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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…

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!

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.

Weeks 48 & 49 – From Blur To Bliss

At this point week 48 is a blur. When you’re in a job where you can’t pass your work on to anyone else, preparing to take a vacation means you will really need it when the week is over. And so we move on to week 49.

From my experience a vacation in the southwest, specifically the mountains of New Mexico, is a total sensory overload. From the heat and flavor of New Mexican red chilies to the sweet smoky of the green, the clear blue sky in the daytime to the star-studded sky of the evening, the unmistakable aroma of the piñon fires to the short-term effects of the altitude – my senses were definitely on overload.

We began our adventure in Santa Fe at the local farmer’s market, with the purchase of red chili powder, fresh goat cheese with green chili, German butter potatoes, farm fresh eggs, a giant bunch of rainbow chard and multi-grain bread. I was having a blast. My last visit to a farmer’s market was this past summer when my biggest concern was how many fresh tomatoes could I buy in order to get me through the winter. But this time it was about the food and more importantly the food already made by others. My vacation rules allow for the convenience food already prepared by someone other than myself, so I pretty much had to contain myself from purchasing every roll, cookie or bread in sight. The market in Santa Fe was one of the better ones I’ve been to – very well organized, a great variety of options, and to carry on with my theme – total sensory overload (which believe me was a really good thing).

This vacation was yet another art retreat unlike any other I’ve taken or written about. The ten of us, all women (mostly retired) stayed in the Taos home of a local artist whose colorful artwork filled the walls of most every room, and whose sense of style created an atmosphere of curiosity and wonder. It was the perfect setting for creativity, in both art and food and as one of the designated cooks for the week I saw the opportunity to let my food love shine using the foods I purchased from the market. Leading with the two pounds of granola I baked before the trip (which our instructor joyfully claimed as her prize), I decided I would bake us some bread.

From my year’s experience so far I’ve learned enough about baking to know that things like heat, humidity, or even altitude can have a serious impact on the results. With iPad in hand, Lisa researched any potential precautions I should take in baking bread in the thin and dry air at 7,000 feet. Breads rise quickly at high altitude and the dough needs to be adjusted for moisture. Yes indeed, my English muffin bread that typically takes sixty minutes to rise took only 30 minutes to get to a stage of puffiness that kinda’ scared me a bit. The dough was beautiful and it filled the loaf pan looking like a professional had their hand at forming it. Ha – was I going to impress everyone with this bread! My next challenge was adjusting the baking time, not only for the difference in altitude but because I was using a convection oven. Okay, that meant I should lower the heat by twenty-five degrees and shorten the amount of baking time. Piece of cake… er bread. If I thought this bread looked beautiful before it went into the oven it looked even more amazing coming out of the oven. I couldn’t figure out what was the big deal about altitude adjustment? I was totally for this high altitude baking.

Well as you may have guessed that feeling of amazement and success of was pretty short-lived. The next morning I put on the pots of coffee and started to slice into my perfect loaf, setting up my cinnamon raisin “toast bar” for breakfast. The first slice was beautiful although not quite the usual texture. The second slice was equally as enticing to the on-lookers now forming over my shoulder and I couldn’t have been more proud of the treat I was getting ready for them. Onto the third slice, and the fourth which started to be a bit more crumbly with a slight hole in the middle. Well take a look at the photo because it wasn’t just a slight hole that had formed, it was a giant cavern right through the center of the bread. Needless to say we got a laugh out of it and toasted each slice in several pieces. Ah, my little lesson on baking in high altitude.

One meal that did go well was one I made using the fresh rainbow chard and potatoes from the farmer’s market. Fortunately for me I had convenience foods on hand, my first encounter with canned beans and a carton of chicken broth since last April. I served the beans and chard directly over the steamed German butter potatoes for a quick, simple, and delicious meal.

And what would vacation be without souvenirs? Many of mine, were of course, food related from sun-dried red chilies to smoky chitpotles. I plan on recreating the flavors of New Mexico at home, but I might wait until using canned beans are ‘legal’ after the year is through!

 

Rainbow Chard With White Beans

1 large bunch (about one pound) red chard or rainbow chard, rinsed well

½ cup shallots, sliced

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ cup white wine

¼ to ½ cup chicken broth (or vegetable broth)

1 can (15 ounces) white beans, great northern, navy, or cannelinni (drained)

Salt and pepper to taste

Remove a good portion of the stems from the chard, reserving as much as you might enjoy in the dish. (The reason you’re removing them is that they cook slower than the leafy green part, so they need to be cooked separately.)

Once the stems are removed, roughly chop the leafy green portion of the chard and set aside. Now dice up some of the stems, along with the shallots and garlic.

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan, and add the shallots and diced chard stems. Sauté the mixture until the shallots begin to caramelize, about 8-10 minutes. The chard stems should begin to soften at this point. Add the minced garlic and stir for about one minute to release the flavor.

Add the white wine to the pan to deglaze it of any browning from the vegetables, and slowly add your chard greens allowing each addition to cook down a bit before adding more greens to the pan. Cook the greens stirring frequently for about 10 minutes.

Now add the white beans to the mixture, along with the chicken or vegetable stock. Cover the pan and let simmer on low heat for another 10 minutes, allowing a good portion of the liquid to absorb into the dish. Season with salt and pepper.

This can be served as either a main dish or a side dish. Serves 4.

 

Week 47 – St. Patty’s Is Simple, So Do It

I struggled again with what to write this week. No whining, no complaining, no sniveling as the Irish say. It was a tough week for me, as tough as week six was last May. So many hours spent working, so little time spent preparing for meals. So when faced with those pressures this past week I learned a few more cooking shortcuts. Too little too late you ask? Perhaps, but it gave me some peace of mind in terms of finishing up what I’ve started.

Short cut number one, bake off the easy things while enjoying your morning cup of coffee. I made a one-pound batch of granola on Saturday morning, which took me 10 minutes to combine the ingredients and 20 minutes to bake (stirring two times at each 10 minute baking interval). How easy was that? It didn’t need to be time away from a fun or productive day (okay, it was another day of work) but we were out of granola and believe me, it almost got ugly the day before when I ate the last bit of it. I did the same thing on Sunday morning, making up a batch of my favorite granola bars. Again it took about 20 minutes toasting the grains and combining them with the sweeteners, and another 20 minutes of baking. The second delicious accomplishment that didn’t dig into my Sunday hours one bit.

Short cut number two, and you still have two days to accomplish this yourself, is to make yourself a nice Saint Patrick’s Day Corned Beef and Cabbage dinner in the slow cooker. Seriously, this was one of the easiest meals I’ve made this entire year, and was right up there on the list of deliciousness. What could be better than a one-pot meal that cooks while you are away at work, filling your kitchen with that savory aroma of someone slaving over the stove all day? Just make sure you don’t over-cook it, so if you have a timer or a crock pot with a timing function, set it for 6-7 hours just to be safe.

Here is my St. Patrick’s offering, the quick, easy, and delicious recipe. I don’t think I spent any more than 25 minutes all together in gathering the ingredients from my refrigerator, peeling, chopping and putting them into the Crockpot. Enjoy with a tall glass of Guinness after that long day of work.

St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef And Cabbage

One 3-4 pound piece of uncooked corned beef

2 cups water

One 12-ounce beer (Guinness or any kind of lager will do)

1 small head of green cabbage, cored and quartered

1 large onion, quartered

2-3 large carrots, sliced diagonally into bite-size pieces

6-8 red potatoes, peeled slightly (not thoroughly) and quartered

2-3 generous sprigs of fresh thyme

1-2 bay leaves

 

Lay the corned beef on the bottom of the slow cooker and top with all of the vegetables, thyme, and bay leaves. Pour in the beer and water. Cover and cook for 6-8 hours until the beef is tender.

Transfer the beef to a cutting board and cut into thin slices. Serve in shallow bowls surrounded by the vegetables, and make sure you serve some of the cooking liquid over the top because that is the truly delicious part!

 

Week 41 – I’m Whey Ahead Of The Game

A lot happened during week 41 that I’m just not at liberty to talk about – seriously. Let’s just say that I had a lot of food prep to take care of this week in advance of “someone” coming over to our house to photograph said food. Naturally it wasn’t just the food prep that took some time but also the cleaning up of the house – kitchen and pantry (I cleaned and reorganized it all from floor to ceiling) – noticing dust and crumb collection I somehow had blissfully ignored until then. Now if you think you know what is going on, you obviously read my previous post when I felt I was at liberty to talk about all this activity.

The food preparation included setting up a meal of slow cooked pork carnitas served on homemade corn tortillas and topped with fresh made pico de gallo, Queso Blanco cheese I also made from scratch, and sour cream which I chose instead to use strained yogurt (yes, I made that too). Other food also in line for a snapshot or two was flaxseed crackers, chocolate graham crackers, granola, and cinnamon raisin English muffin bread. Besides the still photos, there were also two videos involved where I needed to demonstrate how easy and fun it is to make the Queso Blanco cheese and tortillas. Other than the cat walking though the room and meowing during the cheese demo and me messing up the first tortilla I pressed, things went okay.

It is kind of amazing to me that I’m actually enjoying a number of the things I now make on a regular basis, which certainly beats the heck out of me resenting it all. That said, I still don’t love cooking beans, in fact I really dislike cooking beans. Today I cursed the pots of beans that were cooking on the stove as I either had the heat up too high where they kept cooking over the top, or I turned it down too low and they stopped simmering completely. Turned out I overcooked both of them (and yes, the pots I used were too small). So Lisa in all of her brilliance suggested I turn the mess into refried beans rather than make the big pot of chili I had intended. Bless her little culinary heart – that was a great idea and saved me from total bean resentment.

I also discovered something magical this past week somewhere in between cheese making and bread baking. I happened to read something, somewhere, about a woman who was a cheese maker and didn’t like wasting any of the byproducts (such as the whey), so she used it in place of milk when she baked bread. I saved a quart of the whey from the first batch of cheese I made for the photo shoot, and gave it a shot in making my English muffin bread. The results were, well magical. The bread was lighter, the air pockets in the bread were numerous and I swear this bread tasted more and more like its English muffin counterpart than any previous attempts.

So here is my recipe for the bread, which you can make as regular English muffin (plain) or as cinnamon raisin.

 

 

 

 

English Muffin Bread

1 ¼ cups milk (or whey liquid)

½ cup whole-wheat flour

1 ½ – 2 cups unbleached white flour

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

½ tablespoon sugar for regular bread or 2 tablespoons for cinnamon raisin

2 teaspoons cinnamon (for cinnamon raisin)

¾  cup raisins (obviously for the cinnamon raisin only)

Heat the milk or whey until it reaches 125°F

Next, lightly oil an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan and sprinkle the bottom with cornmeal or corn grits

In a large bowl combine together ½ cup of whole-wheat flour and 1 cup of the white flour (reserving the other cup of white for later). Add the yeast, sugar, salt, soda (and cinnamon if making cinnamon raisin bread). Stir in the milk or whey and beat well with a whisk.

Next add the raisins if you’re making cinnamon raisin bread, and slowly add the other ½ to 1 cup of white flour. The batter should be stiff and sticky, but not something you can pour. If it seems too wet, add just a bit more flour. Depending on the conditions, I use a little more than ½ a cup and not quite the full cup left.

Place batter into prepared pan, spreading it out evenly. Cover and let rise in a warm place until the dough doubles, about 1 hour 15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from pan immediately ad cool on a cooling rack.

This bread is best served toasted, just like English muffins are best served toasted. Resist the temptation to eat a slice warm from the oven and instead let it cool and then toast one up with a generous slathering of butter.