Monday, July 14, 2014

Summer in a Smoothie

Summer is in full swing, and we've been keeping up a packed schedule around here since school ended and the days turned hot.  We bounce around from sports to swimming lessons, playgrounds to pools, beaches to baseball games.  Mornings flash by in a blur of forced sunscreen application, the packing of water bottles and gear for the day, coffee making and dishwasher unloading and garden watering, and every manner of household miscellany.  The heat creeps in slowly, and often things are steamy outside by 9am.

Somewhere in all of this, I've lost the urge to eat breakfast.  Most mornings, I'd much rather sleep, run and/or shower in the cool, fleeting morning hours than take the time to prepare something, then sit and eat it.  And by the time I've dealt with my morning list and fed and prepped everyone else, there is rarely time for that anyway.  So my smoothie streak continues!  And I've been really loving it.

I'm still following and super inspired by this raw vegan Australian Instagrammer and have been totally tantalized by all of her fruity breakfast creations, such as this lovely little number...
Frozen banana blended with dried cranberry powder and topped with coconut flakes.
And as the weather has gotten hotter, I've been more and more pulled to her favorite watermelon creations.
Blended watermelon and ice.
Watermelon beet juice on tap.
Watermelon, straight up!
Watermelon is packed with vitamin C, antioxidants, and lycopene.  More than that, it is phenomenally hydrating, being composed primarily of water.  My favorite smoothie right now is a watermelon, strawberry, coconut water and mint concoction.  This blend is hydrating, energizing, filling and so beautiful.  Also, of all the smoothie combos I've been doing lately, this one is by far the most satisfying... I never get desperately thirsty mid-morning like I do after other breakfasts, and it provides a nice consistent blood sugar buzz for hours.  This is summer in a jar.

SMJ Summer Smoothie
Makes a quart-sized smoothie which, in my case, serves 1*
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed
1 cup frozen organic strawberries
1 cup coconut water
2 mint leaves, roughly torn

1) Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth.  If you are going to make this last the morning, add a few ice cubes after blending.

*I've found that the key to making a smoothie breakfast last me the whole busy morning is to make a really massive one.  A quart or more of fruit is an incredible way to start the day!  I take this breakfast from the kitchen, to the shower, to the car...

To chasing dudes on to the baseball diamond.
It's a watermelon winner.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Goings On

Sometimes life is best captured and summarized by the omnipresent lens of the iPhone.
On this lovely Friday, I want to share some of our good goings on...

The boys and I have been hard at work on a little DIY project, and I think we'll finally wrap it up this weekend.  I'm going to do a whole post on this little adventure.  It has been satisfying, frustrating, and educational for all.

In the eleven years that I have been together with my husband, he has grilled some really incredible meals.  However, this was hands down the best dish that he has ever made me in over decade and proof of why I will never again fit into the jeans I wore when we first started dating.
He spice rubbed and cooked these baby back ribs for four hours in the slow cooker, then grilled them, basting them with this Mongolian sauce that we usually use on tofu. Holy hell.  No words. Try this ASAP and prepare to have your mind blown.

We ran out of bread yesterday, and there was never a good time to get to the store.
We were, however, stuck at home during the baby's nap, so J and I made homemade whole wheat sandwich bread while he slept.  This basic recipe is perfect for cooking with kids, with easy ingredients and flawless instructions.  The house smelled so incredible.  This was well worth the effort, and much more satisfying than a Trader Joe's run.  J was pretty pleased with himself to boot.

Weeknight up drink.  Because Wednesday.
Vodka shaken with ice, fresh lemon juice, and a little splash of homemade rosemary simple syrup.  Herbaceous and calming.
Happy Wednesday to me.

I need to share my new all-time favorite comfy pants, which I recently received in the best ever  Anthropologie care package, which literally made my entire Spring.
These Slubby Tapered Joggers are so, so comfortable and actually cute, a rarity in the world of sweatpants.  My husband actually complimented me on them.  Crazy.
Sweatpants attractive enough to garner praise, presentable enough to wear to the store, and cozy enough to never want to take off = the holy grail.  

When I came across this little gem, I started laughing, and haven't been able to stifle the giggles over it since.  Enjoy.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

DO Try this at Home, Volume 3: Slowing Down with Salads (and a homemade Facial!)

I was so happy to get another guest post from my friend, Angella in my e-mail inbox this morning.  When she came to me with the idea of this little guest blogging experiment, I knew I'd love reading her writing.  She's hilarious by nature, and could only have a comical take on her own little blog-assisted crash course in home cooking.  What I didn't know were all of the other side benefits that I would reap from this gig, particularly: 
1)  How much I would appreciate the creative inspiration.  I'm still struggling to find the time I need and want to get creative and actually sit down and write here.  Having Ang out there creating these fun posts keeps the fire lit under me to keep things going and keep on trying. 
2) That she would dig up old recipes that I haven't thought of or cooked in ages and inspire me in the kitchen as well!  In this post she makes a Carrot Salad with Harissa, Feta and Mint that I originally posted almost four years ago (whoa) in June 2010.  We loved this dish then, but for some reason, I really haven't made it again since, and had totally forgotten about it.  Back it goes onto our menu!  Thanks, Ang!
3) How many totally gratuitous shout outs filled with blog love that she would throw my way.  I feel a bit undeserving, especially given my recent (non)posting schedule, but all of her amazing enthusiasm make me recall what a good thing we had going here at one point in time when I posting regularly, and it not only makes me feel great, but serves as inspiration to try and get back there.  Right now, I'm just totally not worthy.  But thanks, sister.  You rock.

So, without further ado, I give you my soul sister, Ang, and her adventures in facials and salads.  I hope you enjoy her joyful, truthful voice as much as I do.  xoxo
Last week I had an honest-to-God A-ha Moment.  It had been a long time since the power of an idea, or dare I say, inspiration, hit me like a ton of bricks. It came to me in words I have said to myself over and over the past several years: I’m working too much.  Finally those four little words took root. 
It had been the perfect storm of my book club reading “Overwhelmed” by Brigid Schulte, getting sick twice in six months and the 438th stress & wine induced meltdown.  Like most mornings, I woke up the day of my A-ha Moment with a vow to drink less.  Wine is my salve for fatigue, stress and malaise.   It finally occurred to me to wonder what was causing the fatigue and stress and take aim at that instead of trying to cure the symptoms.  AHA! There’s little point in putting band-aids on your cuts while continuing to juggle knives. At some point you realize it’s time to put down the knives.

Or, in the wise words of SMJ, “You can run all you want, eat organic 'til you're green in the face, and cut coffee or alcohol or whatever you decide is a hindrance to your health from your diet, but unless you find a way to manage your stress, total health will never be yours."

So, in honor of my newfound way of life, I did what any sane girl would do.  I gave myself a facial.    And, of course, SMJ was there for me again.  Four ingredients combine to make an interesting looking but delicious smelling concoction.  I admit that I couldn’t be bothered to dirty up my food processor, so I mushed with a fork.
Yum. I might recommend sacrificing some elbow grease for this effort.  It went on clumpy and then looked a bit like baby poo at the end.  BUT, it did make my face feel very smooth and with little effort I felt relaxed and pampered.

Salads were on tap for the week with my renewed sense of health.  The SMJ Carrot Salad with Harissa, Feta and Mint was so good, I have already made it a second time.  And lucky for me, my local New Seasons had Harissa pre-made. 

I also made SMJ’s Easy Going QuinoaI bought real dried cranberries instead of cran-raisens and the flavor was pretty intense but I loved the different textures of the quinoa, almonds and feta.

Here in Portland, we have the luxury of healthy pre-made salads available at the grocery, food carts and cafes.  But, they are expensive!  And there’s something that feeds your soul as well as your body when you make good food for yourself.  Loving the salad inspirations, SMJ!   Looking forward to expanding my repertoire even further on my upcoming days off work.  

P.S. -  Have you noticed the seriously awesome search engine available on the righthand sidebar of the SMJ blog?  I typed in quinoa and was presented with finds from Sweet Mama Jane herself, finds from links she has recommended, AND links from SMJ's blogroll.   There is a wealth of recipes and information accessible thanks to our beloved Sweet Mama Jane.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Spicy Roasted Chickpeas

Salad season is back.
All winter long, I stand over pots of soup, stirring, wearing slippers, and dreaming of the barefoot days when meal prep only entails grabbing handfuls of veggies, shaking them with some dressing, and calling dinner done.  Finally, at long, long last, temps are in the 60s here, and it feels like summer is on the way! Along with days at the beach and the full daily sunscreen slather comes a kitchen shift from soup to salad.  On a Sunday prep day, I'm more likely to assemble a big prepared salad than to sauté onions for a batch of stew.  And for quickie weekday lunches, my favorite thing is to throw delicious toppings onto a big pile of greens.  

I'm still dabbling in a quasi-vegan-'til-dinner thing, so I've been looking for ways to add bulk and protein to lunches without eggs or meat.  Beans are the best: high in protein and fiber, low in fat, versatile, and one of the few remaining cheap foodstuffs around.  I often throw a random handful of chickpeas onto all kinds of dishes, but have been getting a bit bored with them plain.  After a few different experiments in creating a little chickpea flavor explosion, I landed on a recipe I love, and it happens to be perfect for spicing up a little lunchtime salad.

Spicy Roasted Chickpeas come together in about 30 minutes and keep for about a week in a jar in the fridge.  They are phenomenal sprinkled over a salad, stirred through couscous for a quick little bean-and-grain lunch, or eaten by the handful as a pre-dinner snack (and they go quite well with wine, I might add).  Some people's children might like them, but little J politely declined them, while the baby took great glee in pegging them into the floor while shouting "NO!!!!"  So there's that.

This weekend, I made a chopped salad to share with my sister at lunch: shredded iceberg, thinly sliced orange peppers, diced tomatoes, cubed avocado, and these chickpeas, tossed with blush wine vinaigrette, pink salt, and freshly ground pepper.  She absolutely loved it, and asked for the chickpea recipe.

Dude, here you go:
Spicy Roasted Chickpeas
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon paprika (I used smoked, but sweet would work too)
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste (I used fresh ground pink Himalayan salt and fresh ground pepper and started with about 1/2 teaspoon of each)

I would definitely recommend playing with the spices here to suit your own preference or planned recipe.  A super cumin-y batch of these bad boys would be great in veggie tacos or taco salad.  Add oregano and basil and dial back the cumin for an Italian recipe (maybe tossed with angel hair pasta) or to top a Greek salad.  I've also added a sprinkle (about 1/2 teaspoon) of Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute to my recipe and loved the flavor that added.  This is one of those recipes that you can really use as a template and make your own.

1) Preheat oven to 425F (I do mine in the toaster oven and it works like a charm)
2) Add all of the ingredients except for the chickpeas to a bowl and mix together with a spoon.  The consistency will be thick.
3) Add the chickpeas and stir well to coat them all with the spice mixture.  Drizzle more olive oil over the top if needed.
4) Spread the chickpeas onto a baking sheet, and bake for 30 minutes, tossing gently every 10 minutes.  Check them frequently to make sure they don't burn.  Chickpeas are done when they are golden brown.
5) Allow to cool before serving.  

Friday, May 9, 2014

Favorites on a Friday

Happy Friday, everyone! 
With this new incarnation of this blog, I'm lucky to have gained a few new readers (thank you!).  To be honest, while I wasn't writing here, I wasn't reading here as well (if that makes sense).  Other than referencing my recipe page periodically, I've really been hands off here for the last year and a half.  As I've gotten organized to get back in the swing of things on the blog, I've paged back through some of the 3.5 (!!!) years where I was posting multiple times a week.   It is so wild to have a chronicle of so many different phases of our life as a young family.  I wouldn't expect anyone other than me to have interest in paging back through so, so many posts; but as I did I came across some old favorites that  are much more representative of this space as a whole than what you see if you click back a page or three or four from this one.  I had already kind of lost my blogging mojo when we were moving and I was pregnant in 2012 and it totally shows.  In any case, I thought I'd link back to some old favorite posts, just to give new readers a bit more of the flavor here if you should happen to be interested.

On life and mama stuff:
Thief of Joy, May 2012
Seeking, February 2012
Fear Itself, Novemeber 2011
A Day in the Life, September 2011
Life Lesson a la Music Class, July 2011
Relinquishing Perfection, April 2011
Control, February 2011
Paint Stress, November 2010

And some all time fave recipes:
DIY Bruschetta Bar (pictured above)
Salad Niçoise Bar
Life Changing Beef Stew
Turkey Pho
Pasta e Fagioli
Enchiladas Verdes
Muqueca (Brazilian Style White Fish in Coconut Milk with Tomatoes and Peppers)
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burritos
Slow Roasted Summer Tomatoes
Slow Cooker Tortilla Soup
Arugula Almond Pesto
Magical Iced Coffee
Celebration Cake

I'm still definitely feeling my way as I try to get back in a groove here.  The world of food blogging is expansive and saturated, so I feel a need to make any offering I present really worthy, exceptional, and unique.  No pressure!  I'm also thinking a lot about how to share the anecdotes of our daily life without compromising the privacy or personal stories of those I love the most.  All this in a moment where weeks seem to slip through my fingers like seconds...but I'm determined to find a middle path and a little time to write and make it work.  If you're inclined to comment, I'd absolutely love to know... what kind of posts are your favorite to read?

For now, I'm going to close down this laptop and go snuggle up with my dudes on this rainy afternoon.  Wishing you a lovely weekend...

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

DO Try this at Home, Volume 2: Healthy Recipe Hat Trick

Happy Wednesday, and welcome to another guest post from my lovely friend, Angella (check out Volume 1 here). This week, our intrepid newbie home cook braves a trifecta of SMJ faves and lives to tell the tale...
I have a newfound respect for bloggers…living a full life and then finding time write about it! I had a good week and conquered (read: beat into submission) THREE SMJ recipes this week: Ina Garten’s Perfect Roast Chicken, Shutterbean’s Reset Button Salads & SMJ’s Chicken Tortilla Soup. I almost feel like I need to take the next week off cooking.
But first a big announcement: I have finally switched to kosher salt. I still can’t tell you WHY one should use kosher salt but it makes me feel extremely superior (to my former table-salt-using self.) I pinched kosher salt on everything this week and it was awesome. Not for how it tasted (I can’t tell the difference) but for how it felt using it (except for when my hands were wet…then it was extremely annoying.) I seriously can’t believe it took me this long to make the switch.

Now, I am not entirely new to roast chicken, but I have been on a mission to nail it the last few months. I am embarrassed to admit that I love the roasters you can buy at the grocery store 10 minutes before dinnertime. It’s the smell that makes me forget that they have been sitting under the heat lamp all day or wonder how old the cluckers were before they were roasted. Embarrassingly (again,) however, it’s the ever increasing price that has really prodded me into action. I’ve tried the beer can grilling method (and undercooked it) and the crock pot method (where I overcooked it.) Both noble methods I will reattempt in the future. But, SMJ’s recommendation of the Ina Garten method has lured me back to the oven.

I watched Ina’s video and then rinsed, dried, stuffed and trussed my bird. I melted the butter on the stove (instead of zapping it in the microwave) and used my new kosher salt and was feeling rather proud of myself. Then, I attempted to fold the wings under. After several failed attempts, I washed my buttery hands and re-watched the video. More failed attempts, more hand washing, more video watching. I thought I was going crazy. Ina made it look so simple: yoga for chickens. Come on! Finally, I realized my chicken legs were pointing to the left, Ina’s were pointing right. My brain just couldn’t cope. Eventually, I got those little suckers under. By this time, however, I had to melt more butter and re-coat the damn bird. I would never curse Ina, but I thought about it.

The bird came out GLORIOUS! 

I was so excited to serve her up with wild rice and asparagus then save the leftovers for burrito bowls the next day. 

Move over Martha! What I wasn’t prepared for was Mike’s post-cycling appetite. He seriously ate the entire chicken. All of it! I suppose we (SMJ, Ina and I) can take that as a compliment.

While the chicken was in the oven, I proceeded to make three portions of Shutterbean’s Reset Button Salad for my weekday lunches. Here’s another example where I actually committed to following the recipe – down to the red quinoa which I had never had – and was happily rewarded! 
I was a little worried about making the salads ahead of time even though I kept the dressing separate, but the arugula bravely stood up against becoming soggy. The feta, beets and quinoa really made this feel like a meal and it was GOOD! I highly recommend it…especially while on a picnic with a loved one!
Wednesday morning, while waiting for the coffee to brew, I started collecting all of the ingredients for SMJ’s Slow Cooker Tortilla Soup. There’s something so satisfying about having ALL of the ingredients for a recipe. Thank you Meal Planning.
Coming home Wednesday night, I could smell the soup from the bottom of the stairs leading to our apartment. God bless the slow cooker. The soup, of course, was amazing and only got better with time.
Best served with chips, salsa & a Blazers Game.
This week coming up I want to cook something Thai inspired - a la SMJ’s Thai Lemongrass Beef. I’m currently having an affair with Kaffir Lime Leaves. And I’m going to attempt the Celebration Chocolate Cake for Mother’s Day. Thanks for holding my hand while I further cooking education, SMJ & SMJ devotees!
Thank you, Ang!
I love the post-cycling dude taking down an entire chicken, although I'm sorry about the foiled burrito bowl plans. It's a lot of fun to see these recipes take shape in someone else's kitchen in real life.  
More from both Ang and me soon!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rice Cooker Israeli Couscous with Shallots

Do you have a rice cooker?
I really love mine, and here is why:
1) Versatility
Even if your family doesn't eat a lot of rice, I highly recommend this doodad.  Rice cookers cook steel cut oats and almost any grain you can think of like a dream.  A rice cooker is way more of a kitchen multi-tasker than one might think.  Don't believe me?  Check out this article on 21 Surprising Things You Can Cook in a Rice Cooker and prepare to have your mind blown.

2) Convenience
Here's the thing: cooking most grains requires bringing water to boil, adding the grain, lowering the temperature to a simmer, then turning off the heat and serving the grain almost immediately.  While this is a simple process in theory, who among us hasn't had many an "OH F*^@!!" moment while trying to prep a dinner that includes a grain.  Don't get the heat timing right and the bottom of your pan is burned, along with a layer of rice.  Don't time the finish perfectly with your protein and veggies, and you can easily get overcooked grains, or a gluey, room temperature mess instead of a lovely hot side dish.  So frustrating.  With the rice cooker, grains are cooked to perfection every time, and the "keep warm" setting keeps them piping hot without overcooking them until you are ready to serve, even if that is an hour later than planned.  To me, this is priceless.  

Also, most rice cookers have a timer setting, meaning you can set up your rice cooker with the ingredients for steel cut oats the night before, set the timer for two hours before you wake, and come downstairs to a beautiful breakfast with zero effort the next morning.  Or put everything together for this Israeli couscous dish before heading out for the afternoon, and set the timer to coincide with your planned dinner.  Genius.

3) Ease
Nothing is easier or more foolproof than rice cooker cooking; it is kind of like magic.  Not only is our rice cooker super simple to clean, but it only takes minutes to throw everything into the cooker and press start, and once that is done, you're just not calling for take out, no matter how much your motivation may fade.  Start a batch of rice, and even if you lose the will to do anything else except open a can of beans, provided you have some good condiments and an avocado on hand, and you've got Burrito Bowls.  Stick some quinoa in there, and you're halfway to a trendy hippie salad of nutritional superiority.  Or make this gorgeous, simple Israeli couscous dish, shove your husband out to the grill with some chicken or a piece of fish, throw a salad together, and you've got a downright elegant dinner situation.

Sales pitch= over.
I just love this thing.
And our $80 model is over ten years old and still works like a charm, but there are also less expensive versions out there, and this doesn't have to be a pricey item.  
Okay, now the sales pitch is really over.

Israeli couscous is one of my favorite grains.  Comfortingly smooth, light and versatile, I'd swap it out for rice anytime. On summer Sundays, I love to make big prepared salads with Israeli couscous and whatever veggies look best at the farmers market; I'll eat a scoop of this over greens for lunch all week, and it will just keep getting better day by day as the couscous pearls soak in the dressing and veggie goodness.

The traditional preparation of Israeli couscous is easy enough... it only takes fifteen minutes on the stovetop, but I've always followed the Smitten Kitchen instructions for prepping it, which include spreading it out on a cookie sheet to cool.  I hate the annoying extra dishes that this creates and the messy transfers, and like every stovetop grain recipe, you really have to nail the timing for success.  With an impulse bought box of Israeli couscous in the pantry and a simple starch-veg-meat dinner planned, I decided to play around with a slow cooker preparation and see what I could do.
My husband isn't usually the biggest fan of this grain as a side, but the first time I cooked it in the slow cooker, he was really blown away.  The preparation deepens the flavor and the machine does an incredible job of cooking the couscous to perfection (in the past, I think I've erred on the side of undercooking for fear of mush).  He said he'd eat it cooked slow cooker style every day.  Sold!

We had this dish again on Sunday night as a side to one of our favorite easy dinners, Gyros a la Trader Joe's.  Sunday was a perfect example of why I love our rice cooker.  We had a packed weekend and I was exhausted on Sunday night.  I was able to quickly throw this dish together while I gave the kids dinner, and then my work was done.  The motivation I had to cook at 5pm was long gone by 7, but the couscous waited patiently in the rice cooker, still hot and delicious two hours after I got it started.  The whole house smelled great, which motivated B to go out and light the grill instead of dialing for pizza, and soon we had a really lovely (mostly) home cooked meal to start/end the week.  
Had it been a different kind of weekend, I might have tried for homemade tzatziki, but alas, not this time around.  I do have to highly recommend this quick little chopped salad I put together though: chopped romaine and tomato, sliced Greek mixed olives, cubed avocado, and homemade croutons in a white balsamic vinaigrette.  Yum.
But wait!  The point of this post is the couscous!  Which not only complimented the gyros well, but also was the foundation and motivator for the rest of the meal, thanks to it bubbling away in the rice cooker while we put the kids to bed.  And, it was really as easy as chopping these shallots.
So, here's how you do it...

Rice Cooker Israeli Couscous with Shallots
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 cup Israeli couscous
2 cups water 
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
freshly ground pepper

1) In a frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
2) Add the minced shallots and sauté quickly until they soften, about 5 minutes.
3) Add the couscous to the pan with the shallots and cook for a few minutes until the grains are lightly toasted and coated with oil.
4) Transfer the couscous and shallot mixture to your rice cooker.  Add the water and spices.  Set the timer to the regular and start.
5) When the cooking cycle is complete, open the cooker and stir the couscous to fluff it up.  Taste for seasoning and add more spices if desired.  You may also wish to add a little more olive oil for a richer flavor. 
6) Serve immediately or allow to rest on the "keep warm" setting until you are ready to serve.

This is a fairly basic recipe for Israeli couscous that is flavorful enough to serve on its own, but basic enough to act as a base for other creations.  Some of my favorite things to do with Israeli couscous:
Couldn't resist sharing this gorgeous shot via Food52

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

DO Try this at Home, Volume 1: Shopping and Sushi Bowls

Welcome to the first guest post from my dear friend Angella.  As I mentioned yesterday, Ang lives in Portland, Oregon with her fiancé, Mike.  She came up with the awesome idea of testing some SMJ-inspired recipes and meal planning tips and writing about it, and I love her unique voice and sense of humor, as well as the opportunity to host her here on the blog.  Enjoy her first adventure in meal planning + sushi bowls!  Take it away, Ang...

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where your life resembles a pinball game – working too much, exercising too little, eating cereal for dinner, drinking for sanity’s sake, everyone wanting something from you?  You want to stand up and scream, “MAKE IT STOP!”  Well, nothing like a good spring cold to Shut. It. Down.  As I lay in a puddle on my sofa, tissues strewn, laptop on lap, multi-clicks into SMJ blogosphere, I decided to re-commit to health, both physical and mental.   And I’d lean on my life guru, SMJ, to do just that.  A la the movie Julia & Julia, I decided I was going to make everything on the Sweet Mama Jane blog and see if I could proposition Ms. SMJ into letting me put up a few blog posts about it. 

Of course, that was the Nyquil talking.  I’m not a writer, I don’t use Instagram and I am NOT a cook.  I can barely follow a recipe.   How can you not follow a recipe?   Most of the time I don’t have one or two of the ingredients or the recipe calls for some instrument I don’t have or a technique that’s over my head.  So, I improvise.  Which only works 50% of the time.   Luckily, Mike is just happy someone else is cooking and eats without complaint.   All that being said, I WANT to become a better cook.  This is where my knight in shining cyberspace, SMJ, comes into play.  SMJ will be my Julia.   And I will be that other Julie.  With better hair.
Amy Adams as Julie, setting the hair bar awfully low.
So, I’m committing to making SOME of the recipes on the Sweet Mama Jane blog and have convinced Ms. SMJ to let me do a post or two (yay!)   I offer no commitment to having even more than just this post and I apologize in advance for the shaky, un-staged iPhone photos.  Actually, no I don’t.  This is reader to reader, not blogger to audience.  (Plus I’ve tried REALLY hard to stay still for photos and I just can’t.) Best bet is to read after a few glasses of wine so you won’t notice.

The first thing I did was read a bunch of blogs on meal planning, via SMJ, of course.  My world has become SMJ.  I loved the idea of picking three big meals to make without committing to making them on certain days.  I also liked the concept of meal PREPPING on Sunday so that I’d be more likely to actually whip something up after a long grueling day.  With a list written on the back of an envelope, I hit three different stores and filled my car bumper to bumper.  I got my cardio workout in by schlepping the groceries up two flights of stairs (a perk of our new 2nd floor apartment.)  Then I had to find room for everything. 

Needless to say after all of that, I did NOT feel like cooking. Luckily, guru SMJ has a plan for that, offering several meal ideas that are quick and easy.  I opted for the Sushi Bowls. I couldn’t agree more about the hassle of trying to roll your own sushi.  Who has time, energy, or enough wine for that?  

First off, I couldn’t find sushi or short grain rice.  It’s probably at New Seasons and I went there first and didn’t grab it.  I did find medium grain rice, so I went with that.  I think it worked just as well.  I cooked it EXACTLY as instructed on the ValSoCal blog despite that not being my normal method for cooking rice.  It came out perfectly.  Why haven’t I followed directions before?  I whipped up the vinegar, sugar and salt mixture and “folded it in”  (assuming that means “stir it in.”)  It was really sweet and I had a momentary panic as I halved the amount of rice in the recipe for two of us but made the original amount of vinegar mix.  Luckily, once the soy sauce was added with the meal, the rice was A-MAZING. 

I splurged on real Alaskan King Crab legs.  I’d never bought crab before but after reading the ingredients of imitation Krab, I also can’t go there.  It’s the hot dog of the sea, people.  The nice butcher boy was kind enough to answer all of my questions.  I bought a half pound (two claws) for $8 at Fred Meyers.  

It was DIVINE.   It was easy to get the meat out after I watched this handy video.  

Carrots, cucumbers and avocado rounded out our bowls.   

I forgot the sesame seeds (darn it!)  Next time!  There will DEFINTELY be a next time.  As Mike would say, that was a plate licker!  Technically a bowl, dear. 
Next up: roasting a whole chicken.  I’m feeling confident, as SMJ favorite Ms. Ina Garten has included a VIDEO with her recipe.  Seriously, I can’t screw this up.
Thanks, Ang!
Love your post, love your cute placemats.

Before signing off, I just have to chime back in again on these sushi bowls, as they are currently heavily on our weekly rotation.  I love how you can make them as fancy or as simple as you want to; go all out with pickled ginger, fresh wasabi, nori strips, and sashimi-grade fish, or keep it super cheap and easy with baked tofu and a minimum of veggies (although the avocado is non-negotiable in my book).  I love to line up a big fixings bar with sriracha, soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, rice vinegar and gomasio, all of which we usually have readily on hand.  I've also been loading up on nori sheets at Trader Joe's for .99 cents a package; they even have a delicious wasabi-flavored version (tip: they call it a "Roasted Seaweed Snack", and it is in with the chips and pretzels, but it's nori to me).  Since cucumbers, carrots and peppers are on the short list of veggies the kids will eat without a fight, we're always stocked on those, and therefore ready to make quick sushi bowls materialize.  They're such a healthy alternative to other quick weeknight dinners or to take out, and so satisfying.  Hopefully Ang and I might inspire you to give them a try.   

Thanks again to Angella for a fab post and all the gratuitous blog shout-outs... feeling the love. xoxo 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Stuff of Life

The last two weeks have been much as the two years have been: a complete blur of speeding time and raucous family.  Two weeks ago I set out to get back to quasi-regular posting here, and no sooner had I rededicated myself, than life took the wheel and had other plans.  

My oldest had a two week spring break that ended today (whew!).  I loved the extra time with him, but just can't hope to measure up to the level of enrichment and engagement that his awesome preschool provides.  He missed his friends and his teachers, and I missed those twelve hours of the week that he spends being challenged and entertained there.  Drop off was especially joyous this morning.

The last two weeks have been a blur of appointments, errands, events and visitors.  We registered the little guy for kindergarten which was both exciting and mind blowing.  We had a little family party for his 5th birthday.  I almost threw my back out making this ninja cake.
In case you don't live with a five-year-old boy, I'll let you know that this is Kai, the red ninja from Lego's Ninjago.  We live and breathe Legos and ninjas these days.
Beyond looking like the head of an imaginary plastic ninja, I wanted this cake to taste delicious, so I made it from scratch, and I must say that it totally exceeded expectations.  I don't have a go-to chocolate cake recipe, as we are mostly a vanilla or yellow cake household, but this year little J requested chocolate, so I did some research into a foolproof, non-fussy recipe.

I can't recommend the chocolate cake I ended up making highly enough: it is the Moist Chocolate Cake from the Foodess blog, and it is incredible.  She promises it is easy enough to make on a weeknight, and she delivers.  No obscure ingredients, no fussy sifting, just tons of chocolate deliciousness.  I doubled the recipe and make two 9x13 inch cakes, which I turned into a massive layer cake with a double batch of this Quick Vanilla Buttercream Frosting recipe.  Then I free-hand cut the massive cake into a ninja-head/mask shape.  Next I used red gel food coloring to get the remaining frosting Kai-colored, with a small amount of it dyed yellow for the mask.  I tried to cut eyes out of black licorice, but gave up after a couple tries and printed some out, then cut them and pressed them into the frosting instead.  I had found these Ninjago mask printables through Pinterest, and used them to make plain balloons from the party store into the whole posse of ninjas...
So, I just quickly printed out an extra set to avert my cake eye disaster.  The real story here is the chocolate cake, though.  My husband has been a diehard yellow cake/chocolate frosting guy for every birthday since I've known him, and he said that he might be changing cake teams after this one; it was that good.  If you're looking for a simple chocolate cake for your next special event try this one: fudgey, moist, easy, and a total crowd pleaser.

This is the third year that I've made a ridiculous theme cake for my little guy on his birthday; they rarely come out looking Pinterest-worthy, and they are always kind of an insane culinary adventure.
Bulldozer Cake for 3
Fire Engine Cake for 4
I like to think that even when we're just doing a little family gathering in our backyard to celebrate, these crazy cakes keep things festive and memorable.  It's our thing.

But, I digress...these last two weeks have been full of the stuff of life that is too boring to write about and that make time fly by: dentist appointments, well-child visits, school paperwork, haircuts.  Oh, and for good measure, everyone got sick.  This time with some sort of laryngitis/bronchitis situation that has rendered us pathetic, hacking, squeaking messes.  I seem to have more or less lost my voice for the time being, and the baby's cough is especially heartbreaking.  Nurse duty on this level really takes it out of a gal.  All of the energy I thought I might throw back at this blog has evaporated.  So it goes in this phase of life.

But, I have good news!  My dear friend Angella found herself energized by my little comeback meal-planning post, and fresh off her own sickbed viewing of that classic bloggy movie Julie and Julia, she proposed a little guest blogging gig!  I love it!

I am really dedicated to bringing back SMJ, and as I hobble along trying to get that rolling, I'm so grateful for some help and tall tales from one of my favorite ladies on the planet.  I met Ang when I was 23 and living in San Francisco.  We were dot-com deskmates and became fast friends.  When said dot-com laid us off with a great severance package, we took that and embarked on one of the great adventures of my life, backpacking together around Southeast Asia and Australia for five months.  Epic.
Ang and me at Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 2001
And feeding some kangaroos in Oz
Angella lives in Portland, Oregon now with her fiancé, Mike.  She has built an amazingly successful massage therapy business called Unwind (PDXers, get yourself an appointment with her, stat... she's the BEST!). And despite the three thousand miles between us, she always seems to make her way out here and show up when I need her the most, like right after J was born and we were flailing, exhausted new parents.
How is he starting kindergarten already?!?!
She also rescued me from this terrifying broken shower in Vietnam with little more than a rain poncho and a hastily procured wrench.

So, it only seems appropriate that she get my back once more and guest blog for me as I get my sick household back on track, and get my blogging wits about me.  Her idea was to try my meal planning formula and a bunch of the recipes on this site and call it "DO Try this at Home".  Love it, love it!  We'll kick off tomorrow with her foray into a Friday food shop and a dinner of Sushi Bowls.  I hope you enjoy reading her post as much as I did.

And I'll be back soon as well with some more recipes and life stuff to share.  Coming soon: a baked tofu tutorial (per my sister's request) and Adventures in Anxiety Management.  All this and more!

Friday, April 11, 2014

My Meal Plan Obsession

When I told my mom that I was trying to get back to blogging she said, "I don't think you should write about food at all.  I think you should just write about the boys.  I always skip over your food posts looking for stuff about them." Ahhh, grandmothers...

If you are in her camp, this is not the post for you.  However, if you are like me and both passionate about and obsessed with food, especially in a voyeuristic way, I think you'll like where we're going today.  Some of my favorite posts from around the web tend to be peeks into peoples' fridges, snippets on the breakfasts of interesting people, and meal planning downloads from other busy A-types.  I love writing about food, and these days our life, schedule, and budget are such that meal planning is the linchpin of our culinary existence. My husband still works from home, so generally, I'm shopping for and prepping 3 meals a day for 4 people 7 days a week; that's 84 meals a week, people.  No joke.  Turning out food this way in a budget and health conscious way takes a serious plan.

Gone are the days of rambling to the store for an obscure ingredient when the whim strikes or ordering takeout just because we're feeling lazy.  Going to the store is a major physical expedition. You know those handy seats in the front of the shopping cart, meant to hold your child so you can shop?  My 30 lb. monkey-toddler laughs in their face.  He likes to escape the little safety belt, stand up, and lean precariously toward towering displays of breakable jars or try to get down and smash eggs (this actually happened, in a totally mortifying fashion).  I often end up holding him and trying to shop one-handed; it's nuts. So I like to try and make one and only one shopping trip per week, even if that means going to three stores (in this town, it does).  With one shopping day, all of that exertion and frustration is compartmentalized and can be rewarded with a large glass of wine.

I know I'm lucky to be able to shop at off-peak times; Friday morning is an ideal time to hit grocery stores, as they are usually fully stocked in anticipation of the weekend rush, and relatively empty of customers. If you are home with kids, or work in a non-9-to-5 industry, I can't recommend this timing enough.  I know it is not rocket science, but it took me many an annoying trip to a picked over Thursday Trader Joe's to get hip to the Friday shop.  So, for me, Thursdays are usual meal planning days, where I pour over cookbooks, Pinterest, and the family calendar, and try to create a realistic meal plan for the week ahead.  Starting the weekend with a stocked fridge makes Sunday meal prep that much easier, with everything readily on hand to get rolling on cooking projects fresh off of your morning coffee buzz.

In honor of type-A culinary voyeurism, here's a peek at my meal planning these days:

1) Breakfasts
We keep this easy: cereals, eggs, toast, Kashi waffles, or the ingredients for homemade ones for all of the boys.  For me, I've recently been inspired by this stunning raw vegan Australian instagrammer I follow (don't even ask me how I find these things, I just do), and have been doing a kind of vegan-until-dinner thing which has me feeling surprisingly phenomenal.  In this spirit, I've been starting the day with a massive smoothie.
image via Lonijane
These concoctions have been so hydrating and energizing. I've been using coconut water instead of a dairy product (our Trader Joe's sells the quart containers for $3, so it's not a bank breaker, or rather an even trade-off with almond milk or some such) and some combination of bananas, frozen mango, blueberry or strawberry.  I've also been adding a teaspoon of maca powder, which I'll post about separately.  I can't tell you how beneficial this whole routine has been to my energy... delicious game changer.

2) Lunches
The little boys are easy: I check PB&J levels, stock up on Cabot Cheddar for grilled cheeses, and get as good a variety of fresh fruit as is in season.  Hummus (I try to mix it up with the bazillion varieties TJ's offers), bell peppers, cukes and carrots are on the weekly list as well.  I get turkey for B (aka, the husband).  We go through bread like it's our job.  And every Sunday, I make a big pot of soup for lunches for the week.  Soup is my easiest, healthiest, favorite go-to lunch (until when/if it warms up here and I switch to salads).  Sometimes I can sell it to the little boys, and B always loves it on the side of a sandwich or with some good bread.  It can also pinch hit for dinner when necessary.
Some favorite soups of late:
Shutterbean's Carrot Coconut Soup
image via Shutterbean
My Slow Cooker Tortilla Soup
Paste e Fagioli has been a winter staple.
And this week I am going to make an old fave of ours, Chickpea and Spinach Stew.

3) Dinners
This varies widely week-to-week depending on a variety of factors from athletic and social schedules, to monthly budgeting fluctuations, to seasonal cravings.  A typical week will look something like this:

Ina Garten's Perfect Roast Chicken.  This recipe has been a staple of mine for over a decade, and B has declared more than once that he would have married me just for this chicken... it's that good.  This week, a recuperating relative has requested a perfect chicken care package, so I'm going to pop two in the oven, as I can't rightly fill the house with that aroma and not offer some to my men.  This is the kind of dish that is great to cook on Friday for meals all weekend.

Pizza Night.  We do this at least once a week.  It gives me a nice break from cooking, since pizza is B's department, and it is so soul-satisfying, especially served with a side of House of Cards.  We use amazing pre-made doughs from our local Italian specialty store and make two pies: spinach and mushroom for me, pepperoni, mushroom and peppers for B.  We totally don't each eat a whole pizza ourselves.  Ever.  

Sunday is known in our house as "Fat Day".  We cook our most indulgent and complicated dishes on Sundays and try to truly savor the process and the meals to start our week on the right foot.  One of the best Fat Day recipes we've had recently is Helen Jane's Slow Cooker Thai Lemongrass Beef.
image via Helen Jane
This is one of the most flavorful, complex, and satisfying slow cooker dishes of all time.  If you are a meat eater, you must try this one ASAP.   The ginger, cinnamon, star anise combo is so warming and intensely savory, and the leftovers will rock your world (if there are any).

For the record, this Monday is Passover.  But a typical Monday for us is usually busy all around: school and sports for little J, intense workdays for B, general re-entry fatigue for the babe and me.  I usually keep dinner pretty simple, and often vegetarian to compensate for Fat Day.  Lately, we've been doing a lot of sushi bowls and a lot of Tofu Tikka Masala.  I love Trader Joe's Tikka Masala sauce, and usually do a combo of spinach, peas and tofu sautéed in coconut oil, with garlic naan on the side.

Our new house is a block from what I consider to be the best fish store in our town.  The boys love to go check out the lobsters swimming around in their tank.  I love to treat us to some of their fresh fish for dinner when we can.  Gwyneth's Sriracha Salmon is a super easy weeknight winner, served with simple greens.  My sister also swears by this Crispy Coconut Kale with Roasted Salmon and Coconut Rice recipe, which is on my short list for upcoming meal plans.
Gwynnie's Salmon: image via Self
Simple dinners are a rule-of-thumb for hump day when we're often running a little ragged.  Burrito Bowls have been a weekly staple.  I love the Shutterbean trick of mixing a jar of salsa into cooked rice for a quickie, easy Mexican base, and I'll also cheat and use Trader Joe's Cuban Black Beans if I don't have time or energy to do something bean-y from scratch.  A toppings bar of shredded cheese, chopped scallion and avocado, diced tomato and shredded lettuce, and we're good to go; and this little number is both time and budget friendly.

Thursday is probably our chillest weekday.  No school for J, just one little morning activity, and the rest of the day is open, which I love.  We can have a quiet, easy afternoon, with more time to devote to a more involved dinner.  With the weekend on the horizon, it's nice to kick off the feeling of ease and indulgence this way.  We have a little shrimp stash in the freezer right now, and I've got my eye on this beauty of recipe: Shrimp and Avocado Salad with Miso Dressing.
image via Pinch of Yum
So that's what a week might look like around here.  I lean heavily on pre-prepared elements and quickie, old favorite staples to bridge a small smattering of more adventurous and ambitious meals.  I love, love, love pizza night (both for deliciousness and the husband cooking factor).  And some weeks are indeed a blur of takeout burritos, Annie's Mac and Cheese, and another bowl of that Sunday soup with a piece of unexciting toast, long after we wish it was already gone.  But when we're in our groove, crisis-free, and meal planned, culinary life is pretty good.  The three elements of the Thursday meal plan, Friday shop, and Sunday prep day keep us as well fed and waste free as possible. 

I hope this post gives you a little inspiration!  I always love to see what others are cooking and how their kitchens tick.  Any new favorite dishes in your house?  I'd love it if you shared in the comments.