Top 10 Gifts for an Aspiring Home Cook

Top10CookGiftsEven though I have done very little about my own holiday preparations, I have been fielding questions from people who are actually tending their holiday business. What they want to know from me is what they should get as a useful but satisfying gift for someone who is really getting interested in cooking at home, or maybe even for that person who’s not so interested, but who is really going to be doing some home cooking. I have nieces and nephews who are in that early adult bit of their lives and I often gift them with kitchen bits that I wish I’d had earlier and that will make their lives and caring for themselves (for less money) easier. So with all that said… My favorite recommendations for aspiring home cooks.

#1 Cast Iron Skillet

When I was younger I did not have or use cast iron. I had some inherited teflon nonstick skillets that I used until they were peeling. This, incidentally, did not take very long. While nonstick technology has come a long way since I was in that phase, I can, with years of experience, comfortably suggest that cast iron is both more durable and more healthful. It is also really quite affordable. I have a couple of different sizes of this pre-Seasoned cast-iron skillet from Lodge and have been very happy with them over the years.

#2 Stainless Steel Cooking Utensils

Can I count the number of plastic and/or silicone cooking utensils that have been used/abused and completely demolished through the years? No, and I don’t want to think about it. This is an area where that old sentence “penny wise pound foolish” really holds true. The plastic jobs really are fine for cooking, don’t get me wrong, but you will need to buy another, and another, and another, that is unless you take much better care than I ever have. One set of stainless will go a lot longer and will work great in that cast iron skillet. Why not give a whole set like this one?

#3 Stainless Steel Sauce Pot

We have this stainless steel pot. We got it years ago and we use it for EVERYTHING. It’s a medium size and will handle most jobs that aren’t REALLY big or REALLY small. It’s been in the washer; it’s been dropped. It’s had stuff burned in it. It’s been used for science experiments and I suspect has even had a dog drink from it a time or two. Incredibly useful, incredibly durable. This one is a nice size.

#4 Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls

Having a non-reactive mixing bowl is really critical. Non-reactive just means that the material that the bowl is made of will not react with the food that you put in it, potentially changing the flavor of the food or just leaching stuff into it… yuck. Yeah. yuck. We use both stainless and glass. I prefer the metal ones simply because the glass are SO heavy. This super cool set also comes with lids, so if you need to let something sit, you can slap that lid on it.

#5 Stainless Steel Measuring Cups and Spoons

Again, nice to have non-reactive and these last forever. No more limping along because one part of the set got chewed up in the dishwasher. This set is intriguing because it has a narrower opening, so may be easier to use in containers and such. These spoons have the same advantage.

#6 Nesting Glass Liquid Measures

Yep, those Pyrex babies. We use ours ALL the time. Durable, useful, and if you nest them reasonably easy to store.

#7 Instant Read Thermometer

These are really useful for safe cooking. Temperature is a really great way to tell if things are done. We use ours for bread, baked goods, and when we have big holiday dos. This one seems to fit the bill.

#8 Solid Chef Knife

I absolutely love my Mac santoku chef knife. It’s a little smaller than most, therefore a little lighter, and more manageable. I’ve had it for years and it is absolutely my go to knife for most every knife job.

#9 Durable Paring Knife

We have this Victorinox set. I am shameless and put them in the dishwasher with no apparent ill effects. Takes care of all the little jobs my chef knife won’t handle.

#10 A Great Cookbook

While they include many ingredients I now tend to limit or avoid, I have nothing but great things to say about America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks. I still use mine all the time, making ingredient swaps as I need to in order to suit my own preferences. If you want to help someone learn about ingredients and how to make them work together, The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook is a great place to start.

 

Well, there it is. some piece of your holiday shopping all sorted out. Hope you are taking it all in stride. Be well, friends.

 

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Weekly Meal Plan 11/30-12/6

Whew! What a holiday week! We ate and visited and visited and ate. We played games and slept in and reminisced with old friends and family. It was time well spent. And the good news is we haven’t long to wait for another nice long break. Something has shifted and I may even enjoy these holidays after all… but that is another post altogether.

Now that we’ve done with the feasting and fete-ing, we need to get back into a routine at least for a little while, but we’ve got a VERY full fridge and some weird bits to use up this week, so my meal plan will be tailored with that in mind.

1e8cce6c-26ad-4a43-abab-5178a944dc3fMonday: turkey soup (planning to put the bones in the crock pot all day and then add the usual soup-y suspects in the early evening), green salad

Tuesday: Cheezy Noodles (similar to this but made with whole wheat penne and our friend Annie’s cashew cream that I made a LOT of for use in holiday cooking), peas, steamed broccoli

Wednesday: Spinach Chickpea Burgers with Cumin Aioli, pickled celery (from November’s Vegetarian Times), cut veggies

Thursday: mashed potato pancakes, roasted brussels sprouts, green salad

Friday: homemade pizza, cut veggies

Saturday: Dinner Out! (Little Man has a birthday party to go to and a friend has an art opening.)

Sunday: homemade pasta, sautéed green beans, green salad

Lunchbox Treats: amazing leftover GF brownies from Angela Liddon’s The Oh She Glows Cookbook.

Adult Lunches: Cold Kickin’ Soup (Mama Bear here is still struggling. Cough, hack, sputter)

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Here’s hoping none of your crew needs Cold Kickin’ Soup and that you find yourself coasting through the beginning of winter. Eat well, be well friends

 

 

Healthier Holiday Fare

I know many of you have had your Thanksgiving meal planned out for a while. I also know, based on the traffic to the markets that I am not the only one who is not finished. Just in case you are still in process, or if you have misgivings about the offerings you’ve planned, I want to share some healthy fall harvest options that are perfect for the Thanksgiving table.

Pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin.

Did I get your attention, either because you live for pumpkin spice anything or because you can’t even stand to see the phrase anymore? The lovely thing about Thanksgiving is that it features another fall beauty that can replace pumpkin in most things and is also super versatile. If you’re looking to celebrate all day, and are willing to give the humble sweet potato a try, MindBodyGreen offers up a great all day roundup of sweet potato offerings here. I am admittedly particularly intrigued by the Mexican Chocolate Sweet Potato Pudding.

Thanksgiving Classics?

Meatless Monday has put together a list of great vegetable dishes for Thanksgiving. While I have to confess this list of “classics” never showed up on my table as a kid, many of them do look darned tasty – maybe a new spin on an old favorite would jazz things up a bit.

img_0352If you’re okay with twisting some classics or simply introducing new and fabulous autumnal masterpieces, give our list of Healthy Holiday Dishes (Thanksgiving Edition) a try. It also happens to include some healthy twists on classics that are sure to please your whole tribe.

Leftovers
Even if you’re all planned up and all my healthy advice is for naught, we can all use a few new spins for all that leftover food. I turn again to Meatless Monday for a list of new interpretations of Thanksgiving.

2013-05-08-17-12-09Sometimes our leftovers come in the form of ingredients that we thought we’d use because we thought we’d make enough pies for 3,000 people and had a flash of sanity before actually baking all those pies (a sure sign of advanced holiday zen mastery). It is conceivable at this time of year to find yourself with a whole lotta canned pumpkin. This list over at Greatist.com tries to help you with that… and features Bigg Sis’ fabulous cookies.

img_9171If you’ve got a strange mishmash of leftovers, you can always make a leftover pot pie.  This is a surprisingly easy and VERY popular transformation around here.

So there it is, tons of great seasonal options for you. Here’s hoping your holiday is what YOU want it to be. Traditions are great, and so is recognizing when they are no longer serving you. If you could plan the day without any input, what would you be most grateful for? We’ll be doing things a bit different this year as it has become clear that what we’d be most thankful for is a little quiet time and some rest. Well, rest and some mashed potatoes. 😉 Have a great holiday if you’re in the U.S., and if you’re elsewhere, please don’t be annoyed by our Facebook posts. Eat well, be well friends.

 

Pumpkin French Toast Bake

As if you need another pumpkin recipe….. but, wait!  You do need this pumpkin recipe because it is a breakfast recipe.  It is not easy to bring vegetables into breakfast in a culture that often considers breakfast to be the 12-hour-after-dinner dessert.  Seriously.  So…. this recipe seems a bit dessert-y but with the touch of sweetness coming from bananas and cinnamon.  Plus you get fiber, vitamin A, potassium and other nutrients coming your way via pumpkin.

It was my original attention to make this in the crock pot overnight.  But I forgot.  Ooops.  The crock pot is (unfortunately) not a magical pot into which you can put nothing and remove something yummy hours later.  However, it did not take long to throw this together, so being the early riser in my household, I threw it together in about 10 minutes and into the oven it went.  The sleepy heads still had to be awakened to enjoy this healthy treat.

Don’t get uptight about measuring – It’s merely a layering job that you then bake at 350 for 35 minutes or so.  I don’t mean to give you too vague a recipe, but the amounts of egg and milk you use is dependent on the thickness and heartiness of the bread, so you’ll have to just feel it out a little.  You want the bread to be a bit soaked so that the resultant dish will be moist, but not floating.

Pumpkin Banana French Toast Bake

Enough bread for 2 layers in a 9X13 baking dish – healthy bread would be ….. healthier 😉
(I used ezekiel bread and it took 12 pieces)coconut oil (or your favorite oil to grease the baking dish
6 – 10 eggs
1/2 – 1 cups milk
1 – 2 tsp vanilla
about 1 cup pureed pumpkin
1 banana
Handful of walnuts
shredded un-sweetened coconut
cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350
Grease the baking dish
Beat together the eggs,
Add and mix in vanilla, pumpkin and milk
Lay the bread in a layer on the bottom of the dish
sprinkle walnuts, cinnamon, coconut and banana slices over the bread

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Pour about half of the mixture over the bottom layer
Add another layer of bread
Sprinkle more coconut and/or walnuts if you like (I did coconut)
Pour the rest of the mixture over the bread.

 

Bake until firm (again, depends on amount of eggs/milk and heartiness of bread) .  20151115_080409

There may be banana juice bubbling up, so try to determine whether you are seeing banana juice or egg/pumpkin mixture looking wet.

This was very yummy and did not require any sweetener to make it wonderful.  The banana adds a lot, but you could try it without – or with raisins or dates….. or something else.  Let us know if you try something different!

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Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your friends and family!

 

Quinoa and Black Bean Stew

So I said this week that I was going to experiment with some new recipes since Mr. Little Sis was home. What I should have said was that I might even make him cook some of them. Wasn’t that nice of me? Hey sweetie, can you cook dinner while the kids and I are at violin? Great, here’s the recipe. We should have everything for it… Yeah, it was inspired. Good thing he’s a good sport.

So while I listened to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star played in about 5 rhythmic variations on a violin and viola, Mr. Little Sis dug in and did his best in a kitchen that is organized to someone else’s liking. I have to confess that it strikes me as unclear who got the short end of that stick. With a few texts about “we don’t have…” answered by “just use this with a little of that,”  Mr. Little Sis was off to the races.

The time estimate on this fantastic Quinoa and Black Bean Stew from Vegetarian Times is “under 30 minutes.” I think the estimate was pretty close given the aforementioned substitution advice via text and the “where does she keep the…” problem. The procedure was easy and the ingredients were not outlandish. We didn’t have fire roasted tomatoes so subbed out regular diced and added some smoked paprika. I admit that was genius, and it added just the right flavor. All of those fundamental flavors bubbling away with a smoky edge… coming home to this stuff already cooking was a heavenly moment for sure.

The stew is flavorful and interesting, even with a little less chili powder than called for (a concession to the children). The avocados added just the right amount of fat. And yes, you want the lime. It was so great little man requested leftovers in his lunch and ate every last piece of quinoa. As for Ms. Picky Pants? Well, you can’t win them all; she predictably did not care for the stew and that’s really all I can say about that. 75% approval around the table is an A- in this house, or at least a really strong B+. Given how much I personally enjoyed it and how I mourned the end of the leftovers, I have to say the non-super taster grade for this stew is an A.

Weekly Meal Plan 11/16-11/22

Hey there friends. Do you feel it coming? The holiday hoopla approacheth. There are plenty of great things about the holidays, but I’m the first to admit that I have been known to succumb to the pressure of over-scheduling, panicking about outcomes, and generally not enjoying myself very much during a time that’s supposed to be, at the heart of it, enjoyable. In discussing the increasing anticipation of this holiday onslaught, a delightful and helpful friend shared with me that she has begun doing her holidays exactly the way she wants. She is kind about it, but makes plans with people she wants to see, brings the food she wants to eat, and gives gifts she feels good about, buying them throughout the year when she sees something that inspires delight and seems to call out to a person she knows.

Hmmmm… this sounds like just the kind of advice I’ve laid out in the past, you know how our holiday traditions are our own, how we decide what celebration looks like, and that we have the power to change it. Apparently I can do this at other times of the year but the Thanksgivukkahmas season overpowers my will. This year I’m going to try to do something different. I don’t quite know what it is yet, but I’m gonna try to stay in my happy place, say no when I need to, and be REALLY present for the moments I say yes to. That’s my plan. You are welcome to it if it suits you.

With all that said, those holidays aren’t here yet, and it seems I need to be present in my kitchen for several days before then in order to keep the wheels on the bus going round and round. Mr. Little Sis’ travel schedule will be slowing down again, so I will, blessedly be able to experiment a little more in the kitchen again (ya gotta be able to count on one enthusiastic recipient), and who knows, maybe I’ll get my act together enough to tell you about it. This week’s experiments are all pulled from the November issue of Vegetarian Times.

Monday: Quinoa and Black Bean Stew from Vegetarian Times with Miso-Lime Sweet Potato Dip and chips, cut veggies

Tuesday: Sweet Potato Sushi Bowls from Vegetarian Times

Wednesday: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, Whole Wheat Bread, Green salad

Thursday:  Nutshroom Burgers, sautéed green beans, green salad

Friday: homemade pizza, cut veggies

Saturday: Sweet and Sour Lentils, Sprout Namul, cut veggies

Sunday: homemade pasta with mushroom sauce, sautéed greens, green salad

Lunchbox Treats: Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Drops

Adult Lunches: Brussel Sprouts with Kimchi from Vegetarian Times

So that’s what we’re up to this week! I am going to walk my big furry baby in the sunshine and imagine holidays my way. Here’s hoping you have a little sun and at least one living creature near you that thinks you’re the berries. Eat well, be well friends.

The Beauty of the Pretty Good Dessert

Not the description you read in a restaurant menu.  “Please make a selection from our Pretty Good Dessert Cart,” ……… “Our Pretty Good Desserts are a perfect way to end your meal!”

What’s so good about a “Pretty Good Dessert”? It’s a perfect way to fill that little itch for dessert without being too indulgent, AND you don’t have this stuff sitting on table, or counter, or in the freezer which slowly disappears as passersby shave off a little more whenever they find the excuse to ‘pass by.’  I have that problem with pumpkin brownies, because although much healthier than the average brownie….. I can’t keep my hands off of them.

So to go along with the “Pretty Good” Chocolate Chia Pudding that I posted a few weeks ago, I share with you another Pretty Good dessert posted by Snack Girl.  I don’t think she will be insulted by my calling her desserts pretty good.  She is very level headed and I think would agree with the value of a pretty good dessert.

You have probably heard of mug cakes….. throw a few ingredients in a mug and get 1 serving of cake (which avoids the whole passer-by shaving entirely!!).  For some reason this idea has been stuck in my 14 year old’s considerably tenacious craw for some time.  So he was the perfect candidate to give a banana-based mug cake a try.  (Of course I didn’t advertise it that way, but he helped me, so the ingredients were indeed on the table.  And there aren’t many!)

Chocolate Banana Mug Cake

Not a chocolate mug – don’t eat the mug 😉

This is fast and easy – and makes enough for 2 people

20151101_190607Ingredients:

1 medium banana
1 egg
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons sugar

Mash and squish and whisk all ingredients together.

Pour into 2 mugs

Before

Before

Microwave each mug by itself for 1 minute or until firm on top.  Mine was fine after 1 minute.

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After

You can invert it onto a plate (it slid right out) or eat straight from the mug….. You could even make this tonight!  My son wanted to try this again, but not on the same night.  So while it might not knock your socks off,  it will be satisfying and tasty…… and enough.  And that’s Pretty Good!

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Weekly Meal Plan 11/2-11/8/15

Well hello there everybody! We’ve made it over the first of the cool weather holiday hurdles! My kids came home when their candy collection units (CCUs) were too heavy to proceed. Smart Mr. Little Sis dictated the policy that if you want to even think about eating it, you gotta carry it. And so they returned with an insane haul and with the inevitable but thus far delayed conclusion that the buckets I bought them as toddlers have, in fact, become too small for their growing candy collection needs. I was hoping they wouldn’t think of that for another year.

They returned home and began the horse trading that marks a truly successful Halloween. I stood nearby, biting my tongue and only occasionally intervening when the swindle was too great to be tolerated.

Having thoroughly enjoyed their costumed candy beggary, now’s where things get really fun for one of my little people. Poor little man has oral surgery in the morning. Poor little man’s face is too small for all of poor little man’s teeth, so we’re in a very long process that I’m assured will result in a healthy and happy mouth full of teeth with which he will eat me out of house and home if he continues at the current rate. The impact of this particular saga on this week’s menu is that I’m reasonably certain that little man will have little to no interest in anything but soft food for a few days, so forgive me if part of the menu seems to lack a little in the texture department. Feel free to add nuts at your own discretion. 🙂

Monday: Amazing Applesauce on Whole Wheat Sesame Pancakes, cooked carrots

Tuesday: Lentil, Mushroom and Sweet Potato Soup, wheat bread, green salad or green smoothies if it’s still painful for the boy

Wednesday: rice noodle Varia Bowls with Half Raw Stir Fry and cashews

Thursday: Curried Coconut Quinoa and Greens with Roasted Cauliflower

Friday: Homemade Pizza, cut veggies

Saturday: Cooking Class for the Kids? An experiment we’re toying with.

Sunday: Homemade Pasta

Lunchbox Treats: Halloween candy will be enjoyed this week, in their lunch, and yes I realize that is unkind to the teacher.

Adult Lunches: Creamy Slow Cooker Tomato Soup

 

So that’ what we’ll be gumming for dinner down here. I hope all of your meals are toothsome. Eat well, be well friends!