Category Archives: Easy Living

I Guess it’s Something


Hi all! I sort of don’t know where to pick up, where we left off. My last few posts haven’t been of the food related nature, not that we haven’t been eating but because we haven’t been eating anything that I felt was worth sharing, you know? I’m trying to fine-tune a new series of shop once, cook ahead, prep while you can sort of posts, but they’re a lot of work and I need to get a few in the bag before I can start sending them to you. Also, I need ideas for these posts, so I know what you all do on a busy weeknight (other than grab some take away box from somewhere): What is your favorite go-to dinner? What do you make when you are fresh out of anything, when you’re depending on your pantry to do the talking? For some it’s spaghetti, others it’s eggs, but I really want to know what you throw together when you want something quick, tasty and satisfying? Doesn’t need to be healthy, either, it just needs to be dinner.

Please, help a food-obsessed sister out. And I promise you, I’ll have some food coming at you soon.

For now, though, I have a homemaker-y bit. We all like to save money, but live a convenient life. A lot of us are also concerned with our effect on the planet juxtaposed against our consumerism and quest for convenience. What I mean is, I love the Swiffer wet pads, especially since we have laminate and tile floors in our house. What I don’t love is that they are full of chemicals and that the pads aren’t exactly Earth-friendly. Nick and I have always been recyclers and composters and try to be more green in our every day lives. But regular old sponge mops do nothing but spread the nastiness around (I promise), and the Swiffer pads aren’t part of my reasonable expectations of myself to watch my carbon footprint. Also, after we found out that the cat is Hyper Allergic to Everything he touches this summer, I’ve further embraced a green-cleaning lifestyle since it’s cheaper than a bi-weekly trip to the vet. Enter this idea.

A trip to my local Dollar Tree netted me a some microfiber cleaning cloths (for the low, low price of $1!), which I brought home and washed. These are just about the perfect size for my dust mop base, so I didn’t trim them. Observe:

You could cut them, though, and stitch up the edges, if you’d like. I mixed up a bottle of green floor cleaner (I’ve provided the recipe below) and got to work.

One thing to keep in mind with the microfiber pads: don’t use fabric softener with them. You want them to be clingy and staticky, that’s what makes them so genius in this application. Buy putting fabric softener on them, you’re adding an unnecessary oily layer to them, which is going to get all over your floors and decrease absorbency. We don’t use fabric softener at all anymore, but if you do, avoid using it with your cleaning cloths, dishtowels and bath towels. You’ll see a noticeable difference in them.

My method here is to sweep and vacuum up the little bits of whathaveyou off the floor, lightly spritz the floor cleaner in a small area, and mop away, repeating the spritzing and mopping throughout the house. The floor cleaner is streak free and smells pretty great, and this bottle lasts a pretty long time. Also, the essential oils I’ve chosen are naturally antibacterial for you germ-phobes out there, and mask the vinegar smell (which doesn’t bother me and fades really fast, but some people don’t want their house smelling like a pickle barrel for even one hot minute). And once your done, you pull the microfiber pad off the mop, drop it in the washer, et voila! you’re done.


  • 1 cup water (I use bottled because we have hard water in our town)
  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1 cup isopropyl alcohol (regular old rubbing alcohol)
  • A couple drops natural dish soap (I use the Safeway Bright Green orange scent, but use your favorite. I’ve heard not-so-green Dawn is a homemaker’s dream)
  • 4-5 drops lavender or tea tree or peppermint essential oil
  • 24 oz. fine-mist spray bottle (my Dollar Tree has these too, or you can get them at the hardware store. Don’t re-use one from an old cleaner, though, you’re aiming for a green cleaner here and leftover chemical residue sorta subverts that whole thang.)

Pour all ingredients into your spray bottle, and shake, shake, shake. Lightly mist your swept floors, and mop ’til your heart’s content and your floors are sparkling.

They Say it’s Your Birthday…


I had the great pleasure of making dinner for my dear Dad for his birthday this year. I realized the other day that I hadn’t had my mom and dad over together, and for dinner, since we moved. For shame. What better day to have them over than on Dad’s birthday, am I right? (I know some of you are saying Father’s Day but, it being his day and all, he decided he wanted to grill ribs and oysters in his own back yard. I can’t say I blame him, my parents’ back yard looks like it fell right outta Sunset magazine, no fooling). And what a birthday feast I planned for him!

Le Menu

To Start
Fig and Goat Cheese Crostini with Balsamic Syrup
Piquillo Peppers filled with Mozzarella and Basil

For Dinner
Zucchini Galettes with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon
Oven Roasted Salmon on a bed of Spring Greens

For Dessert
Chocolate Cake filled with Strawberries,
Homemade Strawberry Jam and Fresh Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

Say it with me, YUM. I know, it’s kind of a lot. But Dad and I have many things in common, including the feeling that going out to dinner is overrated a lot of the time, because, well, my mom and I cook like this. I thought about taking him out for dinner but it just means so much more to have someone prepare a really beautiful meal for you. The best part about this is I had the time to do it all. Not that any one part of it (well, except for maybe the cake) was cumbersome or labor intensive, it just takes time that I wouldn’t ordinarily have on a weekday and this year I did. And I’m learning in my old age that the best gift you can give anyone, ever, is the gift of your time.

I’m proud to say that I made my own ricotta for the galettes (and for those of you who know me well, I made my own pie crust too, which I rarely do). Ricotta from the grocery is mealy at best, and tastes like grade school paste at worst (and don’t even get me started on the fat free amalgamations out there, holy crow they are so gross). Unless, of course, you buy one of the artisan containers, and those are so pricey. But if you have ever tasted the fresh ricotta, you know that the silky mouth feel and milkiness are so superior to the grade school paste that you can never go back.

Making your own ricotta is honestly easy as 1-2-3, and you can make it with wonderful, organic local milk and no weird preservatives or stabilizers for a fraction of what the already-made cheese would cost you at upscale grocer in town. A 1 lb. container of the really great, really fresh ricotta at my favorite cheese counter is upward of $6. How much does a half gallon of milk cost? Even the local organic moo? In my store, less than $3.50. Be sure that you are grabbing milk that is NOT ultra pasteurized, you want some of those little bacteria that hang around in regular old milk. It should tell you right on the front of the carton if it’s ultra pasteurized or not.

Fresh Ricotta
Makes about two cups

1/2 gallon of whole milk (Yes, whole, 2% doesn’t have enough fat to get the job done.)
6 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t. sea salt

Heat the milk in a large pot (or in your microwave like I did) until it reaches 180*F. DON’T BOIL IT, we don’t want it scalded. Remove milk from the heat, stir in the acid of your choice plus the salt, and stir gently just once or twice. Let the milk hang out for 5 minutes; you will see the curds separating from the whey immediately (see picture above).

Line a colander with cheese cloth (or in my case, a clean flour sack towel) with a pan underneath to catch the whey. Pour the warm curds into the cloth-lined colander and let the cheese strain, for about an hour for looser cheese or up to two hours if you want one that’s a bit more firm, closer to cream cheese. (If your cheese strained for longer than you wanted it to, stir back in a bit of the whey that you captured in the pan. Or just add some olive oil!).

Use the cheese right away or store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use. Pat yourself on the back for being the ultimate homemaker, making your own cheese and saving yourself $2.50.

Getting Warmer


Do you ever get a flavor stuck in your head that you just HAVE to eat? Something that just calls to you, a craving so deep that you simply must make it happen as soon as possible? I know I do, and it’s not just chocolate. I find that I cook in waves sometimes: a week of Mexican inspired dishes here, a few nights of peasant Italian dishes there, a smattering of barbecued goodness. Lately, though, it’s been Thai style: peanut sauce, fish sauce, cilantro, lime. It hit me one night that I had ‘Pinned’ 3 different Thai-leaning foods in one sitting, and two meals on my weekly menu planner were deeply Asian influenced. Time to make this puppy happen!

Last night was the night; it was warm out, the husband had a long day at the office, and I had been cleaning like a banshee after being gone last weekend and a day or two of wine-club shipment packaging. We had everything we needed and it was a quick dinner that didn’t heat the house (though I secretly didn’t care because I would take the opportunity to BLAST our brand new A/C).

I found myself short some soy sauce, and so added in a tablespoon of fish sauce as detailed below. I personally think it made it better with the fish sauce, as it added a little something extra to the dish. Feel free to sub it out with regular soy (or sub all the soy with tamari for my GF pals out there). After it had cooled and the sauce really stuck to the noodles it was even better. And tonight? Well, tonight it’s sublime, with a nice cold glass of sauvignon blanc by my side and the A/C on. It’s definitely feeling more like summer out there!

Almost the weekend! Stop in tomorrow for a killer cocktail recipe.

Peanut Noodles with Shrimp
Makes a monster pile, about 6 large servings

1/2 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
8 ounces spaghetti (half a box, and go on ahead and sub in quinoa or brown rice noodles
1/2 lb. large shrimp, either raw or precooked, peeled, deveined and the tails removed
1/2 large red bell pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 English cucumber, sliced into strips
3 scallions, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
8 oz. sugar snap peas
3 tablespoons sesame seeds

Cook the pasta according to the package directions; if using raw shrimp add in 2 minutes prior to pasta being finished; drain and pour into a large mixing bowl.

In the same pot, combine 1 cup water with the peanut butter, rice vinegar, tamari/soy sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar, and ginger. Blend until smooth.

Add the peanut mixture, bell pepper, cucumber, cilantro, snap peas, and sesame seeds to the mixing bowl with the pasta and shrimp, and toss to combine.

Taking it Back: Spaghetti Sauce


For a few posts, we’re going to take it down a notch or two and go back to the basics at the request of one of my readers. Granted my cooking prowess has made me adventurous and has wooed me into making more complex things, but the best homemakers have a handful of their very favorites they can pull out at any time that please a crowd, are down-home tasty and have very little muss or fuss involved. It’s also nice to have a set of standard recipes that you can turn to that are cost-friendly and don’t break the bank. In times like these we can all stand to save a few bucks but also deserve to have a home cooked meal that we can sit down to and be proud of.

Enter the classics ~ well, my classics. In my freezer there are always a couple of things that are my go-to items for dinners: chicken stock, whole chickens, varying types of sausages (both pre-cooked and raw), boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and spaghetti sauce.

Spaghetti sauce, in my family, is the generalized term for what a lot of people call ragu, meat sauce, or ‘gravy’. Gravy is an entirely different thing to some Italian families than it is in the rest of the country; Italian gravy is a tomato based meat sauce, rather than a brown sauce made of pan drippings after roasting meat. I always have at least one container in the freezer, and the ingredients to make it are part of my general pantry so I can whip up a batch in a flash. When I want spaghetti sauce with dinner there’s very little that can be done to sway me. And while it benefits from all day, low and slow cooking, it is just as tasty when it’s simmered for a half an hour and then served.

This sauce is the basis for my lasagna, or is served either tossed with short pasta and ricotta or cottage cheese and baked, spooned atop a mountain of spaghetti, pooled on polenta, and I’ve even used it as a filling for calzones before, mixing in some cubed mozzarella and sauteed spinach before tucking into a pizza dough blanket (and it’s soooo gooood). By having some in the freezer, in the time it takes to boil pasta, defrost the sauce and make a salad, dinner is ready. It’s not just a mid-week must eat staple though; I like to think that my sauce is good enough for company, and none of my dinner guests have ever said otherwise.

Feel free to riff on this sauce and make it your own. If your grandma made hers with finely diced carrots and celery, then by all means add them. Same goes for fresh or canned mushrooms, fresh spices instead of the dried, the world is your oyster with this sauce. And the more you make it, the more it becomes ‘your sauce,’ evolving each time to become your signature dish.

This sauce is mildly spicy because of the hot Italian sausage, but it isn’t kid-unfriendly in the heat department so far as I’ve found. If you’d rather skip the spicy, go ahead and use a full pound of the mild sausage. To keep your calories and fat down, you can sub in turkey Italian sausage and plain ground turkey for the meats (but you’ll also lose some of the richness). Go ahead and add more of the aromatic spices to your liking, and even extra garlic if the mood strikes. And, if you aren’t a household that generally has an open bottle of red wine around, don’t go open one just for this. There are several bulk wine producers that make split bottles (they come in 4-packs) of wine that are readily available at your grocery store. They are nice to have on hand for something like this: use what you need, and freeze the rest in an ice cube tray and save it to toss in marinades and sauces that call for a bit of wine.

One thing you have to do, though, is taste your sauce while it’s cooking. I know that every diet magazine on the planet is shouting at everyone about the number of calories you consume while tasting dinner as you make it, but it’s essential to good cooking to taste as you go. I personally like to taste my sauce by dipping a slice of french bread in it. MMMMmmm…

Spaghetti Sauce
Makes 12-14 cups of sauce

1 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. mild (sweet) Italian Sausage
1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground beef (whatever fat level you’re comfortable with)
1 large  yellow onion (we’re talking softball sized), diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 T. dried basil
1 T. dried rosemary
1 T. dried oregano
1 California bay leaf
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
Red wine
Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large stockpot with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mild sausage, breaking up with a spoon, and cook until brown. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, and  cook off the hot sausage (if using), and then the ground beef, in the same manner. Avoid putting them all in the pot at once and crowding it, as it will steam your meat bits instead of browning them.

Remove excess grease from pan if necessary, leaving behind a tablespoon or two. Add the meats back to the pan, along with your diced onions and garlic. Sautee the onions and garlic until they are translucent, about 4-5 minutes.

Add in all spices (basil through bay leaf) and stir to marry with the meat and vegetables, then add in your salt, and cans of tomatoes and sauce. Using the 8 oz. sauce can as a measure, fill it with red wine and add it to the pan, along with a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Stir in thoroughly, and taste to adjust seasonings. Lower heat to a simmer, and let it go for at least a half an hour or as long as you can stand it.

A Promise is a Promise


I’ve been promising for ages that we would have a conversation about chicken stock. Well, hopefully you haven’t been holding your breath but if you have, today’s your lucky day.

This isn’t really a recipe per se, it’s more of a method. There are many ways to make chicken stock, including using whole chicken, roasting a whole chicken and then making it into stock, buying chicken wings or parts and making stock, et cetera. Honestly, there is no ‘right’ way to make it, despite what some folks will tell you, though there are a couple of things you need to make it taste the way you’re used to.

The Standard for making stock is the use of celery, carrots and onions, also known as mirepoix. Having these aromatics is the most important part of stock making. In fact, if you have no chicken at all, you can use these items to make a very simple and tasty vegetable stock.

You get big rewards for something so easy. Your stock will be flavorful, lower in sodium than anything you’ll find at the grocery store, you have a frozen insurance policy for a quick dinner most nights of the week. If you remember to take a container out of the freezer before you go to work and plop it on the counter, you’re more than halfway there. You’ll also be saving yourself about $2 a quart by making your own and since you’re making it out of something you were going to throw away anyway you’re almost making money back.

So, about twice a month we will have a roast chicken. One big fat chicken will feed the two of us for at least three meals and up to a whole week if I play my cards right. Nick knows that when we’re having a roast chicken all of the bones go in a bag in the fridge or freezer because I’ll make stock. Who am I kidding – our friends know this too, and they all pool bones after dinner to go into a bag (they know they will be rewarded with dessert, I think). Once we are done with picking the meat off the chicken a day or two later, the whole carcass goes into a big pot and stock making ensues.

You want to use your biggest heavy-bottomed soup pot for this, one that is at least 6 quarts but it should be more like 8 or 10. You want to give everything enough room to move around and mingle. And since this takes a few hours, you want to make enough to have it be worth your while. Mine also has a built in strainer that makes removing the solids at the end a breeze.

Don’t bother peeling your vegetables, or taking the skin off the onion, or even really chopping them. They do their job in this application the same in big chunks as they do if you take 10 minutes to chop them all uniformly. I personally save my chopping skills for when they count but if you’d like to cut your vegetable smaller by all means. Sometimes wielding a very sharp knife is cathartic after a long week so chop away if the mood strikes.

Here’s the rundown of stock making:

Chicken bones, skin and fat (from one large chicken or sometimes two smaller ones)
Two carrots, scrubbed and cut into 1″ hunks
One huge onion, cut in to quarters, with the skin on
Two large celery stalks, with leaves if they have them, cut into 1″ hunks
A couple of garlic cloves, unpeeled and roughly chopped (I usually use the ones that are too shmeensy to peel and futz with)
A couple of parsley stems if you have them, if not no big deal
8-10 whole black peppercorns
One bay leaf
1-2 teaspoons of salt (your choice, I usually add closer to 2 teaspoons)
5 quarts of cold water

Place all items listed above in an 8-10 quart stockpot, bring to a boil, and reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 3 hours.

Pour stock through a fine meshed sieve, straining out and discarding all of the solids. From here, I cool the stock to room temperature and refrigerate it for 24 hours, skimming off the fat that rises to the surface and congeals. Makes about 10 cups.

Stock can be frozen for months and stored in freezer bags, frozen into ice cube trays for quick use, and frozen or refrigerated in jars It can also be kept in the fridge in a container of your choice for up to a week. I have deli-style containers that hold one, two and four cups each, and I separate the stock into a a couple of sizes for freezing.

And there you have it. Investment cooking is some of the most worthwhile and satisfying cooking imaginable. So next time you roast a bird hang on to the bones and parts you think are trash, because they will make a jewel of a soup someday.

Saving up


As summer marches on toward my favorite season, Fall, things are finally starting to ripen around the wine country and we’ve been gifted a BUNCH of fruit from one of N’s family members. No joke, I have a grocery bag of apples, a grocery bag of green pears and a TWO gallon-size bags of French prune plums. I quickly dispatched half the prunes to some of my unsuspecting family members, put the pears in a pretty apothecary jar to be viewed and loved until they ripened, and got out a couple of pretty baskets and bowls to display the apples in.

I’m not one of those people that lays out fruit to slowly die and collect fruit flies, though, I like to use mine up. I’m just not accustomed to getting so much at once. So, we save it for a rainy day. Those plums, while tasty now, are going in the dehydrator for later eating. The pears were sacrificed into a crisp with cardamom and a nice oatmeal streusal top.

And those apples. I got another bag from an enterprising client this week which brings my grand total of appledom to way more than we can eat! Granted I’ll save a handful for juicing (yes, dear reader, I added to my collection of small appliances and bought a juicer) but the rest are what I like to call Future Pie.

Future Pie is easy to accomplish. On your next trip to the hardware store or the grocery store, grab yourself some Fruit Fresh, a citric acid based powder that keeps the brown at bay on sliced fruits. When you get home, get out your favorite mixing bowl, big enough to stir around about six cups of sliced fruit.

Now. Get out your apple slicer if you have one, or find someone in your house that you can Tom Sawyer into helping you peel and slice up your apples. Add your Fruit Fresh, a half teaspoon for every cup of fruit you slice. Stir it all up nicely and dump it into a gallon freezer bag, seal it up, lay it flat on it’s side on a cookie sheet, label accordingly. Stuff the whole business in the freezer and let ‘er go until frozen solid. And just like that you’ve made yourself a sweet insurance policy to be enjoyed in the coming months. This works with just about any fruit, too. I’ve done it with peaches and nectarines with equal success.

Later this fall or winter or whatever, when you have an insatiable need for apple pie or last minute dinner guests, defrost your fruit. Make yourself a pie crust or a crumble topping (or if you’re one of those enterprising types that keeps a spare in the freezer get that out and defrost it) and get your pan and oven ready as you normally would. Add your favorite secret squirrel spices and some sugar to your fruit and proceed as usual with your chosen recipe.

Happy Freezing!

Tomato-y Goodness


I got a little crazy picking tomatoes yesterday.

The funniest part about the whole thing is that I don’t even like fresh tomatoes, they have to be cooked within an inch of their lives or hidden in tomato sauce or something. but they’re just so pretty, I long to love eating them as much as I love having them in a bowl on the counter as decor.

One way that I will eat them though is slow roasted in the oven. Split in half and laid out on a cookie sheet in a low oven for long hours coaxes out all of the sugars, caramelizing them as the water slowly evaporates out of the tomato. Drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and spices makes them heavenly. While wonderful alone, they are unbelievable as a pizza topping (and make THE BEST margherita pizza you’ve ever had), they’re great chopped and mixed into quick breads, chopped or left whole and sprinkled on pasta, folded into an omelette or frittata, and they keep well in a jar in the fridge when topped with olive oil. And if you jar and oil them, consider making extras: they’re a beautiful hostess gift when you’re invited ’round for drinks or dinner.

Aromatic Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

From Cooking Light

1  tablespoon  sugar

1  tablespoon  extra-virgin olive oil

1/2  teaspoon  salt

1/2  teaspoon  dried basil

1/2  teaspoon  dried oregano

1/4  teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper

4  pounds  plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise (about 16 medium)

Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine first 7 ingredients in a large bowl, tossing gently to coat. Arrange tomatoes, cut side up, on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Roast at 200° for 7 1/2 hours.

OK, but I cheat when I make them. I slice them in half, lay them out on a foil-lined cookie sheet, sprinkle them with all of the goodness, drizzle them with olive oil (and sometimes a little more than called for because who measures olive oil?). I also have roasted them at 225 for 5 hours instead of the 7 and a half, which makes them weeknight doable depending on when you get home. That said, they’re a great make-ahead item to wow your masses of hungry folks, just bring them to room temperature before serving.