baby food for non-babies (aka adults)

The biggest development in our small world these past days are the two stubby teeth in the mouth of our seven month old. With these tiny pearls has come the desire to ‘taste and see’ with an emphasis on the ‘tasting’ part – our son is biting everything. Everything. If it’s a thing – be it his dearest mama’s finger or the head of his beloved stuffed cow – he’s biting it.

I try to stay ahead of the game and offer a variety of baby teeth-friendly items for him to chew on and sometimes I’m even on top of it enough to give him actual foods to chew. Yes indeed, lovely readers, we have entered the bewildering world of baby food. Once upon a time I thought it was going to be rather simple – you take food, you make it into a paste, you insert it into the infant’s mouth. Rinse and repeat.  Not so. Turns out that while my little one will *bite* anything, he is a little more particular about the things he will actually eat. Go figure.  Before he was born, I stocked up on organic baby food in those adorable jars, tucking them away in the very back of the pantry, hardly believing that I might have a little person someday to eat them. When the time came and I excitedly opened one of the mini jars, warmed it to the perfect temperature and then dumped a decent-sized spoonful into Bru’s open mouth. He acted as though I had forced him to eat dirt. The gagging, the eye twitching, the entire body convulsions that followed this and subsequent organic Gerber meals convinced me that jarred baby food – no matter how lovingly gathered and hopefully offered – were not his thing. He wants Big People Food. Lesson learned. The End.

Of all the Big People Food we’ve tried since, without a doubt his favorite is stewed apples with coconut cream and exotic spices. I know, right – I’ve unwittingly produced some sort of infant gourmet. Honestly though, I can’t blame him. I tried the baby peas and the word that stuck in my mind was, “Yuck”.

If sterile, one dimensional, Little People Foods are at the far side of the infant menu, this creamy concoction has brought us up close and personal with delightful Big People Food. It’s awake, it’s alive, it’s deep and reminiscent of apple pie filling…oh, so tasty

 

Little Bear’s Big People Stewed Apples

 

4 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples of your choice (can be substituted for 3 cups of readymade, unsweetened apple sauce)

1/2 cup water (omit if using applesauce)

1/2 cup coconut cream

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp  ground cardamom

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

optional maple syrup to taste

 

In a large saucepan, stew down the apple slices with the water on low heat until they reach the desired constancy. I like mine a little chunky and it doesn’t matter for Bru because they’re going to be pureed anyway, so I usually let them cook 15-20 minutes. If you are using applesauce, simply pour into a pan and warm on medium. Once the apple slices are softened and melting, or the sauce is warm, add the coconut cream, spices and maple syrup if you want it sweetened. Stir well and let simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Serve at the perfect temperature.

There are several variations that we’ve played around with and they’ve earned a full stamp of approval from everyone who’s tasted them. The first is to add 1/2 a cup or more of fresh cranberries cut in half to the apples while they are stewing down. This adds a delightful tang that makes the little bear pucker up but come back eager for more until the bowl is empty. Something the Big People enjoy is spooning the warm, stewy goodness over ice-cream after the Little Person has gone to bed. It’s a delightful reward after the sun has set… Enjoy!

 

 

smothered chicken… and I mean *really* smothered chicken, but not with gravy because I’m on a fancy diet

This is one of my all-time favorite recipes. Ever.

“Smothered in what?” I hear someone from the peanut gallery holler and I understand completely – it *does* sound rather violent. Let me explain; traditionally and in its simplest form, Smothered Chicken is chicken that has been simmered in and then served under or ‘smothered’ in a seasoned gravy. And when I say ‘smothered’ I mean, of course,  ‘comforted to death’. Isn’t that nicer? Let’s call my recipe “Comforted Chicken”.

I am a girl who loves her gravy and given free reign and unstoppable arteries I would consume it on everything from oatmeal to ice cream (eew). But, happily, I am reigned in by my vow of health and well-being and so am constantly on the look-out for delectable dishes that won’t comfort me to death. This is one of them. It’s my loose adaptation of Smothered Chicken; chicken simmered in a silky, tangy, lemony-oniony Sauce. It is easy, satisfying and tasty. And when I say ‘tasty’ I mean, of course, ‘lip-smacking, plate-licking, go-back-for-thirds GOOD”.

I like to serve this dish with a side of wilted spinach and maybe a whole-grain pilaf. YUM. I’ve got myself all worked up for it… good thing I’ve got some chicken in the fridge because I think I need some comforting…

 

Comforted Chicken

6 chicken thighs or an equal amount of breast meat

4 onions

2 cloves garlic

1 lemon

1 cup chicken stock

2-3 Tablespoons butter, olive oil, coconut oil or other cooking fat

salt and pepper to taste

We’ve discussed the slicing of onions in previous columns and decided that ‘thinly’ is one of the most vague cooking instructions available. All the same, I am going to ask you to do it. Slice your onions thinly. Use your own good sense and just get them into slices. We can do this. Tears will ensue, but it’ll be worth it in the end. Once the onions are dealt with, slice up your garlic and then put a large skillet on medium heat. Once the skillet has heated up, add your fat and the onions. Let them brown up a little, stirring frequently to avoid any burning. Throw the garlic in with its cousin and then lower the heat. You want the onions and garlic to simmer *without burning* until they are all very limp, very translucent and almost saucy on their own – just this side of caramelized. This will probably take about 5-6 minutes.

The chicken has been patiently waiting for its turn in the pan and now is the time. Squiggie the onions around so that you can fit the chicken pieces, skin down, in the skillet. Let the skin brown against the bottom of the pan before flipping them over and adding the chicken stock. Let it simmer for 10 minutes or so. Boneless pieces cook faster than bone-in so be aware of that if you’ve substituted. If you want to speed the process up, you can cover the skillet with a pot lid.

Now it’s time for the lemon. You thought I had forgotten, didn’t you? Lay the slices around in the skillet and then let the whole thing simmer for another 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. If it seems that the liquid is getting too low, you can always add a little more broth – but not too much! The goal is to have the sauce work itself out as the chicken is cooking. You may need to lower the heat and just be a little more patient.

When the chicken has cooked thoroughly (use a thermometer to check – I always have to) you are ready to serve your masterpiece. It’s going to smell like heaven… oh boy! The onions will have melted away into savory goodness that will blend with the lemon and make a sauce that you will lick off your plate. It makes even I, the Gravy Queen, say, “Gravy? Who needs gravy when you have a sauce like THIS?”  Enjoy…

 

i promise to eat lunch

I do the same thing every year; sit down a couple of days before the new year begins and write out my resolutions. I completely ignore the fact that last year’s resolve got me about two weeks into January and set my sights on a three-week victory this time.

What am I resolving to do, you might ask? Probably the same sort of things that you are: eat healthier, get more exercise, read more,  dance like no one is watching, love like I never got hurt (wait, isn’t that a country song?), write a New York Time’s best-selling children’s book and retire to a farm on the coast of Maine… that last one may just be me. Other resolutions include getting a full night’s sleep and not forgetting to eat breakfast and lunch.

Speaking of eating, I do have some thoughts about that; I want to eat healthier. Not just follow some crazy health fad I read about in the doctor’s waiting room, but genuinely eat more nourishing, health-giving foods. You know what that means, don’t you? No more recipes for bacon chocolate chip cookies in your charming local newspaper! No siree, you’re getting the good stuff and only the good stuff from here on out. Foods that will have your innards glowing with health and vitality.  You might just explode with goodness (let’s just not and say we did, eh?).  We won’t be able to KEEP from succeeding in at least that one resolution.  Are you with me?  Here, I’ll say it for you, “Yes we are!”

Good deal, let’s start then, shall we? I don’t know about you, but I forget to eat lunch *almost* every day. It’s a terrible fault, but it’s one that I am working on. It’s so annoying to me to have to stop and make something to eat. It’s like going to the bathroom, a big fat bother and an interruption, I feel like I’m wasting time. Now, if I have to make lunch for Alex I’m fine – I don’t mind cooking for him, but if it’s just for me I get all huffy and red in the face and usually, conveniently, forget. Alas – no more! I’m resolving to eat lunch and a healthy lunch at that, every day if I can help it.  This recipe is one that I whipped up in a moment of red-faced huffiness the other day and then quickly devoured; it was so good I didn’t even mind that I had take time to eat it.

Chunky Tomato Bisque  – The Quick and Healthy Version

28 oz can of diced tomatoes

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp butter or olive oil

1 tsp fresh basil, chopped (you can use dried basil, too)

1/2 cup full fat coconut milk

salt and pepper to taste

That’s it! Round up the usual suspects and heat up a soup pot on low. Add the oil and then the garlic. You want to stir the garlic so that it doesn’t scorch. Scorched garlic equals nasty – remember that. Several precious minutes will pass, but that’s ok, it’s going to be worth it. Once the garlic is nicely browned but before it gets crunchy, open your can of tomatoes and pour them in along with the basil, coconut milk and some salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, let cook for 5-10 minutes and then – viola – lunch is served, preferably with a grilled cheese sandwich or a salad if you’re *really* resolved.

Let’s talk for a moment about the ingredients. By using organic ingredients, you can boost the soup’s health benefits to hulk-like proportions. Non-organic ingredients = weak and nerdy Dr. Bruce Banner; Organic ingredients = crazy big and green raging health machine – and nobody has to get angry. Don’t be tempted to go with skim coconut milk, either. Coconut fat is what is giving this soup staying power and another great dose of healthiness, plus it makes it nice and creamy and rich… yum.  We need fat, so long as it’s the right kind!

Well, my friends, we’re all in this together – here’s to another great year! Enjoy…

Christmas Eve Memories

The apartment complex courtyard was unusually silent and empty. The snow had fallen after the residents of The Gardens had gone in for the night and nothing stirred, nothing made a sound. The tall, blank-faced buildings were hushed under a thin quilt of white and the air was so cold that it caught in my throat and brought tears to my eyes. The night was painfully crisp and clear and the stars glittered like shattered glass in the depth of black sky. I felt as though I had stepped into a fairy tale. We rarely got much snow, especially for Christmas and it was often blown about by violent East winds, filling the ditches and piling against houses and fences leaving nothing but a dusting on the grass. Tonight the wind was quiet and every inch of the dusty courtyard ground was covered in Snow. My brothers and I were bundled up against the frigid night air with only our noses and eyes exposed and those froze in the moments it took us to walk down the sidewalk to the parking lot where our big maroon van was parked.

We were on our way to midnight mass at the small, old church in town. It was deliciously late, another rarity, but it was Christmas Eve and if any night during the year was ripe for irregularity, this was it. I yawned and shivered as Mom ushered us toward the van. The stillness of the night seemed to seep in through our many bulky layers and infuse us with quiet awe. We piled in and after buckling up, covered ourselves with the several heavy comforters that were waiting for us in the back. Our van had no heat so we had to make the best with what we did have – blankets and comforters. I wrapped myself up, pulling the quilt over my head  and tight against my body and then rested my exposed forehead on the window beside me. The icy glass was painful at first but soon warmed to my skin and I dozed as we drove into town.

The church was almost as quiet as the town streets. The sanctuary with its wooden pews and broad, dark beams looked majestic decked in greenery and red velvet. The walls were baptized with the light of what seemed to be hundreds of candles and the flames danced and trembled around the shadows of the other members who had gathered. Hymns were sung, prayers said and as the bells tolled midnight, a tiny statue of the Christ Child was laid in the straw of the manger scene before the altar. It was all so achingly beautiful to me as a child and I sat on the flattened cushion of the pew, half asleep, with tears in my eyes.

When the service was over and the great wooden front doors opened, cold night air came rushing in and ended what seemed to be a dream. The congregants  milled out and went back to their homes while we made the short hike back to our big, chilly van. We bundled in once more, this time with a little more commotion because we were *not* going home as all the others were. The silence had been broken and our Christmas had begun. We were headed to a friend’s house where we would spend the holiday. Literally over the river and through the woods, across fields and to the next county we drove in the middle of the night towards our friend’s cozy farm where warm beds and Christmas morning waited for us. Presents, snow and a delicious brunch were just on the other side of sleep.

Christmas Brunch

1 lb bulk sausage

1 cup chopped onions

3 cups cooked spinach

1 red pepper, chopped

1 cup flour

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 tsp salt

2 cups milk

8 eggs

1 cup shredded cheese

Heat oven to 425 degrees

Grease a 13×9 inch pan. Brown sausage, onions and garlic and then spread the mix on the bottom of the pan. Top with cooked spinach. Mix other ingredients in a bowl before pouring over the sausage. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is firmed. Cool for 5 minutes before serving.

A Merry Christmas to You and Yours from Me and Mine… Enjoy!

before he hits repeat

Someone – please stop my brother.

The youngest one of us (who is also usually the most jolly) has been needling us to anarchy for weeks now.

“Can I play Christmas Music?”

“Let’s turn on some… Christmas Music…”

“Who’s for a little bit of … Christmas Music!!?”

“Oh good – I’ll sweep the floor… andplaychristmasmusic…”

He thinks if he inserts these words quickly enough into a normal, every day, inconspicuous conversation that we the old ones will be duped into saying, “Oh sure – wonderful idea!”  He thinks wrong.

As my brother must learn, there are rules. There is protocol. There are expectations and reservations and limitations that keep time from happening all at once and becoming a Horrific Mess. The End. And since I am so much older and so much more experienced and so much wiser, I see that these boundaries are what give the holidays their extra glimmer. If we go around playing Christmas music all helter-skelter any ol’ time – we will wear it out and the world might end, or we might start another Black Plague, or at the very least we will all be sick of the sound of it by the time Christmas actually rolls around. We, the old ones, must preserve the sanctity of the holidays from they, the jolly ones. *steps off soap box*

At any rate, the fact is that the holidays are approaching at a frighteningly swift pace, and I can’t believe it. I’m still dawdling around wondering when the trees will reach peak color. How did I get so far behind? Keep up, Ann! In just a few days the Christmas music will start and reality will set in and I must be prepared.

A huge part of the holidays, for me at least, is the food. Yay food! The oldest brother said to me several weeks ago that he was planning on loosing something in the neighborhood of 20 pounds in preparation for the holidays. I have no idea how far he’s come towards that goal, but I admire his gumption. November and December have a cruel way with waistlines, and it’s terrifying and mystifying and wonderful all at once.

The recipe I’m going to share this week is a little secret weapon in the food-fight that will begin in mere hours. It’s a veritable bomb of comfort and joy that utilizes handy leftovers as well as several other ingredients that aren’t Holiday specific at all, just in case you need to call a time-out and recoup your losses.

 

Turkey Soup with Quinoa and Spinach

otherwise known as ‘Holiday Pause Soup’

You will need:

3-4 quarts of turkey (or chicken) broth

1/2 pound turkey meat (which could always be increased or decreased to your preference)

10 oz frozen spinach

1/2 cup quinoa

1/2 medium sized onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, diced

salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbsp butter or olive oil

Optional other leftover ingredients such as corn, chopped roasted veggies, etc.

 

Dice the onions and garlic and then sauté them in your butter or oil in a large soup pot. When the onions are translucent and limp, add your quinoa and let it brown for a minute or two. Then pour in the broth and cap it. Let the quinoa simmer in the broth for half an hour or so before adding the rest of the ingredients. I think a little pureed squash or sweet potatoes would add such great texture and taste fabulous! Let this boil until the spinach is cooked, about 10 – 15 additional minutes and then you are ready to serve. It’s a clever way to change the outfit of heavy holiday foods and add some much needed yule-tide greenery to your dish.

Well, gentle reader, so it begins. Are you ready? Make sure to double up on your vitamin C and get enough liquids in the midst of all the merry making. Honor the things that make this time of year precious and don’t be afraid to take a pause every now and then to reset and recharge. Have a bowl of soup, count your blessings and go forth and be merry!

 

Entertaining Angels

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have even entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

It was actually something my husband and I discussed quite a bit before we got married – hospitality. I was raised around a table that often had guests seated at it and I wanted to continue that practice in my own home. Alex took that a step further and said that we must always have a spare bedroom for the guests who needed a place to stay the night. He lives with the assurance that we could travel nearly anywhere in the United States and have a bed waiting for us, his friends and relations are scattered across the map and would welcome us. He wanted to be such a spot on the map, a place of promised welcome.

In the almost two years of our marriage, our little home has been pressed into service more times than I can count. There is an empty bed and several empty chairs waiting for company, and that’s exactly what how we want it.  We have had the privilege of entertaining friends, family and strange angels alike and hope to do the same for many more as long as we have a roof and food to share.

The meals are often far from perfect (like my soupy lasagna, or the lemon pie with the inedible cardboard crust) and the spare room isn’t always completely free from storage (guests can go to sleep after counting boxes of diapers and spare cookbooks), but I like to think that we make up for that in warmth and good conversation!

Our little son is turning into quite the host, giving our visitors his best grins and entertaining them with long stories about his morning bath or nap time woes before demonstrating the strength of his tiny lungs or the great size or his appetite.  I think his charm is going to go a long way towards smoothing over the rough edges of imperfect cooking! This past week we had one of Alex’s childhood friends over for dinner. Mike lives in California now and was back in the area visiting his family and we asked him over for the evening. We had baked chicken, wild rice pilaf, and roasted butternut squash and then ice cream for dessert. Alex said that the squash was one of the more delicious things I’ve made to date so I thought I would share that recipe.  Squash is a perfect side dish this time of year. You can get all different varieties of squash at the local markets, but our favorites are acorn and butternut.  I have used this recipe for sweet potatoes, too and found it quite delicious!

 

Roasted Butternut Squash

1 large or 2 small butternut squash

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 Tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon poultry seasoning

1/4 cup maple syrup

13″x9″ baking dish

350 degree oven

 

Peel and dice your squash into 2-3 inch chunks – seems like a simple enough task, but I’ve been trying for years to find an easy way to go about this. So far, the most tear-free way I’ve found is thus: peeling the squash with a sturdy veggie peeler then using my Big Knife to halve it and chop it into cubes after the ‘guts’ have been scooped out with a sturdy spoon.

Toss the cubes into the waiting baking dish and add the remaining ingredients. Give it all a good toss to mix it together before popping it in the oven for about an hour. It’s ready to serve when the cubes are easily pierced with a fork or knife.

This is a good season for opening our doors to family, friends and angels, even as the windows are closing and cold weather is setting in, you never know who is going to bring an unexpected blessing with them. The food doesn’t need to be complicated as long as the hearts are warm that offer it!  Enjoy…

 

my german summer

The German appeared on the horizon like a subtle storm, exciting from a distance with all the intrigue and mystery of a tumultuous dark cloud. He came with his charm, his attitude, his quaint way of coloring outside the lines with the English language and a fascinating way of rolling cigarettes like the cowboys we’d seen in movies.

He refused to disclose his exact birthday and acted like a nineteen year old most of the time but his eyes and stories and balding head  betrayed the many years he had actually lived through. He had been every where and done every thing that was exciting and exotic and somehow ended up in the middle of corn country USA working on an organic farm in exchange for room and board and a chance to learn firsthand about America. The farmers he boarded with happened to be friends of ours and that’s how we met our German. I was 16 at the time and my brothers and I fell nearly head-over-heels in love with his grand adventures, foreign ways and delicious German food.

Unfortunately, in spite of his great size and athletic build that would have made him a top-notch farm hand, the German realized all too late that he really, truly, honestly and desperately hated to farm. He hated picking beans. He hated canning tomato sauce. He hated getting up early. He hated being hot and sweaty. He hated being in a small town where nothing happened. He did, however, love to cook and eat and swim and sit by a smoldering campfire and play mournful songs on an old guitar. The focus of his stay quickly became Food which meant he spent a great deal of time at our house in the kitchen with my mom, whipping up delightful things for us to eat. I do believe that was the only summer ever that I actually Put On weight instead of losing it. We had schnitzel and spatzle and creamy soups with brussel sprouts (or ‘Rose Cabbages’ as he called them), we made sour pickles in crocks and stomped sauerkraut with our feet using a centuries old secret family recipe he requested from his mother. At the end of the day, when we had finished our own batch of farm work and he had sung all of his sad songs by the fire, we ate thick slices of “Bee Sting Cake” while he told us what it was like to grow up on the East side of the Berlin Wall.

In September, the German left us – heavier and a little wiser about the world at large. No doubt he was glad to be heading back to his familiar life and I dare say we weren’t broken hearted to be getting back to ours. The only thing we truly had in common was our love of food and excellent after-dinner conversation. We had a small stack of handwritten recipes and he most assuredly never took his glamorous city life for granted again. It was a win-win situation.

This is one of our favorite recipes, absolutely the oddest thing I have ever eaten and you must try it before you judge it too harshly.

Soyunka (or, “Junk Food Soup”)

1 bunch of green onions, chopped

1 sweet red peppers, chopped

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1 20 oz can tomato sauce plus one can water

1 1/2 cups dill pickle slices *with* the juice

1 1/2 cup sauerkraut

2 Tablespoon parsley flakes

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 cup chopped ham, bologna, sausage… any kind of cheap meat

Don’t laugh – it’s no joke, these are actually the ingredients! Saute the onions, peppers and mushrooms in butter or olive oil until they are limp. Add to a large soup pot then throw in the remaining ingredients. Cook on medium for 20 minutes or so then serve with crusty bread. It’s out of the ordinary, slightly alarming and leaves a strong impression, almost like the combination of homeschooling Midwest farmers and a city-wise German, but you only live once, might as well dive in and taste it, right? Enjoy!