Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Like Money In The Bank!

I lost my cooking jzjjzzzewzzjjjshzsh.  

My j-oo-zsh. 

Zshoozsh.

Jush.

I LOST MY COOKING MO-JO!!!

......

a.k.a........

Lately I've been tired of cooking.

Actually, more specifically, lately I've been tired.  And our normal eating patterns have suffered.

Lately we have reached for pizza in a box on more than one occasion.  Unheard of over here.  Not that they're not good, but there's usually something slightly more enticing than that that we want to eat.  But pizza in a box serves just fine when you're tired and out of mo-jo.

That Rachel Ray never seems to run out of mo-jo.  She probably makes fairly good bucks out of being full of mo-jo.  She makes those 1/2 hour meals look so easy but, really, does she do her own grocery shopping?  How about the dishes?  Her small cupboards are always full of every ingredient that she needs for that day's recipe - is she that good or is there some middle person involved in her efficiency?

I jest.  Of course she has a middle man.  Or two.  Or fifty.

Well, I don't have a middle man. 

Someone "pinned" something on Pinterest the other night that totally caught my attention.  (I am still wading through this Pinterest thing....not really willing to spend lots of time checking stuff out but I do like seeing what my friends are pinning.)

Anyway, the concept is Slow Cooker Freezer Meal Cooking.  Basically, these people are posting recipes of slow cooker meals that they are preparing in advance, freezing, then pulling out and popping into the slow cooker for a good hot meal 8 hours later or less.  Some of them were actually preparing slow cooker meals for a month at a time.  That's a lot of slow cooker meals.

Hmm.

I sorted through the first few recipes that I found and was a little skeptical as these gals were putting everything into their freezer bags, including uncooked potatoes.  Their recipes were met with rave reviews but, I don't know, I don't always find that frozen potatoes turn out that well, and raw ones frozen then cooked?  Well, obviously, I'm still skeptical.  I really don't need a complete meal pre-prepared - it doesn't take much time to cook some potatoes, noodles or rice when the supper hour is right around the corner.

So I spent a couple of days coming up with my own plan.  I committed to giving this concept a go and my target was to have 5 ziploced slow cooker meals in the freezer by the end of the week.  When I got a few meat bargains at the grocery store today, I got started and already have 4 meals in the freezer.  I will head back to the store on Friday to get some chicken to do a couple of chicken meals and then will consider the job done. 

When I chose my recipes, I only selected ones that involved the meat and a marinade/sauce that only included fresh onions and/or garlic for vegetables.   Basically, the meat went into the ziploc bag, raw, followed by seasonings/sauces/marinades.  I rubbed the marinades into the meat so that the meat was covered, zipped up the bag and took it to the freezer.  Before I will use a package, I will thaw the meat in the fridge overnight and then put it in the slow cooker for the day.  I wrote the recipe title and cooking times/temps (high or low) on the ziploc bag.  And I'm kind of excited!  I tried a few combinations of things that I haven't tried before.  It feels really nice going into a busy work week next week, knowing that a good meal will be within reach for anyone who is left at home to cook.

Curious as to what I've made so far?
  • Applesauce Pork Pieces - applesauce/Dijon mustard/sage based pork steaks
  • Honey Parmesan Pork Roast - honey, Parmesan cheese, basil, soy sauce infused pork roast
  • Cranberry Turkey Breast - cranberry sauce/onion soup mix over white meat
  • Rosemary Beef Roast
The Rosemary Beef Roast smelled amazing when I was preparing it.  I haven't always been a fan of rosemary, but have been growing it in my garden for the last couple of years.  I've tried to include it in small quantities in recipes and have developed a taste for it.  The rosemary that I used today was some that I dried from last year's crop.  I hope I didn't use too much but the roast was huge so I'm hoping it will balance out.  Here's the recipe:

Rosemary Beef Roast
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
5- to 6-lb beef boneless sirloin tip roast
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves (I used much less, dried)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1 medium onion, sliced
1 cup beef flavored broth  
3 tablespoons chili sauce
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 In small bowl, mix oil and Worcestershire sauce; brush over beef roast. Rub roast evenly with garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper. In 5- to 6-quart slow cooker, add onion. Pour 1/4 cup of the broth over onion. Place beef roast on onion. Refrigerate remaining broth.
2 Cover and cook on Low heat setting 8 to 9 hours.
3 Remove beef from cooker; cover to keep warm. In small bowl, mix remaining 3/4 cup broth, the chili sauce and flour; stir into hot mixture in cooker. Increase heat setting to High. Cook uncovered 5 to 10 minutes or until thickened. Serve gravy with beef.
I will have to let you know how these turn out!  For chicken meals, I want to do a Italian Cream Cheese one plus maybe a gumbo.  But I have a couple more days to search for good recipes and to find inspiration.  I'm hoping to have found some new family favorites.  Preparing the food took an hour, hour and a half once I fiddled around with cutting up a large pork loin into smaller pieces and trimming it, etc. 

Good food, waiting to be cooked is, really, like money in the bank.  Better not hoard it!  ;).

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Of Birthdays and Growing Up

Thirteen years ago the labor pains started around 8 p.m. as we left church and were heading out to our friends' place for coffee.  "Surely this can't be labor!" I thought.  Ridiculous thought, though, considering "baby" was already a week overdue.

Pains increased when we arrived at their home and I started pacing through their living room/kitchen, thinking I could 'walk it off'.  Nope, couldn't be done.

Home we went for a few more rounds of pacing through our house before we decided that it might be a good idea to head to the hospital.  By 1:30 a.m. "Andrew Jonathan Dynna" was born and I haven't been the same since.

It's amazing what motherhood does to us.  Softens our hearts, brings out the 'mother bear' protective spirit, opens our eyes to new wonders.

Thirteen years ago, the new wonders were watching him grow, open his eyes, start to smile, coo.  Take his first crawl, punch out a new tooth.

New wonders continue, though, even now.

I love watching this amazingly unique person surface.  He surprises me many times with his quirky sense of humor, his tender hugs, his insight into "life", his talent, his own personal collection of memories.

Yup.  I love this kid.

We've taken a bit of time to celebrate somewhat casually over the course of this week.  We had supper with his paternal grandparents on Sunday; he had a friend sleepover last night and tomorrow we will head to Saskatoon to celebrate a little with his maternal grandparents/aunty-uncle.

My, how birthday celebrations have changed too.

Wow, those early birthdays were quite a show... decorating all manner of theme cakes, creating theme invitations, coming up with games/activities to, hopefully, entertain a houseful of hyper children, coming up with a long list of gift suggestions.  Oy.

This year was simple.

On top of an (granted, pricier) electronics gift that he requested, he wanted....

............ready for it....

........

SOCKS.

And ONE friend to sleepover.  And, by the way, "let's not tell him it's my birthday".

Whew.

How did that all happen?

Where is the hopeful little child, asking for a tow-truck cake, a specific list of Hot Wheels and 10 guests at the bowling alley?

Those were fun times.

This is fun, too.

He got his electronics gift, several packages of socks, one friend to sleepover and an independent trip to the movies to boot.

However, I did have to do one foodie thing for fun.  And he wasn't too old or mature to enjoy it.

Thank you Pioneer Woman for the great idea!

Chocolate Cookies With Toppings

1 cup softened butter
1 cup icing sugar
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla

Cream the above ingredients.  Then add:
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/4 tsp salt
Mix until combined.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for as long as you want (I chilled mine for 1 - 11/2 hours).

Roll out to about 1/4" thickness and cut into rectangles.  Place on a well greased cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 7-9 minutes.  These cookies will not rise or spread.  Remove to cooling rack to cool.

Toppings:
Melted chocolate wafers - I had a bowl of white chocolate and a bowl of milk chocolate
Crushed candy bits - I used crushed smarties, crushed reese's peanut bits, crushed Andes mint thins and candy coated mini chocolate chips.

Dip the cookie in to the melted wafers and then into crushed candy bowls of your choice.

You can either let them cool/harden or eat while the chocolate is still melted/warm.

Expect a bit of a mess!  I have a few left over supplies so will melt the chocolate again and dip the cookies until there's nothing left to dip and let them cool/harden to enjoy for the rest of the week  day.

Happy 13th birthday, Andrew!  You can look on Pioneer Woman's site for a great picture of the cookies.  I, myself, am more partial to this picture!


Thursday, 9 February 2012

It Takes Imagination

It takes imagination to be a good cook.

Or.

It takes imagination to come up with ideas to inspire a cook.

Or.

It takes imagination to think up things that must have been made before that you'd like to try to cook.

Or.

It takes an almost-13-year old son to dream up something that sounds a bit wild but makes you do a quick search on Google only to find that it's not wild at all, in fact, someone far more imaginative than you has already done it!!!!

Sigh.

Andrew came home from school yesterday, and proceeded to stand there, wishing to himself and to me that he could get some of that "CHOCOLATE POPCORN" like he's seen in the malls.

Andrew?  Hello?  I've never seen you be interested in the popcorn shop at any mall.  I've never seen this "chocolate popcorn" that you're wishing upon a star for.

Apparently you've been shopping without me. 

Regardless, this silly mama went looking on Google for inspiration.  The very first search result was interesting enough to convince me that we could easily give it a try and I was able to inspire him with the information that, if he helped me, he'd be eating chocolate popcorn within 45 minutes or less.

We love popcorn here.  Ben manages to twist my arms many nights with his request for "your WORLD FAMOUS popcorn, Mom"!!  That means - hot air popcorn made with REAL butter, lightly salted.  How do you refuse a request like that?  I'm so flattered.  World famous.  Sheesh.

Another Ann (not my mom, Anne with an 'e') in my life first introduced me to homemade caramel corn back in the 1980's.  We've been making it for years; my parents make it nearly every Christmas, and Dad gets horrified when I tell him that I've made my batch without peanuts.  It's all about the peanuts for him. 

Another person shared a terrific recipe for Poppycock and I make this often at Christmas, too.  However, unlike caramel corn (where I can take or leave the peanuts behind), my poppycock has to be l-o-a-d-e-d with nice and salty mixed nuts.  The more nuts the better.  I love.

Once in awhile, I will make Peanut Butter Popcorn for Andrew.  The peanut coating remains soft and gooey and is so yummy.  I was going to say that I make it for Andrew and I to share, but there isn't very much sharing that goes on, to tell you the truth.

This Chocolate Popcorn recipe was a surprise hit for me.  I know there are a surprising number of people who aren't in love with chocolate, and that's just fine.  I'm not a chocaholic, by any means, but this is really nice.  I think I possibly used more popped popcorn than they asked for in the recipe, which meant that it wasn't overly candied, which makes it a nice snack without being overbearing in the sweet department.

Here is:

Chocolate Popcorn

8 cups popped popcorn
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup syrup
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 250 F.  Lightly grease or spray a rimmed cookie sheet.

Place popcorn into a large, metal bowl, and set aside.
Stir together the sugar, corn syrup, cocoa powder, and butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat until it comes to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Stir in the vanilla, then pour over the popcorn. Stir until the popcorn is well coated. Spread the popcorn into the prepared pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, stirring several times.
Remove from the oven, and allow to cool to room temperature. Break into small clumps, and store in an airtight container.  IF you have any left to store, that is!  ;)

I can see this being a real hit for sleepover parties!!  Enjoy!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

From Routine to Red!!!

Had to brush up the design of the blog today.  Seems I'm tired of the mundane.  ;)

What do you think?

I wish I was a talented photographer; I see so many terrific pictures of every day things online, but I guess one has to start somewhere.  I barely get a good picture out of a "point and shoot" camera and this monster we have is a little beyond point and shoot.  I think it probably pays to snap and snap and snap many times a day to discover what works, etc.

I currently love red.  If I have a choice about any purchase for my kitchen, it will undoubtedly be red.  This is a wee taste of the red things I found around the house.

Ha ha, just looked up "red personality" and it is defined as this:

"Red personalities generally live up to their name; independent, dominant, feisty, outspoken, goal-orientated, risk-taker, efficient, persistent. A self-starter who enjoys a challenge and loves solving problems! They are likely to be pilots, politicians, CEO's or managing directors of firms, lawyers, military leaders etc etc."

Hmm, a military leader?  My boys might say so when it comes to getting chores done!

Anyway, good fun for a Saturday afternoon! 

Hope you enjoy the new design!

Epic Fail

Oh boy, did I ever had an epic fail yesterday.  I'm still recovering mentally.  There's always a story....

Last weekend, Dean and I were at Break Forth in Edmonton.  Break Forth is a huge non-denominational conference, with big sessions with well known speakers, small workshops, concerts, etc.  Yeah, us and about 15 000 of our closest friends were there.  ;)  Oh man, it is such a good time, so much fun and the calibre of music and speakers is high.  We went hard for 2 1/2 days; it starts Friday evening and goes all the way through until Sunday night, if you buy in on the Sunday night closing concert.

We opted for the Sunday night concert this year.  Down Here blew me away, so good!  How many stories are there that I could tell you about Down Here....  Amazing band.  Look them up, and, while you're at it, check out Marc Martel and his upcoming adventures with the Queen Tribute Band.  Starfield was next and were also enjoyable although I'm not familiar with their stuff.  The main band that closed the night was Third Day.  I've listened to a lot of their stuff over the years and was pumped up for them in an exhausted sort of fashion so when they hit the stage with a louder volume than I've experienced anywhere ever (and I've been to a LOT of concerts), we made an early exit about 3/4 of the way through their set.  With a packed room of 12 to 15 thousand people, I don't think they noticed!  My ears hurt.  I've really never had that happen before.  But, really, they were SO good.  And we were so tired.  And completely satisfied with all that we had been part of for the entire weekend, so missing 10-15 minutes of their concert really wasn't a hardship!

Monday morning we needed to say farewell to Edmonton and hit the road.  On a whim, we headed to Whyte Avenue on the way out of town, hoping on hope that the Vietnamese Sub restaurant that Dean had been to in the summer would be open so that we could grab some food for the road.  We were too early and would have had to wait around for another hour just for them to open, so decided to pursue one final adventure before returning to P.A.

We entered the correct search into the GPS and successfully found our way to an Italian Grocery Store.  I didn't know that there was an Italian community in Edmonton to support it, but there are actually two Italian Grocery Stores.  And these are the real deal.  They are no tourist trap, there is nothing fancy about the store, other than it excels in, well, Italian foods.

Mommy.

I want to go back there.

Okay, there is an entire aisle of pastas.  Every style, shape and color of pasta that you can think of and no Catelli to be found.  Then there are shelves laden with tomatoes.  Shelves entirely dedicated to olive oils, balsamic vinegars.  An Italian deli, with Italian meats and Italian cheeses. 

THEN, sigh, an Italian bakery.

Oh my word.  The bakery.  Dozens of loaves of rustic breads sitting out, freshly baked.  We came home with two loaves of bread - one round flat loaf, dusted with flour on the top, and one loaf of olive herb bread.  So tasty. 

We also came home with dessert to share with Dean's parents and the boys for supper that night.  And this is where I died.

We picked six different pieces from the selection - a stuffed cannoli, vanilla butter horn, vanilla layer torte, butterscotch layer cake, lemon layer cake and, the piece de resistance, a pistachio layered torte.

After we paid for our groceries, we picked up two cups of coffee to go from their cafe along with two croissants, drizzled with chocolate and sliced almonds, stuffed with nutella and hit the road, having left a mere $7.75 behind for our snack.

It was quiet for awhile.  All of that savoring and chewing and sipping of good coffee.

There was so much to talk about on the way home; memories of the conference, things we learned, things we enjoyed, things that challenged us, layers of habits that we need to re-think.  Good things.  I love being shown that there are different ways to live than the way we've become comfortable with.  One speaker told us that we trick ourselves into falling in love with the mundane because we're afraid to step out into new things.  We can totally relate to that.  We're hungry for freshness.

And so we arrived back home and were greeted with smiles and hugs from the boys.  It's good to come home to love.

We sat down to supper and eagerly shared our experiences with anyone who was ready to listen.  And then dessert came out.

We cut thin little slices off each piece so that we could each have a taste of everything.  They were all wonderful, really wonderful.  But the piece that took my breath away was the Pistachio Layered Torte.  The dessert consisted of thin thin layers of a light cake, with 1-2 different fillings layered between the cake, repeated.  Colored the palest shade of green, the delicate flavor of pistachio shone through.  I was in heaven.  I am not a cake fan, but this cake was heaven.

Later this week, I went on an internet search for a recipe that might come close to duplicating this treasure.  The first results were easy to dismiss, being various concoctions of cake mixes mixed with pistachio pudding.  Many versions of the classic pistachio pudding/cool whip/cream cheese dessert that we all made in the 90s appeared and were also easily eliminated.  Once I added "Italian" to the "pistachio torte" search, the search became more refined and I eventually settled on a recipe that seemed as if it might come close to what we'd had.  I bought the ingredients and settled down to bake yesterday afternoon.

On first glance, I thought everything was headed in the right direction.  The cake itself seemed a pretty basic white cake recipe with pistachios added.  It was to be baked in a loaf pan, which seemed okay as it had to be split into three layers anyway.  When it came out of the oven, I was satisfied that it had risen enough and wasn't too dense.  When I split it into three layers, though, I thought the layers were far too thick, but hey, a good filling could make anything work. 

The filling was a simple mix of ricotta cheese (Italian, right?) and icing sugar/vanilla.  This is where the whole thing really headed into disaster land.  As I mixed the ricotta cheese with the icing sugar, it started to get rather runny.  I added more and more icing sugar and whipped it more and added even more icing sugar and it just remained a watery soupy mess.  By now my heart has sunk all the way to my slippers.  It is obvious that it is far, far from the delicate light dessert that I had been treated to from the bakery.  However, I pushed through, assembled the layers and put it in the fridge to set up.  I was so discouraged and frustrated.  Ben kept saying "I'm sorry that your cake didn't turn out".  I sat on the couch and pouted all night for awhile then worked up the nerve to try a piece.  Yeah.  Nah.  Epic fail.  It is just one step away from a pistachio loaf.  Not what I wanted at all.

But, if you're going to try to step out into new things and away from the mundane, you're not always going to be met with success, right?  If I was really afraid of trying new things, I'd be eating chocolate chip cookies out of the bag. 

I want more there to be more to my life than chocolate cookies from the bag.

I will go back to the drawing board on this one.  As I've thought through the specific flavors that I can remember, I think that a plain white cake layered very thinly would be the starting base.  Then I think that a butter cream filling laced with pistachios would have the body to support the thin layers of cake without taking away the flavor of the pistachios.  Perhaps some sturdy whipped cream might be another layer/dimension as well.

I think I need more grant money.

I think I will be returning to the Italian Grocery Store in Edmonton.

I think, next time, I might buy the whole cake.

Try something new, take two!  Your challenge for the week!