14 March 2018

Patience and a Lent list

About two weeks left of Lent! And of this pregnancy, theoretically. It is making me crazy that I can't really make plans for the rest of this liturgical season, because we've reached the point where baby could come any time now or not for a couple of weeks yet. My chiropractor commented yesterday morning on how much lower baby had dropped since she last saw me, so maybe it'll be sooner rather than later? We shall see. I actually spent about 7 hours at the birth center last night/this morning with very convincing labor that just... stopped. So now we're back home, and maybe we'll have to head back tonight and maybe not until Holy Week! Getting some practice being patient here.

Last night I sat down with three weeks' worth of menu-planning sheets and started trying to map things out for just in case I'm actually able to make everything I want to between now and Easter, and as I looked back through past years' plans for Lent and Holy Week, I realized how disappointing it was that I have a bunch of Lenten posts from 2013-2016, but my search terms brought up nothing from last year. Yes, I'm busy, and always tired, and it's hard to find time to write... But it's so good to have this record, too! And I know that I'll feel badly about it later if I continue to do such a poor job of posting. So, here is my "probably more wishful thinking than realistic plan" for this home stretch of Lenten observance (with feast days thrown in):

Saturday, 17 Mar: St Patrick
We are talking about St Patrick and Ireland in social studies this week; for supper, I'm planning Guinness moose stew with Irish cheddar biscuits, and my friend's mom's recipe for Guinness chocolate cake!

Sunday, 18 Mar: Passion Sunday
It's the annual "why do I suddenly have no purple fabric??" day! Time to cover all of the statues, icons, and religious art in the house. Unless I am actively in labor and thus am not home, this will definitely happen, because Little Bear has been excited about it for weeks and will happily help Matt take care of it.

Monday, 19 Mar: St Joseph
Instead of an Italian meal for the Solemnity of St Joseph, as we've done in the past, I'm planning a supper that Matt particularly likes (since we treat the day as a patronal feast day for him as a husband and father): chicken salad on homemade pretzel buns. Possibly a dessert; I haven't thought that far yet. No one would complain if I said they could have ice cream, though I'd like to do something more creative/intentional.

Sunday, 25 Mar: Palm Sunday (and Annunciation)
I know, I know; the Annunciation gets moved to after Easter so that it can be celebrated on its own instead of being overshadowed by the celebration of Palm Sunday, but we will definitely still be talking about how March 25 is exactly 9 months before Dec 25. I figure it won't hurt to use foods for both celebrations that day, either; chocolate waffles for breakfast, and psari plaki (Greek baked fish) for supper.

(Tuesday, 27 Mar is my due date... I've never yet had a baby wait until their due date, so the rest of this is fairly unlikely to actually happen...)

Wednesday, 28 Mar: Holy Wednesday
The day Judas betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Hopefully, we'll have Jidase buns with supper.

Thursday, 29 Mar: Holy Thursday
Persian lamb with almonds for supper. Holy Thursday is also the day we make Hot Cross Buns. If I'm on top of things, we will hopefully hard-boil and dye eggs as well. Probably not making the traditional red dye out of onion skins this year, though!

Friday, 30 Mar: Good Friday
Hot Cross Buns for breakfast. I grew up with potato soup for supper every Good Friday, but I love potato soup so it's not at all a penitential meal for me, and Matt particularly dislikes it... anyway, we don't have a traditional Good Friday supper yet. I tried for a couple of years to make lentil soup our traditional supper, and it did not work out. Maybe tuna salad or egg salad this year?

Saturday, 31 Mar: Holy Saturday
No promises, but the Italian Easter Bread that I always bake on Holy Saturday may be possible this year; it's always been a knead-by-hand-forever recipe, but the new stand mixer will definitely be able to handle the dough on its own, so there's hope! 

What are your plans for observing the upcoming feast days and holy days?

10 March 2018

Easter baskets

I am so thankful today for a post from Katie Kimball of Kitchen Stewardship on non-candy/non-junk Easter basket items! Both because she has a lot of great ideas, and because reading her post reminded me that my usual waiting-until-the-last-minute approach to finding things for Easter baskets would not be a good idea, considering that the baby is due during Holy Week... So this morning I left Little Bear and Kit home with Matt, and went to town all by myself to pick up Easter items along with my regular errands.

(I am also thankful to Matt for being awake enough this morning to point out that, while in many places sidewalk chalk and bubbles would be very reasonable things to give kids in early April, that is not the case here!)

This year, the kids' baskets will each have:
- one small toy (Lego for LB, doll for Kit)
- one accessory to match their clothes for Mass (tie for LB, headband for Kit)
- a pack of Easter-y stickers
- freeze-dried fruit
- and a few chocolate eggs

There is supposed to be a sacrifice jar on the table, slowly getting filled with black beans throughout Lent so that I can replace it with a jar of jelly beans for Easter, but... I am very tired and forgetful. And the kids keep forgetting about it, too. I bought jelly beans before Lent even started, though, so I suppose we'd better get the jar going. Better late than never?

What are your thoughts on Easter baskets for adults? My parents shared one, which looking back was probably just the most convenient dumping-place for the leftover pieces from each bag of candy—there certainly wasn't anything but candy inside. Matt can't remember what his parents did. I do remember as a kid feeling strongly about the importance of my dad having his own basket, so that he wasn't "taxing" our candy intake. :-) In past years we have done adult baskets as well as kids, but this year I think we'll do one shared parental basket and I don't even know what to put in it... It's not like either of us needs candy. Possibly jerky or coffee for Matt; the only thing I'm likely to want at that point is sleep, and you can't put that in a basket!

(I do not know whether this is relevant to a discussion of Easter baskets for adults, but it just occurred to me to note that we don't "do" the Easter Bunny; the kids know that the baskets are filled by Mom and Dad, and are a fun thing to find on Easter morning, but that they aren't really what Easter is about. Not that we necessarily have any particular problem with the Easter Bunny... it honestly has never been important enough to Matt or me to bother putting thought into whether there was a reason to do/not do it. There are so many other things we are actively doing/making/talking about during Holy Week and Easter! Maybe it would be a thing we'd have to address if our kids were in a traditional school? At this point, I don't think LB or Kit have ever even heard of the Easter Bunny, except possibly in the context of my younger siblings joking about the Easter Bunny wearing bunny boots...)

09 March 2018

Assorted things (7QT)

Baby has not made an appearance yet; figured I'd better get that one out there first! :-) It's a good thing, because we don't necessarily have a name nailed down yet... or the newborn clothes or other baby things ready. I'm 37.5 weeks now, so that should probably go on the *really does need to be done* list for this weekend.

I started seeing a new chiropractor last week, and she's been so helpful: I can actually walk again! I'm definitely still having a hard time, but being physically capable of walking and getting some things done has been good. The kids have also been getting lots of practice helping; with me literally unable to pick things up off the floor, they've learned that they actually can clean up quickly without me doing it with/for them. Two of my sisters have been coming over regularly as well, and their help has been invaluable. I'm so thankful for all of the ways they've helped and let me sit/lay down!

School is going really well. We just finished our 27th week today, which doesn't actually mean much since we aren't required to do school for a specific number of days/weeks each year per Alaska homeschooling regulations, but it's nice to have a measure of how long we've been working. We are starting to see the end coming: there are only a few pages left in the handwriting book, three or so chapters in religion, I think five weeks of math... Our grammar/language arts program I expect to carry through the summer, since we started it in January and he's enjoying it so much.


We spent this week in science learning about cheese, and yesterday we made cream cheese out of whole milk and vinegar! It's really closer to ricotta, I think, but it tastes good. And as initially horrifying as it was to see four cups of milk shrink down to just one cup of cheese, when I did the math, making homemade ricotta is still less than half the price of buying ricotta or cream cheese at the store!

And to go with our cheese, my sister and I made our first-ever batch of homemade bagels! We used the recipe from King Arthur Flour, making some plain and some cinnamon raisin, and they came out so well. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but they are exactly the texture and flavor I want from a bagel! And they really weren't that much work; we will definitely be making them again.

It's beginning to look and feel a little more spring-like outside, despite the slightly ridiculous amount of snow on the ground right now: 

That would be our deck. The snow is almost up to the top of Kit's head! But it really is feeling springish anyway, because we have so much sunlight—more than 11 hours today! 

Of course they're taking away our lovely morning sunlight this weekend... I'm always so disappointed when we have to change the clocks and suddenly it's dark in the mornings again. I know it won't take long before the sun is up before we are again, but it has been so nice to open the shades in the morning and not have to use the lights! At least our parish doesn't have religious ed this week (the public schools have spring break), so we don't have to get up at feels-like-5:15 for the early Mass on Sunday!

Kit, wearing Matt's ear protection: "You don't hear me, Mama, 'cause I have hearing protections on!"
She is so funny, chattering all the time and telling us stories about what she is doing. Lately she's been pretending that Matt's office area is Nome, because we've been talking about the Iditarod a lot with the kids; she keeps telling me about what she's going to go do in Nome today, or how her baby dolls are waiting in Nome to watch for the sled dogs.

Little Bear signed up for the IditaREAD this year: he picked a musher to race, and then tried to read 998 pages before his musher's team completed the 998-mile race. The race started on Saturday, and he had already passed 1,000 pages by yesterday afternoon... I now understand why my mom never bothered having us sign up for the program! :-) I love that he loves reading so much, but he definitely didn't get as much out of the program as he would have if it had actually been a challenge. He had a lot of fun, though, and we got to practice mental addition of two- and three-digit numbers keeping track of how many pages he had read!

That's seven! And hopefully a somewhat adequate catch-up on what we are up to. For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain't The Lyceum!

07 February 2018

Freezer Cooking

I have been intimidated by the idea of "freezer cooking," "batch cooking," whatever you want to call it, for years. It wasn't until I participated in an online roundtable on meal planning last month that I realized something super important: there are different ways of freezer cooking. Maybe this is ridiculously self-evident to most people, but my mental picture of freezer cooking was that you had to dedicate a full weekend (or similar block of time) to cooking all the food in the world, and fill up your freezer with it, and then... I was a little bit foggy on how it was actually helpful, because I think I was picturing freezer meals as being a way to save dinnertime if you weren't able to make whatever you had already planned.

Last assumption first, while there are certainly some things that you can pull out of the freezer and use immediately, that's probably not going to be the main way that freezer cooking is helpful: quickbreads, breakfast cookies, chocolate banana oatmeal fudge bars, yes, but main dishes not so much... For full meals, it's more about having the prep work done ahead of time than about having healthy versions of instant pizzas in the freezer. Having a menu plan is still important—ideally, the freezer meals get built into the menu plan, so that they're written down and I can see on my planner a day ahead that I need to pull whatever it is out of the freezer and let it thaw in the fridge overnight.

Matt and I were talking about this a couple of weeks back, about slow cooker freezer meals specifically; he was confused about how it could possibly be all that helpful to have, say, a pork shoulder frozen with a marinade. "But you still have to cook it all day!" I certainly saw his point, but (as we were actually discussing an upcoming cookbook that I'm excited about on slow cooker/pressure cooker freezer meals) it got me to think through exactly how it would be helpful. Yes, in that case you still have the cooking time of a regular meal, but all of the prep work is done and if you're planning your cooking ahead, there's no last-minute "oh no, the orange juice has been sitting in the fridge too long and has a funny smell so I guess we're making carnitas with grapefruit juice today!" (It's not awful, for the record, but orange is definitely better.) And as we're getting ready to have a newborn in the house, even the 20-minute prep work of making a spice rub, coating the pork, dicing the onion, and making the marinade sounds a whole lot more challenging when I picture trying to do with with a tiny person who wants me to sit on the couch and feed him constantly. So in that case, yes, being able to dump the thawed bag into the slow cooker and turn it on instead of doing that small amount of prep work would be legitimately helpful.

Okay, now back to my first assumption. There certainly are people who do huge batch-cooking marathons and get an entire month's meals into the freezer in one go, and that works for them, and that's great! But there are other people who just make double batches of suppers when they know something freezes well, and stick one batch into the oven/slow cooker and the other into the freezer. Some people mainly freeze breads/sides/snacks, things they can easily use from frozen (or after a quick thaw). And some people just make staples ahead of time, things that can easily be transformed into a variety of meals, like beans, rice, tomato sauce, pesto, cooked meat... 

And any of those methods, or any combination of them, helps to save time and get dinner on the table more smoothly. I've actually been doing a little bit of several of those methods for years without realizing that I was "freezer cooking": sticking leftovers in the freezer when there's enough to serve as another full meal, keeping things like pesto and pureed beets portioned out in the freezer, storing batches of muffins or individually wrapped bars in there to be easily grabbed for quick breakfasts or snacks.

I've been trying to be a little more intentional about it as we prepare for a new baby, though. I don't even remember how I started reading the Thriving Home blog, but our family has enjoyed their recipes (and their "real food meets reality" philosophy) for a while now, and when Polly and Rachel released a cookbook full of freezer meals last fall, I was so excited to pick up a copy. Many recipes from From Freezer to Table have since become favorites in our house—their Killer Carnitas, Peach Baked Oatmeal, and Pesto Feta Tuna Melts all made it onto this week's menu plan! 

And in this last however-many-weeks pre-baby, I cannot tell you how helpful it is to have meal components already in the freezer and easy to assemble! I'm exhausted today, and had been dreading the end-of-the-day "they want to eat again?" time... until I realized that all I have to do is slice bread, pull pesto out of the freezer, and combine tuna with a couple of items from the fridge. I can practically make supper sitting down! Little Bear can peel some carrots for me, and if I have enough energy we can make ranch dip, but if not there's some hummus in the fridge. Easily-assembled suppers are very, very valuable!

Do you use any (or all!) of these methods of freezer cooking, or are there other ways of doing it that I missed here? How do you incorporate cooking ahead into your meal planning?

05 February 2018

Instant Pot convert

Confession: for the past several years, I've been ever-so-slightly scornful of the Instant Pot as a, perhaps not silly, but unnecessary extra appliance, a fad that would burn itself out quickly enough.

I was wrong.

This pregnancy has been... not easy. There's nothing seriously wrong with me or the baby; I have chronic loose joints, which during pregnancy makes standing/walking/bending down much harder and more painful than it otherwise would be, and means I tire more easily. I had to stop sitting on the floor months ago, for example, because it was too difficult to stand up and walk again. And now that I'm mid-third-trimester, I am so tired all the time, but that's kind of to be expected.

All that to say, my meal-planning abilities have been lackluster lately. By the time the kids are in bed and the kitchen is clean, and maybe I've even picked up after the two-year-old tornado, I am firmly stuck on the couch until bedtime. Getting chia pudding started in the fridge last night (3 minutes of work max) was an embarrassingly rare feat of breakfast-prep. Pulling meat out of the freezer so it can thaw in the fridge overnight just hasn't been happening. (Though to be honest, I couldn't tell you how much of that is due to being pregnant-hurting-tired and how much is attributable to the meat being in the chest freezer out on the sub-zero deck...) 

And so the Instant Pot has been saving me, over and over again. Oh, the chicken breasts are frozen and it's mid-afternoon? Not a problem. Ground beef is frozen and supper needs to be in the slow cooker in an hour? That's fine. I told Matt we were having moose stroganoff, and accidentally pulled out stew meat instead of steaks? Pressure cooker to the rescue. And the reason I first decided to give it a try: dry, unsoaked beans to cooked in less than an hour! I haven't even found a permanent home for it off the counter yet, because I've been using it almost every day. (And we got an 8 quart, so while it's not too heavy for me to lift, it's certainly heavy enough that I don't want to be hauling it up and down twice each day.)

Even with all of those applications, I would still have said that it was nice to have but not necessary... And then we got home tonight after a long afternoon of appointments and discovered that the pork shoulder I'd had in the slow cooker all afternoon was not done, not even a little bit. It wasn't the first time in the last month that a recipe hasn't gotten done in the called-for length of time in the slow cooker, but the other times were new-to-us recipes, so I figured they just hadn't been written well or I'd made too many "tiny adjustments" to the recipe. Tonight's planned supper was a recipe that I made successfully in the same slow cooker two weeks ago—the only difference was that las time I use high heat instead of low, because I got it started (quite) late. And looking back, all of the failed recipes were supposed to cook on low. So it seems that the low heat function of our slow cooker—which is certainly at least as old as I am—is no longer working properly. I guess it's time to actually read the four or so articles I have bookmarked on how to convert slow cooker recipes for the Instant Pot!

We've loved our ancient slow cooker particularly because it has a dial instead of buttons: with the frequency of power outages this winter, it has been helpful to have one that doesn't reset when it thinks it's been turned off and on again! But I'm also grateful, now that I can't rely on it anymore, that we have a machine that can take its place; it's rare enough for the kids and I to be out of the house for a long span while the slow cooker is on that, at least for now, it shouldn't be a huge deal to go reset the Instant Pot if we lose power while it is running. And we probably have less than three months left of winter, so power outages shouldn't be a regular thing for too much longer.

Do you have an Instant Pot (or other kind of electric pressure cooker)? What's your favorite way to use it? I would love more ideas—I know there are so many more things to do with it than the ones I've tried!

24 December 2017

20 November 2017

Making good use of mixers

I grew up using my mom's Kitchenaid stand mixer, and when she got a new one around the time I got married, she passed hers on to me. It being about as old as I am, when it finally stopped working last fall, there were no parts anywhere that we could find to repair it. Since I used it all the time, we wound up getting a new Kitchenaid as my Christmas present, but early, so that I could use it for all my Christmas baking.

Unfortunately, it turned out that they don't make them like they used to... Even a single batch of chunky cookie dough had the motor straining and groaning. After about a year of doing many things by hand since I didn't trust the stand mixer to be able to handle them, I was done; one of Matt's coworkers was interested in a Kitchenaid primarily for the attachments, which worked fine on ours, so we sold it and started researching other stand mixers. 

Well, my second early-Christmas-present-stand mixer just arrived, and so far I am very impressed and happy with my Bosch Universal Plus! I made a big batch of cookies Saturday night, and a "small batch" (2 loaves) of bread Sunday evening. It's so fast! And it had no trouble at all with a cookie dough stiff with oats, white chocolate chips, and frozen cranberries. And the bread... I have never made sandwich bread in a stand mixer, not even my mom's old reliable one, because the motors simply couldn't handle it. But the Bosch is made for bread-making: it combined ingredients perfectly, and kneaded the dough as well in 6 minutes as would have taken me at least 20 by hand. The loaves rose beautifully by the woodstove and again in the oven, and I couldn't help cutting into one as soon as they were cool enough. A perfect, soft, not-crumbly-at-all texture! And did I mention that it did all the kneading, and quickly? No more having to put off nap time for another 15-25 minutes because I just started kneading but now the two year old is melting down! 

From what we've read, the Bosch should last a long time; I sure hope so! Right now, I couldn't be happier with it.

Funny thing about those cookies: when I make desserts, I know that as a rule that Matt would just as soon not eat anything containing cranberries or white chocolate, and he won't bother sneaking cookie dough from my mixing bowl if it has oatmeal in it. But, somehow, when I combine all three, he's asking if I really have to bake any of it; can he just have the bowl and a spoon? ;-) I can't really blame him, but then, I do love cranberries and white chocolate. But seriously, these are some great cookies—and seasonal! (Though I make them all year round.)

Cranberry Oatmeal White Chocolate Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar*
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
2 cups flour (I always use at least a little whole grain flour)
2 cups quick oats
12 oz white chocolate chips 
1 cup cranberries (frozen is best, if you don't want bright pink dough)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cream butter and sugar. Scraping down sides of bowl as needed, beat in eggs and vanilla. Mix in baking powder, baking soda, salt and flour. (Switching to dough hook if your mixer recommends it), Add oats, cranberries, and chips. When combined, scoop rounded spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake until edges just barely begun to turn golden, about 8-10 minutes. 

*Alaskan cranberries are substantially more tart than domesticated ones, so you may not want this much sugar; try starting with 1 cup.

My sister, who ought to know what she's talking about since she just won numerous ribbons with them at the fair this year, says that the recipe makes 6 dozen. I don't know how small she's making them... But I also can't say how many I'd get if I actually managed to bake all the dough, since that never happens! So, it makes a good lot of them, anyway. The dough freezes fine, too, if you want to make a full batch of it but don't actually want dozens of cookies sitting on the counter all at once.