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Archive for May, 2012

Alright, kids, here’s the first official installment of What’s for Dinner! The weather’s turned hot & humid, so all my warm-weather standards suddenly sound a lot more appetizing than they did last week.

Tonight: Zucchini & Feta Pancakes, using summer squash from last week’s trip to market. Serving them with steamed potatoes & leftover spaghetti sauce from the other night. This is an awesome summer supper, & I’ll blog the recipe soon.

Tomorrow: Home-made Pizza.

Sunday: Veggie dogs & burgers on the grill, with red potato salad. Because hey, it’s Memorial Day weekend.

The rest of the week’s dinners, in no particular order:

Purple Fried Rice with Tofu & Vegetables. Penderbrook’s at market has started carrying some hard-to-find dry goods, including an awesome purple short grain rice. I bought a bag on impulse a few weeks ago, so it’s time to make it happen. The vegetables will be the odds & ends from the crisper drawer…

Felafel with Cucumber & Tomato Salad, warm pita bread & tahini yoghurt sauce. It’s still a little early for local cucumbers & tomatoes, but I’m willing to make an exception thanks to a sudden & severe craving for felafel.

Panko-Crusted Tuna with Nori Rice & steamed asparagus. I’ve got tuna in the freezer from last week, & the local asparagus has been gorgeous. Nori Rice is just cooked brown rice tossed with a crumbled sheet of toasted nori seaweed & a few shakes of soy sauce.

We’ve got soccer practice this week, so Wednesday night will be sandwiches & bananas & whatever else we can shove in our mouths in the 20 minutes we have before running out the door. I’ll make sure to get more fruit & yoghurt tomorrow so we can do smoothies on the fly, too.

So, what are you making for dinner?

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You know you’re getting really old when you start meal planning, right? In my mind, that’s something old age pensioners did, a habit picked up during The War & never discarded. Fish on Fridays, lamb on Tuesdays, each meal carefully choreographed to make every last penny of groceries count. My mum did it, too, mapping out the week’s menu in her steno book in what seemed to 15-year-old me the ultimate expression of middle-age stodginess.

When I moved out on my own, I cooked what I felt like eating, when I felt like eating it. Meringues for supper at 9 o’clock at night? Sure! Pasta with butter & pepper for the third dinner in a row? What the hell! Daikon radishes & cheese for lunch, because that’s all that’s left in the fridge? Um, yay?…

Needless to say, 20 years later, with a son & husband relying on me for regular sustenance, I’ve come around to the whole idea of meal planning. For a long time, I’d take the whatever-looks-good approach when I went shopping, & figure out what to do with it when I got home. This was fine at the height of summer, when beautiful produce piles in hand over fist & there’s a veritable rainbow from which to choose.

But by the middle of winter, I’d find myself cooking the same few meals over & over again. Dinnertime would come & I’d have no idea what to make & we’d be so hungry, we’d just order out. And inevitably I’d find a bag of furry green beans/block of questionable tofu/semi-liquefied zucchini buried in the back of the fridge that I’d bought on a whim & totally forgotten. For our sanity & for the sake of our food budget, something had to change. With a shred of reluctance, I decided to start planning out our meals each week.

My goal was to make a list of 5-6 dinners that used as many ingredients that we already had in-house as possible, that took into account seasonal produce above nearly all else, & that got us a wide variety of tasty, healthy dishes we’d all eat. This meant finding something to do with that big bag of couscous in the back of the pantry, not making bell pepper-laden chili in the middle of November, & no more weekly fish stick dinners.

Did I feel like a doddering old lady when I first started? Oh yes. Did I feel like a bit of a prat at the grocery store, my shopping list in hand, passing over gorgeous but out-of-season strawberries for sensible cauliflower & sweet potatoes? You bet I did. Did we notice a difference in how well we were eating, & how much less it was costing us? Can I get a hell yes?!

My first step was to make a list of all the dinners that I knew I could make with my eyes closed, that fit the above criteria. Then I hauled out my favorite cookbooks & added things that I’d been meaning to make more often but that usually slipped under the radar. This became my Master List, & it lives on the fridge.

Each Friday evening, I grab a Post-It & rifle through the fridge & pantry & take stock of what we already have in the house. Then I see what I can make with it, drawing from The List & from my trusty cookbooks. Once I have my menu for the week planned out, I make my shopping lists – one for the farmers’ market, one for the grocery store. On a good day, the whole process takes 15-20 minutes.

I’m not so far gone as to plot the actual days we’ll eat certain things, but I make a point to arrange some fast dinners for soccer nights, longer-cooking dishes for when I know I’ll be able to get a head-start before the boys get home. I plan one fish-based meal & one tofu-based meal a week, & aim for something green every night. Home-made pizza is usually a given, & I try to make a soup or stew that can be frozen for emergency/lazy nights later in the month.

I can honestly say that we are eating much, much better than we were a year ago. We’re spending a lot less on groceries, with a lot less waste, & aren’t doing the desperation-dinner-out dance nearly as much as we used to. Yes, I still sometimes find wrinkly old carrots hiding in the back of the crisper drawer, & the Thai place round the corner still knows us by name. But I made vegetarian shepherd’s pie for the first time in ages the other week, with rough-mashed red potatoes. It was pretty damn tasty…

So, in the spirit of community & sharing the minutiae of our lives, I’ll be posting our What’s for Dinner list each week. Feel free to post your own lists, too – never too many good ideas…

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Sunday pancakes

As a busy little family, I like having a few small rituals to circle the wagons once in a while, things we do together that help us slow down & enjoy each others company. Home made pizza night, Movie Mondays, our Saturday morning trips to the farmers’ market… not big, flashy activities, just simple moments we can all enjoy.

For us, Sunday mornings mean a lie in, a leisurely pot of coffee, some records on the hi-fi, & home made pancakes.

For some reason, I resisted making pancakes from scratch until well into my 20s. I chalk it up to my work as a short order cook – I knew which commercial mixes I liked, & got glowing reviews on my pancakes from my patrons, so why mess with success?

It wasn’t until we got married & a dear friend gave me a copy of Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess that I stepped away from the bag mix & started making my own. Irony of ironies, it took an English woman to get this Anglo-Canadian to make American-style pancakes. But she made it sound so effortless, & I could hardly call myself a cook whilst being cowed by such a simple recipe, so off I went.

10 years later, my copy of Nigella’s book has a conspicuous film of flour & oil over the pages involving her pancakes. Let the book drop & it falls open naturally to that spot. I have made literally hundreds of batches, & have the recipe (& several variations) committed to memory. C routinely helps me, standing on a kitchen chair & asking to taste everything, including the flour. It’s one of those recipes I hope my boys beg for some day when they want to make breakfast for a special someone.

***

Classic American Pancakes

Makes 6-8 large cakes

3/4 c all purpose flour

3/4 c whole wheat flour

1/3 c quick oats

1 T baking powder

1/4 t salt

A shake or two of ground cinnamon or nutmeg

3/4 c plain yoghurt

3/4 c milk

2 eggs, beaten

2 T unsalted butter, melted

First, pre-heat your cooking surface. If you can at all manage it, well seasoned cast iron is the way to go. Heated thoroughly, it provides an even but intense heat that yields crisp, tender cakes. That said, a heavy non-stick pan will work fine. Cast iron needs a good 10 minutes to pre-heat over a low to medium flame; non-stick should only be heated for a few minutes before cooking.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl – use a whisk to aerate the mixture & thoroughly distribute the baking powder. Don’t bother sifting – this is breakfast, let’s not get over complicated. (Yes, you can use all white flour, & skip the oats if you want. I think they add a really nice texture, so try them once, at least.)

In a smaller bowl or jug, combine the milk, yoghurt & eggs. You can add a splash of vanilla or lemon oil here, if you want to be fancy. Beat the mixture thoroughly so the eggs are broken up completely.

Pour the egg & milk mixture into the dry ingredients, & use a fork or your whisk to roughly stir them together. Add the melted butter once all the flour’s moistened. Don’t fuss about lumps, but do make sure there are no dry pockets lurking at the bottom of the bowl.

Now, adjust your batter to get the texture you want… thick, pillowy batter will give you thick, high cakes; slightly smoother, thinner batter will give you low, flippy cakes. There’s no right or wrong way, just add a slosh of milk or another tablespoon of flour until it looks right.

I like to let my batter rest for a few minutes, to let the baking powder start to activate. Go top up your coffee & get the butter & syrup ready.

Mist or brush your pan with a tiny bit of vegetable oil (not butter – it has a low smoke point, & is prone to burn if not monitored closely), & ladle about half a cup of batter onto your nice hot pan. This will give you a 6-7-inch cake. Use a quarter cup or less if you like the smaller-&-more-of-them approach.

Let your cake cook gently until you see bubbles begin to pop on the surface, & the edge just starts to set. Lift up an edge to make sure the bottom isn’t getting too brown too fast – lower the heat a bit if it is. Use a nice wide, sturdy turner to flip your cake & cook the other side. Check the color on the bottom again, & when it bounces back from a finger-prod in the middle it’s done. Transfer your cake to a plate & pop it in a low oven to keep warm while you cook the rest. Or eat as you go – that’s what we do in our house.

I like mine with fruit-rich jam, J has his with maple syrup & butter, & C is besotted with Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Dress your cakes as you will…

Variations:

  • Replace half the whole wheat flour with another flour – buckwheat is the obvious choice, but quinoa flour, very fine cornmeal, barley flour, even potato flour could be used for new exciting textures.
  • Use all buttermilk instead of the milk & yoghurt. Confession: I never, ever have buttermilk in the house, so the milk & yoghurt thing was my way of faking it. The acidity boosts the baking powder’s oomf & gives a lovely tang to the batter that counterbalances any sweet toppings.
  • Oats, wheat flakes, barley flakes, leftover rice, have at you. Or none of the above.
  • To do blueberry cakes, scatter a handful of fresh/frozen berries over the batter once it’s on the pan – don’t mix them into the batter, they’ll just bleed & go green. Treat blackberries/raspberries/chocolate chips the same way. And rainbow sprinkles, but they tend to melt into the batter & not look as cool as you’d expected.
  • Want to make your kids’ heads explode? TIGER PANCAKES. Or leopard/giraffe/dalmatian. Pull out about a cup of batter into a small bowl, & add a tablespoon of cocoa powder. Pour a ladle of plain batter onto the pan, then use a squeeze bottle/pastry bag/zip-loc with the corner cut off to pipe chocolate batter designs over it. Write their names, draw smiley faces, or make stripes/spots. Seriously fun, & it blows their tiny minds.

Fry ’em up!

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Pushing up

After a stupidly busy April, we finally found a free weekend & got our hands dirty, potting up seedlings & prepping the veg plot for another growing season.

While we do buy some vegetable plants from our local independent nursery, I’ve been trying to do more of our own from seed. For one, it’s ridiculously cost effective. But more importantly, starting from seed gets my hands in the soil for the full life cycle of our plants. The primeval magic of putting a tiny blackish brown speck in some dirt & having a huge yellow squash to show for it a few month later never ceases to amaze me. It helps me practice letting go of the blistering pace of modern life & brings a much deeper appreciation of the sweat, sun & rain that goes into what we consume.

To start our seeds, I’ve dinked around with peat pucks & grow-a-toriums & whatnot, but this year I went the seriously cheap & easy route. On occasion, we buy organic salad greens at the grocery store – they come in a rather stupid amount of plastic wrapping for something touted as “green”, including a large hinged clamshell container. I’ve been hoarding them in a pile in the kitchen all winter, & back in late March put them into service as mini greenhouses.

I used a special seed-starting mix this year, & while I don’t normally promote specialized/overpriced nonsense, I will say that in this case, the extra step was worth it. In previous years when I’ve used regular potting soil, I’ve had problems with the soil getting waterlogged & seedlings damping off. The seed starting mix is decidedly lighter & drains far better, making it much easier to keep delicately moist. It’s also a lovely fine texture, very easy for sprouting seedlings to push through.

My clamshell containers are about 4 inches deep, so after poking a few drainage holes in the bottom & corners with a steak knife (all class over here), I filled them with about 1.5 inches of starting mix, adding a bit of water at a time & mixing by hand to make sure it was evenly damp. C helped me position the seeds, a fun job for tiny fingers. Once the seeds were in, I dusted a thin layer of extra starting mix over the top, just to make sure everyone was covered nicely.

We had a ridiculously warm winter & a very temperate spring, so I was able to put our greenhouse boxes outside very early this year. I kept them inside at night for the first few weeks, but they were out on a table in the back yard during the day almost from the time we planted them. I monitored the exposure & vented the lids on sunny days to keep the heat from building up too much. I left the lids open completely when it rained, & the drainage holes performed admirably.  Keeping the lids closed or only partially open really helped to retain the moisture & hold in the heat, & we saw our first sprouts within a week of planting.

Nearly 2 months later, our babies were big enough to transplant into their own pots. By this time, all the local shops were out of my preferred peat pots, so I used paper coffee cups instead. (Again, with the application of a steak knife for drainage holes.) I used a mix of organic garden soil & potting soil, for a blend that drains easily but has lots of organic matter for the young plants to feast on.

It was a pretty nice way to spend a hot afternoon, parked under our cherry tree putting tiny plants into cups.

As usual, we overplanted with the tomatoes. It’s an affliction born of our love of heirlooms & tomato-bread salad. This year is particularly exciting, as we’ve managed to revive seed that we collected from our community garden in Chicago. That’s right, folks, we got 6-year old seed to sprout, & sprout happily. Specifically, we are trying to resurrect two varieties that we fell in love with but have been unable to replicate using stock from local nurseries – Old German & Black of Turin (a variety that I can’t find info on anywhere). Both are huge sprawling heirlooms that yielded big lumpy, luscious fruit well into the mid western fall, so we have high hopes for an even longer season here in PA.

I put in a packet of Black Krim seeds as well, as what has turned out to be an unnecessary safety measure. We’ve also got a few yellow squash seedlings going, & Rainbow Sherbet & Sugar Baby watermelons, both of which will go in the  ground once we’re a bit further past the last frost date of May 4th.

And what are we going to do with all these tomato seedlings? Assuming they all survive the transplanting & mature quickly, we’ll be looking for homes for them. Post a comment or find me on Facebook if you’re local & would like to add to your tomato garden.

It’s a lovely rainy day today, but I’ll try to get over to the main garden & take some photos once we’ve got the paper & straw down. Training green beans & peas up the wrought iron fence & experimenting with a trellis for the unruly yellow pear tomatoes this year… What’s in your garden?

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