Category Archives: Food

Sunday Salon/Currently … Wrapping Up 2017

“And that’s what I think I need to focus on more in 2017 — the moments themselves. Otherwise, the weighty expectations, anxiety, and emotional quagmires become too overwhelming. This isn’t a new realization or epiphany—just one that’s become more clear to me lately. Because yes, even in this craptastic and depressing year, there were some good moments. There’s always some good. Sometimes it’s hidden and hard to find, which means we need to look closer, go deeper. Make no mistake, though: count me among those glad to be drop-kicking 2016 into the ether of time while remaining vigilant of the dark days awaiting this brave new world arriving in 2017.”

~ written by me ( “may we all have our hopes, our will to try“) 12/31/2016

And here we are, at the end of another year … and my God, what a year it was, right? What can I say that hasn’t already been said about 2017? I’m certainly glad it’s over, but at the same time, I’m apprehensive about what the new year will bring. I mean, there’s always some uncertainty but living in these times makes it even moreso. Still, we survived the first year of this godawful regime, which is no small feat.

For this last post of 2017, though, I don’t want to focus on the political.  There’s been plenty of that and next year promises more of the same. I’m planning to resist just as hard — if not more–in 2018. Nor do I want to dwell too much on what was difficult about this year. There have been more than a few disappointments and challenges, ones that won’t vanish at the stroke of midnight. They will still be with us in the days to come. But instead, as I wrote last year, I want to spend the last remaining hours remembering the good moments of the past 365 days while looking ahead to 2018.

Best Moments: Reading 
Reaching my goal of reading 50 books. For those of you who care about such things, I have a separate post in the works with my favorite books of the year and other fun bookish stats.

Best Moments: Writing
Writing for Shelf Awareness where I had 29 book reviews published. In addition to those, I had the privilege of interviewing Douglas Abrams (The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World), John Boyne (The Heart’s Invisible Furies), Heather Harpham (Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Happily Ever After), Natasha Pulley (The Bedlam Stacks), and Beatriz Williams (Cocoa Beach).  I only had one review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, of a book (Lucky Boy) I didn’t like. I say this every year, but I’m hoping to write more in 2018, both on the blog and elsewhere. I need to develop a plan to make this happen.

Best Moments: In the Kitchen 
Getting an Instant Pot!  It has changed my life.

Best Moments: With the Family
Although the weather didn’t cooperate, we enjoyed a relaxing vacation at the shore. It was a nice break in the midst of an intense time. The Boy went to a four week day camp this summer, which also didn’t work out as well as we had hoped. It just wasn’t the best fit. He’s made at least one close friend this year at school and has actually joined an after-school club. He’s been doing a lot of writing. He helped another friend who was considering suicide.

The Girl volunteered at the library this summer, learned how to play the drums (and wants to learn the guitar) as part of Girls Rock Pittsburgh, and participated in two summer writing camp programs. She’s also become quite the artist and is in the Art Club at school. She’s helped several friends in crisis situations, too. Both kids made the High Honor Roll this semester. They’re not perfect — none of us are — and while I wish they would get along better, I’m incredibly proud of both of them.

Best Moments: In Music
Seeing Bon Jovi in concert with The Girl. A great show, even though it was a bit abbreviated because of Jon not feeling well.

Best Moments: At Church
I joined a women’s group at church. We meet monthly and discuss various topics. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these women. The Girl became more active in the youth group.

Best Moments: Healthwise
I had some routine bloodwork done last week and was surprised to learn my cholesterol and triglyceride levels have actually gone DOWN! I’ve also maintained the 10 pound weight loss from when I was running. I haven’t kept up with running but in September, I decided to try yoga — and I really liked it. That’s among my goals for 2018. Oh, and I’ve also gotten into essential oils.

So, here we are. Another New Year’s Eve. Tonight is no different than any other night. We’re hanging out at home, just the four of us, no big plans. I’m finishing up my 50th book of the year. The Husband’s watching something on his iPad — basketball, I think. The kids are in their rooms, doing whatever. Maybe we’ll stay up till midnight and watch everyone freezing their asses off in Times Square. Maybe not.

Wishing you and yours a happy 2018. See you on the other side.

 

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until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow

There was an unsettled feeling to this Christmas, a kind of betwixt and between sense of things. Or, perhaps more accurately, the feeling of being on the precipice of a new, still unsettling normal in our lives. I mean, sometimes one’s new normal descends quickly; it’s here, deal with it, like it or not. Then there are times when the change is more gradual yet still palpable — you see it and you feel it and you know in your heart that everything from here on out will be different.

None of this probably makes much sense, does it? I’m not sure it makes sense to me, despite rewriting that paragraph dozens of times, over several days. I should probably state that the kids are fine. The Husband and I are fine. We’re muddling through some issues (obviously), some of which I’ve discussed here (my father-in-law’s dementia) and some which I haven’t. It was just a reminder of how much has changed, the absence of certain people, and the uncertainty that the future brings.

We spent a few days in Philly for Christmas. It was mostly fine, but there were a lot of reminders and memories of what once was and what is missing. My father-in-law racing around collecting all the wrapping paper as soon as the gifts were opened. My mother-in-law baking cookies. Getting together with several of our longtime friends. For various reasons, none of those things happened this year and I missed all of it. I tried really hard to “get out of my head” and focus on the here and now, to enjoy the holidays. I was semi-successful.

Here are some photo highlights:

Winter solstice sunrise. I happened to catch this in the parking lot of the hospital where I had to get some routine bloodwork done and I was glad I did.

On Christmas Eve, my mom was looking for some things in a closet when some papers fell out. Among them was this Christmas list of gifts for me and The Husband, written in my Mom-Mom’s handwriting. We never saw this list before. Christmas was a big deal for my Mom-Mom.  Her house was always beautifully decorated and she always went overboard with the presents (she shopped for Christmas year round). She has been gone almost 14 years now, and I chose to look at this as her way of wishing us a Merry Christmas.

(Also? The fact that this is written on an investment advisor’s notepad is laughable because my grandmother spent every dime she had (and the dimes she didn’t) on her grandchildren. We were the bonds she chose to invest in. At 48, I can tell you it paid off bigtime.)

I like going back to our former Unitarian Universalist church for Christmas Eve services. The service is generally the same and many of the congregants are familiar faces from when we first attended 17 years ago. It’s a time for me to slow down and reflect on the season. During trips like these that have so much change, it’s a place and a routine that remains constant for me and I love that.

Philly didn’t get a white Christmas this year (completely fine by me) but rather a sunny and extremely windy one. This was a quiet moment at my mom and stepfather’s house on Christmas morning.

We kept the gifts for The Boy and The Girl to a minimum this year — only three per kid, including a bag of small stocking stuffer items.   Some popular gifts, from left to right: For The Boy, Wii Survivor (he’s an expert on all things Survivor — he absolutely loves anything and everything having to do with the show and can talk strategy and eliminations for days); for The Girl, an issue of Teen Vogue guest-edited by Hillary Rodham Clinton; also for The Girl, a Litograph of Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, her absolute favorite author.

My mother-in-law’s traditional Christmas morning breakfast of French toast casserole (on left) and an egg casserole. We all look forward to this every year. As we did for Thanksgiving, we arranged to bring the meal to my father-in-law at the long-term care facility where he is living (The Place) and we were able to eat together. We also had fruit, coffee (which we picked up at Dunkin Donuts beforehand), and juice. For Christmas dinner we did Chinese.

The Girl and I attempted a Scrabble game. It didn’t go well. As soon as I started winning, she wanted nothing to do with the game. (I don’t believe in letting kids win, especially when they’re 16.) So much for trying to start a new tradition.

 

I’ve been off from work since last Wednesday, thanks to having a bunch of vacation days to burn. This week between Christmas and New Year’s is my favorite time of the year. As usual, I had grand plans to accomplish ALL THE THINGS — decluttering the house, collecting certain receipts for tax purposes, organizing my overflowing bookshelves, cleaning out my closet, reading my January review books (and writing the reviews), prepping some blog posts, revamping the blog, going to yoga ….

I wound up doing some of those things. A corner of the kitchen is in the process of being decluttered. I have the majority of the receipts in one place. I prepped some blog posts. I also watched a movie (“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”) and did a “Glee” marathon with The Girl. I cooked some homemade freezer dinners (minestrone soup, chicken breasts with mashed sweet potatoes and vegetables) to take to my mother-in-law and, once in Philly, we took her grocery shopping. I got my required bloodwork done (thyroid level monitoring). I finished one book (H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald) and am almost finished with a second (Autism Adulthood by Susan Senator), putting me within one book of my 2017 Goodreads goal of 50 books. I’ll have some bookish wrap up posts throughout the next few days.

“And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday–the longer, the better–from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will; where have we not been, when we would; starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!”  ~ Charles Dickens

“After so long an absence
At last we meet agin:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?

The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the prophets two or three berries
In the top of the uppermost bough.

We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!

We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year;
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.

We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.

And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.”
“The Meeting” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

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Instant Pot Mexican Enchilada Lasagna (GF, V)

Allow me to introduce you to my newest favorite Instant Pot recipe … Mexican Enchilada Lasagna.

Oh, my God, you guys. Love at first bite.

I should begin by saying a few things. This recipe is modified from an Instant Pot Mexican Pizza I found at The Typical Mom which used ground turkey, olives and green onions. I substituted the plant-based protein Beyond Meat grilled chicken strips (which are gluten-free and vegetarian and my other new favorite thing!) for the turkey, regular onions for the green, and omitted the olives.  You could, of course, forego the meat substitute altogether or replace with beans or use vegetarian ground beef or … the options are kind of endless, really.

The other important thing to know is that, in addition to your Instant Pot, you’ll also need a 6″ springform pan. You could probably use an oven-proof dish of the same size. Regardless, you want to do the PIP (pot-in-pot) method with this one.

Okay, so you have your Instant Pot (obviously …) and your 6″ springform pan. Here’s what else you’ll need:

Ingredients
1 package frozen Beyond Meat grilled chicken strips (optional)
4 corn tortillas – I used the 5″ size
1 cup diced onions
10 oz. red chile enchilada sauce
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Brown grilled chicken strips in a skillet or small saucepan on the stove. Add onions and saute for approximately 2 minutes, breaking up chicken strips into chunks.  Add enchilada sauce.  (You can also do this part in the Instant Pot itself, if you’d like, but you’ll have to rinse out the IP before continuing. It seemed easier to just do this part on the stove.)

Remove from stove and set aside. Place trivet in Instant Pot and add 1½ cups water.

Spray 6″ springform pan with olive oil. Place one corn tortilla in pan, followed by 2-3 tbsps. each of enchilada sauce, chicken and onion mixture, and ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese. Continue layering until you’ve used all four tortillas. Top with additional cheese.

Place on trivet in Instant Pot and cover top of springform pan with tin foil (to prevent water from getting onto your meal).  Close lid and make sure steam valve is closed. Press Manual, high pressure, and set to 4 minutes.

(Yes, this only needs FOUR MINUTES!!!!)

Do a natural release for 10 minutes. Lift springform pan out of Instant Pot with mitts (silicone mitts work great) and place on plate. Unlock springform pan and slide enchilada onto plate.

Mine looked like this:

I know, right? SO. MUCH. CHEESE.

Cut into slices. This served my family of four with a side of rice. If using as a main dish, it probably would serve 2-3.  A salad could also work as a nice side.

The Husband, The Boy and I loved this. (The Girl, not so much. She didn’t like “how it looked.” Whatever.)

The rest of us thought it looked — and tasted — pretty damn good.

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How to Instant Pot

You already know that I’m obsessed with my Instant Pot.  Chances are, you’re either giving one to someone for the holidays or you’re getting one for yourself.

It is a little intimidating at first, though, even for the most experienced of cooks. Daniel Shumski’s How to Instant Pot aims to shorten the learning curve by breaking down each function (pressure cooker, rice cooker, slow cooker, yogurt maker, steamer) into its own section.

Few cookbooks have as definitive of a subtitle as this one. Indeed, it will help you master all the functions of the one pot that will change how you cook.

More of my thoughts on How to Instant Pot can be found here, in my full review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness. 

 

 

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Plan to Eat This Holiday Season (and All Year Long)

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

I’ve written before about my challenges with meal planning, particularly with a family where each person has particular preferences and dietary needs. For starters, I’m a big proponent of meal planning; without fail, the weeks when I “wing it” are inevitably ones where we wind up spending more than our budget, wasting food, or falling into ruts.

My approach to meal planning goes like this:

I take an inventory of what we have in the pantry, the fridge and the freezer, focusing on what needs to be used up, and make a list divided into two columns:  We Need and We Have.

I look at the ALDI circular to see what’s on sale.

I consult the calendar — what evening appointments and weekend events are on the schedule? Is there a morning when I have a little extra time to throw something in the slow cooker? What can I prep ahead?

I make a list of dinner ideas that fit our weekly schedule, what’s on hand, and what’s on sale by looking through my binder of Tried and True recipes and perusing Pinterest for ideas. I then add the ingredients to the grocery list, and head to the store, where I usually purchase the same items to make the same meals, week after week.

This prep time takes about an hour, plus the time needed for the actual grocery shopping. There has to be a way to streamline this, I recently thought. Some sort of program or system that would make this easier and — dare I say it? — more enjoyable. 

Years ago, I had a software program called MasterCook where I imported my own recipes. I loved it because everything was searchable. But our life has changed and I needed something with that capability AND the meal planning portion.

Introducing Plan to Eat.

While catching up on several blogs, I discovered Plan to Eata powerful subscription-based online program that allows you to use your own recipes — everything from old family recipes to ones you’ve saved from around the web — to create customized meal plans.

I’ve only been using this for a few weeks but it has already changed my approach to meal planning.

It does everything I’ve been searching for.

The easiest way to see what Plan to Eat is all about is to take a quick tour and perhaps try it free for 30 days. (You don’t have to enter any credit card information for the free trial).

Then, if you like it, consider purchasing a one-year subscription. This happens to be the best time of year to subscribe to Plan to Eat because between today (Black Friday) and Cyber Monday, all one-year subscriptions are 50% off.

If you know someone who would also enjoy Plan to Eat, you can give a gift subscription — which are also eligible for the 50% deal through Cyber Monday.

Click the button below to get started and learn more:

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

Full disclosure time: I’m a Plan to Eat affiliate, which means that by clicking on any of the Plan to Eat links in this post (whether that’s a free trial or one year subscription) earns me a small commission.

 

 

 

 

 

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Weekend Cooking: Instant Pot Vegetable Stock and Spiced Lentil Soup

Like many cooks, I keep a gallon-sized Ziploc bag in my freezer to save vegetable scraps, which I then use to make vegetable broth when its full. (I once thought this was a rather complicated process but in actuality, it’s really easy and convenient.)

Today was the perfect day to do this. It’s one of those rainy, windy and just all-around miserable November days, the kind where you just crave a big bowl of soup for dinner (something that sounded perfect to me, since I’m dealing with a stupid, pesky cold).

I’ve only made broth in the slow cooker, but today I decided to try Laurel Randolph’s recipe from The Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cookbook

I started by dumping my entire bag of frozen vegetable scraps into the Instant Pot.

I added enough water to cover the vegetables, some dried parsley and garlic pepper seasoning blend, a bay leaf and set the Instant Pot to cook on the Soup setting for an hour. Did a natural release for 15 minutes and voila!

Gorgeous vegetable broth! (After straining the vegetables, that is. Important step.)

(That’s a 1/2 cup.)

Obviously, this made A LOT of broth.

My choice of soups was the Spiced Red Lentil, Tomato and Kale Soup from Oh She Glows. Minus the kale, that is. I’ve tried it in many recipes, I’ve wanted to like it,  I know it’s super-healthy, but I just don’t have any affection for kale. I do have a strong affection for Angela Lidden’s blog Oh She Glows, which is one of my favorites.

Again, I wanted to convert this to an Instant Pot recipe. I found a few variations online and used them as a guide. You start off sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil. Then, add ground cumin, chili powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, and coriander. I didn’t have the last two so I just left them out. Add a can of diced tomatoes, 6 cups of vegetable broth, and a cup of red lentils.

I wasn’t sure how long to cook this for. One converted recipe said 3 minutes and another said 15 with a 10 minute natural release. That’s kind of a wide range, so I just went with 15 minutes and a 5 minute natural release.

This was absolutely excellent (as have been every recipe I’ve made from Oh She Glows.) You know how good this was?

So good that The Husband requested to see this soup again — and soon.

He usually likes most things I make but he was especially enthusiastic about this, so we’ll put this on the regular rotation.


Speaking of the Instant Pot, I’ve been thinking of doing a series of blog posts focusing on the Instant Pot — recipes, common questions, etc. I don’t necessarily want to start a separate blog. Any ideas what to call this feature?


Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page.

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Weekend Cooking: Like Buttah

Earlier this year, I joined a women’s group at our UU church. I saw this as a way to become more involved in the congregation while connecting with others, especially after the election. Each month, our meetings focus on a different topic. For November, our  theme was food and memory — appropriately enough with Thanksgiving just two weeks away.

We were asked to bring or make a food that we associate with a memory, along with an accompanying photo, if we had one. I knew right away what I would be baking.

I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and its suburbs and most of our extended family lived close by. Many special occasions, holidays, and celebrations included family dinners at my grandparents’ house with my aunt, uncle and cousins. Those get-togethers also always included butter cake, often from Geiger’s Bakery located on Frankford Avenue. My grandparents lived a few blocks away from the bakery; whenever we visited my grandfather would have already “walked up the Avenue” to get one.

If you didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, chances are you probably don’t know what I’m talking about with this butter cake. (I’ve since learned it is popular in St. Louis, too.)

It’s a thin crust of eggs and (of course) butter, topped with a mixture of cream cheese, powdered sugar, more eggs. It’s ridiculously decadent. Suffice it to say that butter cake is the food of the gods. I mean, if they serve food in heaven — and I would like to imagine that it’s a 24/7, all you can eat, calories and carbs be damned to hell smorgasbord — then butter cake definitely has a place on the menu.

So, I knew that I had to bring this. And I knew I had to make one because you can’t find a real, authentic butter cake here. Nobody I’ve met in Pittsburgh has ever heard of butter cake.

However, I’m now gluten free and butter cake doesn’t quite lend itself to being easily converted.

Or so I thought. That’s why Google is your friend. Searching for “gluten free butter cake” led me immediately to this recipe for Gluten Free French Butter Cake from The Frugal Farm Wife. 

I’ve never made a butter cake, so this required doing a test run on Monday evening in order to have time to fix anything before our Wednesday night meeting.

As one might imagine, the fact that Mom was baking was met with much delight in my house. The Husband, who was part of more than a few of those family dinners back in the day, was eagerly anticipating the results of this experiment. The kids couldn’t remember ever having butter cake, which was just another reminder to The Husband and me that since most of their formative years have been spent here in Pittsburgh (plus four in Delaware), they don’t identify as Philadelphians the way we do.

I’ll cut to the chase. This butter cake?

Absolute.

Perfection.

And the fact that it’s gluten free? That’s just … well, the icing on the cake.

The kids were in love at first bite.

“WHY HAVEN’T YOU EVER MADE THIS?” they demanded.

“To be honest,” I admitted. “I thought it would be harder than it was.”

That’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it? We have a notion that something is too complicated, difficult or beyond our abilities and lo and behold, we surprise ourselves by succeeding. The butter cake was well received at the women’s group meeting, during which we also feasted on pavlova, jello salad, date nut bread, port wine cheese and crackers, sparkling cider, shortbread and noodle soup and heard wonderful stories connected with each of these dishes.

My kids requested that I make a butter cake every week. No, I told them. For one thing, we’ll all gain 500 pounds by Christmas if I did. Besides, there are reasons why it’s a special occasion cake. It’s part of its magic.

But now that I know how to make it, I’m betting we’ll be seeing it more often.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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