Thursday, March 29, 2012

Homemade Gravlax

I didn't take a picture of the gravlax my colleague Jayne (she of the biscotti recipe) made earlier this week, mainly because everyone in the office wolfed it down and the last remaining piece went to the victor in a gladiator death match.  Well, not really.  But the gravlax didn't last the morning.  

I asked Jayne to send me the recipe or a short post for the blog, and she gladly obliged.  Thank you, Jayne!--Pamela

I’m a huge salmon fan, and always up for a kitchen challenge, so when I heard this NPR story about several good foods you can easily make at home, I jumped in by making gravlax. When I posted the story to Facebook, a caterer friend chimed in with her own way of making gravlax, so I combined the two recipes. My colleagues finished it off in a couple hours.


1C salt
½ C sugar
cracked pepper to taste
the zests of a lime, orange and lemon
1 lb salmon filet, completely deboned
bunch of cilantro
splash of gin

Combine the salt, sugar, pepper and zests.

Place the salmon filet skin side down on parchment paper, cover with the salt mix and cilantro, and fold up the parchment into a tight bundle.

Place the bundle in a dish (I used a glass pie dish) and weight it with a pound of something. 

Refrigerate for four days. I drained the dish and changed the parchment after two days because the liquid and sugar were creating an appetizing salmon syrup in the dish.

After four days, unpackage and rinse off all the salt mix with cold water. Pat dry, slice thinly, and serve with Wasa crackers, cream cheese and anything else you’d like.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicken Marbella

I first got this recipe when I was laid off from my job several years ago.  My colleagues knew I liked to cook, and put together a cookbook for me with their favorite recipes.  The executive director of the chapter I worked with included Chicken Marbella, dish that made everyone in the office swoon.  He could use this to extract anything from anyone--they'd do anything to taste this dish.  (Lucky for us, he's an ethical guy and so did not use this culinary temptation for evil.)

You can find this recipe in The Silver Palette Cookbook.  It's easy, takes almost no time (except for the marinating) and makes for a delicious, moist chicken that is festive and appears to be far more complicated to make than it actually is.  I have made this dish using boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chicken thighs, and chicken wings (great for parties, actually).

If you're having people over for dinner, the complex flavors of this dish is a sure win.  It also makes a lot of food for people, so it's good for a crowd (though you can reduce the recipe if you aren't cooking for a lot of people or aren't into leftovers).  Because the flavors are so complex, you can afford to have a few simple sides--maybe some bitter greens or a salad and wild rice.  The meat is consistently moist, and the dish is excellent as leftovers.

Here's the recipe--it makes about 10 portions or so:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

World Water Day

Today is World Water Day. The theme of  this year is "The world is thirsty because we are hungry."  That's not the only reason why fresh, safe drinking water is in scant supply for much of the world, but it's certainly one of the causes.

We do have other causes--drought, pollution, and overpopulation, among others.  Even in the U.S., where I live, there are states and regions that are facing water shortages.  And in the Global South, there are a lot of people who have no access to clean, safe drinking water.  The water they drink has either chemical or biological contaminents in it, and that causes all kinds of health issues.

However, this year's theme is on water and food security--70% of the water we use, according to the U.N., is for agriculture, and our population is growing.  We are trying to feed more people with the same finite resources, and more people are living in water-stressed areas. 

I always knew that certain foods required more water than others, but I was gobsmacked to find out how much.  Certain foods have a higher water footprint than others.  Beef uses the most--chicken and lamb and goat use less, and pigs are right up there (though there are so many feral pigs in different regions here in the US, and they wreak so much havoc on the ecosystem, that we could develop a taste for wild pork and solve two problems at once.  Seriously, there is good eating on one of them). 

Now, while I realize that adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is probably going to save the most amount of water, I do like meat and I don't plan on giving it up anytime soon.  I refuse to harrangue people about their personal choices because I'm hardly pure myself.  While I'm not vegetarian, I don't tend to eat a lot of meat.  I treat it more like a side dish or a flavoring when left to my own devices, and when I have it, I use it all up.  If I cook meat that has the bone in (especially a roast), I make stock from the bones.  I use whatever is leftover for sandwiches, burritos, casseroles, skillet meals, stir frys or other meals. 

When I'm cooking just for me, I try not to make too much.  I can't force myself to eat something if I'm no longer hungry, and so I find I save a lot of trouble for myself if I cut down on how much I prepare for lunch or dinner.  Granted, I'm always hungry, but I can get something else if what I've prepared doesn't fill me up.  And yes, a lot of my meals tend to be vegetarian--or at the very least, "less meat" as opposed to "meatless"--but this is more thanks to my laziness in not figuring out what I'll make later and defrosting meat.  No meat ready to cook often means vegetarian meal at the end of the day. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lebanese red lentil soup

I have found it very useful to go to recipe sites--like plug in a few things I have onhand into their search box to see what comes up.  I found this recipe for Lebanese red lentil soup, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it was a bowl of heaven.  HEAVEN, I TELL YOU.

Basically, take a pound of red lentils (not the usual brown ones you see in the store, but the orange-colored smaller ones), bring to a boil in six cups of chicken or vegetable stock, and then allow to simmer for twenty minutes.  Sautee garlic and onion over medium heat in a separate skillet for about three minutes (the onion should be translucent).  Stir this into the lentils, add cumin and cayenne pepper, and simmer for ten more minutes.  Puree with stick blender (or in a regular blender), and stir in 3/4 cup lemon juice and chopped cilantro.  Delicious.

I didn't have cilantro on hand, so I used some dried parsley as a garnish which worked just as well.  If you hate cilantro, I'm sure fresh parsley would be just as good.  Myself, I like cilantro (it does taste like soap to me but I'm kind of fascinated by it) and will use it the next time I make this.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Basic muffin recipe (thank Amy Dacyczyn)

As many of you know, I really like the Tightwad Gazette.  It's a good collection of ideas--some that are useful to me, and some that are wacky, but Amy Dacyczyn is a sport and tried them all.  She and her husband Jim also came up with quick and easy ways to make meals, thanks to the fact they had six kids. 

Muffins were something they found they could make quickly and easily and use leftovers (oatmeal, fruit, etc.).   The book has a standard muffin recipe that you can tweak to accommodate whatever additons you want to use (shredded and frozen zucchini? fruit? jam? oat or whole wheat flour? honey? etc.).

The basic recipe is:

2-2 1/2 cups grain
1 cup of milk
Up to 1/4 cup fat
1 egg
Up to 1/2 cup sweetener
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Up to 1 1/2 cups of additions
Whatever spices are appropriate

I was going to make zucchini muffins but I forgot to take out the frozen shredded zucchini from my freezer.  I ended up using frozen berries because they were not stuck together in a solid block and defrosted fairly quickly. I used canola oil for the fat, regular white flour (sometimes I combine this with oats run through my food processor for oat flour, maple syrup for the sweetener (honey works also works well).  If I used zucchini, I'd cut down on the milk since the frozen and defrosted zucchini is so moist.

These came out well--I was pleasantly surpised since I had to improvise a bit.  My folks, who were over for breakfast, liked them.  I baked them in my heart-shaped cupcake/muffin pan.

What I like about this recipe is that you can often use what's onhand and get a pretty good result.   It's also a good way to use up vegetables.  Have a bunch of carrots that you fear will go off?  Shred them and make carrot muffins (like carrot cake, but you can rationalize eating muffins for breakfast).  An apple in the fridge can be peeled, chopped, and added to muffins.  Out of sugar?  Use honey or maple syrup. 

When I've had friends over for brunch, I'd make muffins.  They take almost no time to bake (about 20 minutes or so in a 400 degree oven), so I could put the pans in when they arrived and they'd have hot muffins a few minutes after I took their coats and they sat down.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A day of thanks

My ancestry is a lot of Irish and a bunch of other things, some that you wouldn't necessarily think just to look at me.  But I did learn about the famine in Ireland and what drove people to emigrate to other places, including the U.S.

I learned something in my forays on the intertubes today--during the Irish Famine that sent so many Irish people abroad (including here), the Ottomans helped out the people, as did the Choctaws in the US. The Choctaws remembered their own days of starvation on the Trail of Tears, which is why they raised funds to help the Irish. As much as I love the fact that we have so many things from so many cultures, it says something that the people who were were horribly brutalized--the Trail of Tears was one of many gruesome and horrible atrocities visited on Native Americans--stepped up to the plate to help people so far away. Sultan Abdülmecid of the Ottoman Empire pledged and sent thousands of pounds to help.

Learn something new every day.

The Joy of Impure Culture

Steve over at World of Okonomy wrote about St. Patrick's Day and how much about the holiday isn't particularly Irish (including Padraig himself, who was likely Welsh or Cornish), and cringed at the obnoxious way we tend to celebrate here (indeed, complaining about our stereotype here as drunks and then getting loaded is, um, counterproductive).  Steve has a real appreciation for Irish culture so the cartoonish way people here act set his teeth on edge, and I'm with him.  He also mentioned how difficult it was to find a truly Irish dish--one that didn't use other nation's ingredients or sauces (note to Americans: corned beef and cabbage is something Irish immigrants ate because the ingredients were cheap at the time.  It is not an Irish dish).  The dishes he found in Irish cookbooks called for French style sauces or other things that were not Irish.

I thought about that, and I realized that no matter how much we insist we're purely one ethnic group, we're not.  (I know, we can't really claim that anywhere in the Western Hemisphere). The vast majority of nations and cultural groups all over the world have had so much exposure to other cultures through trade, immigration and emigration, war, exploitation and conquest that you're not going to find a "real" Irish recipe, or a "real" French recipe, or a "real" Italian recipe.  Pasta, squash, rice, wheat, spices. . .they all came from places where they aren't well known.  Italians need to thank the Chinese for pasta, northeast Asians should probably thank Indians for rice, we should all thank the Mesoamericans for potatoes, squash, and corn, and Americans should thank the people of Central Asia for apples (without which, we could not have our well-known apple pie).  We all need to thank the Mesoamericans for chocolate.  Frankly, we should thank everyone, everywhere for all food. (While we're at it, banjo fans need to thank Africans for that particular instrument.)

The thing about non-native ingredients is that people will use them and make them their own.  And people will develop a taste for things that aren't "really" their culture, and it will become their culture.  When my father was a teenager, pizza was generally unknown and Italian food was considered exotic.  Now it's practically un-American to not eat pizza (though I suspect the pizza you get in Italy or Greece is very, very different from our version).  The Japanese took udon from China and made it their own.  People do that.  And it's a wonderful thing.  (What's not so wonderful is that they forget they got it from somewhere else.)

So I raise a (metaphorical) glass to the mutts of the world, to the nations that brought me things like chocolate, and coffee, and tea, and rosemary, and honey (bees are not native to North America), and garlic, and soy sauce, and miso, and tomatoes, and well, everything.  I raise my glass to the music and the clothes and the literature and the philosophy of all places.  I raise my glass to the people who gave us much and were forgotten. 

I am proud of my (mainly Irish, but generally mixed) ancestry.  But what I most love about it is that everyone was quite happy to take the new stuff in and make it all their own.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Be upfront with people if you're trying to save money

I know people who either made the decision to not spend any money (to either get out of debt or to save) or in a couple of cases who have had the decision made for them (prolonged unemployment, which is scary).  They've been pretty upfront about things, and because their friends know what the score is everyone is happy to make allowances and to open our minds to doing other things.  I hang out with my friends for their company, not to spend money, so even when I was flush I didn't quibble about stuff like that.

But it is awkward to be the one person who cannot afford to do X (or unwilling to get into debt to do X).  Some people will feel the need to give you a lecture about How You Only Live Once or they will offer to pay (and not realize that this is going to be more than a one-time thing for you) or if you're unemployed/in dire straights, lecture you about The Right Way You Should Be Doing Things.  People like that lecture you because--well, who cares why?  They're being tiresome.  You  could have done everything wrong to get into the position you're in, but at the end of the day the laws of physics win out.  If you don't have it, you can't spend it and good on you for taking steps to either fix or mitigate the problem.  (And if you are running up debt, that's just going to invite another lecture down the road, so save your ears from bleeding and jettison that tiresome jerk.)

Most people don't want to hurt or alienate their friends, however, so being upfront is helpful.  And you will help your own state of mind if you learn about and think of alternatives you can suggest or you can take the initiative to arrange.  (Granted, there are people who just refuse to listen and will bulldoze ahead, and in that case, you have every right to get verbally Medieval on them.  People who refuse to listen are not people I want in my life.)

Things to say if you don't have the money--or are trying to save money--and your friends want to do something expensive:
  • I can't right now, that's out of my price range.
  • Do you want to come over to my place for dinner instead? I'll make dinner and you bring the salad/dessert/wine.
  • Let's go for a walk instead.
  • I hear they're showing free flicks at the city park, want to do that?
  • I'd rather not go shopping, but I can meet you for coffee later.

Things to not do if you don't have the money or are trying to save money:
  • Not actually be honest about what you're doing. 
I know it's awkward when your friends either have the money to spend (or have the comfort level with credit card debt) but your life will be a lot easier if you are straight with people.  This is especially goes if the people you hang out with go out to eat/to bars/to do costly thing X all the time or split the bill in ways that will leave you paying for people who ordered more expensive things than you did.  If this is the way they always did things, it's not fair to them to keep quiet about what you're doing and then get stroppy that they didn't read your mind.  Yeah, I know it's awkward.  It's also really awkward to expect people to read your mind.  So tell them.  "Hey, I can't afford dinner there--I could do an appetizer.  Would you all mind if we got separate checks?"

You will either a) make them more comfortable with saying no to things they can't afford or b) separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends.  Because let's face it, if your friends are going to slag you off for wanting to get out of debt or save money or not spend money you do not have, they aren't worth having.  I'd advise you to find a more compatible set of friends.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Strata--Breakfast Caserole

I had my parents over for breakfast a few weeks ago, and I made a strata and muffins.  (I'll save the muffins for another post--they tasted good but looked a little deformed as I tried to bake them in my heart-shaped tins.)

Strata, if you are not familiar with it, is basically a breakfast casserole.  It is made up of bread (often either day old or toasted and either sliced or cubed, often about a loaf or about four cups cubed) or crispy hash brown patties, eggs (usually about 6-8 eggs or egg substitute), milk (usually two cups), cheese (usually one to two cups of shredded cheese), and at least two additions (either a meat and vegetable or two vegetables, though I don't think it would be a horrible thing to add in three additions). 

You mix the milk or cream with the eggs and whatever herbs you like, you saute the vegetables and cook the meat (often sausage or bacon, either the swine variety or the turkey versions).  Toast the bread cubes in the oven if that's what you're using, mix with the vegetables (and meat if you're using) and cheese, and place in a lightly oiled 9x13 baking pan.  Pour egg and milk mixture over the cubed bread and filling, and chill for one hour to overnight before baking at 350 degrees for about 40-50 minutes.

Some recipes call for slices of bread (like baguettes), they should be layered, with the fillings and cheese placed on top of them (like a lasagna).  Then you pour the liquid over it, add another layer of bread slices, and repeat.  I like the bread cubes because it's less work.

There are all kinds of varieties of strata--you can even find recipes for the slow cooker, so if you're making brunch and you don't want to rush around cooking in the morning, it's a good option to use.

Some things I like to add in my strata:
  • Spinach
  • Mushrooms
  • Chopped broccoli
  • Sausage
  • Prosciutto (browned)
  • Grated carrot
  • Chopped zucchini or summer squash
  • Diced peppers

You get the idea.  Use whatever vegetables you like.  It's a good way to use up leftovers--add them to the strata.

The herbs I use in a strata tend to be savory, not spicy or pungent but you can go that way if you like.  I lean towards basil, oregano, thyme, or rosemary, along with a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper.

For cheese, you can use whatever you like.  I'm a fan of very sharp white cheddar, but Swiss is also nice, or brie, or mozzarella or feta or Monterrey Jack--whatever you like and whatever goes with the meal. 

These make for good leftovers--especially convenient if you want a quick and very filling breakfast the next day. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Cows with guns

We are free roaming bovines.  We roam free today!

Yes, I am too busy to make a proper post, so I thought I'd give you all an earworm.  YOU'RE WELCOME.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review--Going Broke: Why Americans Can't Hold on to Their Money

I read a lot.  Before the financial crisis hit, I read a lot of books on economics as well as voluntary simplicity, frugality, and consumerism.  One of the most useful books was Going Broke: Why Americans Can't Hold on to Their Money by Stuart Vyse.  (Really, this is a problem that affects people internationally, not just in the US.)

I thought this book was great.  Vyse, a psychology professor at Connecticut College, focuses on the (often unwise) financial habits and decisions many people make, and what fuels them.  It's fascinating and all too familiar.  He talks about the what (debt and bankruptcy), the why (why do we act this way) and the how (how can we help ourselves).

He is upfront about his own financial skeletons, and he interviews people who have been through bankruptcies.  However, he intersperses this with information about behavioral economics and the effect of technology on our spending and saving patterns.  What do people do and why do they do it? 

The savings rate in the U.S.--and in many other nations--has plummeted.  However, it is not because people of yesteryear were The Greatest Generation who were moral and upright and disciplined while we are all lazy, feckless sloths who are going to hell, HELL I TELL YOU.  It wasn't as easy to buy things.  Credit wasn't something everyone had access to--credit cards were a rarity (and studies have shown that using plastic--even a debit card--will increase one's spending than if plain old cash is used).  You couldn't just buy things online like you can now.  There was no Home Shopping Network.  Things that are necessary now (such as computers) were either not necessary or not even invented yet and other things that aren't needed are either seen as needs or are expected (try and get a car without air conditioning--it never used to be standard, but now it is and it adds to the cost).  And frankly, you didn't even have the proliferation of stores that you have now. 

We have more opportunities to spend than ever before.  It's easy and it takes little thought.  And there has been compelling research (which he delves into) that shows we are not rational beings when it comes to money.  You're not a bad person if you don't have perfect self-control, you're just human.  So we need to recognize this and strategize for it.

What I liked about this book is that Vyse recognized the larger forces at play without being bombastic.  He was compassionate towards everyone he interviewed and he didn't patronize them.  And he writes in a very engaging style--I actually could not put it down.  Okay, I am a dork, but it was very readable.

What I also liked about this book is that while Vyse recognized the larger forces at play, he also gave some very sensible and realistic advice for people who want to protect themselves now.  Advice that is far more useful than STICK IT TO THE MAN (though I can feel people on that sometimes, certainly) or MOVE TO A COMMUNE AND WEAR RECYCLED VEGAN CLOTHING.  Stuff like: making automatic deposits into a savings account, making it more difficult for you to buy things (try the place your credit cards into a container of water and put that in the freezer trick) and reducing the opportunities to spend money.

Get to the library and check this book out.  It's well worth the time you'd take to read it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Knowledge is free.

You can learn all kinds of things online for free--through universities like MIT and others' OpenCourseWare, through non-profits, and through various organizations.  And yes, at MIT and Yale and Tufts and other colleges that offer this, you can get the information for the same classes that paying students are taking.

You can try your hand at cooking completely new dishes (you can go here, here, or here to browse recipes).  Invite some friends over--and have everyone bring a dish they've never made before.  If it's tasty, great! If it came out horrible, you have a funny story to tell.  Win/win.
Do you want to learn how to knit, but no one you know is familiar with how to do it?  Don't have the money for a class?  Try have instructional videos, articles, and forums.

Learn another language. From French to German to Japanese to Urdu, the BBC has got it covered. (I really should brush up on my French since I can't do much beyond asking for a beer and where the toilet is after five years of study in junior high and high school.)

Actually, it looks like the BBC has various course offerings, so check it out.

The Khan Academy is a great place to learn (or relearn) math, physics, finance, or history.  I'm a math dolt and I should really check this out and (re?)familiarize myself with algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.  I can understand the basic concept, but trying to actually do the math makes my head explode.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Crockpot Cassoulet

I had friends over for dinner (we should really just take for granted that when I make something that's fancier than pasta or a skillet meal, it's because I had people over for dinner).  This year's winter has been unusually mild for New England, but it was still cold enough to enjoy this dish. 

Cassoulet is French dish, and it's traditionally a peasant dish.  You took whatever scraps of fatty meat that were available--usually rabbit, or duck, or lamb, or pork (or a combination thereof) as well as some sausage and simmer them with beans in red wine and water or stock for a long, long time.  Some recipes call for this to be simmered for days. 

(Note: never fear if you are vegetarian.  There are vegetarian cassoulet dishes out there and they do look divine.)

Of course, now, rabbit is not something you can get in your average grocery store (though there is a farm near me that sells it), duck and lamb is expensive, and it is the rare person who has days to allow something to simmer in a cast iron pot.  However, my trusty cookbook has a recipe for chicken and sausage cassoulet that works out very, very well.  I did make a few changes to it--it calls for 8 ounces of kielbasa (I got turkey kielbasa); I used the whole one I purchased.  It calls for chicken breasts and I used chicken thighs because a) that's what I had in my freezer and b) chicken thighs stay tender and do quite well in the slow cooker.

Here's the recipe (from Crockery Dinners cookbook):

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pretty, pretty things

I had made this years ago.  This was so easy.  I'm pretty sure many of you have done similar things.

This was a vase I got somehow (I manage to come into vases, oddly enough).  You could do the same thing with an old fishbowl or any simple glass container or bowl. 

I like to go to the beach, even (maybe especially) in the off season.  You'll see me there in the early fall and the spring, walking along the water and collecting rocks and generally enjoying the salt air, sunshine, and lack of sun-worshippers.  (I do go in the summers as well.  I'm the translucent chick slathering herself with SPF 1,575.)  I had collected all of the rocks and sea glass in this at the beach I went to (it's about an hour from my house). 

The sand did not come from there--I got it at a craft store for under a buck--I think it was probably fifty cents or something?  You could also get seashells and shiny polished rocks there if you don't have access to the beach.  I washed the rocks off and allowed them to dry very thoroughly before I put them in there, just in case there were any type of critters on them.  I can't remember where I got that candle holder--they are in craft stores and are pretty inexpensive--but you can also use a votive holder or small glass.  If you're not sure about the strength of the glass or if it can take the heat from a flame, use an LED candle like I did.  I also have used regular candles with this and it worked fine.