Snowpocalypse Atlanta 2014

January 29, 2014

Filed Under : life

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

It’s been a weird day and it’s not over yet. It started with just a little snow and some disappointment about a change of birthday plans for the week.

Then things got weird. All of the schools and all of the businesses that weren’t smart enough to close for the day when snow was forecast? They let all their students and all their employees home at once – about 1:30 this afternoon. At that point it had been snowing for nearly 2 hours in some parts of the city. And not just any snow, but a wet, sticky snow that stuck and quickly began to form a layer of ice.

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

Now a lot of people from colder climes like to make fun of those of us in the South who freak out when it snows. They laugh that we close streets, shut down schools, and send people home over 1-2 inches of snow. But what many people don’t realize is that when it snows in the South, it’s not just snow. It almost immediately turns to slush and then freezes into sheets of solid ice. And because it’s a rare occurrence, we don’t have the infrastructure to salt and sand all the roads. So if you’re away from home when it starts snowing, you stand a really good chance of being stuck on slick, icy roads in a car without proper tires and surrounded by people who have never had to learn to drive on ice (either).

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

As of right now (a little after midnight), H has been trying to get home from work (15 miles from here) since a little after 5 p.m. He pulled off the road for a while when people started sliding into each other, and get back on around 7 when a couple of accidents had been pushed off the road. Now, 5 hours into his drive, he’s a little over halfway home, but still has to cross the river – and I strongly suspect the bridge is frozen, if not completely closed down.

There are no hotels available – I’ve looked. Home Depot is keeping it’s doors open and offering shelter to people who are stranded. So are several churches along the way. H has elected not to stop at any of those places – instead putting his Colorado-learned winter driving skills into practice and trying to avoid the abandoned cars, fender benders, and worst of the hills and overpasses.

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

My disappointment over my altered birthday plans has been eclipsed by fear and worry – not just for H but for the hundreds of people who are still stranded on icy highways here in Atlanta. I have several friends who have run out of gas while sitting on the road. I know one person who is sheltering in a church 6 miles from her home after being in the car for 8 hours. I know one person who is sleeping in his office (without badly needed meds) because all the overpasses have been shut down and he has no way to cross the highway to get home tonight.

It’s not supposed to rise above freezing tomorrow, but there is supposed to be sunlight. I only hope that enough of the slick, icy streets will thaw that people can get home and be safe.

A couple of inches of snow is nothing when you’re used to it and when you have the infrastructure and experience to deal with it. It’s pretty damn scary when you don’t.

 

 

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 5

January 27, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

The Balvanie - my new favorite scotch | © karacooks.com

Happy Birthday to me!!

This is my birthday week, so more going out and not as much cooking happening. No, I’m really not one of those people who demands an entire week of celebration, I just am lucky enough to have lots of different groups of people to celebrate with: Z and I are going to a scotch tasting on Wednesday night; H plans to take me out to dinner on Tuesday (my actual birthday); I’m planning on meeting co-workers for drinks and dinner on Thursday. I suspect things might come up on Friday and over the weekend as well.

In consideration of all of that, I’m keeping Monday’s dinner lighter with lots of veggies and protein.

As always breakfast and lunch are smoothies/yogurt/fruit/veg.

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Shrimp & veggie stir fry
  • Tuesday – Dinner out with H
  • Wednesday – Scotch tasting and dinner with Z
  • Thursday – Drinks and dinner with co-workers
  • Friday – TBD

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

After a week full of restaurant food and probably quite a bit of drink, I am hoping to keep the weekend light and full of salads and veggies. I might even sneak in a daytime fast on Sunday with lots of water and broth and clear liquids. We’ll see how that goes.

Things 2014 – Week 4

January 26, 2014

Filed Under : life

tomato poached eggs | © karacooks.com

Things: Life

I’ve been addicted lately to tomato sauce poached eggs (image above). I’ll post about them soon – but really it’s simplicity itself, and so delicious for lunch or dinner!

I never realized how HARD it is to not spend money. Please tell me it’s not just me? My January spending freeze, although not 100% on target to date, has made me so much more aware of how much money I spend thoughtlessly, all the time. I have done a lot of “shopping” so far this month but no buying, and what fills my Amazon cart and dots my “to get” lists is really making me think.

My entire last week’s plan was thrown off when the garbage disposal under my kitchen sink blew a gasket. Not only did it take me 2 days to clean out the under-sink area of ground up food and gray water, it happened on the day before a holiday, so it was 3 full days before I could get a plumber out to fix it (I did try, but it was beyond my skill and patience level). So there was no cooking until Wednesday. (Luckily I had just run a load of dishes, so at least I didn’t have piles of dirty dishes sitting around.)

I read an article the other day (in a real, paper magazine, imagine that!) where the author pointed out that the 80s were more than 25 years ago, and therefore are now officially “Vintage”. Pardon me while I slip upstairs and quietly have a crisis.

I am fascinated by weather; I never want anyone to be hurt but watching these extreme storms and the power of nature is simply enthralling. One of my bucket list items is to go storm chasing myself and take photos. Something like this: Mike Hollingshead’s photos.

And finally, I got some early gift cards for my birthday this coming week, so I bought myself a present: Shun Premier Chef’s Knife, 8-Inch. Isn’t it pretty? I can’t wait until it gets here! I also bought a magnetic knife storage strip, but I’m not quite sure where I’m going to hang it yet. My cabinets are too low to accommodate my largest knife, so I’m going to have to get creative!

Things: Links

Recipe Review: Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk

January 24, 2014

Filed Under : main courses

chicken in milk | © karacooks.com

One of my goals for this year is to get back to trying new recipes, playing and tweaking and ultimately finding a few new things to add to my regular repertoire. As part of that I think I’ll start doing regular recipe reviews along the way, instead of waiting until I get to the “perfect” version of whatever recipe.

The first one in the series is Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk. I’ve been fascinated by this recipe ever since I first saw it and I’m pretty sure I’ve had it pinned on Pinterest for the better part of 3 years! This week I finally made it – with a few changes. (I know, I know – I shouldn’t tweak until I’ve made the recipe as written at least once, but these were minor tweaks).

As written the recipe calls for a stick of cinnamon and some sage leaves. I didn’t have either of those, so I doubled up on the garlic and the lemon (using whole lemon slices, rather than just the zest). Everything else was exactly as in the recipe.

chicken in milk | © karacooks.com

The first thing that happened is that during the “fry it in olive oil” step, while turning the whole chicken, the skin over the breast stuck to the bottom of the pot and peeled right off the breast when I turned it, as you can see above. Sadness. I was really looking forward to that crispy, dark brown skin as part of the meal. Also, it meant that there wasn’t any protection over the breast while it roasted, so the breast wound up somewhat dry.

As it was roasting I could smell the garlic and the lemon, but there was also a very subtle sweet smell, which I’m attributing to the sugars in the milk as they cooked.

chicken in milk | © karacooks.com

When it came out of the oven, it looked pretty good, swimming in a vibrant yellow juice/broth. As I said, the breast was a little dry, so while the rest of the meal finished cooking, I rolled the chicken over so that the breast could soak in the sauce for a bit.

After about 15 mins, I removed the chicken to a plate (where I then pulled/cut the meat off the bones), and dipped out the bits of lemon and garlic from the sauce.

I used the stick blender on what was left and made a creamier gravy/sauce, based on the comments on the original recipe, and I”m glad I did.

I served this with roasted sweet potatoes – but next time I’d like to try it with some small white potatoes as I think they’d play better with the lemony, garlicky sauce.

Final Verdict: Even with the little bit of dry breast from being de-skinned and exposed it was delicious and flavorful. It’s something I’d make again with a few tweaks as follows:

I’d like to try this with chicken pieces rather than a whole chicken. I think it would be easier to brown individual pieces than to try to fry and rotate the whole chicken – and less chance of the skin peeling off and sticking. I also might add in some thyme, which I always have fresh in the front garden, and I’d like to try it with the addition of a cinnamon stick as the recipe calls for. Finally, I don’t think this recipe would work in a slow cooker or crock-pot, as it needs to cook uncovered at a higher temperature, and in a dry surrounded heat, for the milk and juices to evaporate some and thicken up.

Overall, 4/5 stars, and definitely something I’ll try again.

English Muffins

January 22, 2014

Filed Under : breads, scones, & muffins

english muffins | © karacooks.com

I don’t know why I got a wild hair the other day to make English muffins, but I did. I was surfing around looking at recipes and found this one-bowl recipe that didn’t require kneading, plus I had all of the ingredients already, and suddenly I just HAD to have English muffins.

And you know what? Now that I’ve had homemade English muffins I will never EVER buy another cardboard textured store bought muffin again. Even the best brand name muffins are nothing compared to how good these homemade ones were. They were light and fluffy, full of the “nooks and crannies”, and so delicious. And? Super easy to make. I never knew!

The recipe really couldn’t be easier. There’s no proofing the yeast, no slowly adding this or that ingredient. You just throw everything into the bowl of your mixer and mix until you have a slightly sticky dough – about 5-6 mins.

english muffins | © karacooks.com

You let the dough rise for about an hour, then divide it out into 16 pieces, roll those into balls, and flatten them slightly, then let them rise again for about 30 mins.

english muffins | © karacooks.com

Then you dust a griddle or a cast iron skillet with some cornmeal or semolina flour, and cook them slowly over a medium low heat until they’re browned on each side. I cooked mine in my large cast iron skillet but next time I’ll most likely use the electric griddle for two reasons:

  • They have a crisper brown crust and a lighter interior if you start them on a cold surface and let them cook as they come to temp (which is what I did with the first batch in the skillet).
  • I can fit all 16 at once on my griddle, instead of having to cook 4 or 5 at a time in batches. If you have to move them once they’ve risen the second time, they deflate slightly and you have fewer “nooks and crannies”.

My first batch of 5 that I started cold were definitely the best ones in terms of texture.

english muffins | © karacooks.com

You can see that I had a bit of a hot spot where the one got a little browner. Also, I “free formed” these muffins and so none of them were perfect circles. If you want them perfectly round, I’ve read recipes that say to put the dough round into a small (obviously well washed and dried) tuna can ring on the griddle. As the muffins rise and puff, they’ll shape to the can for that nice, even round shape. They’ll probably also rise a little higher as they’ll be forced up instead of allowed to sprawl out. I’m cool with lopsided muffins, but if you’re making them for a special occasion or a party and want them to be perfect and pretty, you might try the tuna can ring (or pineapple can, or whatever little round, flat can you can find).

And that’s it. Super simple – one bowl, a little rising time, and a hot griddle. Then, of course, split with a fork (NEVER a knife), toast, and add butter!

english muffins | © karacooks.com

Yum!

English Muffins

(via King Arthur Flour)

english muffins | © karacooks.com

  • 1 3/4 cups lukewarm milk
  • 3 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast

Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix for 5-7 mins. This is a fairly sticky, stretchy dough, so don’t think you need to add more flour. If you need to use a scraper or a spatula to pull it away from the sides of the bowl for the first rise, do so.

Scrape the dough into a rough ball, cover, and let rise about an hour or so. Then gently deflate the dough (don’t knead or punch, just press) and divide it into 16 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, gently flatten them, and let them rise another 20-30 mins 

It’s best if you let the second rise take place on the griddle or pan that your’e going to cook them on. If you have to cook them in batches, put the rounds on a piece of parchment or wax paper so that you can easily lift and transfer them to the pan for cooking.

Use a heavy griddle or frying pan to for cooking and try to start all of them at once on the cold pan. You can pack these fairly close together since they don’t spread or rise much during the cooking process.

Cook them over low heat for anywhere from 7-15 mins per side (depending on whether you started with a cold surface or a hot one), until the crust is golden brown.

Nutrition Information per muffin:
Cals: 160 | Protein: 6g | Fat: 3g | Carbs: 28g | Fiber: 1g | Sodium 200mg

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 4

January 20, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

cheddar & jalapeno cornbread | © karacooks.com

As I mentioned in Sunday’s post, I wound up going out Friday night, so I skipped that day of my plan, but otherwise, last week was pretty on target. I also am at a total of $193 spent on groceries for the month so far (including the weekend after NYE dinner splurge with Z). That puts me exactly on target for my $100 a week or less goal.

I haven’t replaced my slow-cooker due to the January spending freeze, but I’m starting to struggle with that. So many of my winter cook-at-home dishes are slow cooker based. I’m about to say that this would be a justified spend as it will help me keep on track with healthy eating and my food budget.

That’s my dilemma for the coming week and payday!

Also I’ve been craving citrus lately, especially grapefruit, so I’m hoping I can find some good grapefruit at the store to add to my lunches or breakfasts.

As always breakfast and lunch are smoothies/yogurt/fruit/veg and leftovers.

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Chicken and black bean enchiladas
  • Tuesday – Stuffed cabbage rolls with homemade tomato sauce
  • Wednesday – Salmon croquettes, broccoli
  • Thursday – Chicken Marsala
  • Friday – Leftovers

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

I dug up an old recipe for authentic tamales the other day and I’d love to be able to spend the weekend making homemade tamales. It’s a full weekend project, though, so we’ll see if that happens or not!

Things 2014 – Week 3

January 19, 2014

Filed Under : life

hot toddy mix | © karacooks.com

I got a surprise invitation to a Bat Mitzvah on Friday night and had the best time. I’d forgotten how much fun those parties are! The DJ at this one was particularly creative and had the kids running all over the place on scavenger hunts and games – equally fun for the adults who were called upon to provide a left shoe or a single earring or some other object for documentation!

The rest of the week was filled with work, work, and more work. We’re finally getting back into the swing of things as the schedule normalizes, and it’s kept me on my toes.

I was 90% on with my meal plan this week. Obviously since I was at the Bat Mitzvah, I didn’t make my planned salmon croquettes (instead I got to eat poached salmon and roast beef!) I still have the cans of salmon, so I';l roll those over to next week.

The January spending freeze took a little hit. I have been working from home so long and my weight has fluctuated so much that I didn’t have anything appropriate to wear to the party on Friday. I lucked out with a quick shopping trip to Kohl’s and a little gray dress and a pair of tights for $48. 

One of my projects for last week was to get a bunch of the junk cleaned out of my closet so that next month I can get the dresser installed and the whole closet project finished. I set myself a goal of just removing 5 items a day. Once I got started, I usually got quite a bit more than that done, and as a result, most of the stuff in my closet is now stuff that actually belongs there. Plus I added a few more items to my stack of things to Freecycle. Whoo!

I think I’m going to bail on the January cure. While the intentions of it are good, the items in the list don’t quite fit with what I need to be doing and focusing on this month. I’m glad I started it because it did force me to survey the house and make some needed lists that will help me the rest of the year. But for now – I’m happy with what I did and I’ll maybe revisit it later in the year.

I haven’t touched my Irish course this week and I need to get back to it. I’m making it a goal to set aside time each evening for one lesson. I’ll be revisiting the first set of lessons this coming week along with the Irish Grammar that Z got me as an early birthday present.

Things That Were Interesting or Amusing

Things for the House

  • Be More With Less posted a list of 25 Ways to Simplify Your Life. The subtitle is “In 10 mins or less” but some of those are more than 10 min projects. Even so, it’s a good list and I plan to revisit it.
  • I recognize that I have a box problem and I probably need an intervention, but I do love these burlap covered boxes from Ikea. I know I could find a place to use them!

 

Basic Red (Tomato) Sauce

January 17, 2014

Filed Under : homemade staples

tomato sauce | © karacooks.com

Many years ago I knew someone who married into the quintessential close-knit New York Italian family. She told me that she knew she’d truly been accepted into the family when her husband’s grandmother taught her how to make the family recipe for tomato gravy (which is, I’m told, what real Italians call tomato sauce). One long winter weekend at her place, she taught me the recipe and the technique. She and I drifted apart over the years and eventually went our separate ways, but the recipe and technique for this incredible sauce have stuck with me ever since.

The thing about this red sauce is that it’s dead simple. It really is. It’s made with a minimum of seasonings and ingredients – tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and basil. Because it’s so simple, it acts as a stepping off point for any variation you want to make or application you want to use it in. Eat it just as it is, tasting of fresh tomatoes and garlic or:

  • cook it down to thicken, add oregano and make pizza sauce
  • add a ladle or two of this sauce to browned meat/sausage and make a bolognese
  • use it as a base to braise short ribs
  • poach or bake eggs in it
  • add horseradish sauce to it for an Italian twist on cocktail sauce
  • braise stuffed cabbage rolls in it
  • simmer some diced veggies in it (mushrooms, zucchini … ) and spoon it over spaghetti squash
  • use it in your lasagna and parmagiana recipes
  • add it to minestrone soup
  • use it as a starter base for Manhattan style clam chowder
  • use it in ratatouille
  • braise meatballs in it or use it to make meatball subs
  • add a little more liquid and some milk or cream and make tomato soup

Nowadays I make this sauce at least once a month, and two or three times a year I make an enormous triple batch to divide up and freeze. It really is one of my go-to freezer items when I’m feeling tired or lazy and don’t want to put a lot of effort into cooking.

tomato sauce | © karacooks.com

Making this sauce is as much about technique as it is about ingredients, but don’t skimp on cheap ingredients either. Because there are so few, it’s important that what you use be good quality so the flavor shines through.

Finally, before I get to the nitty gritty of the recipe, if you don’t pay attention to any other part of this post, take this part to heart: A good tomato gravy / red sauce is about taste and feel. Don’t get hung up on measurements or freaking out about exactly 2 cups or exactly 1 tbsp. Some people like more garlic. Some people don’t feel it’s authentic tomato sauce without oregano. Maybe you only have 4 carrots. Maybe you have tomato puree, but not tomato paste. Maybe you want to add a few red pepper flakes and make it spicy.

All of that is OK. Don’t become a slave to the recipe. Make it once as written and then play with it. Stick with the basic techniques and make it your own. This is what cooking is about.

tomato sauce | © karacooks.com

Onward!

Basic Italian Red Sauce

Make sure you have a good quality 3-4 quart, heavy bottomed pot. Anything cheap and lightweight will have hotspots and will scorch the sauce.

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped carrots
3 15oz cans of diced tomatoes
1 6oz can of tomato paste
2 cups of water
1 tsp dried basil or 5ish leaves of fresh basil minced
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
1-2 tsp salt (optional)

Put the chopped onion and olive oil into the pot and cook slowly over low heat. The onions should become translucent and limp with absolutely NO browning. This is really important; if you find little browned bits, pick them out. If you’re getting a lot of browned bits, turn down the heat. Browned bits will add bitterness to the sauce, and will also mess with the texture of the final product (no one wants crunchy tomato sauce!). This step can take up to 40 mins. Don’t rush it.

When the onions are completely cooked through and tender, add the garlic, chopped carrots, diced tomatoes (juice and all), tomato paste, and water.

Bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat and cook (uncovered) until it’s reduced by about 1/3. This could take anywhere from 90 mins to 3 hours. Don’t rush it and don’t raise the heat too much. You don’t want to scorch the bottom.

When the sauce has reduced down and it nicely thick, use an immersion blender or a regular blender or food processor in batches, puree the sauce. Blend it as thick or as chunky as you like, but make sure there aren’t any big chunks of carrot or onion in the sauce.

To the puree, add your basil, sugar, and salt (optional). More sugar or salt can be added to taste, but start with the minimum. The quality and sweetness of the tomatoes often guides the amount of sweet and salt you need to add.

If you’re just going to use it plain or freeze it, let it simmer for 30-45 minutes, giving it an occasional stir with a wooden spoon. This lets the flavors completely blend. Serve it as is or cool it and freeze it for later.

If you’re going to make a meat sauce, or a vegetable sauce, add mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, or whatever veggies you want. Or add browned beef or sausage. Then simmer for 30-45 mins.

This recipe makes 6 cups of sauce. A serving (depending on your appetite) is about 1/2 cup of sauce, so the recipe as written makes 12 servings.

Nutritional information per 1/2 cup:
Cals: 65 | Protein: 4g | Fat: 1.3g | Carbs: 11.9g | Sugar: 6.6g | Fiber: 2.4g | Sodium: 533mg

 

Makes 6 cups

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

January 15, 2014

Filed Under : soups & stews

butternut squash soup | © karacooks.com

When a friend on Twitter asked me if i had a good butternut soup recipe, I assured her I did and that I would blog it soon. That was … um … 3 months ago? Oops! A few days ago when I came back to actually blog it, I found no fewer than 5 drafts of posts on the topic. So apparently I did have good intentions, just really poor follow through.

So, with apologies to Janine for the delay .. here’s my butternut soup recipe!

A lot of people are scared to work with butternut squash because they have a reputation of being difficult to cut and peel. It’s true, they can be tricky, especially if you’re unsure of your knife skills or don’t have good sharp knives to work with, but a sharp knife and a little confidence and you’ll be fine. I promise I’ve never lost a finger (or even part of a finger) to a butternut squash!

[Note: Dull knives are one of the leading causes of knife injuries in the kitchen. A dull knife is more likely to slip and cut a finger than a sharp one, which will penetrate into whatever you're cutting. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you buy a good quality, SHARP kitchen knife, and keep it sharp and honed. It will revolutionize your cooking, I promise. My favorite knife of all time and the one I use most in the kitchen is the Shun DM0706 Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife.]

In order of the above:

  1. Start off by slicing the ends off of your squash. The stem end especially is where most knives get stuck or hung up, so getting rid of it right off the bat makes slicing the squash 100x easier. It also gives you a flat bit to set your squash on, so you can cut it with some stability.
  2. Slice the squash in half lengthwise, being sure to keep the halves as even as possible.
  3. Use a tablespoon to scoop out the seeds and stringy bits from the core (I actually sometimes use a grapefruit spoon – the one with a serrated edge. I’ve never actually used a grapefruit spoon to eat grapefruit, but it’s invaluable for scooping seeds out of all kinds of fruits and veg!).
  4. Lay your halved and seeded butternut on a pan and spray or drizzle with olive oil, then generously salt and pepper the halves.
  5. Roast them in a 400°F oven for about an hour. If you can penetrate all the way through the squash with a regular dinner fork, it’s done. The squash may get dark brown on the top during roasting and this is fine, but if you don’t want the roasted bits in your soup (or you want a perfectly smooth soup), then cover the squash with foil while you bake it. I like the roasted, caramelized bits in soup, but it’s all a matter of personal taste.
  6. While your squash is roasting, dice up an onion and begin to sweat it and some garlic in olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot (I use my 3 qt dutch oven) over medium heat. Let it get super tender and the onion translucent but not browned.
  7. Once your squash is roasted, use a tablespoon to scoop out the flesh into the pot with the onion and garlic.
  8. You should wind up with about 4 cups of squash.
  9. Pour 4-6 cups of chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if you want a vegetarian version), and simmer for 20-30 mins.
  10. If you like a chunky soup, mash with a potato masher or a fork and give it a good stir. I like a creamier soup, so I like to use my immersion blender to thoroughly blend all the bits and pieces together.
    If you like to make creamy, pureed soups like that, I can’t recommend enough that you get a stick/immersion blender. This is the one I have and I use it at least 2x – 3x a week: Cuisinart CSB-75BC Smart Stick 2-Speed Immersion Hand Blender, Brushed Chrome

Once it’s blended to the consistency you like, taste it and add seasonings; start with salt and pepper and maybe add a swirl of cream or yogurt to dress it up.

This soup is thick, rich, and delicious just as it is, and is one of my favorite wintertime lunches, but there are plenty of ways to jazz it up, too. That’s the wonderful thing about butternut soup – and really any squash soup – is it’s flexibility.

butternut squash soup | © karacooks.com

Once you’re comfortable with the basic techniques, don’t be afraid to change this up to suit your tastes. You can add in some cream or half and half to make this a richer, heavier soup for those cold winter months. Or you can mix the butternut with other roasted vegetables (cauliflower comes to mind) or even with fruit (apples and butternut go great together). You can add spice or curry to make it a more savory soup, or you can add sweeteners like sugar or honey and a dash of cinnamon or ginger.

The best thing about soup is that there really aren’t recipes, so much as guidelines and you can tweak them in dozens of different ways to make a soup that you absolutely love.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

butternut squash soup | © karacooks.com

  • 1 large butternut squash or 2 medium ones (about 1.5 lbs whole, 4 cups of roasted flesh)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (or other oil of your choice)
  • 4-6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
  • additional olive oil for spraying/drizzling
  • salt & pepper to taste

Half and seed the butternut squash. Place it on a cookie sheet or pan lined with foil and roast in a 400°F oven for 45 mins to an hour. Remove it from the oven when you can pierce it all the way through with a regular table fork. (Cover with foil if it begins to brown too much.)

While the squash is roasting, cook the onions and the garlic in the olive oil, in a heavy pot over medium-low heat. Don’t let the onions get too browned and crispy or you’ll get crunchy bits in your finished soup.

Once the squash is done and cool enough to touch, scoop the flesh into the pot with the onions and garlic, and add 4-6 cups of chicken stock. 4 cups will make a thicker soup and 6 cups will make a thinner soup. If you’re planning on adding milk or cream, stick with the 4 cups of broth.

Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer for 20-30 mins, just to let the flavors blend. Mash with a fork or use an immersion blender to puree the soup. (You can also use the method of transferring batches to a standing blender and pureeing it that way, but I find this messy and annoying, so I use my stick blender).

Serve garnished with a little sour cream or yogurt, and maybe a sprinkle of sage.

This soup can be seasoned right before the simmering stage by adding the spices of your choice – savory or hot spices like paprika or cumin or curry, or sweet spices like ginger or cinnamon. Feel free to experiment and see which you like better.

Makes 6 1-cup servings

Nutrition info per 1 cup serving
Calories: 84 | Protein: 5g | Fat: 3g | Carbs: 14g | Fiber: 2g

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 3

January 13, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

londonbroil

Last weeks menu worked well, although I wound up swapping out days and switching things around a bit – it just worked better with my schedule and the time I had to cook. So far the plan has helped immensely with sticking to my $100 a week grocery budget. Fingers crossed that I can continue on like this!

I’m still pondering the purchase of a Vitamix. I won’t do it in January if I do decide to get one, but my friend Shannon has been sending me tons of recipes and pictures of what she’s been making with hers and I’m starting to be sold. What’s holding me back is that i bought a juicer a few years ago and after a couple of weeks of using it, it’s sat gathering dust. I don’t want to spend $400 on a blender only to have the same thing happen. We’ll see.

Also, my slow cooker died a horrible death (taking the kitchen breakers with it – luckily they were easily reset), so I can’t make any slow cooker meals until I can replace it, which will also be in February sometime. I’m looking at getting a combination slow-cooker/roaster/steamer – but right now it’s pretty expensive on Amazon. I’m hoping the price will drop some in Feb.

As always breakfast and lunch are smoothies/yogurt/fruit/veg. Z is out of town early in the week, so my only non-plan lunch will be Friday and we’ll probably go out.

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Pan fried tilapia, spaghetti squash
  • Tuesday – Veg lasagna (from the freezer)
  • Wednesday – Beans and ham
  • Thursday – Roasted chicken w/ trimmings
  • Friday – Salmon croquettes

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

I want to make a couple of veggie heavy soups to have for lunches. I used to eat roasted squash and cauliflower soups all the time and I’ve gotten out of the habit, but they’re filling, healthy, and warm on a cold Jan/Feb day. I also want to experiment and see how well they freeze.

Things 2014 – Week 2

January 12, 2014

Filed Under : life

peaches14

This week is the week that I really feel like I’ve settled in to 2014. I’m back in a good routine and making progress on all of my goals and projects. Go me!

The Christmas decorations came down over the course of two days on Tuesday and Wednesday. The house looks so bare without the tree and the wreaths and all the pretty lights. But it also looks open and light and clean, too. So there’s that!

We had bitterly cold temperatures this past week … Tuesday morning it was 4°F when I woke up. FOUR!! We had school and business closings, not because of snow and ice, but because buildings couldn’t be heated to livable temperatures. Craziness!

One of my goals for the year is to take more pictures just for fun and to use Instagram more. I’ve managed to take at least one picture every day … check it out!

I stuck with my meal plan 100% this week – for the first time in many many months, which makes me happy. It makes it much easier to stick to the budget when I can stick to the plan!

I rocked my January spending freeze this week. I kept to under $100 for groceries (see the above note about the meal plan!), and the other than paying the bills, I only spent $4.97 on a battery for the smoke detector. I successfully resisted buying books or a Vitamix this week.

I’ve been experimenting with natural body lotions and moisturizers over the last few weeks and I think I’ve finally come up with a good recipe for something that works. I’m going to tweak it some and try a few variations before posting it.

I bought some watercolors in December with the intention of learning to use them and they fell by the wayside. Now Elise at Grow Creative is posting tutorials on her site (she is the one who inspired me to pick up a brush in the first place) and I’m excited to learn from her.

I’m two weeks into my Rosetta Stone course of learning Irish and I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. Of course at the moment I can’t say anything terribly useful. I’m at the Eddie Izzard level of communication (video) right now. But I’m confident that I’ll be able to hold a simple conversation here shortly.

January Cure Update

  • My List of Projects is posted
  • Friday & Weekend: I brought in some plants from outside in lieu of buying flowers, my house cleaners did the floors for me (yay), and I cleaned out the undercabinet in the kitchen and pared down my cleaners (and made some lemon vinegar for green cleaning).
  • Monday: This was tricky because I have a small enough house that there really isn’t a place I don’t use/see/sit regularly. Instead I spent some time on the yoga mat in my room thinking about “how you truly want your home to be; what you need and what you can move forward without.”
  • Tuesday: I set up the outbox behind the wing chair in the living room. It’s a little messy right now with some of my outgoing stuff piled up, but that’s the point, isn’t it.
  • Wednesday: I picked a project and it’ll be to clean out and organize the landing area by the front door, including the overfull drawer in the table.
  • Thursday:  I’ve set aside the big display map to be framed – I just need to find my 50% coupon from Michaels!
  • Friday & The Weekend: I did much of this step right before Christmas because I’d reached critical mass in my kitchen. I’m working on the few trouble spots I have left. I cook almost every day (especially sticking to my meal plan) so this wasn’t any big deal.

Things That Were Interesting or Amusing

  • Netflix has released the trailer for season two of House of Cards. I’m so excited! (video)
  • What would the Internet be without cat videos? Santos, a 9-week old ocelot and the newest member of the Cat Ambassador Program at theCincinnati Zoo, is shown here getting in a little play time before he has to go back to his nursery.
  • Since I’m committed to taking at least one picture every day, I was excited to find Prinstagr.am – a source for printing Instagram pics. I absolutely adore the mini books and I may order a few of those at the end of the year.
  • This is so 100% my life as I work from home: Distracting Cats
  • As long as I’ve been a photographer, I’m still able to be surprised by hearing of someone with such incredible talent after they’re gone. I wish I’d know more about John Dominis before he died.

Things for the House

  • I’m thinking about planting hellebore in the front under the crepe myrtle. This article inspired me.
  • I love this stencil pattern, which surprises me because I generally hate patterns on the wall. I’m not fond of wallpaper either for just that reason. But this looks simple and classic (and pretty easy to do). Hmmm.

Monday’s meal plan is coming up tomorrow and I’m looking forward to a productive week!

January Cure – Getting Started With My Project List

January 10, 2014

Filed Under : house & home

fiddle leaf fig | © karacooks.com

I decided this year that I was going to do Apartment Therapy’s January Cure – at the same time as I did the January Spending Freeze. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment! At first I wasn’t sure I could do them both at the same time. Then I got to looking around and realized that I have plenty of supplies, paint, and tools and I should be able to work quite a few items around the house (especially the decluttering ones) without spending any extra money. That cinched the deal for me and I jumped right in.

i won’t be “live blogging” my process (obviously, since I created my list a while back, and am only just now posting). I’ll add a section to update each week in my “Things” post to keep myself on track.

spray roses | © karacooks.com

So let’s get started!

The first step of the January Cure is to create a project list. This was a really tough assignment for me because, despite the instructions to the contrary, I started to freak out about the sheer length of my lists and ALL the projects that need to be done. I had to take a bit to sit back and realize that although I’m making a comprehensive list, it not only doesn’t have to be completed this month, it shouldn’t and won’t be.

Once I got the freak-out out of the way, I realized that it was actually kind of comforting and encouraging to have everything in one list so I could see the whole scope of everything I’ve wanted to do with the house over the last few years. Since I was going in that direction, I listed everything from the largest project, to the declutter and cleanup, to the smallest nitty-gritty stuff … as much as I could think of.

Once I’d listed everything, I pared it down by highlighting the 3-5 items per room that I want to accomplish this month. It’s mostly Living Room items, with a sprinkling of items from other rooms. 

spring garden | © kara hudson & karacooks.com

Living Room/Entryway

  • Weatherstripping lose/not sufficient on the front door
  • Declutter landing area/drawer by the front door
  • Paint front window trim/sashes
  • Paint the patched areas under the left window
  • Donate boxes of books by the front door
  • Frame and hang map over bookcase
  • Declutter/clean out/organize cubby under the stairs
  • Find a permanent landing spot for the printer (not on the green dresser)
  • Refinish & fix the green dresser
  • Declutter the shelves/cubbies around the TV
  • Rewire TV and accessories using new power strip
  • Find a new floor lamp for the reading chair
  • Wall mount the TV
  • Clean up front door window / touch up paint
  • Recover the wing chair
  • Make/buy throw pillows for the sofa
  • Finish recovering the footstool
  • Touch up the paint on the fireplace
  • Clean out and organize the cubby behind the fireplace
  • Find a home for the paint/project box
  • Find a good location for the shredder that’s not right next to the sofa
  • Replace thermostat with a programmable one
  • Rehang curtains on heavier / better mounted rods (and patch old holes)
  • Dust the tops of the bookshelves
  • Find credenza to go under the TV
  • Replace doorbell box w/ something low profile
  • Replace entryway light with non-booblight fixture

spring garden | © kara hudson & karacooks.com

Niche/Powder Room

  • Paint doors & touch up trim
  • Clean up badly painted mirror
  • Seal tile floor (powder room)
  • New faucet on pedestal sink (powder room)
  • Get rid of/find location for boards & scrims (hall closet?)

Dining Room

  • Replace shelves in the niche with thicker ones
  • Remove broken vertical blinds and patch/paint mount area
  • Find and hang curtains
  • Paint trim around the sliding glass door
  • Refinish dining table/chairs
  • Do *something* with the rolling paint table
  • Find/hang art for the big wall

Kitchen

  • Clean out fridge and freezer and log contents
  • Clean out pantry and organize (reshelve?)
  • Clean out/organize storage container cabinet
  • Clean out/organize appliance cabinet
  • Change the filter on the fridge water dispenser
  • Do *something* with the kitchen window/windowsill
  • Paint trim over the cabinets
  • Paint window trim/sashes
  • New faucet
  • New sink

reused soup toureen | © 2013 kara hudson and karacooks.com

Stairs / Landing

  • Refinish top railing
  • Paint baseboard up the stairs
  • Rehang “laundry” sign so its centered
  • Paint laundry room door and trim
  • Finish red dresser (fix drawers, liners, hardware)
  • Hang some kind of art

Laundry Room

  • Paint
  • Clean and seal tile floors
  • Flush dryer vents
  • Clean and flush washer
  • Stack washer and dryer
  • Redo shelving
  • Put in tankless water heater

My Room / Bathroom

  • Finish closet (dresser, hanging rack, organization)
  • Replace mirror by door
  • Buy bed and replace mattress/box spring
  • Buy larger dresser for long wall
  • Paint room (blue/gray?)
  • Update chest in niche (base, legs, stain/paint)
  • Paint trim/doors (bright white)
  • Regrout tub (bathroom)
  • Replace fixtures on sink and tub (bathroom)
  • Paint/stain cabinet (bathroom)
  • Replace towel hooks (bathroom)
  • Seal tile floor (bathroom)
  • Add more shelves above toilet

hot cinnamon spice tea from harney sons © karacooks.com

H’s room and bathroom are off limits for now – I try not to infringe on his spaces. And I do actually have a whole other list of things I want to do with the front yard and back yard, but I’m not going to include those here. I might make those another list and another post for another day.

See the complete list of January Cure 2014 items as they are posted plus a link to the full month calendar.

 

Posole

January 8, 2014

Filed Under : soups & stews

posole | © karacooks.com

I was working on my menu plans for the first of the year, pulling out my list of cold weather recipes – soups, stews, chili, casseroles, and roasts – and I came across my former mother-in-law’s recipe for posole. Anyone who has lived in the Four Corners region of the United States is familiar with posole – a spicy, warm, filling Central American soup/stew made with pork, green chile, spices, and hominy.  It has as many family recipes and variations as Italian tomato sauce does, and of course every family swears theirs is the only right, original recipe!

Me? I can’t swear that my FMIL’s recipe is authentic (although she did grow up in Arizona and New Mexico and raised her family in Colorado), but I can swear that it’s absolutely delicious and worth making.

Here are the basic ingredients (aside from a pork roast of your choice):
posole | © karacooks.com

RoTel is a mix of stewed tomatoes, spices, and either green chile, jalapeno, or habanero, depending on the variety you get. It’s a staple pantry item where I grew up in Texas and I cook with it all the time. For posole, I like to use one can of regular and one can of hot, but feel free to adjust that according to your taste.

Hominy is simply kernels of corn that have been dried, and alkalized (usually by soaking in a mild lye mixture). Dried hominy is ground down to make masa, a traditional Mexican corn flour that is used in all kinds of delicious items.

posole | © karacooks.com

Finally, you can use up to 6 cups of chicken stock if you want a more soup-like posole. I like mine to be chunkier and more stew-like, so I tend to use only 4 cups of stock or broth.

The recipe below is for a single batch of posole, but I like to make at least a double batch to have some for leftovers. It can also be frozen and kept for 6 months if you want to make some dinners in advance.

My friend Shannon also adapted this recipe to her slow cooker, and I’ve added the instructions for that to the recipe!

Posole (Mexican Pork Stew)

posole | © karacooks.com

  • 2 lb pork loin or lean pork roast
  • cooking oil
  • 1 small onion. chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 4 cups chicken broth (up to 6 cups if you want a soupier posole)
  • 1 10oz can Rotel original
  • 1 15oz cans hominy, drained
  • 1 6oz can diced green chile
  • 1 Tbls chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp crushed oregano
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Cut the pork loin/roast into 1″ cubes and brown them in the cooking oil. You may need to brown the meat in 2 or 3 batches. Don’t throw them in the pan all at once or they’ll steam and not get brown and crusty. Make sure there is room between each cube of meat, while browning. (If you’re using a slow cooker, you can skip this step, but it really does make a difference in the flavor and texture of the meat if you brown it first.)

After the pork is browned, return it to a large pot (or your slow cooker). Add the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the hominy. Simmer over medium heat for 45 mins or until the meat is cooked through and tender. (In the slow cooker, cook on low for 6-8 hours.)

About 30 mins before serving, drain the hominy and add it to the pot or slow cooker, and let it heat through.

Serve garnished with sliced avocado and/or a little chopped cilantro.

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 2

January 6, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

brussels sprouts | © karacooks.com

It’s time to end the indulgence of the holidays and get back to real life. *sigh* I’m still trying to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on the Vitamix. It’s a lot of money to spend on a blender and I don’t know that I would actually use it enough to justify the cost. On the one hand, if I had it, I could start making smoothies for breakfast every morning. On the other hand … would I? I just don’t know!

Oh well – it’s not like I have to buy it tomorrow. I have plenty of time to ponder (and a birthday coming up).

Breakfasts are smoothies with protein. Lunch with Z this week will be Tues & Thurs, so I’m planning meals appropriately for leftovers those days.

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Shredded pork tacos w/ cabbage slaw
  • Tuesday – Posole from the freezer
  • Wednesday – Chicken braised in milk
  • Thursday – Chicken curry (freezer slowcooker meal)
  • Friday – Spaghetti & meatballs, salad

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

Because of the January spending freeze, I’m not buying a lot of food for freezing, but I am going to make a big triple batch of tomato sauce for freezing this weekend as a way to use up some leftover veggies (carrots and onions, mostly). I’ll also be cleaning out the fridge/freezer and making some lists of what I have to work with.

Things 2014 – Week 1

January 5, 2014

Filed Under : life

chimney rock park | © karacooks.com

It’s been an interesting week for the first week of the year.

My long holiday with Z was shortened due to work and family scheduling issues, so my meal plan for the week was impacted. I wound up making a very large prime rib on Friday night instead and skipping the pot roast entirely. I’d already bought the roast, so it’s gone in the freezer and will feature in an upcoming weekly menu.

I made Steamy Kitchen’s Prime Rib for the 4th time (twice in the last 2 weeks – once for Christmas and once for a late NY dinner with Z) and I’m totally sold on the recipe. I’ll be blogging some photos of it at some point, but wanted to say that if you’re intimidated by cooking a really expensive cut of meat, don’t be. Just follow the recipe and it’ll be fantastic.

I kind of blew my January spending freeze coming right out of the box. Because my New Year’s weekend got cut short, I wound up making changes on the fly and spending more money than I intended. I should be back on plan from here on out, though.

I kind of want to do Apartment Therapy’s January Cure, but there’s spending involved in executing some of the steps, so I’m not sure how to reconcile that. I could do the cure in February instead, or I could try to make it work with no spending.

Monday is Epiphany, which means it’s finally time to put away the Christmas decorations and settle into 2014. I’m always sad to take the decorations down, especially when it’s cold and gray outside, but I have to admit that I’m ready to be 100% committed to the new year.

I’ve recently started resubmitting my cooking blog posts to Tastespotting. I had 3 posts accepted last week and I’m making it one of my 101 Things goals to have at least 10 accepted in 2014. My Tastespotting page only has 17 things on it right now, but hopefully that will increase!

Things About Fitness, Health, & Eating

Things That Interested Me

Things That Made Me Laugh

Monday’s meal plan is coming up tomorrow and I’m looking forward to a productive week!

 

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