Noodles

A couple of weeks ago when our family was visiting us in AZ, we were eating at our favorite pizza restaurant here in the Valley of the Sun. As we ate, I asked a variation of the age-old question: If you were eating your very last meal, what would you have?

I learned several interesting things from that question. The first thing I learned is that if you’re going to try to ascertain the answer to that question from an 11-year-old boy, you’d better phrase the question carefully. I unfortunately worded it as such: Hey Alastair, if you were on death row and they were bringing in your last meal, what would you have ordered? Okay, okay; I admit that perhaps you shouldn’t ask a child any questions that relate to Death Row. Lesson learned. Because Alastair – who loves good food – couldn’t be pinned down to the food part and instead concentrated fully on the Death Row part. Despite my pressing him further and further, his answers continued to be along the lines of a cake with a file in it, or a piece of sausage in the shape of a key.

But the other interesting piece of information I learned, particularly once I rephrased the question to be if you were on a desert island and could only eat one thing, what would it be?, was that my daughter-in-law Jll chose lasagna.

I thought about that conversation the other night when I cooked dinner for my sister Jen – who had arrived that day for a week’s visit – and her daughter Maggie and the family. I had texted the dinner invitation to Maggie earlier in the day, and didn’t know technology could work that fast when her response of YES! came almost before I set down my phone. Such is the life of a mother of two, including a very busy 3-year-old, as she prepares for the arrival of her own mother.  I had some of my red sauce in the freezer, so making lasagna was going to be simple. Or at least as simple as making lasagna can be.

As we sat and ate our lasagna, Caesar salad, and French bread, we learned that Maggie’s husband Mark would also choose lasagna as his last meal. Funny, that. I like lasagna, but who would choose lasagna when you could choose a wonderfully dry and ice-cold Tanqueray martini, a perfectly-cooked bone-in ribeye steak with a dollop of herb and garlic butter, a crisp salad with a mixture of homemade Roquefort cheese dressing and the homemade Italian dressing made by my favorite childhood restaurant Husker House, and crème brulee with that crackly burnt-sugar topping?

As a result of Mark’s proclamation, much of our conversation at dinner that night revolved around making lasagna. I created a bit of a controversy when I admitted that while I liked lasagna, I found it a pain in the booty to make.

Maggie was astounded. She doesn’t share my sentiment. But let me be clear. The most troublesome thing for me when it comes to lasagna is the noodles. Cooking lasagna noodles is flat-out messy. Dripping water, noodles splashing back into the cooking water as you try to retrieve them, noodles sticking together. All-around messiness.

Maggie, however, uses the lasagna noodles that cook as your lasagna bakes. I’m all for convenience, but I fear that any kind of pasta that you put uncooked into a dish soaks up too much of the liquid as it cooks. So despite the ease, I continue to cook my noodles before I begin the layering process.

I will admit that I like my lasagna very much. I use a meat sauce from my favorite Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich. It involves using pork neck bones, which result in the most flavorful sauce imaginable. Of course, no matter how careful I am, a few little bones will make it into the sauce. But the best part of using neck bones is that after a couple of hours, you remove them to cool. I, however, begin nibbling on them almost immediately, always burning my fingers in the process. Lidia’s sauce also involves ground pork and ground beef, so the flavor is delightful. Don’t tell Lidia, but sometimes I substitute Italian sausage for the ground pork. The sauce cooks for a couple of hours, making the house smell like an Italian home on Sunday. It’s pure heaven.

Here is a link to Lidia’s sauce, though it doesn’t come from her website. As for the lasagna, just like dressing for Colorado springtime weather, it’s all about layering.

Include as many layers as your pan will hold, and then eventually this happens…..

And maybe that is worth a last meal.

Heads or Tails

As the temperatures hovered dangerously close to 80 degrees these past few days in AZ, you would think I would be focusing on grilling or making fancy salads. Nope. Oddly, braising is what sounds good. Maybe it’s a fortuitous that St. Patrick’s Day is on the horizon as I can satisfy some of my braising needs by cooking a corned beef.

My mother was a traditional cook, at least during the years when I was growing up, and she did a lot of braising. I remember eating beef pot roasts and pork roasts and spare ribs that she would cook slowly in the oven until they were tender. I remember beef stews and green beans made with ham hocks and vegetable soups made with beef shanks.

But what I was recalling as of late was a stew that she made occasionally that featured oxtails. Little pieces of beef that came – not shockingly – from the tails of a cow. I’m guessing probably not necessarily an ox, but at least some sort of beef. Oxtails probably stemmed from the mentality that was common among people who grow up on farms: you don’t waste any part of the animal.

Mom didn’t necessarily take this philosophy to heart, as I don’t remember her ever serving us, well, heart. At least not beef heart. I remember battling my brother and sisters for the chicken heart, that teeny-tiny, chewy organ that comes in the little sack that frequently is shoved inside a chicken, along with a liver or two, a few gizzards, and the neck. Since chickens, as most animals, only have one heart (earthworms have five hearts, but I wouldn’t want to eat a single one of them), it was a valuable commodity. Livers were first runner up, and we happily gave Dad the gizzards.

I don’t have my mom’s recipe for Oxtail Stew, but I sure remember the meal. I recall that they varied in size but I always seemed to get the small ones. But mostly I remember that they were extremely slippery. I loved them. I joyfully picked up the scalding little devils with my fingers and gnawed until I got most of the meat, not necessarily an easy task, but I have always been good at getting meat from a bone. I think I was a hyena in a former life.

I decided to make Oxtail Stew.

Since I didn’t have my mother’s recipe, I did what any normal 21st century cook would do: I went to Pinterest.  There, I found a yummy-sounding recipe for oxtail stew cooked in a slow cooker. That sounded spot-on to me, so I invited my brother Dave and my sister Bec to dinner where we could eat with our fingers and reminisce about Mom. I warned Bill (who had never eaten oxtails) that it was likely that he was going to have to swallow his pride and eat with his fingers, something he is loath to do unless it’s a pizza.

But first I needed to find oxtails. None at Basha’s. None at Fry’s. AJ’s Fine Foods took 15 rings before they answered the telephone and then, upon my request for their meat department, sent me to a black hole which produced no meat department. Cross them off my list, then and forever, no matter how fine their food is.

However, when you’re on the hunt for any unusual cut of meat or any unfamiliar vegetable, your best bet is to hit the Mexican markets and/or the Asian markets. Bill and I set off on our adventure, where our intent was to hit the Mexican market first and if that produced no results, go a bit further into the Asian part of Mesa. We lucked out on our first try and found delicious-looking oxtails at Los Altos Ranch Market…..

uncooked-oxtails-los-altos-market-2-17

Those oxtails eventually became this……

oxtails

After eight hours in a slow cooker, the meat was indescribably tender and tasty, and the broth was rich and packed with flavor. I served the stew over mashed potatoes, and there was none left at the end of the meal. My assessment? I was sad that they were so tender that they didn’t provide my desire for slipperiness. However, my brother (looking carefully around for Mom’s ghost bearing some sort of weapon) said he thought mine were better than Mom’s. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Here’s the recipe…..

Slow Cooker Oxtail Stew

Ingredients
2 – 3 lbs. oxtails
2 T. flour, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste
8 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks of celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
½ lb. mushrooms, cleaned and cut in half
½ c. red wine
1-1/2 c. beef broth or stock
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 T. tomato paste

Process
Cook bacon in large skillet until crisp. Remove to a plate, and crumble.

Coat oxtails in the seasoned flour, and cook in the bacon grease until brown on all sides. Cook only a few at a time to aid in browning.

Place vegetables, wine, stock, bay leaf, thyme, and tomato paste into slow-cooker. Add the bacon and the oxtails to the vegetables.  Cover with lid and cook for 8 hours or until oxtails are tender.

Serve with mashed potatoes, rice, or noodles.

This post linked to the GRAND Social

The Big Easy

I was fairly untraveled as a child and even as a young adult. Though my family took a vacation each year, we almost always went to Colorado, and mostly to Estes Park. I wouldn’t change a thing about our vacations, but suffice it to say that I was close to 20 before I ever boarded an airplane.

Back in those days, flyers dressed up for the trip, wearing a good dress or suit. The idea of blue jeans or – heaven forbid – sweat pants on a flight was absolutely unthinkable. Flight attendants – aw, heck, we can call them stewardesses because they were absolutely always young women — wore business attire, shoes with modest heels, and hats.

I remember being about 21 or 22 years old, and yearning to visit exactly three places before I died. Today we would call them my bucket list. So my bucket list cities were New York City, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

But our recent Mardis Gras party got me thinking about New Orleans, and recalling all of my visits to that interesting city. And it was the first of my three dream bucket list cities that I was able to visit. I traveled with a woman I scarcely knew, familiar with her only because she taught my brother and sister at Leadville High School. Her name was Lily, and despite the fact that I traveled 1,300 miles with her and lived in the same hotel room for probably close to a week, I recall very little else about her. Isn’t that funny? But what I do recall is that she wasn’t an ax murderer (as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t get hacked to pieces) and we had a good time together. And then never did a single thing together again.

mi0002859504We didn’t have a lot of money, so I’m certain we didn’t go to any fancy restaurants, though I’m afraid I also couldn’t tell you what restaurants we did visit. I remember that we went to Café du Monde and had beignets and café au lait and stayed in a nice hotel near the action. Other than that, the single thing I remember is that we went to a jazz show in the French Quarter and watched musician Al Hirt play from front row seats. Non-vocal jazz never really being a favorite musical genre of mine, I’m sure I must have heard of him from my dad. At the end of the show, he came down from the stage and shook the hands of a few people, INCLUDING MINE. Having not met many famous people at that time in my life, I was thrilled.

The other two times that I have visited New Orleans, Bill has been my traveling companion. The first time he and I visited, I remember being conned by an expert con artist, who bet me $10 that he could tell me where I got my shoes, and I bit. The answer, of course, was on my feet. Lesson learned.

During that trip we dined at Commander’s Palace, where Bill ate what to this day he proclaims was the best dessert he’s ever eaten (and the man knows desserts) – Commander’s Bread Pudding Souffle. We also tried Muffuletta sandwiches at Central Grocery, where they were created. Muffulettas are sandwiches made from salami, ham, mortadella, cheese and a delicious olive spread.

And, of course, beignets at Café du Monde.

The second time we visited, we ate brunch at Commander’s Palace, where we ate what I would call the best dessert I’ve ever eaten – Bananas Foster. Oh my.

But just as my primary memory of my first visit to New Orleans is seeing Al Hirt, my primary memory of that visit is ducking into a hole-in-the-wall place where we had the most delicious oysters on the half shell that I have ever eaten. The guy shucking the oysters was like a caricature of a guy shucking oysters. He had been a so-called cut man for boxers in his younger days, and as he told Bill story after story, he kept shucking oysters. He shucked way more than the dozen we had ordered, but didn’t charge us a penny more.

I’m happy to say that I’ve been to all three of the cities that I dreamed of as a young woman. Interestingly, though I enjoyed them all, out of the three, I would say that only New York City is someplace I could return to again and again, and have. I enjoyed San Francisco and certainly found New Orleans interesting and the food amazing, but neither are places that I yearn to revisit.

The sound you just heard is that of my sister Bec fainting.

But as a nod to New Orleans, here is the recipe for the Hot Crab Dip that I contributed to Sunday’s festivities…..

crab-dip

Hot Crab Dip

Ingredients
1 T. olive oil
1 c. chopped onions
1 c. chopped green peppers
1 T. minced garlic
1-1/2 t. salt, divided
1 T. Cajun seasoning
1 lb. cream cheese, softened
1 c. mayonnaise
¼ c. fresh parsley
2 green onions, minced
1 T. fresh lemon juice
3 6-oz cans crab meat
½ c. Ritz crackers, crushed
2 T. butter, melted

Process
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, peppers, garlic, 1 t. salt, and Cajun seasoning. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are soft, 5 or 6 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the cream cheese, mayo, parsley, green onions, lemon juice, and remaining salt. Process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.  Fold in vegetables and crabmeat and place in an oven-safe dish.

Mix cracker crumbs with butter, and spread on top of the dip. Bake for 30 minutes, or until crackers are browned.

Childhood Treats

When I was growing up, I was in somewhat of the minority among my friends as my mother had a job outside the home. It’s true that she wasn’t someone’s secretary or didn’t sell shoes at Monkey Ward’s (though that was the job she DID have when she met my father). But once my dad bought the bakery from my grandfather (and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how old I was when that transpired), she helped my dad run the business. Dad ran the back end (which included the baking) and handled the finances; she ran the front end and handled the staff. At least most of them.

Bill’s mom was a full-time homemaker, and so Bill talks about her fixing lunch every day for himself and his siblings. I don’t think she fixed anything fancy – maybe a turkey sandwich or a sandwich made from what he proclaims was the BEST egg salad ever known to man. And he always adds that she peeled the skin from her tomatoes and cut the celery really fine. For years, I thought that Wilma was trying to be fancy like Martha Stewart who probably not only peels her tomatoes, but likely turns them into rosettes. Eventually it occurred to me that she suffered from the same stomach ailments as I, and probably peeled her tomatoes for the same reason I peel mine – to avoid the fiber.

Anyway, as I try to recall my youthful years (not an easy task because I can’t even recall what’s in the Tupperware bowl that I put in my refrigerator last night), I’m certain that there was a time when Mom was home with us kids most of the time. But nearly all of my memories are of the times when we were old enough to stay alone and make our own lunches.

As I pondered this reality, I began wondering just what it was that we made for our lunches. My siblings might correct me, but I recall a lot of bologna or salami sandwiches on Dad’s yummy white bread, and opening many cans of Campbell’s soup or Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti or ravioli. Spaghettios had not yet been invented, but let me tell you, once those made an appearance, they were my very favorite lunch. That lasted until — well, frankly, I still secretly love spaghettios. Hold the little weinies and the meatballs. And don’t even try to give me the ABCs. I like the tiny little circular pieces of pasta.

As for Campbell’s soup, my very favorite was Bean and Bacon, but running a close second was Chicken with Stars. There was just something about those teeny tiny little stars that brought Chicken with Stars soup a notch up from regular Chicken Noodle soup.

A year or so ago, I ran across an Italian deli that sold little circular pasta called annelletti. Well, I immediately purchased the pasta, thinking that I would certainly be able to find a recipe to make spaghettios from scratch. I did, indeed, find such a recipe, and then scarcely gave it another thought. Every once in a while I would come across the pasta in my pantry and think, “I should make spaghettios,” but didn’t. The pasta moved from AZ to Colorado, and then moved back to AZ, still unopened.

In the meantime, I was recently at Superstition Ranch Market, a store at which I shop solely because they have the Stewart’s Diet Orange Cream sodas that I love. Remember this post? In addition to Stewart’s sodas, they also have a fairly acceptable selection of Italian products, including pastas. What do you think I found? Pasta shaped like little stars, called stelline.

Which made me think, “I can make homemade Chicken with Stars soup!” And which then inspired me to take out the the well-travelled annelletti and make homemade Spaghettios as well.

pasta-collage

I made the Chicken with Stars first, and later that week I made the Spaghettios.

The result?

The soup was a home run. The recipe, as you can see, is basically a regular recipe for chicken noodle soup, but uses the stelline in place of noodles. As for the Spaghettios, I was sorely disappointed, and here’s the reason why: Chef Boyardee’s Spaghettios are sweeter, which is why kids (and I) like them. I tried adding more sugar, but it just didn’t taste the same. If I’m going to have Spaghettios that don’t taste like the Chef’s, I would just as soon not have my base be tomato sauce, but instead, make a good red sauce of my own.

Here are the recipes….

chicken-stars-soup

Chicken with Stars Soup

Ingredients
1 T. olive oil
1-1/2 c. diced onion
1 c. diced carrots
1 c. diced celery
1 clove garlic, minced
8 c. chicken stock
2 c. chopped cooked chicken
2 bay leaves
½ t. dried rosemary
½ salt
½ t. dried thyme
½ t. black pepper
1 c. dried stelline (or other small pasta)
Process
Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Add carrots, celery, and garlic, and saute for 2 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Add chicken stock, chicken, bay leaves, rosemary, salt, thyme, and pepper, and stir to combine.

Bring mixture to a simmer, the reduce heat to medium and stir in the pasta. Cook until pasta is al dente, stirring occasionally. Season with additional salt if necessary.

db052469-7b8d-43e2-b512-9f4dd89fdc89

Homemade Spaghettios

Ingredients
15 oz. can tomato sauce
2 T. milk
½ t. onion powder
½ t. garlic powder
¾ t. salt
2 T. sugar
1 c. uncooked star-shaped pasta, or other small pasta

Process
In a small saucepan, mix ingredients (except for pasta) and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook on low until the butter melts completely. Meanwhile, cook pasta per instructions until al dente (or to your liking, remembering that the pasta will soften up more as it absorbs the liquid). Drain pasta and combine with sauce.

This post linked to the GRAND Social

Potato, Potahto

In the universe of unfairness, hovering right there near the top of the list is the fact that potato salad isn’t low in calories.

That injustice is right up there with the fact that I am only 5 feet, 2 inches, thereby being six inches too short for my weight; that Chip and Joanna Gaines aren’t going to do a total remodel of my house including, but not limited to, knocking down walls and installing a kitchen island and shiplap; that I don’t own a private jet that would take me on weekend excursions to Paris or Hawaii or to visit my grandchildren; or that I have 128 gigabytes of memory on my iPad Air, and not only will I never use that many gigabytes of memory, I don’t even know what a gigabyte is.

But potato salad. That’s the one that really hurts.

I mentioned yesterday that Bec made her delicious potato salad for Sunday’s Super Bowl party. It’s true that I had a spoonful of the potato salad with my burger. But anyone who has entertained a group of people – particularly if you’ve entertained a group of people after drinking two Bloody Mary’s – knows that you don’t really taste what you’re eating when you’re trying to figure out at the same time if there are enough brownies to feed everyone, and deciding to rely on the Jesus-And-The-Loaves-And-Fishes miracle.  That worked, by the way. The 9×9 pan of brownies not only fed everyone who wanted one, but there were 12 baskets to spare. Well, actually, three small brownies. Bec, by the way, also made the brownies. I really didn’t do anything except call it my party.

Yesterday at lunchtime, I scooped me up a spoonful of the potato salad that I had dutifully packaged up for Bec to take home but forgot to send with her (I’m blaming the Bloody Marys, though by the time she left, all that was left of the Bloodys was a bit of tomato juice in the corner of my mouth and the smell of the celery and bacon on my breath). My first bite confirmed what I already suspected: the potato salad was sublime. Because as good as potato salad is the first day, the second day is even better. So one scoop soon became two, and with it came the sad realization that I wasn’t going to lose weight by eating the entire remaining potato salad, even inasmuch as I would certainly have been ABLE to eat the whole bowl. You’ve heard of the grapefruit diet and the leek soup diet and the vinegar diet. You’ve never heard of the potato salad diet. BECAUSE IT DOESN’T EXIST, even in the minds of the most creative weight loss diet book authors.

Many years ago, I came across a recipe in a Bon Appetit magazine. I know. Like I actually ever read Bon Appetit. I must have been in the fancy waiting room of the place where I get my mammogram.  But, whatever. The recipe was for Roseanne Cash’s Potato Salad. Normally, I don’t think a potato salad recipe would catch my attention, as I think on the rare occasions that I ever made potato salad, I would have used my mother’s recipe. Mostly I think I let someone else bring the potato salad. But this one caught my eye because it contained diced-up dill pickles. Though this might not be an exceptionally rare ingredient for potato salad, in my world, it was. Because Mom’s potato salad had no pickles, dill or otherwise.

So I tore out the recipe, creating a big hole in the page where the next reader was about to learn the secret ingredient in Emeril Lagasse’s Banana Cream Pie.

Sometime (literally, several years) later, Bec was visiting us in Denver and had occasion to make potato salad. “I have a really good recipe,” she said. “Oh, I have a better recipe than yours,” I challenged her. “Nope, I’m sure mine is better,” she stated firmly, probably making a mental note to bring up my obstinance during the airing of grievances at our next Festivus celebration.

“Mine is from Roseanne Cash!” I said with great jubilation.

“Seriously?” she said. “So is mine.”

Further proof, don’t you know, that great minds think alike.

And just so that I don’t leave you all hanging, here is the recipe for potato salad….

potato-salad-2

Bec, Kris, and Roseanne Cash’s Potato Salad

Ingredients
3 lbs. red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled and cut into 1-in pieces
8 dill pickle spears, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
5 hardboiled eggs, peeled and chopped
¼ c. mayo
2 T. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

Process
Cook potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain well and cool. Transfer potatoes to large bowl. Stir in dill pickles, celery, onion, eggs, mayo, and mustard. Season with salt and pepper.

Can (and frankly, SHOULD) be made a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature one hour before serving.

Cry Over Curdled Milk

For a brief period of time, I tried to write a cooking blog. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned that before, maybe six or seven hundred times. I’m sure that I always added that it didn’t take me long to realize that 1) my cooking blog was competing against about a million other cooking blogs; and 2) I am really not an exceptional cook.

Here’s where I am supposed to say that despite my only being an average cook, I LOVE TO COOK. There was a time when I would have said that and would have been speaking the truth. Now I have to be completely honest and tell you that cooking is only fun some of the time. But the rest of the time, it’s just Bill and me, and he would prefer a sandwich to any kind of meal any day of the week. Unless, of course, I am frying a chicken. Then he’s all in. But have you ever fried a chicken? Enough said.

What I’m getting at is that it really isn’t that much fun to cook for only two people. And that’s why very often no matter how committed I am to eating at home, sometime around 4 o’clock I realize I don’t want to make that Chicken Florentine, or whatever it is I have planned. And so I begin making plans on where we can dine out. Sigh.

One way to combat this troubling phenomenon is to use a crock pot, as I have already mentioned in an earlier post. Because at 10 o’clock in the morning, I am still on the cooking-at-home bandwagon. And even if my Crock Pot Chicken Florentine doesn’t sound good anymore at 6 o’clock, I am cheap enough that I won’t throw it away and we will begrudgingly eat it.

This is the point where I should share a Chicken Florentine recipe. Like I would really make chicken Florentine. Ha.

But lately I have been in the mood to try making a few unusal things at home. I’m considering oxtail stew. I’ve looked up recipes for pierogis. I keep saying I’m going to try and make pho from scratch.

But I decided to start small, because a recipe for homemade ricotta cheese came across my desktop, something from the Pioneer Woman (who isn’t a real pioneer woman at all because real pioneer women churned butter and baked bread and pounded the dust from rugs. They didn’t make ricotta cheese.)

But I did. Because it looked very easy. So easy, in fact, that I didn’t even study the recipe very carefully. I just saw the words I like a four-to-one ratio when it comes to my milk and cream.

And without thinking much about it, I poured in four cups of cream and one cup of milk (because who wouldn’t want more cream than milk?), brought it to a boil, removed it from the heat, added the salt and the lemon juice, and waited for it to commence curdling. And waited. And waited some more. And then began cussing and waiting. Something I’ll bet the Pioneer Woman doesn’t do.

But it never curdled. And I began chastising myself. You are a terrible cook, I said to myself. You can’t even curdle milk properly unless you’re trying NOT to curdle it in which case it would probably CURDLE. And then I dumped it down the drain.

(While my cooking skills are questionable, I am VERY good at being hard on myself.)

At some point later in the morning, I took another gander at the recipe for making ricotta cheese. This time I actually READ the recipe from beginning to end. Oh-oh. The ratio is in fact four-to-one, but it is four cups of MILK to one cup of CREAM. Oops.

So, having inherited the stubbornness of both my mother and my father, I went to the store and bought more milk and cream, bringing the total cost to my two cups of ricotta cheese to about $15. But this time, it worked. The milk mixture curdled, and I had myself some fresh, homemade ricotta cheese….

ricotta

Which I used in my baked ziti that I made for my sister Bec’s birthday dinner last night, along with red sauce made from scratch by my sister-in-law Sami, who included – wait for it – the leftover prime rib from a recent meal. Let’s just say, as long as I have a great deal of help from others, maybe I CAN cook…..

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Ingredients
1 c. heavy cream
4 c. whole milk
½ t. salt
2 T. white vinegar or fresh lemon juice

Process
Line a strainer with a couple layers of damp paper towel or cheesecloth, and set aside in a large bowl.

In a large pan, mix cream, milk and salt. Bring liquid to a boil over medium high hieat, and remove from heat. Stir in the vinegar or lemon juice. Let mixture sit for a few minutes, and then pour into the strainer lined with the paper towel or cheesecloth. Let it drain until it is as dry as you want it, at least 20 minutes.

Makes approximately 2 cups of cheese.

Well, That’s a Crock

We live in a fairly roomy house in Denver. Despite the fact that it was built in the 1970s when often homes lacked a lot of places to keep excess things (because frankly, back then people didn’t really have excess things like they do now), there is considerable storage space. The house has large closets, lots of cupboards, a fair amount of countertop space, roomy cabinets, a pantry, an attic, and lots more storage in the basement.

Lots of storage space is a blessing and a curse, at least for me. I am the queen of if there is space, it will be filled.  I have so much storage that is out of sight, i.e., in the basement, and that’s where I keep things like the popover pan I’ve used only once, the French bread pan I’ve used only once, the wicker dumpling steamer that I have used only once (are you sensing a pattern?), and the punch bowl that I have used on several occasions but will almost certainly never use again. There’s a Fry Daddy, a Seal-a-Meal, two ice cream makers, an electric wok, and a partridge in a pear tree.  Well, not that last thing. But lots and lots of stuff.

Our house here in AZ is a mere 1,300 square feet in which there are often three adults residing. We have a small kitchen with a smattering of counter space. There is a small pantry, and a few below-counter cabinets and above-counter cupboards. Space is at a premium. Bill has installed a few cupboards in the garage.

Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post: Crock Pots.

I have long been a fan of crock pots. For working people, I think they are life savers. If you can get yourself organized either early in the morning or the night before and get ingredients into a crock pot, you have dinner waiting for you when you get home.

I, of course, am not a working person. I could spend the entire day cooking if I wanted to. Which I don’t. But I still am a big fan of slow cookers, primarily because if I put food in the slow cooker at 10 o’clock in the morning, I will not talk myself out of cooking and into going out to eat at a restaurant at 6 o’clock.

At some point after we bought this house and Bill and I started spending entire winters here, I decided I needed to get a new crock pot. My existing crock pot was literally from the 1970s, and though it worked just fine, I wanted one that was oval. I think at the point I purchased the new crock pot, I had fallen prey to the Mississippi Pot Roast craze, about which I blogged here. Unfortunately, the roast wouldn’t fit properly in my existing crock pot, so I ended up borrowing one from my niece Maggie. Shortly after, I predictably went and purchased my own oval crock pot – a 6 quart pot in which I could cook the CU Buffaloes’ mascot Ralphie. It worked fine for the one-and-only time I made the Mississippi Pot Roast (as I was frankly underwhelmed.  The pot roast that owns the internet indeed!).

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that a 6 qt. crock pot is far too big for the meals that I cook 99-and-44/100th percent of the time (for Bill and me). So the other day, I spontaneously went to Target and bought a 4 qt. crock pot. I brought it home and used it to make smothered pork chops with mushrooms. As I dumped all of the ingredients into the crock pot, I quickly realized that despite being two whole quarts smaller than my other crock pot, it was still too big.

At the crack of dawn the next day, before I could give myself time to reconsider, I went onto Amazon and ordered (with one click!) a two-and-a-half quart crock pot.

Voila! It’s perfect. Except for the fact that I now own four (count ‘em) crock pots in a house which, if you will recall from this exceptionally long and boring post, HAS NO STORAGE SPACE. Jen’s going to be very surprised when she comes next to AZ and finds her bedroom filled with crock pot boxes.

crock-pot-plethora-2

Just kidding, because by time you read this post, my niece Kacy will have picked up my 4-quart crock pot which I brilliantly thought to give her, as she actually IS a working mother with three small kids. And look at the little teeny tiny crock pot on the right. It doesn’t count because it is so small. Right?

For good measure, here is a recipe I recently made in my crock pot. I’m sorry for the poor photo. At some point I will remember to not shoot photos of my food when it sits on a yellow plate. Everything looks a sad color of orange….

beef-and-noodles

Beef ‘n Noodles with Mushrooms and Onions

Ingredients
3 lbs. boneless beef chuck roast, cut into large chunks
Salt and pepper
3 T. vegetable or olive oil
2 c. beef broth
1 medium onion, cut into wedges and separated
Half of a 1-oz package of onion soup mix
1/8 c. A1 steak sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
½ T. horseradish
½ t. spicy brown mustard
½ t. salt
2 T. butter, cut into pieces
½ lb. sliced mushrooms (any kind)
2 T. cornstarch
2 T. cold water
16-oz. bag noodles or macaroni

Process
Season beef with salt and pepper as necessary. Brown pieces of beef in the vegetable or olive oil until seared nicely. Put into slow cooker. Add the beef broth, onion, soup mix, steak sauce, garlic, horseradish, mustard, salt, butter and mushrooms to the crock pot. Cook on low for 7-8 hours.

Mix cornstarch and cold water, and add to the mixture, stirring well. Turn to high and cook for 10 minutes more or so, until the sauce begins to thicken.

Serve over noodles, cooked as instructed on the bag or box.