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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

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

52+ Weeks of Recipes

Posted on

Breads, Pastry, Pasta

Bagels

Cinnamon Raisin English Muffin Bread

Cornmeal Crackers

Corn Tortillas

Croutons

Egg Noodles

Eggless Pasta

Flax Crackers

Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Pie Crust (Curried Chicken Pot Pie)

Pizza Crust

Multi-Grain Sandwich Bread

Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas

Sweets & Breakfast Treats

Christmas Stollen

Chocolate Graham Crackers

Cinnamon Rolls Quick & Easy

Granola Number Five

Granola Bars

Whole Grain Pancakes

Beef

Bison Chili

Bison Stroganoff

chipotle meatloaf

Corned Beef & Cabbage

Lasagna

Pork

Frijoles Borrachos

Pork Carnitas

Posole

Tomatillo Pork Stew

Chicken or Turkey

Curried Chicken Pot Pie

Curried Turkey (or lamb) With Autumn Vegetables

Mediterranean Chicken with Potatoes

Tomatillo Chicken Dia de los Muertos

Vegetarian & Vegetables

Anasazi Bean Burgers

Corn Salsa

Rainbow Chard With White Beans

Refrigerator Kimchi

Roasted Tomatoes (oven dried)

Spring Asparagus Salad

Sushi

Super Lentil Dal

Sauces, Dressings & Condiments

Bechamel Sauce

Balsamic Salad Dressing

Buttermilk Ranch Salad Dressing

Coffee Bourbon BBQ Sauce

Marinara Sauce

Mustard

Pizza Sauce

Tomato Sauce

Tomatillo Salsa

Vita’s Pasta Sauce

Make It With Milk

Crock Pot Yogurt

Meyer Lemon Cheese

Week 52 – The End Of The Road?

For a reason I may have never quite imagined, I’ve been putting off writing this post all week. I guess it was too hard to envision some 52 weeks, 365 days ago that I would be lamenting the end of an experiment that at times brought me to tears and frustration. But I actually am a little bit sad. There’s a routine I think I’ll miss, and other parts that I hope will stick, like the discipline I learned in planning out our food options each week. My year of inconvenience is technically over.

So a lot of people are asking me, what’s next? While I know I’m typically an over-committer, I can’t quite bring myself to commit to the next steps that follow this journey. I think I want to keep blogging. In fact I have several posts planned after this one – things like the 52 things you should know about inconvenience – along with a few production totals of the things I made routinely during the year.

What I absolutely loved about this year was the discovery, although I feel like I still haven’t discovered what I need to know about dough, and flavors, and techniques, and canning, and growing food. I discovered for instance, that a lot of the food processing we take for granted really takes a lot of time (like turning a bushel of tomatoes into future ingredients). While others, such as corn tortillas from scratch really aren’t a bother at all. But the discovery doesn’t really end here does it?

My week officially ended on Saturday, April 16. That meant our Saturday shopping trip after work was geared towards what I would eat on Sunday and a few days that followed. I didn’t want to go too crazy, all hyped up on the idea of convenience foods. After all many shoppers in my store now know me as the “woman who cooks from scratch” and tarnishing that reputation may not be as easy as I thought it would be. Ha – who am I kidding? The first thing in my shopping cart was the box of Cinnamon Harvest Cereal I’ve craved since I first tried it on my December Florida vacation. If you’ve followed my blog all along you may have guessed the second and third items into the cart were canned beans and package pasta even though I didn’t have any plans for them. I just took comfort in knowing they would again be available in my pantry when I wanted them. My disclaimer for this picture is that the cookies were Lisa’s first convenience purchase. Give her credit now for putting up with this for a full year (thank you sweetie).

I actually held off on buying any chips until Thursday night the following week (which in our house became a celebration we like to call Taco Thursday), a quick meal I haven’t been able to make very quickly for over a year. So if you really want to know, the convenience foods I purchased and consumed the week following week 52 were:

  1. Cinnamon Wheat Cereal (which I ate 4 of the 7 days)
  2. Garlic bread chips from a local bakery (oh what a decadent impulse item they were)
  3. Caesar Salad (my lunch one day from our co-op’s deli)
  4. An antipasto sandwich and balsamic beets (another lunch I split with Lisa)
  5. Canned San Marzano tomatoes, which made a perfectly wonderful oven-roasted pasta sauce, and ditalini packaged pasta (thank you chef John at Food Wishes)
  6. And the grand convenience meal of all: whole wheat tortillas, Spanish olive salsa, and local tortilla chips for a wonderful bison taco dinner

That slow roasted tomato sauce was super simple to make. We doubled the batch so we could freeze part of it. Serving it with goat cheese and ditalini pasta makes for a grown up spin on Spaghetti-O’s. Plus the house smelled fantastic all day!
So instead of focusing just on what was convenient, know that I haven’t totally fallen hard off the wagon in the first week. I still baked bread and granola, packed up or made three lunches and four dinners from scratch, and have so far avoided anything that resembles processed junk food.

I guess what this all means is to let the year, after the year, adventure begin!

Week 33 – Warming Up For The Holidays

Foodie Snowman... yes those are potatoes!

The cold winter winds have finally arrived where I live and today is our first snowfall of the season. That means the holidays are so close you can smell the gingerbread and feel the heat coming from the kitchen. Me, I’m getting ready to escape it all for a week with the promise of warmth and sunshine in the southern most part of the United States.

This past week was one where I felt lucky to have a stocked up freezer with a lot of meals (or leftovers) to feed my need for convenience. I had some kind of weird sinus issue this week, which caused me to feel woozy when I was awake and made me want to sleep a lot to avoid feeling woozy. So having a good pre-made supply of comfort foods such as turkey noodle soup, turkey meatloaf, and pork tomatillo stew provided the medicine I needed, and I was glad I took the time to make them all in advance. By mid-week I knew I had to feel better by Friday evening, which was the promise of dinner over at our friends Tara and Wendy’s house. I already missed a great opportunity this week by not feeling well – a Tweet-up of other Milwaukee foodies and bloggers like Lori or Paul at  Burp and Rebecca at  Cakewalk – so I was determined not to miss the opportunity of someone else cooking dinner.

When asked in advance by my friend Wendy, what I wanted for dinner, my smug and patent answer is always “chips.” Can I bring anything to dinner? Chips. What do you miss most about cooking everything from scratch? Chips. What is the one thing I haven’t been able to make at home? Chips. I climbed the stairs into the upper flat of their home and was warmly greeted by one of their three cats (I think it was Dunky), along with a beautiful bowl of everything that is wrong with convenience food – CHIPS! Finally, someone has taken my requests seriously. I graciously accepted the gift presented to me by consuming three different bags throughout the evening, and graciously avoided taking any home with me since that does feel a lot like cheating.

Dinner itself was a fabulous array of tapas, including a potato torta, romanesco sauce, mixed olives, hummus, aged cheddar and other cheeses, roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mixed nuts with fresh herbs, along with fresh mussels steamed in white wine and garlic. Wendy is a great cook, as well as a budding mixologist. She had her own drink menu printed up for her guests, and we enjoyed some delicious and inspired mixes including her dessert tiramisu (yes, total liquid heaven in a glass). We were either a little tipsy, sincerely impressed – or both – and we encouraged Wendy to start her own blog, a year of 52 drinks. I really hope she does that.

Wendy B’s Tiramisu Cocktail

Combine equal parts (1oz) of Bailey’s, Kahlua, Amaretto and vodka in a shaker with ice. Shake it like a Polaroid picture. Pour into lovely glass of choice and garnish with a small pinch of cinnamon. Enjoy!

Week 20 – Living the Life O’Riley

Apples grown on the Murphy farm.

While many of us who live here know that the town of Boscobel is not the hot bed of Wisconsin tourism, there are two sweet spots tucked away into the rolling hills of unbelievable beauty in the western part of our state, that led me to my latest food adventure. That would be the Life O’Riley Farm and Valley Ridge Art Studio.

Jean and Mike Murphy live on 160 acres directly off Riley road and County T, six miles outside of Boscobel Wisconsin. They run a small bed and breakfast out of two buildings on their farm – a restored granary and old school house (which is where we stayed) – a temporary home to many guests of the Valley Ridge Art Retreat Center.

Thanksgiving and Christmas

When we pulled into their driveway last Saturday, we were greeted by two of their “temporary” residents named Christmas and Thanksgiving. Yes those were turkeys – I kid you not. These two birds came running up to the car, just as friendly as their dog Josie, curious to who was arriving and if we would care to pet them. You see Jean and Mike are strong supporters of the local food and slow food movement, and eat mostly what they raise or grow throughout the year. That would be one steer, one pig, about 40 chickens, two turkeys, and a huge garden of vegetables which guests are welcome to enjoy. As Jean said to me, “we live inconveniently all the time.”

Jean is a super great hostess who knows how to make you feel completely at home immediately with her food. The kitchen of the schoolhouse was stocked with fresh eggs, milk and cream from a farmer down the road, fresh apple cider, home-baked bread, home made granola, and a nice variety of home-baked muffins. Last time we stayed there, about a year ago, we also had home made sausages from their pig. It was too early this visit – the new pig was still out in the barn. Jean loves to cook for her family and her guests, and loves talking about new recipes she’s discovered. My last visit there I came home with her recipe for English muffin bread, which I’ve made six times so far during my year of inconvenience.

I must admit it was a pretty humbling experience for me to witness food first hand looking into the eyes of those turkeys or that steer. Jean and Mike Murphy care for their livestock as they do for their pets, yet they know the difference, and they know the meat from their livestock is going to get them through another harsh Wisconsin winter. What food they don’t raise or grow on the farm, they must buy elsewhere, and Jean lamented how they didn’t have a food co-op nearby to fill some of the gaps.

As we sat in the kitchen of the schoolhouse one evening, we heard an unfamiliar sound, and much to our surprise an Amish buggy came slowly down the driveway in the dark of night. I’m guessing the young boy was bringing some of the fresh milk they provide for us, as Jean and Mike don’t have their own milking cow. The Amish grow a lot of the vegetables for the area farm markets, and bring them to auction each week for even wider distribution in Wisconsin. Milk for Wisconsin cheese comes from many of the cows in this part of the state, and some of the award-winning cheeses are produced just a few miles down the road in Gays Mills and Fennimore. It doesn’t get more local than this.

Jill Berry's class at Valley Ridge

The second sweet spot of the trip was the Valley Ridge Art Studio run by Kathy Engen. Valley Ridge is a beautiful setting overlooking the hills of western Wisconsin, just seven miles from the Life O’Riley Farm. Kathy brings in artists from all over the country for workshops and art retreats in a very warm and welcoming setting. You can stay in the guesthouse (former farmhouse) on her property and she will provide a healthy lunch during your class, for a nominal price. In contrast to the from-scratch cooking of Jean, Kathy does most of her shopping at Madison’s Willy Street Co-op for the sumptuous lunches – so my days were actually a balance of convenience and inconvenience.

Because our class was held over Labor Day weekend, or maybe because Kathy is such a great hostess, she included a cookout for all of the workshop attendees on Sunday night at her home and invited our hosts Jean and Mike, among other friends to share some of their food with us. We had a wonderful tomato salad from her friends Frank and Maureen, made from their homegrown tomatoes, cilantro, mint, and chives, as well as their own home made feta cheese. Jean and Mike brought some roasted potatoes they had dug from the ground that morning, along with a wonderful beet salad and pickles. Our instructor Jill Berry brought along some salmon she had marinated in tequila, lemon, and fresh herbs grown in her garden. I brought along some fresh baked crackers, Lisa brought along a freshly baked banana bread, and we capped the dinner/evening off with homemade coffee and vanilla ice cream topped with a variety of flavored sea salts and a homemade apple crisp. Yes, it was that good!

Well all good things must come to an end, and as the weekend winded down we walked away from it all with some amazing book art, a dozen of fresh eggs from the farm, and some new friendships to keep us occupied on Facebook this winter.

I promised Jill and Jean I would share my cracker recipe with them. This was originally published in Saveur Magazine as Flaxseed Crackers. I made them the first time with sesame seeds, and now love combining the two seeds for an amazing flavor.

Flax and Sesame Crackers

1 ½ cups flour

¼ cup flax seed

¼ cup sesame seeds

1 teaspoon garlic salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons butter, softened

½ cup milk

To finish the crackers

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine the dry ingredients (flour, flax, sesame seeds, garlic salt, and baking powder) in a large bowl. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour mixture until the mixture is coarse. Gradually add the milk, stirring until a crumbly dough forms. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate the dough for about 15 minutes so it’s easier to handle.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Talk half of the chilled dough and roll out onto a lightly floured surface (I roll mine directly onto a silicone baking sheet, you could use parchment paper as well.) You want to roll it out to 1/8 inch thickness, into a rectangle approximately 12” x 15”. Brush the dough with half of the olive oil and sprinkle with half of the kosher salt. Using a pizza cutter or pie wheel, cut the dough into the size crackers you would like. (Repeat the process with the other half of the dough on another baking sheet.)

Bake the crackers until golden brown, about 20 minutes. I set the timer to 16 minutes and take out any crackers already more brown than the others – usually the ones around the edges – then let the rest bake for the last 4 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to let them cool completely.

Week 17 – Take Your Pick Of Tomatohhs

Thirty-four pounds of tomatoes – yes that’s five hundred forty four ounces of raw material my friends, about three quarters of a bushel. My hour of reconciliation had finally arrived, for it was time for me to look those luscious red beauties right in the stems and let them know who was the boss. Their time had come to meet their maker. That’s me, the maker of all things tomato.

This was one of the hottest weeks of the summer- in fact I think they said we had the most continuous days of high heat (with an uncomfortable heat index I might add), in years. What better time to pick to stand over a boiling pot of water and skin those little “apples of paradise” as my German Grandmother would have called them. On the bright side I only planned to freeze them, as I still haven’t worked up my canning courage, so the boiling water phase was short lived.

Do you have any idea of how many cans of tomato sauce, pasta sauce, diced, crushed, or pureed tomatoes you go through in nine months? Me either. Last time I bought a case of diced tomatoes at Outpost’s annual Truckload Sale they seemed to last forever, in fact I would have sworn they were multiplying in the basement because the next year’s truckload sale came along and I still had a few cans left. Well summer is my opportune time to plan out what tomato products I’ll need for the next nine months of my food journey, so I took a stab at my thirty-four pounds.

That's 14 pounds of organic tomatoes.

I knew at the beginning that taking a year of my life to explore some of the secrets of food (by cooking most everything from scratch) was going to reveal some things that I would have never considered under normal circumstances. Lesson number one – don’t take canned tomatoes for granted. Working in the grocery industry for the past twenty-nine years, I’ve stocked my share of canned tomatoes on the grocery shelf and spent a lot of time complaining that the cans didn’t stack well on top of each other. Why don’t tomato processors consider the type of cans that stack so they don’t tip over on the shelf? Okay, I digress.

I know many people who complain about the price of canned tomatoes, in particular organic canned tomatoes. Well I’m here to tell you that unless you have a pretty good size garden with nothing but tomatoes growing, and you actually get a good yield from your plants because they didn’t get tomato blight or drop and rot on the ground before you had had time to pick them. Unless that is how you spend your time, the price of canned organic tomatoes are totally worth the price we pay.

I bought thirty-four pounds of tomatoes at about $1.00 per pound (a really great price I might add). Fourteen of the pounds were organic, and twenty pounds were not. I bought my twenty pounds of Romas at the farmer’s market from someone I trusted, which meant I wasn’t going to worry about pesticides since I was going to skin them anyways. So I spent $34 on tomatoes. After boiling, skinning, seeding and processing those 544 ounces of tomatoes, this is what I had:

Diced Tomatoes 122 ounces
Tomato Sauce 96 ounces
Pasta Sauce 64 ounces
Tomato Juice for soup stock 16 ounces
Total Yield 298 ounces

Okay, so if you’re doing the math that’s about 11¢ per ounce my cost, or if you convert that to grocery store prices you’d pay $1.71 for a fifteen-ounce can of tomato sauce, $3.19 for a twenty-eight ounce can of diced tomatoes, and $3.65 for a thirty-two ounce jar of pasta sauce (and I didn’t include the cost of the other ingredients that went into my pasta sauce). Naturally that also isn’t including the time it took to process and make everything (about five hours including the peeling, seeding, cooking, stirring, chopping, weighing, and packaging).

So I’m not convinced I have enough tomatoes to get me through to next April when I end my year. However, as a self-proclaimed foodie I have to admit that the experience was pretty amazing and gave me a whole new appreciation for my favorite fruit – vegetable – fruit. Take your pick – tomatoes are amazing.

The Recipe – Vita’s Pasta Sauce

Dorothy Cataldo, volunteer cashier at Outpost, circa 1989

In 1989 one of the co-op’s long-time volunteers, Dorothy Cataldo*, passed along this pasta sauce recipe to me. Yes, she was Italian, and yes this is one of the best sauces I have ever tasted. She said it came from a restaurant in Cooper City, Florida and had been in that manager’s family ever since the late 1800’s when they immigrated from Sicily. My partner Lisa has made this one her own. Like any good recipe, you need to experiment with the ingredients, adding less salt or more wine and fresh basil to taste – because my friends, every batch of tomatoes has their own personality. Enjoy!

¼ cup olive oil (a really good oil, don’t skimp)

¼ cup white wine (dry, add more to your taste)

32 ounces crushed tomatoes (the recipe calls for imported Italian tomatoes)

1 small onion, chopped fine

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon sugar (or less, depends on the wine and tomatoes)

1 tablespoon salt or to taste

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 ½ teaspoons oregano (dried) or 1 teaspoon fresh minced oregano (or more)

8 leaves fresh basil (or more)

Heat the olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat and add the onion. Cook until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for about a minute or so (don’t let it brown). Add all of the remaining ingredients and continue to cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes, or until it reaches the desired consistency and flavor profile you’re looking for. (I added that last note)

*If anyone knows where Dorothy is, if she’s still alive, please let me know.