Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fresh from the public library: a vegetarian crockpot cookbook

In the past, if I wanted to try a new cookbook, I'd just order it from one of my favorite online stores, but ever since I started working part time, I've had to curb a few extraneous expenses.  This isn't a bad thing at all, since I've actually found more enjoyment out of working my way through cookbooks I already own, exploring the wealth of recipes on the internet, and now, checking out new cookbooks from the public library.  Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson is currently sitting open to page 124: No Hurry Vegetable Curry, which I plan on putting together tomorrow morning.  This cookbook is full of some amazing looking recipes that I can't wait to try out.  It is due back to the library on November 6, which gives me just a few weeks to try the 10 recipes I've flagged.

One thing I'm not quite sold on yet is the technique of pre-cooking some of the veggies before they go in the crockpot.  The book says it really enhances the flavor, but realllllly?  The thought of cooking onions and carrots tomorrow morning makes my stomach turn.  Sure, I could do it tonight, but the whole idea of the crockpot is to plop everything in, flip the switch, and walk a skilled villain in a good action movie, without the shards of glass and screaming...

Anyway, I am looking forward to tomorrow night's dinner of vegetarian curry with garlic naan from Trader Joe's.  After all, this whole exercise is being performed so I have something to scoop with my naan! 

Who else cooks a main dish to accommodate the bread?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Learn to Cook Lesson #1: Inspired by the pleas of a new cook...

Tonight I made a Swiss chard and Hubbard squash gratin with a coconut milk bechamel sauce, based loosely on a recipe I found on a cute blog.  I posted what I was making for dinner on my Facebook page, and almost immediately had this response:

"Lori I'm starting to cook but I can not even begin to pronounce half of your ingredients let alone find them in Montana. I need a menu that someone of my caliber can tackle - any suggestions?"

This inspired me to start a series of blog posts for the beginning cook.  You know who you are...your Mom/Dad always tried to get you to learn some cooking skills but you were too busy with basketball practice, watching TV, washing the cat, etc.  Or maybe your parents didn't cookWhatever the reason, here you are, needing to make a meal and not having any clue how this whole cooking thing is done.  In part, I blame Food TV, because most of the shows are on people eating food, and the shows where people are cooking food deal with ingredients like octopus liver.  It seems intimidating and overwhelming.  Not only do you have to know how to cook something, but you need to find a recipe, gather the ingredients, set aside the time...awwwww screw it, let's order Chinese!  But I promise that you don't have to be anyone special to be able to put together a really delicious meal.  Everyone starts from the same place, they really do.  

First of all, there are some tools that you absolutely MUST have to be a successful home cook.  The first of these is a good knife.  I received a J.A. Henckel santoku chef's knife as a gift many years ago, and words cannot describe how much easier everything is when you finally have a good knife in your hands.  I recently purchased a 4" chef's knife to match, and am finding that I could really use a paring knife as well.  But, these things are very expensive, so I would recommend starting with a 8" chef's knife.  Go to a cooking store and tell them you are a beginning cook and you want a good quality chef's knife.  They will pull out their collection for you to handle.  The knife should be heavy and well-balanced, and feel comfortable in your hand.  Henckel is my choice, but it may not be yours.  I would definitely recommend handling these in person before purchasing--it is an investment.

The second "tool" you need is a very basic cookbook that will have basic instructions for how to boil, bake and steam any kind of vegetable and meat.  It needs to have a basic sauces section, a primer on beans and grains, and pictures are a MUST.  My #1 recommendation is the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.  It is my go-to reference.  Do you think I just learned how to make a bechamel sauce from thin air?  Nope, BHG cookbook, baby!  This cookbook also has a nice section on selecting cookware, so I'll save myself the typing and let you read it for yourself.  Check it out from the library if you don't want to buy it right away.

My third MUST have tool for the home cook: the crock pot.  It is a miracle.  They come in all sizes and all price ranges.  I have one from a garage sale that holds about 6 quarts.  I use it several times a week for everything from whole chickens to fish in foil packets to pots of soups, stews, chili, and beans.

Ready for your easy meal #1?  Here's one of my stand-by recipes for when I want a hearty meal that tastes good and doesn't much effort at all.

Baked Chicken in Pasta Sauce
  • Ingredients: jar of your favorite pasta sauce, boneless skinless chicken breasts, shredded mozzarella cheese
  • You will need a 9x13 baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic (not metal).  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Put raw chicken breasts in pan, cover with pasta sauce, top with shredded cheese.  Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender enough to pull apart with a fork.
  • 20 minutes before the chicken is done, start boiling some water.  10 minutes before the chicken is done, boil some pasta.  
Serve the chicken with sauce over pasta.  For a side dish, microwave one of those steamer bags of broccoli/cauliflower (whatever you like, just make sure you balance out your meal with a fresh veggie that isn't a starch like corn).

If you have a crockpot, put the raw chicken in the crock, cover with sauce, and cook on low for 8 hours.  You don't even have to thaw the chicken--just make sure to never put frozen ANYTHING in a hot crock or you risk cracking it (cold food, cold crock)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sticky sweet oddities: Cantaloupe Jam

The fridge is so full right now.  We are lucky in that regard, but it makes it awfully difficult to find a nice big spot to put a crock of marinating fish.  The old cantaloupe that I got for $1 at the veggie stand needed to go, but I hate throwing away food, especially if it might still be good.  I was in serious doubt, since there were soft little patches all over it, but it hadn't turned fuzzy, so I sliced it open.  It was actually perfect, sweet and juicy.  Knowing that we probably wouldn't eat it all up and it would spoil even faster being cut, I decided to get adventurous and try turning it into jam.  It worked, and now I have three beautiful jars of jam cooling on my kitchen counter.

Cantaloupe Jam
1 medium to large cantaloupe
1/2 cup orange juice
lemon zest, to taste
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 cups sugar

Remove the rind and seeds, cut the melon into chunks, and puree using a blender or food processor.  Add all ingredients to a heavy pot or large saucepan, and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture has a jelly-like consistency.  I scooped some out periodically and put the spoon in the freezer to let it cool to see what the consistency was like.  When you get it where you want it, fill your jelly jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.  Place lids and rings on jars and boil in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Moist Pumpkin Muffins with Pepitas

Last weekend I opened up a large can of pureed pumpkin and used some of it for the baked oatmeal, and all week long I have been trying to decide which delicious recipe I would choose to use up the rest of the pumpkin.  The winner?  Moist, spicy, pumpkin muffins:

This recipe will make 12 large muffins, 18 medium muffins, or 30 mini-muffins

1 ½ cups flour (I used 1 cup all purpose and ½ cup whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups pumpkin puree (this is more or less a 15 oz can)
1/3 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1 heaping teaspoon pumpkin-pie spice
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup sugar
1 cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds, or any other kind of nut) (optional)


Put oven rack in middle position. Preheat oven to 350F. Put liners in muffin cups or spray with non-stick cooking spray.
1. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.
2. Whisk together pumpkin, oil, eggs, pumpkin-pie spice, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar in a large bowl until smooth, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.
3. Fold in the nuts.
4. Divide batter among muffin cups (each should be about 3/4 full).  Bake until puffed and golden brown and a wooden pick or skewer inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes for regular muffins, 15-17 minutes for mini-muffins.

Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer muffins to a rack to finish cooling.  Serve warm. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A favorite recipe and a new discovery: Now bubbling in a kitchen near you!

I wanted to make one of my favorite easy supper recipes today, but I didn't have any condensed cream of "x" soups on hand.  While I was out running errands I thought I would pick some up, but at $1.75 per can for Campbell's, I was sure I could find a substitute.  I made my way to Trader Joe's, and they didn't have any condensed soups at all, so I picked up a carton of sliced cremini (baby portabella) mushrooms and decided I would make my own, after all, it is just a cream soup!  After making this, I don't think I'll ever buy another can of Campbell's again.

Condensed Cream of "X" Soup

(Makes 12 cups, or about 8 cans)
  1. In a large stockpot, sautee 3 cups of finely chopped veggie "X" until very soft, or chop up chicken or other meat into very small chunks.
    • Add garlic powder, thyme, oregano, ground coriander seed, celery salt, onion powder, pepper and salt to taste
  2. Add 6 cups of veggie broth or chicken broth (I use my own homemade versions) and 2 cups of milk (I used lowfat).  Bring this mixture to a boil
  3. In another bowl, pour in 4 cups of milk.  Slowly whisk in 3 cups of flour to get a very thick suspension without lumps.  
  4. Add flour/milk mixture to the boiling broth and stir until the soup thickens to a nice consistency.
You can freeze this in 1.5 cup portions, which is equal to about 1 can. 

Here's what I made with my new condensed soup mix.  This is a favorite recipe that came from my Grandma Lil, and which my Mom makes all the time.  You can make this with any meat, and can use bone-in or boneless versions with equally delicious results.  My Mom browns the meat before putting it in the dish, and adds the drippings to the rice.  I don't have the patience for that, so I just pile it all in and walk away.  Hers is better, but I don't know if that is because Mom's food always tastes better for some reason, or if it has to do with the browning. 

Chicken and Brown Rice Casserole
Spread 2 cups of uncooked brown rice on the bottom of a large casserole dish.
Lay uncooked chicken on the rice layer.
Sprinkle with a package of Lipton's Onion Soup Mix
Mix two cans of condensed cream of mushroom soup with 4 cups of water and pour over the chicken and rice.
Bake for 1.5 hours at 350 degrees.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Foodie Blogroll Giveaways: Mohawk Valley Trading Company

Foodie Blogroll has partnered up with Mohawk Valley Trading Company, and for the next 4 weeks, 8 lucky winners will receive jars of their delicious raw honey!  I'm not just selling out so I can be entered to win some of their amazing products.  Mr. JP and I eat raw honey all the time, but our current supplier filters their honey which removes most of the beneficial propolis, beeswax, and pollen.  The price on this honey is really good, too, at $10 for a 1 lb. jar.  Buying honey made in the USA helps support local beekeepers, a critical component of our agricultural success.

From the Foodie Blogroll Contest Page:

About Mohawk Valley Trading Company:
The Mohawk Valley Trading Company offers the highest quality organic and unprocessed natural products they can produce such as maple syrup  and raw honey.
Raw honey contains all of the pollen, live enzymes, propolis, vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, minerals, and aromatics in the same condition as they were in the hive.
The  Adirondack Wildflower Honey is certified pesticide-free and they offer 2 types: Summer and Autumn.
The Prize: 
There will be 8 winners (2 per week) who will receive one jar of Adirondack Wildflower Summer Honey and one jar of Adirondack Wildflower Autumn Honey, for a total value of value $20.00.
To order your own Raw Honey:
Visit Mohawk Valley Trading Company at

Give me the coffee and no one gets hurt

It has been a busy week.  I've been running on adrenaline and jet fuel trying to get everything done.  My sister's birthday is coming up soon, and I'm trying to put together a little package of gifts that I've made.  Herein lies the problem.  Sewing and crafting is a lot like cooking.  You have to have all the ingredients, and you have to know a little bit about what you are doing.  Every time I think I have everything, I find out there's one more piece of the puzzle that I'm missing.  If I could just have a sewing store in my basement, this would all be a lot easier.  I'm a novice at sewing, meaning that I just started teaching myself a few months ago, so the thought of giving someone a gift that I've sewn feels a little like I'm handing out macaroni necklaces. 

If only Baked Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal with Crunchy Cinnamon Crumbles would survive thousands of miles of travel, my worries would be over.  Mr. JP and I made this yesterday morning.  We have both been running on empty this week, so we had a nice sleep-late followed by a delicious hot breakfast.  The recipe says that this is best the first day, but we both thought the texture was better this morning when we ate it as leftovers.  It became a lot like a delicious bread pudding, but the cinnamon crunchies did get a little soggy, so if you want that first-day-crunch, put it under the broiler for a minute before serving.  I love this recipe, and I think it would adapt very well to different fillings.  Next time I am going to use up some ripe bananas and add walnuts in lieu of raisins.  I think it would also work well with applesauce (reduce the liquid to compensate) and those delicious little wild Boreal blueberries. 

That's all for now.  I need to head out to the Farmer's Market and hit up the fabric store on my way home so I can continue making macaroni necklaces for my dear sister!  I hope she likes them!