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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!

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

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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!

Posole – The Perfect Summer Food

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How do you plan to stay cool when the weather gets a little hotter this summer? Working in an office environment I’m constantly amused by the variety of comfort or discomfort that’s determined by a simple “tweak” of the thermostat. Sweaters go off and on for some people, while others open the window and let in the 98° air because they are too chilled by the 74° indoor climate.

For me, I’d much rather be warm than cold any day. I like it when the weather so hot you can smell the heat rising from the sidewalk. I’d much prefer a beach vacation to a mountain retreat, although I can appreciate both quite easily. So, I’ve learned over the years to appreciate both warm and spicy food on a hot summer day as the perfect way to stay in my comfort zone.

I made this pork posole a few weeks ago, a dish I had been craving ever since we returned from New Mexico in March. Posole is one of those dishes that is made a number of different ways, so if you had it one way and didn’t like it don’t write it off. I love the rich flavors that come from chipotle chiles and I’ve now discovered a new favorite – guajillo chiles. I could only find them dried here in Wisconsin, and serendipitously the recipe I found uses dried guajillos that you roast in the oven for four minutes, which brings out the amazing flavor of this mild chile. Staying true to much of what I learned last year, I used my own homemade stock (I had beef instead of chicken), but I did rely on canned hominy. But what made this dish truly awesome, besides the guajillos, was the Berkshire pork shoulder my co-op is now selling. Berkshire pork is well worth using if you can find it – is the new red meat and what I imagine pork used to taste like before the flavor, and yes, fat, was bred out of it.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Toasted Guajillo And Pork Posole (adapted from Cooking Light)

3 dried guajillo chiles

1 ½ pounds pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1 ½ inch pieces

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 tablespoon canola oil

3 cups homemade stock (chicken or beef)

3 cups water

2 ½ teaspoons ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

3-5 garlic cloves, crushed

1 medium onion, cut into 4 wedges

2 tablespoons chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (1 tablespoon of sauce, 1 tablespoon of chopped chiles)

1 can (29 oz) hominy, rinsed and drained

Cilantro, chopped cabbage, and limes to garnish and add flavor at the end.

Preheat the oven to 400° and place the guajillo chiles on a baking sheet. Bake for about 4-5 minutes until they begin to darken and the fragrance of the chile really opens up. Let them cool and remove both the stems and seeds.

Take the pork you’ve trimmed and cut into smaller pieces, and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Heat up the canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the pork and cook for 5 minutes or until the pieces are browned. Remove the pork from the pan and wipe the drippings from the pan. (Note: I didn’t do this, I just drained the pan and I regret not following the directions, as the posole was a little fatty.)

Return the pork to the pan and add the stock, water, cumin, cloves, garlic, and onion, scraping up any browned bits along the way. Add the guajillo chiles, adobo sauce and chopped chipotle chiles and bring this all to a boil. When it boils, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer and let it simmer for about 2 hours. The pork will be tender enough to pull apart when this has cooked long enough.

Remove the guajillo chiles, pieces of onion and garlic. Take about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the liquid from the pot and place in a blender. This liquid is hot, so remove the center piece from the cover of the blender lid to allow steam to escape. Place a towl over the opening in case your blender enthusiastically spurts out this hot mixture. Blend until smooth and return this liquid to the pan, stirring it in along with the hominy. Cook for another 10 minutes and it’s ready to serve.

We garnished our posole with cilantro, chopped cabbage, and a squeeze of limejuice at the end. It was fabulous!

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

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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…

52+ Weeks of Recipes

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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

Recipe Request – Chocolate Graham Crackers

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It’s cold and rainy and just plain dreary outside today here in Milwaukee. So much for getting outside and spending some quality time in our gardens. To make the best of the day I think I need to get the house smelling of chocolate and comfort. These chocolate graham crackers were one of the best recipes I (well actually Lisa) discovered over the past year. The most difficult part of the recipe is waiting for them to cool down to a nice soft crunch before devouring the entire plate!

Chocolate Graham Crackers

½ cup all purpose flour

¾ cup whole wheat flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup dutch-process cocoa

1 ¼ cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons cold milk

Preheat the oven to 325°and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.

Whisk together the flours, salt, cocoa, sugar, and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut the butter into the flour mixture until evenly crumbly. In a separate bowl, combine the honey and milk, stirring until the honey dissolves. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and toss lightly with a fork until the dough comes together. Add a little more milk, ½ teaspoon at a time if necessary, to make the dough pliable but not sticky.

Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and fold it over gently until smooth. Divide the dough in half, keeping the other half covered with plastic.

Put your half of dough onto the parchment paper or Silpat, and roll it into a rectangle about 10 x 14 inches. The dough will be about 1/16 of an inch thick (pretty darn thin). Trim the edges and prick the dough evenly with a fork. Repeat with the remaining half of dough on the other piece of parchment. Place the parchment/dough on a baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes or until they begin to brown. Immediately cut them into rectangles with a pizza wheel or knife. Transfer on a rack to cool. They should crisp up as they cool down.

52 Weeks By The Numbers

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Let the countdown begin. When I began my year of inconvenience I thought it might be interesting if I kept track of the quantity of staples I was buying and making. Not everything mind you, but mainly the items I would have typically purchased conveniently at the supermarket (or in this case at my co-op). I’m pretty sure I missed tracking a number of items, or at least it feels that way now recalling how many weeks these items were part of my at times, frustrating routine.

Here’s a glimpse into my 52 weeks of inconvenience, primarily cooking or baking for just the two of us (although some food items became gifts, while others were served to our dinner guests. I started to provide links to the recipes below, but decided instead to develop a recipe listing in one of my future posts just to stretch this out a bit further.

Ingredients Made From Scratch
40pounds of flour(14 lbs. whole wheat flour and 26 lbs. white flour) 40 loaves of sandwich bread, 7 loaves of cinnamon raisin bread, 3 loaves banana bread, 6 Christmas Stollens, 24 hamburger buns, 24 flour tortillas, 24 popovers, 18 bagels, 12 pita breads, 12 pizza crusts, 4 batches flax seed crackers, 2 batches chocolate graham crackers, 8 crusts for chicken pot pies, and 4 pounds of pasta. Oh, and a crazy cake, cinnamon rolls, cookies, and I’m sure I missed a few other things as well. Whew!
52 pounds of tomatoes 144 ounces diced tomatoes, 96 ounces tomato sauce, 80 ounces pizza sauce, 54 ounces pasta sauce, 28 ounces roasted tomatoes. And I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to last.
8 pounds of rolled oats, 5 pounds of pecans 21 pounds of granola8 batches of granola bars (200 of 2×2 squares)The rest of the pecans were used in the Christmas Stollen
5 pounds Masa 7 batches (80) corn tortillas. I love making these and likely will not go back to buying them pre-made.
13 pounds of whole chickens and 13 pounds of turkey breast About 4 chicken and turkey dinners as well as leftovers for sandwiches, soup, and stock.
448 ounces (or 56 cups) of stock Chicken soup, veggie soup, turkey soup, lamb stew, tomatillo pork stew, chicken pot pies, dozens of rice dishes and other crock pot dishes
48 Tablespoons or 24 ounces Instant yeast Sandwich bread, cinnamon raisin bread, stolen, hamburger buns, bagels, pita bread, pizza crusts.
52 ounces honey Breads, 8 batches of granola bars (200 squares)
48 ounces maple syrup Granola (sweetener) and pancakes. Life is so sweet.
10 pounds fair trade sugar Okay that number should scare me into a five-mile hike. Yikes, that’s a lot of baking.
3 pounds (48 ounces) brown sugar Granola, some breads, granola bars, cookies
8 pounds (256 tablespoons) unsalted butter Wow, really? What did I make with all that butter? I only use unsalted for baking and some cooking. And I wonder why I gained 6 pounds this past year…
97 ounces or 12 cups of olive oil Salad dressing, marinades, pasta sauce, and all of those made from scratch dinners.
20 dozen eggs (that’s 240) Okay, if Lisa and I averaged 4 eggs/week total for breakfast that would be understandable. Many, many eggs were used in baking and pasta – and the rest made for some great breakfasts.

My year ended on April 17, and I still have some of the tomatoes and chicken stock in my basement freezer. I remember when I was so worried about putting up enough tomatoes last summer, to last me through the winter, and much to my surprise I didn’t use them all. We’ve eaten a few meals over the past two weeks (since the year officially ended) that were part of my stocking up on frozen dinners. Things like curried chicken pot pie, turkey meatloaf, turkey noodle soup, and pork carnitas have added a bit of value to what might have otherwise been a convenience food splurge for me.

In fact, over the past two weeks not a whole lot has changed for me… uhm yet. I baked two breads, made a batch of granola, one pizza, a number of from-scratch dinners, and averaged at least 3 out of 7 lunches from scratch each week. What did change is that I purchased pasta, chips, salsa, breakfast cereal, canned beans, a few salads and one sandwich from my co-op. I have a half-gallon of milk in the refrigerator right now for making yogurt (tonight) and I also think twice before buying anything convenient, partly out of habit and partially out of guilt. Could I actually be a changed woman? Only the next 50 weeks will tell for certain.