Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tips for the Harried Family Chef

I know I've mentioned before that I'm constantly in a hurry. That I spend my nights cooking dinner and making tomorrow's lunches and doing dishes and picking up messes and taking out garbage and doing more dishes and putting away dishes.

I'd like to say that I've got this kitchen operating like a well oiled machine, but I'd be lying. Despite spending 95% of my time at the sink doing dishes, there are always more dirty dishes to be done. There's always something I forgot to do, something that's still a mess and some critical ingredient I'm missing and making up for. Despite my shortcomings, I've learned some tricks that keep me sane and my kitchen (more or less) running smoothly. These tips help me crank out the meals more quickly and makes food preparation less stressful.
  1. Always prepare extra of the things you use a lot. Grating cheese? Grate more than you need and put the rest in the fridge for next time. Making refried beans? Make a double batch and put the leftovers in the freezer. Cutting up sausage for the 5,000th time? Cut up extra and put the rest in the freezer. Which leads to my next tip...
  2. Keep extra things in your freezer. You'd be amazed all the things that you can freeze and thaw later with minimal consequences. I mentioned refried beans already. Cheese is another good example. Remember to give ample time to thaw--24 hours should be enough.
  3. Keep a running grocery list. Write it down as soon as you've used the last of whatever ingredient. I keep a list on my phone (one of those smart touch screen gadgets) of groceries we need.
  4. Always, always have a frozen pizza on hand for emergencies.
  5. Don't snub your nose at time-saving conveniences. I'm talking about buying the sliced cheese instead of the block, or the sliced pineapple instead of the full-sized pineapples. That kind of stuff.
  6. Stop making extra trips to the garbage while you cook. On your counter, place a Tupperware dish that features a wide opening into which you can throw all your food scraps. You can empty the dish into your compost pile or garbage when the meal is over. Not making a trip to the compost pile just yet? Throw the lid on the tupperware and save it for later.
  7. Keep your Tupperware organized. When I'm cleaning up after a meal and stashing the leftovers, nothing slows my momentum like finding a the perfect Tupperware but being unable to find the lid.
  8. Treat yourself while working the kitchen. If you spend as much time as I do in the kitchen, which is to say, if you spend like half your life in the kitchen, it shouldn't be a chore. Find little ways to make cooking and clean up more fun. Sometimes I play a radio or sing songs to myself. I like to have a beer while cooking, and while I'm cleaning up, I have coffee. In the absence of either of these things, I'll have a juice.

Friday, February 24, 2012

My first beer.


This is a shot of me drinking my first beer. The first beer I ever made on my own.

It tastes great:)

Family Favorite: Pine Nut Pasta

My family calls it Pine Nut Pasta. It used to be that we couldn't get enough of this stuff, but I think the Other Adult got burned out on this because I was always suggesting it, or maybe the Kid was always asking for it, whatever. So now we rarely have it, but we had it again last night, for the first time in ages. It's delicious. And I remembered all over again why we used to eat it all the time...cause it's fast and delicious and healthy.

The original recipe comes from What's Cooking Vegetarian, by Jenny Stacey--a favored family cook book so used and worn that looks like we left it on a battlefield. We have adapted the recipe to suit our needs, though some of the changes I'm not sure why we made.

I've decided to start giving the prep time for these recipes because prep time is so crucial to people like me who run in the door at 5:00 at night...not sure how I didn't think to do this before.

Prep Time: 30 Minutes (20 if you cook like a maniac)


  • 3 T olive oil
  • 3/4 medium to large onion, diced
  • 3/4 c pine nuts
  • 2 cups fresh baby spinach
  • 2 cloves crushed garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • pasta


  1. Boil water for pasta. Put pasta in as soon as it's boiling.
  2. Place pan for sauteing over medium to medium high heat; add olive oil and onions. Stir occasionally. Saute for about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add pine nuts and garlic to the onions in the pan. Stir occasionally. Onions should be softening slightly but not caramelizing or browning. Saute for about 3 minutes. Stir your pasta from time to time.
  4. Add baby spinach to the food sauteing in the pan. The Other Adult likes it when I take the time to remove the stems from the baby spinach.
  5. Add salt and pepper to the sauteing food. Allow spinach to become half wilted, then turn off the heat.
  6. Serve over pasta with parmesan cheese; a little salt.

Serve with:

Toasted garlic bread, or sauteed mushrooms on baked toasts.


The original recipe calls for 6T white wine over the pine nut mixture, added around midway through the saute. When we were first developing this recipe, we were broke and probably never had white wine on hand, which may be why we eliminated that from the recipe. Also, the original recipe calls for mushrooms. We never put them in but as far as I can tell, there isn't a good reason for that. hmmm...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reflections, sourdough update

So, I know I've explained this before, but sourdough bread is bread made from wild yeasts. The yeasts are cultivated in a mixture of flour and water called a starter. A starter is like a pet. I feed my starter every night before I go to bed. ...or at least, I'm supposed to. These days, the starter sleeps in the fridge. In the cold temperatures the starter basically goes dormant. I keep it in the fridge because I'm just so busy lately that I don't have time to make bread, and if I don't have time to make the bread then feeding the starter flour every night is just a good way to waste flour.

A few months ago I made a loaf of sourdough bread, and that was the first time since we moved into the house that I had done so. My sourdough starter is a couple years old now, a young age for a starter. Starters can live forever, as I understand it, as long as they are fed.

My starter really has taken a beating since we moved into the new house, and even before the move, my starter had suffered long periods of time in the fridge without food.

You can imagine that basically all fun activities stopped for the summer while we were moving. The Other Adult was gone with the Kid for the weeks leading up to the move, and in the first few weeks after the move. During that time, I packed a lot, disassembled furniture, watched back to back episodes of the Office and Star Trek (yup, I'm one of those), made phone calls to the Realtor and signed papers and ate Luna bars and slept 4 hours a night and stressed about termites and roof problems and renting a moving truck and driving a moving truck, and everything fun I ever did or ever wanted to do was pushed aside. Beer brewing, sourdough, painting, reading. I didn't do any of it over the summer. Ah, well actually, I did read. I re-read the Pillars of the Earth over the summer. Re-reading is not even like real reading though, it's like...pretend reading. Cause you're not increasing the list of books you've read or learning anything new. You're just massaging your brain, like dreaming.

And during that time, the moving time, my starter lived in the fridge. I have serious affection for my starter because it was there with me through this. Chugging along. Like me. I brought it to the new house in a cooler with refrigerated condiments and the depleted contents of our freezer (and that was basically all the food I had left, after spending all my money on gas and trips to the new house and movers and packing tape). My refrigerated pet. My starter. It was one of the first things in our fridge in our new house.

So then we got busy pulling out carpet and tearing out the bathroom floors and painting and replacing light fixtures and fixing the brick wall in the back yard and meeting with contractors and unpacking. And every weekend was some new DIY project and my hands were always filthy and there wasn't time and the starter sat in the fridge, where it sits today. If my starter is lucky, I remember to feed it weekly, which is really how often you're supposed to feed it if it's in the fridge.

A few months ago, as I mentioned, I tried to make my first loaves of sourdough in our new house. Not surprisingly, the starter is not as vigorous as it once was, and I didn't get as much rise out of the loaves as I wanted. What's more frustrating is that the oven, that 1940's O'Keefe and Merritt stove that came with the house, does something very different than our old characterless oven in the apartment we moved out of. The bread I made in our new oven was slightly overdone on bottom and the crust was rock hard. My old methods either don't work in our new oven, or somehow during my forced vacation from bread baking, I lost my touch.

So this weekend I hope to make another batch of sourdough. First I need to prep the starter. I'll take it out of the fridge tonight (wednesday night) and feed it a good healthy dinner. Stir vigorously to aerate the mixture. Then I'll feed it again tomorrow (Thursday), and then feed it early the next day (Friday) so that the following night (Friday night), I can make my sponge. Then I bake on Saturday.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fast, Mouthwatering Garlic Ginger Tofu

In my house it is absolutely critical to have dinner on the table by 5:30. Maybe I mentioned in a previous post that, if not fed, members of my family wilt and die after 5:30. Or they start eating snack foods, then they don't want to eat for hours and all routine flies out the window.

So the minute I walk in the door, the oven goes on preheat or the water goes on to boil. The yellow recipe folder comes out. Flour on the counter, vegetables. Cutting boards.

Yellow recipe folder. It's one of those $0.15 folders made of a single sheaf of flimsy paper barely thicker than the papers you put in it, a folder that you buy unknowing that you'll be using it for the next 10 years and what you really need is a 5 Star industrial strength plastic reinforced binder. The pages inside are smeared with food, crinkly and brittle from absorbing water and drying out.

Perhaps like a lot of you, I find most of my recipes online. I print them out, mark them up and make them my own. Write notes in the margin. "so-and-so thought this was too dry," or "added more clove and cinnamon. Worked really well." Then the recipes go in the yellow recipe folder, in no particular order.

This recipe, taken from Kristen at the Pixelated Crumb has been adapted to my family's preferences. The Other Adult does not like Dry Stir Fry, which this would have been without the sauce. So I made a separate sauce for the rice, and I added a few vegetables per the Other Adult's request.

Stir Fry Ingredients:
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 1 package firm tofu (I use a package and a half per our preferences)
  • 1 onion diced into big irregular chunks
  • 1-2 carrots diced
  • 2-3 heads of broccoli
  • 1 C chopped mushrooms
  • 1 t garlic powder
  • 1 t ginger powder
  • 2 T soy sauce
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • 1 t brown sugar
  • sesame seeds, for topping
  • cooked brown rice

Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1/2 C soy sauce
  • 3-4 T corn starch mixed in water
  • 3/4 C veggie broth
  • 1 T lime juice
  • 1 t garlic powder
  • 1/2 t ginger


  1. Dice the tofu into 1.5 inch cubes (approximate size). Put the oil in the frying pan and spread out the tofu in the oil. Turn up the heat to medium high. Turn the tofu occasionally, browning each side. I let the tofu sit in the heat by itself for at least 5-7 minutes before adding other vegetables because the Other Adult likes "crispy tofu." If you like your tofu soft, then cook it for much less time.
  2. As the tofu cooks, put the rice on to boil and then start your sauce. Combine soy sauce, veggie broth, corn starch water, lime juice and garlic powder in a sauce pan over low heat. Stir occasionally. Add more veggie broth, soy sauce or lime juice to taste.
  3. Add carrots and onions to the frying pan. Sear the veggies by allowing them to sit on one side for a few minutes before turning them.
  4. Add broccoli to the frying pan, then sprinkle with soy sauce, lime juice, brown sugar and ginger. Turn down the heat slightly and keep turning the veggies and tofu, heating everything evenly.
  5. Add ginger to the sauce. Stir into the sauce until the ginger clumps have disappeared. Taste the sauce and make adjustments as desired (I usually play a lot with the proportions of lime, soy sauce and veggie broth).
  6. Serve when the rice is done, usually about 25 minutes. I put the rice on the plate first, then sauce, then vegetables. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

No Microwave Popcorn!

The Other Adult believes that Microwaves Are Bad. She believes that the radiation from microwaves probably causes cancer and at the very least microwaves heat unevenly and cause crunchy foods to go soft and mushy and in general microwaves make good foods taste bad.

We had a little microwave in college. It was just large enough to hold our 4 cup Pyrex measuring dish, and in college when we lived in a dorm room and had no kitchen, we used it to boil water so we could make box mac 'n cheese and cream of wheat and hot tea. We decorated the top of the microwave with shelf liner that was blue with a pattern of silver swirls.

We took the microwave with us after college, and it followed us to three different cities and two different coasts. The microwave had no digital face and no power settings to speak of, just a dial that worked like a timer, so that you could set the microwave to heat a food for a specific length of time. Our microwave was the perfect size for a counter top in a little apartment. After college, our need for the microwave decreased dramatically. In fact, I don't know if we needed it at all. We used it primarily for defrosting frozen peas.

Our house came with a microwave over the stove. The microwave, probably from the 80's or early 90's, looks out of place in our kitchen with knotty pine cabinets and a vintage 1940's/50's era oven. This microwave has a complicated digital interface, power settings and buttons for defrosting/cooking specific types of food. I have barely bothered to learn how to use it. The interior of the microwave is like four times the cubic volume of our previous microwave. We use it to defrost frozen peas.

We do not buy microwave popcorn. Nor do we have a popcorn maker. I make popcorn over the stove. Stove top popcorn takes only a minute or two longer than the time it takes to microwave popcorn.

  • 1/2 c popcorn kernels
  • 3 T olive oil
  • salt to taste

Basically, put your pot over high heat. The pot must have a lid. I think the pot I use holds about 8 quarts. Add olive oil and popcorn kernels to the pot (I never measure the amount of popcorn I put in, but I think 1/2 cup is a good guess). I usually sprinkle the kernels and oil with salt.

This is going to work better on a gas stove, but I think you can do it on an electric. For a gas stove, start by putting the lid on the pot. Hold the pot up above the burner so that the flames lick the bottom, and swirl the pot around gently so you can hear the kernels sliding around in the bottom of the pot. The kernels will start to pop after a minute or more. If they don't start popping, you're holding the kernels too high. Once the first few kernels pop, they'll all start to pop at once, furiously. If the pops stay few and far between, the pot is too high above the flames. Keep swirling the pot. The popping will hit a climax then become less. Remove the pot from the flames before the popping has stopped entirely. This whole process probably takes about 4 minutes start to finish.

On an electric range, leave the pot on the burner and the lid off. Keep the lid nearby and within reach. I've never tried this on an electric range so you may need to adjust this process to what works for you. Stir the kernels in the pot with a wooden spoon until the first two or three kernels have popped. Put on the lid, turn down the heat to medium and swirl the pot around on the burner to keep the kernels moving.

Salt the top of the popped popcorn as desired.

Some tips:

1) The handles on your pot may get quite hot. I've found that the pot gets warmer when there's no liquid inside to absorb the heat. Wear oven mitts the first few times you do this--especially if your pot is the type that has two short handles on the side instead of one long handle.

2) Although I specified half a cup of kernels in the recipe above, I don't actually measure the quantity I put in the pot, I just eyeball it. I do know that a small portion of kernels will yield a surprisingly large batch of popcorn so go easy on the kernels the first few times you try this.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Beer brewing, first try: bottling day!

Well after two weeks of waiting and looking at the carboy and obsessing and having excited fantasies about sitting down on the couch with a cold home brewed beer and watching a full 1 hour television show, I bottled my beer.

This was a long process. Start to finish it took about 4 hours, partially because my sanitizer is the type that needs to be rinsed, a situation I will be remedying before my next batch.

I had to wash and sanitize about 60 bottles, which turned out to be more than I needed. Washing and sanitizing the bottles took about 2 hours. First I washed each bottle with a bottle brush and soapy water. I've been collecting these bottles for about a year, so as I cleaned the bottles, I spent my time reflecting on our old apartment, and the move over the summer, and the ways that my life has completely turned on its head since last February. One of the things I love about beer is the way that drinking different kinds of beers reminds me of the various times in my past when I have had said beers. Guinness, for example, is the first beer that I ever liked. When I drink Guinness, I remember the first Guinness I ever had. I remember the excited wow that popped into my head when I had that first sip.

Now these beer bottles remind me of the not-so-distant past, of our old kitchen, of our old loft where I stored the bottles. Sundays spent doing laundry and cooking. Carpeting and cathedral ceilings.

After washing and sanitizing all my bottles, I sanitized my fermenting bucket, siphon, hydrometer and bottle caps. I also sanitized a couple dishes where I could place tools and bottle caps that weren't being used. Then I used the racking cane to transfer the beer from the carboy into the fermenting bucket. I could have left the brew in the carboy but I thought the fermenting bucket would be easier to bottle from.

After I filled the fermenting bucket, I diverted a little of the brew into the plastic hydrometer tube. I don't have a wine thief (think of it as a turkey baster for brewers), which would have helped here, so I filled the hydrometer tube from the spigot in the bottom of the fermenting bucket. The hydrometer measures the density, or the gravity, of the brew. It's a buoyed glass tube with numbers up the side, and looks a bit like a thermometer.

Bearing in mind that I'm still a little fuzzy on details of brewing, I believe that the reason you must check the gravity of the brew is because you need to measure the sugars remaining in the mixture. As the yeasts eat up the sugars, the liquid becomes less dense. Once all the sugars are gone, this is called Final Gravity. When the brew reaches final gravity and the density stops dropping, that's when you're ready to bottle.

The wise people at the Beer Wine and Cheese store told me that I should hit final gravity after 7-10 days of the second stage of fermentation. I waited 14 days because I brew on the weekends, and I wanted to be sure I had given the brew enough time to reach final gravity. I asked the clerk at the store if there were negative consequences to going over the prescribed 7 to 10 days and he said no, within reason. He said not to wait 2 months after final gravity:)

I measured the gravity. Because this was a recipe that I obtained at the Beer Wine and Cheese shop, I knew beforehand that the final gravity was supposed to be 1.01 or 1.02. Had I been making up my own recipe, I would have needed to determine final gravity for myself.

The gravity was about 1.01. What are the consequences of bottling before reaching final gravity? Not sure.

So then, onto bottling. My priming sugars were powdered, so I boiled a cup of water and dissolved the sugars into the water, per the instructions from the guy at the Beer Wine and Cheese store. I poured the sugars into the brew and stirred them carefully with my racking cane.

I attached the plastic hose to the spigot on my fermenting bucket, then put the bottling attachment at the other end of the hose. The bottling attachment has a pressure sensitive tip that, when depressed into the bottom of the bottle, lets the beer through. I turned on the spigot and depressed the tip of the bottling attachment, and filled my bottles. In between bottles, I allowed the bottling attachment to rest in the top of the carboy.

The fuzzy picture below shows a bottle, the bottling attachment in the carboy, and the bottle capper. The bottle capper has a magnetic piece that holds onto the bottle cap. You tip the bottle capper over the top of the bottle, depress the handles all the way down, and then lift the handles back up. In most cases, when you pull the bottle capper off the bottle, the cap is solidly on the bottle. Probably 1 time in 6, the bottle cap goes on sideways or just doesn't go on at all. I wasted about 15 bottle caps in this process.

Wasted bottle caps:

A better shot of the bottle and bottle capper:

The finished bottles:

This yielded about 45ish bottles of beer. For the time being I stored them in a big plastic tub in the office. At the end of two weeks, when I can drink them, I'll move them into the garage.

I'm planning to start my second brew in March, when I get paid and can buy some more ingredients and Star San sanitizer.

Some things I have learned and wish to remember for the future:

1) Next time I do a boil, I can start boiling the water while I'm sanitizing the rest of my equipment. This will save a lot of time because boiling like 3 gallons of water took basically forever.

2) Need to put water in my airlock. Duh. This is very likely why I thought my yeast was dead--the airlock was being improperly used. Craig put a lengthy talk about airlocks online:

3) According to the guy at the Beer Wine and Cheese shop, putting double yeast into the fermenting bucket probably didn't hurt anything. It may even have helped.

4) while inefficient, transferring the brew from the carboy back into the fermenting bucket seems to have helped me ditch some of the sediment in the bottom of the brew after 2nd stage fermentation.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Vegetarian Grilling

yeah so we grill every weekend, weather permitting. What's funny to me about this is the following conversation, which I have about half the time when someone asks me about my weekend and how it was:

Friend/family: how was your weekend?
me: It was [insert adjective]. I cleaned [insert noun or name of room] and we went to [insert name of place]. Oh, and we grilled on Saturday.
Friend/family: Grilling, huh?... [thoughtful pause] ...so how does a vegetarian grill?

Apparently eating meat is essential to grilling. well, non-vegetarians believe so. When I tell people I'm a vegetarian, they don't usually react by asking me how I manage to get through a meal. But when I tell people I grilled over the weekend, people who know I'm a vegetarian usually react by asking me how I managed to pull that one off, in a way that sort of likens vegetarian grilling to some kind of oxymoron.

But it turns out that vegetarian grilling is possible, as much fun and just as delicious as meat grilling.

Grilling in our family requires a lot of preparation. We keep a tub in the garage full of grilling accessories, including an assortment of plastic plates, metal skewers, a roll of paper towels, corn tongs, grilling tongs, the lighter, oven mits, etc. I keep a list in the tub of items to prepare before the grilling event. It takes about an hour/hour and a half to get ready to grill, which includes a trip to the grocery store, marinating, cleaning the grill, loading new charcoal, etc.

Recently, the Other Adult bought a fire pit, which is actually in no way a pit because it sits on a stand over the ground. The fire pit is a bowl on legs. You make a fire in it. When we grill at night, the fire pit is a source of light and extra heat. We like it.

We use lump charcoal, which is supposed to be the natural alternative to the regular Kingsford briquets we used in my childhood. Lump charcoal is somewhat faster burning than the briquets, leaves less waste, and comes in irregular sizes that range from large log-like pieces to tiny little flakes. We like the lump charcoal because we have heard rumors that the briquets have been soaked in nasty chemicals and that doesn't sit well with us. See below:

Just like with the briquets, we soak the lump charcoal in lighter fluid (nasty chemicals?) and light it up. It burns hot and bright for a couple minutes, then dies down. When the fire dies down we put on the griddle.

First we put on the shish kabobs and corn in the husks. The shish kabobs have onion, pepper, heirloom cherry tomatoes, cubes of tofu soaked in barbecue sauce, marinated seitan, cut up corn on the cob, and zuchinni. The kabobs are drizzled with olive oil and garlic powder as they cook.

I soak the corn cobs in water for about 15 minutes before placing them on the grill. This prevents the husks from lighting on fire for a while, although by the time we eat the husks are charred.

I cut up some carrot slices and wrap them in foil with a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt. We heat that up until the carrots are somewhat soft but still have a crisp core. Sometimes instead of carrots, we marinate mushrooms and put them in foil, or we place asparagus spears directly on the grill and drizzle the spears in olive oil.

We have a grilling mascot. Mr. Grilling. The mascot is a plastic horse I found in the cart corral in the grocery store parking lot.

The Other Adult seems to think Mr. Grilling is stupid.

In place of burgers or steaks, we usually have grilled eggplant sandwiches with goat cheese on crusty bread. Or, like the pictures below, sometimes we make pizzas on crusty bread. For the pizzas, we heat chopped vegetables in olive oil in foil. We grill the bread until toasted and then spread on pizza sauce. We top it with the vegetables and little pats of goat cheese.

Below the table we keep a food garbage that I later put in the compost bin:

And of course, I have a beer. I bought the Guiness Draught because it was on sale.

While we grill, we talk. In the summer we swim. Sometimes the Kid does homework during this process and the Other Adult puts her phone in this little speaker base thing she bought and she turns on podcasts of This American Life or Josh and Chuck or Science Friday. we do it like this because we are huge nerds.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Delicious Walnut-Cranberry Oatmeal

In my family we eat a lot of oatmeal. It's comforting, healthy and filling. I love the way it fills the house with a smell like fresh bread.

There are a lot of instant oatmeals out there but we prefer the old-fashioned stuff. This is our prefered brand: John McCann's steel cut oats. It comes in a very solid coffee-can type tin, which has other uses when the oatmeal is gone. Because my daughter eats oatmeal pretty much daily, we go through one of these tins in about 2-3 weeks, but for a normal family this might last much longer.


4 cups water
1 cup steel cut oats
2-3 T chopped walnuts
2 T dried cranberries
2-3 T milk (we use vanilla soy milk)
brown sugar to taste

Bring 4 cups water to a boil then add 1 cup steel cut oats. Lower stove temperature. Bring it back to a very gentle boil (more of a simmer, really), and cook it slowly, on a low heat, stirring occasionally. The oatmeal will thicken and the water will become dense and gravy-like. This takes about half an hour to cook.

Stir in brown sugar to your preference, or agave nectar works well too. Serve in a bowl with walnuts, cranberries and milk on top. This makes a good breakfast or a healthy snack.