Stuff and Nonsense: June 2014


Shirking, Guilt, & Not-Blogging

I've been away from here for a while and OH MY GODS THE GUILT I FEEL. Which is ridiculous, really, but there it is. I feel guilty when I neglect my hobbies and yet a hobby is supposed to be something I do in my leisure time for my own pleasure. If I have no leisure time or the leisure time I do have is taken up with other hobbies that should be fine. I should not find myself twitching when it's once again Tuesday and I haven't done a Top Ten post or it's Wednesday and I have no non-food pics to be Wordless with. And I certainly shouldn't be feeling depressed and guilty because it's been weeks since I posted about a book (or even read a book that wasn't work-related). But I do. Oh, THE FEELS.

It's not as if I don't have a perfectly adequate excuse. I've been super busy with work, darlings, with totally awesome projects like building a TARDIS-shaped Awesome Box, organizing a Whovian social, and doing tons of social media for my library system. Also, I had to lead the June book discussion and, you know, that is apparently the best way to get me to stop reading. Full stop. (Who thought it was a good idea for me to host a library book discussion? Do I look like someone capable of a leading fifteen elderly ladies in a measured and thoughtful discussion of literary work?)

Every time I picked up a novel that wasn't The Beekeeper's Apprentice, I felt both guilty and increasingly agitated -- as if I was back in high school, having spent the weekend shirking my chemistry assignment for an essay on The Scarlet Letter (totes 'd this novel) -- and had a great deal of trouble getting into (and staying) in the novel. Frequently, it seemed the harder I tried to focus on the novel, the more slippery my focus became. One afternoon, quite without knowing how it happened, I went from reading The Beekeeper's Apprentice, to putting holds on eight books about gardening for bees and other pollinators!

And now I have to get those read, too. And design and plant a garden. Because I have time for that. Surely.

Of course, every time I picked up The Beekeeper's Apprentice, I was extremely aware I was not reading it for my own pleasure but out of obligation. I would be expected to discuss the novel Rationally. Like an Educated Person. With an understanding of Plot and Theme and Metaphor and crapcrapcrap ... the pressure I put on myself. Pointlessly.

Book Discussion went fine. Sympathetic minds met in great harmony and accord. Excellent questions were raised. Well argued opinions given. And everyone agreed the resolution to the Miss Donleavy affair was pure bollocks. So, yay! A success!

And now I can go back to reading books for my own pleasure! Although, since everyone seemed to have such a good time, it's not unlikely I will be asked to lead another one in the fall. Pah. Months away. Plenty of time to read those twenty-three library books quick-stepping toward their due dates.

It's Tasty, But It's Not Ice Cream

A coworker shared the bones of this recipe with me a few weeks ago when we were discussing our deep and abiding love of ice cream. She told me she makes this recipe often as a healthy ice cream substitute and it sounded interesting, but (after the first attempt) I felt a need to embellish with vanilla and sugar as it was just a little too mouth-puckering without. A drizzle of honey or agave would work just as well, if that's your thing.

The Husband suggests this would also be better made with regular yoghurt as "the Greek yoghurt flavor just gets in my mouth and sucks the raspberry flavor right out."

I made this for two, hence the small amounts, but as long as you use a 1:1 ratio of berries and yoghurt you can probably make any quantity you desire.
Instant Frozen Yoghurt
Serves 2

6 oz frozen unsweetened raspberries
6 oz fat-free Greek yoghurt
½ Tbsp Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste
2 tsp sugar (optional but highly recommended)
Fresh berries, if desired
Fresh mint, if desired

Pop you food processor bowl and blade into the freezer for 20 minutes so everything is cold.

Pulse the berries, yoghurt, sugar (if using), and vanilla around in your food processor until it develops a smooth frozen yoghurt-ish texture and the color is an even shade of raspberry red.

Scrape out into two small dessert bowls. Garnish with fresh berries and mint, if desired. Serve.
While I agree this frozen yogurt concoction is quite yummy and refreshing, it doesn't make me want ice cream any less! If anything, I find myself craving Ben & Jerry's Greek Frozen Yogurt Raspberry Fudge Chunk!


Disappointing Drumsticks

It may shock and amaze you to know that not every dish to come out of my kitchen is a win. For example, I made some really disappointing oven-fried drumsticks the other day. They came out of the oven looking brown and crispy but, while their color was perfect, they were soggy drumsticks. Gluey drumsticks.

Behold, The Sad Drumsticks of Disappointment!

I'd made these by haphazardly combining recipes until I thought I had created something good. I started with Alton Brown's method for "Fried Chicken" -- soaked the chicken pieces in buttermilk, drained them in a colander, and then liberally seasoned the drumsticks with a blend of salt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper before dredging them in cracker meal. Alton uses flour, but I thought cracker meal would yield a preferable texture.

It did not. Possibly because, while I drained the buttermilk-soaked drumsticks in a colander, they were still quite moist when I seasoned them. Perhaps I would have done better to pat them dry or spread them over a rack suspended across the sink to drip dry? And, maybe, use panko instead of cracker meal?

Also, I oven-fried the chicken at 350F° on a jelly roll pan in a combination of olive oil and butter for 50 minutes, flipping half way through. I think, perhaps, I should have oven-fried at a higher temperature? Or cranked the oven up to 425F° for the last 15 minutes?

So, next time:
  • Air dry
  • Panko
  • Finish in a very hot oven
Or maybe I should just stop being afraid of hot oil, buy a deep-fat fry thermometer, and learn to fry in my French oven!


Cool, Crisp, Refreshing ... Radishes

I've had Kalyn's recipe for "Cucumber and Radish Salad with Feta, Red Wine Vinegar, and Buttermilk Dressing" pinned since last spring when I had a tremendous radish harvest and not a lot of good ideas for what to do with them. While I never got around to making the salad last spring, it was the first thing I thought of when I harvested this spring's massive radish crop. Seriously, we're a two person household and only one of us really likes radishes so why do I keep planting so many? Because they're pretty! And easy! And I never think that so many will many to survive the weather, cats, chipmunks, and bunnies.

"Easter Egg" Radishes

Kalyn's recipe calls for one teaspoon fresh thyme, but I used a handful of fresh dill as my dill plants are growing like weeds and will soon get out of hand if I don't start using them more. Fresh oregano would probably also work well with the cucumber-feta combination.

This salad is a cool and refreshing summer side dish that would be perfect with Greek marinated grilled chicken breasts or shrimp skewers. Or just by itself with in a lettuce cup with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh cracked pepper on top. If you're not that keen on radishes, there's no reason why you couldn't make this without, adding a little red onion or shallot in for kick. (And when I make this again, I will probably halve the amount of radishes, because The Husband picked most of his radishes out).

We ate ours with grilled chicken kabobs (from Whole Foods, because I couldn't be arsed) and it was the perfect lunch for the Second Day of Summer.


Celebrating with Easy Spumoni Cookies

"Spumoni Chunk Cookies" I made for a retirement party. The recipe starts with Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix and then tarts it up with pistachios, dried cherries, and semisweet chocolate chunks. I've made these cookies several times now, but I admit this was the first time I actually stuck with the recipe -- I've used toasted walnuts or pecans -- because pistachios are not something I usually have on hand. (If you can find shelled salted roasted pistachios, well, good on you. I bought mine still in the shell and, in shelling them, probably put as many in my tummy as in the measuring cup).

I thought I had a bag of Nestle Toll House chunks left from Christmas, but couldn't find them when it came time to bake and ended up buying a bag of Hershey's Baking Melts. Based on the packaging illustrations, I was expecting thumbnail-sized rounds, but opened the bag to find surprisingly big 'uns. A bit too big for these cookies, I thought, so I ended up chopping them in half. Unlike with the pistachios, no chocolate ended up in my belly!

The cherries were the last of the sour (tart) cherries I'd bought for fruitcake last December. They're excellent cherries -- slightly sweetened with a real intense punch of cherry flavor. They look a little bit like raisins once they've baked into the cookies, but once you take a bite you know you're dealing with CHERRIES. There's no confusing these with anything else!

Everyone at the party really loved these cookies and several people asked me for the recipe, only to appear visibly distressed when I explained I'd tarted up a cookie mix. The Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix yields a perfectly fine cookie and, with all the other ingredients added in, the cookie base wasn't a significant player in texture or flavor, anyway. If you want to go all out, by all means do use your favorite from-scratch cookie recipe. I needed to bake quite a lot of cookies in very little time between several other obligations and using a cookie mix saved me from Freaking Out and Baking Angry. No one wants to eat angry cookies.

Anyway, there were 35 cookies at the start of the party and 0 cookies were left at the end, so I think it's pretty clear these cookies were a success!


Cake Baking As An Act of Contrition

Monday night, I had the house to myself. I had a fairly large to-do list and every intention of Getting Things Done. And then I decided to chuck it all and bake a cake. Because sometimes cake is the important thing. Sometimes, cake is love. Or, at least, an apology.

I haven't been sleeping very well lately. Some of it is caused by the Hamster Wheel of Useless Thoughts. And some by a tiny bladder. And, yes, some of it is due to The Husband's snoring. Still, there's no good excuse for sitting bolt upright in bed in the wee small hours of the morning and shouting at my best beloved that I am going to murder him if he doesn't stop snoring.

So, this cake? This cake is an apology. Baking it was an act of contrition. There is no crumb of this cake that was designed to please me. Every morsel was assembled with The Husband's tastes in mind. Chocolate sponge -- light, moist, and tender-crumbed. Chocolate mousse -- creamy, light, rich. Chocolate buttercream -- rich, dark, deeply chocolatey. And crunchy Maltesers for garnish, because every cake needs a little bling.

And, wow, did this cake go over well! It may very well be one of the best cakes I've ever baked.

Recipes used or adapted:

Wordless Wednesday: Shy Violets

Shy violets hiding in the lawn.


Cooking With My Love: Crunchy Garbanzo Beans

Bopping around the grocery store together one weekend, The Husband asked if we had any garbanzo beans at home. I stopped dead, confused, because this is not the sort of inquiry I would expect from The Husband. "Do we have any cherry Coke? Do we have any Seriously Sharp? Do we have any microwaveable tomato soups?" Those are expected queries. Garbanzo beans ... what? Why?

Turns out one of his coworkers shared a link to a recipe for "Roasted Chickpeas," saying it was an easy and delicious snack everyone likes. And hence the perfectly reasonable question about garbanzo beans. Of course, it took us nearly a month to get ourselves together and roast the beans, but we finally did it ... and no-one shouted or got a bit stabby or told the other s/he was doing it wrong. A success, really.

The Husband skillfully stirs the beans.
Ingredients: 1 can drained and rinsed garbanzo beans, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 scant tsp garlic powder, 1 scant tsp salt.

Verdict: "Dunno. Garlic's not a strong as I thought it would be and I can taste the 'Cajun-style blackening'. I thought they would be crunchier."

We took the garbanzo beans out of the oven after eight minutes and a bunch had already burnt. Those that remained did not seem evenly roasted -- some were quite crunchy and dark gold while others were pale gold and still a bit squishy inside. I'm guessing we should have roasted the garbanzos at a lower temperature and stirred the pan after four minutes.

Roasty-toasty blackened beans :(
Will we make them again? Yes, but we'll use Alton Brown's recipe for "Roasted Chickpeas" because Alton has yet to fail me.


Plated: Cheesy Quinoa Stuffed Tomatoes

When I selected Plated's "Cheesy Quinoa Stuffed Tomatoes," I was pretty sure I was taking a big risk at it simply isn't the kind of thing The Husband would ever consider eating. Indeed, when it came down to it, I completely chickened out on serving it to him and kept all the tomatoes to myself. He was happy in his ignorance and I was in heaven. Who knew mixing quinoa with goat cheese could make it so darn delicious?!

Ingredients straight out of the box
Unwrapped ingredients
Obviously, this dish would be better in a few months when tomatoes are in season, but roasting makes most vegetables taste better and these pale, refrigerated tomatoes were no exception. They turned out juicy and flavorful and I was quite pleased to not have to share them.

I did not think the instructions for preparing the quinoa were very good -- not enough time or liquid -- so I chose to make them The Kitchn way and with low-sodium fat-free chicken broth instead of water. Other than that, the instructions were fine and I didn't have any trouble preparing this "plate."

The salad dressing was surprisingly tasty. Creamy balsamic is never something I'd ever considered and the color was a little off-putting, put the flavor was good and I'd definitely make it again. The recipe made a little more than I needed and I'll probably use the extra on that head of butter lettuce I forgot to serve with the seared salmon.

Every bite was delicious!
I had two tomatoes for lunch the day I made them and then took the others to work over the following days, packing the tomatoes separately from the (undressed) salad so they could be reheated in the toaster oven. They reheated well and made an elegant meal there in the staff room amongst the snack machines and work safety posters.

So that's my first Plated box done with and I can't wait for my next!


Wordless Wednesday: Iris

The bright yellow beard always makes me smile.


Plated: Cheddar Burgers w/ Baked Onion Rings

Plated's "Cheddar Burgers with Baked Onion Rings" seemed like the perfect way to welcome summer. Yes, I know summer's nearly a month away but it hit a toasty 86°F on Monday and that's summer as far as I'm concerned.

Juicy, perfectly seasoned cheddar burger ... yum!
I really enjoyed this burger. The cheddar (provenance unknown) was a good choice -- not too sharp, but strong enough it held its own and wasn't subsumed by the juicy, perfectly-seasoned burger. The tarragon sauce was nice interpretation of the standard orange burger sauce and I only wish I'd saved a little to drizzle on my onion rings. Seriously, I have eaten restaurant burgers that weren't as good as this one.

That said, I must admit The Husband wasn't so taken with this burger -- tasty, yes, but too juicy! And the cheese was very overwhelming! Who is this stranger I married?

Misleadingly beautiful crunchy onion rings *cries*
We both agreed the onion rings, while quite crispy, were extremely disappointing. I thought I'd been quite generous in my use of salt and pepper, but they were clearly under-seasoned. And I couldn't taste the sweet paprika at all!

Would I make this again? Burgers, yes, as soon as possible. Onion rings, no, never. My recipe card is a little gooped up from when I made the tarragon dressing, but copies can be downloaded from the Plated website. Unsurprisingly, I have started a Plated folder on my desktop for storing future recipes ... because, even though The Husband is clearly enjoying the Plated experience significantly less than I am, I plan on more Plated meals.

Baked onion rings ingredients
Tarragon dressing ingredients
Cheddar burger ingredients


Picnic Time: Pasta Salad

While trying to push beyond our comfort zone and learn to socialize like "real adults do," we recently attended a picnic thrown by one of my coworkers. Because I didn't feel comfortable showing up empty-handed, I asked if I could bring a pasta salad (it turned out everyone felt the same way, anyway, and also brought something). Since I wasn't sure how hot it would be that day or what the food storage situation would be like (didn't want to poison anyone), I made "Pasta Salad with Summer Vegetables" from The Best Light Recipe by the detail-driven folk at Cook's Illustrated.

This is a flavorful mayonnaise-free pasta salad I've made several times now. Every time I make it, I mean to experiment and try one of the variations provided, but I always end up sticking with the tried-and-true. The basic version is delicious, so why mess with a sure thing?

Ingredients: penne, green beans, cherry tomatoes, carrot, red onion, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil, basil, parsley, Dijon, red pepper flakes, Parmesan, salt, black pepper.

I used Ronzoni SmartTaste penne to keep the salad looking "normal" while somewhat improving its nutritional values. Not that it's an unhealthy salad to begin with, what with all those beans and tomatoes!