Monday, October 29, 2012

No Soup for You!

One of my husband's favorite childhood recipes is turketti. It was originally a use for leftover Thanksgiving turkey, and consisted of spaghetti, chopped turkey, shredded cheddar cheese, and canned cream of mushroom soup, all mixed together and baked until it is gooey, golden, brown, and delicious.

These days we serve chicketti year round -- no need to wait for turkey to show up at Thanksgiving when the kids enjoy grilled chicken almost every weekend. But it's not the meal my husband remembers. To his horror, I don't buy canned cream of mushroom soup anymore. Between the BPA of the plastic can liners, the fact that soup cans are not recyclable in our area because they are a fused material (aluminum and plastic), and the unnecessarily extensive ingredient list*, I have determined that cream of mushroom soup is a product that doesn't deserve shelf space in my pantry any longer.

The product I offer these days is actually more upscale, just as tasty, just as delicious, and only two steps more complicated than my guy's childhood favorite.

My New Chicketti Recipe:

8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
2-3 tbls butter
2 tbls flour (optional)
2 tbls sherry (optional, but delicious)
1 tsp. thyme (optional, but delicious)
1 c. milk (to make this extra creamy and delicious, substitute up to half the milk with heavy cream)
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400F.

1/2 box pasta, cooked (I make the whole box and reserve some plain pasta for my sauce-phobic middle child)
However much pre-cooked chicken you might have on hand, chopped into bite-sized pieces

Saute the mushrooms in the butter with a little salt and pepper. When they are tender, sprinkle lightly with the flour and stir well until there are no lumps. (Proper chefs remove the mushrooms to make the bechamel, but I'm a home cook). Add the milk and sherry, if you're using it, and heat gently until the sauce has thickened. If you omit the flour from this step the sauce will be much thinner. I have seen roux recipes that call for whole wheat flour, but it's such a small amount I just go with all-purpose.

As you would do when preparing lasagna, put just enough sauce in the bottom of an 8x8 glass pan to lightly cover the bottom. Add 1/3 of the pasta, then toss 1/3 each of the chicken & cheddar cheese on top of the pasta. Repeat pasta, chicken and cheese layers for remaining ingredients, EXCEPT for the final cheese layer. Before laying down that last bit of cheese, pour the remaining mushroom sauce evenly over the entire dish, THEN lay the cheese down. Bake 20 minutes, and let cool 10 minutes or so, or until the dish is no longer nuclear hot.

NOTE That this is an excellent make ahead dish and freezes well. If you are only going to make ahead by a day or two, cover with foil rather than plastic wrap before refrigerating. Baking time is if you bake immediately after prepping the casserole.

If you prep and then freeze, defrost as completely as possible to protect the glass dish, and bake covered 40 minutes, then uncovered 15-20 minutes. If you oil the inside of the foil before baking, the cheese won't stick during the covered portion of the baking.

Variations include adding chopped broccoli or spinach, changing up the type of cheese (I would pay my family to let me make it with Swiss cheese, but so far I don't have any takers...), chopped bacon or high-quality ham, sun-dried tomatoes... basically, if it tastes good to you, odds are it will taste good in this casserole. If you're low on milk, I have made this dish with good homemade stock instead of milk, though it will be less creamy (or you can blend stock with half & half or heavy cream).

What other variations can you think of?

If this sounds like delicious comfort food in the middle of a busy week, please share with others!

*Ingredients in Campbells Cream of Mushroom Soup:
CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP (Homogenized Milk, Water, Sliced Mushrooms, Roux W/ Oil (All Purpose Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Canola Oil), Water, Corn Starch (Derived From Waxy Maize), Roasted Mirapoix (Roasted Vegetables (Carrots, Onions, Celery, Garlic), Water, Dextrose, Salt, Onion Powder, Canola Oil, Maltodextrin, Sugar, Natural Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Disodium Inosinate/Disodium Guanylate, Potassium Sorbate, Soy Lecithin, Caramel Color, Ascorbic Acid, Smoke Flavor. ), Diced Onions, Canola Oil, Kosher Salt (Salt, Yellow Prussiate Of Soda.), Roasted Garlic Flavoring (Roasted Garlic, Water, Vegetables (Onions, Carrots, And Celery), Dextrose, Salt, Garlic Powder, Canola Oil, Onion Powder, Xanthan Gum, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Potassium Sorbate, Natural Flavoring, Corn Syrup, and Caramel Color. ), Vegetable Base (Sea Salt, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Dehydrated Vegetables (Parsnip, Carrots, Pumpkin), Dehydrated Parsley, Olive Oil, Spices (Pepper, Thyme, Coriander, Mace).), Ground White Pepper)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What's for Dinner?

The always hungry SoRMuiJAi
Do you hate it too? That question... the one that pops up every single day right at the witching hour.

What's for dinner?

It's almost always demanded by a kid who has just been nagging me for snacks and turned her or his nose up at whatever healthy options were offered. Most likely whatever I answer (so long as it isn't pizza or boxed mac and cheese) is going to be met with a whine and followed by "Can't we go out to eat?"

No. We are not going out to eat.


But you like chicken cordon bleu.

Oh, you don't make chicken cordon bleu? Neither do I. Although if I did it would probably be a family favorite.

Anyway... I was asked that question one time too many when my third child was an infant, because I totally threw in the towel and subscribed to a menu-planning service that came with a grocery list. You could select what types of meal preferences you had (vegetarian, kosher, etc.) and the menu list would arrive in my email inbox, weekly, complete with grocery list. All I had to do was print the whole thing out, check the grocery list against my pantry and refrigerator, and follow the directions.

It was perfect for a very intense year when I didn't care a whole lot what went into my mouth. The menu I selected was a "healthy" option created by a registered dietician, and basic enough that I could adjust it for the 5 year old and the 2 year old without having to make anything extra. For times when I had guests coming, or knew I'd have a little help, I could also purchase the directions for make-ahead freezer meals that could be pulled out at and prepared at short notice.

After about a year, though, I noticed that it was pretty repetitive. I get bored easily and by the time Quentin was two I was feeling more capable of taking back the menu-making responsibilities. I really enjoy cooking and I love to eat. I'm willing to try unfamiliar flavors and recipes and I enjoy cooking blogs, so I didn't need as basic of menu planning as what I had been using during the "barely keeping my head above water" period. At the same time my husband's travel started picking up, so six nights a week of planned dinners was a little more than my family could use. So I liberated myself.

I do my grocery shopping on Mondays. Sunday nights we all contribute our requests for the weekly menu based on the schedule for the week. Friday is always pizza & movie night, which simplifies things a lot. My four year old always asks for shrimp, which I honor once a month. I do not plan for weekends, which evolve based on opportunity. I have developed a hard line about dinner. I am not a short order cook and what is on the menu is what is offered. There is not a whole lot of compromise going on, but I'm willing to take some pasta out before adding sauce, to serve vegetables raw, or to add dressings or dips on the side, if they require little prep. Surprisingly, my kids are becoming more adventurous in their tastes, which I attribute to their having a say in the dinner plan. We talk a lot about flavors and preferences, and I am pleased to say that Quentin, who had formerly declared vegetables his "emmamy," ate three servings of roasted broccoli for dinner earlier this week.

I'm going to take credit for that achievement.

  • Friday is pizza night
  • One vegetarian dinner per week (at least) 
  • Try to aim for one meal of planned-overs during particularly busy weeks
  • Sometimes I use cookbooks or my Evernote recipe system to help with planning
  • Keep an eye on other people's menu mentions on Facebook (we usually have Taco Tuesday the week after my cousin announces it...)
  • When all else fails, raid the freezer for my husband's spaghetti stash and cut up a head of lettuce
If you don't have it in you to make your own weekly meal plan, or if you'd like to see some samples of how others manage it, there are lots of menu-planning services to choose from. Some are free, others you have to pay for. Many of the paid services include a free week or two so you can find out if their ingredients and prep times are consistent with your own preferences.

I used Saving Dinner, which is associated with the FlyLady, for anyone who might be familiar with her. It is the only one I can speak to directly, so I won't recommend any others. However, if you Google "menu planning service" you'll find a list so huge that it might make you prefer to order take out. Alternatively, you can check out the blog 100 Days of Real Food. There is a page of menu plans, and also a very informative post, "Product Review: Meal Plan Services."

 Planning meals a week in advance has saved me money -- as much as 1/3 of my previous grocery bill -- and prevented food waste. It's made the witching hour a lot less painful. It's easier to stick to my grocery list knowing that I have a plan for eating what's on the list; extra purchases are likely to end up on my thighs. I'm going to even stick my neck out and say that it's helped my kids to be more adventurous eaters (they are nagging me for a "build your own salad night" this week) and best of all, it has freed my brain up for interesting problems like the plot of the novel I'm worrying over.

How do you manage "What's for dinner?" (Please feel free to share favorite outsourcing options!!)

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Zombie Apocalypse is Here

Last night I listened to the vice-presidential debate on NPR while I made dinner and wished I was drinking. It was entertaining -- high energy, full of zingers and what was supposed to sound like substance. At one point my husband commented that it sounded like a brawl.

Neither of us was motivated to actually watch the speakers.

This morning the aftermath was about "who won." I heard Joe Biden say malarkey and stuff, sounding like he had to try really hard to not drop an S-bomb on a vice-presidential debate. Now that would have been entertaining. I heard Paul Ryan giving us earnest evaluations of what could have been done and what should have been done, while imagining those startling blue eyes looking at the camera. The guy would make a very compelling Law & Order attorney. Biden referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as "BeBe" over and over again, emphasizing what close friends they are, and Ryan recited a really impressive assortment of statistics. And I had not the faintest idea if anything they said was relevant or reliable.

Dinner was late last night because I wanted to hear the debate (we'd skipped the one that Jon Stewart claims Obama didn't really show up for). My blog post today is late getting out because it started out as a rant, and then I tried to correct it into something useful and got caught up in hours of fact-checking. As it turns out, if we want to evaluate anything these guys tells us, anything at all, we have to run it through the fact-checker. And then there's the question of which fact-checker, because apparently they all have biases, too.

So, frankly, I gave up. I'm sorry, but you're going to end up with the rant.

This week, I forgot to show up for my youngest son's pre-K breakfast, because I had two other obligations that same day. This morning, my kids overslept (because they got dinner late because I was listening to the debate), so I forgot that it was my morning to help out with the school traffic duty. I wrote a to-do list that failed to mention that I need a babysitter for tomorrow evening and therefore the one I was able to hire will be working different hours than I had intended, with consequences that will be determined tomorrow. Now, I know I should be on top of things, but the message here is: my life is full. My government has its responsibilities and I have mine. I am doing the best I can to make my corner of the world a better place and to be an informed citizen, and if the people who want our votes were doing the best they could, that would not mean that I have to spend twice as much time reviewing fact-checking organizations about issues on which I have only the fuzziest understanding to determine if the guys on my ballot are equipped to do a job I know I can't.

Here are some terms we use to describe elected officials:

  • Representative
  • Delegate
  • Civil Servant (ahem) 

Those functions aren't functioning.

Here are some issues that I really, truly care about:

  • Shifting federal support of agribusiness to farming (if we must subsidize the national grocery bill) so that poor people who can't afford to vote with their wallets can still afford to eat safe, healthy, sustainable foods
  • Spending some money on support of our infrastructure so that we're more than one 6.0 earthquake away from the end of American life as we know it (as any viewer of the Disaster Channel... I mean the History Channel... can tell you)
  • Spending some money on healthcare -- in a RATIONAL way -- so that providers can make a reasonable living and pay off their student loans, and people of all income levels have access to healthcare. Like they do in industrialized countries. 
  • Empowering people to explore sustainable living practices, including changes in energy policy, so that when that 6.0 earthquake does take out our quivering infrastructure it doesn't mean the end of life as we know it.
  • Education is the future of our country. It should not be the first thing cut in a shortfall.
  • Please can we not be at war anymore, can we stop pretending like being at war is irrelevant, and can we support the soldiers and their families who have been carrying the total burden of war for the rest of us for the last ten years? 

Here are the things that I don't want to see as front-burner election issues:
  • Abortion. Yeah, I said it. I believe whole-heartedly in women's and children's health issues, and I don't think that those are being served by everybody getting all hot and bothered by one aspect of it. If we put our money where our mouths were back when "safe, legal, and rare" was the watchword, then it would be. And we wouldn't be getting beat over the head with a hot-button issue when our national quality of life is in free-fall (see above)
  • Same-sex marriage. Yeah, I said that too. Certainly I have my views on same sex marriage, as does pretty much everybody else. And they're sort of irrelevant in many ways. If the history of marriage shows anything, it is that the condition of marriage is a progressive one, and we don't need the President getting tangled up in it.
  • The precise unemployment rate that we should be at on any given date. If you can name me one non-economist voter who has the means to determine if we should be at a 6% or an 8% unemployment rate given the amount of the stimulus (which is its own can of worms, but this is a soapbox, not a cargo container), then... it won't matter because I can't tell if that person is pulling it out of their ass anyway. 

Hot-button issues are clubs that candidates and the media have used to beat us into mindless zombies who are willing to trash talk our fellow citizens, in sometimes extraordinarily brutal language, for favoring the other guy. They distract us from the fact that we are eating fake food, paid for in part by the federal government, which will make us fat and sick and send us off to the doctor in our polluting cars because there is no safe way to make even a short trip on foot or by bicycle, except for in very limited urban settings. We are a crowd of spectators, treating the future of our country like a pseudo-intellectual sporting event rather than the building project it truly is. And the sad thing is, I don't know how we will ever be able to grasp the difficulties of our own situation in such a way that we really can become the country we claim to be.

Who won the debate? That depends on which zombie you're rooting for.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Turned the Page... Again

Improving the lighting in my photographs
should be an additional checklist item.
Another month, another picture of John Lennon to preside over my writing space... where has the time gone?

In May, I turned the page on my calendar and used that action to organize my priorities for the month. Then I fell off that wagon and never returned to it in this forum (though I am a lifelong list-maker). So I'm going to re-collect myself and set some goals for October. Please hold me accountable!

Firstly, I'm going to prioritize my writing first rather than third, because it is the area in which I have been struggling most -- and where I am most likely to procrastinate. Seriously, for having written for as long as I can remember, I am absurdly intimidated by a blank page. Fifteen minutes ago, when I contemplated getting back to work on my current short story, I had butterflies in my stomach. Fight-or-flight feelings. A strong urge to find the nearest bag of chips.

However, I will be attending my first-ever writing conference, on self-publishing, at the end of this month, so I'd like to have something substantial to share with the other professionals I'll be meeting there. (This plan also makes me want to break out in hives, but in August I said that one of my goals for my kids is diligence in the presence of failure or uncertainty, and since I probably can best teach that by demonstrating it, I'm going to swallow those butterflies as best I can, ignore the call of the chips, and set pen to paper.) And once I push past that first fifteen minutes of panic I actually really enjoy writing.

Ergo, writing goals for this month:

  • Write one blog post at Simply Richer Living per week (sorry for downgrading the expectation since May; it's very important to me to get the fiction well-established, and my time is somewhat limited this month)
  • Calendar the blog posts in advance so I am more prepared to complete them
  • Write a rough draft of "Rasputin Wakes Up" (you can follow my progress if you want to help keep me moving)
  • Polish up the rough draft of Rasputin into something I feel good about sharing before October 18th
  • Finish my commentary on a project a fellow writer entrusted to me an embarrassingly long time ago (sorry, Nicole!!)
  • If I finish Rasputin before October 18th, then I have a choice of two other projects to tackle, so I should have one of those in progress for the remainder of the month.
  • Post completed word counts on this blog so I have real-time accountability
The other area where I'm really struggling at the moment is household management. Only... it's not the management part that's giving me a hard time, so much, as the labor. I should make some goals for staying on top of the laundry and the cleaning. I really should. But I'm not going to. Because those plans seem to overtake my writing plans, and the work always seems to get done somehow, even if it is only on an emergency basis because Duncan is out of pants. So I think I'm going to bow to my inner sloth and liberate myself from making a home management checklist in favor of the things that are really important. Like writing. 

Or my children. Here again, though, we seem to have found a rhythm that works. I'm not worrying about playdates because my little one is seeing his friends every day at school now, and there really isn't time available for additional playdates. My six year old has found bliss in the after-school childcare program (free till four o'clock!!) where he can compete in a real Beyblade stadium against all comers every afternoon of the week. And the walkability of our neighborhood means that my oldest child can invite friends over for playdates whenever she wants without having to rely on me to do a whole lot of arranging anymore. No one is nagging me for anything except more electronics access. Time together is guaranteed by the various activities and responsibilities we have now that school is in session, and things feel generally pretty good. No checklist required.

My last significant endeavor is weight loss. That is just not happening, though I have gotten the afternoon binge habit under control. I have come to realize that I require a certain level of physical effort to feel good, and that it has to happen very regularly. For the most part I'm getting that level of activity, but the exercise is now a daily activity -- almost like taking a shower -- and I have to protect the intensity. So... I bought some new pants, I'm going to always keep an eye out for ways to make the workouts high quality and regular, and for the rest, just let the chips fall where they will.  I'm only human. 

Do you have goals for October? If you're looking for some jump-starts, here are a few suggestions:
  • The October Buttoned-Up Challenge will get you ready for the (gulp!) holidays before it becomes a crisis
  • FlyLady's Challenge of the Month is reducing paper clutter
  • The Year of Less is taking on a Sermon On The Mount Challenge, a spiritual discipline intended to remind us that "Where your treasure lies, there your heart will be also," (some of you might recognize this as Dumbledore's epitaph in Harry Potter) in preparation for celebrating the holidays in a more meaningful way than the usual purchasing frenzy.