Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve!

For once, it finally looks like Christmas here! We still have about 6-10 inches of snow on our street, it still looks rather pretty. I have quite a bit of work to do today, but I'm looking forward to spending some time in my kitchen. I'll be making a cauliflower gratin, some grilled vegetables, a mincemeat pie, and a three-layer buttermilk/red velvet cake.

I'm hoping that we are able to start a few meaningful traditions this year. I would like to teach our kids to enjoy giving as well as receiving, and this year we will visit [and bring gifts to] one of Rob's clients who lives in a nursing home (and has no family). I'm a little anxious to predict the interaction between our kids and an elderly man, but I'm really glad that Rob suggested we make a visit. I hope it will be a meaningful visit to Mr Perry, and that it inspires our kids to be compassionate and generous in the future.

We're going to attend my brother-in-law's Christmas Eve service and then we'll come home and make some pizza. I am planning on buying a bunch of ingredients and I think we'll each assemble our own.

A tradition I've enjoyed since I was a child is a sweet bread my grandmother made. Hefekrantz is a German braided bread that we fill with cinnamon, sugar, butter, and semisweet shavings. My dad and I each made one yesterday. I typically shy away from yeast breads because I haven't found an effective rising place in our house. My dad uses his kiln, because he can keep the temperature consistent. I had planned to serve our bread Christmas morning, but we just couldn't wait! I don't have the recipe, or my dad's permission (just because I haven't asked him yet) - but I may share it later.

A recipe I will share is mine for apple pie. Rob loves apple pie even more than meat loaf. I should have taken a picture of the size of the piece that Rob typically enjoys, but it would be downright embarrassing! I have been making apple pies for a long time, and since I've started cooking the apples for the filling, I have success every time. I think apple pies require a lot of work, and to have crunchy apples as a result is quite disappointing. Originally I had cooked the filling in a saucepan on the stove, but I hated how the filling would stick to the pan (and therefore create a difficult pan to clean). I then decided to utilize my microwave. No sticking, woo-hoo!

I have tried a few different kinds of apple pies over the years: dutch, french, and lattice crust. A dutch apple pie is a double-crust version, with heavy cream poured into the top of the pie in the last fifteen minutes of baking. The lattice crust is self-explanatory, and the french apple pie is the one I most typically make, which includes a crumb topping. We love to eat our pie warm, with lots of vanilla ice cream. I also like to eat my pie warm [for breakfast] with lots of milk on top!

French Apple Pie
unbaked pie crust
8 large apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
2-3 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp nutmeg (freshly grate for best flavor)
6 T butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour

1. Combine apples, sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large bowl. Microwave for about 7 minutes, stopping twice to stir.
2. Fill pie crust with apples.
3. Mix remaining ingredients with fork or pastry cutter or until coarse crumbs are formed.
4. Bake pie for 45-50 minutes at 375 degrees or until crust is golden and top is nicely browned.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Teachers Christmas Lunch

I work very hard to keep my life as simple as possible. I am not a happy person when my life is hectic. To clarify: I really don't have that much to do. I don't work outside the home, and my work here at home always seems to wait for me. I decided this year to cancel our Christmas Eve party. I simply felt like I wanted to instead enjoy Christmas Eve and to start a new tradition with our family: a relaxing evening. It's not that I don't enjoy cooking, I'm just feeling kind of lazy. Okay, a lot lazy. It's part of this whole winter funk thing I'm reveling in.

Funny thing: I just received my Social Security statement yesterday. I've never actually worked a full-time job in my life (with the exception of summers between high school and college). Somehow, someway, I qualify for Social Security benefits. I'm thankful I've been able to stay home with my children full-time, I consider it a luxury. I realize that others make the sacrifice to teach my children and for that I am thankful. I, of course, am speaking of our amazing public school teachers. The teachers in our school district have been nothing short of exemplary and I marvel at their patience and resolve every school day! Each year I try to make them a lunch to enjoy for Christmas and also for the end of the year. I try to make the lunch as healthy and light as possible, anticipating the bevy of sweet treat that undoubtedly crowd the faculty rooms of the schools. This year I made quiche, a salad, and mixed fruit. The teachers are always very thankful and I am happy to do a small part in thanks for the hard work they put into our children each school day.

Here is the recipe for the quiche:

Asparagus and Roasted Red Pepper Quiche with Swiss Cheese
1 prepared pie crust, unbaked
1 large bunch asparagus, cut into pieces and blanched
1 small jar roasted red peppers, chopped
2 cups shredded swiss cheese
3 eggs
3 T cornstarch
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup shredded parmesan
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp kosher salt

1. Layer asparagus and roasted red pepper on top of unbaked crust. Top with shredded cheese.
2. In a small jar, shake milk and cornstarch until no lumps remain.
3. Add milk mixture to eggs (in large bowl).
4. Mix in additional ingredients.
5. Bake at 370 degrees for 45 minutes or until quiche is set and browned on top.

Just one last side note: I love Price-Rite! I purchased everything for the teachers' lunches and the total was less than $75. In the salads, I added feta cheese, dried cranberries, and pumpkin seeds. The fruit included pomegranate seeds, fresh pineapple, red raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, kiwi, starfruit, and grapes. Not a bad total for seven lunches!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Remember Pargo's?

An interesting irony: Obesity levels continue to climb yet our culture has become so much more food conscious. Only recently has it become trendy to be a foodie. Every day new studies are released touting the benefits of everything from wheatgrass to chocolate. In my family the metamorphosis has been interesting. I was just asking my mom why in the world she would buy grape drink concentrate from the Schwan man. Seriously, this lady is just about 100% organic, and she was feeding our family grape punch. Our favorite meals were veal patties (yes, you read that correctly!) and chicken pie (complete with a condensed cream soup in the ingredient list).

The difference in the grocery stores has been dramatic over the last 15 years. While the organic, healthy, and natural choices are increasing, so are the pre-packaged, processed, and unhealthy choices. I wish we could have a combination of old-fashioned foods with international choices - no pre-packaged yuckiness, but still with the produce and grain choices from across the world. I like to buy locally, but sometimes I need a little variety, especially in the winter. To clarify, I don't buy locally for any "eco-conscious" reasons, simply to pinpoint where our food originates and also to support our local farmers.

Several years ago, when our restaurant choices were limited to chain restaurants, Rob and I enjoyed eating at Pargo's. They served choices like: baked potato soup, burgers, wings, etc. I'd like to think our tastes have evolved a little beyond the menu at Pargo's, but we still enjoy eating like this occasionally. One of my favorite menu items was the baked potato soup, so my mom and I set out to re-create it at least 15 years ago. Now, you could certainly make this soup without the wonderful, melting naughtiness of Velveeta, but I wouldn't recommend it.

This is the perfect wintertime companion!

Baked Potato Soup
3-4 medium-sized baked potatoes (wrapped in foil after piercing skin and bake until tender)
4 spring onions, sliced
4 T butter
3 T flour
2 cups milk
small package Velveeta, cut into cubes
5 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled (reserve the bacon grease)
1/2 cup sharp shredded cheddar
salt and pepper to taste
non-fat Greek yogurt (if desired)

1. Melt butter in medium-sized saucepan. Sprinkle flour and stir until smooth. Slowly add milk and stir until thickened.
2. Add spring onions, and cheeses. Cook over medium heat until cheese is melted.
3. Smash potatoes and add to soup.
4. Salt and pepper to taste, ladle into bowls. Add a dollop of yogurt and additional cheese if desired.

My baby is six years old today!

Six years ago on December 16, at 12:12 am, our little Emma was born! She was what you would term, a "surprise". A better surprise and blessing we've never had. Emma is spunky, affectionate, fun, and unpredictable. We call her our little "squirrel". We are very close and I call her my best friend. She and I are attached at the hip during the day when the other two are at school.

We are so thankful for Emma and are so especially blessed to see the very special relationship she has with Kate, her older sister. They have such a bond, it's hard to describe. I know that God has big plans for Emma. She is a very strong little girl and we can't imagine life without her.

Happy 6th Birthday, Emm-

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

This is why I hate Christmas Trees

This is one of the many reasons I despise Christmas trees! Rob insisted we get another one, but at least he searched out a "Canaan", a hybrid that is supposed to drop the least amount of needles. Our Christmas Tree, version 2.0 is the skinniest tree we've ever had, and I love it! (as much as I could love a Christmas tree!)

By the way, these are half of the needles that fell off in my living room, foyer, and front porch "on it's way out"!

In these here parts....

I love my heritage. I think it's really cool that I come from hearty, German stock. Somehow I have inherited my moms partway muscular arms. I'd like to think it's because I'm so healthy and disciplined, but I think my ancestry probably included lots of manual laborers. I also love the fact that our local cuisine includes many hearty dishes. Chicken pot pie, sugar cakes, hog maw, chicken corn soup, and cherry pudding are just some of the dishes that hail from this region.

Cherry pudding is a real treat in our house. It is basically a moist white cake with sour cherries baked in. We always eat ours warm with plenty of milk poured overtop. Now, "in these here parts" we pronounce this dish, "churry puddin". Don't ask me why, I guess it's just part of the local dialect.

Local bakeries prepare and sell this dessert, but it's very easy to make at home! The only challenge is having access to sour cherries. I buy and freeze sour cherries in the summer so I can make cherry pudding and sour cherry pies. If you know of anywhere to buy frozen sour cherries, I would be most interested in hearing about it. Maybe there are websites that specialize in frozen fruit?

Here is the recipe for cherry pudding, courtesy of my mom

Cherry Pudding
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup half and half
2 1/2 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
2 cups thawed and drained sour cherries

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2. Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs.
3. Add dry ingredients alternately with half and half. Stir in cherries.
4. Sprinkle additional sugar on top and bake for 30-40 minutes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Random Thoughts, a fat-free dessert, and a three-ingredient roast beef

Random Thoughts:

1. Have you ever discovered you were wrong? Silly question, I know, but I just recently discovered that I've been making crabcakes totally wrong. I realize this is a trivial observation, but I'm a little crazy for food! I made crabcakes on Saturday night and because my oven was occupied, I had to improvise on the usual way I prepare them. Typically I mix the cakes, form them into serving portions and bake with a small pat of butter. My mom has been pan-frying hers forever and so I thought I'd give it a try. I mixed the crab with the typical ingredients and coated them on either side with panko crumbs. I then browned them on each side in a mixture of butter and canola oil. After they were golden and crunchy, I popped them in the oven (in the same pan) to finish baking. The result? Moan-inducing. Seriously. It was then I realized the error of my ways. This is not the first time I've come to the conclusion that my mom is simply a much better cook than I am.

2. It's hard to watch your child be humbled. I love having girls. I understand them. I love having a boy, too, it's just that sometimes I think he's an alien or something. Girls, I get. I also fully comprehend how fragile their self-esteem can be. I have to say, good or bad, my girls have pretty high self worth. Lately, though, our middle girl has had some humbling experiences. She has always been a big girl. She was eleven pounds plus at birth and she is just a good bit thicker than our other two. She is very healthy and not obese, but it is very hard to find clothing that fits well. We will regularly buy her several pairs of pants, bring them home and have her realize that none fit.
Last night she had her first haircut in a few years. The girl who cut her hair did a great job, but she cut it quite a bit shorter than we had asked her to. After many tears, encouragement, and a little tweaking with the curling iron, the result is a few steps below total hatred. It looks cute, but it's not my favorite haircut and it does make her look quite a bit younger. I worry about her. I really don't want her self-esteem to suffer because she might not look like everyone else. As an adult it's a little easier to understand that beauty is derived from spiritual beauty. As a little girl, I want her to feel totally beautiful, inside and out. I did not sleep well last night. I was praying for her that she would feel beautiful today. Long story short, it's really tough to see your kids humbled.

The fat free dessert is a meringue nest. A few little ingredients can yield an impressive and delicious dessert. Egg whites, cream of tartar, sugar and cocoa (optional) whipped into a fluffy and marshmallow-like nest. Top with fresh berries and you have a healthy low-calorie treat. We also included fresh whipped cream and ice cream, but these additions are definintely not fat-free.

The three ingredients in the roast beef include: beef, water, and french onion soup mix. How easy is that? For an extra comforting take on the roast beef, how about a hot beef sandwich? Simply toast a piece of bread, top with beef and gravy and enjoy!

Meringue Nests
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
6 T sugar
2 T cocoa

1. In large mixing bowl, whip whites and cream of tartar until foamy.
2. Add sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until soft peaks form.
3. Add cocoa and continue to beat whites until stiff and glossy.
4. On a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, create "nests" (basically, drop 1/2
cup meringue onto the parchment paper and using the back of a spoon, create a well in the center).
5. Bake at 250 degrees for one hour. Turn off oven and allow meringues to rest in the oven for an additional hour and 15 minutes.
6. Top with berries and serve.

Three-Ingredient Roast Beef
Beef Roast (I like arm roasts best)
3/4 cup water
1 packet french onion soup mix

Sprinkle beef with mix, pour water to cover bottom of roast and bake, covered, at 350degrees for at least 3 hrs or until tender.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

From forest to table and raspberry cobbler

Well, no doubt you've heard the phrase, "from farm to table". We had a dinner that came straight from the forests of Potter County in northern PA. We had the final roast of Rob's bear from last winter. Let me just say, it was delicious. Seriously, the flavor, tenderness and moistness of the bear was better than beef. It really reminds me of elk. I really want to check out buying some "wild game". I've always loved duck, rabbit, pheasant, and elk and now I'm feeling inspired to do some research into how and where to buy alternative meats.

Last year Rob and Joshua had the opportunity to bear hunt in Potter County at a friends camp. Only one in 50 hunters typically harvest a bear in PA. On the first day of bear season last year my guys landed a young female, the bear check station estimated her age to be about 4 years old. We had the hide made into a rug which we'll display at our cabin, and we also took the meat to a local butcher shop. Apparently they hadn't butchered a bear in quite a long time, but I am so glad we decided to eat the meat. We ordered jerky, bologna, roasts, and tenderloins. I was skeptical but thankfully our girl had apparently been eating corn instead of garbage, because the meat was amazing. I know some people say they would never eat bear, and it is a gamble, because the butcher bill was $140 and we really didn't get that much meat, but it was a novelty that paid off!

I prepared the meat simply, in the same way I prepare beef tenderloin. I marinate the meat in olive oil, red wine, salt, and ground pepper. I then briefly grill the meat and then finish roasting in the oven, covered.

As I was opening my freezer tonight, I discovered that I had a bag of frozen raspberries that my mom had given me [from 08]. I considered making a raspberry crisp, but thought I'd try something different, like a cobbler. I had a recipe I'd used early in our marriage, but it was always kind of ho-hum. I keep forgetting that I have this little treasure, a Bon Appetit cookbook. Seven hundred pages of perfectly delectable recipes like this one; Peach-strawberry cobbler with buttery lemon crust. I substituted raspberries for the peaches and strawberries. It was really, really good.

If you're looking for a versatile cookbook with straight-forward recipes and fresh ingredients, I would suggest a Bon Appetit Cookbook. I have yet to peruse the entire contents (792 pages!), but I have found the recipes to consistently taste flavorful and fresh. The recipes are surprisingly simple, and although the book is huge, you'll never run out of ideas. I happened to find this one at a local discount store, I think it was $10. I would have paid much, much more.

Raspberry Cobbler

fresh or frozen berries, thawed
1 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp lemon peel
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

1. Preheat oven to 375. Butter 8x8x2 inch glass baking dish. Place fruit into dish, including some juice if frozen, adding water if fresh (scant 1/4 cup).
2. Using hand-mixer, beat butter and sugar in large bowl until smooth. Beat in egg yolk, lemon peel, and vanilla.
3. Add dry ingredients, mix just until moist dough forms.
4. Drop dough on top of fruit. Bake about 30-40 minutes or until fruit is bubbling and dough is browned and crisp.

Still Trying to Like Chicken...

As I mentioned previously, my boys do not like chicken. I have made it my mission to change their mind, at least with a few dishes. Last night we had chicken cordon bleu with plenty of ham, cheese, panko, and a parmesan-mustard sauce. My husband liked it, but I'm pretty sure Josh didn't even taste it. He had a pretty bad headache and was in bed by 7pm. Maybe it was too much excitement this week: his first buck harvest and his first track practice!

I served the chicken over wild rice and also made roasted green beans. For dessert I decided to make an apple strudel. I wanted to give the puff pastry another try without too much tedium. The cherry turnovers were a little annoying because I couldn't fit much filling into each square. The apple strudel was easy, especially with my mandoline slicer. When I make it again, I will peel the apples before I slice them and probably add less fresh nutmeg. But, the strudel definitely received a thumbs-up from my gang (especially with Perrydell vanilla ice cream).

Tonight we're having our last bear roast and I'll try to remember to take pictures in case you never have the opportunity to eat/prepare bear meat!

Chicken Cordon Bleu
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
panko bread crumbs
swiss (or any other kind of cheese: gouda, american, or provolone would be great)

1. If breasts are thick enough, slice horizontally and stuff with ham and cheese. If not, lay slices of ham and cheese on top of chicken breast, roll and secure with toothpicks.
2. Top with plenty of panko bread crumbs and pats of butter.
3. Sprinkle with garlic salt, dried parsley, and cracked pepper.
4. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees (on bottom rack) for 35 minutes. Top with parmesan-mustard sauce and bake for an additional 25 minutes, covering if chicken appears to be browning too quickly.

Parmesan-Mustard Sauce
3 T butter
3 T flour
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp whole-grain mustard
3 tsp parmesan cheese
black pepper

1. Melt butter in small saucepan. Sprinkle flour and stir until smooth.
2. Slowly add milk until smooth and thickened.
3. Add remaining ingredients and stir until well combined.

Apple Strudel
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed and rolled out until thin
3 apples, peeled and sliced thinly
brown sugar
fresh nutmeg, grated
egg white for wash

1. On a greased cookie sheet, assemble strudel: layer 1 apple (sliced) with a sprinkling of brown sugar and cinnamon, top with pats of butter and repeat.
2. Brush edges of puff pastry with egg wash.
3. On top layer, grate fresh nutmeg (scan 2 tsp), top with pats of butter and fold pastry overtop of apple layers. Make sure to create a seam [with the puff pastry] that is pressed together or overlapped.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until pastry is browned and flaky. The juice from the strudel with leak out on the cookie sheet. This is very yummy over the pieces of strudel and will harden on your ice cream....yum!