Pears, Anyone?

Just because I love my husband does not mean I have to love pears.

And just because my husband loves pears does not mean that we need to buy a half peck of pears.

And just because we buy a half peck of pears does not mean that I need to use them all up immediately, before they get too ripe.

Oh wait, yes I do!

I just don’t love pears. They’re kind of slimy and a little on the deceitful side. I mean, here’s this pear in the produce section, smiling up at you, “Pick me, pick me!” And you get it home and it’s crunchy and gritty and not at all ripe, which wouldn’t matter anyways because ripe pears are slimy. So different from apples, pears are. Apples put on a happy face and they’re crisp and happy inside as well. When you buy an apple at the store, it is what it is – ripe and ready for munching or cooking.

But along with a half peck of apples for me, we had to pick up some pears as well. So this morning I started off by making apple butter in the crockpot. It turned out fabulous. I only made about a half batch, using about 8-9 apples. And I used just a little over a cup of sugar and adjusted the spices accordingly. Otherwise I followed the directions pretty closely. That extra hour uncovered at the end seems to be the key to allowing the mixture to set up a bit. I did not use anything but a whisk to stir the mixture; it is slightly chunky but will still spread well on my toasted bagel, believe me!

Back to the pears though, the pears I do not love. What does one make with pears? Fresh pears with cheese is okay or I can deal with them in a salad. Olive Garden had a wonderful pear gorgonzola ravioli a few months ago that was to die for. But these dishes would never fly with Pear-boy, to whom the best spaghetti is macaroni noodles covered with tomato sauce right out of the can!

So I decided to follow suit and just try some pear butter, using the same slow cooker principle. I found this recipe which attempts to make it NOT taste like apple butter, which makes sense to me. It called for some unusual ingredients, one being star anise. Huh? I thought it was some exotic fruit but apparently it’s an ingredient used in Chinese cooking, which explains why I couldn’t find it in the produce section. Instead I substituted some dried figs. Before you go scratching your head, here’s my logic: Two popular Christmas songs, We Wish You A Merry Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas, reference these fruits – figgy pudding and a partridge in a pear tree! So they must go together, right? And if Tom on the Next Food Network Star can try making a steak out of bacon, then I can put pears and figs together.

As I speak, ingredients are simmering away and hopefully we’ll wake up to some wonderful aroma and equally wonderful pear concoction.

Spring Shape-up!

So my sister just posted how she’s trying to take off a few pounds . . . and really, wouldn’t we all love to feel just a little more fit? Especially after the winter we’ve had, at least here on the east coast, where our sole exercise may have been getting up to get another blanket . . . or shoveling!

Anyways, I’ve been trying to do a few things differently so I thought I’d turn them into a post – in answer to her and to share with anyone else who might find themselves in the same boat.

  • Water, water everywhere! I know I’m supposed to drink water. At my best, when I was tied to a desk back in cubicle land, I could usually manage to choke down a glass or so a day. But there have been many days when I realized I hadn’t had any water at all. So I’ve been filling my plastic Rubbermaid 20 oz. water bottle first thing in the morning and trying to get in the habit of taking it everywhere with me. It’s much easier to grab when I run out to do errands and I find myself sipping it constantly throughout the day – usually getting down two of them in a day.
  • Identify your weak point. I can do good all day and then consume more calories from 6pm on than I did all day long. So I’m trying to not eat after 7:00 pm, except on those nights when Mike gets home late, or on the weekends when I try to give myself a break. What’s your weak point – is it a particular food item or time of day?
  • Cut off the food after dinner. Speaking of eating late, I’ve realized that I really have trouble sleeping if I eat late. So if Mike doesn’t get home until late, I’ve been eating earlier and saving something light to eat with him. I just can’t deal with macaroni and cheese at 7:30pm! Sometimes, depending what I’ve already eaten that day, I might even just have a salad.
  • Keep moving! I’m just lousy at exercise. Always have been and I think it may be due to some pain from an old injury that steers me away from the prospect of more pain. Nevertheless, I realize I’m going to be in serious pain someday if I don’t keep moving now. So that’s been my mantra lately – keep moving. A regular, rigid schedule does not work for me (although I have been motivated to get up and do yoga in the mornings), so I need to seize any opportunities throughout the week to get moving. Right now I have a goal of yoga 4-5 times a week, and a decent walk (at least 3 miles) at least 3 times a week. I have high hopes that when I get my bike out this year, I’ll be in pretty good shape and able to do 10-12 miles easily at least once or twice a week in place of a walk.
  • Healthy snacks are a must. You know you’re going to snack. This week, I’ve been snacking on homemade bread. Maybe not the worst snack in the world, except when you eat an entire loaf by yourself in one day! But for me, having some fresh veggies cut up and some good frozen fruit available for quick smoothies helps me when I do get those snack cravings.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. So maybe you had a bad winter. Maybe you’re off your game a bit. Remember what many mammals do to survive the winter – they hibernate! I think God intends for our bodies to slow down at times. But it’s spring now, and time to get moving and reinvigorate yourself.
  • Notice what’s working. I’m getting in the habit of looking over my planner almost every night and reviewing my day to see what I accomplished – what worked, what didn’t. Each day that I do something encourages me to do a little more the next day. I am coming to be a firm believer in the art of gentle noticing – a little bit of encouraging goes much farther than the self-scourging we are prone to.

Freezer Pleasers

I’m still not quite adjusted to this new stay-at-home life, but bit by bit, I’m figuring out what works for me. For instance, I still get big ideas in the evening and the middle of the night and am starting to realize it’s OKAY to stay up late or get up early and go with the ideas when they come.

And I’m learning that Mondays and Tuesdays are lousy days to grocery shop! The stores are restocking on Mondays and I swear Tuesdays must be senior citizen day . . . not that I have anything against seniors, seeing as I will be AARP-eligible in a mere decade. But I like having the store basically to myself and that seems to best happen on Friday afternoons. That didn’t happen yesterday however, because I was hanging out at the local outlet mall with my dad (who is hands-down the absolute best shopper in the world!) And I abhor going to the grocery store on the weekends. So I did the next best thing and decided to go grocery shopping in my freezer, which meant the freezer also got a nice organizing makeover. (The big freezer downstairs is practically empty, thanks to the power outage we had a few weeks ago during the big winter storm).

I made a quick list on paper of all the items stuffed into my little upstairs freezer and planned a week or two’s worth of meals around that list: (most of this is leftover bits and pieces from previous meals that I stuff into Ziploc bags).

  • Pre-cooked ground meat – lasagne
  • Chicken breasts – I thawed, diced and cooked today, will use for chicken noodle soup.
  • Chicken parts, already cooked – great for chicken salad sandwiches
  • Sausage patties – breakfast for dinner, perfect with french toast from homemade bread
  • Bacon – oh man, I love my bacon! Mike’s been yammering for BLT’s so that will make an easy dinner some night after a day of spring cleaning (really, I did it last year and am already looking forward to clearing away some of winter’s accumulated dust bunnies)
  • Salmon – my favorite, and good thing, because there’s only a piece or two (Mike hates salmon – he’ll get fish sticks!)
  • Kielbassa – Hm, not sure. He liked it last week when I made it with pierogies and sauerkraut. Or maybe my mom’s famous quick spaghetti, with Velveeta cheese & canned tomatoes.
  • Pepperoni – no brainer here – gotta make some pepperoni rolls and those will be perfect to freeze for Mike’s lunches.
  • Shrimp – I’m thinking shrimp fried rice or something Oriental.
  • Meatloaf – will probably be hot meatloaf sandwiches for Mike some night when I’m out.

I already have the pasta, rice and veggies for most of these meals. That means I can get by with just a milk and fruit run this week. And Aldi’s has this fabulous frozen fruit that I’ve been using to make us smoothies almost every day (me for lunch, Mike for dessert). So woo-hoo – meal planning is done for another week or so and the grocery store successfully avoided!

How about you – any quick meal ideas for using up those odds and ends from your freezer?

Apple Pie, My Eye!

That’s what my sister will most likely say if she reads this post, because she knows I’m not a pie baker. Cookies, cakes, cobblers, bread, nutroll – bring it! Pie just scares me and that is why I always left pie baking to my sister. She can turn out a pie quite handily, and I’m sure she got it from my grandma. I swear, Gram would blink and there’d be a pie – no, make that two! One in the oven and one in the freezer for good measure! If it was sweet enough to be called fruit, it was pie material. For several years, we never knew exactly what she was serving at Thanksgiving as she got on a squash-carrot-pumpkin kick. Local farmers and friends seemed all too happy to share their apple crop with her, knowing they’d probably get a pie in return. In the summer, we’d pick oodles of black raspberries and elderberries and voila! We had pies coming out the wazoo! She baked cakes for our birthdays, and cookies at Christmas, but everyday was the perfect day for pie, in Gram’s book.

It’s amazing to me how I could grow up in the corner of my gram’s kitchen, literally at her elbow, and miss the two most important defining accomplishments for any cook: pie and gravy. I’m happy to say that I’ve satisfactorily mastered gravy, but pie still eludes me. And for the most part, I’ve been content to let my sister be the reigning pie queen. Her first attempt was rather comical. I distinctly remember her asking me how to get the core out of the apple – good question, Deb! And her first batch of crust bombed, so she tossed that right into the trash and began again and I’m pretty sure every pie since has been nothing less than perfect.

I was looking through my gram’s old cookbook recently and laughing because the pages with pie recipes were quite um, shall we say – soiled? Which kind of baffles me, because I never remember her needing a recipe to make either pie or crust!  Anyways, between that, and my friend describing a nine-course dinner she made for Christmas eve, topped off with a homemade apple pie – well, I just had a craving for pie that I needed to satisfy. Never mind that without the help of that  little fat white Pillsbury doughboy, I’ve never been able to pull off a decent crust. It’s time, I decided. Time to master the art of pie baking.

My early rush of success when the crust actually held together was premature. No doubt the little crumbs were clinging together for fear of meeting with my rolling pin and had no intent of staying together for me. I probably shouldn’t have experimented with a whole wheat crust but the idea of “healthy” seemed to offset the huge amount of calories I was about to concoct! I knew I was in trouble when the circumference of the rolled crust was no larger than the pie plate (but why did I think I needed to use a deep dish one?!) Disgusted, I rolled out the top crust, knowing it would be too small to cover the mound of apples and cranberries. Fluting? I don’t think so. I felt like a junior high girl, pulling my too-short skirt down to cover my knees, trying to coax the crust to blanket the fruit. Nothing doing. The only think I did right was put a pan underneath it to catch the overflow that is sure to happen. I’m almost glad my camera card is messed up at the moment, so I don’t feel compelled to share the ugly mess with my readers.

So yeah, apple pie – my eye! For now, I think I’ll stick to bread (sourdough bread is next on my list to try) and cookies, and leave the pie baking to my sister and, in a pinch, that adorable little Pillsbury doughboy!

Update: The pie was definitely edible. I had one piece. And then I realized why I can’t bake pies! I DON’T LIKE PIE!!

Book Review: A Homemade Life

Where would one find tired onions and “old baguettes being jolted to life?” Where do apricots hide, nestling themselves deep in cake batter? A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, by Molly Wizenberg, is simply an enticing and delicious read from start to finish. I confess, I had this book out of the library long enough I could hear the library wardens assembling to hunt me down and retrieve their property. I had to wait three weeks for it on reserve and there was no way I could digest it in the one-week loan time allotted to me.

At one point, I almost coughed it up and returned it. I hadn’t tired of it, but I was feeling sympathy for the next anxious reader. Then I flipped the page and Molly related the story of an email she received from a blog reader early on. Having blogged for over five – yes, five – years now, this piqued my interest. I went on to read one of those oh-so-sweet emails that turned out to be from – aw, no, I can’t ruin it for you like that! Let’s just say I had to keep racking up those library fines until I finished this book. It was still worth the $2.10 fine!

I loved that the chapters loosely chronicled her life, so that you could see how her love for all things food grew over the years, and I love reading about how food has always factored into her relationships. I’ve always said that for me, food is about so much more than merely taste and preparation. It’s about the people you cook for, and the human connections that food facilitates. It’s about the memories that are made, as well as the opportunity to be inspired and to create. I’ll never forget one night several years ago, making knoedels (a rather complicated Austrian bread dumpling) late at night. It so happened that our toilet decided to bite the dust that night, necessitating shutting the water off and using the facilities at my inlaws who live down the street. Mike was incredulous as to why I needed to be cooking at ten o’clock at night. But doing so was a way of connecting to my gram, who had recently passed away, and keeping her memory alive for the rest of my family. I couldn’t help but comply when the spirit moved.

I loved reading about her years in France, and her love for off-the-beaten path French country cooking and being inspired to indulge in some simple French delights. I also loved that most of the dessert and cake recipes were made in just an 8″ round pan, so I don’t feel guilty making more sweets than two people really need! Already I’ve adopted her dijon vinaigrette recipe as my new standard dressing, and I will probably just go buy this book because I “need” to try some of her other recipes. If you love to cook, I’m pretty sure you’ll love A Homemade Life.

Really, Molly!

So I’m scampering through A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, by Molly Wizenberg, and enjoying it immensely! I’ll definitely be purchasing this book – it’s one of those must haves. She just gets it when it comes to food. It’s not about the glamour or the gourmet. It’s about the memories you make along the way. I don’t think it’s something you can exactly orchestrate but at some point you just realize your life is ensconced in all these wonderfully pungent moments and you start snatching them out of the air, left and right, and stuffing them anywhere you can – recipe boxes, slips of paper, blogs or even a book!

Tonight I’m trying out a recipe I found on Molly’s blog, Orangette.  I had to laugh twice though as I read through the instructions (in the intro to her book, she recommends always reading her recipes through first – and I’ve been doing just that – quite unlike me!) At one point she says to sift the dry ingredients together. And I just heard myself saying, “Really, Molly!” In spite of proudly displaying my gram’s old sifter in my kitchen, I have never used it to mix ingredients together. (I did use it once, trying to make vanilla sugar, but that’s a whole ‘nuther post!)

And then further down, she instructs me to incorporate the oatmeal and chocolate chips with a wooden spoon. And once again, I heard myself say, “Really, Molly!” Does she know how weak my wrists are? I know that chocolate chips should not be beaten in except by hand but oatmeal! Just couldn’t do it.

So be honest now – are there any baking or cooking rules you habitually and deliberately break? Has it ever backfired on you? I’d love to hear your confessions. I always say to myself – the cookies don’t know!

(A sad aside: I just noticed that she’s been blogging just a month less than me, since July 2004 to be exact. And she’s written a book and opened a restaurant! Sigh)

Fall Hodgepodge

In an effort to keep the old blog rolling along, not to mention keep my blogging/writing skills honed, I offer you just a bit of this and that:

  • This is my favorite time of year. Although I feel the holiday months ahead shuffling their way to center stage, a splash of autumn color always settles me down, reminds me to breathe. I’m hoping to catch one last leaf-peeping this weekend if we can swing a long drive somewhere.
  • I’m already immersed in my fall reading list. Time may get tight but there’s always room for a few pages of a good book. I’m well into The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Each chapter wraps up with a spiritual practice to consider, and the suggestion is so gentle I can hardly just move on to the next chapter without giving it a try.
  • I’m keeping The Irrational Season at my bedside. That’s exactly where Madeleine L’Engle belongs, at the end of the day, to pause and consider the deeper things of life from her simple and practical perspective.
  • But Molly Wizenberg’s A homemade life : stories and recipes from my kitchen table has been fast-tracked to the top of my list, due to the fact that I have it on a one-week library loan and I despise having overdue books. The fact that there were 12 holds on it inspired me to dive right in. Actually I’ll probably end up buying this book, for the recipes alone. Julie and Julia reminded me of my Gram’s determination to master some French cooking techniques. Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper the Knife, the Less You’ll Cry inspired me to follow my own dreams. But Molly Wizenberg makes me want to get into the kitchen and cook. Period. Any book that starts off with a recipe for one’s father’s potato salad is sure to be a winner!
  • I do have a life outside of books, believe it or not. And October is just a cool month to enjoy that life, as it’s full of family birthdays (nephew and brother-in-law), anniversaries (ours and my sister’s) and oh – my own birthday!
  • I was rear-ended yesterday, to add a little excitement to the month. I’m sore but otherwise okay and I have to say the insurance process was relatively painless.
  • We’ve been hearing critter racket around here lately. Honestly it was so loud the other morning, my dog was barking at who knows what. I was certain a racoon had set up home in our attic. Turns out birds are seeking shelter in our woodstove chimney. Can’t blame them – the gameroom is my favorite place to be too. Mike opened the stove tonight though and Mr. Sparrow Jr. flapped around the house for a while. He is lucky Mike is an animal-lover; when I got home all the windows upstairs were opened. We shooed him out from behind the desk and eventually he headed back outside where he belongs! Obviously we need our chimney checked!
  • That’s it for the most part. Gotta run . . . I got something in the oven. It’s not food, it’s not a baby but it’s big and exciting and  . . . well, that’s all I can say for now.