Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Booch is Back!

What is the best part of this photo of my little home office?
If you guessed:
a) The adorable pics of my boys,
b) the beloved iPhone,
c) the treasured Sabra Field print,
or d) the computer with properly-oriented screen, you would be close, but no cigar.
The best part of this photo is the gorgeous, icy-cold bottle of GT's Synergy Kombucha!!!  
GT's Kombucha was recently pulled from the shelves for months after random testing showed a higher-than-legal alcohol content, much to the devastation of their loyal fans.  However, the Booch makes its triumphant return this month and joy is in the air.  When I first saw the new display at Whole Foods, I literally yelled "YAY!" out loud (fortunately, this is the least of the weirdness going on at the Cambridge Whole Foods, so no one seemed to really care).
 Hello, my pretties.

I've written of my love for Kombucha here before, and even was lucky enough to do a giveaway with GT's last February, so it is no surprise that I was heartbroken when this massive recall happened.  I adore Kombucha and insist that you run out and try it if you never have before. Kombucha is a living culture of beneficial microorganisms, containing active enzymes, viable probiotics, amino acids, antioxidants and polyphenols. Drinking a bottle gives you a pleasant energy buzz and an overall feeling of well being.  Downing a bottle in the afternoon also keeps you feeling full and energized for hours at only 60 calories a bottle, so it helps you sidestep that dangerous 3pm low blood sugar moment which often leads to unhealthy snacking and other mischief.   As I've mentioned, I'm in the midst of a period of travel that requires I keep high energy up at all times, not get sick, and generally remain at peak performance level all day and night.  I can't think of a better time for the return of the Booch.  Hooray!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A glimpse into my morning

This guy was clearly up to no good...
Pictured with stolen dog bowl, "Hands are not for Hitting" book, and devilish look.

I turned my back for a moment and he did this to my computer...
After a brief case of vertigo and panic, I figured out how to fix this, so if your toddler/cat/well-meaning spouse ever inadvertently changes your computer screen orientation, drop me a line, I'll get you out of it in one piece.

While I acted as my own IT department and troubleshooted that problem, the dog and baby may or may not have worked together to spill an entire bottle of milk on the floor.  Yes, it was that kind of morning.  Luckily, you can't stay mad at a face like this for long...
...even as he reprograms his HEPA filter for the 20th time in 10 minutes.

And luckily, with the help of two strong cups of coffee, a killer egg sandwich, and an on-call auntie for babysitting help (thanks, AD!) my day is back on track.  
How's your Wednesday going?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A-ha Moments: Kitchen Edition

I'm back!  Forgive the sporadic posting these weeks, if you will.  I've got one more bout of business travel ahead and then I'm going to settle in for a long and quiet winter, with lots of inspiration up my sleeve and regular posting to do.  In the meantime, I've been cooking up a storm when I'm home, as the grounding counterpoint to the frenetic pace of my work life at the moment.  As a result, I've had a couple of cooking a-ha moments in the last week that I must share...

Firstly, one word: mini-muffins.  We registered for a mini-muffin tin when we got married, and for many years it didn't see a lot of action, and seemed kind of a silly thing to want in retrospect.  I now wholeheartedly take back that notion.  In a house with the following residents: toddler who likes to nosh, mom who doesn't want to commit to a whole muffin, dad who likes just a spot of dessert after dinner (but nothing too huge), mini-muffins are a no-brainer.  I'm now making a weekly batch of mini-muffins, which are thoroughly enjoyed by all.  Lil' J has even taken to standing by the part of the kitchen counter where we've been storing the container of muffins, reaching his arms up with all of his might, and shouting passionately "Muff!!! Muff!!!".  Very gratifying.  My current favorite recipe, with pumpkin on sale for .99 cents a can at Whole Foods, is the classic pumpkin bread in The Joy of Cooking.  The batter only takes about 15 minutes to bake into perfect mini-muffins.
Secondly, three words: yellow corn grits (aka polenta).  I'd forgotten what a cheap, easy staple grits can be.  They act as a base for so many delicious meals, and are even more versatile that risotto in that way, and lot more low maintenance.  Last night we were in desperate need of comfort food, so I roasted a chicken for dinner.  On the side, I made a great batch of polenta that was to die for and so easy, it barely merits a recipe, but here you go:
Monday Night Polenta
Serves 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 yellow or orange bell pepper, finely diced
1/4 red onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (rosemary and thyme are especially good choices)
1 cup yellow corn grits (aka polenta)
4 cups veggie or chicken broth
1 cup grated cheese (I used Cabot 50% Light Cheddar, but any cheddar or parmesan would be great)
1) Heat oil in a a large pot.  Add chopped veggies and fresh herbs and saute for 10 minutes.
2) Add broth and bring to a boil.  Add polenta.
3) Stir with a whisk until the mixture thickens to your liking, about 8 minutes.  Turn off the heat, stir in the cheese, and add salt and pepper to taste. Voila!

I love to eat grits in a creamy pile in a bowl, topped with some protein (like killer roasted chicken and its jus).  But you can also save whatever is leftover in a lightly greased Pyrex dish or pie plate, and cut it into perfect squares or triangles to reheat the next day.  Polenta reheats beautifully in the microwave, or you can get fancy and heat olive oil in a pan and sear the outside of your polenta sqaures, creating a great, crispy crust, then pop them in a low oven until they are heated through.  You can see how this is an all-around winner. 

This morning I was craving more grits, so I popped a nice serving of our leftovers in the microwave and quickly fried an egg to go over the top.  The results were so satiating and nourishing; the perfect start to my day with some strong coffee.  The deliciousness of it all got me thinking of the endless possibilities of grits for breakfast, and I went to the interwebs looking for further inspiration.  The variety of breakfast options I found were diverse and beautiful... check them out!
From The Kitchn: polenta cooked with butternut squash, topped with candied pecans and a dollop of whipped mascarpone.
 From 101 Cookbooks: yellow polenta topped with toasted almonds, dried fruits, and a drizzle of cream and honey.
 From Saveur: Parmesan Polenta with Eggs and Roasted Mushrooms
Expect to see more variations on polenta when this period of travel comes to a close!  
So many possibilities, so little time!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On my mind

On my mind this morning...
  • how a 5'2" girl can successfully pair skinny pants with a top in a professional and stylish manner, while also successfully concealing a post-baby belly that still isn't quite camera-ready. Thoughts?
  • how I'm going to tackle the gargantuan pile of laundry I need to do in order to be able to pack for my trip with the washing machine broken (come on, Sears man with your 1pm-4pm service window... come closer to 1 and fix it on the double... mama needs clean skivvies for her travels!)
  • how I can get rid of the headache I woke up with that 600mg of ibuprofen, 3 glasses of water, a triple latte and a run haven't touched. 
  • how awesome it is that we live very close to a fabulous dog park, and how happy the pup is when we get him there.
  • Halloween and affordable, creative costumes for the whole family.  Feeling so uninspired to dress us up as anything but the cast of The Jersey Shore (I think lil' J would make a perfect Situation, the way he is always yelling at us, and I'm thinking I would make a great Snooki, but somehow it all just seems a little wrong).  Already have the perfect lion costume for the little guy (so much more age appropriate, no?) and was considering a Wizard of Oz theme, but did you know the Dorothy costume from Target is $50?  I think not.  These are the things I think of in my down moments.
  • how excited I am to make a little run to Vermont and see my "work wives", and to eat some fabulous local, artisanal cheese at the localvore reception we have planned for our event (menu is seriously to die for... hope to get photos!).
  • how much I'm going miss this guy (and his dad and his "woof") while I am gone...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Barrio Beans

Have you had the opportunity to travel to a South or Central American country?  Have you sat down to amazing bowls of beans and rice on your travels there, and been absolutely transported by the flavors?  Have you tried to recreate this flavor at home, only to come up with sub-par beans that don't live up to that food memory in the slightest?  If so, read on, this is a tale for you.  My story has three parts...
Part I: (Business) Travelin' Mama
I'm leaving the fam at the end of the week for a couple of days of business travel.  The husband is quite busy at work these days, and my sister-in-law will have her hands full with the little man, so I am channeling all of my nervous energy about work and leaving my boys into preparing easy-to-eat meals for them for the rest of the week.  Ironically, while I feel compelled to nest and cook so that everyone is fed and cozy in my absence, I have precious little time to do so as I simultaneously prepare for my work event that is only three days away.  I need easy to cook things that yield big results with almost no time and effort.
SMJ's kitchen in nesting mode: beans on the stove, pumpkin muffins cooling, and why yes, there's a brisket in the oven, thanks for asking.

Part II: A Lust for Lizano
Tragically, I've never been to Costa Rica (a wrong that must be righted ASAP), but the husband took a surf safari there in his pre-me days, and his memories of that beautiful country live on.  Moreso than the surf, the sun or the monkeys, though, he talks about Lizano sauce.  Lizano is, apparently, the ketchup of Costa Rica.  A little hot, a little smoky and a little sweet, there isn't much it wouldn't be good on.  I had never tasted it, but the husband talks of it so fondly, we've long been on a quest to score some stateside.  Our new neighborhood is largely Hispanic, and I knew Lizano had to be a stone's throw from us somewhere around here.  I finally sniffed out a Latin specialty market and what do you know... we found his Lizano!  He promptly bought their largest bottle, and then discussions began about a vehicle for the sauce.  Beans and rice kept coming up in the conversation, to the point where I had an insatiable craving that had to be answered.
According to the husband, this is a completely reasonably sized bottle of Lizano to have on hand.
Part III:  Food Memory Not to be Denied
I am tired of dreaming of the beans I've eaten in Brazil, only to boil up a pot and have them taste decidedly American.  I decided to go the interwebs for this one, and not stop my research until I discovered secret ingredients that would yield the beans of my food memories.  The world of food bloggers did not disappoint and with some help from the Homesick Texan, I think I found the two things my beans have been missing: jalapeno juice and pork (when is pork not the answer?).  Hallelujah!
And so my friends, this story has a happy ending.  For about $8 total cost and in about 20 minutes of active cooking, I've created a huge pot of beans, sure to be a hit for several lunches and dinners in my absence, rightfully reminiscent of our travels south of the border, and a perfect vehicle for many heart slugs of Lizano.  All's well that ends well.

Beans from the Barrio
1 pound of pinto beans (2 cups)

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 sweet onion, diced
1/4 cup of jalapeno juice (from canned jalapenos)

1 jalapeno (from can), chopped
1/4 pound of salt pork, guaciale or pancetta, chopped into small cubes
1 teaspoon oregano

Salt to taste
1. Rinse and sort your beans
2. First soak the beans. You can either cover the beans with one inch of water and soak overnight or bring water to a boil, remove from heat and cover for one hour.
3. Drain the beans and cover with seven cups of fresh water.
4. Add to the pot the garlic, onion, jalapeno juice and pork.
5. Bring pot to a boil and then cover and reduce heat to a simmer, stir occasionally.
6. Beans will be soft enough to eat in about an hour, but the longer they simmer, the better they taste; just check on them periodically to make sure there is adequate cooking liquid.  

Serve over rice, or as a component of a bean and cheese burrito, or with fried eggs over the top on a tortilla for breakfast.  Whatever you do, just add plenty of Lizano.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fall in a Soup

It's official: summer is over.  How do I know this?  For the first time, I had to wear sneakers instead of flip-flops when walking for my morning coffee today.  I've therefore decided it is time to embrace the season in all of its gourd-y, amber-hued glory and get into some fall-inspired cooking.  I also feel that our household is fighting off the first of the seasonal bugs that are sure to terrorize us again this flu season (I'm feeling rundown, lil' J had a fever in the beginning of the week), and so some highly nutritious comfort food is in order. Nothing comforts me like soup, and the season is finally here.

I spent an hour this afternoon whipping up this fall-inspired soup for our dinner. The ingredients in this recipe support the immune system and are exceptionally nourishing. The squash, garlic, ginger, onions, and coconut milk together have a warming effect on the body, particularly the digestive system, and deliver a boost in energy.  Apples offer fiber, and chicken broth is Jewish Penicillin (although veggie broth would work just as well). Best of all, this soup required very little in the way of preparation: just a bit of roasting, sauteing and pureeing, and we had a delicious and healthy homemade dinner ready to go.  Try this soup; it will cure what ails you!

Autumnal Soup
Serves 8
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 butternut squash, halved and seeded
1 sweet onion, peeled and halved
4 tablespoons fresh ginger root, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 apple (I used a Gala, but almost any kind would do), peeled, cored and chopped
1 can regular or light coconut milk
4 cups chicken or veggie broth
Salt, white pepper, cinnamon and paprika to taste (start with about a half-teaspoon of each and adjust to your preference)
1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Put the halved squash and onion on a baking sheet, and rub both with a tablespoon of olive oil.  Roast until soft and fragrant, about 40 minutes.  Allow to cool, then remove the peel on the squash and chop both into rough chunks.
2) In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and ginger and saute, stirring often, for 5 minutes.
Add the red onion and continue to saute another 5 minutes.  Add the apple and saute another 5 minutes.  Finally, throw in the chunks of squash and sweet onion and stir well.
3) Add the coconut milk and broth, increase the heat, and allow the pot to gently simmer for about 20 minutes, until the apples are soft.  Stir in the spices.
4) Allow the soup to cool a bit, and then blend until smooth with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender or food processor.  Adjust the seasonings to taste.
Note:  I think I've hit photography rock bottom with this post.  Not only was it a very shadow-y time of day when I was cooking, but the little guy was in a snit and all over me.  It is amazing I got this meal cooked, much less photographed any of it.  I wish I had staged a pretty photo of the finished project in a lovely pottery bowl, but we're all going to have to live with a gurgling pot photo, complete with splatters on the side of the pot from the blending process.  I think this is the food photography equivalent of being caught by the paparazzi without your make up on.  Whatever.  I got a hot meal on the table and shared it with all of you  to boot and that is all that matters, right?  Happy Fall!  I'm off to collapse on the couch. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Things To Do

 What do you do when your list of things to do feels overwhelming?
Disclaimer: the above is not reflective of my current To Do List, but rather my Fantasy To Do List. 

Right now, my list feels so very long.  There are things to do in the immediate future: prep for my upcoming events, return phone calls, clean out that crazy overflowing drawer in the bathroom.  There are the omnipresent things to do: laundry, make dinner, laundry, grocery shop, pay bills, laundry.  Then there things to do in the future: refinish my desk, work on and launch SMJ 2.0, plot my next career move, crunch my way to a six-pack, perfect that Chicken and Broccoli Rice recipe (still not ready for prime time, as I found out the hard way last night).  Finally the minutiae of life: keeping mine and lil' J's nails from turning into talons, weeding the clothes he's outgrown out of his drawers, Swiffering up the dog hair (again).  Each item on its own is so pedestrian and simple, they make me feel like an utter cliche. However their cumulative effect is something akin to a dog walker walking too many sizes of dogs at once; the big ones bounding out in front, the small ones running circles around my ankles, and the end result being me sweating and tangled in leashes, wondering what to do next.

Here's what usually happens to me when I become overwhelmed with To Dos:
1) I get a tingly, slightly panicked feeling in my outer extremities, and a tight feeling in my chest.
2) I then feel the need to escape this feeling completely, so I chuck it all and end up doing something like baking banana bread or reading the Style Section of the New York Times.
3) After escaping briefly, I inevitably attack the list, usually getting more done than I thought I could or would on any given day.  Yet, the overwhelmed feeling remains, rarely being swapped for a feeling of completion or relief.

I can see that some of this is healthy (taking a break, baking, creating some work/life balance), and some of it is not (never really allowing myself to celebrate my successes and completions, and instead just moving on to the endless and inevitable Next).  What I am after, as always, is more balance in this equation:  a way to see how manageable and tackle-able even my most formidable lists are, and promise to exhale completely and renew myself for the next day. 

A friend suggested that I attack my stress proactively, planning out my day by the half-hour, making distinct tasks for each period of thirty minutes, and adopting a steely resolve to stay on task for the time period (no reading while I'm supposed to be writing a memo, no writing a memo when I ought to be cooking dinner with a glass of wine). I can see the value in this, but worry that more rigidity will only lead to more stress, not less.  Essentially, I want to holistically overhaul my approach to being overwhelmed in a laissez-faire and mellow fashion that doesn't involve further lists, charts and graphs.  This is what I am pondering this fine Tuesday...

In short, there has to be a better way.  Maniacal mamas and systems-oriented sisters (and productive papas and busy bros)... talk to me.  How do you do it? 
I adore your advice and hearing how other people handle the juggling act.  Hit me back!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Look out world

I've had ten hours of sleep, two cups of coffee and a most fabulous birthday weekend.  I was well-loved and feted by my boys, family and friends, and feel so lucky to have a life filled with such good and fun people.
This guy likes to party.
I feel rested, replenished, and ready to take on the rest of this month.  I am 34, hear me roar!
I also wanted to share this most inspiring photo I saw this morning (I understand it has gone somewhat viral on the mama blogs, so sorry to be a copycat, but it is such a beautiful image, I can't help but share).
This is Licia Ronzulli, Italy's MEP, attended a voting session of European Parliament with her baby girl.  I just love everything about this photo (posted originally on Capucha), and it is inspiring my Monday!

I am off to tackle two full in-boxes and a To Do list as long as my arm, as well as that daunting seasonal task of packing up the sundresses and hanging up the trousers and sweaters for the winter + doing the same for Little J (but getting sappy while packing up all the things he's outgrown).  Back tomorrow with more.  
Have an inspired Monday!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mama's Little Helpers

There's only so many nights you can eat Annie's Mac or Flatbread pizzas without feeling a little gross and domestically delinquent.  As I mentioned, we're entering another busy season here at Casa SMJ, and my time for creating complex weeknight dinners is limited.  During times like these, the best I can do is strive for a culinary middle path, somewhere between dinner entirely from a box or can and entirely made from scratch is my salvation.  Cover your eyes, people, we're going semi-homemade:
Photo: Food Network, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee
Let it be known that I can't stand this woman, and that her "tablescapes" and outfit-matching kitchen decor make me want to take a Xanex; however, she is onto something, as much as I hate to admit it.  Most people just don't have the time or energy to make their whole weeknight dinner from scratch, and the next best thing to calling for a pizza is "cheating" a little, and calling upon help from jars and cans.  I think there are ways to do so without totally going over to the dark side.  Take our Tuesday dinner...
 Penne Pasta in Mushroom Sauce with Sausage, Peppers and Petite Peas

"But SMJ," you say, "didn't you have two conference calls, a full work day, and that omnipresent toddler to contend with on Tuesday?  Wasn't it also raining and terribly depressing in Boston?  And aren't your eyebrows long overdue for some tweezing?  Did you not want to simply dial for Pad Thai and call it a day?" 

Yes, my pretties.  I totally did not feel like cooking.  But, I anticipated that I wouldn't want to cook this week on Saturday at the grocery store, and with some smart shopping, I was able to prepare this meal with almost no effort.  Behold, mama's little helpers:
Good shopping makes for a good meal... we have frozen petite peas from Whole Foods, Niman Ranch Sausage, Trader Joe's penne, an orange pepper, and the star of the show, a prepared mushroom sauce from a local pasta shop.  Yes, that sauce cost $4, but it also took this meal from ho-hum to highly delicious, and made it seem like I had been slaving over the stove for hours.  With the glass of wine pictured above, this meal made me feel like a normal human being with enough time in her day to prepare a proper dinner for her family. All I had to do was chop and saute the sausage and pepper, throw in a handful of peas, boil up some pasta, and toss the whole lot together in the sauce.  Dinner was ready in 15 minutes, meaning my husband, sister and I got to sit and savor it with some good conversation to boot.  Sometimes, it is well worthwhile to go semi-homemade.
What's your favorite quickie dinner?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Hello my lovelies.
 The forecast for today?  
Gloomy, rainy and gray; a perfect day to sit inside, sip a cup of English tea and ponder life. 
The forecast for the week?
A visit from my sister (yessss!), a boat trip in the harbor, work work work, and my 5th 29th Birthday!  
The forecast for the month?
October shall be epic at Casa SMJ.  We're getting a new roomie, and I have not one, but two, big work events on the horizon, one of which will cause me to hop on a plane and leave little J for three times as long as I have ever left him before (hello, freedom! hello, heartache! hello, emotional rollercoaster!).  I shall require a large wine stash, and at least two new pairs of work pants (thank you for all your suggestions)... I plan to pull the trigger on some purchases while my personal shopper (aka, aforementioned sister) is in residence, and will share my choices once they are made.  Only a Libra would take going on 6 weeks to choose some new pants.  I exhaust myself.  I hope you'll stick with me for the ride this month, and excuse infrequent posts around my events (October 22 and Novemeber 5).  There is only so much a gal can accomplish in a 24 hour day.
And, most importantly, the menu forecast...
This week we are featuring a comfort food extravaganza including pasta in mushroom sauce and the chicken and broccoli fried rice I've told you about before and am finally ready to share.  Dig out your elastic waist pants and stay tuned.