So, Dale and I bought a house and got married, and a ton of other stuff has been going on. It’s been insane. Obviously, for the Alaska contingent, the 365 Days of Cooking project has been abandoned wholesale, for quite some time. The other contingents have been quiet, but I would guess they’ve been trucking along?

As for us, well, now we have the house, most of the work on it is done, we’re done getting married, we’re through with the most immediate of the unpacking, and there’s time to get back to work on projects such as this one. I’m restarting, with a goal of eating restaurant food no more than once a week. I’m not, however, going to worry about the weeks when I’m away on travel or whatever. Or weeks when social engagements make restaurant avoidance impossible. My goal is for Dale and me to eat at home whenever we have the option. A saner approach will no doubt make success more, um, possible. 🙂

To get started, I did a bunch of fiddling with an old favorite recipe (favorite to eat; I’ve only ever made it a handful of times). I hope I don’t get in trouble for telling the Internet about it!

Chicken Divine (heavily modified; originally from Joseph Ney’s lunchroom, circa 1960)

  • 20 oz broccoli spears, cut long and thin (fresh, frozen, whatevs)
  • 3 chicken breasts cooked and boned
  • 2 “cans cream of soup” (cream of chicken or cream of broccoli recommended)
  • 1 cup nonfat plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp lemon juice ( I use lime)
  • 2 tsp – 1 Tbsp curry powder (I use the full Tbsp)
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cups very sharp cheese

Cook broccoli in salted water til bright, then drain well. (Don’t overdo this step, but also don’t skip it completely. Uncooked broccoli doesn’t bake through enough in 25 minutes; trust me.)

Arrange in 11×7″ or 13×9″ baking dish. Place chicken on top.

Combine soup, yogurt, lemon juice, curry powder, and pour over chicken. Sprinkle with cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees, 25-30 min.

Serve over egg noodles, traditionally, though it would be good over rice or whole wheat pasta, too.

Works well to make ahead.

Using nonfat milk and nonfat yogurt and also 3/4 cup of cheese (because let’s not kid ourselves), this recipe makes 6 servings of 376 calories apiece; each serving has 14.5 grams of fat, 22.4 grams of carbohydrate (3.8g fiber), and 39.5 grams of protein. If each serving is combined with a serving of egg noodles, it’s 521 calories, 16.1g fat, 49.4g carb (4.8g fiber), and 44.9g protein.

I admit, I haven’t been anywhere near meeting the goal of cooking every day, or even most days, for the past few weeks. I don’t really want to go into the reasons for it in any detail, other to say that stress levels have been high and moods have been low. And we’ve had very little time or patience for cooking.

But the cooking is back on an upswing. Last night I made pho, at home, for the first time ever. This super friendly guy at the awesome Korean store helped us get everything we needed, including Thai basil that had been growing in Hawaii the previous morning. (Now, I might have broken my meat rule. The rib eye was cut super thin and was so convenient that, I admit, I didn’t ask whether it came from a grass-fed cow or not. I’m hopeful, since local places often do get locally-raised beef. But I’m not honestly sure. And I’d put money down that the meatballs were CAFO-raised. We’re not going to do the meatballs again, once we use up the ones we bought: the rib eye is better, anyway.) I might post a photo of the jar the “beef stock” came from, so that anyone else who wants to try making pho can do so. 🙂

And we signed up for a CSA again. This one lets you buy a box that they claim feeds just a bit more than 2 people, every other week, and you can add exclusions. I added the heck out of some lettuce and dandelion greens, as well as eggplant (don’t like it), kiwi (super allergic to it), and okra (intimidated by it). We’ll see how it goes, but I’m pretty hopeful. We definitely need to increase our fruit and veggie intake, so the CSA should help.

So, here’s hoping that I’ll get my act together and get more home-cooked food made!

I think I’m pretty much recovered from the holidays (and my birthday). 2011 is well on its way, and I’m finding my groove. I’m also finding myself making some compromises. “Maybe it’s OK to eat Orowheat buns. They’re HFCS-free, high fiber, and low calorie. And darn if they aren’t the right shape for burgers.” “Come to think of it, salmon burgers from CostCo are pretty healthy, on the whole.” “That recipe looks like it would hit the spot, even if it does call for a roll of croissants.” And so on. Still going whole-grain where I can, still going for unprocessed, homemade, and organic foods where it makes sense. Still going CAFO-free on meat, organic on milk, and cage-free+organic on eggs. But I’m approaching it all with a little bit more of a sense of balance.

And you know what? I’m happier.

So may it go with the “no sugar until the end of February” thing, too. I’ve had ketchup in restaurants (regular Heinz has HFCS), and I even had a hot buttered rum with a little bit of whipped cream, on Saturday. (The scandal!) I can’t make myself feel too guilty for that. I think “I’ll mostly avoid processed sugar” would have been a better rule. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but the fruit salad I’m eating (with plain Greek yogurt! yum!) has a few canned fruits “in light syrup” in it, so it’s totally not allowed. But it’s fruit–at least, mostly fruit. I drained off the syrup and put in as many “canned in juice,” “canned in water” (bleh!), and frozen fruits as I could. If I were to follow the rule to the letter, I would not be eating fruit and yogurt right now. And what could I possibly be eating, instead, that would be healthier?

Anyway, as far as the Challenge goes, I find that if I don’t have some easy things around, I fail. I am trying to eat homemade every day, not spend every day cooking. So I spent Sunday cooking up a storm. I now have a bunch of black bean burgers (do follow the commenters’ suggestions about draining everything REALLY WELL; also, I use oats instead of bread crumbs, to good effect) joining those salmon burgers in the freezer, plus those sandwich buns on hand to eat them with. There’s also a batch of pineapple carrot muffins (I can post the recipe if anyone wants it—they’re super easy!) in the freezer for quick breakfasts/snacks. I cooked up a package of chicken for some chicken tetrazzini (I used whole wheat spaghetti, regular parmesan, nonfat evaporated milk, fewer mushrooms, and some peas, but otherwise followed the recipe as is–it’s quite good) and put the extra in the freezer, to grab and throw into sesame noodles (add a couple of handfuls of chicken and broccoli, and split that recipe in half for a tasty one-pot entree for two) or maybe chicken noodle soup, in the future.

I also made the brunch bake I linked to in the first paragraph, roll of low-fat croissants and all–I used 5 largish strips of bacon, instead of the sausage, and I think I need to add an egg or two to make up for the smaller mass of meat-product; as it was, the crust made up about half of the bulk. But it was good! We enjoyed it on Sunday, and I’ll eat the remaining four servings over the next few days, for breakfasts. It can’t be an every week thing, but it is definitely going in the rotation!

You’d be amazed at how much calmer I feel with all of this stuff in my freezer, to be pulled out and warmed up with minimal difficulty (or waiting!) on low-energy evenings. I have more than a week’s worth of meals planned and ready, and that feels good. I mean, yes, it’s fine and healthy to do this Challenge, for its own sake. But I’m glad to be gaining some strategies and figuring out what compromises I need to make with myself so I can continue these good habits past October, too.

So, I confess, I haven’t met my goals (ANY of my goals, from time in the gym to this challenge to things-crossed-off-my-to-do-list), this December. On one hand, I’ve done more cooking than I do in a normal month, but on the other, I have also eaten fewer home-cooked meals than was my goal. Lots fewer.

We baked cookies and made treats to send to family, this year. Pics:

Needless to say, that took a lot of time, and I had no desire to be in the kitchen outside of that effort, for a while.

But I did get in some cooking. I made chili and curry-coconut-carrot-squash/pumpkin soup. And mchicha. As a special treat, one night, we had buffalo steak, which I’m proud to say I cooked really nicely. And I’ve been working my way through a box of sweet potatoes, which we’re enjoying as “oven fries,” or mashed, or cut up in chili—which I was unsure about, but it was pretty excellent, actually.

Maybe more interestingly, I experimented with Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, whose “light wheat bread” is very easy and very versatile, but contains an awful lot of all-purpose flour (5 and a half cups) and not much whole wheat (1 cup). The versatility is as compared to their tasty multigrain bread (from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, but this one recipe was posted online), which has more ingredients, takes longer to make, seems a little fiddlier on baking day, and isn’t necessarily going to be useful for things like pizza crust. I kind of wanted to find a middle line–a bread I could feel good about eating, but could also keep using for all of the things I like to do—mostly boules and pizza, but sometimes something fancy like pecan rolls. So I swapped out one of the cups of all-purpose flour with a cup of oat flour, which is higher in fiber, instead. Very little change to the bread—still good, still “custardy” inside, still made great pizza dough. Next, I swapped out a quarter cup of the all-purpose flour for a quarter cup of milled flax seeds, which are high in fiber and omega-3s. Again: great bread. So, I combined both changes, ending up with 1 cup of whole wheat (the standard amount), 1 cup of oat flour, 1/4 cup of ground flax seeds, and 4ish cups of all-purpose flour. The bread still came out great, and I felt a little better about its general healthiness. I might swap another cup of all-purpose for oat, to see if it still works out–that’ll put me at half-healthy, half-not. (I’m only hesitant because I will be sad if 4 loaves worth of dough are spoiled by my experimentation.)

In the short term, I’ve also mixed up a batch of the whole wheat sandwich bread recipe—the one without milk—and have the dough sitting in the fridge overnight, to bake up tomorrow—and possibly to freeze the rest. I’m hoping that works out nicely; I’d love to be able to make sandwiches with bread I’ve made myself. (And I’ll probably try a cup of oat flour swapped for a cup of all-purpose flour, if the current batch works nicely.)

Honestly, I probably just need to bite the bullet and pick up Healthy Bread in 5, to see if they have something as versatile, but healthier, in there. They might! And we got a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas!

Maybe it seems dumb that I’m focusing on how much all-purpose flour my bread has in it: it’s got SOME whole wheat, right, so it must be all right to eat? Well, probably. But I have noticed that I feel better when I am avoiding very simple starches like white flour, white rice, and granulated sugar. (NOT potatoes. Those are actually kind of good for you.) As an extension of this project, I’m going to try avoiding processed sugars altogether for a couple of months (except for my birthday), to see if that improves my energy levels at all. I’ll still use honey, agave syrup, cane juice, and fruit juices, in moderation, but I’d like to avoid that stuff that goes in the sugar jar, which has a high glycemic index and no nutritional value. (I haven’t looked up the index for all of the other sweeteners available. I still need to look into this a bit harder, do it with a bit better understanding of what line I need to be drawing. I know to skip “sugar,” “sucrose,” “cane sugar,” and, of course, “high fructose corn syrup,” but I’ll have to see what other nutrition label buzzwords are to be avoided.

One other piece of news: my uncle got me a really nice cast iron skillet. It was antique (or at least very old :)), and he stripped it and re-seasoned it himself, before sending it in a flat rate box. I’m so excited about using it! I inaugurated it with bacon and eggs. Southerner that I am, I felt compelled to keep the bacon grease, but, after attempting to use a small amount in something else, I realized I can’t actually stomach using it later, so I threw it out. (Look, I’m sure that sounds disgusting to a bunch of you—on a level, I was with you, even as the compulsion hit—but I swear, it’s a totally normal thing where I come from. Lots of stoves have cans of bacon grease on them. Still, after all this time cooking healthy (or at least healthyish) foods, I was surprised by the strength of the compulsion to keep it—I nearly always use heart-healthy fats like grapeseed oil, and I know there’s nothing good in bacon fat. But I guess the experience—keeping it, then having to throw it out because it was too gross—was worthwhile, because I learned that my newer, healthier habits are replacing some of the less healthy ones from my upbringing. So, you know, yay.)

Anyway, we’re done making Christmas sweets for the year (and we’re going to do something healthier next year), all the presents are shipped and opened and enjoyed, so it’s back to the Challenge and other good habits!

Happy new year!

This was Dale’s and my first Thanksgiving together in Alaska—so, too far away to visit family. We were going to do our own thing, at home, but kind of at the last minute we decided to go to a potluck at “our” church (we haven’t gone a lot, admittedly, but if any church in town is ours, it’s this one). I still had the ingredients for a few things we like and a thing or two I wanted to try, so after the late lunch at the church, we came home, hung out for a while, and I started cooking again when we were no longer quite so full. It worked out well—by the time I was done, we were hungry. 🙂

We had turkey kielbasa—which didn’t technically fit my purchasing rules, but kielbasa is something Dale’s aunt always makes at holidays, and I think that’s a cool tradition—fruit salad (our contribution to the potluck, actually); broccoli cheddar rice casserole; cranberry-orange cornbread; and pumpkin pie.

The cornbread came from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day—and looked like kind of a disaster on the baking stone, as some of the hot sugar escaped. You’re really supposed to make it in a cast iron skillet, so I froze the second half of the dough until I have one. It was still tasty, though, and the sugar scraped/washed off the stone more easily than I expected—there’s still a bit of a stain, but that’s not surprising. People seemed to enjoy it on Friday. (I’m not planning to write about it at length, but pizzas-at-home were a success! The one batch of dough was too wet, but we got through it.)

My family usually does macaroni & cheese for holidays, but Dale and I had had that double batch on our hands not quite a month ago, so I branched out into vegetable-starch-cheese-soup-casserole territory, making this broccoli, rice, and cheese casserole with this “cream of soup” recipe (which is linked from the casserole recipe, conveniently enough). I made cream of celery and used Summit Spice & Tea’s “chicken broth” powder, which is made up of soy lecithin (it can be extracted mechanically, so I think it fits by my rules) and a number of spices—no actual chicken in it. It’s really convenient not to have to use chicken broth by the box, by the can, or by the chicken. I also used brown rice instead of white and halved the casserole recipe, in part because there are just two of us and in part because I don’t own a big enough casserole dish. Except for needing more salt, it came out great. I’d consider throwing chicken or maybe tuna in and making it a one-dish meal. (I didn’t calculate the nutrition information on this one; I’ll have to before I decide whether it’s going into the standard meal rotation or not.) I thought the brown rice might make it “weird,” but it was actually a little hard to tell I hadn’t used white.

I also made Artisan Bread‘s pumpkin oat bread, which was excellent, though I got tired of telling people it didn’t have pumpkin pie spice in it—it was just bread that happened to contain pumpkin. Anyway, I’m probably going to take some of that to the potluck at work this Friday.

So, it was a good Thanksgiving. The only recipe that’s truly my own is the fruit salad. Most people can probably throw fruit together and make something tasty, but, just in case, here’s my take on it…

Fruit Salad:

This recipe is modified from my grandfather’s. He used to always make a huge container of fruit salad for holidays. He hasn’t made it for a couple of years—maybe nobody’s asked him to? Anyway, his always started with fruit cocktail; mine has a lot less canned stuff in it but is generally the same basic composition. He also added marshmallows and shredded coconut, but I left out the former in the interest of sharing with vegetarians and the latter because apparently(?) there are people who don’t like coconut? I don’t know. I’ve heard rumors.

  • a can of pears in light syrup (I don’t think pears are often canned in juice alone, sadly), drained and then diced into the bowl (I actually always use canned pears, for some reason, even when fresh ones are available; it might just be that I still have a bunch of cans in my CostCo flat. 🙂 Or maybe I’m afraid of there being too many “crunchy” fruits and throwing off the balance.)
  • a can of peaches, drained and then diced into the bowl (I prefer to use a couple of fresh peaches or nectarines, but there aren’t any in Alaska right now)
  • 7ish(?) strawberries (I had frozen ones—if you go that route, they cut and store more nicely if you don’t thaw them first, but man are they cold), diced and put in the bowl
  • 6-8 ounces (I only know a measurement because I put them in a mug :)) of blueberries (I used frozen, but thawed and drained them first; if you don’t mind the salad turning a little purple, you can just throw them in frozen), dumped in the bowl—this is inconsistent with my grandfather’s fruit salad recipe but works nicely
  • a bunch of grapes, washed—if you have the patience, the flavors mix better if you’ve cut the grapes in half before putting them in
  • you’ll want to pour some lemon juice into a bowl or one of your empty cans—NOT in the fruit salad itself
  • peel and dice an apple into that can or bowl, and make sure the pieces are all coated in lemon juice; then strain them (keep the lemon juice in that bowl or can; it never goes in the salad directly) and put them into the fruit salad—this keeps the apple nicer
  • peel and dice a banana into the lemon juice—and give it plenty of time to soak it up, trust me
  • peel a mandarin orange/clementine/tangerine or two, clean the bitter part off the sections, and cut each section in half before you throw it into the bowl
  • maraschino cherries—look, it would be healthier to use real cherries, but the maraschino ones are sweet and make kids happy—drained, cut in half, and put into the fruit salad (fruit cocktail has maraschino-like cherries, but my granddad knows I like them, so he adds extra :)); I think these might help offset the sour traces of lemon juice, too
  • Extemporize! You can add some other kinds of berries, more of some fruit you like, less of some fruit you don’t like (I wouldn’t leave out the pears or peaches, though); big-flaked coconut is good; celery might be tolerable; pineapple is good (and only got left out because I forgot it).

And give it at least a few hours for the flavors to mix, before you eat it. Overnight is better (though you may want to hold off throwing in the bananas until the day of).

I’ve been baking my way through this book for the past two weeks, so, while I can’t say I’ve plumbed its depths, I can say I’m getting really familiar with it. And it’s been both enjoyable and confidence-building for me. Bread used to intimidate me, and I can definitely say that I’m over that. I admit, I balked a bit at the initial expense—not of the book, but of the tools required to follow the directions in the book—but I’m now convinced that it was all very much worth it. (Except maybe the board scraper, which I haven’t really used. But that was only $5 or so.)

By “tools,” I mostly just mean a pizza stone and a pizza peel. Many people already have these on hand, and, honestly, I’d known I wanted them for a while, but I kept putting it off. It became clear, in reading the beginning of the book (the first recipe is in chapter 5), that I was going to have to stop putting off these purchases. The only other purchase that really felt “required” was a big enough lidded (but not airtight) container to put 5+ quarts of dough into—that’s how you get the time savings: you make a large batch of dough at once. So, I bought two big square containers from Amazon and put a nail hole in the top of one, to make it not-airtight.

New tools in hand, I can now say I have made cinnamon (or, well, caramel) buns for the first time ever in my whole life, and they were amazing. Better, I have made the tastiest pizza I’ve ever eaten, let alone made for myself. I have made several fantastic loaves of bread—which were, admittedly, a little bit oddly shaped. I can’t seem to get the boule shape down. But the “custard” feel of the interior and the crispy crust have been right on since loaf number one, and the shape improves continuously. I’m also eying the pumpkin bread for Thanksgiving and for my work’s holiday potluck, the following week.

The basic recipe and the light wheat recipe are really easy, in terms of ingredients, too: flour, yeast, salt, and water. It seems like, to get a wheatier/grainier bread, more ingredients are required: some kind of sweetener (usually honey or maple syrup), sometimes some wheat gluten or some specialty thing like that, I think one recipe even has milk? But if you just want to have bread around the house for eating with, let’s say, soup :), you can just keep making it with the four main ingredients, and it’s fantastic.

I’m kind of into whole grains and sneaking vegetables into meals wherever I can, plus I know a few people who can’t eat gluten, so I’m pondering picking up the next book in the series, Healthy Breads in Five Minutes a Day. (There’s also a third book coming out sometime, “Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day.”) Right now you can get their Whole Grain Artisan and White Boule recipes from here. The Boule is the simplest of their recipes and the one I started with–it made the caramel pecan rolls and the world’s tastiest pizza dough, so it’s worth grabbing while it’s up there! They also have an RSS feed, where they periodically post recipes and how-to videos, here.

I gave this five stars in LibraryThing. It’s a great cookbook and has made my kitchen a far happier place.

Maybe the nicest thing about winter is that soup starts tasting awesome. I don’t usually think of myself as much of a soup person, but I’ve been enjoying it, this year. This weekend I made a very big batch of potato soup—splitting it out into individual containers, it turns out it’ll feed us both for a total of 5 nights (or lunches).

I based my “recipe” kind of loosely off of one in this book. I forgot to look in my Mennonite cookbook, which I think probably had the actual recipe I was looking for. Anyway, it came out fine. I’ll make my potato soup this way from now on. I’ll probably add carrots next time—I didn’t want to, because I was thinking this might be a soup the color of clam chowder, when in fact it’s a much earthier-looking (and tasting) soup, due to the broth. Some carrots, some parsnips, possibly even (gasp!) a turnip would go nicely in this soup. Also, of course, you could use vegetable broth instead of chicken, to make it ovo-lacto vegetarian friendly.

* 3 Tbsp oil (I used grapeseed oil; butter might give you a really nice flavor, though)
* 1 smallish onion, chopped
* 2ish cloves of garlic, more if you really like it, chopped
* 4-4.5 pounds of raw potatoes, washed and cubed (peeled if you want), 4-4.5 pounds
* 4 cups of chicken broth (I used Pacific Natural Foods Natural Free Range Chicken Broth)
* 4-5 stalks of celery, more if you really like it
* 4 cups milk (I used skim)
* 3 Tbsp flour
* nutmeg and cayenne – a dash of each
* parsley, rosemary, basil (but I love basil), white (or black) pepper, paprika, and salt – to taste

Chop your potatoes into a large pot, and pour the broth over them. If you need to add water to cover the potatoes, go for it. Start cooking them on low.

Throw 2 (not 3) Tbsp of oil into a medium saucepan, heat, and throw in the onions. Saute until the onions start to get soft, throw in the garlic, cook a little longer. You want nice, soft onions and garlic, but you don’t want them browned.

You might disagree with this step, but it helps give the soup a really nice consistency, so I recommend it: run the onions & garlic through a blender or food processor to liquefy. Pour them into the pot with the potatoes, and turn up the heat to medium-low. Throw in the leafy herbs, crushed up small, at this point, too. If you’re too gentle at this step, you can add more herbs or spices later—I did, and it was fine. Also, throw in your celery, chopped up small—if you don’t want it to get too soft, you can hold off and throw it in closer to the end.

You’ll have probably half an hour, at this point (I didn’t time it as closely as I could have), to do other stuff. You want your potatoes to get pretty close to entirely cooked. Stir from time to time.

When the potatoes seem mostly cooked, put your water, flour, 1Tbsp of oil, and a dash each of nutmeg and cayenne into the saucepan you used before. Whisk them together over medium heat; with luck, the mixture will thicken nicely and become a nice white sauce. Even if it doesn’t thicken, it’ll taste fine. Pour it into the potato pot when it’s nice and heated through.

It really only needs a couple of minutes for the flavors to blend, at this point. Add anything you think the soup is missing, and serve.

I split this soup into 10 servings, each with 267 calories, 4.3g fat, 39.6g carbohydrate (3.9g fiber, since I left in the peels), and 8g protein. I serve it with Artisan Bread…‘s light wheat bread. The meal could stand a bit more protein, but short of turning this into a seafood soup or throwing in beans (which I don’t think would be very good, for this particular recipe), I have no ideas. I’m having a bean burger for lunch, plus probably a snack of some kind of nut, so I will make it balance OK.