On a mission

Note: As I endeavor to unearth this blog and sort through the pile of unfinished drafts cluttering up the collection of posts, I’m marching a few things out…the moments for them may have passed but the lessons and ‘things to remember’ are still present…

For a time, I lost my muse–I don’t know, somewhere around the time all of the beautiful, bountiful, fresh seasonal produce disappeared from the grocery stores and soccer games started to eat up our Saturday mornings and made the farmers market no longer an option.  Oh, yeah, and that whole two kids in activities and school + work + life routine kinda put the brakes on innovation in the kitchen.  Innovation suddenly became “how can we not eat fast food or breakfast for 3 out of 5 weekday meals?”  And I didn’t think that was worth writing about.

So here we are.  Life is just as full but nevertheless I hope to make a go of this again.  Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Much as I’d hoped to celebrate some summer-fresh veggies or some such wholesome noshery, what was on my mind and in my kitchen when this draft originated was cake.  My baby bird turned 5 (gah!) this spring and desperately wanted to make cupcakes to share with her class.  Due to allergies, we avoid eggs and nuts in any treats for school; the absence of eggs in baked goods boggled me so I deferred to the tried-and-true recipe the class has used before:  sub applesauce for eggs in a boxed cake mix.

Ew…

Boxed anything and me are like {this}.

BUT I have learned to make concessions on occasion — birthdays being one of them.  To my kids, cake is so quintessentially “BIRTHDAY” that it simply must be part of the day, and after 9 years I have officially (for now, anyway) abandoned the stress I used to pour into making from scratch the *perfect* cake for them.  They do not care from whence it came; all they want is the final product.

And the frosting.

We went the boxed route this time (for school.  I ate one and instantly regretted it–why waste calories on something that tastes so ridiculously artificial?!).  And I’m kicking myself that I didn’t make this.  A dear friend calls it Wacky Cake and makes for occasions from book club to birthdays.  Next time, I vow!

The following weekend, we celebrated Easter and the big birthday with the grandparents and awesome uncle, so I was confronted with the cake dilemma again.  I wondered if she’d go for strawberry pie?  Or unfrosted cupcakes with homemade frozen yogurt?

We went with homemade frozen yogurt and her grandpa made her an angel food cake. All was right in the world.

{Still, I wish I would have made these little beauties, even if just for home.}

Cookie for breakfast

When the kids came back from their week at Grandma and Grandpa’s, I had a new breakfast idea up my sleeve.  Some weeks back, I discovered Iowa Girl Eats, a great blog by, get this, a local!  It’s full of enthusiasm and great ideas, is practical and not pretentious, and features some lovely pictures.  

Kristin at IGE posts often about this “breakfast cookie.” From first mention, I was intrigued.  Initially, I thought a breakfast cookie would essentially be a granola bar, just a different shape. 

Not so.  While not as portable as a granola bar, it most definitely tastes better.  The oats are tender and creamy after spending the night hours softening in the yogurt and banana mixture, the creamy spread of yogurt is like frosting, and the fruit on top gives it a wake-you-up pop of deliciousness!  

 

The first time I made one, I was hooked.  (Though I will admit I was a bit skeptical when I prepped it the night before…Don’t fret if you try it and feel the same.  It’s totally worth any “is this really going to be any good?” doubts you might have.) 

Given my general lack of time every. single. morning, the breakfast cookie is ideal for me us because 

  1. It requires very little prep. 
  2. There’s no need to turn on the oven. 
  3. It requires just a few basic staples and only the teeniest bit of forethought.
  4. It’s packed with protein and filling enough to keep you going all morning.

 

Now, I tried this out on my kids and was surprised by their reactions.  Birdgirl loves oatmeal.  We’re talking loooooves it, even more so if there’s a dollop of yogurt on top. So, naturally, I thought she’d love the breakfast cookie.  The Boy, on the other hand, is not a fan of oatmeal, or new things in general, so I didn’t have high hopes for his review. 

All this is to say she didn’t like it and he did like it. Go figure. 

Anyway, I thought it was fantastic.  It’s even better with this: 

Best. yogurt. EVER.

 

I imagine you could mix this up any number of ways: 

– Use plain yogurt as a base and play off virtually any fruit (from fresh berries or peaches in the summer, to cooked apples in the fall); use vanilla yogurt (it’s like frosting); or pair a fruit combo–like bananas in the oats, strawberry yogurt for the topping. 

– Add some peanut butter and maybe some honey to the oat mixture (I tried this and loved it; kids…weren’t so crazy about it) 

– Include some dried fruit or, better yet, chocolate chips in the oat mix or on top! 

  

Here’s your starting point: 

Breakfast Cookie 

from Iowa Girl Eats 

1/4 c. oats 

1/2 mashed banana 

yogurt 

1 T. slivered or sliced almonds 

Mix the oats, mashed banana, and a few spoonfuls of yogurt and spread onto a small plate.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.  In the morning, top your cookie with a spread of yogurt and your favorite fruit.

A surprise under the lid, or Why you should go toast yourself some coconut

Last night’s dinner was one of those meals that starts with a vague idea

Tacos, with grilled chicken

and ends with something that was more fun to make and tasted better than I could ever have conceivably planned for.

5:45 p.m. 

The Husband, “I’ll throw the corn on the grill.  Anything else?”

Me:  “Uh, yeah…” (…brain scrambling because I really haven’t thought beyond the general idea “chicken. tacos.”…) “Come back in a few for the chicken.”

5:47 p.m.

Chicken’s thawed and waiting on the cutting board.  I stare in the spice cupboard, willing some inspiration to jump off the shelves.  It does, in the form of cumin, seasoning salt, pepper, and chili powder.  Season the meat, drizzle with olive oil.  Done.

5:52 p.m.

Open the fridge in search of salsa components to go with the orange cherry tomatoes on the counter.  Locate: half a garden onion, a lime, half an avocado, some black beans, cilantro.  Oh! and look, there’s some cabbage.  Hmm…crunchy… Toss everything on the counter.

5:55 p.m.

The Husband comes through the door bearing a monster of a cucumber, fresh off the vine.  M’kay, kids will eat that.  Peel (and briefly consider seeding before remembering that they don’t mind seeds), slice, toss with Cucumber Ranch and a little salt.

5:58 p.m.

Quarter tomatoes, chop onion , toss in a bowl with black beans, salt, lime.  Add avocado, cilantro, more lime, more salt.  All the while I’m thinking about that cabbage. Hey, people eat cabbage on fish tacos, why not make a quick slaw for chicken tacos?

6:04 p.m.

Slice cabbage.  Toss with salt, lime juice, a (very) little vegetable oil, top with a sprinkling of cilantro.  All the while I’m thinking about the cumin-lime crema at Dos Rios.  How do they do that?!  What’s in that tasty little sauce?

6:10 p.m.

I honestly have no idea what makes a crema.  So I’ll make something up:  plain yogurt, cumin, lime juice, a little salt.  Taste, add, taste.  Add cilantro (to make it pretty, of course!).

6:10 and a half p.m.

What’s this under the yogurt lid?  A recipe for lemon parfaits?  Scanning it — I have all of those ingredients…mmm…mental note: don’t throw the lid away!

6:30 p.m.

After repeated requests to “please wash your hands and come to the table!” and remembering “oh YEAH! tacos require shells, d’oh!” and “please carry this to the table” and “please get the glasses.  and silverware.”  and “did you wash your hands?!” we are finally ready to eat.

Damn, that was good.  The birdgirl declared the crema/yogurt sauce “Delicious! Can we have this every time we have tacos??”  The Boy said with a full mouth and vigorous nod, “This chicken is really, really good!”  The Grill Master, too, offered his compliments.

A discussion about black beans may have ensued, with birdgirl insisting that she did NOT like them. 

Me: You’ve never had them, silly.

BG: Yes, I have.

Me: No.  You have not. [At least not that you’re aware of, because every other time I’ve served them, I’ve disguised them, a la Meri’s secret, yummy taco filling, or in chili that you won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.]

BG: Well, I’ve had brown beans and I don’t like them.

Me (yes, the adult): Black beans are better.

BG: I don’t like brown beans.

Me: But these are BLACK beans.  And they’re much better than brown beans.

BG: But I don’t like them.

Me: They have lime juice and salt on them. And they’re really, really good.

Finally, she tastes one.  Well, more like, she licked one. 

BG: Hmph.  I don’t like it.

Me: You didn’t. even. taste it. It’s tiny. Now put the whole thing in your mouth.

Finally!  Bean, chew, swallow.  Wait for it…

BG: M’kay.  Can I have another one?

And seven minutes later, “can I have more black beans, please?”

Amen.

Now, about that mental note.  “Luscious Lemon Parfaits,” said the recipe.  But I twisted it just a bit to continue the “lime” theme.  Same diff, eh?

Oh. These were so, so delicious.  The toasted coconut totally made this a showstopper.  Even the kids loved it.

Luscious Lemon Lime Parfaits

from the foil lid of a quart of Danon plain lowfat yogurt

Layer the following in a parfait glass:

1/3 c. plain yogurt

couple teaspoons lemon lime curd

2 T. crushed graham crackers

2 T. toasted coconut

Repeat layers a second time.  Top with whipped topping if desired.  I abhor whipped topping and therefore did not desire it.  Totally didn’t need it.

p.s.  You’re welcome. 🙂

Grilled pizza

Pizza is a staple around our house.  Homemade (or semi-homemade) pizza, that is.  No takeout for us.  Unless it’s from Centro, but even that doesn’t happen often. 

The advent of premade crusts makes it a cinch to prepare pizza on a weeknight, and the incredible deliciousness of homemade crust can make it a truly special meal for when you have a little more prep time. 

Pizza is quick, customizable, and filling, meaning there’s little need for sides, other than maybe a salad.   The Husband likes meat, meat, and more meat on his pizza.  The kids like–surprise!–pepperoni and cheese.  (Though my birdgirl likes mushrooms, so she and I sometimes split a girly pizza with mushrooms, herbs, and, ideally, goat cheese.  I love that she’s an adventurous eater!)  And I want anything but the standard–give me unorthodox sauces, not-your-typical pizza cheese, and just about any vegetable. 

And right now, there are so many veggies at their peak.  When the veggies are young and tender, they need nothing more than a quick chop and to be thrown on top of a crust for a quick, fresh dinner. 

But on a day like yesterday, when the heat index was hovering in the triple digits, I was not about to turn on the oven.  

The grill, however, was calling me. 

I’d grilled pizza once before.  It was edible, even good, but our old grill presented some challenges and the result wasn’t as good as I knew it could be. 

Enter the new grill:  a big, beautiful, spacious fixture that’s so much easier to use.  Big bonus:  the heat from the burners is actually adjustable!   With the old grill, it was “high” or “off.” 

The gist is that the new baby is perfect for grilling pizza, and I’ll bet that, if your grill was made in this century, you can make this dinner, too! 

What you’ll need: 

The crust:  I started with premade crusts, though rolled out pizza dough works, too.  (Dear Trader Joe’s, Please hurry and get that store in West Des Moines up and running!  Would love, love, love to try your delicious pizza dough on my new grill.  Many thanks, JC) 

The toppings:  Cook any meat toppings, obviously.  Prepare your veggies as you like them.  Set out your sauce and cheese (or cheeses).  Julienne some basil, chop some parsley, strip some thyme — whatever suits your fancy.  The key here that you have to work fast once the pie is on the grill, so ready everything you need and assemble all of the toppings in bowls near the grill. 

The heat:  Preheat the grill on high for about 10 minutes.  Turn the heat down to medium-low once you’re ready to toss the crust on.  

  

The basic idea:  Grill your pizza crust on one side for about 3 minutes, or until it’s got a few grill marks and develops some color.  Flip the crust and–work quickly here–spread a thin layer of sauce (or drizzle with olive oil, S&P), add your toppings, and close the grill for another couple of minutes to brown the bottom of the crust and melt the cheese.  Check the crust often because it does cook quickly. 

Remove to a pan to rest a few minutes.  Then slice, serve, and savor! 

No two pizzas in my house are ever the same; I mix it up every time.  Last night’s pizzas were inspired by what’s fresh right now at the farmers markets and by this photo here.  I made a bruschetta pizza 

 

and a riff on Deb’s 

 

Both were amazingly delicious.  

And since my little birds have flown the coop this week (to the grandparents!), I was able to enjoy a couple glasses of this

 

(Ignore the surrounding mess…) 

Served with a twist of lime and on the rocks, this is some good stuff!  It totally made grilling in the heat bearable. 

  

Bruschetta Pizza 

 (inspired by various sightings on the Internet) 

2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped 

1/2 of a small red onion, finely chopped 

1 clove of garlic, minced 

Chopped basil to taste (I have spicy globe basil and the leaves are tiny enough that I just left them whole.  They were perfect.) 

Combine these ingredients, toss with a bit of salt and some pepper.  Go easy with the salt, because the pepperoni offers plenty.  Drizzle with olive oil and a few sprinkles of balsamic.  Toss again and then let it rest while you prep everything else.  That rest time will allow the tomatoes to release their juices and all those fantastic flavors to marry and make some magic. 

Mmm...

 

Grill the first side of your pizza crust.  Flip and drizzle with olive oil, (little) salt & pepper, then top with pepperoni and about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of mozzarella cheese (fresh would be fantastic; all I had was shredded).  Close the grill lid and cook until the crust browns a bit and the cheese is nearly melted.  Remove from the grill and spoon the bruschetta topping all over the pizza.  Let rest a few minutes so the balsamic/oil soak into the crust.  Slice and savor!

Garden fresh

There are so many things to love about summer:  the abundance of green–and, likewise, the distinct absence of that white crap that hung around for, like, ever; sunshine; baseball; garden-fresh produce; farmers markets featuring said produce, along with beautiful blooms, artisan cheeses, and other fabulous, funky eats and treats; baseball; lounging on the deck with a cold beer; and, have I mentioned yet, baseball? 

Perhaps my favorite thing about summer is the food.  And, no, not just the ballpark food. 😉 

I love that, in the summer, dinner possibilities are endless and practically effortless.  Our meals are fresh and tasty–and probably healthier because the fridge is practically bursting with fresh veggies, and what’s not in the fridge can be found just outside the back door! 

Tomatoes, peppers, onions, greens and herbs in pots on the deck

 

The bonus?  I find that my kids are much more likely to eat their meals when the meals feature veggies from our own backyard.  

Cucumbers:  The kids are pretty crazy about cucumbers anyway, but if there’s a bowl of fresh cukes from the garden on the table, I think they eat twice as much. 

Greens:  What kid won’t eat something dipped in ranch dressing? While mine will nibble on a single leaf of lettuce from the grocery store, they’ll eat an entire bowl if the tender greens were harvested from our own garden. 

Tomatoes:  My son pops tomatoes like they’re grapes, so long as they’re fresh off the vine. And they seem to taste even better if he picked them himself! 

Beans:  The kids will eats second, and even thirds, of beans picked from our very own plants. 

So, one evening last week, our dinner featured these garden green beans 

Batch 1

 

with sides of sweet corn and barbequed chicken. 

Green beans with bacon, sweet corn with a side of herbed butter, BBQ chicken

  

I prepped the green beans using my favorite method for cooking fresh veggies:  adding bacon. 

Okay, just kidding!  

Sort of. 

My favorite method for cooking veggies comes from Pam Anderson’s How to Cook Without a Book.  Her steam-sauté technique is fantastic and practically foolproof.  I have yet to meet a vegetable that doesn’t adapt well to the method. 

The basic idea is this:  Drizzle some oil in the bottom of the pan; add your veggies and about 2 tablespoons of water; salt the veggies (it’ll brighten the color and flavor!) and add onion or garlic, if desired; cover and crank the heat to high.  Set the timer for six to eight minutes, depending on the quantity (and tenderness) of the veggies.  The water will come to a boil and steam the veggies. After the steam session, remove the lid and sauté until the water evaporates and the veggies brown just a bit. 

 

Mmm, delish! 

Finish with a dash of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a little squeeze of lemon (to brighten any green veggie).  

Or forgo the additional salt, and throw in some bacon! 

The end! 

Two thumbs up! Must have been good if it's all gone!

Popsicles!

Seriously?!  I’ve posted nothing for almost two months…?  How does THAT happen??!  I have almost 25 drafts languishing in my posts file and have published nada.

How embarrassing. 

Really.

Please forgive me?  I’ll share my new favorite popsicles with yoooooou…Pretty please?

I swear I’ve been cooking and baking and bookmarking and trying new things–delicious things–and thinking every time “I’m totally going to write about this!”  I even take pictures and upload and edit them (occasionally…) and…never quite get around to writing about them.  That’s all about to change!

Those popsicles I mentioned?  Let’s get to ’em! 

I love making popsicles for my kids (and for us!).  They think the pops are such a treat. I love that I can control the ingredients and consequently feel good about giving them healthy, fruit-filled treats when they come begging for a snack 45 minutes before dinner.  Homemade popsicles take virtually no time and very little effort on the front end, but the smiles they inspire make you feel like you hung the moon! 🙂

A few weeks ago, I froze grapefruit lemonade (a perfect, sweet-tart combination:  lemonade from concentrate, plus the pulp and juice from one large grapefruit) in our popsicle molds.  That was a BIG hit with the kids! 

Shortly after that, I happened upon the mention of strawberry lime-ade pops and could not get the idea and the desperate wish to taste that combo out of my head!  Ali at gimme some oven offered a beautiful post about these fantastic little treats.

I had about half a box of strawberries and some plain yogurt hanging out in the fridge, along with some lime pieces leftover from taco night.  My popsicle molds are dinky (really, I should upgrade from these; though I also have these), so I halved Ali’s recipe.  I gave the handful of ingredients a quick spin with my immersion blender, though a blender or food processor would work just as well, and poured the concoction into the molds.  Later that afternoon, they were mostly solid…but our willpower was not. 

They were FANtastic!!  And gone in two days.

The strawberry lime-ade flavor might still be my favorite, though we’ve been inspired to try some new combinations.  A perennial favorite pairing is blueberries and bananas, either with plain yogurt or without.  I’m also reliving my youth with Orange Julius-inspired flavors:  banana, orange juice, and yogurt blended with either strawberries, peaches, or pineapple.  Bananas provide that almost-creamy base and provide a good, solid texture when pureed and frozen.

Any of these combinations are great as smoothies and are even better when frozen for a summer treat.  Popsicles for breakfast, anyone?!

Chowda

My brother inspires me in lots of ways, and lately it’s most often been in the way of dinner.  His patience in the kitchen far exceeds mine (though he may never admit it!), and his audience is arguably a bit easier to please than mine — but when he mentioned corn chowder the other day, I knew on the spot that I had to make it.

My criteria for soup:  

  1. It must be cold outside.
  2. The soup must be hearty (i.e., contain lots of veggies so I don’t feel the need to make anything else).
  3. There must be a likelihood that my kids will eat it.  Or at least dunk their bread in it.

Bonus points if I get to use my immersion blender.

So, that corn chowder?  Check, check, check, and bonus points!

Stealing Borrowing Bro’s foundation for the soup, I browned some chopped bacon pieces.  Removed those and used the rendered fat to sauté about half an onion; then threw in some carrots and a lone parsnip (have no idea how long that thing had been in the veggie drawer…) and let those soften a few minutes.  Next, added cubed potatoes and a little diced red pepper. 

Sprinkled S&P and thyme, gave everything a toss and then poured on some stock, brought it to a simmer, and let it work for about 15-20 minutes, or the equivalent of a shared beer and conversation with The Husband.  Once the bottle was empty, I added some flash-frozen, divine Iowa sweet corn and let it heat through.  Finally, about a cup–give or take–of half and half, set just below a simmer for a few minutes, and the soup was ready to yield to Magic,aka my beloved immersion blender.  I first tried blending some right in the soup pot but didn’t like the texture that was producing.  So I ladled some of the soup into a separate vessel, pureed it and stirred it back into the soup.

I topped each serving with a little of the bacon and a slice of crusty bread alongside. 

It met with rave reviews The Husband and The Boy, and they each cleaned their bowls.  It was okay but not what I’d tasted in my mind (I ate the leftovers for the following two days so it obviously wasn’t that bad, but aren’t we all our own biggest critics?).  It was too sweet for a soup and the texture was crumbly rather than a smooth backdrop with good-sized pieces of veggies for heartiness and texture.

I’ll make it again, but I’d do the following differently:

  • Forgo the carrots.  The contributed to the sweetness (did I mention that my flash-frozen corn was crazy sweet?!  we’re talking picked-at-the-peak-of-freshness-last-summer kind of sweet…) and their flavor was too much for what I wanted. 
  • Why did I add the red pepper?  I don’t know but I almost immediately wished I hadn’t.  Combined with the carrots, it gave an “off” color to the soup and added a not-entirely-pleasant taste dimension.
  • Add less liquid.  Use just enough stock to cover the potatoes.
  • Simmer the potatoes for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the cube, of course.  I let mine go too long and the potatoes were softer than I would have liked.
  • Lastly, before adding the corn, I’d remove half the boiled potato mixture and blend that up.  Then stir it back in, along with the corn and some cream/half and half.

Aah, so there’s some unintended kitchen camaraderie across the miles.  It’s funny to me that this feels a bit like a back-and-forth exchange between squabbling siblings, even though it’s totally not.  It’s just proof to me that I can and do learn from my little brother, despite my thinking from a young age that I knew everything. 😉