Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Debi: It's THAT Kind of Day

Yesterday morning, I woke up with a cold. I had gone to bed suspicious of the tickle in my nose and throat, and woke up with a confirmation of the drippy days to come. Since my string band, The Lopsiders, is playing a long-awaited gig on Thursday night, I wanted very much to nip this cold in the bud.

So, my solution was to hit my system with as much immunity-boosting power as possible. I downed my usual multivitamin, followed by an extra dose of zinc and a dose of astragalus, an herb known for its immune support. Since I'd dozed later than usual, it took all my attention to pack a lunch for my oldest, feed the two of them breakfast, stuff their backpacks, dress them and myself for the weather, and get out the door to school.

On the way from my younger daughter's preschool to my older daughter's elementary school, I started feeling woozy. The world looked a little wavy and too bright, and my stomach began rolling. By the time I got her to the door, I felt downright nauseous. Since she had been playing on Sunday at the house of a friend whose father had the stomach flu, I started to worry that I'd be singing on Thursday night through more than just the sniffles.

I had planned to walk from Ronni's school to the coffeeshop for a serious day of work, but decided to go home and get the car instead. It's a mile to the cafe, but if I really did have the flu, I wouldn't want to walk home. Once I got there, the nausea increased, and though I had just paid for and ordered my coffee, I decided quickly that I could not drink it. I left it there, shouting, "Free soy mocha for anyone who wants it!" as I ran out the door, sweating and breathing in big gulps of the cold air.

I went home and collapsed on the couch in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I waited and waited for what I thought was the inevitable...but it never came. I nibbled the plain scone I'd bought, and felt a little better. Nibbled more, felt a little better. Suddenly it hit me: the vitamins. No breakfast. Oh boy.

I had an upset stomach from taking too many vitamins with no food.

I spent the rest of the day on the couch, working on my laptop and watching bad tv, until it was time to pick up the kids -- the younger one from her extended day at preschool; the older one from a creative movement class at the local park district. I had little appetite and no interest in cooking, so I called my husband and announced my abdication of the Kitchen Queen throne. His response, stereotypically, was "That's fine. Let's order in."

"Order in" means delivery food from a restaurant. Our default -- the one we chose last night -- is Siam Pasta, a thai restaurant that delivers reasonably priced noodle dishes. Thank heavens. By the time it arrived, my appetite had returned, and we enjoyed:
  • Pad Thai with tofu: Thin noodles stir-fried with scrambled egg, bean sprouts, onions & tofu topped with carrots, green onions & peanuts.
  • Pad See Eiw: Stir-fried wide noodles in a brown sauce with tofu, scrambled egg, Chinese broccoli & bean sprouts.
  • Pad Woon Sen: Stir-fried tiny glass noodles with tofu, scrambled egg, baby corn, mushrooms, carrots & green onions in a mild thin broth.
Thank heavens for Siam Pasta and the abundant leftovers in my fridge!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stori~ we don't need no stinking electricity!

My Dad called me this morning to tell me he had supper covered tonight. That only meant one thing, chicken fried moose steak cooked on his old wood burning cook stove. He picked up this old stove about 6 years back in Fairbanks. The stove was manufactured probably early 1900's, maybe even late 1800's. It's a beautiful mint green and ivory 6 burner. There are no actual "burners", it's just a flat top with one side being very hot, over the wood box, the other side gradually getting cooler the farther from the hot box it gets. This stove is a miracle worker when it comes to cooking things hot and fast. Grease splatter is never a problem, messy grease actually benefits the cast iron surface of the stove. He has the stove positioned in his arctic entry way, which is a good thing since it can put off enough heat to flat run you out of the house. My Momma always joked around about baking sugar cookies on an old wood burner, she would say "Just hold the cookie sheet in front of the oven door for about 30 seconds, you'll get perfect cookies." In the summer, he sometimes moves the stove out onto the porch itself, since it makes so much heat, it's unnecessary inside the house. The stove has warming ovens above the range, and a hot water tank in the back (which we never use).

These old stoves were a way of life for me growing up. My parents built a cabin outside of Meeker Colorado, off of Strawberry Creek Road when I was about 4 years old. We lived on that farm till I was in 8th grade. Meeker is known for being a boom/bust town. When the last oil shale mine shut down, my Daddy being the head of security, it left him jobless. My Momma waited tables to make ends meet. My Daddy raised milk cows, beef, pigs, chickens, sheep, and of course our horses. We sold the wiener pigs to the local 4-h kids, and whatever was left went to the livestock auctions in Silt. Out of our milk cows, my Momma ran a milk, cream, and egg route in town. Every day of the week, she would go to work early just to deliver the orders for milk, sold in gallon size glass jars. Cream out of glass quart jars, and eggs. We still store our fresh milk from our little cow the same way (and hell hath no fury like if you turn in a dirty jar!!) Our customers were diligent on taking the goods on a certain day of the week, and having the cleaned glass jars and weekly money waiting for Momma when she got there. We heated our entire cabin (until we built the add-on when I was about 9, then we had a secondary wood stove in the other part of the cabin) with an antique Majestic wood burning cook stove (much like the picture here, but this was not our exact stove). I remember as a little girl, being woken in my loft by the "whoofing" of the chimney as Momma got the morning fire going. She would wake up to a frozen cold floor about an hour earlier than us to get that stove going and have the house heated up before she woke us kids. The stove sat at the end of the supper table, our house had few walls, just like my own cabin now, a very open floor plan. The old Majestic sat on a bed of laid lava rock. Natural volcanic lava rock does not retain heat which is perfect for a very hot stove and a wooden house. We would keep our winter hats, scarves, and mittens behind the stove where they staid hot. Our little dog, Smudgie, could usually be found snoozing on top of our winter gear behind that stove. She loved a warm bed. My Momma would have a percolating coffee pot on the far back right corner of the stove, the simmer side, and our morning breakfast in the middle of the range. From pancakes to hot oatmeal, our breakfast was cooked on that 200 year old stove every morning of every winter of my childhood.

Having these stoves, we never have had to worry about heat or food with a power outage. No electricity needed. A good stock of split firewood and some cast iron cookware was all my family needed to stay safe, warm, and well fed. Always with a pot of hot coffee. Always with a warm place to sit by and warm your hands. It was the heartbeat of our home growing up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Debi: Shhh! Don't tell anyone!

Stori is right; I have the much-appreciated blessing of plentiful sources for fresh produce. In fact, the only things I buy in the can are beans, and that's just because I am too lazy to soak dried beans. I buy frozen peas, I suppose, but I don't know many people with kids who DON'T buy frozen peas. What else do you serve with macaroni & cheese?!

My favorite place to shop for fresh produce is The MarketPlace on Oakton, only about 4 miles from my house. My husband and I jokingly refer to it as "The Mafia Market," because the produce there is so cheap and of such high quality that we can only assume that it is a front for some other type of more nefarious business. (Note to police and any other interested parties: I have absolutely no evidence of this!) We shop here for produce in the winter months, when nothing much can grow locally. It is a miracle of a store, catering to many ethnic restaurants and shoppers, and so the selection can be exotic and exciting. Gigantic, frozen durians hang in bags above enormous, overflowing displays of oranges and apples and peaches and melons and pineapples and cherries; avocados are often 75 cents and rest in mounds next to crates of mangoes, just across the aisle from hundreds of pounds of every variety of potato, onion, and squash you can imagine. I can fill three enormous grocery sacks for less than $25.

I love to take my daughters to this market, where we can imagine any number of delicious meals and try new things. The last time we were there, Ronni had been clamoring for sweet potatoes, so in they went, along with leeks, broccoli, green beans, apples, pears, peaches, canteloup, pineapple, mangoes, grapes, garlic, dates, russet potatoes, and portobello mushrooms. Since the store also sells dry goods from all over the world, we browsed further and came home with canned green olives from Israel, clover honey from Wisconsin, soup noodles from China, pastry dough from Greece, and a big block of tofu from lord-knows-where, since it wasn't labeled.

But. Back to the sweet potatoes.

We are a big soup family here, and I'll put just about anything into a soup to see how it tastes. Though I'd never had sweet potato soup, one night last week, I took a look at the sweet potatoes and figured it couldn't be that hard to make a soup with them. I baked the potatoes before leaving the house for our after-school activities, figuring it would get me a step ahead for the dinner that would have to be quickly prepared when we got home. I found a recipe on the internet that looked like I could adapt it to my non-dairy, vegetarian needs, and voila! Between that and a pan of cornbread, hastily mixed and tossed into the oven 30 minutes before dinner, we had a great start. Here's my version of the recipe:

Sweet Potato Soup
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons salted margarine
3 cup water, mixed with 3 tsp vegetable broth powder
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 cups cooked, smashed sweet potatoes
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups vanilla soymilk

Make a roux-like mixture in your soup pot with the flour, margarine, and broth. Add the brown sugar and heat to a boil. Add the potatoes and spices and cook for 5 more minutes, then turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender, puree the potato mixture, then add the soymilk and heat again. Serve with CORNBREAD!
What to eat with this? Soup and cornbread is a nice start, but we need more than just this. A frantic bout of trimming green beans, and then a rapid-fire steam in the microwave, followed by liberal dousing of them with salted margarine and a tiny sprinkle of dried dill, was just what we needed. An overflowing bowl of chopped mango rounded it out nicely.

All in all, the prep time was perfect for a busy evening where dinner had to come together in less than 40 minutes. I won't lie; there are nights like this where we all eat cereal or yogurt for dinner, but having a fridge full of beautiful, bright fresh produce does inspire me to dig just a bit deeper for the creativity it takes to make a meal more than just fuel. Thank you, Market Place on Oakton!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Stori~ poor planning is the true mother of invention

Since we raise, butcher, and process our own meat, I am required to take out and plan for supper several days in advance. I fully admit, I am not good at this. I rarely know what I'll be in the mood to fix or eat till the day of. Within a year's time, we have usually butchered at least one if not two full sized sow pig, one moose, and maybe a beef cow. That much meat takes up a ton of freezer space, so my mom and dad keep the moose over in their freezer, I have claim to the pork and beef. Because my dad is an expert planner, we are never without moose thawed out. I really wish I had inherited that gene. Now, I say all that, just to say this.

Yesterday I woke up with a plan in my hand and hankering for spaghetti for supper. I make my meat sauce out of pretty much any burger (beef, moose, pork, caribou). About 3 days ago I took out some pork to thaw for the week, thinking I was grabbing a roast and a package of burger. My spaghetti supper ingredients (so I thought) were taken care. So there I go to the fridge to grab my burger out around 3 in the afternoon only to find no burger package. Pork chops. What? Pork chops? But I didn't wanna make pork chops! I didn't have enough potatoes over at my house for mashed. They were still in cold storage over at Papa's. Besides the fact I really wanted pasta! There I was, time to get supper going, nothing thawed out, my pasta plans dashed. So I go to my pantry and do like any good cook does, I stare at the shelves and cuss at myself. To be honest, I felt a little iron cheffy at that point. The clock is ticking, 6 hungry people to feed, no meat thawed out, one craving for pasta....GO! I notice a can of artichoke hearts..hmmm, oooh then fire roasted diced tomatoes, ok, oh! penne pasta~ Colt's favorite! Things are starting to come together. What about the protein for my carnivorous family? Canned chicken breast! Yes! So, by guessing, and tinkering, tasting, and guessing, I accidentally came up with a dish that Marc has requested to be put in the supper rotation!

Unlike Debi, I do not have at my disposal several fresh and raw food markets to choose from. Alaska winters are not friendly to fresh produce, and a "quick" trip to the grocery store would take about 2 hours. If you could look into my pantry you would find row after row, shelf after shelf of canned goods. These may not be as tasty as fresh, but they work great for my family. Besides canning our own home grown, I always keep a fully stocked pantry filled with canned food. And, they don't go bad! So out of the basic staples I have on hand at all times, I was able to come up with a very heart warming, belly filling, taste pleasing meal.

Penne pasta bake with artichokes and red sauce
(feeds family of 7 with leftovers!)

3 large cans white chicken breast, drained and broken up
1/2 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 can fire roasted diced tomatoes
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
3 cans tomato sauce (not spaghetti sauce, just plain tomato sauce)
1 can v-8 juice
2 1lb. boxes penne pasta
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
kosher salt, pepper, sage, oregano, thyme

In a large heavy pan, saute onions and garlic in about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add drained chicken and brown, stirring constantly. Add undrained tomatoes and chopped artichokes. Brown just a tiny bit more. Season with a couple pinches of kosher salt, some pepper, about a tsp. ground sage, and 1/2 tsp both oregano and thyme (pre-made italian seasoning would work too). Pour in tomato sauces and v-8 juice. Stir, turn to low, cover and let simmer. Can slowly simmer for several hours if you like. Cook pasta in salted boiling water, but only for about 7 minutes. You don't want it all the way done. Drain cooked pasta and mix with the sauce. Transfer mixture to a big casserole dish, I used a 9x13 stoneware and that wasn't quite big enough. Top with mozzarella cheese and bake at *350 for around 30 minutes.

Note to Debi ~ this sauce would be great meatless too!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Stori ~ death by bean

The temperature is a brisk -46 below zero today. Temps that low cause everything to slow down. The well in the barn froze up this morning causing my poor Dad to haul water from the house. I decided against our weekly Tuesday ice skating date for Colt and I, it's not worth the risk to travel this cold. Paige will have a "carry your coat" day at school. That simply means that the students are required to carry their cold weather gear everywhere they go in case of an evacuation emergency where they would have to go outside. At least they will have indoor recess, they usually mandate that at -20 below.

Weather this cold would usually call for a full blown, 5 dish, hot meal to warm and fill bellies. Unfortunately, I have a fridge full of leftovers. I have been accused this week of trying to kill my husband via beans. I lovingly refer to my family as carnivores. With the exceptions of my son who has a problem swallowing, and my general disgust and distaste, they are a meat eating group. While trying to both combat the constant required meat every meal and me battling my winter weight gain, I turn to beans as a protein source. Although I'm sure the entire family will pay dearly for it tonight, once again, we have beans to eat up. The menu tonight is leftovers. We have a huge supply of very tasty and very low calorie Taco Soup (loaded with 4!! kinds of beans ). There is pinto beans and rice on corn tortillas. I still have a bowl leftover of black bean chili. And finally, to the relief of my husband, chicken breast and sausage jambalaya (no beans in that one, but it is loaded with rice!). Hopefully after supper with 7 people, my fridge will once again have a little more space to add more leftovers! Tomorrow, pork roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, roasted carrots and parsnips, and green beans. With everything having been provided by our land, it's one of my mother's favorite meals.

Debi: (Just Enough) Squash & Black Bean Empanadas, with Neighbors

Last week, I decided that we had been eating entirely too much purely beige food. After a cooking frenzy over the holidays, I had grown tired of standing in my kitchen chopping and sauteeing and frying and baking and plating, only to come back an hour later and spend almost as much time scrubbing and wiping and wrapping and sudsing. I stepped back for about a week and we ate a combination of leftovers, boxed macaroni & cheese, pancakes, and take-out. By last Thursday, I decided that enough was enough; we had to eat something good.

One of my favorite cookbooks is Veganomicon, a vegan cookbook with some recipes so complicated that I put it aside for months at a time, exhausted by the prospect of "patshken zikh mit," a Yiddish phrase that translates roughly to "messing around with tiny details forever until you go nuts." However, I had rested my cooking brain for long enough to decide to attempt a recipe like that, and so I settled on "Roasted Acorn Squash and Black Bean Empanadas."

Ever roasted a squash? That actually takes as much time as preparing some entire meals. You have to chop it open, which, even with a good knife, should be considered a dangerous athletic event. Then roasting it, in your oven, takes an hour. Then it has to cool long enough to scrape the seeds out, and then there's cutting it up into the right size pieces for your recipe. And for this recipe, that's just to get past the first line in the ingredients: "1 roasted squash."

Fortunately (and I use that term ironically), in my house, the day often begins just after 6am, when my youngest wakes up. I had that squash roasted before taking my older daughter, Ronni, to school at 8:45. Nope. I'm not kidding.

So, the next thing on the list was to make the empanada dough. I mixed up a batch while Sammi, the resident 4 year old, watched cartoons, then set it in the fridge to chill. After a morning of lounging, playing the occasional board game, coloring, and eating a beige lunch, Sammi and I commenced the rolling process. This may very well be Sammi's whole reason for being alive. She loves to roll dough. Last year, for Hannukah, we gave her a little child's size set of real baking implements, and I think she'd sleep with her rolling pin if we gave her the chance. On a chair dragged to the kitchen counter, she rolled and rolled, dribbled the surface with flour, rolled again. She sang a cheerful tune to herself.

It is such a peaceful experience to bake with her -- both of us industrious, the kitchen warm and good-smelling, our hands busy and purposeful. This may be why she and I did not find our groove together until she was old enough for a "project." It's like we need a common cause, outside ourselves, to take the focus away from our early struggles as mother & daughter. She was such a sick and unhappy baby, and unable to tell me why -- and then I was such a distraught, helpless mother, unable to fix the trouble. Now we can talk and work together to roll out that dough, smooth out those lumps, mix in the herbs and leavening to make our friendship rise, sweet and spicy, in just the right amount of time.

So. Dough rolled out, it now needed to rest in the fridge, chilling until closer to dinner. It occurred to me in mid-afternoon that my neighbor's birthday was the next day. A quick call to confirm with my husband that he approved, and she and her husband were invited to join us for dinner. I added a cake to my mental list of things to make after picking up Ronni from school at 3:35.

We bundled up and dragged ourselves out into the snowy day to get Ronni, then dragged ourselves back. Ronni and Sammi sat at a small table in the kitchen, snacking and working on homework and coloring, while I began the process of making the empanada filling. There was that squash again -- and then I added black beans, oil, seasoning, lemon, maple syrup...almost done...time to roll out the dough again.

Sammi, in all her glory, rolled thin the squares I cut from our dough, spooning the filling into the middle of each while Ronni grumbled over another set of math problems. Oh my. That sure didn't look like much food. What to add?

I keep my laptop on the kitchen counter, so I quickly looked through my fridge and freezer for a complementary vegetable to serve with the empanadas. Finding corn, I quickly located a good recipe on Spiced corn. It was easy to make, and easily doubled. Done.

What was I forgetting? I have an hour before dinner, the empanadas are ready to go into the oven. What else?



Not enough time to make and frost a birthday cake. Not enough time to make and frost a birthday cookie either. Dessert in our house can't have any chocolate -- Sammi has GERD, so the acidic foods stop appearing after mid-afternoon -- so I quickly located a recipe for white chocolate and dried cranberry dessert bars (with some substitutions -- I used margarine and vanilla almond bark), and goaded Ronni into finishing her homework quickly enough to help me mix the ingredients. Flash - into the oven just as the empanadas came out, and as our neighbors arrived, and just minutes after the phone call from my husband that he wouldn't be coming home from work in time for dinner, after all.

Ronni, Sammi, and I sat around the table with our neighbors -- a dear married couple who we've adopted as our extra brother- and sister-in-law, though they are no relation -- and enjoyed the fruits of a day's labor. As the oven beeped to tell us the dessert was ready, C (the husband half of the couple) came into the kitchen to help me McGyver our 5 and 6 birthday candles into a 2 and 9 for B's 29th birthday. My flour-spattered, pink-cheeked daughters sang enthusiastically, and their daddy arrived in time to eat the last 3 empanadas.

So, there's the ambitious dinner we tried last week. The verdict? Too much "patshken zikh mit," for a recipe with no leftovers. However, there was just enough love and fun for a winter's day in the city.

Back inside!

Dare we slink back onto our blog and try to pretend it hasn't been six months since we wrote?

We are both sorry. We want to try again. We got distracted by being outside, by our hobbies and our families and the things that brought us together as friends in the first place: the beauty we both find in the every-day, our attempts to make the mundane meaningful, and our occasional struggles to find inspiration in what looks quiet and unassuming. Does anyone want to read about what they already know and do every day?

The answer to that, we both realize, is yes. Otherwise and Erma Bombeck and Mothering Magazine and the Roseanne show would never have made it. So, here's our plan:

Twice a week, each of us will attempt to write a post about the most mundane of all motherly pursuits, the one that is the ubiquitous task of housewifery all over the world: dinner. We'll tell you what we're making, and why, and how it went, and what our home was like while we were making it. Sometimes it will be a recipe and a nice dinner. In my case, sometimes it will be what I call "subsistence food" on the way to or from some sort of activity. Either way, it will give you a taste (pun intended!) of life at home, here in the city or there in the country.

Wish us luck.