’m standing over a cast iron griddle pan on a camp stove cooking them. Jill is backup for making patties and moving them around.

We form a beautiful assembly line that would make my dad proud as a long-time restaurant man. We make arepas, pass them down, Cooper tops with pork and Owen tops that with the cold smoked pineapple salsa. Eleanor then serves them to the public.

I have not seen such energy from her ever! She is an arepa wielding dynamo. I keep hearing “Arepa!” as she’s handing them out as fast as we can dish them up. The first hour or so takes a bit of tweaking to get a rhythm, but then we pump them out so fast that at one point, Eleanor is handing them to people 3 deep in our line. We do this for four hours and she wears out at about 3 1/2, which is better than a lot of adults I have seen in the food industry!

At the end of the day, we’ve served around 600+ arepas based on the amount of mix used. We are all dead tired, but it also feels good, and we know our product is good.

We don’t win as far as the actual prizes/awards are concerned. But I have more fun than I can remember in a very long time. I have about 100 ideas on things to do next year if I’m invited back, including bringing a first aide kit! I even google to find out if there are more things like this I can try to do around town.

The decision to become vegetarian or vegan

Kids are stubborn. Duh, right? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has tried to argue reason with an 8 year old and wound up wanting to just bang my head on the table. The amazing little humans can in one argument sound totally reasonable and come up with completely rational arguments and then in the very next discussion argue that fairies really exist even though they can provide no reasonable evidence with ardent passion.

So my reason for dwelling on this stubbornness was inspired by a little girl who looked to be about 5 years old. I was getting out of my car next to one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Rockwell’s, and a family was sitting on the patio. The little girl was saying “Would you like it if someone killed you? So, why do we kill animals just to eat them?” By the response, her parents were obviously not vegetarians. But the simple logic just struck me.

Now, I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t judge if you choose to eat meat or not eat meat or if your diet consists of candy bars, for that matter. However, it made me think about my girls and the various dietary habits we have cycled through over the years. My Katie, who now is a complete omnivore for the moment, decided to be vegetarian when she was about 8. As a non-vegetarian family, we accommodated this by experimenting with vegetarian dishes or by providing alternative proteins such as beans or tofu if we were having a meaty main dish. This lasted about a year.

Then a few years ago, Katie and Melanie both decided to go vegan. Katie’s stint here was short lived. She then decided to be pescatarian. That lasted until recently. About a year ago, she slowly started adding meats back into her diet. Melanie has remained dedicated to being vegan, despite the occasional reminiscence about meat dishes she once loved.

But the thing is, they came these decisions on their own. No one told them what their food choices would be. I provided the food I like in life until they asked for something different, and then I have tried to accommodate wherever I can so that we can enjoy meals together.

Now, our youngest is 9 and a vegetarian. However, she was born to two practicing vegetarians. Her mother is still vegetarian. However, her father went back to eating meat a couple years after she was born and I am a total meat eater. She’s very insistent that she’s a vegetarian. Now, as with our other girls, I totally respect her right to choose. I would just argue that she has not yet made that choice. Her current vegetarian diet is more a result of that childish stubbornness we all know and love and less a choice. Someday, I am confident that she will make a conscious choice about this issue, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out. But for now, I do enjoy challenging her rationalizations on the issue. (Don’t worry, I don’t challenge them by not offering her as much good, healthy, vegetarian food as I can!)

With each of the girls and each of their experiments toward discovering their dietary decisions, I like to ask questions and challenge the rationale. For example, if you aren’t willing to eat an animal but you take no issue with animal made products, this is a questionable position. Also, I never understood the rationale of eating fish but not other animals. Or if the issue is that you have a problem with animal cruelty, are there alternative decisions such as being conscious of where the meat is from and just avoiding those parts of the industry that practice methods you consider cruel. Or one of my favorites with the little one, if you say you don’t want to kill animals but you are willing to flood the world with ocean-life killing glitter.

Now, depending on at what age you are having these conversations, obviously the rational quality of the conversation may vary. However, it can be fun and stimulating as long as handled in a “explain your side to me” open way and not an “I’m right, you’re wrong” manner. Does it help them decide? I don’t know. I think they eventually develop a set of ideas and beliefs based on the totality of their experiences in life. I think I’m part of that totality, but only a small part. But either way, it’s been a fun and interesting journey so far.

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!