Cooking for the Week Ahead

It has been too long. I am still here. I am still eating. I am still cooking. I am still writing.

Life has been busy and different. I no longer come home in the afternoons after work to shop and cook dinner. (In fact I now work almost 8 hours more per week than I used to!) Instead I try and spend Sunday evenings stocking up on foods to pack for lunch and dinner for the week ahead. With my new schedule I get home from work just in time to kiss my wonderful husband, heat up some leftovers, and thank my past self for making them. During the work day, instead of staying on my toes pulling pans in and out of the oven and serving hungry children, I’m on my (mental) toes keeping parents happy, making sure their kids get the care they need. It’s a different life. When I can I go for runs around this beautiful lake.

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So how I do plan around my new and busier schedule? I try to make foods that will travel and keep well and feed me with comfort and keep me full until the next snack. These blueberry walnut muffins were made as a challenge to myself while one of my friends was avoiding processed sugar. They contain a little bit of honey, plus whole wheat flour, oats, walnuts, and of course blueberries! The oats and nuts make them more filling, add great contrasting textures, and are also quite tasty!

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I know some of your are scoffing the the mention of whole wheat flour in a muffin, but trust me – these were well-received after our long and muddy hike!

IMG_2584This quinoa and chickpea salad is my new favorite go-to lunch salad. I adapted mine from this one on the New York Times Cooking site and I especially enjoy it with roasted carrots. Made with canned chickpeas and a few chopped veggies, it’s fairly quick to make (especially if you use couscous). If you make a big batch at the beginning of the week, you will be set for lunches for the week!

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Another quick and healthy lunch is a big salad. Boxed mixed greens, chopped deli meat, cheese cubes, nuts (toasted, if you’re fancy) and dried fruit make for a delicious lunch. Bring a bottle of dressing to work or a little container of your own if you can.

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For dinners, soups and stews make for tasty fare and can be especially easy if you throw it all in the crock pot. Above is one of my favorites – Ginger Chicken Meatball Soup – adapted from this lovely recipe. When I plan my meals for the week I try to make at least two recipes, preferably one in the oven or on the stove and the other in the crock pot. Between the two of us packing lunch everyday and eating dinner at home, we need a lot of food!

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On the weekends when you have some time to relax and you’re feeling somewhat ambitious, make yourself some pancakes, fluffy and warm, served hot from the skillet. Top them with bananas, toasted nuts, and real maple syrup. Don’t go out to brunch. Make it at home instead! Then you don’t have to decide between ordering the pancakes and the omelette – you can have both!

Ah yes, but the weekends don’t last long, so you enjoy them while you can. Go out to dinner, whip up a homemade dessert for your loved ones, and then get ready to get ready for the week ahead once again. Even if the week is a rough one, at least you can say you were well-fed!

 

 

Baked Apples and Thoughts on Food and Cooking

I used to cook everyday for a living. I cooked for hungry school children and teachers. I cooked for a busy, young family, and often I’d come home and cook for Sam and me. I used to think that it would be living my dream – to cook all the time and make people happy with the food that I cooked, but I discovered in the last few years that sometimes dreams change once you begin to live them. And sometimes life just takes you in different directions.

For me, I get satisfaction from turning seemingly basic foods into comforting and delicious meals. I like the feel of breaking cold butter into flour, blending the ingredients just enough so they become semi-homogeneous, and rolling out cold dough to lay gently into a pan as if laying a baby down to sleep. I really do enjoy making a homemade pie crust. I love the sensory parts of cooking – touching cake to feel for that spring of doneness, bending my nose over a pot of simmering soup to smell its seasoning, and listening to the crunch and crack of chopping nuts with a sharp knife.

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I’m not cooking anymore, not for work anyway and here’s why:

  1. Cooking loses its intrigue when it becomes repetitive, mandatory, and no longer creative. Sometimes cooking for a living can do that, especially when you’re cooking to particular customer preference.
  2. Those of you who have been following me for a while know that my body has been telling me it doesn’t like the way I eat anymore and while I’ve been trying to listen to what it wants me to eat, I’m having a hard time understanding. Preparing mouth-watering foods for others that I myself can’t eat (or am afraid to eat for fear of not feeling well) has worn on me and so I’d rather not be around food all day every day.
  3. Working in food sometimes means obsessing about food – thinking about what your next meal will be, what you will cook later, and creative new recipes you want to try. Sometimes my obsession with food drove me crazy and I felt it hard to release myself from thinking about it.

I find now that keeping cooking to a hobby still allows me to enjoy the pleasures of food and pleasing others with the food I cook without driving me and my hungry/angry belly crazy. I’ve learned to eat less of the foods I used to indulge in (and perhaps it’s simply a consequence of getting older) and avoid certain foods (though I test them out again here and there.)

What still makes me happy when it comes to cooking:

  1. Stocking the fridge with delicious foods for the week ahead – snacks, meals, cookies.
  2. Using up ingredients and leftovers just in time to restock and replenish.
  3. Making something out of seemingly nothing.

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I started a new job about a month ago (hence part of the reason I’ve been absent here) and it is so very different from my previous food jobs that it has been a bit of an adjustment. Instead of deciding what to eat from the myriad choices of the school cafeteria, I have to pack my lunch ahead of time and hope I’m still in the mood for that food by lunch time. Bustling around a hot stove and oven have been replaced with staring at two large computer monitors while furiously trying to find the information I need to answer the question at hand. I look forward to fresh air lunch time walks and to the end of the work day. It has been a big change, but I’m hoping it will lead to something greater.

Now for a simple recipe to end this long train of thought: Baked Apples. I invited some friends over for brunch yesterday without really considering what I had in my fridge to feed them. Despite the lack of planning, with a few items picked up from the store and a little creativity we had a delicious brunch. I baked homemade challah bread and stuffed some apples we had in the fridge with a delicious amalgamation from what I had on hand. And the results: divine. Now this is the kind of cooking I can enjoy!

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Baked Stuffed Apples

This recipe can be easily scaled up and toyed around with. The below amounts are approximations of what I used.

2 large apples (I used Jonagold)

1/2 lemon

2 T. brown sugar

1 T. butter, softened or melted

dash of salt

cinnamon to taste

ground ginger to taste

2 T. chopped pecans

1-2 T. dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly butter an 8×8 square pan or other pan that will fit your amount of apples.

Cut the apples in half. Using a melon baller or small spoon gently remove the seeds and core so you get a shallow canal in the middle of each apple half. Squeeze your lemon half over the apples and lightly rub them to make sure they are well covered. Mix your sugar, butter, salt, cinnamon and ginger in a small bowl. Stir in pecans and cranberries. Taste and adjust as desired. Divide mixture between your four apples halves and place in prepared pan. Cover in foil and baked until your desired tenderness 30-45 minutes. Serve warm with brunch or as a dessert with vanilla ice cream.

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Ming Tsai’s Spiced Ginger Cake

I always look forward to the summers with childlike glee. And not just for the sunshine, warm temperatures, and beach days, but for the summer produce. I think of the piles of emerald zucchini and fuzzy peaches at the farmers’ market stands. I pine for the days when there is fresh corn on the cob and sweet ruby berries. In winter or fall it always seems like summer weather and summer produce holds so much potential for summer magic – spontaneous backyard cookouts with fresh, colorful salads or that shiny, happy feeling when you see a beautiful sunset after the perfect day.

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So after all this talk of gorgeous summer stone fruits and squashes, why am I making a ginger cake in August? Here you are nearing the end of a hot and feisty summer season and you’re making what’s essentially a Christmas treat? Okay, okay, let me explain. Continue reading

Post 119 – 5 Ways to Jazz up Plain Yogurt without adding sugar

I have always been a fan of yogurt. Creamy, smooth, tart and sweet – it is a comforting and easy to eat kid food. I remember eating yogurt pretty much every day while growing up, either packed in my lunch or for an afternoon snack. Though I know my mom tried to give us healthy food whenever possible, it is hard to get a kid to like plain, unsweetened yogurt. Ours was almost always flavored and sweetened while my mom sometimes bought her own tub of plain yogurt to eat for breakfast or sneak into healthified desserts.

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Well you know what they say… like mother, like daughter. As it happens, I grew up and began buying myself plain yogurt to have with my granola. Though I have adjusted to the lack of sweetness, sometimes I want to add a little something more to make it special. Here are five ways to jazz up your plain, unsweetened yogurt without adding excessive amounts of sugar.IMG_1516

1. Stir in some fruit – fresh or frozen! Thawed frozen fruit can be juicier than fresh fruit and can therefore make your yogurt seem more luxurious and colorful. The night before, pour some frozen berries into a small container to thaw in your fridge. In the morning, drain some juice if necessary and then stir it in. You are adding both color and flavor! Alternatively add a nice fresh fruit like ripe strawberries, raspberries or peaches in the summer.

2. Add some zest! Grate some lemon, orange, or lime zest into your bowl. I find lemon adds a nice zing and freshness to the yogurt. If you really like you can also add a squeeze of juice, but make sure to taste it as lemon juice might make your yogurt too tart. Orange juice, however, would add a nice, natural sweetness.

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3. Stir in your own vanilla. Like vanilla yogurt? Save on sugar and add your own vanilla extract or vanilla paste if you have it. Sometimes just having that vanilla scent and flavor makes it seem sweeter.

4. Sprinkle spices that hint at sweetness. Cinnamon is a spice that people most often associate with sweet things – snickerdoodles, cinnamon rolls, etc. Try adding a little bit of cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg to your yogurt and see how much it sweetens your bowl.

5. Swirl in some (homemade) jam. So this one might be cheating a little bit since jam is usually sweetened, but this way you can at least control how much sugar you are putting in. I like adding a mixed berry jam and barely swirling it into my yogurt. It’s like fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, though you don’t have to wait until the end to find it!

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Try these five delicious ways to jazz up your yogurt and let me know what you think. Top it off with some homemade granola for added crunch and you have a delicious healthier treat!

Bon appetit!

Post 117 – The Perfect Bread – Oatmeal Cranberry Walnut

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One of my first jobs out of college was at a small bakery in Dayton, Ohio. I had to be there at 5 AM, which meant getting up at 4, in the dark, hating the world, and driving on mostly empty, quiet roads. When I got there our bread baker was usually wrapping up his overnight shift while listening to talk radio. The first few hours of my days were always hard – not only had the day just begun, but it was really really early. The kind of early where you get up and wonder what the heck you are doing with yourself. Once the sun came up, it was always like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – there was hope the day would get better. Sunrise meant the bakery would open soon, which meant customers would come trickling in and the quiet dark of the morning’s preparations would be replaced by the happy din of caffeinated and well-fed people.

IMG_1478While working at this bakery I acquired some helpful techniques while I learned to make croissants, scones, cookies, brownies, and danish all from scratch. Though I never made bread while I worked there I often took home a loaf during the week. My mom’s favorite was their Oatmeal bread. Continue reading

Post 114 – Pear Oven Pancake

IMG_1437Saturday morning breakfast in the early spring: a cup of your favorite tea or coffee, a slow breeze drifting in with the sunlight, and this beautiful Pear Oven Pancake. This could be you tomorrow morning. All you need to do is make this beautiful Pear Oven Pancake. I’ve seen it called a Dutch Baby or a Dutch Pancake too, but I’ll call it something simple and recognizable, something to beckon you from your routine of scrambled eggs and burnt toast. Continue reading

Post 110 – You are what you cook?

To get the results you want, it all depends what you’re aiming for. The best recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies. The all organic recipe. The natural foods recipe. The healthy recipe. The sustainable recipe. The list goes on and on. There are so many times when choosing a recipe that these are the types of question I face. Do I want my ingredients to convey how “good this cookie is or do I want the taste of my cookie to speak for itself?

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At any one point in time we are trying to define ourselves: a neat freak, a runner, a healthy eater, a minimalist. We do all the research to find out how to be that person, what to buy and what not to buy and how to show ourselves to the world. We convince ourselves that it’s a goal worth pursuing, that it’s the right thing to do, and why haven’t we been doing it all along? A week later, a month later, it’s a different story. Things fall apart, we get out of the habit and it’s back to the self we were before (which isn’t necessarily a bad one). The next week it’s something new that we’ve discovered and we’re off again pursuing the new version of me. That’s how it is for me anyway, especially when it comes to food.

Once-baked biscotti (which means twice-cooked)

Once-baked biscotti (a cookie whose name means twice-cooked)

This month I began the Cookbook Challenge – a self-imposed challenge to cook at least one recipe from every cookbook that I own. I didn’t start off with a lot of written rules, other than stating that the majority of my recipes should come from cookbooks and not the Internet. I also told myself that I had to follow the recipes as closely as possible, only substituting or changing ingredients if I thought it would greatly affect the dish or if I did not have that ingredient on hand. I started this challenge wanting every recipe to be a stunning, new fan favorite, but also to reflect something positive about me as a cook. My cooking persona has taken on the personality of whatever cookbook I choose that day. Sometimes it’s telling me to indulge in coffee-flavored cookies for breakfast and other times it’s telling me that love is its own special ingredient.

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In the past few days I have baked Whole Wheat Bread from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (delicious fresh from the oven and slathered with butter); “Chicken Limon” from Seasoned with Love (another community cookbook from my aunt in Georgia – the recipe was fairly bland and unlikely to be repeated); and Cranberry Breakfast Biscotti from Maxwell House Coffee Drinks and Desserts Cookbook (crunchy Italian cookies with a slight coffee flavor. Sam enjoyed them, though I wasn’t a big fan, so he took them to work to share).

IMG_1356Unfortunately none of these recipes felt very much like me. But then again who am I?

Since writing this blog, I have oscillated between gourmande and ascetic, baking elaborate desserts just for the joy of making them and giving up whole categories of food just to feel better. I have spent so much time trying to define who I am and trying to show you who I am through my food and yet I still go back and forth in deciding what kind of cook I want to be and the food I want to make.

I love food. I love the tactile feel of it beneath my fingers and the magic of transformation on the stove and in the oven. I love connection. I love sharing a good meal with someone, sharing the experience of eating that first delicious bite, or seeing someone enjoy food that I’ve made. But how do I translate this love for food and love for feeding people into something real? Into something that reflects me? I want to taste all of the flavors, try all the recipes that seduce me with their perfected photographs, and in the end still feel vibrant and healthy and fulfilled. Is that so much to ask?

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In the end, perhaps it is better not to define ourselves by the food that we eat or cook. Anyway, who says we can only be one type of person? More and more lately I have realized the importance of being yourself and accepting yourself as you are (as cliche and unexciting as it sounds). Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project puts it nicely in this article. In it she says that ultimately we must acknowledge who we are, the very essence that makes me Erin, the you-ness that makes you you, and in recognizing ourselves we must also recognize the things that are not us. Maybe I’m not the health guru I want to be or the gourmet baker, but that is okay. I am more than the food that I cook or the food that I eat.

When we try new things (recipes, hobbies, habits) we discover other possibilities for ourselves (or rule them out) and there is no one perfect answer for anyone. It takes time to figure ourselves out and to answer the many questions in our lives. If nothing else, we are asking the questions.

More recipes to come (hopefully ones worth sharing!)