Saturday, July 28, 2012

Squares: Because I needed something to make me smile today

I slipped on a wet spot on the floor yesterday and watched 4.5 hours of the olympics opening ceremonies in a less than stellar seat with no headrest, so today I'm nursing a whopper of a sore neck and hip. Let's just say, boredom has set in.

I came across this brain teaser to count how many squares there are in this set of squares. A couple things to mention:

* I did not make colors to account for colorblindness, something which I really should have done but I was just doing this for myself and the options I had were limited and the next thing I knew it was getting published.

* Forgive the not-quite-square-ness of this, just deal with it, you get the idea.

* I have no idea why this is opposite, it's not like that in the photo that got selected for upload! 

So, the blank one.

17: 8 purple, 8 green, and their 4x4 perimeter friend.
10: 2 green, and the 4 inside each. [Total: 27]

4: 2 green, 2 purple [Total: 31]

4, all the same size as the pink one [Total: 35]

5, all the same size as the teal one [Total: 40]

So I'm getting a total of 40. What about you?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Recipe: Stuffed Peppers & Avocado Chunk Salad

I have to start out by saying that if anyone has had my stuffed peppers, these aren't them. They weren't bad and I don't mind sharing what there is of a "recipe," but they weren't my preference. So you get my preference as a bonus recipe! (It's the meaty parts.)

Step 1: Make Beans & Rice in the crockpot overnight.
* Rice, beans, and a can of diced tomatoes. 
* Season to taste, then about twice as much, especially if using dried-rehydrated beans. Don't make it too spicy because some freaks in this house don't like spicy.
* When using brown rice, use 3x as much water as rice--this isn't a bad rule for brown rice anyway if you're not using the pasta method, but that should give you enough water to last overnight.
* Don't get halfway through starting this and forget about it until you're happily snuggled up in bed with beans boiling on the stove and rice sitting in an unheated crockpot. 
* Don't instruct Mr. Moon or anyone else for that matter to put the beans in the crockpot then fill it up with water. This results in overflowing starchy goop. Trust yourself that rice-quantity-x-3 will be plenty of water.
* When you wake up in the morning and have too much water because you were afraid it would burn so you ignored the last point anyway, add some Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) to soak some of it up. Taste it and add a ton more seasoning, stare longingly at the Tapatio bottle.

Step 2: Make the Peppers
* Tell Mr. Moon to pick up 4 peppers (or one for each person). Somehow miss the fact that he got peppers as big as his own head.
* Pull out two of the smallest peppers (only 3/4-head sized) for the elderly folks with tiny stomachs. 
* Cut around the stem section of these two peppers. Pull the stem and seeds out. Reach in carefully and remove as much pith as you can.
* Reach in too far and split one pepper down the side. Lament the fact that the cheese is going to ooze out the side now.
* Suddenly realize that each person doesn't actually need a whole pepper, especially since one of the two people eating First Dinner has admitted she won't eat the pepper anyway. Cut down the split and around so that the pepper makes two smaller bowl-like receptacles.

Step 3: Make the stuffing
* Ask Mr. Moon to chop tomato before he goes to work. Fail to have enough time for him to chop onion.
* Get to making dinner and evaluate hand dexterity. Decide onions aren't worth the risk of an ER visit if you slip.
*  If you are making them meaty: Brown meat (with diced onions if you planned ahead or feel like cutting them)--about 4 oz per person, or more if you want leftovers. Add whatever you add to make taco seasoning. (I use a lot of cumin, a little less chili powder, garlic, onion powder, and occasionally coriander.)
* If you are making the vegetarian: You already made the beans and rice, good for you!
* Chop fresh cilantro. No, like twice that much. No really, these take a lot of cilantro. If you don't like cilantro, just give up and fall on your sword.But really for 4 people you probably want half a giant bunch of cilantro, or one whole smaller bunch.
* Mix a bunch of fresh tomatoes and cilantro into your meat or rice & beans stuff.

 Step 4: Stuff the peppers
* Grate cheddar cheese with a tiny grater (like one you'd use for lemon zest or parmesan cheese) into the pepper cups.
* If making with meat, fill about halfway. If making veggie but not for people who are supposedly cutting out cheese, fill about halfway. If making for cheese-shy folks, fill all the way up and skip the next point.
* Put a layer of cheese in this spot that will be the middle. Fill with your desired filling.
* Top with cheese. Don't be stingy.
* Sprinkle cumin on top because you tasted the beans & rice and realized they're beyond not spicy, they're bland because they overcooked. 

Step 5: Baking
* Bake in the oven until cheese is melty, stuffing is hot, and peppers are fairly soft.
* Take them out before the peppers are soft and regret it every moment you're eating it.
* No really, this will take about 45 minutes to an hour, don't be impatient, you want the peppers to have a chance to absorb some of the flavors from the stuffing and the cheese inside to melt properly.
* Stop, put the peppers back in the oven, I told you to be patient, gorram it. I know they smell good but put the fork down because you already tested and know the pepper isn't soft on the bottom yet.

Step 6: Side Dish (Avocado chunk salad)
* Realize you have a bunch of fresh diced tomato left (about 1 fist-sized tomato), and half an avocado that really needs used up. * Now that Mr. Moon is home, have him juilenne some onions (those would be strips of about 1/4 inch wide and 2-3 inches long. On an onion, this means cutting the onion in half and making strips that end up as gentle curves rather than the half moons you get by cutting slices--you're cutting 90 degrees from those half moons).
* Grill up the onions in the leftover bacon grease from breakfast. Or, just use some butter or olive oil. You don't need these to be super mushy, just seared, cooked down a little, gentle flavor but still a little stiffness--al dente.
* Take the pit out of the avocado. Cut a grid into the flesh. Scoop large scoops into the bowl with the tomato, but make sure you take the biggest section out in two or three layers--so you end up with something like cubes instead of longer rectangles.
* Mix in the grilled onion with the fresh tomato and avocado.
* Salt and pepper to taste. Fret over what seasonings to use so that you don't end up with something just like the seasonings in the stuffed peppers. Consult with Mr. Moon (he suggested a rice wine vinaigrette).
* Dump in a little rice vinegar and cardamom, and maybe a little powdered mustard seed. The fat from the avocado and whatever you used on the onions will be plenty for a vinaigrette of sorts.
* Marvel at your own genius.

Step 7: Eating
 * Get a steak knife. Ok stop laughing, really, get a steak knife.
* Remove the top browned cheese and set it aside because I bet you want to eat that last and it won't cool fast enough with a lid.
* Let this cool for about 5 minutes.
* Cut your way around to expose stuffing, eating stuffing on your way down too.
* When finished with every other bit, snack on that browned, marinated cheese. Yum.

Step 8: Leftovers
* If you, like me, have leftovers of rice & beans and meat with fresh tomato & cilantro, you can layer them in a casserole dish, top with cheese, and make an awesome casserole for later. Might as well do this when you put away the leftovers because it's easier to spread when warm and why make extra dishes?
* I bet the chunk salad would be great in that casserole too, if you have any left.
* Mr. Moon and I took the leftover rice & beans and froze them in sandwich bag/quart size packages. These are going to be great for meal sides and breakfasts later!
* If you have leftover taco meat, you can freeze this in serving size or meal-size packages, perfect for OhShit! Tacos and adding to vegetarian chili.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ruminations on my life as a cook

I've always wanted to like omelets. Quiche too, really. Veggies, cheese, eggs, maybe some chunks of meat... what's not to love? I spent two years when I went low-carb trying every omelet, frittata, quiche, and scramble recipe I could find. Nothing helped, nothing was good, even when other people were raving about the best of its kind they'd ever had.

Ultimately, I gave up. I looked at my quiche one day and I just told it, I don't like you. I'm sorry, I want to, but this is becoming a waste of good food. I think it's that I'm not a big fan of scrambled eggs, though I love them when they're that liquid pasteurized egg stuff that restaurants use, and cooked gently so they're still just a little runny, but the runny-ness will have settled out in the carry-over cooking before my plate hits the table.

I wish I could tell you this entry is some sort of epiphany and now I love these things. It really isn't. The only epiphany I had was that I could order scrambles and omelets with the eggs and filling separate. Restaurant servers look at me funny, but I end up with exactly what I want: Eggs, and a side of veggies, maybe some chunks of meat.

I did perfect my hash-cooking skills, though. Even potato-less hash. The key there is to use cauliflower instead of potatoes. Although really the key to that and any restricted diet is very simple: Go crazy with the flavor! Eat your heart out on the things that you felt were treats before, but are totally allowed on your new meal plan. Make those things as flavorful as you can. Add a few extra spices and seasonings, toss in a few extra handfuls of veggies if you can, and if something is calling you to include it, answer. More than anything, be fearless. Try new combinations. Can you imagine the look on the face of the first person who thought to put a lemon slice on top of their fish? Everybody probably thought that person was crazy, but now it's totally common practice.

I don't remember being given free reign in the kitchen, as a kid. I remember being given recipes and told to follow them, but never being told I needed to follow them exactly, unless I was baking. I DO remember the first time I surprised my parents by putting orange extract in the french toast batter in addition to the vanilla. I thought they were going to lick their plates. And english muffin pizzas were ripe for creative toppings.

My dad once came into the kitchen while I was making lunch to find me crawling on top of the washing machine to get to the baking cabinet above it. I vividly remember having waited until he had left to do this, because I was sure it wouldn't be allowed if I'd asked. However, he forgot something (or more likely, I'd been acting squirrelly and he suspected foul play), and walked into me pulling the coconut and chocolate chips and sprinkles out to put on my peanut butter sandwich. I remember his eyes watering with the effort not to laugh at me and what was probably the most guilty Caught Face in the world as he asked me what I was doing. I'm sure there was a long pause as I evaluated my options, and eventually determined that what I was getting down was rather obvious, so I'd better just confess. So I told my dad that Huey, Dewey & Lewey made me do it (ok maybe it was Chip & Dale?). That actually shocked him, and he helped me down off the washing machine with his mouth and eyes wide open, jaw working hard to figure out how to respond to that. Eventually I got a "uh-what?" So I pointed to the Disney kids cookbook on the counter, where it was open to a page about making sandwiches. Chocolate chips and coconut were suggested toppings for a peanut butter sandwich. I'm almost sure I thought of the sprinkles myself.

Oh dear, did he laugh himself silly. When he managed to compose himself, he kissed me on the forehead, congratulated me on reading and being creative with the recipe, and told me to get my older brother to help put my ingredients away when I was done because it wasn't safe to be crawling on the washing machine by myself. And that perhaps I should, in the future, consider adding only one sugary ingredient to my sandwich. (In the future, I added a second layer with more peanut butter and some fruit, either banana or apples. Double decker peanut butter sandwiches for the win.) He must have told my mother about it because she asked me later how was my lunch? I tell you what though, it WAS delicious! Not least because it was my own creation.

These days I cook a little differently. When I made gumbo for the first time, I must have looked up 100 different gumbo recipes, all completely different. The one thing in common they had was a roux, which was a word I'd never encountered before. I read at least four different websites devoted to making the perfect roux. I slaved over that pot of gumbo for an entire day, simmering a whole chicken for the meat, then making stock with the bones, taking over an hour on the lowest heat my stovetop could handle to make a peanut butter roux, chopping veggies and smoked sausage with ever-loving care, peeling shrimp tails with a faint air of pleasure, and finally after 15 long hours (which to be fair was half sitting on the computer outside the kitchen door trying not to stare at my creation) I presented my masterpiece to my boyfriend and two friends who grew up in the south, one of whom has an aunt who owns a gumbo shack (though I wished he'd imparted this information before I handed him the bowl!). I wanted to ask them how they liked it, but everybody was too busy licking their bowls and asking for seconds. Success.

Not all my creations have been as successful, but we won't go into the story about the day my boyfriend took one bite of my first stir fry and offered to make me some nachos as I cried about my failure on the couch, and we didn't even save the leftovers. Actually I guess we will but that's pretty much the story. I've never had a failure that bad since outside of baking. But that's another story for another day.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Eats & Treats: Mango Chicken & Rice

VERY interesting dinner tonight. One of those "toss shit in and see what happens" meals, although it's been on the menu plan for three weeks now and kept getting bumped.

Brown rice (2 cups) mixed with walnuts and chopped apricot, topped with chicken (seasoned with onion powder, garlic powder, yellow curry powder, and black pepper) and a bottle of Tropical Mango Vinaigrette dumped on top (and enough water to make the rice). Cook at 350 in the dutch oven until the rice is done, which dear heavens took 2+ hours. Could have gone up to 400 and been much faster.

The dressing isn't sweetened with anything other than apple juice and obviously mango, but I think I still expected it to be a lot sweeter. I put on easily 2 tbls of curry powder but it's only a light flavor--possibly an old bottle, but moreso I think I always greatly underestimate how much to use because I hate when it's overwhelmingly yellow-curry flavored.

It needed veggies. But yesterday's dinner was all veggies and well, suffice it to say, I think all of us needed a break. Ahem. So I didn't worry about it too much since I couldn't think of anything to put with it. Mr. Moon doesn't like coconut flavor much, though coconut sauces are usually fine and I think this would have been amazing with some of that mixed in with the rice to cook.

However, we have leftovers! And it makes me want to take yesterday's leftover kale & chickpea soup, mix it with today's leftover not-as-mangoey chicken & rice, add some tofu and red curry paste, and see what happens.
Any exciting meals you've made that didn't quite turn out the way you expected? Bits of leftovers you want to combine for something totally rad?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Food Values

Regardless of your opinion on the state of our food systems, having options and making informed decisions is always good in my world. Years ago I started questioning every bite of food I put in my mouth, in some very specific ways: notably, with the goal of eliminating sugar and reducing carbs.

Over the years my vision has changed a bit. New information about artificial sweeteners and insulin-reaction was released, I became a certified nutritionist and learned to cook even more, I was having trouble sticking to my choices without becoming a hermit, and I found myself questioning a lot of my decisions. I really couldn't understand how using a chemical that is known to cause cancer and obesity is somehow better than a potato, a whole food grown in the ground and eaten with skin intact for maximum nutrition.

So now, I am trying to define my food values. A lot of this relates back to the hierarchy of food needs, though I'm not ready to prioritize them. In no particular order, here's a list of things I think about when trying to make BETTER food choices:
  • The Goal: BETTER food choices. Better than before, better than my childhood, better than the norm, better than the alternative. Mostly this presents as "I want ____. [why?...] Well, a better option than that is _____." EX: I want McDonald's. I'm hungry right now and I don't have time to wait to get home and cook something before I get too sick. Well, a better option than that is Burgerville because it's at least local/less processed ingredients (whenever possible) and a local business. And a better option than that is grabbing a sandwich at the grocery store and taking it home to put on my own mayo and mustard. But if I can't wait until I get home, at least Chipotle has local, natural/organic ingredients that are more reliably better than even Burgerville, and a lot less greasy with fewer refined carbs." EX2: I want ice cream. It's hot and I want something sweet and cool. Well, frozen yogurt has less fat but more sugar. Popsicles have the same amount of sugar but even less fat. Ooh, I could make a smoothie! That has no [added] sugar, real fruit, less fat than ice cream, and is home-made (though arguably not cheaper).
  • Timing: If I need to eat RIGHT NOW, a lot of Give-A-Damn gets busted. Anything that is better than my initial idea is a winner. And ANYTHING is better than "not eating."Actually, that's not true. Candy and sugary treats are worse than not eating.
  • Price vs Value: Let's face it, I have very little income and Mr. Moon only has so much himself. In a perfect world, I would just pay whatever it costs to get the best options for every other variable here. I have to balance price in the equation, but to SOME degree "food just costs what it costs." EX: Refined-flour (whether that's wheat, corn, rice, etc.) spaghetti noodles are 58cents per pound, but whole wheat noodles are 85cents per pound. If I reject the notion that refined-flour spaghetti noodles are food, then the 58c/lb isn't a "deal" and now I just worry about getting the best deal I can on whole wheat noodles.
  • Location: How far do I have to drive to get the food? Where did the food come from? Will I lose any extra register-savings by spending it on gas to pick it up? EX: I'll take California strawberries over Florida while I live in Washington, but the reverse is true when I am in Michigan (plus, Florida strawberries taste better). I'll take Washington/Oregon strawberries from a local farmer over both. Fred Meyer is right outside our subdivision, but I'll drive an extra two miles to get to Chuck's and get better prices, better quality, better service, and support a local business. 
  • Quality: How long will the produce last when I get it home? What's the likelihood I'm eating non-food pesticides and herbicides? A lot of this question is an umbrella over other ones, EX: the fact is that when other factors don't intervene I will prefer organic foods over non-organic, but certified isn't necessary; like I'll take the local dairy farmer's non-certified-but-still-organic milk over Horizon brand. And I'll take conventional pasteurized milk over organic super-duper-ultra pasteurized because that stuff tastes like someone pissed in my cereal and organic or not, that is not food.
  • Nutrition: When faced with an option that will work flavor-wise, but has different nutritional values, I'll take the one that's the best bang for my buck. EX: Potatoes, despite being a whole food grown in the ground, are still not as nutritionally dense as cauliflower which will impact blood sugar less than potatoes will. So I'll pick Cauliflower over Potatoes sometimes, thus reducing my starch intake. I see brown rice, potatoes, and pasta as the same carby-entity, though potatoes (not french fries or hashbrowns or the like) are less processed and take up a LOT less land/labor to grow one serving. 
  • Environmental Impact: This is NOT a major factor in my food choices. I think that in a perfect world it would be, though. As I mentioned in the last bullet, it can be a factor when all other factors have not resulted in a clear decision, but I think register-price and value-to-my-pocket-and-nutrition trump environmental impact. This falls under that "instrumental food" section on that hierarchy of needs chart. When everything else is met, then this might be a concern. 
Sometimes I find myself looking at a plate or a selection of items and having to force my brain to recognize it as food. Boxes of Pasta-roni are a common example--I see the box, I can read it, but it takes a conscious effort to recognize that as "food." As opposed to a can of tomatoes which, despite not being able to see the contents in either case, I do recognize as "food" that could be consumed. I noticed this phenomena shortly after going low carb in 2006, but the extent has surely grown since then. It's no different than someone who doesn't recognize a meal as a MEAL unless there's meat in it (or if they know there isn't meat in it--since there are a lot of vegetarian meals that meat-eaters like if they just don't think about it)--in some cases, unless bread is an accompaniment. It takes time to adapt your brain to that concept, when you're trying to consciously change it.

I think that sometimes I muddle up the hierarchy explanation, and then remember that after moving 2400 miles away from home and with no job, suddenly Pizza Hut with their high-fructose-corn-syrup sauce and high-carb pizza crust didn't seem so deplorable when someone else was buying.I would add a level to that hierarchy though: If "Instrumental Food" is worrying mostly about nutrition and how a food affects your quality of life (because how to pay for it and how it tastes are taken care of and just not "concerns" anymore), one step above that is how that food affects long-term environmental impacts. I'm definitely not there yet.
What are your family's food values? Do you value nutrition over price, in all things? Worry more about the cost at the register than the long-term health effects? Do you see yourself at a certain level on that hierarchy of needs, or think that it's complete bull?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lesson Learned: Roof replacement

The 'Rents just got the roof replaced on their house. Mr. Moon and I weren't terribly involved in the process, so not a lot learned there (besides the necessity of reading the contracts in full before purchasing, which frankly isn't a mistake I would have made--not reading them being the mistake, that is).

But one thing I did learn is this: The garden needs to be covered.

Yeah, you know that nice vegetable garden I've been taking such pains to keep free of non-edible substances? It's now covered in shingle grains. They put down tarps to collect the shingles as they threw them off the roof, but they didn't put them down to protect the gardens, and then promptly threw a bunch of shingles into the gardens, missing their tarps entirely. The flowers, fine, whatever, but MY FOOD, PEOPLE!!!

Lesson learned. Sunk cost. Moving on. :(

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Slooooowing dooooown for summer

The last month and a half seems like it's been a whirlwind of activity and taking it easy. Mr. Moon and I have been spending a lot of time together, and driving each other crazy. With his new job having fewer hours, I get less time to blog, and I spend a lot more time recovering from the busy days we have when he's off. I find I'm using a lot more spoons and taking longer to recover them.

This week we spent a lot of time in the garden, and catching up on household chores that had fallen behind. I'm pleased to say, we have cleaned the kitchen to shining the sink at the end of the day for three days in a row this week. The laundry is caught up and put away, though I struggle with the desire to do only a load at a time and having 4 loads come up needing to be done at once. I'd like to be more mindful of making this a regular habit, since doing 4 loads at once just results in 4 loads of clean clothes sitting in baskets in the walkway of my bedroom floor.

Mr. Moon and I are finding a great partnership in tackling the garage work that needs to be done. I sit on the couch and read in the fresh air, available for questions (would you put this in tools or electronics?), keeping him company (which helps him stay on task), and making labels for the sorting boxes. We've committed an hour a day to this project, figuring that most days we will be able to put in more than an hour and occasionally other chores will take precedence, but then if we can only do an hour of work then that's all we expected anyway. Sometimes it's amazing what can get done in an hour!

We're definitely enjoying having a fire pit in the back yard now as well. We only used it for the Independence Day party so far, but it's pretty and exciting to have, and we're hoping to get out and enjoy it again this week.

We finally got around to becoming members at the local library, and I have a huge list of books to read set up. I'm sad that they don't have an app for my phone like the Seattle library does, but I'm making do.  Apparently the books I like are either supremely popular in our preferred location, or they're not stored there, because I can never find the ones I want there. Fortunately, I can place holds on books and just go pick them up whenever they come in, which really makes me happier anyway. But I did find myself at a bookstore today (killing time before a move in fact), not really interested in buying books that I could get for free at the library. It kind of made my day!

Also in the enjoyment factor is taking advantage of Mr. Moon's job perks. We've seen a couple good movies lately, including the new Disney/Pixar movie Brave, and the fact that the tickets are suuuper cheap going for matinees when his ticket is free means I don't feel so bad if I'm not enjoying myself as much as I hoped. Plus, the seats at his theater are incredibly comfortable, and sometimes even come with ottomans if we're in the right theater. It definitely is allowing us to keep going on regular dates, despite the drop in hours and income.

Oh! We can't forget making plans for expanding and re-arranging the gardens! We sat down and drew some brainstorming diagrams this week during one of our work breaks, though one of the diagrams ended up getting scrapped when we went back outside and realized that the bed wasn't as big as we'd had in our minds.

All in all, it really has been a good month. I'm grateful for everything my Mr. Moon does for and with me, and how we have made each other and our relationship a priority in our lives. But I'll skip the rest of the sappy before your eyes start burning.
How is your summer going? Anything for which you're especially grateful right now?

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Lastest Dirt: The life of a garden in pictures

Thought I would give you all a garden update!
 Tiny strawberry! We moved the plant so it gets a little more sun and natural water. 

 Mr. Mustard is protecting the sugar snap peas. See a couple pods back there?

 My poor cauliflower plants. They have caterpillars. I cut off all the holey leaves and picked off a couple greenbacks, seems to have mostly fixed the issue.

See? Greenbacks. 

Watered the compost pile and this lovely appeared!

Clematis attacking the apple tree. Aren't those flowers lovely?

 This blackberry bush needs to GO so we can get into our hose-minder.

 This bush will be exiting stage right in the fall to make room for something hiding behind it. But first...
Gorgeous fuchsias in bloom.

 This lovely blackberry bush is hiding behind the big furry thing that we don't want. Making room for that come fall. 

 Our roses were just pruned, but returned to overhanging the walkway. Tsk. Tsk. 

 I could swear this was a clear walkway just a few weeks ago!

 Isn't it lovely how they've filled in since pruning? Back to having a little more privacy at this window. 

Deeeeeep in the jungle, the plums have started growing. Beware the plums! (I see plum cobbler in our future. And a lot of frozen plums.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Eats & Treats: Bacon Salt!

An old roommate brought home bacon salt one day because it was funny. I actually liked the stuff though, and it became a favorite popcorn topper. I was so sad when the bottle ran out, and then one day I decided to see how to make my own. Although to be fair, store-bought bacon salt (at least all the ones I've seen) are actually vegan products, and this is certainly NOT.

I don't have any pictures of the process, but suffice it to say, it was super easy. Almost-burn some bacon, puree, then blend with salt and seasonings. Store in the fridge.

I haven't actually tried it on popcorn yet, but I'm really looking forward to it!
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