Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The "Stuff" of Dressing

Also? Gordon Ramsay TOTALLY validated my approach to cooking a turkey on FOX-NY News tonight, which is to cook it in pieces, rest the meat before carving, and do the carving "backstage" and serve with sauce made from deglazing the roasting pan. We're going to be eating elsewhere, and the turkey is already cooked, but I have a lovely breast/rib turkey roast thawing that I'm going to roast here this weekend.

Anyway, here's the components of the dressing we made this year. Finished product won't be baked until tomorrow. If it's a hit, I'll dig up a link to the recipe. Click the picture for more.

The "stuff" of Dressing

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Planning My Onslaught On The Grocery Store

What, you're not? Listen, you need to. Tomorrow is THE day. Even if you're not a coupon-clipper (and just don't tell me, if you're not, because it would cause me to weep), the grocery sales right now, they are fierce, and include probably the widest variety and largest number of items than at any other time of the year. And the beauty part is that much of what you can get on sale now can be stored for some time, and used later. The rest of my life may be in a shambles (yes, STILL), but this? This, I can do. Here are some things you can be on the lookout for good deals on between now and Thanksgiving--I have coupons for all of them, but even if you don't (*sob*), they're still on store sale most places:

*Frozen or fresh turkeys and chickens. Who says you can only cook a turkey at Thanksgiving? If you follow Barbara Kafka's roasting directions, you can do a big bird in two hours. Now is also a great time to buy roasting/baking hens, and turkey breast roasts (those are fantastic--they're still on the bone, with skin, but it's just the breast and rib meat). Buy them fresh and freeze them, or buy them frozen. Or, heck, buy them fresh, take them home, roast 'em, and debone and freeze all that great cooked meat, then boil up the bones for a rich stock, and freeze it, too!
*Fruit. Fresh, frozen, and canned. Some fruit freezes, some doesn't, but lots of flash-frozen fruit is on sale right now because people use it in pies and chutneys/sauces. Stock up. You'll wish you had some cranberries in late February, and think, "Why didn't I listen to Belinda?"
*Nuts. No, I'm not calling you names. Nuts of all kinds are on sale right now, both pre-packaged, and in bulk in the produce section. And they're normally pretty expensive, so why not get them now, even if you don't need them? They freeze VERY well--in fact, I store nuts in the freezer as a matter of course, to keep the oils in them fresh.
*Dairy products. Milk and cheese freeze, people.
*Canned broth and cream soups. These are on SERIOUS markdown right now, and armed with my coupons, if I don't bring home a sackful for free, I'll be disappointed. Like canned tomatoes, you just can't have too much canned broth or "cream of" soups, especially now that cream soups are available in low-fat, low-sodium varieties.
*Baking supplies. ALL baking supplies. Think big, here. I'm not talking about just flour and sugar, but spices, vegetable oil, pie filling (canned fruit), frozen pie crusts, chocolate, condensed milk, EVERYTHING. The whole aisle is on sale NOW. If you have room, store flour in an airtight container in your freezer.
*Bread. Again, bread freezes well.
*Root/bulb vegetables, i.e. sweet potatoes, white potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, etc. Store these just right, and you can keep quite a few on hand.
*Dried grains/legumes, i.e. all kind of rice, dehydrated potato flakes, beans, barley, lentils.
*Cereals, especially the ones used for snacks like Chex Mix and Rice-Krispie Treats.
*Snacks. Not that YOU will eat them, but you know, your guests might be wanting to graze on dips and chips and crackers and cheese-balls and stuff.
*Sodas. But don't drink sodas. They're bad. Evil. I don't even know why I said sodas. Forget I did that.
*Dish detergent and cleaning supplies. Because, you know, people (ahem--SOME people) will be doing a lot of house-cleaning in preparation for houseguests.
*Kitchen supplies, i.e. paper towels, garbage bags, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, parchment paper, wax paper, etc.
*Toilet paper. Really.
*And in what I consider a stroke of marketing genius, ANTACIDS. Pepcid, TUMS, Pepto-Bismol, Mylanta, everything. See also: Immodium.

So yeah, hit the store for whatever's on your Thanksgiving list, but for stuff that keeps a while, freezes, or can be stored indefinitely, STOCK UP, Baby!

I'll report back with what I hope will be my tale of cutting a wide swath through the stores, leaving checkout clerks exhausted and store managers weeping. I also have some recipes I need to post that are based on using leftovers from roasted chicken or turkey.

Meanwhile, my home? A wreck. Thank you.

By the way, do we need to have The Coupon Talk? You should really only be paying for about half of your groceries, if that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Uuuugh, slogging through quicksand.

I can do it.

Daylight savings time is really kicking my butt. There's a marked difference in the way I feel, because it gets dark earlier.

Sometimes I feel like I can't get out of my chair. As if I'm stuck there like a magnet.

But I can. I can get up.

I can get up, take my meds, get ready, get on the treadmill, drink water, eat healthy, use my lightbox, power off the computer.

I can do the extra school stuff-- practicing times tables, and reading, and such, even though they're not homework, I can go above and beyond the call of duty.

I already do all the homework stuff, coordinate schedules for 3 kids, make lunches, do laundry, dishes, cleaning, groceries, meals, kiss boo-boos, counsel problems.

I can do more. I can do the things I need to to make my life run smoothly and improve the quality of life for my family.

I know I can, I just have to put my mind to it. I have to make it essential, rather than elective.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oy vey.

Oh my gosh ya'll. I suck. I have not walked, sat in front of my lightbox, taken my meds or any of the other stuff I'm supposed to do to make myself healthy wealthy and wise. I can really tell, it's taking a toll on me, and does that motivate me to action? Nooooooo. A ginormous part of the problem is the guilt. See, it's not just that doing all those things just seems overwhelming, it's that it seems to me that they SHOULDN'T seem so overwhelming, they're what normal people do every stinkin' day, why am I so precious and delicate I can't manage to accomplish them?! It's the shame over not being able to change that gets me more than not changing itself. Does that make sense?

I need to find a way to change without examining my life and feeling like a total failure, because that's what paralizes me. Of course, because who has the energy or motivation to change when they feel like scum?

Anyway, Monday I'm going to give it another whirl. I keep telling myself, just like people who smaoke, sometimes you have to practice quitting before you get it right.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Please A Man: Roast A Chicken

hot and steamy roast chicken and root vegetables

There's not much I can do in the kitchen that makes my husband happier than just roasting a chicken, especially if I also chop up and roast some sweet potatoes, yukon golds, shallots, garlic, and onion until they're carmelized on the outside...YUM.

For roasting the bird, I rely on the method I learned from Barbara Kafka, in her wonderful book, Roasting-A Simple Art. IBarbara's all about high-heat roasting, fast and simple, and she has recipes for everything from meat to fruit using this method, and every bit of it is delicious. She credits "Simple Roasted Chicken" as being "the one that started it all." One caveat is that your oven needs to be relatively clean before you do this, or it's going to smoke. But hey--this gives you an excuse to clean your oven, which you probably haven't even thought about lately!

Prepping the bird couldn't be easier. You're not buttering it, you're not putting anything between the skin and the meat, you're not worrying about fancy seasonings--heck, you're not even trussing it, because leaving it untrussed allows the dark meat to cook through before the breast meat begins to get dry. Here's what you do, starting with the raw chicken as close to room temperature as possible:

Take your bird, rinsed and patted dry, giblets removed, place it in a shallow roasting pan (no rack necessary) and season inside the cavity thoroughly with coarse kosher salt and coarse-ground pepper. Pat salt and pepper all over the skin of the bird. Cut up a lemon or two and stuff them inside the cavity, along with chopped garlic and a couple of tablespoons of butter. If you're roasting root vegetables, set the chicken aside while you prepare them for cooking, because they'll take about as long as the chicken to cook (about an hour).
ready to roast

Roasted potatoes--again, easy-peasy: Chop up into 3/4" chunks, peeled sweet potatoes and Yukon Gold potatoes, with about a two-to-one ratio of sweet potatoes to white potatoes. Chop two sweet yellow onions into largish wedges. Chop garlic, or just used the pre-chopped, jarred garlic from the produce section of the grocery store. I also added chopped shallots this time around, which made the whole thing really nice. Once all the chopping is done, drizzle olive oil over everything--not too much, or the potatoes will be mushy (you can mix in a little melted butter if you want, for flavor, but it won't suffer without it), and toss to coat well, in a baking dish. DO NOT ADD SALT OR PEPPER YET.
veggies ready to roast

Put the chicken and the potatoes in the preheated oven, side by side on a lower rack, at 500 degrees. You read that right--500 degrees. Roast, uncovered, for about an hour. About 10-15 minutes in, shift the chicken around (give it a little shove with a wooden spoon) so it doesn't stick to the pan. Gently turn the potatoes every 20 minutes, and before the final 20 minutes of cooking time, salt and pepper the dish, tossing to coat. I like to use coarse salt and pepper so I can better see where it's going.

The chicken is done when the internal temperature is right or when juice from the thickest part of the thigh runs clear. If the skin starts to get overdone toward the end of the cooking time (it shouldn't), tent some foil over the top to keep it from burning. The potatoes are done when they're tender, and the potatoes and the onions/shallots should be carmelizing nicely around the edges, turning dark brown. Remove the chicken to a platter to rest, and for carving. This bird was fork-tender, and perfectly cooked throughout after one hour, without a bit of dryness. The lemon flavor had permeated the meat, and no additional season was needed. The skin was golden and crispy, with most of the fat having melted away.

The vegetables were perfect, too, with just the right amount of carmelization from the starch in the potatoes. While we had plenty of leftover chicken, there wasn't one SCRAP of leftover veggies.
roasted root veggies

If you want to make a sauce for the chicken, skim the fat off the top of the drippings in the roasting pan, then place it on the stovetop to cook, deglazing the pan with wine, fruit juice, or chicken stock or broth. Cook down to desired consistency, or add a sprinkling of flour to thicken.

And you're done. Easy as can be, and you're a hero in your own kitchen. This is a great dish to serve for company, too, because it has such a BIG impact with so LITTLE effort! Plus it has the added appeal of not being very labor intensive--once you've done your prep-work, that's pretty much it. You just pop the whole thing in the oven and then take it out and amaze everyone with your Norman Rockwellian meal.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Shepherd's Pie Variation

bake at 375 until top is golden

This recipe is fantastic. I didn't lie to you about the bread, and I wouldn't steer you wrong here, either. First let me say that my preferred method of cooking this is to do it in a giant cast-iron skillet, which allows you to do the stovetop portion and the oven portion all in the same dish. But I can't FIND my giant cast-iron skillet. Haven't seen it since we moved. My beautiful enormous cast-iron skillet that has been perfectly seasoned over the last decade. *sigh* This is what happens when your life is organizationally challenged, kids. Get it together before it's too late, and you lose your skillet. Anyway, just bear in mind that while I cooked this in a baking pan, I'd much rather have done it in a large cast-iron skillet or shallow Dutch oven.

What makes this recipe so gosh-darned amazing is the meat mixture that serves as the base. I've been using this recipe, called "Dad's New Zealand Mince Stew," for the last three or four years. It is absolutely to die for. A couple of notable exceptions to the recipe, though: First, do not use anywhere NEAR the amount of black pepper called for. That's insane. I use ONE tablespoon of coarse-ground black pepper, and that seems just about perfect to me. That in combination with the curry powder give this stew just enough spicy zing to counteract a cold, rainy, gray day, but not enough to be overpowering. Also, I have never simmered the stew for the two hours (!!) called for in the recipe. I don't know if I've ever even taken a whole hour. It cooks down quicker than that. I use the first 20-minute simmering period to make my mashed potatoes.

The stew recipe is fairly large. You could reserve half of it and freeze it for another meal, making a smaller shepherd's pie or some other dish from it.

To make the prep quicker and a whole lot easier, I use pre-chopped, frozen onion or "seasoning blend," which is onions, peppers, and celery. I also use pre-chopped, jarred garlic, and canned beef broth works in place of stock. And even though it's more expensive, using 93% lean beef eliminates the extra work of separately browning ground beef and then draining off the fat, and also allows you to prep in one skillet/Dutch oven.

First, make the New Zealand Mince Stew recipe. It should finish into a very thick mixture, which you then spread in a baking pan or casserole dish, or just use the skillet or Dutch oven the meat was cooked in, if it's big enough.
New Zealand Mince Stew recipe, spread in baking pan

Then spread whatever vegetables you like, in as thick a layer as you like, over the top of the stew. You can chop fresh veggies, or you can do like me and use pre-chopped frozen veggies, right out of the freezer. I know that English peas are the traditional shepherd's pie veggie, but I hate them. Plus, I think this recipe lends itself perfectly to root vegetables. This time around, I used carrots, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, and yellow squash. The carrots taste the best with it.
layer frozen vegetables over meat stew

While your stew is simmering, you can whip up your mashed potatoes. Whether you make them from scratch or use instant flakes (this is so good, it doesn't really matter a lot), make them quite thick. Doctor them up however you like. I used a bit of light butter, skim milk, light sour cream, garlic powder, kosher salt, and coarse ground pepper. This time, I went ahead and incorporated some shredded sharp cheddar cheese right into the mashed potatoes, as well. Spread the potatoes in an even layer over the meat stew and vegetables.
layer tricked out mashed potatoes over meat and veggies

Bake at 375 for a half-hour or so (keep an eye on it), until the top of the potatoes is a light golden-brown, and the mixture is bubbly.
bake at 375 until top is golden

At this point, you can be finished--it does not have to have cheese. But if you like, sprinkle shredded sharp cheddar cheese over the top of the pie, and put it back into the oven for an additional 5 minutes or so, just to melt the cheese. Serve, and stand back for the rush for seconds.
sprinkle shredded cheese on top, bake 5 more minutes

You might notice that the stew recipe does not call for salt. Trust me--you won't miss it. Besides, you're salting the potatoes a little.

A really good variation on this for fall is to use mashed sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. (You'd probably want to omit the carrots in this case.) Just mash up boiled or baked sweet potatoes, then add a bit of light butter, some pumpkin pie spice (NO SUGAR), salt and pepper. Leave off the cheese. I almost made it that way tonight, but I know I'm going to be serving roasted sweet potatoes on Saturday, so I went with the standard version.

NOT throwing in the towel.

Well poop. I didn't walk yesterday. I had no excuse. Yesterday I didn't walk until 11:30 pm, and if there's anything worse than exercising, it's exercising late at night. But I did it, because I know if I skip once--danger Will Robinson!-- that could be the beginning of the end. But last night the thought of exercising was just too yucky. Once again proving that I m-u-s-t exercise in. the. morning. And today, I will. I won't let this be the beginning of the end, because as much as I HATE exercise, I do like the benefits.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Checking In

It's 10:00 am, and I have gotten El Zippo done today. Well, other than getting the kids showered and off to school. (I can't do baths at night, I'm just not a night person.) I have 2 hours left before I have to pick up my son from preschool, and I really need to make the most of my time, but I'll be darned if I can't get this body out of this chair. It's rainy, and dark outside, and all I want to do is read, or watch a movie, or surf the net. So. I will try to do something comforting, in the midst of running errands. I'll dress warmly and buy myself a nonfat latte, as a reward for getting out of the house.

I have been doing very well on the self care front, thanks be to God. I have been walking, and brushing my teeth, and showering, and even flossing here and there. I've been eating pretty healthy, the house is clean, except for folded laundry in the middle of the living room, and some floors that need vacuuming. The bathrooms really need to be cleaned, but I'll get to those today.

And yet, even though things are going pretty well, I know this is the time when I need to be vigilant. This is the time when I forget how depressing it is to have a messy house. This is the time when I forget how depressing it is to be depressed. This is the time when I can easily say, "Screw it. I need a break." Just like I've done this morning. And that, my friends, is the precipice on the edge of a canyon called despair. I know that may seem dramatic or extreme, but it's a very short walk over the edge, for me. It's a thin line between loosening my grip a little, and losing my grip completely. That probably doesn't make sense to anyone except me, but that's okay, I just need to give myself a little pep talk. So maintenance is the watch word for me. Now I'm off to run errands.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Comfort Me

Don't act like you didn't suspect that this might happen. By "this," I mean a week without posting. Given the nature of this blog and how it came into being, it's a wonder anything ever gets posted at all. Huge thanks to Sheryl for taking up my slack, there.

Status of my house: Well, we're not LOSING ground. And honestly, that is something. I had good meals going for over a week at a time, there, and that hasn't happened in ages. Also not having happened in ages, a whole week with no dining out or bringing takeout home. That, my friends, is HUGE. I also have to give Alex credit for keeping up with the dishes while I was cooking. Sometimes there would be some left, but he kept the pile from becoming unmanageable, and I appreciated that immensely.

We also actually managed to get about 1/3 of our bedroom clean, working together, which is no small feat. I may not have mentioned it before, but I surely will again, so...our house is weird. It's laid out weird, it's priorities are weird,'s just weird. It's over 3,000 square feet, but with tiny bathrooms and closets, and the smallest kitchen you could imagine. Seriously--it's an apartment kitchen, and here we sit in the middle of 5 acres, not in midtown. TEENY. But the master bedroom? It's enormous. There is no reason for a bedroom to be this large. None. It's the size of most people's living rooms. And since we came here from a wee little house, in the way of bedroom furniture, we have...well, a bed. Which itself was a maternal gift. And after several months of us using a Coleman cooler as a night-table (think I'm kidding?) and an empty ceiling-fan box with a couple of barstools as an entertainment center (again, think I'm not serious?), our mothers got together and bought us some more furniture, in the form of a couple of night tables and an actual television cabinet. This leaves about a half an acre of empty space in this bedroom, which for US, is just More Places To Pile Crap. I may take a picture of this...or I may not. I might have reached my internet humiliation threshold.

Honestly--I can already see that a huge challenge for us in keeping a livable home is going to be resisting the temptation to fill every horizontal surface with whatever random detritus happens to be in our hands at the time. From where I sit right now, I can see the Leaning Tower of Weirdness that is our dining table, and it's not pretty. Especially considering that it wasn't that long ago that it was clean. This piling on, it happens FAST. I am bad about piling, and Alex is bad about putting things off until "later." Combined, we are a deadly duo of disarray. I'd like to save Bella from this fate while she's still young enough to mold. She told me a few days ago that she wanted to do something or other at her grandmother's house instead of at home, because "our house is too trashy." Trashy. Yep, that's the word she used. And you know, when you get right down to it and start sorting and cleaning, a lot of it DOES wind up in the trash. Just think how much time and labor we'd save if we took a minute to decide that something (junk mail, newspapers, whatever) was trash, and threw it away BEFORE ever putting it down! Hey, at least I'm thinking, right? Anyway, 1/3 of the bedroom clean is like a whole normal room, and a very good start. I appreciate Alex helping, too, because when he gets going, that man can clean. And fast.

I got sick last week, and meal-planning and preparation went straight out the window. This meant that we spent a lot of money we don't have on takeout, which is really, really stupid. It's unhealthy and expensive compared to home cooking. I always feel like a failure when the takeout bags come in. But I just didn't have it in me, and Alex definitely doesn't feel like cooking a meal when he gets home from work (with our normal work schedules, I get off a couple of hours before him, so it'll be much easier for me to get dinner going by the time he gets home). We're old, tired, and out of shape. And yes, there's an additional area in which we must GET IT TOGETHER, the being out of shape.

So, now it's back to planning and cooking. Honestly, it's the planning that fells me, if I'm going to fall off the wagon. I hate the planning, and coming up with something to cook, and trying to magically divine what the people I'm cooking for will enjoy or even accept. I'm particularly unimaginative when it comes to vegetables. I tend to get some frozen veggies, steam them, and be done. Which while healthy is somewhat boring. No complaints so far, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time. I gotta say, though, I am LOVING the new frozen veggies that come in a microwavable steam-pack. GENIUS.

So, there we are, all caught up. At least right here. I'm going to post my favorite comfort food next, and would love it if you'd share yours. Don't we all need some comforting right about now? Me, I have pneumonia and it hasn't stopped raining in forever and my baby girl is growing up faster than the speed of light. COMFORT ME.

Please post your favorite comfort food, and the recipe (or a link to the recipe, if you have it posted elsewhere) here in the comments to this post. I'll figure out some way to compile them and make links for reference. My favorite comfort food is homemade chicken and dumplings, made with fat, fluffy "dropped" dumplings, and I'll be posting the recipe here tomorrow. Alex's favorite comfort food has got to be his mother's chicken tetrazinni. WOW, does he love that stuff, and what little of it I usually get to eat IS darned good. I'll get the recipe from her and post that, as well. Now it's your turn: COMFORT ME.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Don't be a hater.

When I'm hatin' housework more than usual, here are a few things I do:
  • If I absolutely feel like I cannot do laundry, that it will scar me psychically, I just do a load of towels. Lord knows we always have plenty of towels in the hamper, and they're the easiest to do.

  • Set a timer, and clean for just 15 minutes. I think I got this one from the FlyLady. I joined FlyLady for about 2 days, before I realized, judging from the 18 thousand emails in my in box that I had joined a cult, or a pyramid scheme, or something. Strangely having to empty my mailbox 12 times a day, did not help me feel less overwhelmed about keeping my house clean. The FlyLady is a great system, I'm sure, but I need simple and low key. Systems make me both rebellious and discouraged.

  • Have a cleaning party. Write some chores on slips of paper. Buy some balloons. Stick the slips of paper in the balloons, and either blow them up, or fill them with helium. Take turns with family members popping balloons. Pop a balloon, and then everybody has to go do that chore together. Put on some music, dance and sing while you do it. When your done with that chore, give each other a cheer and a high five, make a toast with some lemonade, then do the next chore. This works really well on days when you have a lot of cleaning, and NO motivation.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weighty Matters

In the past 4 days I've exercised three times. My philosophy for exercise is much the same as my philosophy for house cleaning: keep it simple, and make it as easy as possible. So I'm not exercising to train for a marathon; I'm exercising to try to stave off death a little longer. I walk or ride my bike for 30 minutes, and I hate all 1800 seconds of it. The problem is that I've been waiting until before I go to bed to do it, waiting until the last minute, like the consummate procrastinator I am. I really need to stop doing that. I must do it first thing in the morning.

Goal #1: Walk everyday this week, first thing in the morning.

Also I joined Mrs. Flinger's weight loss group, and and contest at weight loss wars (with a $200 prize!), in hope of motivating myself. I'm playing for money now, so I just might get in gear. I really need to go to the store, as it's hard to eat salad if you have no veggies in the house. Well, I've got broccoli, but you get the idea.

Goal #2: Go to the store.

Hey, don't laugh! I gotta set goals I can reach!

Emily, my oldest, and I went shopping for clothes this weekend. She insisted she's fat, which just breaks my heart. She isn't fat, by any stretch of the imagination, but she's also not as skinny as a lot of kids her age, either. We talked about appreciating your body for all the stuff it does, not just how it looks, and that everyone has a different body type, blah blah frickin blah. We've had these conversations many times before. But the bottom line is, sometimes she's bothered by the way she looks. Here's where I'm not sure if I did the right thing. I told her that if her belly really bothers her, to try to exercise more, and eat more fruits and veggies. I hate to encourage her to change her body, because she doesn't need to, she needs to appreciate and accept it. I'm careful never to speak negatively about my body, so I don't know where she gets it, but it's everywhere. I've told her that diets aren't healthy, that' it's better just to develop good eating habits, but if she really wants to change her body, I guess my job is to educate her to do it in a healthy way.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Beer & Cheese Bread, Bernard Clayton Recipe

Braided Beer and Cheese Bread

This has got to be the best bread I have ever had. Ever. And I make it myself. So anyone should be able to do it. The recipe is from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads, and someone has been kind enough to type out the entire recipe exactly as written in the book (is that legal?), here. The key ingredients are beer and two kinds of cheese.
The keys to the Best Bread You'll Ever Eat


--5 cups bread flour
--2 packets rapid-rise yeast
--12 oz. beer (really doesn't matter what kind--this batch was Miller Lite)
--12 oz. processed American or Swiss cheese (we're talking sandwich slices here, or you could even use Velveeta, if you believe that Velveeta is actually food; I prefer American)
--2 Tbsp. sugar
--1Tbsp. salt
--2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
--8 oz. Natural (block) Swiss cheese

In a heavy saucepan, heat the beer, American cheese, sugar, salt, and butter just until melted and blended.
Warm the beer, American cheese, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan until just melted.

Immediately remove from heat, and allow the liquid to cool until it's just "warm." Too hot, and it will kill the yeast, too cool and the yeast won't activate. Stir occasionally to keep the cheese blended. I pour mine out of the saucepan I heated it in, to speed the process.
Set melty stuff aside to cool until it's just warm

Meanwhile, combine 2 cups of the bread flour with the 2 packets of yeast in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Chop up the 8 oz. of Swiss cheese into 1/4-inch pieces. Later, when you leave the room and your BAD counter-surfing ninja poodle eats the cheese, you'll have to chop up 8 MORE ounces.
Chop a half pound of natural Swiss cheese. Then, after your BAD counter-surfing dog eats it all while the dough is rising, clean the counter and chop the OTHER half-pound of Swiss.

Once the liquid mixture has cooled sufficiently, add it to the flour and yeast mixture you've set aside, and stir it well with a wooden spoon or with a mixer. Then gradually add in the remaining 3 cups of flour, blending by hand or mixer until the dough is a shaggy mass that cleans the sides of the bowl.
When liquid mixture is just warm, add yeast to 2 cups of the flour, mix with liquid.

Gradually add in remaining 3 cups flour, mixing until dough is a shaggy mass that cleans the sides of the bowl.

Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface, working the Swiss cheese cubes into the dough as you knead the dough for several minutes, slamming it against the work surface occasionally.
OOPS--forgot this one!  After mixing dough,turn out onto floured surface and work swiss cheese cubes into dough while kneading

Place dough in a large, buttered bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover tightly and set to rise until doubled, at least an hour. My personal no-fail dough rising method in this drafty house is to boil a cup of water in the microwave, then push the cup of water into the corner of the microwave, and set the dough bowl in the microwave with the hot water, shut the door and leave it for an hour.
set dough to rise in a buttered bowl until doubled

ohhhhh, yeahhhhhh.

Punch the dough down for a minute or so, working the air out of the dough, but don't man-handle it for too long.
punch it!

Divide the dough into two equal portions, then with one portion at a time, press the dough out into a rectangular shape that is a couple of inches longer and wider than your loaf pans (this recipe calls for 8" x 4" loaf pans). Leaving 1/2" intact at the top end, cut the slab of dough into three equal pieces, and then braid them, tucking the ends under. (You can skip the braiding--I only do it because Bernard says to, and I kind of love him.)
divide dough in half, press into a rectangle that is longer and wider than your loaf pan

split into three pieces, joined at the top, for braiding

Place the loaves into buttered pans (actually, I just used cooking spray, liberally applied), cover the tops with wax paper, and set to rise. I use the closed-microwave method here, too.
set braided loaf in greased pan, cover with wax paper, set to rise

Just. Like. That.

Recipes always say to let loaves rise to "1/4-inch above the rim of the loaf pan," but if I can get more rise in a loaf, I like it even better!
they always say to rise a loaf to 1/4 inch above the edge of the pan, but why stop there?

Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes, tenting the top of the loaves with aluminum foil for the final 10-15 minutes of baking time, to prevent the tops from over-browning. Turn loaves out onto a wire rack to cool, and be sure to get a slice while it's still warm, just to eat out of hand. This stuff is a meal in itself, but see Ninja Poodles! for a quick recipe for one of the best grilled-cheese sandwiches you ever had.
Braided Beer and Cheese Bread

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Easiest Ever Broccoli-Ham Casserole

practicing for her cooking show

Start with this stuff--
leftover ham (or chicken, or mushrooms, or whatever)
1 cup or 2 cups cooked brown rice
1 cup sharp cheddar or cheese of choice
1/2 cup light sour cream
1 can reduced fat cream of mushroom (or celery, or chicken, or whatever) soup
bag of frozen broccoli
BaconSalt (or seasonings of choice)
buttered breadcrumbs:
broccoli ham casserole ingredients

Whomp everything except the breadcrumbs together right in the baking pan.
whomp everything together in a baking pan

Top with buttered breadcrumbs.
top with buttered bread crumbs

Bake at 350 about 30 minutes, until heated through and bubbly. Tip your assistant.
broccoli ham casserole, finished

Because sometimes a hot bath ain't gonna cut it.

Last night I had an intense craving for ice cream. I'm not really sure what was going on, it's been an especially stressful week, and it was only Tuesday. I just needed some sweet relief. And that's how I get relief. Relief from anxiety and stress are the top two reasons I eat compulsively. Relief from boredom is a secondary reason. The feeling of needing relief is sometimes very intense, I feel like I'm in a pressure cooker, and the only way to get the lid off is to stuff something sugary in my mouth.

I decided I was not going to the store to buy a fix. At first I was going to make some zucchini bread. Hey, it's not spinach salad, but it's the best I could do at the time. But then I was just too damn tired, so I poured a bowl of cereal instead. And we didn't have any milk. And I was pissed. And my pissed-ness was out of proportion to being out of milk. And then I ate it dry.

The question that's rolling through my head is, how bad is it to self medicate? I don't drink, it makes me ill-- nausea, headache, but I know plenty of people who drink. Sometimes they drink as a social thing, but a lot of the time they drink for relief-- to chill. When I eat in order to relieve stress or anxiety, that's what I'm doing. Should I just sit with my feelings instead? Is that a healthier choice? Does medicating myself with food really stunt my emotional growth, as the pop-psych theory claims? What if I eat carrots to soothe? I'm not saying it would do the trick, but it's a healthier option, physically. Is that better? Or should I resist soothing myself with food under any circumstances. That seems like a very tall, and unrealistic order.

Now, as a Christian, [and I rarely mention my religion because a) it's personal, b) it's usually misunderstood, and c) I'm not a very good one] I know I really should be giving my anxiety and stress to God, but that seems like a very esoteric concept. How the hell (see, I shouldn't say hell) am I supposed to do that exactly? I mean I know that truly is the answer, but you may as well say flapping my arms and flying is the answer, because I don't get it. Also being the little addict I am, I need immediate relief, and frankly relief from on high takes a little too long to get here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Use it or lose it

I'm currently waiting for my husband to make up his damn mind decide which job he's going to take. One choice will require big changes around here, so in lieu of throwing up, I'm posting more cleaning tips! These tips have saved my bee-hind more times than I can tell.

Tip #1: If you haven't used it in a year, throw it out, or box it up. Listen, you want to get rid of clutter? You have to be ruthless. Clutter is lurking just behind the cupboard door, peering out of every nook and cranny. It will take over your house if you're not ever vigilant.

When you're going through a box, pile, or closet of stuff, ask yourself: "Have I used this in the last year?" If the answer is yes, put it away. If the answer is no, ask yourself the next qualifying question: "Does this item add to my quality of life?" If the answer is no to both questions, throw it out, sell it, or give it away, but get rid of it.

If the answer is no to the first question, but yes to the second, chances are the item is of sentimental value only, and can be stored out in the garage, where it won't have to compete for counter space with your bills and medication. The second question also allows you to keep your great grandmother's candle snuff, but gives you the freedom to pitch little Johnny's clay pot without feeling guilty.

Tip#2: Have a walk-thru at least twice a day.
A walk through is when you walk through each room in the house, and pick up everything that belongs to you. Likewise, all the other members of the family pick up and put away all the stuff that belongs to them. Our walk-thrus are after school and before bed. It really keeps messes from getting out of hand. At first these may take quite a bit of time, but before long you'll be able to do a walk-thru in 10 minutes or less. Promise!

Tip #3: Have one smallish toy bin, and one stuffed animal bin, per kid.
I'm a minimalist when it comes to toys. That's because my kids mostly play with a few toys, and instead play a lot of "pretend" games. If you have a kid who has 8 million Legos, loves each one tenderly, and knows them all by name, maybe this method won't work for you, but I think it's still employable.

If your kids are old enough to evaluate which toys are their favorites, have them fill the bin with toys. When the bin is full, that's it, all the other toys are bagged up and put in the garage. If your child is too young to really differentiate, and it's ALL his favorite, then sometime when he's at school, or at a friend's house, fill the bin with stuff you know he loves and plays with, and bag up the rest of the toys and put them in the garage. As your bagging up the toys, tell them that if they want to play with a toy, you'll get it out for them.

Now here's the dirty, rotten, sneaky trick. If two weeks or a month goes by, all the toys that still remain in the bags? Go to the giant Goodwill in the sky. I can almost guarantee that if they haven't asked for it, they're not going to miss it one iota.

Each of my kids has a small bin similar to this. Not very big, and nice and wide at the top. There's no point in buying them a big honkin' Rubbermaid monstrosity that they can't find anything in. They do have a large Rubbermaid bin to keep stuffed animals in, because they take up a lot of room, and my kids have a jillion ( I swear they procreate!). We keep larger toys, like play microwaves, and laptops on the bookshelves, but we try to keep those to a minimum.

You can tailor this idea to suit your own needs, but the point is your kids won't miss all the toys they don't have, and for the orderly challenged you've got to keep it simple, if you want a clutter-free house.

Hi, My Name Is Sisyphus, And This Is My Boulder.

At least that's how I feel today. I put in something like 5 to 6 cumulative hours on household/family maintenance today, and when I went to bed, everything was just the same as it was when I got up. It's defeating, and it leads to a view of the days, months, and years stretching out before me in household futility.

I mean, I understand that there's something to be said for maintaining the status quo--in fact, it's my very failure to do that which has led me to the point where I'm puking up said failure all over the Internets. I understand how important it is to do those "little things," those thankless tasks that keep a family running. I do. But if I'm doing THAT all the time, how will I ever have time to make anything BETTER?

I mean...hours, literal HOURS on my feet in the house today, with nothing to show for it except that...well, it's not WORSE. Which, I suppose, is more than I could have said at bedtime a couple of weeks ago. When I think of what my mother came home to every day after work when I was a kid, I want to go back in time and slap myself stupid for a.) not cleaning up after my dang SELF, and b.) not kissing her feet in appreciation on a daily basis. Crap, I'm about to cry right now.

After cooking and serving dinner, and Bella's bedtime, and cleanup of dinner, and feeding of dogs and horses, and walking of dogs, and gathering of laundry, when I finally sat down at 10:40 PM, it was with one of the last remaining boxes from the infamous pile. When I opened it, it was full of such random, I-Have-No-Place-To-Put-It-But-I-Can't-Throw-It-Away STUFF, that I just took out the few books (those, at least, I can shelve) and closed it right back up. And left it sitting there, on the loveseat, and turned out the light and went to bed. Which is where I am now. Crying into my computer over the fact that (and yes, this is just hitting home in a big way--I'm a slow learner) THIS NEVER ENDS. And also that if I stop, even for a minute, we begin to slide backward. Again.

I would like to thank my husband for, without being asked, having apparently voluntarily taken up the mantle of chief dishwasher in the last couple of weeks. It is much appreciated. I'm about a thousand times more likely to cook you good food if the dishes I need to use to do so are already clean. I'll take advantage of Canadian Thanksgiving time to count my blessings.

Seriously, achievers, how do you cope? And how do you carve IMPROVEMENT time out of your meager allotment of MAINTENANCE time?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Body of work

I do a pretty lousy job of taking care of my body. Here is the grim and embarrassing truth:
  • I shower about once a week
  • I brush my teeth about every other day
  • I never floss
  • I wash my face a couple of times a week, if I'm lucky
  • Same with moisturizer and make up
  • I don't brush my hair everyday
  • I rarely style it
I do keep my nails nice, that's about the only part of my body I pay attention to, because of course, that's the part I see. As for the inside of my body, it's pretty much the same story.
  • I'm really, really overweight (don't let the picture on my blog fool you, I was looking up to hide my double chin.)
  • I very rarely exercise
  • I eat way to much junk
  • I eat far too few fruits and veggies
  • I often forget to take my anti-depressant
  • Even more often I forget to take vitamins
  • I sometimes go days without drinking any water
So far my body, God love it, has been pretty tolerable of this neglect. I've been blessed with good genes, but I'm 41, nature can't save me from nurture forever. Now don't get me wrong, like a smoker who's trying to kick the habit, I do make an effort to make changes. And, although you wouldn't know it from that list, changes are slowly happening.

Despite my policy of not going to the doctor unless I'm bleeding out my eyes, just recently I went for long overdue visits to both the dentist, and the dermatologist. The dentist paid off his car, thanks to me. The dermatologist found some cancerous spots on my face, so I'm sure I'll be sending him on a nice vacation by the time he's through.

Starting this February I stopped eating fast food, and stopped bringing junk food into the house. We rarely eat red meat, and I switched to fat free dairy, when it's an option. I bought a treadmill, and a bike, which I do use occasionally. And just like that smoker, I do keep trying, practicing quitting, if you will, these bad habits. I keep forming new plans, to see what will work, and I don't beat myself up for failing, the way I used to.

My current plan, starts this morning. I'm going to take car of as many things as possible on that list, first thing in the morning. I'm going to get on the treadmill, and walk in front of my light box. I hate doing both, so I'm going to try to get them over with one shot. I'm going to take my meds, and vitamin with a ginormous glass of water, and then I'm going to take care of my hair and face and teeth. All told, it won't take me more than an hour, the time many women spend on themselves in the morning. Why shouldn't I spend one hour of the day improving my mental and physical health? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Acronyms for the orderly-challenged

Hi! Sheryl, from Paper Napkin here. I'm so glad Belinda and I are collaborating on this blog. I have a lot of areas of my life where I need to get it together, and I think you, and she, and I can all help each other, hooray for blogs!

85-90% of the time my house is clean. The rest of the time my house is either very clean, or a sty. Now clean to me, may not be clean to you. Clean to me means when I bring in groceries, I have a place to put the bags down. It means I can walk around my house without stepping on stuff. It means neighbors can drop by, and I'm not embarrassed. Unless it's my pin-neat neighbor (curse her). It does not mean a place for everything and everything in its place. I wish I were that kind of person, but I ain't never gonna be that kind of person. Plus I have 3 little kids, so I've let go of that dream. Case in point, was going to take pictures of my house to show you what clean means to me, but I can't find the battery charger for the camera.

I've always been a messy person. When I was in college, there were wall to wall clothes in my apartment, and days-old dishes in the sink, and it was the same when I lived at home. But I've always hated being messy. Messes depress me, so over the years I found a way to control it. Then I had kids, and that threw me for a loop for a while, but I've got it under control again.

There are a lot of little tricks I use to keep the house clean. The verymost important one is DLFB. When I first started cracking the whip on my inner slob, I asked myself, what are the essentials? What areas of housekeeping absolutely must be done for me to feel sane and peaceful? DLFB: dishes, laundry, floors, bathrooms. Since I'm a dork, I made a sentence to help me remember: Domestic labor feels beautiful. (I told you I was a dork.)

If I do a little bit in each of these areas daily (or almost daily), keeping the rest of the house clean seems to follow. Notice I said a little bit. I do one load of dishes a day, I run the dishwasher at night, and my kids empty it in the morning, so I can stick a few dishes in it here and there during the day. Occasionally I have to do 2 loads, but most of the time I can pack the dishwasher full enough that I only have to do one load.

I also do one large load of laundry a day. We're a family of 5, so that doesn't keep the hampers empty, but it does keep them from overflowing. I hate laundry with the fire of a thousand suns, so I try to encourage us not to cycle through too many clothes. I make the kids change after school, which keeps school clothes nice, and who cares if their play clothes are dirty? (Well, actually I care, but I care more about not having tons of laundry, so if it's a choice between my pride and more work, laziness always wins.)

As for the bathrooms, I just do one thing a day. I clean the toilets, or sometimes just one toilet. Or I swipe the counters. It takes me 30 seconds, and I'm done for the day. I keep the Windex and paper towels on the counter and The Works (which I swear by) by the toilet in each bathroom, so they're right there. Inconvenience is the enemy of clean, if you're a lazy slob. I approach floors the same way. I vacuum one room, or sweep, or mop, but never all in one day. If it seems doable I'll do it, otherwise, forget it.

Figuring out the non-negotiables of housecleaning put things in clear perspective. DLFB saved my butt, and my house. It makes house cleaning manageable, because it's just 4 things! I can do that! It gives me peace of mind, and when those things are done, it makes keeping the rest of the house clean fairly easy. I tell you the other tricks I use too. Hope they help!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Leftover-Fest Jambalaya

I got several things accomplished at once today, and I'm kinda proud. Tired, but proud. First of all, the kitchen is clean. The kitchen. Is. Clean. You have no idea how big that is. I made a good, hot dinner, and did it using leftovers and Stuff I Already Had On Hand. That is also huge. AND, everyone ate it. Admittedly, Bella only ate a molecule or two, but she is the preschooler human equivalent of an air fern.

OK, so here's what I had:

Ham left over from what Alex brought home last night
A partial package of frozen tail-on shrimp
Chicken broth that I cooked boil-in-bag rice in last week, and then froze
Three leftover pieces of frozen garlic bread
One packet of instant brown rice
Half a bag of frozen chopped onions
A can of diced tomatoes with peppers, onion and celery
File' powder
Garlic powder
Olive Oil
Louisiana hot sauce
Coarse Kosher salt

And here's what I made with it:
7  add shrimp at the end of cooking process

And here's how--again, you can change this up about a million ways, however you like. I started with a pat of butter and a splash of olive oil in a Dutch oven.
1  A pat of butter, a splash of olive oil

Sauteed the onion and garlic (or garlic powder) until browned.
2   brown onions and garlic

Added about a cup of uncooked, instant brown rice, and a couple cups of chopped ham, stirred to coat in oil.
3   add ham and uncooked rice, stir to blend

Added the can of diced tomatoes (the variety with celery and peppers added).
4  add diced tomatoes

Added the 2-3 cups of chicken broth, that I'd partially thawed in the microwave.
5   add chicken broth

Reduced heat, covered, and simmered for a while, cooking down the liquid, while also adding gumbo file' powder to thicken.
6  reduce heat, simmer, cooking down

When optimal thickness was reached, added the frozen shrimp and cooked just 'til done, a couple of minutes.
7  add shrimp at the end of cooking process

Removed shrimp, pulled tails off because my family would whine about having to do it themselves, put tailless shrimp back into jambalaya, made final adjustments to seasoning and thickness, then served with garlic bread, hey presto.
8  pull tails off shrimp, adjust thickness and seasoning if desired, serve

This is kind of a big deal for me, because I'm bad about accumulating ingredients in my pantry and freezer, and not using them. To stop doing that is one of the goals I'm trying to reach with all this (there are MANY), because to not do so is wasteful of food and money, and we certainly don't have money to spare around here. I work too hard organizing coupon sprees to waste the spoils of my victory.

Like Sands Through The Hourglass...

So are the days of our lives. Wednesday dinner? No clue. I'm thinking Alex brought something home, but I was largely unconscious. This was my dinner, because I had one of my (thankfully increasingly rare) migraines:
migraine / This is Today 52

And since my bad headaches usually involve 36 hours or so of debilitating headache and being largely unconscious from the medication, and then another good half-day of narcotic hangover, Alex also provided dinner Thursday night, in the form of stopping by the Heavenly Ham store in Little Rock, where he had an appointment that day.
Thursday dinner courtesy of Alex

It was great, but now we have ham for days. So, Brilliant Internets! What are your genius ideas for an interesting ham-based dinner for tonight? I'm making omelettes or a quiche tomorrow morning, so don't suggest that (although, if you have a really good quiche recipe, I'd LOVE to have it).

I'm making headway on the current project, and WILL have that done by the weekend, hopefully before the Razorback game on Saturday, which I may be attending, though it's not a done deal. Speaking of the current project, did you guys read my mom's comment here? She's pretty much a super-genius, and a lot to live up to. And she has two daughters who live with Laundry Monsters, much to her chagrin. How did someone like THAT raise someone like ME? As far as housekeeping goes, anyway, it's a mystery.

So, let's have it: Ham for dinner! What say you?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Homemade Stuffed Pasta Shells

homemade stuffed shells

Since I cheated with the frozen shells last week, I figured I'd make some from scratch this week. It's not hard, just a tiny bit "fussy." Don't be deterred, though. You don't have to stick to this recipe closely at all, just fix it to fit your taste. I did. First, brown some ground meat (or leave this out altogether and sub in some ricotta or other cheeses to keep it vegetarian). I used half lean ground beef, half ground turkey breast. I didn't tell my husband about the turkey.
2   brown ground meat

Meanwhile, in a food processor or, if you haven't unpacked your food processor yet (because, you know, you've only lived here for two years), your trusty 40-year-old Osterizer blender, puree a package of fresh baby spinach, a couple shots of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic to taste (I keep the jarred, diced stuff on hand for convenience) and some "holy trinity" (onions, peppers, celery). I always buy the pre-chopped packaged frozen trio and keep several bags in the freezer. SO much better than chopping onions after work. If it's too thick, you can add just a bit of water.
1.)  pulverize fresh spinach, EVOO, holy trinity in food processor or 40 year old blender

pureed spinach mixture

Boil large pasta shells. You won't need a whole box, but I use a whole box, because a bunch of them are not going to hold their shape. Cook them just short of the "al dente" phase, because you want them tough enough to handle--plus, they'll be baking in sauce later anyway. They'll get tender.
3   boil pasta shells

While pasta is boiling, add your spinach puree to the meat mixture, and cook it for 10 minutes or so on medium heat. When it's done, this is where you season to taste. I used kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, and because the new hasn't worn off yet, some BaconSalt.
5  while pasta is boiling, mix spinach puree with meat, cook 10 minutes

Once cooked and seasoned, transfer the meat/spinach filling mixture to a shallow dish to let it cool. You might want to stick it in the freezer for 5 minutes, even--it has to cool because you'll be adding an egg shortly, and you don't want scrambled egg in your filling.
transfer spinach / meat mixture to shallow dish to cool

Drain and rinse pasta, "shocking" it with cold water so it will be cool enough to handle and won't stick to itself.
drain and rinse pasta shells

Stir in a handful of fresh grated parmesan cheese and one egg to the cooled filling mixture.
stir in a handful of fresh shredded parmesan and one egg to cooled filling mixture

Use a small spoon to stuff the shells with the filling.
stuff shells with filling mixture

Pour about a cup of pasta sauce into the bottom of a baking dish. Yes, it's sauce from a jar. I don't feel much like making fresh sauce when I get home from work, either. I used a tomato-basil variety; store-brand, even.
10.)  spread about a cup of pasta sauce on bottom of baking dish

Lay stuffed shells over sauce in the baking dish.
lay stuffed shells over sauce

Pour remaining sauce from jar over the stuffed shells. Cover, and bake at 350 degrees for about a half hour.
pour remaining sauce over shells, cover and bake

Garnish with grated parmesan, fresh basil, whatever you like, and serve. This is way more filling than it looks, so go easy on the portions, especially if you're serving a side dish.
homemade stuffed shells