Saturday, October 25, 2014

Menu Planning Helps

Things just go so much better when I take the time to plan a weekly menu. For one thing, I'm not scrambling around trying to come up with meals at the last minute. But it's also good from an economical standpoint, because we shop only for what we will use.

This week I kept an eye on the menu so I knew if/what I needed to do ahead of time, whether it was thawing meat or doing some prep work. I was also able to plan for those days I knew I'd be busy working in the garage, and therefore not able to keep an eye on things in the kitchen. Double score for trying a couple new recipes that were big hits with both of us.

I don't really plan for breakfast. We have a few favorites we rotate, depending on how much time we have and how hungry we are: yogurt pancakes, oatmeal, eggs of some sort, yogurt and fruit, or simply muffins or toast.

Here's a peek at this week's menu:

grilled cheese with pickles (homemade whole grain bread and three kinds of cheese)
leftover roast chicken and vegetables; salad with tomatoes and onions
Thai noodles with sauteed vegetables and topped with chopped peanuts; salad with orange, pecans and blue cheese
homemade pizza with homemade Italian sausage, red pepper and onions; applesauce
chicken milanesas; mashed potatoes; salad with tomatoes
tomato and blue cheese pasta; salad with tomatoes and onions
sandwiches (homemade whole grain bread, farmer's cheese, tomato, avocado, lettuce)

roasted chicken and vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions)
homemade vegetarian pizza (onions, garlic, red pepper, olives); applesauce
rosti potatoes; eggs; sliced tomatoes
leftover Thai noodles with sauteed vegetables
wedge salad with bacon, sauteed maple onions, blue cheese, avocado, cherry tomatoes and Ranch dressing

Ivan is busy at least a couple evenings each week with ministry responsibilities, and when he's gone, it's pretty much clean-out-the-fridge-time for me.

Love sesame yet we haven't loved any of the recipes I've tried -- up until this week when we both really enjoyed the Spicy Thai Noodles I found over at A Small Snippet blog. Yay! 

Basically I halved the ingredients, since there are just two of us, but we still ended up with enough for two meals. Probably because I added some sauteed vegetables. It's one of those dishes you can customize to your family's taste and/or what's in your fridge at any given moment. We always have onion and garlic on hand, plus there were some carrots and a red pepper in the crisper, and we picked some swiss chard from our container garden for a little bit of green. It was a very colorful dish.

I subscribe to The Splendid Table's weekly emails and knew when this recipe for wedge salad popped up that I had to try it, pronto! Again with adapations, because we simply don't have access to all the ingredients. We shared a small head of iceberg lettuce; no romaine or fancy radicchio for us. I made do with the white onion I had on hand, because who cares what color it is, right? And pancetta instead of bacon, although there I think it was an improvement because we have some nice artisanal pancetta. (It comes in about a foot long rolled up cylinder that Ivan slices rather thinly and we package in small amounts and freeze.) I left out the baguette but threw in an avocado and some cherry tomatoes. As for the dressing, we do not have access to either buttermilk (ever) or chives (this time of year), so I mixed up some of the dry mix Ranch dressing we brought back from the states. I figured it was a close approximation.

Did you notice a lot of the meals are vegetarian? We've cut way back on meat, partly for health reasons and partly for economic ones. My goal is to buy one piece of meat each week (which I can stretch to 2-4 meals) and so far it's working out really well. Our one concession is the bacon, but as I mentioned, we buy a big chunk, repackage and freeze, and it lasts us for a long time since we don't eat it very often. In fact, the bacon we used on the wedge salad this week was the first bacon we've had all month.

We're always on the lookout for good vegetarian recipes, so if you have one (or more) you really like, do share! It may only be Spring here, but we've had temps in the 90s all week, with no end in sight. We're getting ready to haul the toaster oven out to the garage to use when necessary and our regular oven probably won't see action until next April. That means we are on the look-out for recipes that require no, or very little, cooking. So summer-time recipes get extra credit :)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Seeded Whole Grain Bread

This week we finally tried a recipe I pinned a while back, for seeded whole grain bread. We've been trying to find a good recipe like this for a few years; for bread that's chewy and full of whole grain goodness, but not heavy like a brick. Since cutting waaaaaaay back on white bread (Ivan's yummy, homemade-bread-from-an-Italian recipe), we've pretty much just done without since whole grain breads are rather hard to find here. Usually if it's marketed as whole grain, that means they've substituted a minor amount of the white flour with whole wheat flour, and there might be a few seeds sprinkled on top, so it doesn't really taste any different than the white equivalent. Once in a while we really do come across a whole grain bread, but the price prevents us from buying it. I know there are some who think nothing of spending $5-6 on a loaf of bread, but that's a budget buster in our book.

With all our comings and goings, I didn't make it to the health food store to buy the whole wheat flour and seeds until early this week. Our first attempt convinced us that this recipe is a keeper! It met all our criteria and then some.

We did tweak the recipe, so what you see here is a little different than the original one I found over at Half Baked Harvest. Here are the changes we made:

1) I'm not sure if we got a bad packet of yeast but the first attempt at mixing the yeast, water and honey was a complete failure; even though we let it sit for half an hour, the yeast never did proof. On the second try we mixed the water and yeast, then just drizzled the honey in without stirring it, and that one proofed just fine.

2) The recipe calls for bread flour; we use plain white flour.

3) We cooked half a cup of wheat berries in 4 cups of water for an hour, drained them and added those to the mixture for an even grainier bread.

4) We don't use a whole cup of seeds on the outside as called for in the original recipe. We did on one loaf and it was just too much, and kept shedding massive amounts of seeds every time we cut into it. We think 1/2 cup is just the right amount. This is definitely one of those personal preference things, though.

A few more things that are important to know:

1) This recipe has to be started the night before, so don't think you can start it in the morning and have bread for lunch. Please tell me I'm not the only one who's guilty of not reading through a recipe ahead of time, and finding out too late that I should have started hours before?

2) You will not need a whole packet of dry yeast. I think packets typically contain a tablespoon and you'll only need 2-1/4 teaspoons. This is not a typo, so don't go dumping in the whole packet!

3) We have not tried to make this on a cookie sheet, but followed the directions in the original recipe that say to use a Dutch oven. Tieghan said you can use a cookie sheet instead, but the bread will be a little denser and won't have the lovely crust you get in a Dutch oven. So yes, you can make this without a Dutch oven, but be forewarned it won't be quite the same.

4) Dutch ovens come in various shapes and sizes. Mine is a Calphalon 5 quart enameled cast iron beast. It weighs a ton and takes up a lot of space, but is still one of my "must haves" in the kitchen. This recipe makes a huge loaf. Not.Even.Kidding. It fills the oval 9.5" x 13.5" shape and rises to about 4" high. It's worth at least two regular size loaves. If I had two smaller Dutch ovens, I could divide the dough and make two loaves, but I'm working with what I have so that means one ginormous loaf.

5) One of the things I love is that you can use whatever seeds you want. On the off chance that you're as clueless as I was about some seeds: Make sure you check to see if any seeds need to be precooked or soaked ahead of time. Otherwise you might find yourself spitting out hard, unchewable bits. Just sayin'.

Okay, enough already, right?! On with the recipe...

Seeded Whole Grain Bread

Night Before:

1 cup bread (white) flour
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast

Wheat Berries:
1/2 cup whole wheat berries
4 cups water


Next Morning:

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 Tablespoons honey, plus more for drizzling
1-1/2 cups warm water, divided
1 cup old fashioned oats
3 Tablespoons ground flax
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1-1/2 cups bread (white) flour
1 teaspoon salt
3-4 Tablespoons mixed seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, etc.)
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup mixed seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, etc.)

1. The night before baking the bread, make the preferment. In the bowl of your stand mixer, mix together the flour, water and yeast until a smooth paste forms. Cover the bowl and allow the preferment to ripen at room temperature overnight. The preferment will double in size and become bubbly on top as it sits.
2. In a 2 quart (or larger) lidded saucepan bring wheat berries and water to a boil, lower heat and simmer for one hour with lid on. Drain berries and store in fridge overnight.
3. The next day, measure out 1/4 cup warm water in a glass measuring cup or bowl. Add yeast, stir slightly. Drizzle in 3 Tablespoons of honey and allow to sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is foamy on top and smells like bread. In a separate bowl, mix the remaining 1-1/4 cups warm water with the oats and ground flax and allow to sit 5-10 minutes while yeast proofs.
4. Add both the yeast mixture and oats mixture to the bowl with the preferment from the night before. Add whole wheat flour, white flour, salt and wheat berries. Using the dough hook, mix the dough on medium speed for 4-6 minutes. If the dough is extremely sitcky, add flour 1 Tablespoon at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Now add in 3-4 Tablespoons of the mixed seeds, mix until combined.
5. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or two.
6. Place the dough in a large greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to sit in a warm area for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
7. Once the dough has doubled, preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place a 5 quart or larger cast iron Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid onto the center of the rack.
8. Punch the dough down with your fist, turn out onto the floured surface again and knead a few times with your hands. Form into a rough oval or circle shape (dough can be divided in half to make two loaves, if you prefer) and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and allow the dough to rise 20-30 minutes, until it has again doubled in size.
9. When the dough has doubled, brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with 1/2 cup mixed seeds. Drizzle 1-2 teaspoons honey over the seeds. Using a sharp knife, gently make a small slit down the center of the loaf.
10. Carefully remove the hot Dutch oven from the oven, closing the door quickly to retain the heat. Remove the lid and, picking the dough up by the parchment paper, carefully place it into the Dutch oven. Put the lid back on and return to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and allow to bake an additional 15-20 minutes until the bread is a deep, golden brown.
11. Remove from the oven and, using a couple of thin spatulas, carefully lift the bread out of the Dutch oven onto a cooling rack. Use the spatulas to slide the bread off the parchment paper (which can be discarded). Cool completely, and don't slice into the bread right away, because the bread continues to cook as it cools.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chicken Tikka Masala

Although I'm not what you'd call an adventurous cook, I do like trying to recreate food I've enjoyed in restaurants or at a friends' house. When I came across this recipe, it brought to mind the great Indian food we enjoyed while living in Uganda. My favorite restaurant there was an Indian place with the improbable name of Khana Khazana, and my favorite dish was a mushroom curry. I have hunted high and low for the recipe, to no avail. Every recipe I've found includes tomato, which this curry did not have.

But back to this recipe. To be honest, the first time I made it, I thought I was making butter chicken. I'd pinned both recipes, and meant to pull up the butter chicken and it wasn't until I was finishing the dish that I realized my mistake. Oops.

My other mistake was fortuitous, because I discovered that marinating the chicken for several days (instead of overnight as called for in the recipe) makes it much more flavorful.

Indian food is not something we can find here; maybe in Buenos Aires, but definitely not in Cordoba. So if we want it, I have to make it. I haven't tried a lot of other Indian recipes yet, mainly because this is so good that I keep going back to it (it made the cut for my "Favorite Recipes" Pinterest board). But if you have a good Indian recipe, please do share!

I've had to adapt this recipe a bit, because I don't have access to a few things, but they are minor and make no big difference. For instance, even when I can find boneless chicken (which is rare), it's very expensive; so instead I usually buy pata-muslos (leg/thigh sections) and don't mess with kabobs. Limes are also hard to come by, so I substitute lemon, and I use ground cumin instead of seeds.

It takes some time to put together, but it is so worth it! This dish is very flavorful, and the leftovers heat up beautifully (if you're fortunate enough to have any). One thing I started doing (after the second or third time) was doubling the masala, because we like a lot of sauce.


Combine marinade:
4 T. oil
1 T. minced garlic
2 T. lime (or lemon) juice
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. ground coriander
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
3/4 t. paprika
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. black pepper
2 T. plain yogurt
Marinate 1 lb. chicken in marinade for 3-4 days.
Pour into a greased pan, bake at 375 degrees until done (leg/thigh sections take about 45 minutes).

3 T. oil
1 diced onion
2 t. minced garlic
2 t. minced ginger
1 chopped tomato
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. ground coriander
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. paprika
1 t. salt
1-1/2 T. sugar
2 T. butter
1-1/2 T. lime (or lemon) juice
1/4 c. heavy cream
3 T. water
In a large skillet, sauté onions about 6 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and sauté an additional minute or two. Add tomato, cover and simmer on low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mash into paste, stir in dry ingredients (spices and sugar) and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Add butter and stir to melt.
Pour mixture into a blender and add remaining ingredients (juice, cream and water) and pureé until smooth. Return to skillet and bring to a boil. Add chicken (and pan drippings) and simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve with rice.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Learning Spanish: A Personal Story

Speaking  Spanish

First in a Series

(graphic via lingos blog: interesting stats on the Spanish language)

My mom used to say she couldn't "carry a tune in a bucket" and I inherited her disability. In my head I know how a song should sound, but what comes out of my mouth bears no resemblance. (Just ask my husband or kids.)

Speaking Spanish is a lot like that. In my head I can converse with some small amount of fluency, but the words I actually speak are rarely pronounced correctly. It.Makes.Me.Crazy.

In theory speaking Spanish should be easier since each vowel has one sound, and one sound only, and it is ALWAYS pronounced that way. In reality, my mouth trips over those sounds, refusing my efforts to manipulate it into the correct form.

[Right here I want to stop and apologize to all the wonderful language teachers out there, because I will not be using the correct terminology since I don't know it. I'll describe things in the best way I know how, which will probably make you grind your teeth. Feel free to correct me in the comments. Just be kind!]

Let's take the word Europe. In English it has two syllables and sounds like "Ur-up". In Spanish it's Europa, and you say each and every vowel.

But let's back up and talk about how each Spanish vowel sounds:
a = soft a, as in father
e = short e, as in pet
i = long e, as in seen
o = long o, as in post
u =soft u, as in due

Okay, now try to say Europa, pronouncing each and every vowel:
e as in pet
u as in due
ro as in post
pa as in father

Yep, that makes four syllables. Does your mouth have a hard time forming those sounds? Mine sure does!

And certain vowel combinations are guaranteed to come out garbled. The "ae" in aeropuerto has me doing oral contortions, and I still can't say it properly 95% of the time.

I'm telling you, it's sooooo much easier to learn a language when you're young. Not only because the brain is more like a sponge when you're young, but also because that's when your mouth is learning how to shape itself to form the words you use. My fifty-five year old mouth is reluctant and recalcitrant, and sometimes I wish I could slap it into submission.

The other part of speaking Spanish that I find frustrating is the brain-to-mouth delay. I tend to talk fast, and sometimes often realize as it's coming out of my mouth that I've tacked on the wrong conjugation or gender (Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine). Aargh!

But you know what? People still understand me! Well, most of the time. I'll occasionally have to repeat and/or correct what I've said, but in general I can make myself understood.

With practice I see progress. Miniscule progress, but progress nonetheless.

This learning a new language is not for the faint of heart. It is the absolute hardest thing I've ever done, and there's no end in sight. I realized early on that this was going to be a life-long endeavor, and that there will always, ALWAYS be more to learn.

I'm going to share in future posts what it's been like learning to understand what others say (way harder than speaking!) as well as learning to read (easiest part for me, although I'm not a fluent reader either). I'd love to hear from you, too, what your experience has been like if you've learned another language.