Monday, February 28, 2011

Oatmeal Revelation

Last week Mark Bittman wrote his New York Times opinion piece about the abomination that is McDonald's "oatmeal." Like most things that come from McDonald's, it is more than likely that the oatmeal tastes good. I may be a local-eating, Michael Pollan-loving mom, but I also think that a Quarter Pounder with cheese is delicious. Despite the yumminess of its foods, there is really no arguing that McDonald's produces some of the least healthy food products on the planet; not only is that burger really bad for you in terms of fat, calories and sodium, you can be sure that meat was grown in a manner that was harmful to the environment and workers. But I digress...Bittman's piece points out just how strange McDonald's oatmeal is - it contains over 20 ingredients, for example.

Since Bittman didn't need to sell me on avoiding McDonald's food, I was more interested in the link to a blog called The Simple Dollar that provided an analysis of how much money one could save by making your own packets of instant oatmeal. Very cool.

And all of this discussion about oatmeal led me to consider some ways to make oatmeal for breakfast more do-able in our house. See, everyone in my family loves oatmeal. But I don't really like to purchase the instant packets - I suspected they were a rip-off, which turns out to be true, and I knew that they were far less healthy than what I could make on the stove. But I live with a toddler and a five year old who are not always the picture of patience in the morning, and I am not typically the picture of organization as we are getting ready to for our busy day. Given these variables, how could we have homemade oatmeal without the fuss?

Consulting the Google, I came up with a solution: soak the oats overnight. I am sure this is completely obvious to most people, but it was news to me. Friday night I gave it a try. (Have I mentioned that we have a thrilling social life?) In a glass bowl I put about a cup of rolled oats, a few shakes of salt and cinnamon, and poured about 2 cups of milk. I didn't really measure the milk; I just poured in enough to cover the oats. I covered the dish and put it in the fridge. In the morning, it was a creamy bowl of breakfast happiness. I added raisins and warmed it up on the stove. Since everyone liked it so much, I made a larger batch on Sunday night. This time I used half milk and half water to cover the oats. And on this rainy Monday morning, everyone got their own bowl to microwave for about a minute. (Why I used the stove the first time is a mystery to me.) Delicious!

My internet "research" indicates that you can easily add other grains like quinoa or millet to the mix. Also a good application for added flax meal or wheat germ if you are looking to up the fiber. Any dried, fresh or frozen fruit would be a nice addition. Finally, you can do the same type of overnight preparation with steel cut oats. Here is Bittman's version of this variation.

One last oatmeal tip: If you like oatmeal, definitely try to buy it in bulk. Even at Whole Foods, not known for low prices, the bulk grains are way cheaper than buying a branded product.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Homemade Ricotta

At some point last summer, I read a recipe that called for fresh made ricotta. And I remember thinking that recipe writers should really avoid making readers feel inadequate while cooking their food.Like when a recipe includes lines like, "Grate a 1/4 teaspoon of fresh nutmeg. If you must use pre-ground nutmeg from a jar, use a bit less." Or "Spoon in 1 cup of ricotta. Freshly made works best." If I am in a grumpy mood, I am likely to utter some variation on, "Who the hell keeps an actual nutmeg around for baking cookies?" or "Get over yourself!"

Despite my knee jerk reaction to be snarky in the face of recipe writers who inflect their writing with a decidedly superior tone, I was intrigued by the idea of making ricotta from scratch. Turns out it is incredibly easy.

Yesterday I gave it a try and the results were amazing. Seriously delicious. So good, that I wonder why I buy ricotta from the store - what I made is so much better than any store bought product I have ever tried. Granted my ricotta purchases are generally from Trader Joe's or Genuardi's, so my sample is limited. That being said, this handmade ricotta is unbelievably good. I used it in lasangna, and I can think of so many other uses: spread it on crusty bread, use it to make ricotta pancakes, roll it up in your burrito or quesadilla, put a thin layer on your pizza crust, add some sugar and top with berries, put it in a pretty jar and give it as a gift. Endless possibilities.

A few other pluses of making your own ricotta: It would be really fun to make with your kids. You can use locally produced, organic milk and make a cheese that costs a fraction of what you would pay in the store for a comparable product. You can brag to your friends and neighbors that you actually made the fresh ricotta that snooty recipe called for. 

This recipe is originally from Ina Garten (aka The Barefoot Contessa).

  • In a large sauce pan combine 4 cups whole milk, 2 cups heavy cream and 2 tsp salt.
  • Heat until the milk comes up to a rolling boil.
  • Remove from heat and stir in 3 tbsp vinegar. I used just plain white vinegar. (Ina recommends using the best white wine vinegar you can find - again, requirements like that make me get kinda snippy.)
  • The milk will start to curdle almost immediately. I let it stand in the pot for about 5 minutes.
  • While the milk is curdling, line a large colander or sieve with cheese cloth. Tip: Wet the cloth first so it molds to the sieve. Place the colander/sieve over a large bowl.
  • Carefully pour the milk into the colander. Let stand until it becomes as firm as you want it. I let mine drain for about an hour. 
Here is what it looked like. Forgive the mediocre photography -- it is challenging to take picture of white cheese, on a white counter top on cloudy day.

It is tough to see, but that is the milk starting to curdle. 
My pot looks like that because the milk boiled over - bad chef!

This is right after I poured the milk out of the pot.

 This is about 45 minutes later.

Here is a bowl of fabulous ricotta cheese.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Office Do-Over

When we moved into our house two years ago, we painted all but three of the rooms. I look back on that time and I can't believe that we were able to get it all done, especially since Jamie was only a month old and my contributions were limited by the need to stop every couple of hours and nurse. Crazy. (That little anecdote encapsulates the difference between first and second babies. When I had Kara, we spent the whole summer sitting around ogling her. When I had Jamie, we packed up our home, moved in to a new house, and painted practically every room while he snoozed in the car seat.)

Last spring, we took on the major job of painting the entire kitchen - walls and cabinets. This was a huge undertaking, but the results are great. I look back on pictures of our old kitchen and can't believe how crappy it looked. Obviously, Dave and I are apt to take on a big job once we get the notion that a room needs some updating. And I have to say, we have become excellent painters over the years. We are neat, efficient and relentless once we get going.

Last weekend we took on our office. This room was such a disaster. Cluttered, claustrophobic and all around dismal to work in. That has all changed. We painted the entire room, ceiling to baseboards. I failed to take "before" pictures, but trust me the colors in this room were horrendous. Chalky blue on the walls and a strange peachy beige on the woodwork and ceiling. Can anyone explain to me why in the name of all that is good on Earth anyone paints a ceiling anything but white? Same goes for woodwork in my book. Why? Why?

Anyway...Here are some "after" pictures. We have to hang pictures etc., but the basic stuff is up.

The  desk will never be this neat again. Ever. 

One day in the distant future (like when we get our tax refund) there will be a small desk for me under these shelves. We love these Ikea shelves. They are are great for big spaces like an entire wall...

...Or small spaces like a window alcove.

I am making a real attempt to be more organized. On that front, we purchased a bunch of cute boxes, also from Ikea. This one is holding the hodgepodge of stationary I have collected over the years.

 Look! I even cleaned up the nightmare that was our closet.

More cute Ikea boxes for saved school work and the endless stream of school supplies we seem to collect.

Yes, this office project was apparently sponsored by Ikea. Makes me think of the Dust Brothers' song from the Fight Club soundtrack "This Is Your Life" -- Brad Pitt/Tyler Durden intones: "I say may I never be content/I say deliver me from Swedish furniture/I say deliver me from clever art."  A great, yet ironic, workout song.

Special thanks to my mom and Susan for all of their help with the kids and everything else - without them, there would be definitely not be any homeowner projects like this. You are the best!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dinner That Sealed the Deal

Ok, Valentine's Day has come and gone, but here is a little piece of our love story. (Don't worry, it is brief and definitely G rated.)

Back when Dave and I first started dating, he lived in Washington DC and I lived in Philly. Every weekend one of us would make the trek up or down the I-95 corridor to see each other. When I went down to DC our weekends often involved going out with friends on the Hill and then recovering from going out with friends. (We were a lot younger then.) And though we ate our fair share of wings, mozzarella sticks and burgers at our favorite haunts, Dave would, on occasion, cook for me which was no small feat in his tiny apartment on Capitol Hill that was not exactly equipped for culinary acts much beyond frying eggs. I suspect he was trying to impress me with his domestic skills and demonstrate that he was a man of substance and maturity. All of this was just icing on the cake as far as I was concerned. He "had me at hello," so to speak.

One of the first things Dave ever made for me was the hamburger stroganoff that he learned to cook from his mom. I have a strong suspicion that this recipe was originally from the back of a Campbell's soup can.  (Alice - If you are reading, please let us know for sure.) It is the best kind of comfort food. Rich, creamy, easy to make, and thoroughly satisfying.

Dave made this for us on Saturday night and when Kara asked him what he was cooking, he told her that this was the first meal he ever cooked mommy. And he was pretty sure it sealed the deal.

Here's the recipe from Dave:

  • Chop one medium to large onion
  • Slice about 10 or so good sized mushrooms
  • Finely chop 4 or so cloves of garlic
  • Saute the onion, mushrooms and garlic in olive oil until the mushrooms are tender and the onions are getting translucent
  • Put onions and mushrooms aside
  • Brown one pound of ground beef in the same skillet
  • Once the beef is browned add back in the mushrooms and onions
  • Mix in 8 ounces of sour cream
  • Mix in one can of cream of mushroom soup
  • simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes.
  • Serve over your favorite kind of egg noodles
By the way, Dave wanted me to title this post "Sick Food 2: Electric Boogaloo," but I decided to go the romantic route instead.

After many many attempts, we are convinced that it is impossible to take a photo of this dish that looks appetizing. Trust me - this tastes fabulous. It just looks kinda gross.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day

My family is still in the throws of our plague month. Kara broke her personal record for a fever clocking in with a temp of 104 this morning. Yikes! My poor bunny.

How do you know your kid is really sick? In the amount of time it took me to read Jamie a story and put him down for a nap, she conked out on the sofa and didn't even wake up when the dog started psychotically barking at a FedEx truck.

Enough about sickness...It is Valentine's Day, so I thought I would mention a few things I love:

-The way my little girl holds my hand when we are snuggling in bed.
-The way my little boy says, "Yeah sure!" to pretty much any question you ask him these days.
-The fact that Dave has emailed about 10 times today to check in on his baby girl.
-My mom's willingness to stay with the kids long enough for me to drop Kara's Valentines off at school, grab some eggs at the corner store and savor a few minutes of alone time.
-That Kara's teacher was planning to stop at our house on her way home to drop off Kara's Valentines and a cupcake from the class party. Good gracious! Best teacher ever.
-The contents of the card Kara made for us in school, "Dear Mom and Dad I think I know why you love me because I play with my brother we play goo goos together."

Happy Valentine's Day!

PS: For a very sweet and funny take on this "holiday", check out Dinner a Love Story's post today.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sick Food

Our family has been under siege - for the last two weeks at least one member of our brood has been ill. Kara kicked it off with what for her was a mild cold. Jamie joined in on the fun with the added bonus of getting his two year molars. Good times. Then I got a cold, too, but in my case it turned from mild to horrendous. Every day another iteration of this virus cropped up. Runny nose, cough, sore throat, cough, clogged ears, cough. Just when I thought we might be out of the woods, Dave came down with a stomach bug (the lower GI variety) and on Monday night I got that bug too! (The very unpleasant upper GI kind.) Seriously!?!?

Yesterday, for the first time in over a decade, I spent the entire day in bed. (I can whole heartedly recommend Test of Wills by Charles Todd as a sick day read.) Thank goodness for my family and their willingness to care for the kids. I can honestly say there was no way I was capable of being a mom yesterday.

So after a day of ingesting one piece of toast, one cup of noodles (aka sodium stew), and a gallon of ginger ale, I was ready for something a little more substantial. This morning I made myself a classic "sick food" - soft boiled egg on toast. This is the meal my mom would make me whenever I was sick, and it still evokes all of the memories of having my mom take care of me as a little girl.

Here's what you do:
-Take one or two eggs out and put them in a bowl of warm water to prevent cracking.
-Fill a small pot with water and when the water is up to a boil, gently put the eggs in. Cook for four minutes.
-Toast one or two slices of bread, butter them and tear into small pieces into a bowl.
-Remove eggs from water, crack with a knife and scoop out the egg. Ideally, the white will be firm, not hard, and the yolk will be runny. Add salt and pepper to taste.

I promise eggy toast will make even the sickest kid, or mommy,  feel better.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Poem A Week

As a former English teacher, I realize that I may be in the minority on this one, but I love poetry. I like that it is challenging, economical, vivid. I like reading poetry for the same reason I like watching professional sports: it is mesmerizing to witness something I will never be able to do. I will never be able to crush a serve at 100 mph and I will never be able to write a decent poem.

Of all the things I assigned my students over the years, the poetry writing homework is the only thing I feel guilty about to this day. Cruel and unusual punishment. Of course, one could argue that they exacted their revenge by serving up some seriously mediocre verse that I had to read, comment on and grade. Every once in a while, a student would write something lovely. But most kids were like me - fundamentally lacking in poetry writing skills.

If anything, though, reading pretty lame poetry for so many years, has sharpened my appreciation for poetry by actual poets. Given my love of quality verse, I was thrilled to find's feature "A Weekly Poem Read by the Author". This week the selection is "Roses" by Billy Collins. Even if the very mention of poetry makes you flashback to an unfortunate English class many moons ago, give it a listen. It will take about a minute. If you have more than a minute, read some of the comments - many of which appear to be written by budding literary critics and/or literature professors. I found them at once interesting and comically earnest. Definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Applesauce Raisin Bread

Last week I ventured out to Maple Acres Farm to see if they had any apples around this late in the winter. As luck would have it, they still had a few baskets hanging around. The very kind woman who was working on that frigid day sold me a big box full for $8.00. Not bad. These apples were pretty banged up - just perfect for making applesauce.

After I cooked up a big pot of applesauce, however, I realized that I had neither the time nor the inclination to actually go through the whole canning process. Consulting the Google, I learned that you can freeze applesauce. In fact, some cooks out there claim that freezing actually improves the flavor of the fruit. Even after filling several quart freezer bags, I had some sauce left. So I decided to make applesauce raisin bread. Again, consulting Google, I found lots of recipes, but none of them seemed like what I was looking for. They either used way too much sugar and butter, or they combined the applesauce with pureed zucchini or pumpkin or banana. Not surprisingly, I have all of those other purees in my freezer too. (Have I mentioned how cool I am?) But I didn't feel like searching them out.

Using my favorite banana bread recipe from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook - a great kitchen reference, by the way -  as a template, I made up a recipe. It came out great. Very moist, not too sweet. Delicious toasted with butter, apple butter and/or cream cheese. Plus, it made the whole house smell delicious. (If you are trying to sell your house, pop this in the oven during your open house. The offers will be pouring in.)

Here it is:
  • In a mixing bowl combine 1 cup white flour, 1 cup wheat flour, 3 tbsp ground flax, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp salt.
  • In a small bowl combine 1 1/2 cup applesauce, 2 eggs, 3 tbsp oil, 3 tbsp honey
  • Combine wet and dry ingredients. Add heaping 1/2 cup raisins.
  • Bake at 350 for 1 hour. 
If you really want to take it to the next level, add some streusel topping. It's super easy. Just use a fork or a pastry cutter to combine 3 tbsp butter, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 quick oats, 2 tbsp flour and a dash or two of cinnamon. I baked the bread for about 20 minutes and then added the streusel.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Recommended Reading: Percy Jackson & The Olympians

In addition to being a stay at home mom, I also tutor a few students throughout the school year. One of the great pleasures of this work, in addition to the fact that I get to be a teacher for a couple of hours a week, is that I have the chance to read what my students read. I have had the chance to revisit some classics (Death of a Salesman, Scarlet Letter, Things Fall Apart) and also discover books that would have otherwise passed me by. This year one of my kids has been obsessed with the entire Percy Jackson & The Olympians series by Rick Riordan. I didn't really know much about this series except that the first book, The Lightening Thief, had been made into a movie a couple of years ago. But when my student told me he read all five books in the series within two weeks, I knew these books must have some serious mojo.

In an effort to catch up to my Olympian obsessed student, I have been borrowing his books one at a time and reading a book a week. I just completed the final book in the series, and I have to say that these books are entertaining, well-written, fast-paced and appropriate for middle school students. I include that last descriptor because while I loved every Harry Potter book, I am not sure that by the 4th book, J.K. Rowling was really writing for 13 year olds any more, the subject matter got so dark, grim and violent. Riordan's books have a lot in common with Rowling's - they both focus on an adolescent boy who discovers he has extraordinary powers and is the central figure in a potentially world-ending prophecy. Both Percy, Riordan's protagonist, and Harry must go on dangerous quests with loyal friends. And both boys must come to terms with betrayal, life's inherent injustice and the eternal fight between good and evil. Rowling created the world of magic and muggles. Riordan's characters are half-bloods, the children of Greek gods and mortals.

Riordan fully imagines the Greek gods and their myths as critical plot pieces in his adventures. As an adult, I found these links between ancient myths and modern times truly fascinating. And as reader of any age, I liked getting to know Percy, much like I enjoyed seeing Harry grow up throughout Rowling's books. Percy, like all heroes, has flaws, and the exploration of these is done gently. In the first book, we learn that Percy is seen as a bit of a screw up. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, he has been kicked out of every school in the New York metropolitan area. But we come to learn that the ADHD is actually a common trait among half-blood heroes. It turns out that heroes need that impulsive temperament and wandering attention to survive the many challenges they will face in world where monsters seem to lurk around every corner.  It was this aspect of Percy's character evolution that I found most touching, especially when I thought of the many kids I have taught who came to believe a diagnosis of learning disability was the defining factor in their school experience. It is a pleasure to observe how Percy learns to harness the qualities that he has always considered a detriment to help him become a hero in every sense of the word. His brand of humor, sarcasm and adolescent angst feels both real and poignant.

If you have a young reader in your life, or if you like to dabble in young adult fiction, I would highly recommend this series. And if you know of a young person with ADHD and/or dyslexia, these books offer a wonderful role model of a student who more than overcomes his perceived "disabilities."