It all started because a friend posted on Facebook about the sourdough starter she was working on. A couple weeks later, there was a post about sourdough pancakes. About the same time, the Kiddo asked if we could get some sourdough bread to go with our planned dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Somewhere in the course of that weekend, he proceeded to ask me if I knew how to make bread (yes, I did), following that up with, “I think bread is pretty easy to make, right?” I answered that it’s not overly difficult, once you learn how to do it, but it takes some time, then explained the process of mixing and kneading the dough, letting it rise, etc.
Next question: “Oh, could you make sourdough then?” So I began to explain that making sourdough bread is like a whole level above baking regular bread, and tried to explain that I would need a starter, and starters take time to develop. By that point, he was distracted by something else–either planning his next Minecraft adventure or plotting how he would configure the terrarium for the bearded dragon he had pledge to get him (this was before Rocky arrived Easter weekend).
He might have moved on to a new topic, but the seed was firmly planted in my head. In my earlier Friday Favorites post on starting my sourdough starter, I mentioned that I had tried my hand at a starter many years ago (I was fresh out of college and had just learned to bake bread to impress a new beau). That attempt failed miserably. I don’t like failing at things, so with the idea of attempting sourdough once again floating around in my head, I took it as a challenge.
I don’t generally wax too philosophical on here, so I hope you’ll forgive me this one time.
Five years and a month ago, I drove in an almost trance-like state from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, to be by my critically-ill grandma’s bedside. She had been in and out of the hospital since the prior Christmas and deep down, I knew it was the last time I would see her.
I was on autopilot the whole way. At times I would realize that my thoughts had carried me away, and I was in the left lane holding up a number of other cars who wanted to go 5-10 miles faster than me. I remember thinking that I wish I could tell them I was sorry–that I didn’t mean to be a bad driver, really. If they only knew what I had going on, I was sure they’d forgive my frustrating driving.
Since taking that long drive, on the way to say goodbye to one of the kindest and strongest women I’ve ever known, I’ve found myself with a constant refrain running through my head when I’m dealing with other people, especially when I find them frustrating–“You don’t know what you don’t know.”
We make the mistake of assuming that someone’s words and actions in a small window of time can give us a complete picture of who they are. But everybody has bad days. And sometimes bad weeks, months or even years.
We never know as much as we think we know. We don’t know the full back story. When the cashier at the grocery store is less than friendly, it’s hard to say whether she’s just a natural grouch, or if her joy has been slowly leached away from years in an abusive relationship. That person who neglected to thank you when you held open the door? Maybe he is just thoughtless and rude. Or maybe he just got a difficult diagnosis from the doctor and his mind is a thousand miles away.
Of course there are people who are just mean, rude or uncaring. But sometimes we are too quick to judge and too slow to consider the burdens someone might be carrying. And it robs us of the chance to be caring and possibly provide a moment of sunlight to someone trying to push through the darkness.
My little family recently learned some difficult news. We are all going to come out on the other side, and we will be okay. But right now, we are finding our way blindly through the darkness. We are worried 90 percent of the time, and we are in pain.
And we aren’t always ourselves. We may seem distracted, and maybe, just maybe, there are times that to others, we may seem rude or unkind.
We are not. You don’t know what you don’t know. And because of the nature of this particular heartache, I can’t share it with you. Sometimes we just have to understand that we never really know someone else’s story.
And because we don’t what we don’t know, then perhaps our default position when confronted with people who frustrate us should be one of empathy and understanding.
Perhaps we will end up giving some mean, little person the benefit of the doubt that he or she doesn’t deserve. But in the long run, the more we are able to let go of and forgive the minor daily infractions others visit upon us–consciously or unconsciously–the more peace we find ourselves. And in the process, maybe we will also grant someone who is going through a hard time just a little bit of much-needed understanding.
The Guy and I are both Yankees, transplanted to North Carolina. Technically that makes us damn Yankees, because we stuck around. The truth is that us Yankees only get a hard time down here if we follow the Yankee stereotype of always pointing out how much better everything is done up North. While our progressive views do clash with the ideology of a lot of folks down here, for the most part the Guy and I really like living here (ok, the Guy does have a bit of disdain for hot, muggy summers).
So we don’t make fun of the dialect, and when we actually get a substantial amount of snow, we don’t make (too many) jokes about Southerners not being able to drive in this stuff and the mass hysteria that surrounds even the forecast of winter weather. We are entitled to make at least a few jokes, because at this point, the natives even make light of themselves. The most well known joke is that if you go to the grocery store right before a predicted snowstorm, you’ll find only empty shelves where the bread and milk once were–presumably so everyone will have ready supplies for milk “sammiches” should they be snowed in for a week.
While it is all a bit entertaining, I learned my lesson pretty early why you really do need to be prepared for the worst around here. We all know that weather forecasts are less than perfect, but for some reason, when it comes to predicting snow in the South, the forecasters have the worst time getting it right. If they call for a couple of inches of snow, the actual result could range from a dusting to half an inch of ice to a foot of snow that locks everything up for a week. The latter was my first real introduction to winter weather in the Carolinas. I came down here for college. One afternoon in my junior year–after seeing no more than a quarter inch of snow in my first two years there–big fluffy flakes started falling. Within an hour there was some decent accumulation and 90 percent of students on campus were either sliding down hills in makeshift sleds (note–Southerners can make a sled out of anything), having a snowball fight or building a snowball.
Being the damn Yankee that I am, and never really being a fan of winter anyway, I ignored the hoopla and went back to my warm apartment, shaking my head. But by the time the snow stopped falling the next night, we had 14 inches of snow outside, and no power inside. The power wouldn’t come back on for four days. Luckily, living on a college campus, we were able to trek on foot to the dining hall for food–where we had hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on propane grills nearly every night for the rest of the week. If it weren’t for that option, we’d have been awful hungry, since we’d failed to properly stock up on the oh-so-precious bread and milk, our cars were completely snowed in, and all the stores nearby were closed. When the roads did finally get plowed after a couple days and we’d heard word that a nearby convenience store was open, we used pots and pans to shovel my roommates car out of her parking space. Because, um, it’s North Carolina–do you really think we had shovels?!?
A few days ago, snow started showing up in the forecast for last night. Since then, predicted amounts have swung wildly from two inches to 10 inches and anywhere in between. Being good adopted Southerners that we are, we made sure we had shovels at the ready and picked up a few essentials at the grocery store (including milk, but no bread since we already had a loaf at home). Luckily, the result this morning was somewhere around five inches of snow–enough to paint the beautiful landscape you see above, but not enough to shut everything down for weeks. As I type this, most of the roads have already been plowed, the sun is shining brightly, and the temperature has warmed enough that the snow has been quickly melting throughout the afternoon.
If North Carolina weather holds true, we’ll be going for a swim next weekend.
*Note: This recipe is a repeat of one previously published on this site. I am using a new recipe plugin to present recipes in a print-friendly format, and am re-publishing old recipes to make this feature available.
This “make your own” version of taco seasoning takes just a few minutes of mixing and measuring some everyday spices that are probably already in your cupboard. It’s tastier than what you’d find in a packet, and one recipe will make quite a few tacos (and it makes a great seasoning base for many other recipes).
Combine all spices in an airtight plastic storage container (if you have an empty used spice bottle, that would work great). Seal your container and shake until everything is well-blended.
Add one to two tablespoons of seasoning blend, depending on your taste preference, to one pound of cooked ground beef and 1/2 cup water and simmer until thickened. This mix makes up to 10 pounds of taco meat, and you can easily scale the recipe up or down, depending on how frequently you make tacos. This makes a fairly mild seasoning mix, so if you like some extra kick, turn the dial up a bit on the cayenne pepper.
Cornstarch is listed as optional because it provides thickening to the taco sauce. If you plan to use this seasoning for other recipes that don't require thickening, you may prefer to leave it out and simply stir in a bit of cornstarch when you are using it specifically for tacos.
I cook with onion quite a bit. One of my absolute favorite food smells is onion as it carmelizes in the pan. Dicing onions, though, has always been a venture that put my fingertips in a bit of danger, because I used to start by slicing my onions into rings, like so:
See those fingertips just waiting to be sliced off? I’ve tried using a little onion holder do-kicky to keep my fingers safely away, but it didn’t keep the onion that stable and was kind of a pain. But then I discovered, unless you actually need the rings (say for a burger or sandwich), there’s a much easier way to dice onions that doesn’t endanger my fingers.
First, cut the stems off both ends of the onion, then peel the skin. On a cutting board stand your onion up on one of the flat sides you created when you cut the stems off, and cut down the middle from top to bottom. Put both halves cut side down on your cutting board, with the top of one half butted up to the bottom of the other half.
Now, cut strips lengthwise across both halves, from top to bottom.
Rotate your cutting board 90 degrees and start cutting strips across the grain of the onion. Ta-da! Diced onion, with all your fingers still in tact!
Side note–it’s best to use a sharp chef’s knife to do this, which is NOT what I have pictured here (my chef’s knife needs a little sharpening, so I went with an alternative).
I love meals I can make ahead and freeze. And I love cooking with my crock pot. So it’s a safe bet that I really, really love meals I can make ahead, freeze and then throw in the crock pot. That’s one reason I really, really love these meatballs. The other reason is that they’re amazingly delicious. Or awful, according to the Guy. But awful is Guy’s code word for, “Will you please make these every night for the rest of my life?”
If you do a Google search for meatball recipes, almost all of them will call for you to mix up the meat madness, form it into balls, then either bake them or cook them in a pan. That’s where this recipes is deliciously different, and why it’s so simple. Instead of baking or pan-frying the meatballs, you let them simmer in a crock pot full of marinara sauce for six to eight hours, meanwhile absorbing all the rich tomato-ey goodness of the sauce. And since you’re slow cooking them, you can go straight from freezer to crock pot without thawing first.
I’ve also included a recipe for marinara. Of course, feel free to substitute your favorite jarred sauce if you’d like, but it really is very simple and much cheaper to make your own.
Freezer to Crockpot Meatballs
1 lb lean ground beef
1 lb sausage
Small onion, finely diced
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. sea salt
1 to 2 tsp. hot sauce, to taste
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cans crushed tomatoes (28 oz.)
2 cans tomato paste (6 oz.)
1 small onion, finely diced (1 T. minced dried onion if you’re in a hurry)
2 T. minced garlic
2 tsp. dried basil
1 T. dried oregano
3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the meatballs, mix all but last three ingredients in large bowl, then work in half and half, breadcrumbs and parmesan. You can use a spoon if you’d like, but it really works better just to get in there with your hands and mix it all together…you’re going to get “meat hands” when you shape the meatballs anyway, so you might as well dive in, right?
Once everything is well-blended, shape into meatballs. I tend to make my meatballs gigantic, but you can downsize ’em a bit. Lay the meatballs out on a cookie sheet or parchment paper and put them in the freezer for an hour or two, until solid. Once they’re solid, you can put them in a freezer safe gallon storage bag and label them for later use.
To make the marinara and cook the meatballs, mix all of the marinara ingredients, except bay leaves, in your slow cooker. Add frozen meatballs to sauce one at a time, making sure that all the meatballs are covered by sauce. Add bay leaves and cook on low 6-8 hours (the larger the meatballs, the longer they will take to cook).
The one downside to this recipe is that, even if you use extra lean ground beef, the sausage produces a lot of grease, so you’ll have to take a few minutes after your meatballs are done to skim the grease off the top of the sauce. Don’t worry–the taste is worth it! And make sure to remove and discard your bay leaves while you’re at it.
“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.
Two years ago, I spent my first Easter with the Guy and Kiddo, and we colored Easter eggs. It was the first time I’d dyed eggs since I was a kid, and there were a lot of things I’d forgotten about the process. Like how long it takes for the eggs to turn color. And how much mess it makes–probably because I wasn’t the one cleaning it up back then. There was a bit of trial and error process to get the bright colors we were looking for, and I never remembered it being so complicated when I was 10.
Looking for a cheap alternative to commercial egg dyes, you can always use Kool-Aid. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you could forgo the store-bought dyes altogether and make your own plant-based dyes, using onions, beets, coffee, cabbage or a number of other options.
When the Guy and I tied the knot last March, we want to keep things very simple, and make sure the focus was on celebrating our love with our friends and family. We were also budget-conscious, since we there are many other things we’d like to invest our money in that will last longer than one day–like say, the bearded dragon the Kiddo wants for a pet. Cooking for loved ones is one of those simple joys that I take great pleasure in, so the result of our decision to keep things simple, focused on friends and family, and low-cost was that I essentially “catered” most of the wedding weekend.
I did a lot of planning and cooking ahead, making meals that could be prepared in part or entirely in advance and then frozen, so I got the experience of sharing home-cooked meals with my family while not spending every waking minute in the kitchen. The rehearsal dinner involved stuffed chicken breasts that were prepared and frozen a week in advance, then baked that night, with a simple side of pasta. We had a simple luncheon after the ceremony, which was a mix of prepared deli trays and salads, alongside homemade salads and dessert that were made in advance, with no prep needed the day of. Side note: we didn’t have wedding cake until our reception six months later but our dessert–cookie pudding cups–was pure awesomeness (a post on that is in the works)!
My challenge, though, was brunch. I very much liked the idea of having a brunch with both our families the morning after the ceremony. We pondered going out to a restaurant for this, but the small mountain town where we were wed had limited places to accommodate a group our size. At the same time, the beautiful vacation home we stayed in was the perfect venue for a relaxed brunch that would allow us all to chat and socialize more easily than we could at a restaurant. I knew the day of the wedding would be full of excitement, but also long and tiring, so if we did a homemade brunch, I had to find a way to make it simple and fuss-free.
Knowing it would be difficult to get both of our large families together at one time, I treated the affair like a continental buffet–kind of like the free breakfast you get at hotel, but much tastier. There were about 10 of us who had been staying at the mountain house for four or five days, and we’d done a little stocking up on groceries at the beginning of our stay, s0 we still had a good bit of food to go through before checking out, including fresh fruit, yogurt, bagels, toast, Nutella, cereal, juice and milk. That gave me a nice start on a buffet (and a good way to get rid of leftovers). To fill out my buffet, I planned a couple homemade dishes to mix in that could be mostly be prepared ahead of time. Turns out, it was muffin tins to the rescue.
Not long after my world changed because I learned I could bake bacon, I came across an easy way to make eggs and bacon for a crowd, with a little more help from my oven plus some muffin tins. Here’s the idea–instead of frying a batch of bacon and individually frying up eggs for everyone (read: spending your morning in front of a hot stove spitting grease), you wrap a piece of bacon around the inside edge of each cup in a muffin tin, then crack a single egg into the middle and bake the whole batch at once. So you’ve got about 10 minutes of prep, then you pop them in the oven and have time to spend with your guests. A couple of tips to make it work:
Coat the muffin pan well with non-stick spray first.
Pre-cook the bacon a bit to make sure it’s done by the time the eggs are. I recommend baking the bacon!
Bacon freezes well, so you can do the pre-cooking part days, even a couple weeks in advance, freeze it, then leave it in the fridge overnight before your event to thaw. I pre-cooked and froze two pounds of bacon before the wedding (some for brunch and some to may my new M-I-L’s famous chicken salad). I drained the grease on paper towels, then wrapped fresh paper towels around the bacon accordion style to keep the slices from getting stuck together, and put the whole package in a freezer bag.
Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on top of your eggs, and feel free to throw a few shreds of cheese on there too, if you’d like.
Bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes for a runny yolk, 10 minutes for soft yolk and 14 minutes for a hard yolk.
The muffin cup eggs added some nice protein to the menu. For some healthy grains, I turned to baked oatmeal cups, also conveniently made in muffin tins. I have tried several different variations of this recipe, and have tweaked them to come up with the version below. These freeze very nicely, so again, they’re perfect to make in advance. To freeze, arrange in a single layer in gallon-sized freezer bags. Put them out to thaw the night before and, if you’d like them warm, 10-15 seconds in the microwave will do nicely. Just don’t be a dimwit like I was the first time I made them and use foil liners for the muffin tray, since you’ll have to take them out to zap them in the microwave. Besides being great to serve a group of hungry brunchers, they are perfect on-the-go healthy breakfast treats. They’re low in fat and sugar (actually there’s no processed white sugar at all–just the natural sugars in the fruit and honey), and the kids at our family brunch gobbled these up.
Baked Oatmeal Cups
5 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup ground flax seed
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 mashed bananas
2 cups applesauce
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup honey
3 1/2 cup skim or low-fat milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon butter extract
Optional mix-ins (raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dried apples, chopped nuts and white chocolates chips are all good options)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, blend first five dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, blend next seven wet ingredients. Pour wet mixture into oat mixture and stir until well blended. Stir in any desired mix-ins. Spray muffin cups with nonstick spray or use muffin cup liners. Spoon batter into muffin cups until nearly full. This baked oatmeal rises very little, so you will fill the cups much fuller than you would when baking muffins.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until edges begin to brown. Recipe makes about two dozen oatmeal cups, and can be easily halved. I always like to make a bunch, because they freeze so well and the Guy tends to devour them.
This recipe has a lot of flexibility for tweaking and ingredient substitutions, so be creative. Ingredients such as the flax seed and butter extract can be omitted and you’ll still have a tasty treat. You can also easily substitute soy milk or almond milk for the skim milk, and you can vary the sweetener, replacing the honey with brown sugar, agave syrup or a small amount of white sugar (this recipe does not need a lot of added sweetness). And while I avoid artificial sweeteners, you can also use Stevia or Splenda if you’d like.
Until I become a master gardener/farmer or live within a reasonable driving distance of a Whole Foods, it’s doubtful I’ll free my family from processed foods anytime soon. Still, I’m trying to reduce our exposure to all those extra chemical dyes and preservatives added to everything by avoiding the processed stuff as much as possible. My main focus has been to eliminate the “highly processed” products–think boxed pasta mixes with powder that somehow magically turns into sauce. I just decided they really aren’t worth the time-saving trade off they promise. For most of those mixes, it really only saves you 5-10 minutes time in the kitchen and they taste awful. I used to eat them a lot and I loved them, especially when I was a kid. Once I started doing more and more real cooking, I realized just how terrible they are.
That’s a really rambling introduction to my main point. Once I started zapping the low-hanging fruit of the “add water and stir” processed j-u-n-k, I started focusing on other ways I could make sure we are eating real food. Little by little, I’ve looked at the food products we use on a daily basis, and started figuring out what it reasonably made sense for me to make myself–trying out recipes for homemade granola, energy and protein bars, for instance. My latest challenge was a replacement for Bisquick. Really, it’s just a pre-measured, pre-mixed blend of a few ingredients, minus the preservatives. This project was pretty easy–just a matter of looking at standard recipes for biscuits and pancakes and getting the right ratio of dry ingredients.
Bonus: It’s cheaper to make your own baking mix than to buy it. I do most of my shopping at Aldi, and even with their significantly lower prices, it’s about $0.40 per cup of their baking mix versus about $0.12 a cup making my own (with their prices on flour, sugar, etc.). If you’re buying brand name, you’ll probably save even more.
Homemade Baking Mix
6 cups flour
1/4 cup baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or shortening
Sift together all dry ingredients, then cut in butter/shortening with a pastry blender or fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
That’s it. You’re done. Well, except for the storage part. Store your baking mix in airtight container, and since you’re not using all those nasty chemical preservatives, you’ll need to keep it in the refrigerator. You can use your baking mix as a one to one replacement in any recipe that calls for Bisquick, or as listed below for basic biscuits or pancakes. If you’re a frequent baker, you may want to make a double batch, but it’s easier to cut in the shortening one batch at a time.
For every one cup of baking mix, use 1/3 cup water. Stir together until well-blended and drop by the spoonful onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Makes about four biscuits for each cup of mix + 1/3 cup milk.
For every one cup of baking mix, use 1 cup water and one large egg. Stir until well-blended. Pour batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto hot, lightly greased griddle (medium-high heat) and cook until bubbles form throughout batter and edges appear dry. Flip and cook until golden. That’s the basic recipe. To make them extra delicious, mix in one teaspoon vanilla and a 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Or fancy ’em up with your favorite fruit mix-ins.
I picked up a couple packages of refrigerated crescent rolls on my last grocery outing, with plans to use them for pizza pockets. But they were out of pepperoni at the store, and I wasn’t motivated enough to make an extra stop, so I decided to use the rolls for a quick and easy stick roll recipe I learned way back in middle school home ec class. Then I made them even more delicious by adding a dab of Nutella.
I call them marshmallow dumplings because when you put them together on the baking sheet, that’s what they remind me of–apple dumplings, with a giant marshmallow instead of an apple. If you don’t like marshmallows, don’t worry–I’m not a fan myself, but I love these sticky, gooey creations. The marshmallows melt away into the crescent roll, leaving behind sweet and sticky goodness.
Side note–these are what I’d call a once-in-awhile/weekend breakfast treat, since they’re pretty loaded with sugar and not much substance. You can cut the fat some by using reduced fat crescent rolls and margarine rather than butter.
Here’s what you need:
2 packs of crescent rolls
8 jumbo marshmallows
4 T. butter/margarine, melted
2 T. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
~1/4 cup Nutella
And here’s all you do. Mix the melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. Unroll the crescent dough and separate each tube into into four rectangles, with two crescent triangles forming each rectangle, like so:
Using your fingertips, work the middle seam together to seal the dough into one big triangle.
If you’d like to try the Nutella version, spread a teaspoon of Nutella in the center half of each rectangle.
I made half with Nutella and half without, because I wasn’t sure the Kiddo would like the Nutella version. Turns out he loved them, so I’ll make them all that way from now on. Just so you’re not confused though, I should explain that the rest of my pictures are of the non-Nutella version. Now take one jumbo marshmallow and dip it in the butter mixture (make sure it’s cooled enough that you won’t get burnt), then place it in the center of dough rectangle.
Fold each corner of the rectangle over the top of the marshmallow and seal edges together with fingers. Place on baking sheet and repeat until all of your dough rectangles look like delicious dumplings.
Bake rolls 11-13 minutes at 375 degrees.
The marshmallows will melt into the dough and create sweet, sticky cinnamon and Nutella goodness! Tip–eat these while they’re still fresh and hot for the full flavor experience!