28 September 2017

The Scents (& Flavors) of Autumn: Slow Cooker Apple Butter

Now that autumn is properly here, it seemed a good time wrap myself in the wonderful smells of apples and cinnamon. Also, my most recent CSA share included five pounds of absurdly large MacIntosh apples and, while I like apples, grapefruit-sized apples seemed too big for a quick snack. I thought about stuffing and baking them, but that seemed like too much work. Then I thought about slow cooker applesauce -- it's always worked out well in the past -- but that did not excite me. And then I thought ... well, what about apple butter? My mom used to can her own apple butter and it was fabulous stuff. While I doubted I could make anything as good as hers, I could certainly try.


I used a friend's spiralizer to process the apples, because I thought the thinner ribbons would cook down more quickly than chunks might, but it probably didn't matter as I left it to cook all day while I was at work. When I came home, the whole house smelled like apple pie and the apples had reduced to a dark brown sludge -- sludge sounds decidedly ewww, I know, but it's the texture I was looking for.

I whizzed everything 'round with a stick blender and then let it cook for another hour while I futzed around on the internet. Afterwords, I decanted the apple butter into my prettiest jars (which was not a good idea as the jars are blue which means the apple butter looks greenish and that's just not super appetizing) and let it cool before storing it in the fridge.

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

Yield: 1½ pints

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs of apples
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground mace
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp ground allspice
  • ½ tsp salt

Instructions

  1. Using the straight blade, spiralize the apples, leaving the skin on.
  2. Add apples and all other ingredients to slow cooker insert and stir to mix.
  3. Cover and cook apples on low for 10 hours on low or until apples are dark brown, completely soft, and very reduced in volume.
  4. Puree the apples with an immersion blender until smooth.
  5. Continue cooking, partially covered, on low for 1 hour more or until the apple butter has reduced to your desired thickness. (It will continue to thicken as it cools, fyi).
  6. Refrigerate apple butter in airtight containers for up to 2 weeks or freeze until needed.
What to do with apple butter? Other than the obvious straight-from-the-jar-with-a-spoon? Spread it on muffins, toast, or bagels. Pair it with chopped walnuts and stir it into your breakfast yogurt or oatmeal. Whizz it with vanilla ice cream and bourbon for a boozy shake. Bake it into a bundt!

27 September 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Snoozin'

It's very tiring, being a kitty. Good thing there are lots of
squashy cushions and sunlit windows for napping.

26 September 2017

Slow Cooker Soups with my CSA Bounty

My fabulous friend, Kelly, has handed her CSA share over to me as between school, work, and raising a family, she does not have the time or wherewithal to cope with huuuge amounts of produce. So, hooray, extra fruit and vegetables for me! Except, I already have a CSA share of my own. Only a quarter share, mind you, but still a decent amount of produce. I don't want anything to go to waste, but I don't have a lot of time to cook or process everything I've been given.

So! I've made a lot of soup! "Creamy Roasted Cherry Tomato Soup" from this blog as well as Taste of Home's "Cheddar Corn Chowder," "Chicken Barley Soup," and "Curried Leek Soup."


The corn chowder and barley soup recipes were taken from the copy of Taste of Home's Soups: 380 Heartwarming Family Favorites I received in my winter Taste the Seasons box. I've made near a dozen recipes from this book now and only the barley soup came near disappointing. Still, I can see where that soup could be improved with additional seasonings and alliums and will revisit it soon.

The cheddar corn chowder recipe alone earns this cookbook a permanent place on my bookshelves. While I did tart mine up with leftover roasted CSA-share corn and Cabot cheddar the bones of the recipe are good ones. I don't doubt it will also be perfectly delicious when made as written with frozen or canned corn in the dark, cold heart of winter. It's a creamy, cheesy, rich, and filling soup that goes well with a bit of green salad and buttery toast.

The curried leek soup was also fabulous. It's a rich, fragrant, comforting soup that works well for breakfast or lunch and I very happily ate it three days running. However, I dare say it's the kind of soup that only a leek lover would enjoy as the flavor of the leeks, mellow as they are by being sautéed in butter, are still very leeky. Mind you, I may have simply used too many leeks. My leeks were medium sized compared to some of the monsters for sale at the farmer's market, but that doesn't mean they were a cookbook writer's medium. Regardless, it's a tasty soup for leek lover's and I recommend it.

25 September 2017

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris


The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris tells two parallel stories -- one of Claire, an older Englishwoman who visited Paris as a young woman and fell in love, and one of Anna, a younger Englishwoman who takes Claire’s advice and moves to Paris after an unfortunate industrial accident at a local chocolate plant. Anna finds work at Le Chapeau Chocolat under world famous Thierry Girard, ebullient chocolatier and former lover of Claire. She learns much about chocolate, life, and love and truly becomes a better Anna for it all.

While I was moved to tears at points, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris is an essentially light-hearted delight, full of lovingly-written descriptions of Paris and delicious confections. I’ve never thought to visit Paris, but I definitely would if Jenny Colgan (or Sami, but I might not be brave enough for Sami) were my tour guide. Colgan’s Paris is very bohemian -- very Moulin Rouge – and filled with wine, food, music, passion, and romance. All the best things, really.

Like many of Colgan’s other foodie romances, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris comes with recipes, including ones for “The World’s Best Hot Chocolate” and “Malteser Cake.” I’ve made Malteser cakes before, but never from scratch, so will probably give that a go now that we’re back to cake baking-weather!

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan (Sourcebooks, 2014)

23 September 2017

Cookbook Club!

A few months ago, I started a cookbook club at my new library. My supervisor suggested I start a nonfiction book club and a cookbook club seemed like a natural fit, considering my own interests and the patron base I was working with. I'm not sure cookbook clubs are quite on trend, anymore, but registration has maxed out every month and everyone who actually turns up has been really happy to be there and shown great creativity with their dishes.

The requirements are simple:
  1. Make a dish fitting the month's theme using a library cookbook
  2. Make copies of your recipe to share
  3. On the appointed day, at the appointed time, bring your dish and copies to the library
  4. Discuss your dish and the cookbook you used with fellow club goers
  5. Eat
The club started in July and so far we've done "Fresh Cooking with Local Produce" in June, "Cool & Refreshing Summer Salads" in July, and "Picnic Foods: Dishes to Make & Take" in August. September is "Fall Flavors," but with the hot weather we've been having and the general weirdness of the growing season, I really think it's a bit early for fall flavors. Well, that's what I get for setting the schedule three months in advance!

"Spring Coleslaw" from Cooking from the Garden: Best Recipes from Kitchen Gardener

Since I'm working, I need dishes that can be prepared in advance and then happily left alone in the fridge or on the countertop until serving. So far, I've made a spring slaw, a Middle Eastern vegetable salad, and a tray of s'more brownies. I think the slaw was the best of the three, but the brownies did not last the evening so clearly dessert is something to bring more often.

"Middle Eastern Vegetable Salad" from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?

However, I am not bringing dessert this month. No, I found the perfect way to use some of my scarily huge beets! I made beet hummus from Cara Mangini's The Vegetable Butcher. It's a really simple, straight-forward recipe with only five ingredients. Just wrap the beets in foil and roast them, scrape the skin off when they're cool enough to handle, and blend with salt, lemon juice, tahini, and olive oil until smooth. Adjust the seasoning to taste -- this is important as the recipe as published is a bit bland, imho. The finished hummus keeps in the fridge for five days and is simply beautiful to look at. If you like beets, I really recommend giving this recipe a try.


Roasted beet "hummus" from The Vegetable Butcher

Can't wait to see what everyone else brings to the meeting -- "Cool Weather Comfort: Soups, Stews, & Bread" in October!



21 September 2017

Baba Ghanoush

Last week, I brought home two beautiful inky-purple eggplants from the CSA. I usually avoid cooking eggplant, because I don't have much experience with it and find it intimidating. But part of the point of joining a CSA was to experience new fruits and vegetables and extend out the borders of my culinary comfort zone. And, thus, eggplant in my kitchen.

Way back in the stone age, we'd served baba ghanoush at our wedding reception and, while I hadn't eaten it since, I remember really liking it. But now I had two eggplants -- which meant I had one backup eggplant if the first batch was terrible -- so why not try to make my own baba ghanoush? I looked at a few recipes and decided to go with Betty Crocker's "Baba Ghanoush" as it was very straight forward and used ingredients I already had on hand.

Basically, you roast eggplant and chickpeas in the oven until the chickpeas are shrunken and golden and the eggplant is worryingly charred. The chickpeas will cook faster than the eggplant, so even though you're using a timer, it's good to check on them regularly.


Once the eggplant has cooled enough to handle, you'll scoop the flesh from the eggplant and whiz it around in your food processor with the chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic (I doubled the amount of garlic), black pepper, and tahini. The flesh of the eggplant may look rather unappetizing, but it will all turn out yummy.


Sprinkle the baba ghanoush with smoked paprika and serve. Pita chips are a very traditional accompaniment but I ate mine with pretzel squares, because that's what was in the cupboard. The recipe says it serves eight, but I'd say six is more likely.


Admittedly, I don't have much experience with the stuff, but I thought this recipe made really good baba ghanoush. It's creamy, garlicky, and slightly tangy-sweet. Definitely very moreish.

20 September 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Pretty Squash

Autumn crown -- a new-to-me winter squash spotted at the farmers market. Winter squash makes me so happy.

18 September 2017

When the English Fall


Set in what feels like the very near-future, a powerful geomagnetic solar storm destroys civilization as we know it. In the chaos that follows, the Pennsylvania Amish are largely unaffected and continue to go about their business in their small agrarian communities ... until the greater world intrudes in the form of the starving and the desperate.

Despite its calamitous themes, When the English Fall is a quiet, slow-paced novel told through a series of introspective diary entries written by Jacob, an Amish farmer living near Lancaster. Because we only see what is happening through Jacob's eyes, many of the hows and whys of the calamity pass unexplained and I can see where this would frustrate certain readers, but I was fine not knowing as the hows and whys of what befell the English aren't really important.

What's important are the choices Jacob and his community ultimately make. Indeed, When the English Fall is a rather philosophical book. What are the Amish community's obligations to their English neighbors? How long can they continue to react nonviolently to the increasingly desperate and violent English? At what point does selflessness endanger their own survival and safety? These are the questions central to the story. Not: how did a powerful geomagnetic solar storm destroys civilization as we know it? But: When the world changes in dramatic and drastic ways, how do we remain true to ourselves?

My only complaint is that I didn't find the prefatory Army communication at all necessary. I feel it didn't bring anything to the story, except to raise unsettling questions about what happened to Mike and his family. Questions I didn't want or need raised, thank you, especially as When the English Fall is a stand-alone novel so all unanswered questions will stay just that.

When the English Fall by David Williams (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017)

14 September 2017

Improv Cooking Challenge: Apples & Honey

September's Improv Challenge Cooking ingredients were apples and honey. Classic fall flavors, they'd usually inspire me to bake some variety of yumptious bundt cake, but ... it's still in the 80s here and very humid, making baking very much a NOPE.

So here's a simple, yet tasty, autumnal-ish salad. Featuring lots of whole grains, protein, healthy fats, and whatnot, it's rather healthy and you can feel righteous while you eat it (if that's your thing).


This salad is delicious as written, but I can see that it would also make a very good base for all sorts of variations, depending on what's in the pantry and fridge. For example, I think a combination of dried cranberries, hazelnuts, and chopped kale could be quite tasty!

Quinoa Apple Salad

Yield: 2

Ingredients

  • 4 oz cooked quinoa, cooled
  • 2 oz baby spinach, chopped
  • 1 oz walnuts, chopped
  • 1 oz dried tart cherries, chopped
  • 3 oz cored, chopped Granny Smith apple
  • ½ oz shallot, minced
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tsp runny apple blossom honey [or your favorite variety]
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Combine cooked quinoa, spinach, walnuts, cherries, apple, and shallot in a large serving bowl.
  2. Whisk together oil, vinegar, and honey in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Pour dressing mixture over quinoa mixture; toss to coat. Adjust seasoning as needed.
  4. Best if allowed to rest for 20 minutes before serving. (If refrigerating, allow to come to room temperature before serving.)

While this makes a lovely light vegetarian lunch all on its own, feel free to add crumbled feta cheese (and/or sliced grilled chicken breast if you do meat) to make it more filling for larger appetites. One serving on its own at lunch kept me going until supper, but then I found I did need to add a little chicken to keep me going through the evening shift.


For anyone new to my blog, the Improv Cooking Challenge is a monthly blog hop where two ingredients are assigned, participants must make a new-to-their-blog recipe using both ingredients, and publish a blog post about it on the second Thursday of the month. If you think that sounds like fun, click on the Improv Cooking Challenge logo below.




11 September 2017

Eeny Meeny


A voyeuristic psychopath drugs and kidnaps pairs of people, imprisoning them together in seemingly inescapable locations with a gun containing a single bullet, but no food or water. Release is promised to whichever victim kills the other. Investigating these gruesome kidnappings is Helen Grace, a tough and capable detective inspector tormented by a dark childhood she has done her best to bury, and her intrepid team of stock character coppers.

The timeline for the book is confusing -- I really struggled to figure out how much time was passing between chapters, because it was impossible to understand just how dire the situation was for each pair of victims without knowing how long they had been imprisoned. The time the victims spent in the kill rooms felt like, based on their psychological and physical deterioration, weeks which meant the entire novel should have played out over months. However, the investigation’s timeline -- including the discovery of the various sites -- seems to glide along over a few weeks, reaching its denouement perhaps a month after the first pair was discovered.

When I found myself reading reference articles about the life cycle of flies, I knew I was getting too obsessed with chronology and needed to dial it back. Accept Eeny Meeny as a gruesome bit of fluff and just go with it.

So I went with it ... right through to the ending that left me angry, disappointed, and flipping back pages to see if I'd missed anything. The story had moved along so steadily, consistently escalating the tension with a variety of twists and red herrings as it lead to Helen’s inevitable confrontation with the clever murderer. And then ... ehhh. The confrontation felt disjointed and rushed. And then Helen walks off into the rain? How is that an ending?

And yet, for all my annoyance, I would definitely watch this if it were made into a short-run mystery-drama-thriller television series. Helen walking off into the rain, her stereotypical coworkers, the "twists" and red herrings ... I wouldn't mind them spread over three one-hour episodes with an overly dramatic soundtrack and desaturated colors.

Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge (New American Library, 2015)

07 September 2017

Slow Cooker Caramelized Onions

The farm I get my CSA share from is experiencing a bumper crop of onions this year and I've been bringing bunch after bunch home. While I consider alliums the cornerstone of tasty cooking, even I was getting a bit tired of seeing so many onions in my kitchen. It would be one thing if I had an out-of-the-way hook to hang the bunches from or even a drawer to store them in, but I don't and thus they are just piled in a higgledy-piggledy heap in the darkest, coolest kitchen corner.

Which is usually fine, but my anxiety has been steadily ratcheting up lately and visual clutter -- the kitchen counters and dining room table, for example, constantly covered in the random flotsam of life -- is just making it that much worse. So I decided the onions needed to go.


My friend Sara had contributed slow-cooked caramelized onions to the grilled cheese and Secret Hitler party we threw a few weeks ago and that seemed like a brilliant way to use my CSA onions. While I didn't have her recipe, I did have a general understanding of how it should go and decided to wing it ... with very tasty results.

The onions cook long and slow all day, until they have reached golden brown perfection and the entire house smells amazing. While it's not fancy cooking -- not by a long shot -- the end result is so soft and nutty-sweet, who cares? And, hey, that was about a cubic foot of counter space now cleared.




Simple Slow Cooker Caramelized Onions

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs onions
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly cracked pepper

Instructions

  1. Peel, cut in half, and thinly slice onions -- a food processor with slicing disc is very handy here.
  2. Toss sliced onions with the melted butter, salt, and pepper.
  3. Cook for 12 hours on low. The onions will be greatly reduced in volume, but swimming in liquid. Pour off the liquid and freeze for later use in soups or stews.

Three pounds of onions is just what I had on hand and it happened to fill my oval 3½ quart slow cooker. Obviously, adjust the amounts to suit the size of your slow cooker. Also, you could probably omit the butter. I used it because I had a mild concern the onions would burn to the bottom of the slow cooker before they started releasing liquid, but there was so much liquid in the end that it probably wasn't "necessary" to add butter.

So ... what do you do with all these onions? Well, so far, they've into cheddar and roast beef flatbreads, scrambled with eggs and spinach, and also acted as an excellent shortcut for browned onions in a tomato soup recipe ...

02 September 2017

My Successful Skincare Regimen May Actually Just Be Magical Thinking

The master bathroom medicine cabinet annoys me and I dream of replacing it, but it's one of those "it's only annoying twice a day and no-one else sees it" issues so I've done nothing about it for ten years. It's annoyingly shallow and the shelves are tooclosetogether to allow for storage of anything that is much taller than a deodorant stick. To fit my full size Clinique products, I actually took out a shelf. But, even then, I have to tilt the bottles at an angle to get them in or out. And, because of the way the bottoms of the shelves are gridded, the bottles can't go all the way to the back of the cabinet. Every time I open the medicine cabinet, it basically feels like Clinique's Acne Solutions products are preparing to leap out and assault my face.


I've never had "good" skin. Over the years, I've spent so much time in dermatologists' offices and so much money on prescriptions without ever seeing enough improvement to warrant the cost. I stopped seeing my most recent dermatologist well over a year ago now, when I accepted that no matter what concerns I brought to her, she just going to keep giving me scrips for antibiotics and samples of rosaccea meds.

Antibiotics are something I want to take because I am ill, not because I am constantly and painfully broken out. As for rosaccea, maybe I have it. Maybe, I don't. It's the painful, cystic acne that's always bothered me and the thing I most wanted to deal with.

But, you know, the last few years were also full of Butt Troubles and there were only so many battles I could fight. Basically, I stopped going to the dermatologist, bought a Clarisonic face brush with the Acne Cleansing Brush Head and Acne Daily Clarifying Cleanser. Also started using the Clinique Redness Solutions Soothing Cleanser, Daily Relief Cream, and makeup. My face did not get worse and, sometimes, it was even visibly better. Indeed, it got to the point where I might have two or three weeks of relatively "normal" looking skin followed by a week of terribly broken out, painful skin. And I thought I could live with that.

Then I survived the Butt Troubles and changed jobs and decided I wanted "normal" pain free skin all the time, goshdarnit. So I went to the Internets and read many things and then I went to the Clinique counter at Macy's and talked to a nice Polish woman who send me home with the Acne Solutions Clear Skin System Starter Kit. She would have sent me home with a bunch of other products, too, I think but she could see that I was already balking at using three products. (I'd had a bad experience with an Avon acne treatment system in my teens and had been giving toner the side eye ever since).

So I gave it a try. And it's worked. Enough so that I now buy the full size bottles of the three. I don't need to apply much at any one time, so they last for a quite while.


In the mornings, I cleanse my face with a squirt of Acne Solutions Cleansing Foam on the Clarisonic Acne Cleansing Brush Head and then pop in the shower. After, I moisturize with Redness Solutions Daily Relief Cream and apply cosmetics.

In the evenings, I remove my cosmetics with a bit of Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm, followed by tepid rinse, then a squirt of Acne Solutions Cleansing Foam on the Clarisonic Acne Cleansing Brush Head, another tepid rinse, a quick dab of Acne Solutions Clarifying Lotion with a cotton ball, and then a very light coat of Acne Solutions All-Over Clearing Treatment. I cannot use the Clarifying Lotion and Clearing Treatment more than once a day or my face gets super itchy so I save them for bedtime, when I'm not going to be wearing cosmetics over them (because it seems weird to me to put cosmetics on after them, anyway).

I also have a wee bottle of Origins Super Spot Remover Blemish Treatment Gel which I dab on any blemishes that look like they're edging toward angry and painful. I started using the gel after reading about it on several acne forums and, wow, it works well. A little dab is all I need once or twice a day.


tl;dr: I seldom have whiteheads, anymore, and I can't tell you the last time I experienced a nodular or cystic acne flareup. Yes, my skin still has a tendency to run towards red and blotchy and I'll never insta #nomakeup, but my face doesn't ever hurt. So, hooray, I don't feel like I'm locked in eternal battle with my skin, anymore, and I'm finally beginning to enjoy cosmetics.

(But ... I'm aware I may be engaging in magical thinking, that my clearer pain-free skin may be due to a number of factors out of my control like hormonal changes caused by a loss of fibroids and incipient perimenopause. But I don't know for certain, so I'll keep doing what I'm doing until it stops working).