Category Archives: food

Aunt Noël’s Chicken-n-Dumplins

We just spent the week at the beach. As we often do the first night, we had rotisserie chicken, and various summer produce. (God, fresh corn and tomatoes just taste better when they’re grown in Virginia, they really do).

So, we had chicken carcasses left over. Now, Mom brings a crock pot, and neither of us likes to waste good material for stock, so I suggested a chicken soup or maybe chicken-n-dumplins.

I knew my husband and kids liked it, and was pretty sure that that adults would, but I was dubious my nephews were going to be all that into it. Well, one of them talked all week about it, so I promised my brother that I’d send him the recipe. He’s also an excellent cook, so this is not going to be the dumbed down version, but more suitable to a cook trained by Boo. (Our mother’s childhood nickname and grandmother name)

Aunt Noël’s Chicken-n-Dumplins

(this is more or less how I made it last week. Really, this is one of those dishes where you use up what you have on hand)

In the morning, pop the carcass in the crock pot, and cover with COLD water. Put it on low and do your day.

When you’re getting ready to get dinner on the table, sauté about a cup and a half of mirepoix, and a clove or two of garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add to large soup pot and drain stock into it. Add a bit of rosemary. Let simmer.

When the carcass has cooled enough to handle, pick out the meat, toss the bones. Add the meat to the soup with some salt and pepper.

Prepare dumplins according to the directions on the Bisquick box (look we were at the beach. We didn’t bring flour, shortening and all the rest! I have another recipe for dumplins when the kitchen is properly stocked), and roll into balls of about an inch in diameter. Drop in boiling stew, cover, reduce heat and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Serve and accept the ecstatic compliments of the kids.

Dumplins when the kitchen is properly stocked

(I would have doubled this recipe for the 11 or so of us, by the way)

  • 1 c. flour
  • ¼ c. shortening
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • Dash salt

Mix dry ingredients, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse crumbs. Mix in milk. Prepare as above.

I Eats Me Spinach

I’ve gone back to eating low-carb because of Reasons. Okay, I have real reasons, but it tends to work for me. I eat less, after the first week just plain don’t crave sweets all that much, and tend to feel better. I’m not sleepy after meals, I don’t get that shaky feeling when I don’t eat every few hours, and I like meat, so it works for me. It doesn’t work for everyone, so don’t think I’m proselyting. You should eat as suits you.

Sometimes, in talking about the matter, though, I’ll get questions. Some I consider quite valid, and others kind of make me step back in shock.

The one I get the most is, “How do can you stay healthy without eating your vegetables?”

Well… I have no idea how one does that. I… well, I kinda eat veggies, so I’m no roadmap there.

Normally, I eat salads and I don’t give a lot of thought to measurements. Salads=vegetables and I don’t sweat the portion sizes all that much on them, other than try to not make it so big I can’t finish it.

However, because I bought some new lunch containers (stop laughing at me. It’s not nice to make fun of people who can’t help it) it really hit home. The containers are very specific to portion sizes, you see.

For instance, take a look at that small container. That’s a half-cup container. For most non-leafy vegetables, a half cup is considered a serving. See the rectangular container? That’s a cup. So, three servings of veggies right there.

Now we get down to the lower portion of the container. Yes, it’s full of chicken (low-carb, remember?) It’s also on a bed of spinach. I didn’t have a salad for lunch today because we ran out of greens, but that’s about half a cup of spinach as well. So, half a serving.

That puts lunch at under 6 carbs (minus fiber), for pity’s sake, with three and a half servings of vegetables. Most of my meals are comparable to this. I’ll probably have an artichoke tonight with dinner. So, yeah, veggies. I eat low carb, but yeah, I eats me spinach.

Not Quite Rags

I don’t use paper towels to clean up anything but mess from a pet. While yes, you could call it an environmental thing, I use cloth for cleaning the same as I use cloth napkins for everyday.

I find buying stuff specifically to throw away a waste of money. If you can safely wash it and reuse it for cleaning purposes, it’s cheaper to do so. You can find all kinds of cleaning cloths out there that’ll last years.

I don’t find most commercial cleaning cloths sturdy enough for my liking, so I make my own out of worn-out towels. I have a couple of sets that have been getting frayed around the edges and have ample newer ones, so it’s time to make a cleaning cloth.

I got the idea from Is There Life After Housework? by Don Aslett. You take a rectangular piece of cloth – preferably something strong and absorbent. Old cotton towels are great for this, and so are old diapers.

The cool part is that instead of rags, you make a tube out of the cloth. By folding, you get a pretty sturdy cleaning surface, and when it gets a bit dirty, you can refold and turn it inside out for fresher cleaning surfaces. When you’re done, toss in the wash, no biggie.

Since I use towels for this, I’ll show you how I do it.

So by folding a towel in half widthwise, cutting then doing the same again to the two halves you’ve generated, then cutting those four pieces in half again, you can get eight pieces of cloth out of your old towel.

And there’s no reason in the world not to go ahead and use them as cleaning rags right then, of course. If that’s your thing, go for it.

I like the tubes, so I go a little further and sew up these babies.

I do use a zig-zag stitch along the long edge, or use a serger to finish what will be the open edges of the tubes. It makes them last longer instead of falling apart from fraying and leaving fluff everywhere. Notice I used black thread on the old pink towels I used. I confess this was not done for contrast and an example, but out of sheer laziness because I didn’t feel like bothering to match the thread for cleaning supplies. You want yours to look pretty, go ahead and show me up. J

After I’ve finished the long edges, I go ahead and sew them into tubes using a zig-zag stitch. I do this for strong seam with a bit of self-finishing on one go. They’re meant or cleaning, so I don’t feel like it’s necessary to spend an extraordinary amount of time on them. Eight in a half hour is plenty enough time to spend.

These cloths also make great potholders. The double layer of thick cotton cloth is pretty good at protecting from heat.

As long as it’s not damp.

Here’s the set I made today. Did it because most of the old ones I made ten years ago have frayed apart from heavy use and I’m on a spring cleaning spree.

Does Cooking in Advance Save You Money?

My primary motivation for prepping freezer to crock pot meals is not to save money. Please don’t faint.

I do it to save time during the week.

It does save money. It saves a lot of money.

I did not do much in the way of freezer to crock pot cooking this November and December. In looking at my budget book, I spent an embarrassing amount of money on groceries. Yes, yes, it was the holidays. Yes we cooked things we don’t ordinarily. Yes, we ate out more. But when I looked at what we spent on food for December 2013, I cringed. Even with the inflation factor, I’ve fed four adults and two kids on less, and my household only has three adult appetites at present.

The problem was two-fold. I didn’t make bento as often as I ordinarily do, so we bought lunches more than we should have. I also did not have any freezer meals ready. We were busy, so that meant more expensive convenience food items and more eating out.

You see that picture? That’s going to make about 20 dinners – meals for weeknights and some leftovers for various lunches. Let’s say five meals person per crockpot full. I spent $200 on the food. This wasn’t cheating by shopping from a semi-stocked home pantry. That sucker was bare. I even had to restock my spices.

Friends, when I do the math, I find it comes out to $2 a meal for people who are not light eaters. Please understand that I’m not claiming I’m feeding the family on $200/month. We’ll spend another $150 or so on food for breakfast, lunches and weekends if we’re not feeling excessively frugal.

That’s still significantly less than I spent on food for December! So yes, doing the prep-ahead thing saves money like you would simply not believe until you do it.

I would also like to point out the picture on the right. My artist husband likes to draw illustrations on the family calendar. He is gently needling me for pointing out that bento are really just food in a box.

I suppose I should have said meals in a box. Doughnut holes are breakfast, right?

Waffling on the LunchBlox

Okay, so bento are becoming more of a thing in the US as we move away from brown bagging it.* To that end, Rubbermaid has come out with some containers called LunchBlox. The one to the right is the sandwich version, but they made a salad-style one and another that’s flat and meant to fit into tall insulated lunch bags.

I do like the idea and think it’s cool that they’re being made. I’m all about bringing your own lunch to work or school, reducing waste with reusable containers and all that smack. And hey, bento is my hobby, so of course portable meal containers are going to be of interest to me.

I’m also not going to buy it.

I’ve been eyeing these damn things for months, contemplating getting one. What finally decided me was a comment I made when I was examining the little containers (stop laughing at me, it’s no worse than stamp collecting) on shopping trip yesterday. I was examining one, and my husband asked me when I was going to stop doing this every week or so and buy the darn thing.

“I want one. Thing is, if I buy it, I’ll use it twice, then go back to my usual bento box. They don’t fit in my laptop tote and wouldn’t fit in a purse, either.”

They have a volume capacity of nearly twice my usual bento –4.5 c to the 2.5c capacity of the bento. (1135ml to 591ml). Sure, if you’re going to have a sandwich for lunch, you’re going to want that. Bread is fluffy and isn’t well suited to the small-capacity bento boxes I use. Salad? Yep, lettuce takes up a lot of room.

But for me, part of the whole appeal of bento is that it is a small, filling meal that doesn’t take up much space. It’s not even necessarily a fascination with Japanese food. I mean, I love rice and all, and onigiri are delicious, but the example of a bento I’m using here is actually has two muffin tin Shepherd’s Pies. The tiers stack on top of each other and are about six inches by three inches when wrapped up to be tossed into a tote or purse.

So, while I applaud the idea that the bento concept is becoming popular in the US, I am still going to be using my more compact containers.

* I can’t recall ever putting a lunch in a brown bag unless we were on a field trip. It was considered wasteful when lunch boxes served perfectly well. Was that more of a thing than I knew?

Back to Bento

I’m going to be working in a commercial office regularly for the first time in five years or so and one of the things I’m thinking about is lunch. Oh, stop looking at me like that. People do eat lunch at the office every day, whether it’s a sandwich bought somewhere or something brought from home.

My inner Scrooge simply cannot cope with buying lunch every day, so it’s going to be a brought lunch. And that means bento!

The bento to the left is just made in one of those cheap flat 750ml Glad containers. It’s a chicken drumstick (a very common bento meat for me as it’s cheap, easy to cook up and goes well in a bento), broccoli, grape tomatoes, fried rice left over from dinner that night, Cucumbers to separate the meat and rice, some green peppers, a yellow pepper, and some blueberries. I like the way it looks, but I think that particular bento, being assembled from leftovers and prepped-ahead food, might have taken me all of ten minutes to put together.

So, it’s a healthy enough lunch. My husband, who has worked with some of the people I am going to be working with, has commented that his bento were sometimes commented upon, and it might be that people will be interested to learn that I was the one making them. Could be.

Me, while I do make bento partially to satisfy my inner Scrooge, it’s also a morale thing. It feels good to open up a pretty lunch and have this little capsule of specialness during the day. It’s more or less why I make them. They’re like having tea with the silver teapot or using the good china for dinner.

Making it Too Complex

This morning when I got up, my husband announced to me that Horace the Sourdough Starter had grown so much that it had reached the top of the jar. Since he really isn’t into baking, it was a source of some amusement to me that he even noticed. On the other hand, I suppose sourdough starters seem awfully mystical and complex – almost magic. Never mind that’s how all leavened bread was made for centuries!

I’ve been reading a lot about sourdough starters – how to start them, how to maintain them, everyone’s super-secret foolproof method for making one. I gotta say, I think people are making this way too complex. Some people swear by pineapple juice to start it (never bothered, myself) and others insist that fake mashed potato flakes are the key. I’ve seen reports of tossing in a grape or two. The reason grapes turn into wine is that they collect yeast on their skins. What, did you think early winemakers went to the brewing supply store?

When I started Horace, I started him in the springtime, so yes, I did have the advantage of warmth. I also started him in a kitchen that sees several loaves of bread baked in it every week, so the air was full of wild yeast. And I did use a glass jar. I didn’t worry about stirring him with a wooden or plastic spoon, but just used my usual stainless steel.* I did cheat and use a miliscrunch of yeast to get him going, but from then on, I was just feeding him with a 1:1 volume mix of flour and water. Since I bake a lot, I keep him on my kitchen counter. He’s good and strong, so skipping a day or two of feeding really has no negative effect on his activity. I’ll pop him in the fridge when it gets too hot to bake. This is a far cry from the twice a day feeding and careful weighing of the water and flour feeding that you’ll see some sites recommend. Seriously, people, do you think medieval bakers treated it like alchemy?

What I think is missing when people get complex about the starter is that they don’t pay attention to the real basics—clean utensils and containers, unbleached flour with a fairly high gluten content and water that isn’t too chlorinated. If your tap water tastes good, you’re probably fine. Otherwise, you might want to filter it. In the town I lived my first thirty-odd years, yeah, filtered or bottled water would be better. Where I live now? Tap water is fine.

For flour, make sure you’re using something that’s good for making bread, and there are many so-called all-purpose flours that aren’t. You don’t have to go overboard with this and buy specialty bread flour. Something like King Arthur flour (which I do use) works just fine and isn’t really pricey.

The last problem I see is patience. Most starter recipes will say to wait for 24-48 hours to see the initial bubbling get started. That’s a good average, but don’t sweat it if it takes more like 72 hours. Even then, you’ve only got a beginner starter. It won’t be strong and stable for another week. A lot of people don’t want to wait that long, but really, you want to.

And after that, you’ll have a starter that will last pretty well as long as you’re interested in baking with it.

* Some people think metal will kill a starter or that the acidity of the starter will react with a metal container. That’s true if you’re using tin from the 1800s. Not so much so from modern stainless steel.

Horace the Reluctant Sourdough Starter

Just like stranded colorwork and being able to do cables is the apex of knitting competence in my mind, being able to make a good, crusty loaf of sourdough bread with no added yeast (cheating!) is the apex of bread making for me.

I didn’t think sourdough really was all that difficult when I first heard of it. Laura Ingalls Wilder described it in On the Shores of Silver Lake as being simple enough.

“When you haven’t milk enough to have sour milk, however do you make such delicious biscuits, Laura?” she asked.

“Why, you just use sour dough,” Laura said.

Mrs. Boast had never made sour-dough biscuits! It was fun to show her. Laura measured out the cups of sour dough, put in the soda and salt and flour, and rolled out the biscuits on the board.

“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked.

“You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.”

“Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.”

“I never tasted better biscuits,” said Mrs. Boast.

Now, this is accurate as far as it goes. You do combine flour and water somewhere warm and wait for it to start smelling sour. But the process is a bit more involved than that. She leaves out the feeding process. You see, to get a good sourdough really bubbling, you do need to feed it frequently as you’re moving along. Once it starts to bubble, you really should discard about a cup of the starter every day and then feed it with a fresh 1:1 flour and water mixture. It seems to work best for me at a cup each. You’ll know that it’s good and strong because it will start to grow and be a bit thick – like a really hearty pancake batter.

Now, throwing away all that flour offends me. If I had local friends who liked to bake a lot, I could give some of it away to let them get their own starter going.* However, I did something a little different.

At first, I thought that the starter was done after starting to bubble a few days and getting that sour, yeasty smell. I made a loaf of bread from it. But the dough hadn’t risen nearly enough even after 15 hours, and the resultant loaf was a bit too dense and chewy. Because I use a method where I bake it in a Dutch Oven inside my oven, I did get some steam proofing, but it wasn’t up to the standard I like for bread.

Not wanting to give up, I “cheated” and used the starter in making my bread, while adding a little yeast to the dough. Even though the starter wasn’t as strong as it could be, it still added some texture and character to the bread, and allowed me to feed the starter without having to discard a cup of the stuff every day. You have to discard some after you feed it to keep the growth balance right. Don’t just get bigger container. It weakens the strain.

Yesterday, Horace (yes, I named my starter) decided to start partying. He grew so much he bubbled up over the top and soaked into the cloth I had covering him.

So I decided to take a little risk and try making “real” sourdough break without any added baker’s yeast. I mixed up the dough late at night and when I came down the next morning, I saw that Horace had really been flexing his muscles. That’s a better rise than I usually get out of the dough I make this way with baker’s yeast.

Because I make a very slow-rise artisan type bread, it’s really ideal for sourdough. I poured this out on a floured surface, sprinkled it with some flour and set it up to rise for another couple of hours on my pastry board.

And Horace was still as active as ever. I got a nice second rise out of the dough.

 

As you can see, Horace really did his job on this loaf. That’s as fine a sourdough loaf as ever I did see. I just took this out of the oven and haven’t tasted it yet (other than breaking off a bit of crust), but this looks like the real thing. Well-risen, crusty and delicious.

I’ve included the recipes for the sourdough starter and the bread I make. They’re really pretty easy. Hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

 


Sourdough Starter

(Horace is pictured on the right. He was fed last night and transferred to a clean jar this morning.)

1c. warm water (Baby bath warm, not Japanese bath hot)

1c. unbleached flour. (I use King Arthur flour as my basic go-to flour and have for years. It’s cheaper than specialty flours and works great for bread. No, it’s not because I live near the local headquarters. I started using it years before I moved up here.)

(optional)1/8 tsp dry baker’s yeast

Combine the water and the flour in a glass or ceramic container that is at least four cups in volume. I use a quart Mason jar. Stir until smooth and let sit. You can, if you are impatient, put in a bit of baker’s yeast. If you’ve been doing a fair amount of bread baking in your kitchen, or it is in the fall, you really don’t need to bother. The wild yeast is enough.

Cover with a clean cloth and let sit. When you pass by or think about it, give the mixture a stir. When the mixture starts to bubble and get a kind of yeasty smell (this may take anywhere from 24-72 hours, depending on how warm your kitchen is and how much wild yeast you have) discard a cup of the mixture and add a cup of water and a cup of flour. If you can’t stand to throw the mixture away, you can use it in pancakes, waffles, muffins or even “normal” bread.

You’ll know your starter is a good and strong with a robust yeast colony when it grows 50-100% in size when you feed it. Then, it’s ready for baking bread.

I bake a loaf just about every day, so I do not bother to refrigerate my starter. When it gets too hot to use the oven, yes, Horace is going into the fridge to be fed once a week and revived in the fall for serious baking. If you bake less often, you can put this in the fridge, too. Just take it out to come to room temperature and feed it about 12 hours before you’re going to bake.

Artisan Sourdough Bread

3 c flour

1 ½ t salt

¼ t yeast (if you’re in the “cheating” phase. Don’t bother if you have a really strong starter)

1 ½ c. warm water

1c. sourdough starter

 

Mix in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise 12-16 hours. Turn out on generously floured board. Sprinkle top with flour, cover with plastic wrap and towel and let sit for two hours.

Put dutch oven in oven for ½ hour at 450. Gather up dough, add (carefully!) to dutch oven, cover and cook for ½ hour. Remove top, and cook for another 15 minutes.

Let rest. Enjoy!

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* And if you’re local and want some, gimme a mason jar and I’ll be delighted to give you a cup of starter.

The Bean Factor in Frugality

We’re expecting a snowstorm here where I live and it’s coincided with time for a big shopping trip. No, we didn’t go shopping for Snowmageddon. But I did get enough materials to make a bunch of freezer meals for the household.

I like this a lot better than Once a Month Cooking, I have to admit. I guess I just like things cooked reasonably fresh in the crock pot.

But one of the big reasons I’ve been keeping on with doing it is that my husband is fond of it. I was away from home last week, and those freezer meals made life a lot easier on my husband and son. Oh sure, both of them can cook a meal just fine, but when you’re gone all day, there’s nothing quite so nice as dumping a meal in a crock pot in the morning and coming home to it being cooked that night. Anyone who is busy loves a home-cooked meal they didn’t have to prep while tired, after all.

I’ve been trying to come up with about fifteen different dishes so that I can have a month’s worth of meals in the freezer, if I do two each. I didn’t quite manage it, only coming up with ten. But I’m pretty cool with that. That’s still twenty meals squirreled away that I don’t have to spend a lot of time on during the day.

This has been saving me an enormous amount of money. I’m a little surprised, as I thought I was careful – buying meat on sale, meal planning to sales, buying whole chickens, you name it. The only thing I can figure is that I am more organized and take fewer trips to the grocery store. You do spend less money the fewer times you approach the cash register, I do know that!

Though as I think about it, many of the recipes involved beans, so I’m not buying as much meat, and I’m still getting reasonably hearty meals. They’re great in crock pots and are very inexpensive, especially the way I buy them. Dried beans in my area run about a buck fifty a pound. Cheap, cheap, cheap, as that yields a whole lot of beans. They’re not too hard to deal with, either. If you’re used to canned beans and want to try dry beans, just remember a half a cup of dried beans cooks up to about a 15oz can. Throw ‘em in some salted water, bring to a boil and simmer for an hour or so while you do other stuff, then they’re all ready to add to the freezer recipes.

And because every time I talk about freezer meals, someone asks for a recipe, here’s mine for chili. Or at least, I do this sometimes when I feel like it. (In reality, I follow whim when making soups and stews).

Noël’s Occasional Freeze-Ahead Chili

  • 1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 lb hamburger, browned
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 c. diced bell pepper (color doesn’t matter)
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (if you like it spicy. If not, leave it out)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2T. Cumin
  • 1T. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2t. black pepper
  • 2t. salt
  • ½ c. dry red kidney beans, cooked (yield cooked will be about a cup and a half or so) or 1 15 oz can red kidney beans
  • (optional) ½ c diced carrots. This is good if you’re trying to sneak vegetables in on picky eaters.

Throw in a gallon freezer bag, and freeze. Thaw out the night before you want to cook it and throw it in a crock pot. If you have any red wine or beer (especially a dark ale) on hand, throw a half a cup or so in with this and then cook on low for 6-8 hours. The alcohol isn’t absolutely necessary, but it gives it a nice flavor.

Grapefruit

I like grapefruit. For whatever reason I hadn’t bought them for several years. No, it’s not that I’m the only person in the house who is really fond of citrus fruit. I buy cases of clementines and gorge on them without a qualm every winter. I just… well, haven’t bought them.

I was searching the produce aisle recently and noticed that there were Ruby Reds on sale, so I picked some up and have been having them with my lunch. (You don’t have to have them only with breakfast, right?)

Grapefruit are kind of a nostalgia food for me. Every winter, my parents would buy a case of citrus fruit from a neighbor and we’d all enjoy them for a month or so. Typically it would be the grapefruit with breakfast thing, and I always liked it. It wasn’t only that I liked the taste, but that it was something you made a small game of eating. While of course we were not permitted to play with our food, there was something fun in spooning out the grapefruit sections. But even more fun to me was after all the pulp had been eaten.

You see, Mom would let us squeeze whatever was left into our finished juice glasses. I always got a kick out of it – fresh-squeezed juice and all. I can remember squeezing the shell with my little hands, trying with determination to get a few ounces of juice out and feeling really satisfied if I reall could get a couple of swallows.

Today as I was finishing up my lunch, I found myself doing the same thing. My hands are stronger now, I managed to squeeze out a lot more than I could as a kid. And darned if it isn’t still kind of a satisfying little thing to do. Certainly grapefruit juice I buy in the store can never taste so good!