Saturday, April 30, 2011

How much does it cost to run your washing machine?

Check out this nifty chart.

You can calculate how much it costs you to run your washer and dryer, per load of laundry.

For example, I have an old front-loader. But we don't pay for water (the landlord covers that), I use the cheapest bulk laundry detergent known to man ($12 for 10 gallons of powder, which lasts me close to a year), and I wash everything in cold water. Based on those calculations, at 3 loads a week, I pay a whopping 7 cents per load to wash and 26 cents per load to dry, for a total annual cost of about $52.

Not bad, right?

(Of course, if we paid for water, those costs would be a lot higher. And 3 loads a week is a high estimate--most weeks, it's closer to 2.)

If I were to air-dry, I could save $40 a year, for a total annual laundry cost of $12.50.

However, if I were to start washing my stuff in hot, or even warm, water, the cost per load would skyrocket to 26 cents, an almost 400% increase.

I learned that up to 90% of the costs for a load of laundry are in heating the water.

Contrary to popular belief, hot water doesn't get your clothes any cleaner. (Hot water will also shrink them, and cause them to fade/wear out more quickly.) You also don't need special "cold water" detergent--I wash everything in cold water, with el cheapo detergent, heck, I don't even use fabric softener or dryer sheets, and my clothes are just as clean as everyone else's. I never understood the point of fabric softener, anyway.

It really puts those years of pumping quarters into the laundromat into perspective, doesn't it? If it only costs about 26 cents per 45 minutes to operate a dryer, and I was pumping in $1 - $1.50 in quarters per load to dry, why in God's name were they raising my rent every year?

The good news is that my dryer is far less expensive, in terms of energy costs, than I feared it was. Dryers can suck up about 10% of the average electricity bill, but we don't do that much laundry, and I can handle $40 a year for the convenience of using the dryer.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Deconstruction of a CSA box (or two)

It's just barely spring here in Massachusetts, so the CSA boxes haven't quite transitioned out of potatoes and winter greens. Here's what I've done with the haul from the last two weeks, just to give you an idea.

Last week:

1 head of kale
2 cucumbers
1 container of grape tomatoes
1 bag of spinach
3 oranges
2 grapefruit
several potatoes

Cucumbers, spinach, tomatoes: salad
Oranges and grapefruit: juice
Potatoes: added to the growing backlog of potatoes
Kale: haven't used this yet; I'm considering a kale caesar salad for a dinner party I'm having tomorrow night

(I'm also considering grapefruit-Campari sorbet for that same dinner party.)

This week:

1 bunch of collard greens
4 zucchini
1 cucumber
1 box of strawberries
2 bags of peas (one regular, one snap peas)
2 sweet potatoes

Collard greens: unknown
Zucchini: possibly a chocolate-zucchini cake for the dinner party
Cucumber: in a salad
Strawberries: eaten immediately
Peas: I'm considering a pea-bacon risotto later in the week
Sweet potatoes: added to the growing backlog of potatoes

I like the challenge of figuring out new and different ways to make produce disappear every week. Although I'm going to have to get super-creative with the potatoes and sweet potatoes soon.

I'm still working through the four bags of lettuce from my mom's garden she gave me last weekend.

I'm just starting to get herbs of snippable length in my container garden. The chervil has really taken off; the thyme and tarragon are coming along nicely, as are the arugula, sorrel and borage. The spinach and kale haven't really done anything and I'm not sure why.

Tomorrow I'll post about my dinner party menu, and how I arrived at that menu.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

OMG, morels

The pecking order of gourmet foods goes something like this:

1. Truffles
2. Foie gras
3. Morels
4. Anything really old (wine, scotch, aged cheese, balsamic vinegar, etc.)
5. Unicorn

And so on. Not surprisingly, those ingredients are the most expensive, and among the rarest.

Morels are the truffles of the mushroom world: they only grow wild, only during the spring, and only in very specific environments. And they have to harvested by hand, which is why Whole Foods will charge you upwards of $40 a pound for them, when they're in season.

Fortunately, they are in season right now, and I have a supplier.

A friend of mine lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia--which, it just so happens, is one of the favorite hiding places of morels. She went harvesting with her grandmother, like she does every year, and found herself with several pounds of morels she was willing to offload. Naturally I jumped at the chance, and had her overnight the stash to me. (Even with overnight shipping, it's still cheaper than going to Whole Foods--and I know exactly where they came from. Don't worry--morels are very distinctive-looking, and it's almost impossible to mistake them for a poisonous variety of mushroom.)

So I have the happy problem of needing to get through several pounds of morels this week.

I'm having some friends over for dinner on Saturday--I sorted through the haul, and set aside the morels I thought most likely to make it to Saturday.

The rest, I sliced and sauteed in butter.

That's it. They taste so good, it would be criminal to drown them in a cream sauce or a soup. You can't eat them raw, but it only takes a few minutes over medium heat in some butter to bring them to full deliciousness. I served them over a bed of fresh-picked spinach.

The perfect spring meal.

Morels taste much deeper than other mushrooms, almost meaty (dare I say...bacony?). They're are often paired with asparagus, since they're in season at the same time (but I wasn't going to go out and buy asparagus specially). Peas, fava beans, lamb, and arugula are other common pairings, for the same reason. I ate my morel salad with a glass of pinot noir and a glass of viognier, to see which went better, and the pinot noir won hands down.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Feeding a kid for a week: what I bought, what I cooked, and what he actually ate

My 11-year-old stepson spent spring break with us last week, and in preparation for that, I had to buy a lot of things I don't normally buy.

To wit:
Sandwich bread (three kinds: rye, honey wheat, and oatmeal; he won't eat homemade bread)
Ham, to put on the sandwiches
Hot dogs
Hot dog buns
Yellow mustard
Cheddar cheese
Croutons (since he won't eat homemade croutons)
Salad dressing (ranch and Italian, since he won't eat homemade salad dressing)

And a lot more of other things:
Milk (which he never drank)
Hamburger buns
Salad stuff (lettuce, tomatoes)
Peanut butter

I briefly considered buying orange juice but didn't, since we had plenty of oranges for fresh juice at home. My grocery bill was pushed up a good $100 by buying kid-friendly stuff, most of which he didn't touch.

(Parents, note: adding a third person to my usual menu for the week would not have increased any costs by a noticeable amount. Having to buy special kid stuff--hot dogs, sandwich bread, etc.--is what increased the costs. If you can get your kids to eat what you're eating, your grocery bill will drop substantially.)

Here's what I cooked over the course of the week:
Cheese pizza
Turkey burgers with sweet potato fries
Sweet potato and collard green risotto (I knew he wouldn't eat that)
Roasted tomatoes
Lots and lots of carrot and celery sticks, with ranch dip

Here's what he ate:
Cheese pizza
Hot dogs
Some grapes
Possibly an apple

Shocking, I know.

He never touched the cheddar cheese, the turkey burgers, the oranges, the salad part of the salads, or any of the other stuff we ate, and he may have eaten two or three carrot sticks over the course of the week.

On the days we both worked, he was on his own for breakfast and lunch. Which meant he ate no breakfast, and then wolfed down four hot dogs on two consecutive days. Despite me leaving him a ham sandwich, apples, and handfuls of carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing, which he never touched. One day I asked him if he'd had any fruit or vegetables that day, and he told me he'd eaten part of an apple. Then I went downstairs and counted the apples, then checked the trash can just in case, and realized that was a big fat lie.

Well, fine. I'm not fighting that battle with him. I told him he was in charge of feeding himself: if he didn't like the dinner options, he was welcome to fix himself a PB&J. I fed the adults, and left him a plate of fruit and carrot and celery sticks each night. I also fixed him a bowl of salad, with his favorite croutons, until I realized he was only eating the croutons. So that was the end of the salads.

Each night he picked at his plate of healthy stuff and watched us eat risotto and salad and turkey burgers and whatever, and he never once fixed himself a sandwich. I don't know if that was because he gorged himself on hot dogs when we weren't looking, or because he doesn't yet understand that he really can get up and fix himself a sandwich. Or maybe because he just wasn't that hungry. But he didn't starve to death, so I'm leaving that ball firmly in his court.

I left water, fruit (apples, bananas, grapes), carrot and celery sticks, and nuts out at all times. There was no soda, no chips, no crap available to him. While he didn't eat much of the fruits and veggies, at least he wasn't eating a lot of junk. (I take some small comfort in the fact that the hot dogs were at least all-beef kosher and the buns were whole wheat.)

On his last night, he did request that we make french toast. I showed him how to make it, then we ate it with fresh whipped cream and real maple syrup. Not the healthiest meal, but it was the first time he'd ever had fresh whipped cream and real maple syrup, and hey, at least we used quality ingredients. Then we dyed Easter eggs, and I had to explain to him what a hard-boiled egg was. (Seriously, he didn't know.)

I'm hoping this summer, when he's with us for a longer stretch, his fruit-and-veggie repetoire will expand a little bit. I'm also hoping that I can show him how to make other things. I told him I was going to show him how to make mac-and-cheese, and he was completely astounded by the fact that it was possible to make mac-and-cheese. "What do you do at home?" I asked. "We just go out and buy organic mac-and-cheese," he said.

I'm also not buying any more croutons.

The good news is that he's not giving me the deer-in-the-headlights stare at meals anymore. He may not be eating the vast majority of what's around him, but he's at least eating something (which is an improvement, believe it or not; there were several weekends in California when he didn't eat at all). He's a good kid, and he's so much like his dad it's scary; it just breaks my heart that he's so timid around food.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Salad, salad, salad

I drove to Virginia this weekend for a funeral.

My grandmother's sister died, and my grandmother was taking it pretty hard. I learned all of my uncles were coming in for the funeral, so because my husband was slated to be out of town anyway and I had nothing better to do, I drove down for the funeral.

First: it was great seeing everyone again, even if it was for a funeral. There were at least 150 people there, and there were lots of people there I hadn't seen in years. Second: next time I decide it's a good idea to drive 10 hours each way for a three-day weekend, slap me.

There was construction along I-95 on Friday, which held me up for a good two hours. But let's not think about that right now, it'll just make my blood pressure rise again. My mom brought me five bags of assorted greenery from her garden: four bags of lettuce and spinach, and another of assorted fresh herbs. So I'll be eating salad all week long.

Which is fine with me, because all that driving sapped my will to cook.

Here are some things around the kitchen that will probably go into one or more salads:

cheese (parm, goat)
dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, currants, blueberries, golden raisins)
nuts (sliced almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts)
maybe celery
eggs (poached, hardboiled)

Everything went haywire yesterday at work, further sapping my will to cook.

But I saw a bunny rabbit in my yard last night; it's nice to know that my rabbit diet of salad, salad, salad for the next few days is in good company.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cookbook review: The Gastrokid Cookbook

The Gastrokid Cookbook is great if you have a kid who is already an adventurous eater.

It will not help you if your kid steadfastly refuses to eat anything in non-nugget form.

In my ongoing efforts to get my stepson to eat something, anything that isn't either a hot dog or peanut-butter-and-jelly, I've been field-testing a number of so-called kids' cookbooks, and here's what I've learned.

You have to raise your kid to eat new foods, from the beginning.

If you cave and start down the mac-and-cheese path, you will never be able to get your kid off that path. He will be doomed. DOOMED.

OK, it's not that apocalyptic, but seriously, I don't understand the kid aversion to new foods. I really don't understand when those kids grow into adults with aversions to new foods. I haven't found one recipe or one trick that will get my stepson to eat anything I put in front of him. All the cookbooks in the world won't solve that problem.

But I'll go into that more later this week. Suffice it to say, if your child will eat new things, you did something right. I take my hat off to you. Go buy this cookbook and make zucchini hummus and fish cakes with your child, because while I can eat zucchini hummus all day long, my stepson would rather starve, and he has proven this on a number of occasions.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Parsnip fries

Parsnips are unfamiliar to a lot of people, but they look like big white carrots and taste like a cross between a carrot and a potato. That is, good.

Peel, slice into sticks, coat with a little olive oil, and roast at 400 until done, maybe 15-20 minutes. These are excellent mixed with regular potato or sweet potato fries, or even by themselves. Serve with a Sriracha aioli (1/2 mayo, 1/2 Sriracha, mixed).

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Roasted tomatoes

I can't believe I've never made these before.

It transforms hard, tasteless supermarket tomatoes into something that actually tastes like a tomato.

I took a package of roma tomatoes from Costco, and left them out for a couple of days to ripen a bit. (Note: refrigeration will instantly halt the ripening process. If you want your tomatoes, avocados, bananas, whatever, to ripen, leave them out. The minute you put them in the fridge, they'll stop. Even if you take them back out again.)

Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and place cut side up on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Drizzle the tomatoes very lightly with a little olive oil, and scatter some unpeeled garlic cloves around for good measure. Bake at around 225 for at least three hours. Serve with very good salt.

Friday, April 22, 2011

New pizza crust recipe!

I have a new pizza crust recipe!

Lately my pizza crusts have been more bread than crust. That is to say, thick and chewy and delicious, but not really, you know, thin and crackly like pizza crust. I wanted to get back to the thin and crackly end of the spectrum.

So I tried out this recipe from the New York Times:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups bread flour
3/4 teaspoon yeast
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

To be made the day before cooking (or at least the morning of).

Using a hand whisk, combine flours, yeast and salt in the bowl of your KitchenAid. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir in 1 1/2 cups cold water and olive oil until a rough dough forms. Using the paddle attachment, mix on low for 1 minute. Increase to high and beat for 4-6 minutes.

Pour onto well-floured surface, fold over, and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut into two pieces, shape each into a ball. Place each ball on a well-oiled plate, dust with flour, and loosely cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size, at least 3 hours. Shape into rounds and place each in a Ziploc bag. Refrigerate between 1 and 24 hours. Makes 2 balls (which make 1 pizza each).

Notes: This recipe makes an EXCEPTIONALLY sticky dough. Don't be tempted to add more flour.

Using a rolling pin to roll the dough out, with more flour, works best. It's a very elastic dough, so you won't get a very big (or square) crust.

I heated my oven as high as it would go (500, though 550 would have been better) and let the pizza stone blaze away in there for a good 45 minutes. I tried several methods of getting the pizza onto the hot pizza stone--using a pizza peel, making the pizza directly on the stone, a combination of the two--but because this is such a sticky and elastic dough, you'll have a very hard time transferring it easily from the peel to the stone.

I ended up with several strangely-shaped (but delicious) pizzas as a result.

So I recommend rolling the crust out, prepping all the toppings, then taking the hot pizza stone out of the oven, dropping the rolled-out crust on top, and VERY CAREFULLY adding all the toppings before popping it back in the oven for 10 minutes. (You'll want to add the toppings with a quick and light hand, as well, to avoid pressing it down unnecessarily.)

What you'll get is a light, thin, crackly, delicious pizza.

I made two kinds: cheese, and one with andouille sausage and red peppers. Both delish.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chocolate ice cream

I don't like chocolate ice cream.

There, I said it.

I never have. Even as a kid. And I felt the pain of being the only kid who didn't like chocolate ice cream acutely, believe me.

It's the combination of dairy and chocolate that gets me. I don't like chocolate milk, either. Or milk chocolate (and especially not white chocolate). I like my chocolate the darker, the better, and unadulterated by gross dairy products.

So I decided to make chocolate ice cream only as a concession to the houseful of kids I had this past weekend--my stepson is visiting for spring break, and we invited the neighbors and their three boys over for pizza and games.

The pizza was excellent, and I made a batch of vanilla ice cream, as well. So pizza and two kinds of ice cream: every kid's dream meal, right?

Only I discovered that I LIKED my own chocolate ice cream.

It actually tastes like chocolate, and not like the nasty chocolate-milk-chemicals store version I always hated.

It even tastes like GOOD chocolate.

Adapted from Salty Sweets:

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used a little less than 2 bars of Ghirardelli 60%), broken up
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Heat the cream and milk together until bubbling around the edges but not boiling. Pour the hot milk mixture over the chocolate (in a heat-proof bowl) and let stand for five minutes or so to melt the chocolate. Whisk together, with sugar and salt, until smooth. Refrigerate until completely cooled. Make in your ice cream maker.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gardening update

The space heater is now gone.

Wanna know why?

It DOUBLED my electric bill.

That's right. One little ol' electric space heater, the kind most people have on or under their desks at work, running periodically to keep the sunroom at 65 degrees, doubled my electric bill.

So maybe those heating mats would have been a better bet after all. I thought to eliminate the cost of special gardening heating mats for seed-starting by putting a space heater in the sunroom, but next year I think I will just go ahead and buy the mats.

I can safely remove the space heater at this point, anyway. The seeds have all been started, and at low 40s at night/50s-60s during the day, an unheated sunroom won't matter.

In the interest of conserving yet more electricity, I also removed two of the four florescent light fixtures and just shoved those seedlings closer to the windows.

Some of the seeds, particularly some older ones my sister sent me, never germinated, so I had to reorder/replant those. The tomatoes are going gangbusters; the peppers are all coming along nicely; and I started the basil. I moved the large containers of cilantro, kale, spinach and arugula outdoors onto the patio, as they'll thrive in the cool temps (and I freed up much-needed window/sunlight room for everything else).

The outdoor garden is a little more worrisome. I still haven't seen any seedlings out there. By this weekend, if that action continues, I may have to replant. (Beets, peas, chard, kale, spinach, arugula, and cilantro.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Garlic confit

This kicks serious ass on a grilled cheese sandwich.

"Confit" is a fancy term for "preserved in its own fat." In the case of meat, duck confit or rabbit confit or whatever, again, means the meat preserved in the animal's own fat. In the case of garlic or onion or lemon or whatever confit, it means (generally) gently cooking/preserving the item in question in another source of fat, usually olive oil.

This recipe makes a lot--I divided by 3 and made 1/3 of the original amount. I ended up with an awful lot of garlic-flavored olive oil at the end, more than I needed for the actual confit, but that's okay. Garlic-flavored olive oil can be used up pretty easily.

3 cups peeled garlic cloves
3 cups olive oil

The quickest way to peel garlic cloves is to crush them with the flat side of your knife and simply remove the peel. But DON'T do that here--you want the cloves whole, not crushed. You can either drop the cloves into a vat of rapidly boiling water for 20 seconds, then remove to an ice bath (the skins will slip right off once they cool down) or you can cut off the root tip of each clove and then pretend you're giving it an Indian burn (twist the peel in two opposite directions) and that will usually take it right off as well.

Once the cloves are peeled, put in a heavy saucepan and add the oil (the oil should cover the cloves by 1"). Heat over medium; when small bubbles appear, cut back to low heat and very gently cook for 40 minutes. The oil should never boil, or get more than very small bubbles. Remove from heat, let cool, and store in a jar in the refrigerator.

Note: the oil will solidify in the fridge. Let the confit come up to room temperature before using.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Kale caesar salad

This recipe from Food 52 has you make your own croutons and caesar dressing, but if you want to cheat, you could just substitute in young fresh kale leaves for the lettuce and away you go. Add croutons, dressing, parmesan. Done.

I left out the croutons (didn't have any bread) and grilled the kale for just a minute. You could do it either way, grilled or ungrilled.

It's an easy way to get your dark leafy greens.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sausage n' grits

This is essentially shrimp n' grits, without the shrimp. Cheese grits, plus a mixture of andouille sausage and tomatoes.

For the sausage mixture:
1 package andouille sausage (I used chicken andouille), sliced
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 28-oz can tomatoes, with juice
Seasonings (I used Italian seasoning; fresh thyme and oregano would work well too; plus salt and pepper, and maybe a little paprika and/or cayenne)

Saute the onion, garlic and pepper in olive oil until soft. Add the sausage, and cook over medium a few minutes more. Add the tomatoes and seasonings and simmer down over medium-low until all the flavors are well-blended (maybe 15 minutes).

Meanwhile, cook up a big batch of cheese grits. Quick grits are okay--follow the directions, and when it's done, add in a big handful of shredded cheese (I used manchego; but plain old cheddar is just fine).

Serve by adding the sausage/tomato mixture on top of the cheese grits; garnish with fresh parsley.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Homemade vanilla extract

Vodka. Vanilla beans.

Or dark rum. Vanilla beans.

That's it!

I started with a half cup of vodka in a mason jar, and added two scraped-out vanilla beans, in chunks. I screwed the lid on and shoved it in the back of a cupboard for three weeks. What came out was dark, vanilla-y, and light-years tastier than the store-bought stuff.

If you have a way to get vanilla beans fairly cheaply, this is a cost-effective (and tasty) way to make your own. But therein lies the rub--it's hard to find cheap vanilla beans. Chain grocery stores are known for charging $10 for 2. Your best bet would be to find an ethnic market; when I lived in Brooklyn, I bought mine at Sahadi's, 4 for $5. Whenever I'm in the area, I buy $20 worth, which lasts me a while.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cookbook review: Get Cooking

Get Cooking is a great book for beginner cooks. Mind you, it's pretty solidly just for beginners. I personally recommend getting an all-purpose cookbook (like The Joy of Cooking) because it's great for all levels of cooks--you can continue using it for years, even after you know what you're doing. A book strictly for beginners, like this one, won't be as useful after the fact.

But everyone has to start somewhere, right? All the recipes in this book are easy and quick--no bizarre ingredients, no three-page-long list of instructions, and everything looks pretty delicious. If you are a beginner, check out a copy from your local library and see what you think.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mushroom ragout with barley

Remember my shittake mushroom patch? So far I've gleaned nearly a full pound of shittakes from it. Last night I sliced those, added a few button mushrooms to round it out, and made this. Mushroom ragout with barley sounds fancy, but essentially it's just cooked mushrooms on top of cooked barley. Decadent, but easy.

1 pound mushrooms, sliced (I used shittakes and button 'shrooms, but any kind will do)
1 cup pearled barley
1/2 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 cups broth
a little sour cream or creme fraiche
chopped fresh parsley

Saute the onion and celery in olive oil until soft. Add the barley and broth, cover and reduce to low, and let cook until the barley is done and the liquid is mostly gone, about 30 minutes.

In a separate pan, saute the mushrooms in a little butter until browned.

Serve by heaping the mushrooms on top of the cooked barley, drizzling the sour cream/creme fraiche on top, and garnish with the parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lentil salad with feta, mint and oranges

This started as a way to use up the last of the feta and turned into a new lentil standard. I was surprised by how much the orange and mint brightened the whole thing--those two things took an ordinary lentil salad to the next level. I don't usually spring for fresh mint this time of year ($2 a bunch!) but I was glad I did.

1 cup lentils, cooked in 2 1/2 cups of water until tender (about 25 minutes)
1/4 cup diced red onion or green onion (I left the onion out, so this part is optional)
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1 orange, peeled and chopped, with as much of the white part removed as possible
2 big handfuls of crumbled feta

1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon brown or dijon mustard
salt and pepper
1/3 cup olive oil

Combine the first three of the viniagrette, then add the oil in a slow stream while whisking vigorously. Combine the lentils and other things, add the vinaigrette, mix. Serve at room temperature.

This makes a great dish to take to work for lunch, too--because it's best at room temperature, you don't even have to worry about putting it in the work refrigerator.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jalapeno pesto

Oh my goodness, this is good. Fantastic with just about everything.

4 big or 6 regular seeded jalapenos
2 peeled garlic cloves
2 tablespoons toasted pecans
1/4 cup parmesan
salt to taste
1/2 cup or so olive oil

Puree everything except the oil in your food processor, then add the oil in a steady steam while it's pureeing. Adjust salt to taste.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Homemade sour cream

Yesterday I said you could make homemade sour cream from homemade (or plain, or Greek) yogurt.

But you can make it another way, without yogurt!

1 cup cream
1/4 cup buttermilk

Mix, let sit overnight at room temperature. Then move to the refrigerator.

That's it!

Of course, if you have yogurt, you can make it this way, by draining off the liquid in the yogurt overnight and adding a bit of lemon.

You should know that plain yogurt can usually be used as a stand-in for sour cream in dips and recipes; so unless you want actual sour cream to put on a taco or baked potato or something, you can get away with just having yogurt in the fridge.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Homemade yogurt

I love the Salvation Army near me.

I find all kinds of great stuff there--including brand-new board games, several brand-new pieces of Pampered Chef stoneware, and a yogurt maker. I gave the yogurt maker a trial run, and I'm pleased to say it passed with flying colors.

It's the Waring Pro Professional Yogurt Maker, which I believe has been discontinued, so don't take this post as an endorsement of that particular yogurt maker--merely as an endorsement for home yogurt making in general. You don't even need a yogurt maker; the internet abounds with recipes for homemade yogurt using only things you already have, and if you like, I can try one of those methods as well and report back.

But since I picked up this yogurt maker for $5, I'm going to use it, dammit.

According to the instructions, there are two ways you can make yogurt: by heating the milk (which gives you firmer yogurt), or by not heating the milk (softer yogurt; or you can add powdered milk to the room temperature pasteurized milk, which makes firmer yogurt without heating).

Since my particular yogurt maker is obsolete, I won't bore you with its specific recipe or details. But I did go through the trouble of heating the milk, and the yogurt turned out beautifully. Next time I'll try the powdered milk/room temperature variation.

I love yogurt, but I hate a) the cost and b) the fact that I have to pay more to get either plain or Greek yogurt, without artificial fruit flavoring and whatever. This way I can keep myself in good, fresh, no-added-crap yogurt.

BONUS: You can make your own sour cream from your own homemade yogurt, thereby negating ever having to buy yogurt or sour cream ever again.

I'll cover that tomorrow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Swiss chard lasagna

One of the easiest and quickest lasagnas I've ever thrown together, but sadly, not the tastiest. I mean, it was fine--but not, you know, really good like lasagna should be.

I used this recipe from the New York Times, which is very simple and very quick. But what you really want here is to integrate the chard into all the other lasagna flavors, and not just have chard, noodles, and tomatoes floating around in your mouth. And that's what this recipe turned out tasting like--all the separate ingredients of lasagna, without being tied together into one uber-lasagna taste.

So I therefore say: Use my lasagna recipe instead, and simply add the chard between layers. Don't worry about cooking or de-stemming the chard beforehand, the tomato sauce in the lasagna will cook it and the stems are just extra fiber. Plus, since it has chard in it, it's healthy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nutella cookies

The easiest cookies I think I've ever made. Only four ingredients: Nutella, flour, sugar, egg. That's it!

I used this recipe, with one key change: I had to use two eggs instead of one.

1 cup Nutella
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
2 eggs

Combine. Shape the batter into balls and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. (They'll be sticky.) Using the greased bottom of a glass, press down into a cookie shape. Bake 7-8 minutes at 350. Let cool for a minute before eating, as they'll be soft.

If possible, these were even better the next day. The first day, they were very fudgy. By the second day, they'd hardened slightly into a very soft and chewy cookie. Yum!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cookbook review: The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches

The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches is, well, just that. It's a chunky little book (one step removed from a board book) with recipes and pictures for every kind of sandwich imaginable, from Dagwoods to fluffernutters to po' boys to Sloppy Joes.

Now, I'm not a connoisseur of sandwiches or anything. I rarely have sandwich ingredients hanging around--I refuse to buy loaf bread, cold cuts, pre-sliced cheese, or any of the other garbage that masquerades as sandwich fare in grocery stores. And since I don't eat out that often, my sandwich intake is far below most people's. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good sandwich--particularly a po' boy, or perhaps a really good grilled cheese made with leftover stinky cheese. I'm heartened that this book pays attention to the bahn mis and Croque Monsieurs of the world, and isn't just filled with cold cuts.

If you're like my dad, for whom "lunch" is synonymous with "sandwich," this book is for you--especially if it breaks you out of the white bread-mayo-bologna-cheese rut.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gardening update; and things you can use to start seeds

I've now used a bunch of different things to start seedlings in, and I can now safely proclaim there is absolutely no reason to buy seed-starting trays, or tiny plastic containers, or tiny biodegradable containers. Or anything, really, other than seeds and potting soil.

Best of all, you already have all these things. Start saving them now, and next year you'll have a whole stockpile of seed-starting things to choose from. Just be sure to cut or punch holes in the bottoms of all these things, for drainage. (And clean them out first.)

Yogurt/sour cream containers
Non-styrofoam egg cartons, with half a cleaned, whole eggshell in each depression
Grapefruit and orange halves (eat the fruit first)
Bottoms of milk jugs and plastic soda/water bottles
Paper cups
Toilet paper tubes (fold the bottom under to make a little cup)
Paper towel tubes, cut in half (see above)
Cleaned out food and coffee cans (any size)
Cleaned out soda cans, cut in half
Those plastic tubs mushrooms come in
Plastic take-out containers
I even repurposed some random, lidless Tupperware.

You can also make cute little containers out of newspaper.

So far, I can't tell any difference between growing things in these containers and the fancy seed-starting kits. So it's a win-win: you don't have to buy anything special, thereby saving money, AND you keep all of these things out of the landfill.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Homemade creme fraiche

Creme fraiche is a wonderful thing. It's endlessly versatile, you can use it in zillions of different recipes, or you can just eat with a spoon with fresh strawberries. (And it was the subject of hilarity in at least one South Park episode.)

But it's pretty expensive in the stores.

Here's how you can make your own.

Whisk together:

1 part buttermilk
8 parts cream (not ultra-pasteurized)

That's it. Cover the bowl and let it sit out at room temperature for 12 hours to 2 days, until it thickens and separates. Whisk again, cover and refrigerate.

Takes all of 30 seconds of effort.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pea and ricotta tart

First, here's a story about my high school drama teacher.

I adapted this recipe from Food 52. I didn't have half the ingredients in the original recipe; and I realized that my old springform pan needs to be replaced and is probably not up to snuff. Then I removed the tart before the center was completely done, meaning the liquid center oozed out all over the done part. I had to transfer the goo to a pie pan and finish cooking it in that.

The moral of the story is that you don't need the original recipe, or a springform pan, in order to get a delicious tart.

You just need to make sure it's cooked all the way through before you cut into it.

This is how I made it:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 shallot, finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
2 cups shelled peas (or frozen, thawed)
1 cup whole milk ricotta
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 large eggs
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
splash of fresh lemon juice

Saute the shallot in the butter until soft, and add the peas. Saute for another minute and let cool. Puree half of this mixture in your food processor, and add the ricotta and nutmeg. Blend, then add the eggs one at a time and pulse well after each. Transfer to a bowl, and add the rest along with the rest of the peas. Blend, pour into a greased pie pan. Bake at 350 until the center doesn't jiggle any more.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

La Laiterie, Providence

Last weekend, my husband and I treated ourselves to a rare dinner out, at La Laiterie in Providence, RI. La Laiterie is my favorite type of non-fancy restaurant: a gastropub.

"Gastropub" gets thrown around a lot, but I use it to signify a place which is casual, makes their own charcuterie and artisanal cocktails, and probably has really good cheese (bonus points for foie gras). La Laiterie is, conveniently, attached to a great cheese shop: Farmstead.

Naturally, we ordered cheese and charcuterie. All excellent (though I have to admit I've had better charcuterie plates).

a kind of ham
handmade bourbon-fennel sausage
a beef/pork/foie pate in a pastry crust
chicken rilletes

Twig Farm Mixed Drum
Cashel Blue

I stopped into the cheese shop on our way out and purchased more of the Winnemere, along with some wild boar proscuitto, some Mountaineer (from Virginia, from the same people that make my favorite stinky cheese), and some Virginia bacon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Package

This week, the New York Times had an article about deceptive packaging.

Basically, companies are packaging their product in smaller sizes, but charging the same price. Remember 8 oz cups of yogurt? Then they were 6.5 oz, then 6 oz, now 5 oz--for the same price. A can of tomatoes used to be 16 oz. Now it's 14.5. "Half gallons" of ice cream no longer exist. "A pound" of coffee, or bacon, or whatever, is actually 12 oz.

Call me crazy, but I was pretty sure a pound = 16 oz.

Sometimes the companies try to sell the smaller packages as "greener" or "conveniently sized" or "packaged for freshness!" They change the shape of the package, the color, they add a plastic window for viewing, they take away the plastic window for viewing. If the package design suddenly changes, beware. The company is probably hiding something.

They've even been known to claim, say, "25% less fat!" when in fact you're getting 25% less Snickers bar. Those ergonomic squeeze bottles of ketchup and mayo are disguising a much smaller overall bottle.

Old recipes often don't work because of this. Not only because the can of tomatoes went from 16 oz to 14.5, but because there's also more water in the can than there used to be.

What does this mean for you?

Basically, we're all going to have to start paying very close attention--to ingredient lists, to packaging, and most importantly, to unit size.

You can mitigate this sneakiness by:

1. Don't buy things in packages. (Do I need to say "Duh"?)

Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, make your own yogurt/bread/soup/mac and cheese/ice cream, buy in bulk whenever possible. Dried fruits, pasta, grains, beans and lentils are far cheaper from the bulk bins than they are in boxes, and you know exactly how much you're getting. (And you're not paying for the extra air inside the box.)

It goes without saying that the unhealthiest foods--chips, soda, cookies, the ultra-processed stuff--are the worst offenders of Sneaky Package Shrink. Hello, "100 calorie" packaging. Loaf bread has been mostly air and preservatives for years.

But even supposedly healthy things, like juice, are cutting back on the amount of actual juice in the product, cutting back the package size, and then adding extra sugar and water to disguise the difference.

If it has more than one ingredient, it's processed. Don't buy it if you don't have to.

2. The best way to accurately gauge what you're getting is to look at the unit price. Even if you're buying a 25-lb bag of flour from Costco, sometimes the per-pound price is cheaper at the supermarket (especially if you hit a sale). Bring a calculator with you to the store.

For example:

A 14.5 oz can of corn divided by its price of $1.59 equals 9.11 cents per ounce.

But a 5-lb bag of frozen corn divided by its price of $3.80 equals 4.75 cents per ounce (5 lbs x 16 oz in a pound = 80 oz).

You're better off buying the big bag (plus you're not paying for the water in the can).

Unless the can of corn goes on sale for 69 cents or less. Sometimes the generic can of corn is already that cheap. Then you're getting a better deal, per ounce of corn.

Yes, you will have to do math in the store. It sucks. I hate it too. That's one of the main reasons I quit buying things in packages. (That, plus Proctor & Gamble doesn't need any of my hard-earned money.)

Yes, I know raisins sell for $1.59 a pound in the bulk bin, but in the snack aisle, they're sold in sets of 6 56-gram boxes. Stores do that on purpose to confuse you.

3. Pay attention to how much you're using. Look at ultra-concentrated laundry detergent; they sell it in smaller bottles, knowing full well that most people will use a full cap regardless of the instructions. Meaning they sell more laundry detergent, at higher prices.

Don't use more than you have to. You won't need more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste to get your teeth clean; you don't need more than a couple tablespoons of detergent to get a load of clothes or a load of dishes clean; you don't need to use three paper towels to clean a window when one will do (better yet, you can clean windows with vinegar and old newspaper, thereby negating having to buy Windex and paper towels at all).

4. Double-check. Not all 10-lb. bags of potatoes actually contain 10 lbs of potatoes. Some contain 9.2 lbs. Some contain 10.5. You'll need to weigh a few to figure out which bag contains the most potatoes.

Double-check your receipt, too. At least 1 of every 5 "sale items" I've ever purchased rang up at the original, non-sale price. Of course it was up to me to spot the error and go back to the customer service desk and wait in line to get my refund. Supermarkets do that on purpose, figuring most people won't bother. And they're right. But it adds up--what seems like a trivial amount to you becomes hundreds and thousands of extra dollars for the supermarket. Over time, it becomes hundreds and thousands of dollars out of your pocket, too.

5. Teach your kids to spot this stuff, too. Most adults don't pay attention to package shrink, because they never learned to. Just like most adults don't know how to cook--they were never taught how to cook. Or how to do their taxes by hand. Or how to sew on a button. Or how to change a tire.

But you catch my drift.

Self-sufficiency is always better--and cheaper--than the alternative.