Category Archives: Thrifty Tips

Shaker Lemon Pie

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Shaker Lemon Pie

I’ve been intrigued by this pie idea since a friend of ours came around crowing about it. Equal parts marmalade, curd, sweet and tart, all wrapped up in a two crust pie, what’s not to love? It also meant I got to get out my spectacular new mandoline and get to work.

This isn’t a pie for the faint of heart. It’s not gently lemony, it’s very assertive and aggressively citrusy, with lots of texture from the lemon slices. It sounded like the perfect end to an evening of crab eating indulgence and I was right: I received the highest order of pie-eater compliments, that this reminded someone of his Grandma’s lemon pie.

My suggestions: use Meyer lemons, use a mandoline unless you have the knife skills of a ninja (and you don’t, so use a mandoline), and be sure to pick out all of the seeds. Use your favorite all-butter pie crust recipe, and don’t look back.

Shaker Lemon Pie

From Smitten Kitchen, as she adapted from Saveur

Makes one 9-inch pie

2 large lemons, preferably Meyers
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
4 tablespons butter, melted
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 egg white
Coarse sugar, for sprinkling

Dough for one double-crust pie

Thoroughly wash lemons, then dry with paper towel. Finely grate lemon zest into a bowl. Using a mandoline, slice lemons as paper thin as you can get them; remove and discard seeds. Add slices to zest and toss with sugar and salt. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Roll out half the dough 1/8 inch thick on a lightly floured surface, fit it into a 9-inch (1-quart) pie plate, and trim the edge, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang.

Mix the macerated lemon-sugar mixture with eggs, melted butter and flour until combined well. Pour in to prepared pie shell.

Roll out the remaining dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface, drape it over the filling, and trim it, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Fold the overhang under the bottom crust, pressing the edge to seal it, and crimp the edge decoratively. Beat one egg white until frothy and brush over pie crust, then sprinkle with coarse sugar. Cut slits in the crust with a sharp knife, forming steam vents, and bake the pie in the middle of the oven for 25 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350°F. and bake the pie for 20 to 25 minutes more, or until the crust is golden. Let the pie cool on a rack and serve it warm at room temperature.

I also served mine with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, gently sweetened and laced with vanilla and limoncello. Go big or go home, right?

The Best Homemade Hummus

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If you’re like the majority of red-blooded America, you’re either hosting or headed to a houseful of people for at least one football game this weekend. What would January be without playoff games? I think for many (men, at least) it keeps the inevitable doldrums away. You get some time to be social, some healthy team rivalry, beer drinking time with buddies, and good food.

Football food falls into the same indulgent category as camping food in my book. It stuff that’s on the far end of the health spectrum, and oftentimes includes but is not limited to chicken wings, burgers, gooey baked dips, pulled pork sandwiches, and on a lot of buffets the inevitable veggie platter of carrots, celery sticks and broccoli with a bowl of ranch dressing for dipping. (The ranch, by the way, completely negates the health of the veggies for the most part. Just saying, ) A smorgasbord of tasty saturated fat, punctuated by a platter of vegetables. It’s nice to have something different.

And like many of you, we hosted some friends for the later game yesterday (go niners!). I’m on my annual campaign to health it up and in that trying to put out healthier snacks, for the most part. Getting away from the group favorite cheese board and bowl of butter and truffle salt-laced popcorn was a must. There were no wings, no sausages or spinach dip or sliders on the table. I went a different route and made hummus because I had everything I needed here and didn’t have to go back to the store to make something else, and I wanted to give us all a little something tasty and good for us, since we were eating fried abalone and tri tip for dinner.

And so, hummus, the humble dip of champions, with a bag of pita chips and some carrots for dipping. Creative? Nope. But I made my hummus from scratch and have deployed the best method ever for doing so. The secret is, well, um, how do you say?… you have to peel the garbanzo beans.

Yes. Peel. The. Garbanzo. Beans.

So, if you’re done laughing at me, we can move on. Thoughts on absurdity aside, by peeling said garbanzo beans, you eliminate the sandy texture that generally comes with homemade hummus. The peels break down into what can only be described as grittiness, and my previous adventures in homemade hummus netted me precisely that. I’ve seen a hundred times over in as many recipes as I’ve looked at a suggestion or instruction to peel the beans, but I’m WAY too busy to do something so tedious. Except that, well, the product of the peeling is perfect, puffy fluffy hummus that you can’t get enough of, and I am remiss anytime I haven’t peeled my garbanzos and subsequently throw half of my hummus away. Peeling a can of garbanzo beans took me less than 8 minutes, including the time to gather up the ones that shot across the counter.

To peel your beans, open and dump the can (or for you hipsters boiling your own, boil them up and cool them then dump them) into a fine strainer, and rinse thoroughly, using your hands and some high-pressure from your faucet. A little garbanzo bean massage. This will take the skins off some of them, and rinses a lot of the sodium out of the canned types.

Then, grab a bowl and one by one, take the beans, with the pointy ends facing toward your palms, and squeeze the bean into the bowl. Try to aim, they’re slippery little beasts and will fly everywhere. Discard the skin. Tom Sawyer some kids into doing this if you happen to have any roaming around, they’ll have a blast. Repeat as necessary, then proceed with the recipe.

I have listed in here high-test olive oil, which can be described best as the stuff you bought at gold prices that you don’t use because the flavor is so delicate and grassy and gets lost in most food. Yeah, that one. Use it here.

On an unrelated note, does anyone have a recommended brand of commercially produced pita chips that they buy? Every single brand I’ve ever bought is nothing but pita chip DUST when I open it and it’s getting really old. I’d like to get a bag that is mostly whole chips, if it isn’t too much to ask. Anybody out there with a suggestion, for when I’m too lazy to make my own? Let’s see if any of you are brave enough to comment.

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Best Hummus Ever
Makes about 1 3/4 – 2 cups

1 15 oz. can of garbanzos/chickpeas (they are one and the same), drained, rinsed and peeled. I buy low sodium beans or make my own.
1/2 c. tahini paste
Juice of 1/2 of a juicy lemon
3 small or 2 large garlic cloves, finely minced or run through a press
1/2 t. salt, or to taste
4-6 T. water
Good, high-test olive oil for drizzling

Toss garbanzos into the bowl of a food processor, and whizz until they are powdery and uniform, close to a full minute. Add in the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and salt, and blend away for another minute, stopping to scrape down the bowl to ensure everything is incorporated. With the machine running, add in the water a tablespoon at a time, until the hummus is smooth and creamy and fluffy. Stop and taste it for consistency, as less water is more here, but you’ll need at least 4 tablespoons. It should be super fluffy and light. Adjust salt and lemon to taste.

Scrape into your favorite serving bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour. Before serving, drizzle with a few tablespoons of good olive oil, a couple cracks of black pepper, and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary if you have it. Or, use the olive oil and whatever spices/seasonings you’d like (smoked paprika, a dusting of cayenne, some minced fresh cilantro and lime zest, whatever sounds good). Serve with your favorite dippers.

Get Crazy Here

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This, my friends, is a working girl’s breakfast. A breakfast of champions of the work place, lovingly prepared with my own two hands while speeding out the door in the morning.

If I’m smart and together, I’ll prepare it the night before and put it next to my purse so I don’t forget it. If I’m REALLY together I’ll make a few for the week and keep them in my desk. But the nice thing is that it can be thrown together so fast in the morning that if I forget the night before it only takes a second.

This is a humble instant oatmeal packet, in a homemade dress (or zip-top bag, if you so choose, but mine sounds more romantic). It means that I have a healthy, warm breakfast for a chilly fall morning without succumbing to the siren song of the vending machine or running out for an expensive snack or a cheap donut.

The idea here is a simple one: taking the instant oats packet and removing the extra crud that doesn’t need to be in it (I don’t care if my sugar clumps, I’d rather not eat the anti-clumping agent, thankyouverymuch). I eat a lot of overnight oats in the summer, but in the fall and winter I want something warm with my coffee. And you can’t beat the price: my little packs cost less than $0.20 each, and I reuse my ziptop baggies (recycling!).

The basics are this:

1/3 c. instant oats

A pinch of salt

1/2 to 1 T. brown sugar (or your choice of sweetener)

¼ t. cinnamon OR pumpkin pie spice OR apple pie spice

2 T. chopped dried apples, OR chopped dried apricots, OR raisins (optional)

You can swap out regular sugar or coconut sugar or turbinado sugar or whatever for the brown sugar. You can also leave it out and keep a small bottle of maple syrup or agave syrup in your drawer. I like the controlled aspect of the measured sugar here – if I drizzle syrup on top of my oatmeal the likelihood I’ll add more than I should is really high, and defeats the purpose of a healthy, whole grain breakfast. This is your choice, of course. If your willpower and drizzling skills are more honed than mine then this might be a good option.

The spices, too, are up to you. Clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, get crazy. You could do some chopped up dried apple with rosemary if you’d like, or dried apricots with some sage, whatever sounds tasty in your head. Raisins and clove? Orange zest and lavender? Get some, get crazy here. It’ll make your coworkers jealous, I tell you. The yummy smells wafting from your cube will drive them nuts.

I Guess it’s Something

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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.

Ingredients

  • 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…

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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.

Taking it Back: The Grilled Cheese

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Grilled cheese is on most people’s Top 10 comfort food list. What is more cozy than grilled cheese, I ask you? It’s just not a cozy night without that toasted cheese sandwich.

I’m here to tell you that, while a grilled cheddar (or Velveeta, if you dare) on sliced white with gently buttered sides is sublime, you can take it up a notch and make it a very special sandwich that is even company-worthy. With a side of oven fries or a green salad (or both) it can be a glamourous little bistro lunch or dinner for as many as you please.

Around here, we make grilled cheese with leftovers on nights that serious cooking can’t be mustered. I know many of  you are leftovers-averse, but pitching the rest of dinner is so wasteful and expensive. Why not take those leftovers and make something new out of it? Odds are you won’t even know it was Sunday’s roast of you make a killer sandwich out of it. Enter the Adult Grilled Cheese. There are a few rules to follow, but the mix and match of fillings is yours to create and play with.

The ‘rules’ are simply the stacking and layering of the sandwich, to ensure that each bite is cheesy and that the whole business sticks together. I generally stick to this basic theory:

Starting with your bottom slice of bread:

  • Butter the outside of the bread
  • Mustard of your choice on  the inside of the bread
  • Top with grated cheese of your choice (we use lots of extra sharp cheddar or jalapeno jack)
  • Top with meat of choice, if using
  • Another smattering of cheese (just a pinch or two)
  • Top with vegetation (usually caramelized onions, leftover baked apples, pepper jam, sauteed red peppers, pickled jalapenos or banana peppers or pepperonicinis)
  • Top with more cheese
  • Top with second slice of bread, buttered on the outside and with either mayo or mustard (or both) smeared on the inside

Yes, this is a loaded sandwich. Each layer, however, is a very thin layer, so it doesn’t get all Dagwood on you. Sometimes when there are many layers, I’ll build them in the pan I’m cooking them in, to avoid explosion when transferring from the board to the pan. Also, during cooking, I smash the sandwich on the flip, either with the back of my spatula or, if I’m making two or more sandwiches, with a foil sheet placed over the top of the flipped sammie and a well-placed heavy pan on top, and then pressed with my hand. Voila, instant panini press.

Some regular combinations of grilled cheeses in our house (again, usually made from left overs) are as follows:

  • Sliced sourdough with horseradish mustard, pork loin, baked apples, and caramelized onions, with cheddar cheese (this one is also good with pork roast or deli ham)
  • Sliced rye with pastrami, well drained sauerkraut and swiss with a slathering of thousand island (instead of the mayo/mustard)
  • Sliced sourdough with tri tip or roast beef, blue cheese, mayo, horseradish mustard, arugula and balsamic onions
  • Sliced cinnamon swirl bread with ham, brie and spicy pepper jam (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it)
  • Foccacia with mayo and dijon, shredded chicken, bacon, pepper jack and pepperoncinis
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with peanut butter, jelly and banana
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with nutella, peanut butter, chocolate chips and banana, with a dusting of powdered sugar (oh yes, I have)

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Leftovers are the ultimate grilled sandwich! Is it lunchtime yet?

Taking it Back: Spaghetti Sauce

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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.

Liquid Sunshine

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Before it moved to the new house, I picked all 18 (that’s right, 18!) of the Meyer lemons off of my patio tree and tucked them gently into a bowl in the fridge, with dreams of making something tasty. Meyer lemons are not known for their extended shelf life, and are fairly delicate little fruits, so they were handled with care and reserved for something wonderful.

I’m the sentimental sort with things that I grow – the first of anything inevitably goes bad on the counter or in the fridge while I look for the prefect recipe to showcase this amazing thing that I nurtured into edible loveliness. I really have to quit doing this, what with all of my crowing about growing my own food and not being wasteful. I’m aware of this shortcoming and it’s something I’ll work on this year, starting with the lemons.

I could make lemon bars, lemon loaf, lemon marmalade, lemon curd. And I still might, I juiced every drop out of most of the lemons (there are three still lolling in the vegetable crisper for cocktails to be determined). I wanted something a little more permanent, or at least something that was going to last a little longer than a pan of confections. I also like using all of something when I can, sort of the whole ‘nose to tail’ approach to my food.

Yesterday I whipped out the vegetable peeler and got to work on the lemons, gently peeling the sunny golden peel away from the creamy white pith. My version of nose to tail eating of these precious lemons is going to be limoncello, then candied lemon rinds from the spent peels that made the limoncello, and squeezed the juice from all the lemons and froze it in half cup measures for later batches of baked goods or lemonade. Not bad for a half hour’s work.

The limoncello is already turning the most beautiful shade of marigold, looking like bottled sunshine sitting on the kitchen counter. And this summer, when the mercury hits a hundred degrees (and it will), a bit of this drizzled into a glass of soda water with some ice will make balcony time that much sweeter.

Speaking of sweet, this recipe comes out REALLY sweet. The last time I made it I cut the sugar/water down to 1 1/2 cups of each, and I preferred the less sweet version that was the outcome. Oh, and do what the Italians do: when all is said and done, stick the bottle in the freezer. Ice cold limoncello is the only way to fly!

Limoncello
Recipe from Giada DeLaurentiis

10 lemons (get Meyers if you can)
1 750 ml bottle of vodka (nothing expensive here, folks)
3 1/2 cups of water
2 1/2 cups of sugar

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the peel from the lemons in long strips (reserve the lemons for another use). Using a small sharp knife, trim away the white pith from the lemon peels; discard the pith. Place the lemon peels in a 2-quart pitcher. Pour the vodka over the peels and cover with plastic wrap. Steep the lemon peels in the vodka for 4 days at room temperature.

Stir the water and sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Cool completely. Pour the sugar syrup over the vodka mixture. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Strain the limoncello through a mesh strainer. Discard the peels. Transfer the limoncello to bottles. Seal the bottles and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours and up to 1 month. (Pssst… it’ll keep longer than a month if you can manage not to drink it. Yes that’s a dare!)

Cheese plate looming in the distance

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This time of year can be a little daunting on the Eating Healthily front. A two pound box of See’s delivered to the office here (‘Merry Christmas’ indeed), a plate of cookies from the neighbors there, a holiday party or three on one bustling Saturday. It’s tough to behave all the time, and I know we’re all trying to do our best without feeling like we can’t eat anything.

One thing that we do around our house is make an extra concerted effort to eat better on the days we can control it. Not to say we can’t control what we eat every day (even when faced with three holiday parties full of good eats), but I’m going to be honest with you here: I’m not one of those people who believes in outright deprivation or strictness. If I want a piece of candy, I eat a piece of candy. Cheese plate looming in the distance? I’ll have a bite or two of my favorite. Cookie buffet in the corner? I’ll choose two that sound awesome or are something I don’t make, and stick to those. Being mindful that the first bite or two is enough, and reminding myself that a second helping will never taste as good as the first, are what I use as my aids.

What was I talking about? Eating mindfully, right. (My brain started to segue into cookies, sorry.)  So, when the husband and I are staring down the barrel of a smorgasbord of parties or an upcoming family ravioli feed, I adjust our portion sizes and dinners accordingly around those days. I say dinner because I have no control (and no desire to control) what Nick eats during the day.

I stick to the basics of lean protein, tons and tons of veggies, and maybe a little starch or carby goodness. And since it’s a weeknight, it has to be pretty quick too because I’m not getting everything in the house dirty to lay out 3 courses, you get me? And necessity is the mother of invention as we all know, so most of the time I’m making it up as I go along.

One thing that you can add almost completely guilt-free is extra seasonings. More herbs, more spice, more flavor. It takes an otherwise boring entree and makes it more tasty, and is a simple way to feel indulgent on a Monday night. One way I like to accomplish this is to make a pot of infused olive oil. Our choice fat for everyday cooking, olive oil is one of the healthiest cooking staples we use.

The fancy pants infused stuff in your standard Overpriced Gourmet Grocer can cost you upward of $8 for a 6 ounce bottle (trust me, I’ve looked). And while it’s cutesy and makes a nice quick hostess gift in a hurry, I don’t buy stuff like this to have at home when I have all of the stuff to make it at home. I know, I’m so cheap, but I just can’t.

Infused oils perk everything up. A tiny bit on a salad tossed with some balsamic and it’s instant dressing. A little bit heated in a pan takes a boring boneless chicken breast to a pan-seared golden wonder. Used in conjunction with a bag of spinach and a quick saute it makes wonderful wilted greens for an amazing side dish (crack a couple eggs in there and dinner is done in one pan, more on that later). It takes  a couple of minutes and a couple of ingredients to make something that will literally jazz up anything you dare to drizzle it on. And back to that hostess gift: poured into a clean bottle or jar with a lid, and presented with piece of ribbon and a sweet homemade tag it’s a welcome gift, even for those that don’t cook (labeled as Bread Dipping Oil for those folks).

Infused Olive Oil

2 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled (no need to chop)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 c. olive oil
4 whole black peppercorns

In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients and place over medium-high heat until the herbs and garlic are sizzling. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10ish minutes. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature. Remove herb sprigs and garlic cloves and pour into a container with a lid. I’ve been told you should store this in the fridge but I personally never have. It doesn’t stick around long enough to ‘go bad’. Do as you wish. And get crazy with this idea, too: add citrus peels during the infusing process, more garlic, swap for shallots, different herbs. It’s your creation, have some fun with it.

A Promise is a Promise

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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.