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Posted on Dec 30, 2013 in Inspiration, Menus and Recipes

The Past is Past

Beautiful day at the park

Beautiful day at the park

Last week, I visited the Florida Keys for a few days.  On the way there, I stopped at a race track to learn something about dog racing.  I really don’t know much about dog racing, but I have adopted a wonderful greyhound who is retired from racing.  If you have ever met me or read my blog, you now that I love my dog. And talk about him a lot.

A few days after he came to live with me, the adoption group sent me his racing records.  I never really looked carefully at them, but I remember he raced in Florida.  Dog racing is very controversial, but it is still pretty popular there.  I thought if I went to his former home, I might learn something about what shaped him and made him such a lovely creature.  I went to the track, now a casino too, and looked around.  They were not racing that afternoon, and there were no dogs there.  No one seemed to know where the dogs were kept, or who was in charge of them.  Everyone was inside, betting in the casino or on televised dog races at other tracks.

Aside from a few shouts when someone won a bet, the place could have been a library with all of the studying going on.  We had a nice lunch, and went on with the vacation.

When I returned home, I was a little sad that I did not learn more about my beautiful dog’s history, but this is what I found:

IMG_0073He isn’t interested in that track anymore.  This is his life now.  He races up the stairs and chases me when we play.

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Happy New Year!

 

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Posted on Dec 29, 2013 in Menus and Recipes

Key Lime Pie

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Spending Christmas in the Florida Keys was not all fun and games.  I did some serious research.  I visited the track where my dog raced, and I tested key lime pie all along the 120-or-so miles of that coral reef.  I had to make some sacrifices, not just sit back and enjoy my visit, right?

You’re welcome.

I was surprised by what I found-I have been making this pie all wrong for decades.  My key lime pie is sort of like lemon meringue pie without the meringue and with key lime juice instead of lemon.  I cover it in whipped cream.

Wrong.

The first pie I tasted was more like a cheesecake than a pie.  It was about 2 inches high, and the texture was very dense.  The lime flavor was very mild.  I didn’t believe this was authentic pie.  I thought if I tried “real” key lime pie, I would find my pie was closer to the pie I found there.  But they were all similar in texture and flavor.

What I found was that most of the pies were very thin, and all were on a graham cracker crust.

Most had no topping.

Often, there was a small amount of whipped cream, either on the side or near the crust.  One had raspberry sauce drizzled over it.

The filling in all of them was solid, more like baked cheesecake than lemon pie filling.  It had no cheese, and no cream.  Most had a very mild lime flavor, but the best ones had enough juice to have great lime flavor AND a little tartness.

It turns out that key lime pie comes closer to a lemon tart filling that takes advantage of the property of condensed milk that thickens it when mixed with an acidic liquid like lime juice.  Egg yolks are added to increase the richness of the pie.  This pie could not be easier to make!

Here is an adaptation of a recipe that comes close to what we had:

Key Lime Pie

Crust

  • 16 square graham crackers, crushed
  • 3 T sugar
  • 1/2 c butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix the ingredients together and press them into a 9 inch pie plate. Bake in oven in middle rack for 10-12 minutes until lightly browned.  Remove from oven, and cool on rack.

Filling

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1-14oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 c key lime juice
  • 2 t lime zest

Beat the egg yolks on medium speed until they are thick and turn yellow. Add the sweetened condensed milk, and  mix on low speed. Drizzle half of the lime juice, once the lime juice is incorporated, add the other half of the juice and the zest, and mix until just incorporated. Pour the mixture into the cooled pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes, Remove from oven and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for approximately 2 hours to set.

So, what is more important?  Your favorite recipe, or authenticity?

Photo credit:  CGehlen
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Posted on Dec 2, 2013 in How to simplify, Menus and Recipes, Resources

Simplify Your Holiday Entertaining and Enjoy Your Own Party

 

 

Photo credit: Pinti 1

Photo credit: Pinti 1

I love parties.  I like to go to them, and I like to have my friends over to my house.  Even still, sometimes, just when everyone starts to arrive, I’m exhausted and wearing workout clothes covered with sauce from when I dropped a dish on the floor.  It’s terrible to be tired and sweaty just when the fun times begin.  Fortunately, there is a solution.  Plan ahead and simplify.  Here are some ideas to make your next party fun for your guests, and more you:

Plan ahead

I’m not talking about spreadsheets and 6 months of daily task lists (Although that would be fine if you want to go this route–no judgements).  I mean thinking first about some basic ideas, then setting them into motion as you have time.  Once you have that done, simplify a little bit more.

First, simplify with a few decisions:

What kind of party will it be?

    • Open house with flexible arrivals and departures
    • Hosted dinner at a restaurant or club
    • No holds barred event with dancing and kid’s activities, entertainment and scavenger hunt (You know who you are)
    • Buffet meal in one room and guests hanging out all over  the house
    • Sit down dinner (adults only? kid’s table? assigned seating?)
    • Pool party and BBQ
    • Costume party with strolling musicians and catered food
    • Fully-staged civil war re-enactment with historically correct rabbit stew cooked over a campfire
    • Sedate get-together for colleagues and customers
    • If you are really energized, think about a theme party.  You can find ideas here, here and here.

OK, some people thrive on all-out galas that take months to plan.  It’s always great to have friends like this, and once in a while it’s fun to do it yourself.  But it is not necessary to do this in the middle of the holidays, and it’s not necessary go all-out to throw a great party.  Buffets, and cocktail parties are easier to plan than seated dinners.  Having set hours and a limit on guests, drink choices and dishes can make things simpler and more enjoyable.

Who will be invited?

Think about the location and limits you have to make.  Sometimes this is a simple question of how many will comfortably fit around your dining table.  Sometimes, it requires some strategy.  For example, if you invite all of your neighbors, you might avoid a midnight visit from a grumpy pajama-wearing neighbor.  When I moved into my house, I told my neighbors who asked about enforcing the noise rules of the homeowner’s association that if I can hear their party, I consider it an open invitation. This is a rule I live by for my own parties.  If you can hear it with your windows closed, come on over.

Simplify by putting some thought into who will be invited.  Going to a party where you don’t know many people can be stressful.  If you are not going to greet each guest and introduce them to at least one person who they will connect with and enjoy a conversation, make sure there are a few that will make friends with everyone.

Simplify by using an online invitation like Evite, PunchbowlFacebook, and Google (all free), Paperless Post and Pingg (not free) instead of printing (or writing) and mailing paper invitations.

Photo credit: danhodgett

Photo credit: danhodgett

What will you be doing?

    • If the party is organized around a meal, this can be simple.
    • If you are planning a cocktail party, having a seat for each guest is not necessary, since people will not stay as long, and you will serve simple and light food.
    • If there will be children there, think about having them in a separate room with activities and snacks separate from the adults, or have activities that everyone can participate in without getting bored.
    • Plan music that doesn’t compete with conversation, speeches (if you must) or games.  If you are not sure of your music, invite someone who loves to make playlists.  You can do this weeks in advance, and get playlists from more than one person.  It’s nice to have something lively for when people are arriving or dancing, and quieter music during meals and when you want people to go home. Or, you can try Pandora or Spotify (both are free!) to play a mix of music to your tastes.

How long will it last?

If you don’t tell people, they will decide for themselves.  If you have an open house, you will have people coming and going, and there will be crowded and quieter times.  If there will be a sit-down meal or activities at a specific time, make sure to put this on the invitation, so your guests won’t miss out on the fun.  This time of year, people often have more than one event, so they will be dropping in late or leaving early.

Directions and Parking

Send a map.  Yes, most people have smartphones, but for the sake of those that don’t and those with chronically dead batteries, include a map and directions in the invitation, whether you send a written or email version.  If you live in a city, parking is not trivial.  If your guests need instructions for where to park, you can include this information on the map, and any advice for finding parking spots in crowded neighborhoods.  Even better, include directions for public transit, if possible.

Food and drinks

This is where you can go crazy, or simplify to make your party easier to plan and execute.  I love to cook, but you don’t have to heat one pan to have a successful meal.  You can choose a caterer (I did this once for a work party I hosted, and I was happily shocked to find that they did the dishes!), or order a stack of pizzas.  If you do cook, simplify things: don’t try a seven-course gourmet meal of dishes you have never tried.  This is the perfect time to show off your go-to recipes.  You will have an easier time shopping and cooking.  The other thing to consider is any dietary restrictions for you guests.  It is simpler to provide delicious foods that don’t need a lot of complicated preparation, or any that need to be kept warm in the oven or cold in the refrigerator, and replenished constantly.

Photo credit: Skånska Matupplevelser

Photo credit: Skånska Matupplevelser

How to simplify the food at your next party

One way to simplify is to have a limited selection of drinks.  Serve just sort drinks and wine, or beer.  Have a signature cocktail.  You can show a few people how to make it, then let everyone mix their own, or make a pitcher full, and walk away to enjoy your guests.

Resources for great wines at reasonable prices.

Resources for choosing beer

Photo credit: gordonflood.com

Photo credit: gordonflood.com

Resources for cocktails

Resources for calculating how much to buy for your party

    • Evite has a drinks calculator
    • Better Homes and Gardens has help for planning all of your party’s beverages
    • Epicurious.com has advice for planning a cocktail party

A few other party planning resources

 

Have a great Holiday season, and many happy parties!

Don’t forget my invitation.

 

 

 

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Posted on Nov 10, 2013 in Menus and Recipes

Soups to Warm the Cold Days

 

Photo credit: emmadiscovery

Photo credit: emmadiscovery

On a cold and rainy day, nothing is nicer for lunch than a bowl of soup. Today, I’m making three kinds of soup for the freezer, and for lunches all week. The great thing about soup is that you can make them from almost anything, even leftovers in the fridge.

 

Lentils and Leftovers Soup

  • Bones from a roasted chicken, or cooked chicken, bones in
  • 2 qt water
  • 1/2 lb brown lentils
  • 1 c carrots, chopped
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • whatever veggies are in your fridge or freezer, chopped
  • 1 T Italian herbs
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1T tomato paste or 1/2 c tomato juice (spicy or V8 is fine)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Bring water and chicken to a boil, bring down to a simmer for 45 minutes. Remove chicken from stock, and set aside to cool. Add lentils, veggies herbs and garlic to stock, bring to a boil again, and cook for 30 minutes. Remove bones and skin from chicken, and add shredded chicken back to soup. Add tomato stock, and season to taste.

 

Summer Chicken Soup

(Hang onto the memory of those long days)

  • One roasted chicken, with juices
  • 2 qt water
  • 2 cloves garlic, whole
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped finely
  • 2 c fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 c green beans, cut in 1/2 in pieces
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/2 c chopped parsley

Place whole chicken and garlic in water, bring to a boil.  Simmer 45 minutes.  Remove chicken and set aside to cool.  Add pepper and veggies to stock, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, until beans are cooked, but still a bit crisp. Remove bones and skin, and shred chicken and add back to soup.  Zest lemon. Add juice of lemon and parsley just before serving, and garnish with lemon zest.

 

Butternut-Fennel soup

  • 1 butternut squash
  • 1 qt chicken stock or water
  • 1 large or 2 small heads of fennel, cut into 1 in pieces
  • 1t thyme leaves, crushed
  • 1T red pepper flakes or pink peppercorns
  • sour cream or crumbled goat cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. Place cut sides down on cookie sheet and bake 30 minutes-1 hour, until squash is soft. Put fennel in stock and boil 15 minutes, until tender. Add cooked squash, thyme and pepper, and heat for another 10 minutes. Puree soup with a hand blender or in a blender until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with sour cream or crumbled chèvre as garnish.

 

Photo credit: PAVDW

Photo credit: PAVDW

 

 

 

 

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Posted on Nov 3, 2013 in Menus and Recipes

Easy as Pie

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Something about the cool weather makes me want to bake.  I like to bake pies.

A long time ago, I made pies professionally.  Now, I do it for fun.  I don’t like to eat them very much, so I’m always looking for people who like to eat better than bake.  For people I really like, I will invent custom pies.

This part of my life usually works out pretty well.

In honor of a friend who helped me with a big project today (I love my new wall!) I am sharing two pies I invented for her.

 

Birthday Joy Pie

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This first one is low carb and sugar-free.  You can use a sugar-free pudding mix if  you don’t like to make your own custard filling.  This microwave custard is pretty easy, though.  Try it, and you will not want to go back to the box.

Crust:

  • 2/3 cup almond meal
  • 2/3 cup coconut (half coconut flour, half unsweetened coconut)
  • 1/3 cup stevia or splenda for baking
  • 1/4 cup butter or coconut oil, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix vanilla and butter (or oil) together in a large bowl. Add other ingredients and mix until moist, but crumbly. Press into a pie plate and bake for 10 minutes. Allow to cool before adding filling.  I struggled with the sweetener for this pie.  If you don’t like the flavor of stevia, try baking splenda.

Filling:

  • 4 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons stevia
  • 3 3/4 cups milk
  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate (use awesome chocolate)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large microwaveable bowl, whisk cornstarch, salt and stevia to combine thoroughly.  Add milk to dry ingredients and whisk until no lumps or dry spots are left.  Add chocolate pieces to milk mixture.  These do not have to be mixed in yet.  Place in microwave and heat for 1 minute, whisk to mix. Place in microwave and heat for an additional minute, whisk again to mix.  Heat mixture in microwave for 2 minutes, whisk, and heat for 2 minutes again until thickened. Add vanilla and stir to prevent lumps. Allow to cool at room temperature for 5 minutes before adding to crust.  Chill before serving at least an hour.  Serve with whipped cream or sliced almonds.

L’s Lemon-berry Pie

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This one is also sugar-free and low-fat, but still tart, fresh and delicious.  You can make it conventionally by using sugar or honey instead of stevia.

Crust

One pie crust, baked blind and cooled.  Go ahead and use your favorite recipe or grocery store version. A graham cracker crust would be great for a non sugar-free, non low-fat version.  Or, make the crust with crushed shortbread cookies or gingersnaps.  You’ll love it.

I only have a hand mixer, so don’t think you need any fancy equipment to make this pie.

Filling

  • 8 oz. low-fat (or fat-free) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 8 oz. fat free greek yogurt
  • zest from one lemon
  • juice from one lemon
  • ¼ c. stevia (or sweetener of choice)

Topping

  • 1 ½ lb. small strawberries, washed, drained, hulled and cut in half
  • 4 T. unsweetened (fruit only) strawberry preserves

Beat cream cheese with mixer until light and fluffy.  Add stevia, lemon zest and lemon juice, and mix on low power until incorporated.  Beat in yogurt.  Spoon into cooled crust and spread to cover the bottom of the crust.  Starting from the outside, place strawberry halves around the pie on top of the filling. When this ring is complete, start another row inside of the first ring, staggering the berries to completely cover the filling.  Overlap rows until you reach the middle of the pie.  Place one whole strawberry in the center.  With a pastry brush, coat the strawberries with melted preserves to make them shiny.  Keep refrigerated.

If you try one of these, let me know how it works in the comments–especially if you make some changes!

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Posted on Oct 27, 2013 in Menus and Recipes

Where does dinner come from?

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This week, I took a challenge, to try organic chicken and grass-fed beef, instead of my usual whatever-is-on-sale kind.

The challenge forced me to shop outside of the supermarket and look at other ways food is grown, processed and packaged.  My friend told me that organic and grass-fed is better for us, more sustainably produced, and TASTES BETTER.

But, when I went to the several stores I visited to buy these meats, I found a lot of stuff. For chicken, I found normal, organic, free range, free roam, and all natural.  I had to look some of these up:

Normal.  These chickens are housed indoors, on rice hulls in large chicken houses.  They are, and fed corn and soybean meal with vitamins and other nutrients.  I was surprised to find out that no hormones are allowed with chickens for food. They live to be  5-6 weeks of age before becoming meat.  The problems with raising chickens this way is that they are kept in crowded conditions.  They can be burned by ammonia waste and grow very quickly, so moving around or standing gets difficult.

Free range. These chickens are bred to grow more slowly, have more space, and are raised outdoors so they have more interesting environment, and can move around more.

Free roam.  This is apparently the same as free range.  I guess I got to try this twice.

Organic.  These chickens are raised similarly to free range chickens, but have limitations on food additives and medications that can added to their food and water.

Natural.  This is chicken that is minimally processed.  It can be made from conventionally raised animals, but often the chickens are fed with a diet of food with fewer additives.

I bought chicken drumsticks and bone-in breasts from these sources, coated them in a simple marinade, and roasted them in the oven.   I didn’t notice much difference in the tenderness or size of the pieces.  The flavor was also very similar when they were hot out of the oven.  I noticed that the organic chicken breasts had more flavor when I ate them as cold leftovers.

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For beef, I found normal, organic and grass-fed.  (I thought I would have found grass-fed organic, but did not).

Normal beef for meat is raised partly in a pasture with grass and hay, and fattened in a feed lot with a grain diet.  This allows them to get larger faster that animals fed only grass.

Grass-fed beef stay on the pasture and eat grass for their whole life.

Organic beef must be born and raised in an organic pasture, eat an organic diet, and have unrestricted access to being outdoors.

I bought three kinds of meat as round steaks, broiled them and seasoned with salt and pepper.  I noticed that the grass-fed beef was leaner.  They were all three about the same tenderness.  The organic and normal beef tasted pretty much the same, but the grass-fed beef had a different taste completely.  I expected it to taste beefier.  It was more flavorful, but not more of the same flavor as the normal beef.  The meat tasted fresher, although it was not any fresher from the store.

Overall, I would eat the grass-fed beef again just for the taste.  The cost is at least double the normal beef that I bought, but it goes on sale sometimes.  I like the idea of eating fewer additives.  The organic chicken I got from Trader Joe’s was more expensive, but not ridiculous.  I will look for it and buy it when I can.

The best part of this challenge was shopping in a butcher shop.  I got to ask questions about the meat, I got exactly as much as I wanted, and when I got it home, it had minimal packaging.

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Photo credits: wattpublishingDaveOnFlickrB4bees
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