Monday, July 28, 2008

Barley Stuffed Zucchini

When I was younger and much less adventurous in the kitchen, zucchini was a vegetable given to me from the abundance of a neighbor's garden, then placed in the refrigerator until it became rotten enough to throw in the garbage. My intentions were always honorable; I really did intend to use that zucchini in some culinary fashion, but I just didn't have any experience or recipe base accumulated wherein I could comfortably cook and use this vegetable with certainty. The internet and all of its associated food blogs and instructional recipe sites finally saved the zucchini from its death row vegetable drawer status and elevated it to a place on my dinner plate. It is now, in fact, the main course in many of my meal plans. The following recipe is one of my zucchini favorites.

Barley Stuffed Zucchini

1/2 cup pearl barley (NOT the quick cooking kind)
1 1/4 cup beef broth
3 medium or 6 small zucchini
1 lb lean ground beef (I use Laura's Lean 96/4)
1 tsp montreal steak seasoning
1 small onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tsp worchestershire sauce
10 oz box frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 oz goat cheese
4 oz light cream cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

In small sauce pan bring beef broth to a boil and add barley. Reduce heat and simmer until barley is tender, approximately 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice zucchini in half, lengthwise and scoop out visible seeds. Hollow out the remainder of the pulp, leaving a zucchini "boat" to stuff. Dice pulp and set aside. Place zucchini shells cut side up on a greased baking sheet and spray lightly with cooking spray. Season with salt and pepper. Place in preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and turn oven temperature down to 375 degrees.

In a large skillet brown ground beef seasoned with steak seasoning. Add onion, bell pepper, reserved zucchini pulp, and pepper flakes. Saute until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in worchestershire sauce and spinach. Add goat cheese and cream cheese and stir until melted and creamy. Stir in the cooked barley. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.

Stuff zucchini with ground beef mixture and return to baking sheet. Sprinkle parmesan cheese over the zucchini and place baking sheet in oven. Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cabbage Soup

Summer is the easiest time for me to watch my weight. Fresh produce is abundant and I look forward to my weekly trip to the local farmer's market like some women go bonkers over their weekly pilgramage to Bloomingdales. While many of the vendors have admitted that the produce has been slow coming off the fields this year, I did manage to score a very nice head of cabbage last Saturday, along with some moderately sized peppers and zucchini. Hubby will eat cabbage in any way, shape or form but his favorite takes the form of the very time consuming cabbage roll. I was also painting furniture yesterday, so he got this deconstructed version of cabbage rolls in soup form.

Cabbage Soup

1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef (I used Laura's Lean, 96/4)
1 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (I used part of a yellow one and a pablano)
1 stalk celery with leaves, diced
1 carrot, diced
1/4- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, depending on your love of spiciness
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 tsp coriander
1/2 cup pearl barley (NOT the quick cooking kind)
6 cups chicken broth
8 cups shredded cabbage (about 1/2 of a large head)
2 (8 oz) cans tomato sauce
1 (14.5 oz) can crushed tomatoes
2 packets of Splenda
V-8 or tomato juice to thin soup if desired

In large soup pot brown ground beef with the onion, pepper, celery, carrot and pepper flakes until meat is cooked through and onions are translucent. Add garlic, paprika and coriander and saute for another minute or two. Add chicken broth and rinsed barley and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until barley is tender, approximately 45 minutes. Add cabbage, season with salt and pepper, stir well, and cover. Cook until cabbage wilts and cooks down a bit, then add tomato sauce, tomatoes and Splenda. Bring to a boil and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. Add V-8 or tomato juice to thin soup if desired.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How does it feel to be retired?

This is a question that's been asked of me repeatedly since I jumped off the workbridge three months ago. And each time I'm asked, my eyes glaze over and I get this goofy smile on my face before replying, "It's fanfreakingtastic!" But when I actually took the time to analyze the feeling, what I discovered kind of shocked me. You see, the nearest comparison I could find to the elation of retirement is.... falling in love! Now please bear with me as I explain how I came to this seemingly ridiculous comparison. If you're an old shriv like myself, and married or involved with the same person for a number of years, you may have to go back in time and memory to recall the exact feeling of that "falling in love" experience. Ahhh... remember it now?.... that time of your life when you actually KNEW what it felt like to be on cloud nine? That time of your life when nothing could get you down because your heart was floating too high to lasso? Remember going about the business of your day and having that "feeling" suddenly pop into your thoughts?... and the warmth and glow of contentment that accompanied it? Well, that's what I've been feeling since the end of April. I wake up in the morning still forgetting that I don't have to get up and go to work. Shortly after I open my eyes it hits me.... I'M RETIRED! My eyes glaze over and I get that goofy smile before quickly rolling over and falling back to sleep. Throughout the day I find myself whistling and busying myself lightheartedly with the very same chores that used to make me so cranky. Why? I'M RETIRED! I can take all damn day to get them done! And if I don't get them completed today I can do them tomorrow... or the next day... or the next. It's exciting to me to know that every day is my own, to make of what I choose, to spend in any way that makes me contented and fulfilled. I'm a completely different person these days, feeling so very free and unburdened...... and falling in love with life all over again.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Homemade Whole Wheat Croutons

I'm a sucker for croutons in my soup. Crispy on the outside, slightly chewy on this inside... that's the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like them. However, in my quest to eat only whole grains, I've been forced to slurp my soup without any of those tasty little bundles of crunchew. I've looked high and low for 100% whole wheat croutons and cannot find them anywhere. Today I bought a bag of whole wheat bagels and decided to give homemade a whirl. The end result was perfect, uh huh, uh huh.

Homemade Whole Wheat Croutons

2 whole wheat bagels, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tsps. italian seasoning
2 tsps. garlic salt
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine oil, seasonings and cheese. Place bagel cubes into a bowl and pour oil mixture over them. Toss to coat. Spread cubes in a single layer on a cookie sheet.

Place in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to cool. Store in airtight container after thoroughly cooled.

Here they are, floating happily in my bowl of Curried Sweet Potato and Bean Soup.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cooking... Then and Now

When I grow up, I think I'd like to become a chef. I love to cook, I can multi-task, and I'm fairly competent under kitchen pressure. Back in the day, I could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, all while balancing one child on my hip and having another hug my leg. You can add to my resume the fact that I could clean the entire house using only my feet, but that's another post.

It will therefore come as no surprise to find out that I'm a Food Network junkie. I actually think my desire to become a chef came full circle because of the Food Network. While others tune into their afternoon soaps, I grab my coffee and sit down for an afternoon of Paula Deen, Michael Chiarello, Giada De Laurentiis, Emeril, Mario, Rachael, etc. I've learned terms and techniques that extended far beyond what my mother had been able to teach me as a young girl. She was what I call a "have to" cook. That is to say that she cooked because she had to. With nine children to feed, she had very little time and money to consider technique, freshness and the like, so I can only assume that cooking became a very boring task for her, done daily out of duty and love. She had none of the modern conveniences and shortcuts that today's homemaker takes for granted. For example, not only can we buy chicken that's already been cut up, we can buy it skinless and boneless...and even pre-cooked! Not so back in my mom's day. You know the expression "running around like a chicken with its head cut off?" I actually witnessed that phenomenon as a child when my mother butchered the very chickens that she'd cook and serve us. They really do run around for a bit after they've been decapitated! When they'd finally give up the fight, she'd dunk them in a vat of scalding water to loosen the feathers, pluck said feathers, then run the bird over an open flame to get any remaining hairs. Feet came off next, followed by surgery to remove the inner organs. THEN she was ready to cut the little clucker up and begin the cooking process. Now THAT... should be the definition of cooking from scratch. She had almost an entire day vested in that chicken dinner that went on our table, whereas modern days chefs can decide at 4:00 that they want to make chicken for a 5:30 dinner. Enter the microwave, another convenience she did not have. You can also add food processors, blenders and bread machines to the list of appliances we have now that weren't available back then. Is it then any wonder why she never really enjoyed cooking? It was a tedious process accentuated with the monotony of its creative restraints. Inviting and nutritious cuisine is all about time and money, after all.

Enter today's working mother, and the reason we now have a country full of obese children. I'm not judging working mothers by any means. I was one. I also have overweight children. Mac and cheese from the blue box was a home-cooked meal back in the day, and I was so proud at the time that I hadn't had to resort to another fast food meal! Even with all my modern day appliances, it was still difficult for me to plan and make an inviting meal after working eight hours. I can't help but think that if I'd had access to resources the likes of "Thirty Minute Meals" with Rachael Ray, I might have been more educated in quick and nutritious cooking. Of course, I'd still have had to find the time to watch her show...and do the shopping.... and the prepping.... and the dishes.

It's come full circle indeed, from the days of my mother butchering her own chickens, to the present, where moms are the ones running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Be An Organ Donor.... Please

Tomorrow my 11 year old nephew is receiving a new kidney, complements of his Aunt Karen. Logan has been living on dialysis for almost a year now. Each night at bedtime he is hooked up to a machine through a port in his abdomen, and he spends the next eight hours getting filtered. He's been a trooper though out the entire ordeal, even though the procedure is painful for him at times. It is difficult to watch one so young go through so much and it was such a blessing when his aunt stepped forward to volunteer her kidney. Organ donation is such a wonderful thing. A living donor, such as Karen, can donate kidneys, and/or parts of the liver and pancreas. It's overwhelming to consider the generosity of such a gift of life. However, even in death one can bring renewed life to others. The heart, intestines, lungs, bones, tendons, corneas, veins and skin are all amongst the organs that can be donated to another human being. And all this is made possible by checking that little box on your driver's license. Do it the next time you renew yours.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Today I am a hemi-centenarian. There, I said it.

Fifty years old. One half of a century. Five decades.

Do I celebrate or self-destruct? I'm not sure, but in either case, a six pack of Bud Light will be involved.

In any event, I am reflective upon the days that have passed and look forward to peacefully enjoying what the future holds. I've lived through difficult days and I know there will be more to come. I've had equally as many (probably more) joyful days, and I know there will be more of those as well.

I'm trying to refrain from looking at the glass as half over.

And I'm accepting that today is the first day of the second half of the rest of my life.

But, regarding that whole "age is a state of mind" thingie? I've got the map out. I think I want to move.

The Cushy (After)Life

I've always imagined that if reincarnation was a possibility, one's next life would be either a punishment or a reward for the behavior/actions in one's previous life. If you spent your last life as a child molester, your next life might very well be spent as a bacteriium in the midst of a festering boil on some Harlem rat's ass. If you led your previous life as peaceful purveyor of non-violence and truth, you might be reincarnated as... well... as this:

Meet Sloopy, the canine formerly known as Gandhi.

From sunup to sundown, his most difficult decision is whether to sleep in bed or on the couch. On a truly bad day, there may only be two pillows positioned together at the same time, and he's then forced to make do. On the (rare) off chance that he might have to settle for a snooze on the floor, it's only because a blanket has fallen and been left there for his nap time needs.

Ahhh... a dog's life indeed. We're just thankful he lets us live with him.

Yet Another Stuffed Pepper Recipe

Kroger had these beautiful long red sweet peppers on sale this week. I'd never seen anything like them and almost passed them over because I assumed they were a hot pepper. They were thinner skinned than a regular red bell pepper thus they cooked in much less time. Some leftover frozen hashbrowns and quickly spoiling mushrooms were the inspiration behind this recipe.

3 bell peppers (I used the long red ones mentioned above)
1/2 lb. very lean ground beef
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced (I used a poblano)
2 cups coarsely chopped mushrooms
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp beef bouillon granules
salt and pepper
1 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3 oz. cream cheese, cubed
3 Tbsp sour cream
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
3 cups frozen shredded potatoes (hash browns)

Cut peppers in half lengthwise and remove seeds and membranes. Set aside.

In a large skillet, brown ground beef, onion, pepper, mushrooms and salt and pepper until meet is browned and mushrooms lose their moisture. Stir in garlic and saute for another minute or so. Stir in cumin and bouillon and combine. Add spinach, cream cheese and sour cream and stir until cream cheese is melted. Add cheddar cheese and frozen potatoes and stir to combine.

Stuff pepper halves with mixture and place in a lightly greased casserole dish. Bake in preheated oven set to 375 for 30-40 minutes or until peppers are softened to desired consistency.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cowboy Beans

My doctor recommends that I eat a diet high in fiber. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are all excellent sources of fiber, but the super-duper-party-pooper of high fiber foods has to be dried beans. I try to incorporate dried beans into my diet at least three times a week, most often more than that. Before you try this at home, be aware that a sudden increase in high fiber foods can cause some serious... um... gas issues. Start out slowly and work your way up!

Most of my bean recipes start with dried beans that I've soaked, rinsed, then cooked per package directions, but I harbor a soft spot for Bush's Baked Beans and always use them for this recipe. If I could just get that damn dog to cough up the bean recipe, I'd make this from scratch too. Roll that beautiful bean footage!

Cowboy Beans

1 lb. lean ground beef
1 small onion, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced (I used a poblano pepper)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 packet taco seasoning
1 (28 oz) can Bush's Original Baked Beans
salt and pepper to taste
shredded cheese of your liking, optional (I like pepper jack for this recipe)
tortilla chips, optional

Brown ground beef, onion, pepper and garlic. Drain. Stir in taco seasoning and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add baked beans. Season to taste. Cover with lid and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. Top with shredded cheese and serve with tortilla chips, if desired.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Happy Birthweek To Me!

When you're raised in a large family, you learn at an early age that there is something different between your family and the smaller families of your friends. Kindergarteners still sleeping in baby beds was my norm, that is until I started Kindergarten and discovered that (much to the teasing delight of my fellow classmates,) it was NOT the norm indeed. I can assure you that I was the only kindergartener in my school still sleeping in a baby bed. In a household dividing nine children amongst three bedrooms, it's fairly obvious that the low man on the totem pole is going to get left holding the short end of the bedpost. I was number eight of those nine and number nine was still in a bassinet at the time. Thankfully, my oldest sister joined the convent about the same time I started kindergarten, and I was soon promoted to side-less bed status.

We weren't a poor family by any means, but I think all will agree that compromises have to be made when there are that many mouths to feed and that many bodies to clothe. I will always remember my first "new" winter coat. I was thirteen at the time. Of course all of the daughters shared the same Communion dress, and by the time it was handed down to me, the others had left their marks on it, so to speak. Water conservation was always an ongoing issue, mandating the weekly Saturday bath ratio to be one tubful of water to nine parts kid. And once again, the low man on the totem pole got the short end of the stick and left the tub dirtier than she went in.

"Waste not, want not" was my mother's favorite saying and she followed that mantra throughout all aspects of her homemaking. We reused foil and the wax paper in cereal boxes. We washed out baggies and used handkerchiefs instead of kleenex. And the woman could stretch a food dollar to beyond imaginable limits. One chicken could feed eleven people, if ample bread and potatoes were served with it. She made every part of the bird serviceable and since LMOTP (say it with me, Low Man On Totem Pole) got what the elders left behind, my favorite part of the chicken was forced upon me. Fried chicken neck, to be specific. It was my norm until many years later, when once again I was forced to accept the embarrassment that accompanied all my faux-formed norms. It was while ordering at my very first "sit down" restaurant that I learned chicken necks were really not part of ANY restaurant's menu. I can't pass the Glandorf Inn to this day without my cheeks turning a thousand shades of red.

And then there were the birthdays. (sigh) I think I eventually accepted all the other differences between my friends and myself, but my family's lack of sufficient birthday recognition really cheezed my ass. Other kids were having parties with bakery-made and decorated cakes, balloons, presents, and other various and enviable birthday accoutrements, and my birthday recognition consisted merely of a homemade cake. No party. No presents. No nothing. Devastation became my birthday norm and it wasn't until I became an adult that I decided to take my norm into my own hands. Enter, the Birth Month. From July 1st thru the 31st, it's all about me. My hubby and kids know that from the minute they flip over June's calendar page, there's a new queen in town. And each year I get such a kick out of hearing them sing "Happy Birthmonth to You."

Years pass and queens get older and less self-centered. And this queen also managed to give birth to a princess in the very month of July, mandating the whole "share-the-birthmonth" policy. However, I still hang on to my "birthweek" celebration. And today is kickoff. Four days until fifty.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

When your brain's hampered...

We've all had them. Senior moments, brain farts, dumb attacks, blondeouts (like a blackout, only worse)

Those memory-crashing blips where the right and left side of your brain refuse to cooperate and your synapses decide to have their own Hatfields and McCoys moment. You sit there dumbfounded at the ATM like a deer caught in headlights. I CAN'T REMEMBER MY PIN! Or someone asks for your phone number and you're catapulted back to kindergarten and the panic of trying to dig up those digits from somewhere.. anywhere.... IT'S JUST NOT THERE! And then there's the times like today when my daughter asked me where I'd put the shirt she'd had laying on the table. "In the dumpster," I replied. "WTF?" she asked with her eyebrows. "I mean, in the hamster," I answered. "What the hell are you on?" her eyebrows questioned again, before she fell to the floor in hysteria. I stood there with the kindergartener-at-the-ATM look for a second, then started laughing too. "What's that thing called? You know... that white whicker thing that holds dirty laundry? WHY CAN'T I THINK OF THAT WORD??"

"I'm assuming you mean HAMPER" she finally choked out.

Yeah, moments like that. Don't deny it. You've had them too.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Chicken Broth (Chicken & Noodles)

Chicken broth: Nectar of the gods. It is the epitome of comfort food, either by itself, or as a base for another recipe. I'll confess that I typically use boxed or canned broth for my recipes; I'm neither a bona fide foodie nor an ingredient snob. However, when I'm thinking about homemade chicken and noodles, I go for the whole nine yards, shebang, enchilada, ball of wax, kit and kaboodle (I think you probably get the

Homemade chicken broth/stock

2-3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken
3 quarts water, add more as chicken boils
3 bay leaves
2 stalks celery with leaves, halved
1 carrot, quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. each, dried sage, thyme and parsley
1-2 sprigs fresh rosemary
moderate amount of salt and pepper... to your liking

Place all of the above in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove chicken, cool, and debone. Return bones to pot and boil for another 30-45 minutes. Strain broth. Pour broth in container and add deboned chicken if using for the recipe below. Chill and skim fat from surface before using.

This usually gives me about two quarts of fairly gelatinous broth, which gives the finished chicken and noodles a very nice and creamy consistency.

The Noodles

I actually went all out for this (because I had the time) and made my own noodles. I know, I know... I need to get a life. I purchased a pasta maker for my Kitchen Aid mixer a few years back and it's been collecting dust for awhile now. I figured if I make noodles once a week until I die, I might be able justify the $100 I spent on it. The picture below is of my noodles drying nicely on the counter. If I'm using store-bought noodles, I always buy Amish noodles (usually located in the bakery section of the store.) They're so much more flavorful and heartier than the ones in the pasta aisle (Mueller's, etc.)

Chicken and Noodles

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup finely diced carrot
1 cup finely diced celery/and leaves
2 cups sliced button mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
2 quarts good quality chicken broth (I actually had to add an extra can of broth this time)
4 cups cooked, shredded chicken
12-16 oz. egg noodles

In soup pot heat olive oil on medium high heat. Add onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until onions become translucent and mushrooms lose their moisture (5-6 minutes.) Add garlic and continue to saute for another minute. Add broth and return heat to high. Once boiling, turn heat down a bit and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes. Return heat to high and add chicken and noodles after boiling begins. Reduce heat to medium and boil until noodles are tender. This will vary depending on the size of the noodle, and whether you're using fresh or dried noodles.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Feng Shui... believe it or not

Four leaf clovers, wishbones, rabbit's feet, and shooting stars are so 1900's. It appears that now it is "in" to practice Feng Shui. I'll give you a moment to Google that in case you've never seen that word before, which is exactly where I was three months ago when I saw the word on the flyer advertising the home we were considering buying and then did in fact buy. What is Feng Shui? Feng Shui is an ancient art and science developed over 3,000 years ago in China (Ancient Chinese Secret, eh?) "Feng" means "wind" and "shui" means "water" (pronounced fung-shway). In Chinese culture gentle wind and clear water have always been associated with good harvest and good health, thus "good feng shui" came to mean good livelihood and fortune, while "bad feng shui" came to mean hardship and misfortune. It's a very complex art and since I don't believe in its principals, I'm only addressing it here because it shows up in various ways in my home. According to those who practice Feng Shui, simple things like paint colors, crystals, mirror placement, goldfish, and fountains can affect the "flow of energy" that brings one health, happiness, and prosperity. I found out that bedroom mirrors are a no-no, as are plants in the bathroom. Dried flowers anywhere in the home bring misfortune. Furniture placement is critical to allow for the positive flow of Qi throughout the home. Qi, (pronounced chee) is the Chinese word used to describe "the natural energy of the Universe." Fountain placement and water flow is also important. The previous owners of this home were also the builders and placed a fish pond/fountain in front of the home during the initial construction. They actually tore it out and rebuilt it two years later because the initial pond had the water flowing AWAY from the house instead of toward it. This supposedly affects prosperity, and evidently forces your corporate qi off the Fortune Cookie 500. Below is the a photo of the fountain and one of the three resident goldfish frolicking in the pond below it. According to proper Feng Shui practice, we should have eight fish to ensure us the ultimate in prosperity. Yeah, I definitely need to make a trip to WalleyeMart (hee!)

I do believe in mood enhancing. I think subtle lighting, candles, soothing room colors, soft sounds (music waterfall, ocean waves, etc.) can all be used to produce a calming effect on our senses. However, when I read this:

The three-legged frog is considered very lucky. It usually has one or three coins in its mouth. The position of the three-legged frog with a coin in its mouth, is very important. It is to be placed anywhere near your main door on the inside and it should look inwards, as if it has just entered your house with the money ! Do not ever place this frog with the coin facing, i.e. looking at your main door, as this symbolizes money going out of the house.

and this:

Many people love reading books and they also take pride in possessing them. The habit, per se, is very good. But books, when kept in open shelves create shar chi or 'killing breath' which is bad for the occupant of the room. Open book shelves whether in the office or in the home are like knives, which give out negative energy and is bad Feng Shui. The best way to correct this is by having doors, on all the shelves. Keep the shelves covered and not exposed. This will reduce the bad effects of the open shelves.

I immediately labeled Feng Shui as bullshit. Superstitious and pagan-like practices of the paranoid. Just my two cents.

This is a picture of a stain-glassed window inserted into the wall directly ahead of you as you walk in through the front door. I haven't been able to establish its significance in the Feng Shuit practice, but I'm sure it has to do with colors and light welcoming qi into the home for a nice cup of tea. What ev.