I went on a vacation for a week, so I mostly ate out and other people’s cooking, but I did get to help make ice cream and a dinner.  After the vacation I was sick for a week, and didn’t do much cooking.  I’m better now and back on my game.

I made the best chili ever.  Just a pound of ground beef, cooked in a big pot, then drained most of the fat into my fat jar, and put the meat aside.  I sauted onions and fresh garlic in the beef residue, then added six arbol chilis and four dandicuts (60,000 SU peppers from Pakistan, hot and delicious!, from Penzy’s Spices), a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, a can of rinsed black beans and a can of rinsed kidney beans (organic from Trader Joe’s).  I added the meat back in and let it all simmer at 150 F for a few hours.  This was about 6 bowls for $5 (the beef was way on sale).  I served it hot topped with Cabot’s habanero cheddar cheese and some tortilla chips.  I should have entered this in the chili contest.

My wife cooked last night: habanero cheese on scrambled eggs with a side of asparagus.  Simple, but good.

I got a package of chicken thighs, took off the skin, browned them in my skillet (I should have patted them dry with paper towels first, but I forgot, and they didn’t brown as well as I wanted), then put them in my slow cooker.  I deglazed the skillet with some chardonnay and a little tomato juice, and added that to the slow cooker with a big can of crushed tomatoes.  That’s running right now, and in a bit I’ll add sauted onions and carrots.

I’m also baking whole wheat bread today, and I’m still making lots of yogurt out of organic nonfat milk.  I’m about to whip up another batch of garlic and yogurt mashed potatoes, too.   We are eating more beans than we used to, but we could still do more.  We also are inconsistent with salads, but carrots and onions make it into a lot of meals.  Broccoli is the most green that we eat regularly, and spinach, but we’re not close to the recommended quantity of veggies.

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.

I’ve done a pretty good job over the last two weeks.  Here are some of the meals I made:

  • Baked salmon (wild caught Pacific) with capers and rice.
  • Pineapple chicken stir-fry (same as my great pork recipe, just with chicken)
  • Slow-cooked chicken with rice (I make a lot of rice, brown with homemade chicken stock)
  • Panfried catfish ($2.59/lb for the fish was an irresistible price)
  • Chili with ground bison and ancho pepper (this was a practice batch for an upcoming church contest, lasted five days)
  • Chicken and pineapple pizza
  • Squash curry with spinach, mushrooms, and onion, on rice

Half of those lasted a few days.  We did get Chinese food one night, and were taken out to dinner one night by relatives, but we generally hold well to 6/7.  We still make lunches from homemade bread, have oatmeal for breakfast each day, and a perpetual pot of yogurt for snacks and desserts.

I’ve been looking at more food books from the library, and nutritionists really seem to push beans heavily.  I don’t mind them, and I usually put them in my soups and chili, but the gas can be a problem.  Is it true that the body adapts to a high-bean diet and stops farting so much?  I’m going to make a big pot of lentil soup this week with a hambone my mom gave me.

 

My massive turkey leftovers lasted a long time.  We had turkey and veggie soups, and turkey with rice and hot sauce, for many days.  My bread rocks for PB&J lunches.  I’ve also been eating a lot of sardines and fruit for lunch.  This last week was spent with my mother for the holidays.  I my home, I rule the kitchen, but my mom rules hers and we got well spoiled.  We managed to only eat at restaurants twice during the whole vacation.  Here are some of the home cooked foods we enjoyed (very much!):  Lentil and kale soup with pesto, Apricot chicken curry, banana bread, spiced apple raisin cake, waffles (this is our family’s traditional Xmas breakfast, and my mom folds beaten egg whites into the batter to make them super fluffy), ham and cheese omelets, French toast, and a sweet chutney with raisins and orange peel that rocked on a veggie burger.  The pesto was made with basil my mom grows, and we came home with a basil-garbanzo paste and a jar of her chutney.  I am going to gank her pesto recipe and recreate that lentil soup.

On vacation we visited Penzey’s Spices and I got some anchos, annatto, lemongrass, allspice berries, dandicuts, and brown mustard seeds.  That place has some neat stuff at reasonable prices.  I also got a microplane, an immersion blender, and a mandolin.  I am excited to make some curry fries and other new dishes.  My mom has cable and I was glued to the cooking channel!  I plan to have some people over for goat cheese crostini with lentils and spinach in a thickened wine sauce and a side of jalepeno poppers.

I’m thawing a chicken, and we’ve got some fish for this week, and I also think I’ll make my squash curry.  It is good to be home, and I am excited to use my new toys and spices.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, we were still eating turkey soup with cheese and tortilla chips.  We compared a raw milk, 6+ month aged sharp cheddar from New Zealand to the supermarket brand extra sharp cheddar, and we preferred the supermarket stuff.  We preferred it because we like powerful flavor, and the extra sharp was strong.  The sharp import was more subtle, but still very good.  It just required attention and a lack of distraction, so we ate it alone instead of in the soup.

My contribution to Thanksgiving included homemade whole wheat crackers with flax seeds and hummus.  I used my pasta machine to roll out the cracker dough, which was a huge help, but the edges were still thinner than the rest and darkened quickly.  Nothing burned, though, and everything was great.  I made a plain hummus for my mother-in-law, and jalapeno-garlic hummus for the rest of us.  I used peanut butter instead of tahini and it worked fine!  The combo was such that we got a long, moderate burning finish from the jalepenos without it being overpowering.  I also made  a pumpkin-ricotta pie, but I experimented a bit by replacing most of the ricotta with cream cheese and yogurt.  I thought the cream cheese would improve the flavor, but I did not like the flavor at all.  It also drastically increased the baking time to have the yogurt in.

I made a batch of yeast waffles using the recipe from Cooking for Geeks.  I let the batter rise overnight.  This made for a perfectly textured waffle, light and airy inside with a crisp shell, but the yeasty flavor was a slight turn off.

The cerviche I made was pretty bad.  I followed the Cooking for Geeks recipe (except for cilantro), and the onion and lime were way overpowering.  It was nowhere near as good as what I had in California.  I did some math, and I figure that the recipe called for six times as much acid as necessary to ensure the deaths of all bacteria.
I made my first souffle, which was a neat experience, but I didn’t do very well.  I also made some ricotta fritters using a What Einstein Told His Cook recipe, and served them with Tupelo honey.  Those were a hit.

I had an interesting bacon experience, and I need some help interpreting it.  I cooked some bacon in my cast iron skillet on low heat to get the fat out without overcooking the meat (I supposed).  Normally I microwave bacon because it’s fast and gives me even, flat, crisp strips.  Bacon in a skillet without a meat press wrinkles up.  To help me with this, I sliced the larger fat strips off of the meat.  As the meat finished cooking, I removed it and left all the fat pieces in the skillet to render.  Our experience was that this bacon tasted a lot like ham instead of the bacon we’re used to.  Some pieces of fat were in over an hour, and were a little browned and shrunken, but all were generally translucent.  I was short on time, so I turned up the heat, and at some unknown magic temperature the bacon fat spontaneously made a pfsht sound and turned solid white.  The resulting white crisps were DELICIOUS!  I had trouble stopping myself from eating them all immediately.  I really wish that I knew what happened there and what the temperature was, in no small part because of the increase in nitrosamines in bacon at high temperatures.

I had some leftover T-day mashed potatoes today, and added a little garlic powder and yogurt to make them awesome.

My local produce place had some great seconds yesterday.  I got 12 ripe avocados for $1, and made a really spiffy batch of guacamole.  I just would not use cumin in it again, and I never use cilantro. I used some canned diced tomato, and lime juice from concentrate.  I got a half-peck of Jonagold apples for $4, and they are so crisp and sweet that I don’t understand why they were discounted.  I also got a few pounds of green beans for $1 that will go in a soup, and four squash for $1 that will go in another soup.  My fridge is packed.  I also bought another 22 lb turkey for $8.50 that is thawing and will get roasted on Wednesday.  It’s been a pretty good week.

I did go out to eat for lunch yesterday at Victory Brewing Company.  They have a very scientifically educational tour, which is a nice change from the more historical tours of other places.  We shared a Gorgonzola burger and some sweet potato fries with leek.  The dry-aged beef was delicious, and is local and fed spent grain from the brewery, but the bun was lame and there was not enough Gorgonzola.  The fries were excellent.  As far as the beers go, we recommend the Yakima Glory.

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 got a lot of cooking done this weekend, which is good, given my plans to get back on track this week. What did I make?

  1. Macaroni & cheese for a birthday party potluck (jelly bean boom!) – Left that with the birthday girl and host. I would share the recipe by email if you asked nicely, but I might get disowned by my family if I just put it up on the web. Weirdly, for the first time ever in my whole life, it didn’t set up the way it normally does. The liquid stayed liquidy, despite PLENTY of baking. It seemed to get better as it cooled, though.
  2. “The Master Recipe: Boule” from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, p. 26. It came out kind of oddly shaped—I think I didn’t form the dough ball correctly—but man was it tasty. I want to try a few more recipes, but I plan to post a book review—at this point, it’s looking like it will be a very positive review—in the near future.
  3. Sticky pecan caramel rolls, from Artisan Breads…, p. 187. (It was the first recipe that I noticed would let you reuse the boule dough for something other than a boule. It’s “five minutes a day” because you make multiple days’ worth of dough, you see, and while I wanted to practice with the master recipe before moving into wheatier versions, we don’t actually eat that much white bread.) They were omgamazing. But they’re not exactly a health food: I’m going to have to take the leftovers in to work tomorrow, for the student workers.
  4. Based heavily off of the Curried Carrot Soup in Simply in Season, p. 241, as well as this and this, I made a carrot-acorn squash-curry soup that was, if I say so myself, quite good! I’ll put the recipe at the bottom of this post.
  5. A big crockpot of steel cut oats, with some almonds, pecans, and brown sugar thrown in.

Plans for today and later this week:

  1. Either pizza or a spinach & cheese calzone – I just now noticed that you can use the boule dough for this, so I think I might. … We have pizza sauce we need to use and no ricotta to speak of, so I guess I know which we’ll be having, this week.
  2. Potato soup – I haven’t picked out a specific recipe, yet. But we have a ton of potatoes.
  3. Roasted Brussels sprouts – I don’t have a clever idea for a main dish that goes nicely with Brussels sprouts, mostly because I pretty much never eat them. They smell bad when you boil them, but they came in the CSA box, and I feel like maybe roasting them in the oven will lead to a nicer experience, overall. Not sure what the rest of this meal will look like, though.
  4. This “orange beef” recipe, done with fewer peppers (run through a blender :)) and buffalo instead of beef.
  5. Hard-boiled eggs, hummus, and cutting a bunch of carrot spears, to fill in meals.

Curried carrot and squash soup:

  • 1Tbsp oil (I used grapeseed)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cans (=24 oz) broth (chicken, veggie, whatever—I used chicken, this time)
  • ~5 carrots, washed and chopped
  • 1 large acorn squash, or 2 small ones (the one I used was 2lbs 13 oz before cutting, cleaning, cooking, etc.)
  • ~2/3 cup coconut milk (was a leftover from mchicha, which called for 1 cup, instead of 1 can)
  • A large clove of garlic, or maybe more 🙂
  • 2 Tbsp curry powder (I have a nice yellow curry powder from Summit Spice & Tea)
  • dash of cayenne
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger, ground up or chopped up really small
  • Do the baking and cooling portion of acorn squash preparation (cut, clean out the seeds and stuff, put upside down on a lightly oiled baking sheet, bake at 400 degrees until soft), cool a bit, pull off the skin, chop it , and set aside.

    In a large pot, cook the onion in the oil, add garlic a couple of minutes later, and cook until both are soft. (I always have to add a couple of splashes of water during this step, to keep it from drying out or burning, but that might be that I’m using too little oil.) Add in the carrots, broth, squash, coconut milk, curry, ginger, and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer until the carrots are soft.

    Blend. Serve.

    At 4 servings, the nutrition information looks roughly like this: Calories: 202.7, Total Fat: 6.6 g, Cholesterol: 5.0 mg, Total Carbs: 35.1 g, Dietary Fiber: 6.8 g, Protein: 4.1 g