Food Resolutions

This is the week right between “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy New Year!” This is the week of “Have you made any resolutions for the new year?”

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Most often, the answer to this question will involve one or more of these words:

WEIGHT

HEALTH

FITNESS

Sound familiar?

Do you know what the second Friday in February is now being labeled?

The Fatty Solstice

I kid you not. Data collected from mobile phone apps (yes, my statistics brain does a mental eye roll here but bear with me) show a jump in visits to fast food restaurants and a drop in visits to workout facilities. In early January, the opposite is true. Good intentions and motivation have diminished in 6 weeks and resolution failure strikes again.

One more reason NOT to make food-related resolutions, right?

Or …

Maybe it’s time to make a resolution that makes us look at the new year with anticipation instead of dread. It’s not as difficult as it might seem. Here’s a non-food related example:

Years ago, when our boys were heavily involved in four-seasons of sports, my husband and I found ourselves only having conversations about how-to-get-who-to-where-on-time, what-game/practice-who-was-going-to-chauffeur, what-went-right/wrong, and can-you-believe-how-bad-that-ump/ref-was! We needed a distraction. So our resolution was to go to one movie a month. If we couldn’t agree on a movie, we would take turns choosing. If there wasn’t a movie either one of us wanted to see … too bad. Pick one. The ideas wasn’t that we would agree on how much we LIKED the movie. The idea was to have something that would get us talking ABOUT the movie. “Proof” (Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, and Jake Gyllenhaal) and “Hitch” (Will Smith) were probably our favorite of that year. The most controversial? “Wedding Crashers” … let’s just say that one invoked a lot of conversation but it wasn’t much better than our conversations on the umpires and referees! And we have a funny story to tell our kids and our friends to this day!

So how to take this concept and make it work for our food/health resolutions? Here’s a few ideas …

  1. Eat more ________. For me this year, it’s quinoa. I know it’s a superfood. I’ve tried to make it twice (once successfully, once not). There are recipes ALL OVER Pinterest. It’s a perfect substitute for all the pasta, rice, bread I crave. So think about something you know you should include in your diet and make it a priority to start. Maybe it’s only once a month but that may just turn into once a week because you find you like it so much!
  2. Cook one meal a week/month with ____________. Whether it’s your spouse, your kids, your roommate, your neighbor, or your friends doesn’t matter. Just make it an event! My husband doesn’t know this yet (sorry Dear!), but it’s him. When we both had full-time jobs, he was in charge of spaghetti, chili, and tuna-noodle casserole! Since then, I have taken over the kitchen. It’s time to hand him an apron (figuratively Sweetheart … no worries … or pictures)!
  3. Expand your palate. Try new foods, restaurants, and grocery stores. Specialty isles in grocery stores are exploding. Ethnic food stores are popping up in all communities. We have access to varieties of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, beer, cuts of meat, spices, and recipes like never before. Try a new restaurant or just try something different on the menu of your favorite restaurant.
  4. Ask questions. Don’t know how to work with that gorgeous pomegranate? Ask the produce person. If they aren’t sure? Ask your friend Google! Not sure what something is on the menu or how to pronounce it? Ask. A good waiter will be excited to explain. Or check the menu on-line before you go, Google what you are curious about (and how to pronounce it), and be brave. Ask your friends for recipes and recommendations.
  5. Form a dinner club. Many years ago, a group of about 8 couples who shared bleachers with us all spring and summer formed a dinner club. Once a month, we met for a themed dinner. We took turns hosting the dinner in our homes. The hosts chose the theme and provided the main dish and the drinks. The rest of the couples were assigned appetizer, salad, side dish or dessert. Some of the themes were: Oktoberfest, Italian, Cuban, Mexican, and Mardi Gras. These dinners encouraged everyone to try new recipes and foods and talk about what they liked and didn’t like without worrying that they might insult the cook. No one ever left hungry (or thirsty)!
  6. Grow Something. Herbs, vegetables, edible flowers … it doesn’t take a lot of space and the experience of eating something freshly picked is a true reward.
  7. Share. Instead of going out, invite someone over. Have a make-your-own-pizza bar, a soup and sandwich night, or meatballs. Have you avoided making a dinner because you know it is just too much food, even when you consider the leftovers? Surely you know someone who would appreciate a fully-prepared meal. Volunteer to serve at a shelter, a benefit dinner, or a church event. All food tastes better when it blesses others.
  8. Be grateful. Do not forget to say grace. Do not forget to thank the cook, the waiter, the grocer who answered your questions, the friend who made a recommendation, or the farmer, butcher, gardener, baker who makes it accessible and fresh.
  9. Slow Down. Did you taste what you ate? Do you remember what you ate yesterday? Does it take longer to set the table than to empty the plate? Savor your food. Mindless eating is wasteful.

I certainly do not want to discourage ANYONE from setting weight-loss, exercise, or health-related goals in 2017. Food is not the enemy. Food is fun and nourishing and healthy. Moderation and balance are key.

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What? Never heard of “sparkling veggies” before? 😉

As movies motivated new conversations for my husband and I years ago, entertainment is a fun way to kick-start a new view on food and diet. Here are a few of my favorite food-related movies, shows and books that might inspire you:

MOVIES
100 Foot Journey
Bottle Shock
Julie & Julia
Chef

BOOKS
Delicious (Ruth Reichl)
The Secret of Hummingbird Cake (Celeste Fletcher McHale)
Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie (Beth Howard)

TELEVISION SHOWS
Chopped (Food Network)

May 2017 be filled with an abundance of simple food, good company and a comfortable place for your picnic life! Happy New Year!


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Fudge and the Blue Bowl

 

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I am a sentimental fool.

When I decorate for Christmas, there’s a story behind every decoration. Not just the random assortment of ornaments, but the nutcrackers, the nativities (yes, plural), the lighted village and train, the Santa collection and even the books. When I run short on space and have to decide which things are not going to be displayed, it tugs at my heart. But I still go through the memories as those pieces get put back to wait for next year.

It is the same with baking. The recipes trigger memories of baking with my mom and grandmothers worthy of a Hallmark movie script … well, I’d watch it anyway. There’s the labor-intensive batches of German cookies like Lebkuchen and Pfeffernusse of my maternal grandmother . The fun and whimsical “cookies” I made at my paternal grandmother’s house involved melted caramel and Ritz crackers and required two sets of hands. My mom and I would break out the third generation cookie cutters to make sugar cookies and take turns watching the oven so as to catch the “kiss cookies” … you know, the peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kiss on top? … before the chocolate kiss turned into a chocolate puddle.

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Just last week, I was walking through a grocery store in Minneapolis and spent way too much time browsing their bakery. Their gingerbread display was GORGEOUS! My eyes caught a box of sugary, crispy confections that look like snowflakes. I was transported back to my aunt’s house. Every year for Christmas, she would make Rosettes. I never knew anyone else that made them and I haven’t met anyone since that does. She also made Spritz cookies which, lucky for me, I can get at our church’s annual cookie walk!

And, I’ve gotten carried away …

The blue bowl. I have a big attachment to this bowl. I’m guessing at least a few of my cousins saw this picture and immediately thought, “Anita has Grandma Glienke’s bowl!” It is funny that something as simple as a depression-era bowl that is bright blue (not red or green or gold or any of the traditional Christmas colors) could invoke such a response. Each and every year, my grandmother would serve her fudge and “Mounds Balls” (a.k.a. coconut truffles) in this bowl. When I see it, I remember not only the fudge (wasn’t a fan of coconut at the time) but the bigger picture of 40-50 people crammed into her living room on Christmas Eve, singing hymns and exchanging gifts.

So, today, I give you my recipe for fudge. It isn’t my grandmother’s recipe (at least as far as I know) but it is a tried-and-true, McVey-family-favorite recipe.

DECADENT

RICH

CREAMY

EASY

EASY? It IS easy. You need patience and time, but it is not difficult.

The key to smooth and creamy fudge is to work slowly. If you rush the process, you will get a “grainy” texture or, worse yet, a burnt flavor you did not intend to introduce. Take your time! After all, methodically stirring the sugar mixture and inhaling the scent of melting chocolate can be almost as therapeutic as eating it!

This recipe (Semi-Sweet Chocolate Fudge) comes from a small cookbook called “Hershey’s Homemade“. I have been using this recipe with the semi-sweet chips for years. Last year, I noticed the dark chocolate chips right next to the semi-sweet and decided those could only make the recipe better.

It’s true.

Dark Chocolate Fudge

1 1/2 tablespoon butter, divided
1 1/2 cups (12 oz can) evaporated milk
1 jar (7 oz) marshmallow creme
4 cups sugar
24 oz dark chocolate (or semi-sweet) chips

Line a 9×13-inch pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil, extending foil over edges of pan. Lightly coat foil with butter (1/2 tablespoon at most); set aside.

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In a heavy 4-quart saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat. Add evaporated milk and marshmallow creme, stirring until marshmallow creme starts to dissolve. Add sugar and stir until well dissolved. Bring mixture to a slow boil over medium-low to medium heat, stirring almost constantly (a rubber scraper allows you to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan to avoid scorching). This will take 15-20 minutes, depending on the temperature of the burner. A “low boil” is when lots of small bubbles form (especially around the edges of the pan). Continue cooking (and stirring) for 5 minutes (may reduce heat a little at a time to keep the temperature steady).

Remove pan from heat and turn off burner. Stir in chocolate chips. Fold chips into hot sugar mixture until smooth.

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Pour into prepared pan. Tap pan on countertop a few times to evenly distribute the fudge and to draw any air bubbles to the surface. Allow to cool; cover and refrigerate. When completely chilled, remove fudge from pan using the edges of the foil. Pull back the sides and cut into one inch cubes.

Store in air-tight ziploc bag or wrap in plastic wrap and keep in an air-tight container. Refrigerate.

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This year, since I knew I would be dividing the fudge into thirds, I bought smaller, decorative 5×8-inch pans with lids. You could also use small bread loaf pans or other heat-tolerant containers for gift giving.

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I am a sentimental fool.

But isn’t Christmas a holiday for just that sort of thing?

May your Christmas season be ever so sweet!


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Iowa: Home of Giant Poblanos

As I mentioned in a previous blog (Zucchini Bread), for reasons unknown to me, I cannot seem to grow zucchini in my suburban garden. Whatever causes that must not bother my poblano pepper plants. Everything I have read about these peppers indicate the plants should reach heights of 24″-48″. So explain this …

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I am 5’8″ tall. I am standing in my garden, holding on to my two poblano pepper plants. I have no explanation. And before you accuse me of abusing Miracle Grow, I will plead guilty to two counts of liquid fertilizer this whole season. My cucumber plants failed. My green beans failed. But I have a poblano jungle!

dsc_5214I’m okay with that.

A poblano pepper falls in line between a bell pepper and a jalapeno pepper. I like to describe its flavor as warm rather than hot or spicy. The popular Mexican dish, Chiles Rellenos, is often made with poblano peppers.

I became a bit obsessed with these peppers a few years ago at the farmers’ market in downtown Des Moines. It was a fall day and I could smell them before I saw them … roasted poblanos. Not just roast-ed, roast-ing! This guy had a big metal cage filled with peppers, rotating over a flame. He had the warm peppers in plastic bags to take home. SOLD.

The next year, they were in my garden. The warmth and flavor of these peppers are magnified when they are roasted. My favorite ways to use them?

  • stuffed with seasoned pork, beans, rice and cheese
  • diced and folded into scrambled eggs with salsa
  • added into mexican soups/stews like Mexican Chicken Soup or Carrot-Poblano Soup
  • cut into strips and layered onto a burger with some pepper-jack cheese
  • added to guacamole and fresh salsa

I know it sounds like a lot of work but it is so worth it to have these guys hanging out in my freezer, waiting to make a  reappearance this winter!

Roasting Poblano Peppers

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  1. Wash and dry whole peppers, stem on.
  2. Drizzle peppers with olive or avocado oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Place peppers on a hot grill.
  4. Rotate peppers until charred and blistered on all sides.
  5. Remove from grill and place in a resealable plastic bag.
  6. When cool enough to handle, put on rubber or vinyl gloves and gently rub off the thin skin.
  7. Remove the stems, seeds and membranes.
  8. Dice, slice or leave whole and place in portion-sized resealable plastic bags and freeze.

There are many things about my garden that I cannot figure out. Sometimes those horticultural mysteries are what make gardening fun (a.k.a. frustrating). For now, I think I’m going to go make some burgers.

Can’t you just smell them now?


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Breadcrumbs

I think there is going to be a meatball renaissance. Call it a hunch. In fact, we’re going to launch the campaign now. Let’s #MakeMeatballsGreatAgain.

A lot of people hear the word “meatball” and instantly feel like yawning. Not me. My first thought is “What kind of meatballs?” I have seen how hamburgers have become the latest craze for creativity. What is a meatball but a ground up burger, bun and all? Why shouldn’t it be as trendy as its cousin?


What are breadcrumbs good for?

Hansel and Gretel used them as a way to mark their return route (resourceful but not particularly effective … one smart chipmunk and all that effort is wasted); children and adults alike are entertained by feeding them to birds; and apparently, they aid us as internet users to identify where we are and where we have been on the web.

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But their true purpose for existing? Meatballs.

It is the breadcrumbs and the egg(s) that hold the meat together and give them their texture. I don’t think I’m revealing anything to anyone with this statement. What I do hope to make clear is something I just learned while making the Cuban Meatballs for my post earlier this week.

I try to always have breadcrumbs in my freezer. They are usually homemade from bread that has gone a bit stale, leftover garlic bread, or the heels of a loaf that no one wants to eat. Sometimes, I buy bread crumbs for a recipe if I don’t have any homemade on hand and then I freeze what I don’t use to keep them fresh.

As I opened the container of breadcrumbs I had purchased at the grocery store, I saw that I had picked one that was labeled “fine”. They weren’t the flaky type I usually use but had more of a granular texture. No big deal. They are breadcrumbs. I measured them out, made the meatballs and they were delicious. But, they were much more dense than usual.

Written this way, I realize it sounds obvious and you might be rolling your eyes and thinking “great discovery, Einstein”. It’s not like I was trying to write a blog on this subject. I just didn’t realize how big of a difference the texture of the breadcrumbs would make on the texture and size of the meatballs. Using the more dense crumbs, means more will fit in the measuring cup and take leave less room in the meat mixture for “air”.

The point of this is not that one type of breadcrumb is better than another. The point is you can change the texture of the meatball by the type of breadcrumb you use.

FOOD TIP: If you like a denser meatball, use a more powdery, fine breadcrumb. For a lighter, softer meatball, use a flaky-style breadcrumb like Panko or make your own.

Tear leftover bread pieces into cubes and place on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet on the cupboard and allow the bread to dry out for 2-3 hours. Place cubes in a food processor (do this in batches rather than overcrowding the bowl) and pulse until the cubes are evenly sized crumbs. Store in a Ziploc baggie or airtight container in the freezer. If you want to season the breadcrumbs, add seasonings to food processor right before pulsing.

Closing Thought: Is it any wonder that in this technology-driven era, the foodie culture is also booming? Do you suppose it has anything to do with the use of words like:

breadcrumb
cookies
byte
spam
Macintosh

That darn subliminal messaging … now I’m hungry for cookies …

and apples …

funny … still not hungry for SPAM.


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Dressing for Success

If you said that I had to throw out every salad dressing in my refrigerator except for one, it would not be a difficult decision. Right now, there are 7. What can I say … everyone likes different things! We have Lite Ranch, Lite Honey Mustard, Raspberry-Walnut Vinaigrette, Lite Western, Creamy Italian, Lite Italian and Roasted Red Pepper Italian. The calories per serving (2 tablespoons) range from 30-80, the fat from 1-7 grams, and the sodium from 120-440 milligrams. So which one would I choose?

Well, I guess the picture gave it away … the Kraft Roasted Red Pepper Italian Dressing. Why?

  • It is delicious and loaded with flavor.
  • It is the lowest in calories (30) and fat (1 g) and in the middle of the range for sodium (340 mg – which will play a role later discussion).
  • It is inexpensive (I think I bought this bottle for $1.88 on sale – yes, I stocked up).
  • It is more versatile than any of the other dressings.

It is this versatility, more than any of the other reasons, that makes it my favorite. Of course it’s great on a lettuce salad but I can’t say it would be my top choice for this purpose. However, if you make that a pasta salad, it jumps again to first place. Cook and drain pasta of choice, chop veggies (tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions, etc.), drizzle with dressing to coat and stir. That is it! And you know with this dressing that you have kept it light and flavorful.

This is also where my comment about the sodium levels comes into play. Realizing that there is plenty of sodium in this dressing, don’t add salt (other than to the pasta water and keep that to a minimum) until it is all mixed together. You can always add a little more at the end. You can also add cheese (e.g. chunks of mozzarella) and/or meat (e.g. chunks of hard salami).

After saying all these good things about this product, I will reveal my absolute favorite way to use it: GRILLING! This is an awesome marinade. I use it frequently to marinate chicken breasts, added lime juice and beer to it to marinate flank steak for fajitas, and, may I present to you … vegetable kabobs!

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img_3490Mushrooms, tomatoes, summer squash, onions, and peppers, cut into uniformly sized pieces, threaded on skewers, coated (but not drenched) with the dressing and allowed to marinate for 2-4 hours in the refrigerator. Grill over medium heat (rotating the skewers every 4-5 minutes) for 10-15 minutes or until vegetables are tender and lightly charred. I had some extra squash and some asparagus so I marinated and grilled them with the kabobs. Asparagus only takes 4-5 minutes.

The leftover veggies are great in omelettes, tossed with pasta (with or without sauce), added to cold salads or as a pizza topping!

Although I could choose one dressing, I’m glad that I do not have to. I like variety and different things in different seasons. Right now, it’s summer … time for grilling and cool salads, and almost time for … bringing-out-my-foodie-diva … IOWA SWEET CORN!

So, if you can use the Roasted Red Pepper Dressing to marinate and grill the veggies above, what would it do to sweet corn?

To be continued …


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Test Kitchen & Security Blankets

I’ve mentioned before that I get lots of inspiration from Pinterest, magazines, Food Network and church cookbooks. I very seldom try a recipe as it is written (unless it has been given to me personally of course). Every once in a while, I have “experimental menu night”. I grab a couple of gee-that-looks-interesting recipes that I’ve set aside (it’s an impressive pile) and pretty much destroy all counter space available in my kitchen.

So last night when my guys asked the proverbial questions “what’s for dinner?” I said “international experimental menu night” … I heard the silent “here we go again” response complete with mental eye rolls. That’s okay. They’re good sports.

Editor/Son’s note: It’s more of a precautionary “fingers crossed” silent response than a “here we go again”.

Our first course (if you will) was “Flash-Roasted Broccoli with Spicy Crumbs”. This recipe caught my attention because of the words “broccoli” and “spicy” as well as the beautiful picture that was featured in the magazine. The fact that the recipe had absolutely no spicy ingredients in it should have been my first clue. But I was curious because the first step to the recipe was making a ground pepperoni, garlic and bread crumb mixture. The second step is to roast the broccoli with olive oil. When the edges of the broccoli start to brown, and here’s where my second clue hit, you spread a little Dijon mustard on the broccoli and sprinkle with the bread crumbs. So first I’m thinking “spicy” and then I’m thinking “Italian” and then “French” comes into my head … strike three.

I am so lucky my guys are brave, curious and forgiving. We each took a bite and looked at each other with the same look: “That’s just weird.” Then they looked at me with the “are you going to make us eat it?” look.

Editor/Son’s note: “Are you going to make us eat it” is spot on.

Nope.

This is the risk of “experiment night”. Sometimes things do not turn out for the best. For us, it was the mustard in combination with the pepperoni. It just didn’t work. I think a broccoli/mustard/almond combination would be worth exploring.

What I did gain from this experiment was an awesome Italian bread crumb mixture.

Put 1 ounce of pepperoni slices (cut in half or quarters), 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, and a large garlic clove in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add one cup bread crumbs and pulse until well combined. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet and add crumb mixture, stirring occasionally until browned. Remove from heat and cool.

I haven’t yet decided how I’m going to use these crumbs but I’m tossing around the ideas of: Italian mac-and-cheese, a salad sprinkle, maybe a breading for baked zucchini and tomatoes.

The second course featured “Nutty Kale Chips”. I saved this recipe because:

  1. I like kale.
  2. I like kale chips.
  3. The idea of adding a nut butter to kale had never occurred to me.
  4. The recipe had only four ingredients.

I took my usual liberties with this recipe. I used peanut butter instead of almond butter. Soy sauce is a perfect accent for kale, and soy and peanut butter make for a wonderful Thai flavor so I added that too. I was pretty excited for the Asian portion of our international experimentation.

That excitement turned to disappointment quickly. It smelled great and it looked great. It just didn’t taste … good. I don’t know if it was the ratios, or the substitution of peanut butter for almond butter, but it just failed. I didn’t even put it on the table. Bless his heart, my husband tried a tiny bite anyway. Poor thing.

Part of the reason I wanted to start writing a food blog was to encourage people to cook more and try new things. If this blog seems to defeat this purpose, I want to make one thing clear: good cooks understand that not everything turns out as planned. Taking a risk is part of learning and growing. It’s knowing how to manage your risk that’s important.

I’ll leave you with a final tip: ALWAYS HAVE YOUR SECURITY BLANKET!

What is a “security blanket” but an item that you can rely on to make things better.

On this experimental menu night, I had my security blanket: chicken quesadillas! What is it about Mexican food that always makes things better for me!?! Combine leftover cooked chicken (Roast Chicken recipe), refried beans, salsa, pepper-jack cheese, and diced green chilies, spread the mixture between tortillas and “fry” both sides in a skillet coated with cooking spray or a little oil. I used a little jalapeno olive oil from The Olive Tap for a little extra flavor!

No one went hungry. I eliminated a couple recipes from my pile and gained some new inspiration. And I had fun sharing my story with you!

It’s okay to carry a security blanket when you are being brave.


If you enjoyed this post, be sure to share it on social media using the buttons below. Like what you see? You can become an email or wordpress subscriber at the top left of this page. Please do not hesitate to contact us with thoughts and questions, and if you would like us to try out a recipe or test a product, drop us a line at picniclifefoodie@gmail.com!