Monday, July 6, 2015

Updates, Fun with Quinoa, and Mom

Updates, galore! As you read in my last, much-belated post, I moved out on my own last November. My best friend in the world (above) and I have procured a home together. I moved in with my girl child, my two small, poorly-behaved dogs, and girl child's two rabbits. My bestie came fully loaded with three cats. In December, we adopted a family cat, rounding out our animal count to eight. Ridiculous, I know. But fun. Then we got three chickens: Strips, Ketchup, and Spicy. Then they got murdered by a bobcat in May. Most depressing free chicken buffet ever. But I digress....

My bestie, who I will refer to as Brewsn, one of many derby nicknames, and I are having healthy cooking misadventures. And trying not to eat our feelings when the going gets rough. But, pictured below is a great mix of quinoa, yellow and green summer squash, and mushrooms, heavily seasoned. 
If you're still cooking rice or quinoa in a pot, may I just kindly ask, "WTF for?" The rice cooker has changed my life. AND, we discovered something else--quinoa is much better if you wash it. It comes with a naturally bitter coating on it. If you put it in a bowl of water and agitate it, the water will get soapy looking. Keep doing this and rinsing until it stops bubbling. Then cook the quinoa with some broth (I like organic veggie broth) and some seasoning (Mrs. Dash and I are becoming bosom buddies). In a heavy skillet, I added 2 T. of oil, a package of mushrooms, and a teaspoon of garlic salt. Let the mushrooms brown. Don't crowd the mushrooms!!! (Says Julia Child.) When the mushrooms are good and brown and take them off. Toss sliced yellow and green summer squash with 1 T. oil, salt and pepper, and get your pan pretty hot (medium highish). The thing with yellow and green squash is that they get mushy really fast. So I like to toss them with oil, salt, and pepper, and put them in a hot pan to brown quickly before they starts to feel like baby food. Once that is done, combine your quinoa, mushrooms, and summer squash together. Season to taste with garlic salt, cayenne pepper, Mrs. Dash, garlic and onion powder, paprika, or whatever makes you happy.

In December, we attended the Roller Derby World Cup, which was held right here in our city. So we did that. And it was beyond fantastic. Especially because there is a train that runs from our neighborhood to right by the derby venue, so there was no driving. Which worked out great because we sure didn't need to be.
Team Argentina won my heart. England, whose life-sized cut out of Queen Elizabeth was stolen and held for ransom by Team USA, only to re-emerge wearing Scald Eagle's (this year's Team USA sweetheart) jersey. We all knew Team USA would remain the reigning champs, but they were still glorious to watch. If you have roller derby in your local community, please support these empowered and hard-working ladies by going out to see a bout.
My bestie calls this my "Bro Bag." It is a 6-Pack brand bag that I got through Dana Lynn Bailey's website, where it was customized for her. 6-Pack makes really amazing bags. They're pricey, but worth it.
Sadly, the food at the derby venue was frightful, so on the second day, I carted our own in. We went on down to Central Market, and shoved the bag full of soft Brie, pita chips, chicken tamales, grapes and apples, sushi, rice cakes and almond butter, and so on. Plus filled the sides with home-brewed kombucha. Kind of random, but it was all good throughout a twelve hour day of derby watching. The third and final day, we might have over imbibed a little bit and then spent the rest of the day eating Taco Bell. (Go here to view 6-Pack's entire line of bags: 6 Pack Bags and here to look around at Dana Lynn Baileys blog, Warhouse Gym, and product line. She's one of my gym heroes.)

And then I had to sweat Taco Bell out through my pores at the gym the following two days. Last year, if you recall, I started developing a deep love/hate relationship with the gym. I have remained quite a gym rat, and to learn more, I enrolled in NASM's online course to earn my certification as a personal trainer. For funsies. A girl's got to have hobbies, you know.

My new favorite leggings for the gym. My dad thinks they're so, so gross.
To support all this new muscle growth, we've been trying to go heavier on the protein to maintain our macros (if you're interested, check out IIFYM online to learn how to calculate and keep track of the relationship between fat/carbs/protein you consume--it's pretty eye opening). Ground bison remains one of my very favorites.
Parker James helping me cook bison.
Never having had cats before, it took me a while to get used to having someone hanging out (or hanging over) everything I do. I fought it for a while, but now I am coming to terms with being a crazy cat lady and just embracing the silliness.

That bison became the above pictured bison chili, which I packed in my bro bag with a spinach-quinoa salad (drizzled with pomegranate balsamic vinegar) and a Granny Smith apple. That is one of my very favorite lunches.

Another favorite of mine is protein pancakes. I mix 1 1/2 T. baking soda in with one large scoop of protein powder and about 2 t. oat bran. Mix well. Add in 2 eggs and mix. It will look like a science experiment gone wrong, but the resulting french toast/pancake combo is really good. I started making these when I still had some Herbalife pumpkin spice protein powder, and they were AMAZING. I am all sadness until the fall arrives and I can get more. Now I'm using vanilla-flavored powder, and it's working fine. Add some walnuts or pecans or blueberries for a little something extra. I usually eat half and save the other half for an afternoon snack. Drizzled with honey or maple syrup, these are awesome. But if you're running out the door like your hair is on fire like I frequently am, pop one in the toaster and fold it in half over a slice of turkey bacon. Excellent car food.

But we're not always virtuous. Sometimes we shit the bed and eat our feelings, and it usually looks like this:
Trashcan Nachos
Trashcan nachos. My dad started this tradition. You start with a giant jelly roll tray of corn chips. Smear them with refried beans or layer with black beans. Add any meat (we usually do ground beef, but you can do grilled chicken, shredded pork, sauteed shrimp, etc... It's all good. Use up leftovers here!). Cover with cheese and bake until the cheese melts really well. The trashcan part is all the condiments you set out to let people decorate their section with. Sour cream, salsa, chopped cilantro, avocado or guacamole, pickled or fresh jalapenos, chopped white or green onion, tomato, sriracha mayo, whatever. One must-have is San Marcos chipotle salsa in the can. You can get this at most grocery stores. Just make sure you get the sauce not the chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. I know it's in a can, which I am usually against. But the flavor might just change your life. Or your Tex-Mex food. Which is pretty much one and the same at my house. Glorious.

And I've done lots of fun stuff with girl child, like Mommy-kiddo yoga, also glorious. She is loving living in the house of crazy derby girls and animals. I frequently caught her doing homework with two rabbits, a kitten, and a chicken in her room before the chicken slaughter. I never thought I would live in a household where I frequently exclaimed, "Is that damn chicken in the house AGAIN?"

Another exciting event, for those of you who know me, is that Fred the Asshole died in January. I broke my left ankle playing roller derby pretty severely a little over three years ago. Once I really started lifting, the hardware started giving me trouble and keeping me from running, so I had it out, and OH MY GOD. What a difference! I didn't realize how much that metal sucked until I was free of it. It also helped that I was working out a lot before the surgery and went back to the gym for upper body six days after surgery (it's not huge surgery). The rehab was incredibly fast, and there's no more daily pain and swelling.

Fred's guts.
A few months after Fred died, and much to my great delight, I was asked to make birthday cake for my oldest friend's wife. My dear friend, Tippy, and I go all the way back to sixth grade (and this one time, at church camp...), and I was so excited and honored to make birthday cake for her sweet wife. Here's how that went down: On the left, a pink champagne cake with pink champagne frosting. Sounds fab, but it was least popular of the evening. It came out a little heavy, which might have been a user error. I suck at baking. Sue me. On the right is a lemon-blueberry cake with lemony cream cheese frosting and candied lemons on top. Yum. In the middle, and most popular of the evening, was a BOX MIX dark chocolate cake that I doctored to make more moist (the original instructions call for 1 cup water, 1/3 cup veg oil, and 3 large eggs-I use one cup of milk--raw, whole milk here--and add 2 extra T. of oil. Bake at 325 rather than 350, and start checking it will a knife 5-7 minutes BEFORE they recommend it will finish) and added cinnamon and cayenne pepper to. I added the same to the STORE BOUGHT frosting, threw some strawberries on it, and everyone died for it. I may never slave over homemade cake again. Possibly because I am a shitty baker.
Birthday cake that didn't suck.
But the party was lovely, there was grand food, and I didn't ruin the birthday girl's big day. So there's that.

And right as everything was settling into a comfortable groove, my sweet mama found out she had a golf-ball sized aneurysm in the center of her head. The next week, in mid-May, she had a craniotomy to clip off the artery feeding the aneurysm. Life with Mom is a lot different now as she rehabs.
Me, Mom, and my sweet sister.
So there are a lot of new normals to grow accustomed to at my house right now. Some are fun, some are bittersweet, and some are outright hilarious. My love/hate relationship with food continues, and I'm learning all about cooking food for Mom's required soft mechanical diet. I hope to continue to regale you with more tales from a single girl's kitchen soon!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Italian Christmas!!

Hello, my darlings! I'm sorry for the long absence. Sadly, my bacon-loving husband and I are no longer a thing, and it's been a difficult journey to get out on my own. There is still a long road ahead, but I hope that ultimately this will be healing for us both and help each of us to be a stronger, more whole individuals.

But enough dreary news. I'll start catching back up on my culinary (mis)adventures, starting all the way back at Christmas.

This year, lo and behold, my father said he wanted a traditional Thanksgiving, but that my sister and I could do WHATEVER WE WANTED for Christmas dinner. My dad is a serious traditionalist, so this was a really big deal. And my sister and I were cautiously excited, as he had said the same thing last year and then recanted right before Christmas. But ten days or so out, and he was still maintaining we could do what we wanted.

We decided early on that we wanted to do an Italian Christmas. That was about as far as we got for three weeks or so. Then, in the week before Christmas, we were exchanging frantic texts of this nature (yellow is Kari Ann; blue is me):

So finally, on the 17th, about two days before I went to the lake for Christmas, things reached a fever pitch. I'd just gotten home from the gym, was 20 minutes late for work already, but it was just time to pull the trigger on a menu. So I pulled down Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, Lidia's Italy, from my shelf, picked a couple of recipes, and made some up. I texted this menu to Kari Ann:
  • Baked fennel with proscuitto (Lidia B.'s)
  • Polenta (Lidia B.'s) with braised egglant (a mutt dish we compiled inspired by Lidia's)
  • Risotto with black peppercorn beef (Beef recipe is Lidia B.'s; the pairing was ours)
  • Fresh pasta with brown butter sage sauce (pretty basic things I'd already cooked before)
  • Tiramisu (from the lovely Diana's secret recipe)
My sister was dubious, but I was late for work. We divvied up the grocery list and met up at the lake.

On Christmas Eve, amidst my girl child's clamor to open "just ONE present!! Please!!" and the hoopla of my mother's birthday party, I made the tiramisu and then sort of lost interest due to the massive amount of shrimp, scallops, and lobster my dad made for Christmas Eve dinner. So come Christmas Day, we had lots of cooking to do.

We put on the beef, which is a roast cut into two-inch chunks and put in a big pan with an obscene amount of red wine, minced garlic, and peppercorns and simmered for about three hours.

Sadly, I can't bring myself to disclose Ms. Bastianich's recipes (don't be mad; I'm a lit professor, and plagiarism and copyright are legit things to me), so go snag a copy of your very own.  

We did have to add more wine and some water to the pot to keep the beef moist. Even then, we did decide that next time, we might leave the roast whole as it cooked and then top it with the red wine-peppercorn sauce after slicing it. Either way, it was really good over the creamy risotto (which we emptied a bottle of white wine into while cooking). It was a boozy dish. Sue us.

Then I made polenta with bay leaves so it could mold in a pan and be cut and baked into crispy goodness before lunch, and we started the balsamic reduction for the eggplant.

Top is beef, bottom right is polenta, and bottom left is balsamic vinegar with a little sugar. 

Next up was pasta! I have a funny little pasta maker, and I used Lidia's recipe of 3 cups flour (I subbed out one cup for semolina flour), 3 eggs, 3 yolks, 3 T. olive oil, and 1/4 cup ice water. If you've not made pasta dough, it's really easy. Sift your flour into a bowl. Make a little well in the middle, and dump in the eggs, oil, and a pinch of salt. Use a fork or your hands to work it together. At this point for me, it's usually a grainy mess, and not sticking together at all. This is when I look at my sister and whisper, "We're going to ruin Christmas, aren't we?" But really, it's okay. If the dough isn't coming together at all, add some ice water until it does. If it's too wet and just sticking to everything, add a bit of flour. I usually work it into two balls because they're just easier to manage. They should get fairly elastic and hold together well. Wrap each ball in Cling Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. When you take the dough out of the fridge, let it warm up a bit and cut each ball in half to work with.
I love this pasta machine.
Some people are willing to hand roll out pasta dough with a rolling pin. I am not one of those people. Nor am I really even willing to use the hand crank that came with my pasta roller. The secret to really good pasta is to roll it through each setting several times (doubling it up periodically) before using the specific noodle attachment you want. That's a lot of rolling, but to each your own.

So I rolled and rolled and rolled pasta, and put it on my rigged system pictured below (I swear I washed those hangers).
Rigged Pasta Dryer

If you've never made home made pasta before, it cooks REALLY fast. Wait until you're very nearly ready to eat to cook it. You'll need a pot of rapidly boiling, salted water with a little olive oil in it. You can literally dip the pasta in and remove it about three seconds later. Be careful. I got all excited, and in the interest of getting all the pasta in at the same time while someone was talking to me, I stuck my whole left hand into the pot of boiling water. Christmas fail. 

For the brown butter sage sauce, I just gently warmed up a stick of good butter in a skillet on low heat. When it just barely began to brown, I added about 8 good sized sage leaves, chopped. Remove from the heat, add 1 T. lemon juice and a pinch of salt and toss with your lovely homemade pasta. Garnish with fresh sage leaves and fresh grated Parmesian cheese.

Anyway, moving on, we started our eggplant caponata (minus the celery. I hate the celery). We sliced our eggplant (about 2 big ones or 4-5 small ones) into rounds and heavily salted it to let it drain for about an hour. Then, Kari fried it in a skillet of very hot oil and put in on paper towels to drain. Meanwhile, she had reduced the balsamic (about a 1/2 cup) and 2 T. sugar, added 2 T. of tomato paste and 2 T. of water to the sauce. In a pot, she added a bit of oil and the onions to cook. When the onions were almost translucent, she added in the eggplant, the sauce, diced capers (about 1/4 cup), and sliced kalamata olives (3/4 cup). Let it simmer for about 10 minutes. 

We served this over the baked polenta. After the polenta sat in a bowl long enough to take that shape, I turned the polenta out onto a cutting board and sliced it into one-inch thick squares. I put the squares on a jelly roll pan, brushed them with thyme-infused butter (sounds fancy--it's not. You just melt butter in a pot with a big fistful of thyme in it. Let it sit for at least five minutes before you remove the thyme), and put them under a low broiler until they crisped up. 

I have a great set of reindeer china from Pottery Barn that we always use at Christmas. We generally fight over this place setting.

Everything came out great, and my dad pronounced the day a success!! 

So, sorry for the Christmas post in June. I clearly suck as a blogger, but now we can all start planning well ahead this year? Right?