RSS Feed

Category Archives: local

How exactly did 2013 end so quickly?

The annual “year in review” by WordPress was inspiration enough to reflect back over the past year and all of the blog posts I didn’t do. Kind of an easy reflection when you consider all the times I thought of posting, but something else was always more important. So goes life.

Image2013 was a year like many, filled with both good and bad. The highlight of the good was most certainly my wedding – tying the knot (twice) – both legally in Washington State – and locally here at home for family and friends. After 15 happy years of cooking together, making a lifetime of it seemed like a safe conclusion to make. The bad (which no one ever wants to highlight) would be cancer diagnosis of a dear friend, a number of injuries to this aging body, and far too many meals of frozen dinners and packaged mixes.

While shopping for groceries just the other day I went to my blog to look up one of my favorite recipes for chicken chili. You see the local wedding of 70, catered by one of our favorite restaurants Smoke Shack, produced enough smoked chicken leftovers (now portioned out in our freezer) that we either needed to have another big party or I needed to do some serious cooking. Alas, said recipe was no where to be found. This is a quick recipe when it comes to chicken leftovers, and perfect for a very cold Wisconsin winter’s NY eve.

So here it is, my one blog posting to bid farewell to 2013 and usher in a year that I hope will mean more meals together at home with my spouse, a lot of great friends, and our most loved families. Happy New Year!

Kickin’ (smoked) Chicken Chili

2# cooked chicken (leftovers) or 2 grilled chicken breasts

5 cups chicken broth (preferably homemade stock)

16 oz. Tomatillo salsa (again, homemade if seasonal)

1 or 2 cans great northern or any white beans (for me – not from scratch)

1 cup chopped onion

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 peppers of your choice (jalapeño, poblano, dried chili, etc.)

1 green or red pepper (again, your preference)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon white pepper

Remove meat from chicken carcass and shred into small pieces.

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot and add all chopped peppers and onion. Cook for 10 minutes until soft. Add chopped garlic and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the chicken broth, chopped chicken, tomatillo salsa, spices and sugar. Bring to a boil and then turn town to a medium simmer without a cover. Simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

Add one can of beans. If the chili seems to thin, add two. If too thick after two, add a bit more water. Simmer another 10 minutes or so until beans heat up.

Add cilantro to the entire pot, and serve. Image

What A Difference A Year Makes

For anyone keeping score, I started a Year of Inconvenience on April 18, 2010 and finished that experiment in 2011, almost one year ago. And while I continue to get asked whether I’m still doing that “cook it all yourself thing,” I’m absolutely amazed that one year has gone by since I completed that challenge.  Believe it or not, on a pretty regular basis either my partner or I are proclaiming at some stressful point in the week, “Thank God we don’t have to cook this all from scratch.” Yeah, what a difference a year makes.

Last time I checked in – well the time before the Amish bread episode – I was proudly recalling my mid-year success of sticking to at least some of the routines I had learned. Well, that was September 2011. Truth is, the only 2 things I consistently make and have not purchased at all from a store since 2010 are granola and granola bars. I guess I proved at least to myself, that some habits are quite easy to break.

But, out of all the things I can either feel proud of or embarrassed by, the one thing I know that has changed in my life since I started that experiment is my constant need to now know just where my food comes from. You see, I’ve built up quite a big distrust for large agribusiness (and corporate greed) and the almighty dollar that constantly feeds that relentless machine of cheap food most Americans demand. I’m not talking about cheap processed food or fast food, but basic food items like fruit, vegetables, meat, yogurt, bread, or cheese, – items that most people want to purchase at the lowest possible price point. The most valuable lesson learned in my year of from-scratch cooking was identifying and valuing the time and effort good people spend getting really good food to market.

When I was in high school I remember reading with horror, Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle and becoming totally skeeved out by the practices of the meat packing industry. And then I stopped eating chicken when I was 16 or 17 because I couldn’t handle seeing the pin feathers left in the wings of the chicken my parents purchased from a farmer friend of theirs. To me it was too similar to what grossed me out in Sinclair’s book. Of course they were two totally different things – one being the greed ridden industry I previously described – the second demonstrating my point,  the value in knowing where your food comes from.

And now some XX years later (I’m really not going to reveal my age here) I’ve come full circle, abhorred not just by things like pink slime and too many salmonella outbreaks, but abhorred that people continue to demand the cheapest possible food. Do you know what it takes for food to be cheap? Well, from my experience either the farmer/worker is paid less than market value, or the product is made with less than quality ingredients (ie: ingredients that will either extend the products shelf life or products that are purchased from secondary markets where cheap additives help stretch the dollar for the producer). I now know the difference between factory produced crackers, and crackers that were hand made, hand and not machine rolled and baked 70 miles from where I live. And if that means I’m paying more per ounce for them, I understand the value in that price. I know the time and experience it takes to make good crackers. And there are people who want to make a living carrying on that craft.

I will pay more, in fact I will gladly pay more and cut back elsewhere when a local baker makes my bread, or an artisan at the farmer’s market has hand crafted my cheese selection. I’ve learned what it takes to make quality products on my own, and I have formed a deep appreciation of those people who try to make a living doing the same and I think them by purchasing their products whenever I’m not making them myself. And as I just described, that happens much more frequently nowadays.

Six Months Later…

Although it seems like only yesterday it’s actually been six months since I ended my Year of Inconvenience. I continue to have people stop and ask me from time-to-time, how the “cooking from scratch” is going, or if I’ve continued with any of the routines I had grown accustomed to during that one very long year of my life. Sometimes I’m asked those questions while I’m shopping – my cart brimming with canned goods, chips, deli salads, frozen pizza, and boxed cereal. I’ve since learned to hide all of those items under the bulk rolled oats, flour, and fresh produce (just in case).

I guess the bright side is that some of the things I learned in that year have really stuck with me. While sitting down to write this post my house is bathed in the sweet aroma of maple syrup and toasted pecans, as a batch of fresh made granola bakes away while the granola bars I made earlier still cool down next to the stovetop. Those are two of the items I continue to make from scratch whenever needed, even though they are just as easy to buy as all of the other items that line our pantry shelves.

Speaking of the pantry, just one look and you can see how things have changed over the past six months compared to eighteen months ago. Canned beans and mushrooms balance nicely beside the jars of nuts, dried beans, and flour. Tucked safely behind the toaster is my “snack corner” – a plethora of salty choices I had to previously do without – and instead make a batch of popcorn whenever the munchie craving struck me. There really isn’t much room in the pantry for all of the jars of bulk foods, additional cookbooks I collected that year, and the newly added canned goods. But that’s the way it is now, the blending of two distinct ways of getting food on the table, either slowly from scratch or semi-conveniently.

While the pantry isn’t as organized as it was last year neither am I. Two necessary evils that cooking from scratch really forces one into are organization and planning.  In fact without the meal planning it’s just too easy to look at your significant other after a long day of work and say, “I’m so tired, let’s just pick up a frozen pizza.” Ah pizza, the dish I swore I would never return to in it’s frozen form. We’ve probably made a ratio of 2:1 frozen to fresh pizzas over the past six months. Without the planning and preparation of sauce in advance, let alone planning enough prep time for the dough to rise, that box of Connie’s Pizza is just too tempting of a backup plan. And so I give in.

The other thing I swore, I mean seriously promised to continue to make from scratch every week was bread. The first time we ran out of bread (which was probably in late May when the farmers markets opened up) I gave myself permission to buy a loaf from the market, since the bakery they were selling was obviously made them from scratch that morning. Lightening didn’t strike me as I handed over my money in exchange for that crusty loaf of multi-grain goodness, nobody judged me – I mean really – it was just too easy to get away with. We did that for several weeks at the market and by July the summer heat and my social calendar gave me even more reasons to make excuses to not bake bread. When the markets closed in late September I knew I either had to start baking bread again or make up a new excuse to buy it. Needless to say it’s November now and my bread pans remain as cold as my convenience-oriented heart.

I have had some other successes in sticking with the from-scratch routine, such as back in September when my Mom delivered a 5-gallon bucket filled with tomatoes from my brother’s garden. We cooked that down all day into some delicious sauce while the same day a neighborhood friend also brought over about 2 pounds of cherry tomatoes just gleaned from the remaining plants in her garden. Those sweet little things got roasted with garlic, olive oil, some fresh oregano and rosemary, and we packed them in small batches to freeze for use on our fresh pizza. The warm autumn weather in Wisconsin this year just kept on producing more and more tomatoes, and we processed one additional batch we received from a farmer-friend. Where was this abundance of free tomatoes when I really needed them back in August of 2010?

Well life does indeed go on and I’m recommitting to return to that path of real food love whenever possible. In fact I still have my list of things I never did try making during that year (nor have I ever made before) that still warrant discovery – like home brewed beer, layer cake, vinegar, mayonnaise…

Eat Local Challenge

The Eat Local Challenge is a two week quest to source meals from the local foodshed. While anytime is a great time to eat local, the height of the September harvest brings to the table the greatest concentration and diversity of local fresh produce.

My co-op, Outpost Natural Foods, is challenging all of our shoppers to take the Eat Local Challenge. For two weeks, September 1 – 15, the challenge is to eat the highest percent of your food  from local sources. At our store, we consider anything from our state of Wisconsin as local. The closer to home and fewer miles traveled, the better.

Another great group, Eat Local Milwaukee, is also supporting that challenge, and you’re not going to find more local food or local businesses in any one place than today at the Made In Milwaukee festival. I’ll be there in a few hours setting up a booth for another great group of local businesses, Our Milwaukee.

Don’t live in Milwaukee?  Hopefully you have a co-op nearby where you too can join others in eating locally!

My first meal of the challenge was a fresh corn, potato, and tomato salad served alongside an organic marinated chicken breast from Angel Acres farm in Mason, WI. My local ingredients included fresh sweet corn, golden plum tomatoes,  red potatoes, spinach, and a yellow pepper. Even the dijon mustard in the salad dressing was made locally! The only ingredients that weren’t local were the shallots, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. That means along side the chicken, that 70-80% of the meal was sourced locally.

I have to say I was really excited that the salad turned out so well, and I got a bit of extra flavor by roasting the corn and pepper on my stovetop. Hope you enjoy!

Wisconsin Summer Salad

3 ears fresh sweet corn (about 2-3 cups)

2 cups small red potatoes

1 red, yellow, or orange pepper (roasted and diced with skin on)

3 cups fresh spinach leaves

2 cups assorted cherry tomatoes, halved

The Dressing:

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Black pepper to taste

Cook potatoes in boiling water until tender. Drain, and cut into quarters. Meanwhile while the potatoes are cooking, peel the sweetcorn and cook each cob for one minute in the microwave (or 5 minutes on the stovetop in boiling water). If you have a gas range, roast the corn over an open flame until the kernels begin to brown and carmelize. You can do the same with the pepper over the open flame, roasting it until the skin begins to blister and char. If you don’t have a method of roasting, it’s okay to skip this step.

When your corn has roasted, slice the kernels from each cob, and mix with the potatoes, chopped pepper and fresh spinach. If the potatoes and corn are still a bit warm, they will wilt the spinach a bit, which I think brings out a bit more of the flavor. Refrigerate the salad as is, for about 30 minutes.

Mix up the dressing in a small bowl with a whisk by combining the vinegar, mustard, shallots, olive oil, salt and pepper.

When the salad has chilled down, add the tomatoes and the dressing.

Optional ingredients can include some fresh basil from your garden and/or goat cheese. Had I included those 2 ingredients they would have also been local.

 

52 Things I Learned In One Year – Part 3 of 3

Cinnamon Dunkers - the most evil of all temptations.

Repeat after me – I am not a quitter – I am not a quitter. Well I guess “life” happened since my last blog post, as I have blissfully ignored the fact I haven’t yet completed my list of lessons. It’s not because I’m hard pressed to produce some cleaver or pithy responses. I’ve just been busy living through a summer with more time for work, projects and leisure, constantly tempted by the convenience foods that surround me. And I mean constantly.

And so, without any more excuses, I bring you my final list of conclusions.

26 – While you can save a bit of money by baking your own bread from scratch, the true cost-savings can be found when making your own corn tortillas. Packaged corn tortillas can cost up to ten times as much as the ones made from scratch. And they are the easiest thing in the world to make – just watch!

25 – I’ve made my own ranch dressing now quite a number of times. In fact I’ve yet to purchase any bottled dressing since I ended my challenge. What I love about this recipe is that if you really strain the yogurt until it’s super thick, you can use this recipe as a ranch dip, not just a salad dressing.

24 – Making your own tortilla chips – totally not worth it. Unless of course you’re going to deep fry the little suckers, maybe then you can get a nice thin chip that is full of flavor.

23 – Modern day small appliance manufacturers will try to convince you that you need their products in order to successfully produce something like yogurt (aka yogurt maker). But you don’t. Use a slow cooker and some bath towels to keep it warm. What about a $69 pasta roller? I made it through the year without one by purchasing a good $10 wooden roller.

22 – On the other hand, there are some kitchen products I couldn’t live without. If you’re baking any kind of hearth bread, pita bread, bagels – you need a baking stone. I bought mine at a restaurant supply store for about $50. It gives the best crust on all of those breads, as well as a crispy pizza.

21 – While I’m still on the topic of small kitchen appliances, I would have never survived the year with any amount of sanity if I didn’t have a food processor. I’ve had some people tell me they use their blender for everything and that a food processor is unnecessary. From my experience they just don’t give you the same results.

20 – Leftover food is priceless. When every eaten has to come from scratch you eventually learn to make enough to have extra food that can be frozen, or eaten again for lunch the following day. Duh!

19 – Okay I’m finally in the teens on the countdown. Keep a list of frozen meals on your refrigerator, lest you leave them frozen for too long and you lose either all that great flavor or texture to freezer burn.

18 – While I know I reduced the amount of packaging I would have produced in a typical year of buying convenient foods, I did use a lot of plastic bags, and I purchased a number of additional plastic storage containers for the freezer. Some of the bags I could wash out and reuse, while others didn’t hold up so well. Overall, my carbon footprint was probably smaller than what is typical.

17 – Blogging takes a bit of time. If you’re a blog reader versus a blog writer – maybe you spend as much time reading as those that are writing. But it’s not just the writing – it’s the editing, the photography, the tagging, and the subject matter. I was going to buy a better camera during the year and never quite got around to that.

16 – Okay I need a new camera. Food photography when you’re the one both cooking and taking photographs, means your camera ends up getting caked in egg, flour, grease, honey, etc. And you need a tripod, which I didn’t use, which means many of my photos were way too blurry.

15 – Freeze chicken stock in 8-oz bags or containers, then simply thaw for one minute in the microwave. Talk about economical!

14 – Ancho chili powder – where have you been all of my life? It has a smokier mild flavor that can be used in Mexican cooking, as well as in something like a dry rub for ribs. Oh, I have to post that recipe someday too.

13 – I spent a good part of the year watching cooking shows on the Food Network. One might think I’d want to escape all of the cooking, but I was really inspired by the amount of creativity you can put into food, and it gave me the confidence to try some new things along the way.

12 – Lisa, my partner, was a really great sport this past year. Thank you Lisa!

11 – In the year of inconvenience, I inconveniently gained weight. Damn.

10 – If at first you don’t like a recipe, try adding your own twist. I like making a recipe for the first time as it’s written, then changing it up to how I like it the second time. If a recipe has good structure don’t give up on it just because the flavor wasn’t right.

9 – Oh boy, single digits. This is hard work people! And that was lesson number nine…next.

8 – People have stopped me, mostly strangers when out in public, asking me if I’m still growing or canning all of my own food. Point made.

7 – Have I mentioned I really missed cold breakfast cereal?

6 – While I started the year cooking from a pantry full of cookbooks, by the end of the year I was getting most of my ideas and inspiration from other blogs or websites. Times have changed – and the iphone isn’t just for making phone calls.

5 – I regret not learning how to can this past year. Freezing yes, canning no.

4 – Blog stats can be addicting. I’ve been amazed at the number of followers of the blog, where they are coming from (I believe they represent four continents), what posts draw the most interest, and the incredible power of social media.

3 – Never would I have imagined at the beginning of this journey, that I would have written more than 60 posts, which have produced more than 38,000 views of my blog. Never.

2 – I spent a lot of time cooking last year. I mean a serious amount of time. While most of those chores became routine after some time, I didn’t realize how much time I spent in the kitchen until the past three months this summer when I wasn’t spending that time in the kitchen. I’ve spent more time with friends, with my gardens, with a good book, and… well working as well.

1 – At the beginning of this challenge what I wanted to learn most from it all was a true appreciation of food. Whether I grew it myself, made it from scratch, or tried to only buy it locally, I really wanted to connect to the energy it took to get that food on the table. And I did. I feel good about seeing it all the way through and not giving up when things got really stressful. And I still love to cook, in spite of my recent foray back to a frozen pizza and cheesy puffs. When all is said and done, this was truly and adventure of a lifetime. Thanks so much my fellow readers, for your inspiration and support!

52 Things I Learned In One Year – Part 2 of 3

Posted on

Ah, what was I thinking when I came up with the notion of writing about 52 lessons learned? One lesson per week of my challenge – that should be a piece of cake. Okay then maybe I just have a bad old case of writers block. I’ve challenged myself to write up my second list of 15-20 lessons over the past three weeks and I’ve come up dry. Getting out of the routine of cooking and blogging was not at all difficult to do. Even though I’m not filling my time with meal preparation like I was this time last year, my time is plenty full with large work projects, summer gardening, and all the great weather activities I feel I may have missed last year.

But when push came to shove, there really were more lessons there than I originally may have imagined. So on with the countdown…

37 – Planning meals around seasonal ingredients is a great way to be a bit more creative with what goes on the dinner table. While we had many a meal composed of the typical “protein, starch, and vegetable” – there were some terrific moments of creativity using seasonal vegetables. Check out the spring asparagus salad (if it’s not too late in your region) or plan for this corn salsa.

36 – Processing your own tomatoes into something like sauce can be economical. I learned that while it takes a heck of a lot of tomatoes to get to the end product, the end product was generally a better value than the price I would pay off the shelf. By the way, I used 52 pounds last year to yield 144 ounces of diced tomatoes, 96 ounces of tomato sauce, 80 ounces of pizza sauce, 54 ounces of pasta sauce, and 28 ounces of roasted tomatoes. Check out the post, 52 weeks by the numbers.

35 – Roma tomatoes make the best sauce and give the best yield. I was a bit fooled by the notion that any tomato is a good tomato to process. I was wrong. The Roma’s make all the difference in the world.

34 – I won’t again be fooled into thinking I can “thicken” a pasta sauce by blending up the tomatoes with an immersion blender. Good sauce takes time on the stove. Plan for long cooking time, 4-6 hours not only helps thicken the sauce but it really brings out the flavor.

33 – I swore that after this year, I would never again purchase granola. It’s been eleven weeks since I ended my year, and I have made about six pounds of granola during that time. Keeping true to this lesson, it’s so easy to do yourself and the benefits are that I control the flavor, the sweetness, and the amount of pecans I want in every bite! I will start a batch at 6:30 in the morning, and it’s ready to eat by 7:15.

32 – Homemade bagels are not all that easy to make, they take a bit of time to make, and the flavor is, well OUTSTANDING! Don’t be scared by the bagel is the lesson learned. Also eat them quickly, they really are the best the day you make ‘em.

31 – I figured out my slow cooker isn’t just for dinner. We made “Crock Pot oatmeal” which fills the house with a wonderful aroma, not to mention is ready when you get out of bed. And then there is Crock Pot yogurt, which is not only so simple it’s also a great value. Strain some yogurt in cheesecloth to make Greek yogurt, and you’ve saved even more money.

30 – Bison is better than beef. Don’t get me wrong, I l-o-v-e beef of many cuts and eat it often. However when I want to cut down on the fat and calories without losing any flavor, then bison is a surprisingly great choice.

29 – One can make cinnamon rolls without yeast. While they taste a bit more “biscuity” than yeasty, once you pour on the glaze it hardly makes a difference.

28 – I won’t go back to eating frozen pizza. Okay, I did break that promise this week as we were leaving our friend’s house after helping her move and it was already 7:30 pm and we hadn’t had dinner. A frozen pizza was easy, and quite honestly pretty tasteless by comparison. I won’t go back to eating frozen pizza!

27 – I now understand what little Miss Muffet was thinking, don’t discard the whey! I still regret making the first batch of cheese and tossing all of that whey goodness down the drain. Now I use it in place of milk when baking and it really does add some great flavor.

There you have it, and I have only 27 more lessons learned to write!

52 Things I Learned In One Year – Part 1 of 3

Posted on

Photo by Stephanie Bartz Photography

Some people have mentioned to me that planning all of my cooking and baking must have been the hardest part about committing to a one-year project. I confess however, that it was actually the blogging that was most difficult. While I truly love to cook and bake and take on “never made before in my kitchen” kinda projects, prior to this I had never kept any kind of diary, especially not about my life in the kitchen. You see I’m not really the “journaling type” so accounting for the highlights or lowlights of each week and sharing it with friends and strangers, and stranger friends, was quite difficult for me at times. Putting it all out there to the world without knowing what kind of response I would get was rather intimidating. Before I started the project I read the many “snarky” comments people would make on various blogs and I was a bit apprehensive about the first one I might receive. But the snarky never came. In fact I was surprised at how the positive responses really encouraged me and kept me going when I felt like quitting. Thank you all so much for that!

SO… that brings me to write about what I learned over this past year. This comes in no particular order, mostly from the ramblings in my head, however it leaves me a little surprised at the impact this has had on me, as well as the lives of others I now know through this experience.

A Year Of Learning, Inconveniently

52 – Convenience foods are packed, I mean PACKED, with sodium. Start to cook it all from scratch and your taste buds will notice the difference in a few short months.

51 – When making pasta, make sure you locate your flour well in which you will add the eggs, AWAY from the edge of the table. Cautious as you may be with stirring it together, the egg will break the wall and you will have to keep it from running onto the floor.

50 – I love bread and nothing compares to bread fresh from the oven.

49 – You can bake bread with a crusty, artisan-like texture by adding moisture to the oven. Keep a spray bottle with filtered water on hand to mist the top of the loaf. When using a baking stone, set a cast iron pan in the oven when heating, and add 2-3 ice cubes to the pan to create steam as you slide the loaf on the stone.

48 – When making mozzarella cheese remember one thing: kneading and stretching curds hot out of the microwave are quite honestly like touching the sun.

47 – I really, really, really hate cooking beans from scratch. Really.

46 – Someone in your life (aka: Mom) will try to feed you salty snack foods at every opportunity when she knows you are seriously trying to avoid them.

45 – A good stock (chicken or beef) takes 3-5 hours of slow simmer to give it a rich flavor. And a little fresh thyme is the secret ingredient.

44 – No one should have to buy chicken stock from the grocery store. It’s so economical to make, you can freeze it in whatever portion you like, it thaws in the microwave in no time, and it makes your house smell great while you’re making it.

43 – The secret is in the sponge, or in the starter. All great bread begins with a sponge or starter.

42 – The freezer is your best friend. You need a full upright or chest freezer to take on this type of cooking, without a doubt.

41 – Cooking from scratch requires a commitment to a production day once a week, if you have a busy work schedule and plan on eating a variety of foods.

40 – There aren’t many reasons to buy salad dressing when you can make great dressing yourself. You control the fat, the flavor, the salt, and the quality of ingredients. And there are plenty of good recipes out there.

39 – Mustard is one of the easiest condiments to make.

38 – Some of the best “foodies” live in Milwaukee and they have a great passion for sharing recipes. Check out many of them listed in my links of favorite food blogs, such as BURP, CakeWalk, Eating Milwaukee, and Good Graces!

To Be Continued…