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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Thank you all for your kind words on my last post. It’s so easy for that feeling of discomfort and awkwardness to spread until it’s stained every bit of me with self-loathing. I seriously never thought to consider my attempts to be friendly as… progress. I will try to do so from now on.

In the month since I wrote it, well. Life has gone on. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it heartbreaking, the regular amalgam of living. And, listen, I don’t really want to talk about any of the reasons I might have needed comfort during that time period. (It’s nothing serious, although it felt like it was. In any event, everything is fine.) Today, I just want to talk about the comfort part.

What I turn to, when I need comfort, are distractions (reading, writing, TV) and comforting food. And the food is what I’m most interested in today, because I find it fascinating (and soothing, in itself) to learn what kinds of food people turn to in times of stress or grief.

Sure, food is primarily for sustenance. But it can also carry so much emotional weight. (No moral weight, though; I feel strongly about that.) (Unless you are killing endangered species because their XYZ is a delicacy. Then I’d have a moral objection.)  For instance, my first helping instinct is often related to food. When a neighbor lost her husband earlier this year, I immediately wanted to give her a meal. That just seemed the most useful, reasonable thing I could do, to provide some modicum of comfort to a person I know but don’t know well, a person who was likely reeling with shock and heartache and visitors and logistics and grief.

I looked online, as one does, and was surprised – probably naively so – to see what a wide variety of options people recommended. I always thought a casserole was the appropriate thing to give. A nice, hearty macaroni casserole. Or a lasagna. Something like that: easy to heat, carb-heavy. But the recommendations spanned everything from veggies and dip to cookies to fried chicken to stew.

(I ended up making a stew. It was delicious, and hearty. The death happened in the winter, and I thought it would be good for freezing or ladling out to visitors.)

Lately, after needing some comfort myself, and then remembering that stew, I got to thinking about Food As Comfort in general, and how my idea of Comfort Food might be totally different from yours.

When I am in need of comfort, I turn to the carb-heavy stuff. Chicken paprikas is my go-to favorite. It’s creamy and noodle-y and spicy, and it just makes me feel warm and cared for. It’s kind of weird that it should be my top favorite comfort food, I think, because I didn’t grow up eating it. Instead, it’s something my husband and I started making together back when I was in grad school. Well, maybe that’s the reason: I associate it with him, with cozy dinners at home together with the one person who comforts me more than anyone else.

Sometimes, though, the comfort I need is more primal – a bear returning to its cave to weather the icy winds, a newborn nuzzling up to its mother to nurse, a caterpillar spinning itself a chrysalis. I want to retreat to childhood, which was safe and loving, during which I was free from the horrors of the world. And there are many foods from my childhood that surround me with that kind of basic, fundamental warmth.

One comforting favorite is spaghetti with meat sauce. That’s the first meal I learned to make for my family, back when I was a kid. It reminds me of my childhood and of my own self-sufficiency.

Most recently, I turned to bagels. Another longterm favorite, my mom used to toast Lender’s bagels for me when I was a kid. Dripping with butter, they taste both decadent and simple, life’s complications reduced to its elemental truth: Warm bread. Melted butter. Sometimes honey, making its way in sticky rivulets down my wrist. When I was pregnant with Carla – and horribly sick for twenty-five weeks (I first typed “months” and yes, that’s how it felt) – I subsisted on bagels and pizza. The bagels would stay in my stomach when nothing else would.

Grilled cheese holds a special place in my heart. It was my mother’s go-to Miserable Wintry Day food. A crust of butter on each slice of bread. A thick molten heart of Velveeta. A glass of classic Coke on the side. The unbeatable combination of gooeyness and crunch.

And I’ll always have fond memories of Lipton noodle soup. My mom swears by chicken noodle soup; Lipton did the job just fine, and (a plus for me), has no unappealing chunks of white Styrofoam masquerading as chicken. I tore open many a paper packet and watched the tiny freeze-dried noodles plump up in a swirl of boiling water.

The comfort may not be permanent. But it does help.

What are your go-to comfort foods?

 

Chicken Paprikas 3

This is a ridiculous photo, but it’s the only one I have. I never eat this little. I eat a FULL BOWL, primarily full of sauce, which is the best part of any meal. 

Chicken Paprikas (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

Ingredients:

Approximately 6 servings

1 to 1½ pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast, chopped into bite sized pieces (pre-cooked is ideal; I’ve included a modification below in case you want to use raw chicken breast)

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 white onion, chopped roughly

1 Idaho potato, chopped roughly

1 to 3 Tbsp paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

½ to 1 tsp salt

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 8-oz container sour cream (I use the fat free sour cream from Trader Joe’s)

3 to 4 Tbsp flour or cornstarch

1 package egg noodles

Directions:

  1. Heat vegetable oil in a stock pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion and paprika (and optional cayenne) to vegetable oil, stirring occasionally, until dark red and glossy.
  3. Add salt, chopped chicken breast, and chicken stock. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the chopped potato. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until you can stick a fork into the potato chunks and they slide off easily. I don’t know how to say this a better way; make sure the potato is cooked.

* If you have raw chicken breast pieces, you can do this step slightly differently. Add the raw chicken together with the salt and stock. Then, once it comes to a boil, simmer everything for 15 minutes until cooked through. Then add the potato and cook for another 15 minutes.

  1. Whisk flour/cornstarch and sour cream together in a small bowl.
  2. Add a ladle full of the stock mixture to the sour cream mixture and whisk until incorporated. Do this three times.
  3. Add the tempered sour cream mixture to the pot. Stir.
  4. Serve over egg noodles.
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Every year for the past… many years, I’ve ditched alcohol for the month of January. So many people do this, the month even has a silly nickname (Dry-nuary). I do it because I tend to go overboard during the holidays. With family around, it’s very easy for me to get into the habit of having wine or a cocktail every day. And for me, I prefer to keep my alcohol intake to two or three days a week; I don’t have any specific reasons; I guess it’s fewer calories, it’s less expensive, and I just feel better (I am Morning Headache After Drinking One Glass of Wine years old, after all). But the problem – for me – with doing something every day is that it becomes a habit. I am a very routine-based person, so when I’m enjoying the holidays with a fancy cocktail every night, it doesn’t take long before a normal Tuesday feels like it requires a gin and tonic. Taking a month off helps me reset my mental and physiological expectations.

In April, I decided to apply the same principle to sugar.

Let’s be clear: I don’t have anything against sugar. I enjoy it. As with pretty much anything, I am totally fine with it in moderation. But I was no longer doing a good job of moderating. Sugar had become a habit. After every single meal, I kid you not, I found myself thinking, “Hmmm. I could go for something sweet right now.” I was eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup with my almonds and tea for breakfast. Which is a delicious breakfast, by the way. And I am not OPPOSED to having a Reese’s peanut butter cup for breakfast. What I am opposed to is my body’s willfulness and my mind’s lack of will power. I don’t like being bossed around by my cravings for sugar. I want to be in charge, and if I want to have a Reese’s peanut butter cup for breakfast, fine. But if I don’t want one, I don’t want my body to protest and whine and pout and wheedle until I give into the badgering.

So I decided to give it up. Just for a month, just to see if I could do a hard reset on my expectations. I got my husband on board (this was important) and I roped Carla in and on April 1, we gorged ourselves on sugar (because it was Easter) and the next day we gave it up. Cold turkey. (Well, except for Carla. She still ate PB&J for lunches, and pancakes with syrup at breakfast, and when friends brought donuts for brunch one day, we let her have one so she wasn’t the only kid who couldn’t eat a donut.)

In an admittedly half-assed way, I tried to do some research before we started. Based on some of the things I’d read, we crafted our own Sugar Free plan. We weren’t doing it for health reasons, so there was no need to be super strict. Which meant that we defined “No Sugar” as “no artificial sweeteners, no added sugar, no sweets.” We continued to consume milk products, fruit, and things like pasta and rice. (We also continued to consume things like ketchup and barbecue sauce and a few other things that probably had sugar as an ingredient. But those instances were pretty rare; I even avoided recipes where sugar was an ingredient in the marinade or the sauce.)

Most of the major differences for me were a) getting rid of the morning Reese’s cup (and maybe an afternoon spoonful of cookie dough here and there), b) eliminating my normal sweet creamer from my morning tea and c) cutting out all the diet soda I was drinking (usually one but sometimes two a day).  And of course, I stopped eating dessert.

To really jumpstart things, I did the first three days without any milk or fruit, too. On the fourth day, I added one piece of fruit (if I wanted it) and milk back into my day, and I also drank a glass of red wine in the evening if I felt like it.

The first week was BRUTAL. I thought about sweets all day every day. After every meal, my body would send up this internal notification: Ping! Feed me something sweet! Ping! I need candy! Ping! Ice cream needed urgently! Every time I was online, I was looking at recipes for cookies or cakes or pies. I was desperate for a Diet Coke. I transferred all my desire for sweets onto carbs, and found myself wanting bread and pasta more often than normal (which is already, at baseline, a lot). Instead of eating dessert after dinner, I’d prowl around trying to stem the craving with something else: almonds, Triscuits, tortilla chips. We bought cartloads of dried fruit (no sugar added) from Trader Joe’s. I once ate an entire bag of dried apples in one sitting.

The second week was less brutal but still pretty rough. I usually drink black tea with a hefty slug of sweetened creamer. Black tea with milk was NOTHING like black tea with sweetened creamer. I switched to green tea. Then to matcha lattes with whole milk. I drank a lot of water. I hated every sip of every drink. It was nice to drink the red wine at night; that helped stem some of the dessert cravings. But I longed for a glass of sweet Riesling or even prosecco. I thought a lot about fizzy, ice cold Coca Cola in a tall glass, ice cubes clinking together, the bubbles effervescing on my tongue.

Week three, something clicked. I no longer wanted anything sweet. I went to a birthday party and a beautiful piece of birthday cake was set in front of me and I did not take a bite or have any desire to do so. I didn’t even smell it. It was a completely neutral presence. My internal sweets notification alarm had either deactivated or been turned down so low I could barely hear it.  I still had the occasional craving for Diet Coke, but even that was less frequent.

Week four passed quickly and smoothly. My husband and I agreed that the worst part of the sugar restriction was the liquid portion of our diets, and we started to split a packet of sweetener to add to our respective coffee and tea each morning. That helped immensely. Water no longer became a chore to drink. At night, I’d sometimes still have a phantom dessert thought flicker through my brain – “Hmmm, wouldn’t it be nice to have something sweet?” – but I couldn’t ever transfer that general desire to something specific. If I rummaged around in the pantry or fridge, I could never even find something I wanted. I stopped gorging on almonds and chips and crackers to fill the sweets void.

April 30 was our last day of the No Sugar Month. I think I can safely say that I eliminated my sugar cravings. To tell you the truth, I’m glad that’s the reason we did the No Sugar Month, because we didn’t experience any of the other supposed benefits. One thing I heard from a lot of people about giving up sugar is that they lost a ton of weight. My husband and I did not experience that. I lost two pounds right away and then stayed pretty stagnant. It’s possible that if we decided to use it as a weight loss technique, we would have approached it differently (less fruit, for instance).  I’d also heard that it would improve my skin. Nope. That has not happened. And that I’d begin to taste the natural sweetness in foods (bell peppers, fruit) that I’d never experienced before. Nope. Everything tasted the same. (Well, except milk. That began to taste sweet to me.) If I had given up sugar for a month because I wanted some of these other benefits, I would have been pretty annoyed. Of course, we weren’t as stringent as we could have been, so that probably has a lot to do with it.

Now that I’m done… I’m not sure where to go from here. I would certainly enjoy my morning tea more if I could add some sugar or some honey. I don’t really want to go back to my sweetened creamer. I swapped out my normal raspberry yogurt with plain Fage topped with pomegranate seeds, and I suppose I don’t really want to spend my life’s savings on pomegranate seeds anymore, so maybe I’ll switch back. I am delighted that I no longer want my afternoon soda, or my post-breakfast Reese’s cup, or my post-dinner whatever.

But I also really want to go get ice cream with Carla when the weather gets nice. And I want to make cookies with her. And I want to bake her a big sugary birthday cake with lots of sugary frosting. So I think we are going to resume eating sugar, just at a much lower level than before. We want to try to keep sweets to once a week. That way, they’ll really be treats rather than a regular part of our diet.

Time will tell, I suppose! Hopefully a month of no sugar has at least enabled me to enjoy sugar in moderation.

(Of course, you know what I did the very first day of May right? Cupcake for breakfast. And a huge glass of Coke for dinner.)

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I woke up at five this morning after dreaming something ridiculous that I won’t go into here. (It wasn’t salacious, sadly. Just odd.) The key part was that my husband was somehow melded into my high school boyfriend in that weird way of dreams. So that when I woke up my brain decided to replay in gory detail how awful I was to said boyfriend when I went away to college. There’s nothing I can do about it now, and also I don’t think it was really THAT bad, and also we were friendly years afterwards so I don’t think there are lasting scars on his end, plus we are both married and I haven’t thought about him in countless months. But thank you, brain, for steeping me in shame at so early an hour so I can bask in it all day long.

Last night I made an excellent recipe for zucchini noodles. Let me state for the record here that I have no patience for foods masquerading as other foods. I love zucchini, and therefore I enjoy zucchini noodles (although in their noodleishness they are difficult to eat). But I’m not going to try to convince you that they are a good or even fair approximation of noodles themselves. I’m not going to replace them in my recipe for spaghetti and meat sauce, for instance. I am not going to dress them with cheese and pretend they bear any resemblance to macaroni and cheese. They are not noodles. They are zucchini in noodle form. If you don’t like zucchini, you will probably not enjoy them. I discovered this the hard way, by trying cauliflower rice a few years ago. NEVER AGAIN, Internet. Never again. I don’t like cauliflower and spending nearly an hour rasping it against a box grater and getting cauliflower shards all over my kitchen did not change that in the least. I keep hearing about cauliflower mashed potatoes and cauliflower pizza crust and while I am intrigued, I am NOT going to fall for it. STOP PRETENDING, cauliflower. Just be who you are.

ANYWAY. The recipe I tried last night is really good, but it is good in a zucchini way. If you like zucchini you should try it: Easy 10 Minute Asian Zucchini Noodles from Gimme Delicious.

What do you do when you find a recipe you like, and you want to try it again? I’m really curious, by the way. Do you have a list on your phone? A folder on your desktop? A physical file folder into which you stow printed recipes?

I really want to know, because I haven’t found a good system.

As pretty much sole cook for our household, this is the kind of boring thing I spend a lot of time thinking about. As I’ve mentioned previously, we eat a lot of meals that look like Chicken + Vegetable. That is a combination that gets boring realllllllllly quickly, so I am always on the lookout for new, delicious ways to shake up the boring. But there are three problems I’ve run into:

  1. What is the best way to keep track of recipes that look good but I haven’t tried?
  2. What is the best way to separately track recipes that I have tried and want to use again?
  3. What is the best way to avoid re-making a recipe that I have tried and was terrible?

Okay, maybe they are three variations on the same problem. What it comes down to is that I need some sort of filing system. One that is more efficient and comprehensive and located in one, easy-to-access spot than what I currently use.

What I do now is a combination of things. First, I have a folder on my laptop where I bookmark recipes that I want to try. Since I follow a bunch of food blogs on Feedly, it’s really easy for me to put things into my Recipes folder.

But it’s super unwieldy. I have SO MANY recipes. And there’s no rhyme or reason to them, either. Chicken dishes and veggie sides and frosting recipes and how-to posts for making rainbow layer cakes and the best marinades for steak are all jumbled together in the same folder, and many of those are recipes I’ve tried and either liked or NOT.

Meal planning 3

This blog post is chock FULL of really boring, really poorly lit and off-kilter photos! I know my photography skillz keep you coming back!

You may be thinking, Why not just go in and set up some additional folders? And you would be smart for thinking that, and also I tried that and it isn’t working. First, I had been collecting recipes for about a year before I went in and tried to organize them, so it was already a jumbled mess. Second, the organization tools at my disposal are not particularly user friendly. I can’t easily grab a recipe or ten and drag and drop them into the Veggie Sides folder, for instance. Getting things into the appropriate folder involves a lot of scrolling and it is tedious and time consuming. Third, I still run into the issue of what to do with things I’ve already tried. Sure, I could set up a sub-folder in each category for Make Again and Don’t Make Again… but that gets to be even more unwieldy and also I am kind of lazy.

Meal planning 4

To the left is an example of what’s inside one of my folders. Supposedly, this contains favorite recipes that I should return to again and again. This is the first time I’ve opened this folder in many months, so it’s not really working as planned. Also, you may notice that I occasionally (okay, more often than reasonable) bookmark something I’ve already bookmarked. I REALLY need a better system.

PLUS, I am not always on my computer doing stuff. I do a lot of recipe finding on my phone. So I have a folder of recipes on my phone, too… and getting them to my computer is not simple. I really need a system that works across devices.

The best part of my system is my weekly dinner plan email. Each week before I go grocery shopping, I create an email to myself that lists all the meals and includes links to online recipes. Sometimes I’ll open the email a few days in advance, if I already know that I’ll be making something specific, or if it’s a week where I’m feeding people beyond my own immediate family. I always reply to the previous week’s dinner email, so there’s a single record of everything I’ve ever planned to eat since March of 2017 when I started it.

Then, after the week’s meals, I try to write notes to myself about what worked and what didn’t. So after last night’s zucchini noodles success, I responded the email and wrote, DELICIOUS! MAKE AGAIN.

This email is also really useful for any modifications I do to a recipe. For instance, last year I found this Martha Stewart recipe for crockpot garlic chicken that sounded so good, but wasn’t. But instead of giving up on it, I kept tinkering with it until I got it right. And I put those notes to myself in my dinner planning email. If I get any feedback on the recipe from my husband, I put those in the notes. So it’s all there in one place.

Meal Planning 2

I first tried the Martha Stewart recipe in May of 2017. My reaction was that it was too sweet. Hot tip: “More lemon juice” can solve most of the world’s ills. At least foodwise.

Dinner Planning Email 1

Here is where I recorded the modifications that made the Martha Stewart recipe not only edible but delicious. Ah memories. This is also the day when I discovered my husband — whom I’ve known for SEVENTEEN YEARS — doesn’t really like soup.

(Sometimes, when I have the wherewithal, I post the modified recipe here. Like with the “chicken tikka masala” recipe I revamped to suit my own needs. It got to be too annoying to look at the original recipe and try to remember what I changed each time I made it.)

So my meal planning email is the best part of my meal planning system. But it’s not perfect. Sometimes I have to scroll and scroll through old emails to find what I’m looking for. And, because I haven’t mastered the art of organizing what I haven’t tried, I tend to go back to the same things over and over.

I’ve contemplated doing a weekly meal plan blog post. Many bloggers do this, and I always enjoy reading them. And I could always add notes to myself in the comments. But again, this does nothing for the stacks and stacks of recipes I have yet to try.

There’s got to be an app that handles this, right? But I don’t want to look for and evaluate and try a bunch of them. And honestly, thinking about moving all my carefully curated but as-yet-untried recipes to a new place sounds exhausting. But I WANT something better and I suppose I am willing to do a certain amount of work to make it happen.

How do YOU keep track of what you’re cooking? What’s working and what isn’t? Have you come across a magic app that does it all? If you have a meal planning and tracking system you love, I am HERE FOR IT.

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Well. Two months just sped by bloglessly, didn’t they? I suppose that is a good indication of my current writing habits, which have been fruitful. Just not… blog-fruitful.

Anyway, let me ease back into blogging by posting about a few things that I am LOVING lately. If you have read this blog for any amount of time, I don’t think you’ll be surprised that most of them are food-related. What can I say? I love to eat.

Silicone Clip Strainer

Fave Things Clip Strainer Amazon

Photo from Amazon.com

You know how I love my kitchen gadgets! Well, one of my deep dark secrets is that I hate colanders. They are big and bulky. And, worse, I think they are kind of gross. I don’t like the idea of putting my just-cooked food into a sink that may have not been scrubbed since the previous evening. My colander – one of those big silver jobbers – even has a foot, so the food can’t touch the sink. But the drained water can rise up to above-foot level, or, even if it doesn’t, there’s always the risk that some sink-y water will drip into the pot when you pour your strained food back in. YES I KNOW I HAVE ISSUES. Anyway. My husband got this little guy for me for Christmas and I adore it. It clips on to any pot and allows you to pour out all the water without dumping your pasta/potatoes/broccoli/whatever in the sink. It’s very easy to use and I just throw it right in the dishwasher after I’m done with it. The one caveat I have is that the strainer is markedly smaller – covers less of the pot opening – than some of the Amazon photo options imply. It still works, though. Totally worth $7.99.

 

El Yucateco Chile Habanero Hot Sauce

Fave Things El Yucateco Walmart

Photo from Walmart.com

This is my (current) favorite hot sauce. I love hot sauce. It is my condiment of choice and when I use it, I use a LOT of it. My pantry has Sriracha, Cholula, La Victoria, and usually some fancy-dancy specialty hot sauces that my super romantic husband bought me as a surprise. (If you don’t consider getting surprise hot sauce super romantic, well, then, it’s good you didn’t marry me.) I fell in love with El Yucateco at our local Mexican restaurant – which is much too delicious, inexpensive, and close for my desired pants size. “Fell in love” is probably too mild a term. I became obsessed. In some ways, it feels like I am addicted to it: I think about it when I’m not eating it. I crave it. When I use it, I use wayyyyy more than is necessary. It makes my stomach hurt the next day, I consume so much. But it is wonderful. It’s got plenty of heat but it also has a nice, semi-fruity flavor. It goes really well with cheese enchiladas and burritos. I get it at my local grocery store for $4.99 an 8-ounce bottle, so it’s not an inexpensive habit. Apparently, you can get it at Wal-Not-Target for $1.84, but that’s for 4 ounces. Otherwise known as one meal. Or you can buy it by the case on the El Yucateco website. Which I am seriously considering.

 

Recipe Tin Eats

My husband and I eat a lot of chicken and pork, and it is exhausting trying to find new, delicious ways to mask the blandness that is a boneless skinless chicken breast, I tell you. Enter Recipe Tin Eats. Cue angels singing, champagne popping, balloons everywhere. I have tried maybe ten recipes that Nagi has posted, and man alive they are GOOD. She has such a great way with flavors! And the recipes are all very simple. And she includes very careful notes with each recipe, letting you know about substitutions and cooking variations and how to make it in advance.

Two that have become regulars in our rotation are her Oven Baked Pork Chops (I have been replacing the potatoes with green beans or broccoli lately), which has a marinade that I love so much I actively prevent myself from making it more than once a month so we won’t get sick of it, and her Asian Marinated Chicken, which has another super-easy, super-delicious marinade that I love. Other favorites that I see us making again and again include her One Pot Greek Chicken and Lemon Rice, her Chicken with Mushroom Gravy, her Lemon Garlic Marinated Pork Chops, and her Chicken Fajitas (the fajitas are on my meal plan for this week, in fact).

 

Trader Joe’s Green Goddess Dressing

This is a brand-new discovery (for me), and I am really excited about it. I enjoy a salad now and again, but I tend to avoid them because I really like dressing. A lot of dressing. And dressing isn’t usually worth it for me, in terms of calorie intake. But I spotted this Green Goddess dressing near the lettuce at our Trader Joe’s and snapped it up on a whim. Turns out it is delicious. Light and summery, not terribly avocado-y, and thicker than I expected it to be (almost the same texture/thickness of a restaurant-made salsa). I can’t remember how much it cost, but I think it was something like $4.99. Which is NOT inexpensive. But at 20 calories for a 2-tablespoon serving, it is totally worth it. Trader Joe’s makes a couple of other flavors, too – a carrot ginger miso dressing and an almond butter turmeric dressing – but I haven’t tried either of those.

 

New Adventures of Old Christine

Fave Things Christine Amazon

Photo from Amazon.com

My treadmill is somehow messing up the Internet in our house, which means that I can no longer watch Netflix or DVRed shows or even cable TV while I’m chipping away at my step goal for the day. So I have been making my way through old DVDs we bought in Ye Olden Times. I already churned through Arrested Development, which doesn’t stand up to the test of time in a lot of ways (some of the humor is centered around stuff that isn’t really funny these days). Okay, some of it is still REALLY funny. But it wasn’t as great as my memory of it. I also own the complete series of Ally McBeal, so I am forcing myself to watch that even though it’s driving me crazy. The music, the characters, the situations – I roll my eyes so hard I almost fall off the treadmill at least thirty times per episode. And I HATE BILLY. Well. That is a rant for another time.

But I have found a new, deep appreciation for the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine. I had the first season already and have since ordered seasons two and three. Seasons three through five are much more expensive than I had hoped for years-old DVD sets, but I have some additional Amazon gift cards that make buying them more palatable. (I haven’t looked for this series at the library, but our library’s DVDs – especially ones that are a few years old – are notoriously scratched and beat up and I think I would cry if I had settled in for a long morning of treadmilling and my Christine DVD stopped working.) My realizations as I watch have been a) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hamish Linklater, and Wanda Sykes are national treasures; and b) damn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has incredible hair.

If you haven’t seen it, the show is a comedy about Christine Campbell and her life as a recently-divorced working mother. It centers around her relationships – with her ex-husband, his new girlfriend (also named Christine), her brother, her best friend slash business partner, the other parents at school, and a variety of men she dates. Her son is in there somewhere too, but he’s more of a plot device than a real character. I fear I am not describing this in an appealing way, but it’s really appealing! It’s funny and absurd and heartfelt at times but not in an over way. And it puts a hilarious twist on Mom-Type-Things (taking your kid to school, dealing with other moms, volunteering for school projects, balancing work and home life, etc.) and there’s also all the stuff about handling a divorce and dating and dealing with your ex’s new young girlfriend. It’s much more relatable to me, now that I’m a mom with a kid in school. I laugh – truly, heartily, out loud – a lot while I’m walking nowhere. And even though it’s a comedy – and much of it is really ridiculous – I find myself feeling deep empathy for Christine. It’s not perfect; again, humor has evolved over the past decade. But it’s making my treadmill time much more enjoyable and I would definitely recommend it.

 

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Conditioning Spray

 

 

Fave Things Fairy Tales

Photo from Amazon.com

Kidwise, this spray is making life MUCH easier lately. For both me and Carla, I would say. Carla has long curly hair which means that every morning our neighbors pick up their phones and prepare to call the police and report a murder in progress. We’d been using the Johnson & Johnson conditioning spray, and it worked okay. But then a friend recommended the Fairy Tales spray and OUR LIVES HAVE FOREVER CHANGED. I can’t speak to the fact that this conditioning spray repels lice or not (we haven’t had any, but I’m not falling for confirmation bias) (if confirmation bias is the term I am looking for; I am not convinced that it is). But I can tell you that it makes combing Carla’s hair SO EASY. And if I comb it with the spray at night, her hair is much easier to brush in the morning, too. (The link above goes to a two-pack, because the single bottle of spray isn’t available. But I have, in the past, bought the single bottle of spray, so I hope it comes back.)

 

(By the way, no one paid me to say any of those things above. These are just some things I really enjoy lately.)

What’s making your life brighter/better/more fun these days?

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I love pretty much everything about Indian food. The flavors. The rice. The naan. The abundance of sauce. But of course, getting Indian takeout every night or even once a week is not particularly practical.

So I have been trying for YEARS to make an appropriate substitute at home. I’ve tried all the simmer sauces you can get from the grocery store. I’ve tried so many recipes for chicken tikka masala that they have all sort of begun to run together.

But then I tried this recipe for Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala from The Kitchn and I fell in love.

Chicken tikka masala 1

You can make it at home IN YOUR CROCKPOT, which is pretty much the holy grail of cooking experiences for me. It’s flavorful and satisfying and – even though it doesn’t taste quite the same as food from your local Indian restaurant – it scratches that itch for spicy, creamy, saucy Indian food that I get every few weeks or so. Plus, it’s another way to dress up boring old chicken breasts – and I am always looking for new ways to eat chicken breasts.

While this recipe is HEAVILY influenced by The Kitchn’s version, I have tweaked it over the past year enough that I am always wondering exactly how much Indian red chile I should use and sometimes forgetting the fenugreek altogether and then wondering why it tastes off, and I have gotten to the point where I need the Real Thing written down somewhere.

One thing I will say is that this doesn’t result in anything resembling chicken tikka masala – at least not any chicken tikka masala I’ve ever had. It would be more accurately described, I think, as an Indian-style curry. So if you are hoping that this will taste just like the tikka masala from your favorite Indian takeaway, you will probably be disappointed. Just letting you know, so you don’t feel misled!

Also, I like things SPICY. So if you do follow this recipe, keep that in mind, and adjust the Indian red chile and the hot chili peppers as necessary.

There are two other things I will say in warning before I type up the recipe:

  • This recipe requires quite a few spices. And I have to say, I cook dinner probably six nights a week and I only use the Indian red chile and the fenugreek for this recipe. I have never used them in another recipe. So I don’t know if it would be worthwhile to buy them on the off chance that this recipe becomes a regular part of your rotation. That said, The Kitchn’s version does not call for either of those spices, which means you can just leave them out, if you want to. I think they help add a more “authentic” flavor to the dish, but they certainly aren’t indispensable.
  • My favorite way to make this is to do the prep work in the morning while Carla is eating breakfast (the chicken and the yogurt, measuring out all the spices, chopping the ginger and the onion) and then doing the sautéing step at lunchtime. Then I throw everything into the slow cooker at about one o’clock and let it cook until dinner. If your plan is to have the crockpot work while you’re at work, this obviously won’t do. So you may need to start the night before.

Slow Cooker Indian-Style Curry

4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size chunks (Note: You can certainly use chicken thighs instead if that’s what floats your boat.)
  • 1 cup fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 tsp garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp ground Indian red chile
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seed, ground
  • 1 28-oz can tomato puree (Note: If you like chunks of actual tomatoes in your food, you could use a 28-oz can of diced tomatoes instead.)
  • 3/4 cup canned light coconut milk (Note: Scrape off the solid part of the coconut milk into your measuring cup first, then fill out the rest of the 3/4 cup with the liquid.)
  • 2 15-oz cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 bell peppers, cut into strips
  • 1 chili pepper (jalapeno or serrano)
  • Fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 cups cooked rice, to serve (Note: I prefer basmati rice.)
Chicken tikka masala ingredients 1

The ginger looks weird because it’s frozen, and the garlic looks weird because it came from a jar. I bought the Indian red chiles whole and ground them myself in a spice grinder.

Not pictured: chickpeas

Directions:

  1. After cutting your chicken breasts into bite-size chunks, marinate them in the yogurt for an hour or so.

I just put the chicken into a bowl, toss with the yogurt, cover with plastic wrap, and stow in the fridge for a few hours. You could probably do this the night before you make the dish, if you want to press “cook” right before you go to work. But I can’t remember if I’ve tried that, and I don’t know if the yogurt has any sort of adverse impact on the chicken if they sit together that long. Proceed at your own risk is what I’m saying.

  1. Sauté the chopped onion, garlic, and ground fenugreek in the olive oil over medium-high heat until the onion becomes translucent and soft.
  2. Add ginger, tomato paste, and spices to the onion and garlic mixture. Cook until the mixture is fragrant, stirring frequently to prevent it from sticking to the pan.
  3. Add the onion and spice mixture to the bottom of your slow cooker.
  4. Add the chicken and yogurt to the onion mix in the slow cooker.
  5. Add tomato puree to slow cooker. Use about a quarter cup of water to “rinse” out the tomato puree can, and add water and remaining puree to slow cooker.
  6. Stir everything together, then cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours. (Note: I don’t think I have ever cooked chicken breast for 8 hours. Make sure whatever meat you use comes up to the correct temperature, which I am not remembering at this time but which you can find elsewhere online.)

Sometimes I do a combination of the two: I will cook on low for 4 or 5 hours, then on high for another hour or two, just to thicken things up a bit.

  1. Fifteen minutes before the end of cooking, stir in the coconut milk and chickpeas.
  2. You can add the sliced bell peppers at this time, too, depending on how soft you like them. (I like my bell peppers to have some crunch to them, so I put them on top of my rice and then add the hot curry to the bowl so that they are just warmed through as I eat them.) If you aren’t a bell pepper fan, you could try green beans, peas, broccoli, zucchini, or any other veggies that strike your fancy.
  3. Serve over rice.
  4. Garnish with sliced chili peppers and cilantro. (Obviously, this is optional.)

Chicken tikka masala 3

I feel like this recipe seems more complicated than it is. The sautéing beforehand is kind of a pain in the rear, I won’t lie, but it’s very quick. Probably takes five to ten minutes of actual cooking. And I cheat with the garlic and ginger: We use ginger so often, I have a Ziploc bag full of diced ginger in my freezer that I dip into for this recipe. And I use jarred garlic, which is perfectly adequate for this recipe put those eyebrows back where they belong. Plus, the onion can be roughly diced; no one’s going to measure the pieces to make sure they’re even. So that part really doesn’t take more than another five minutes. Add in five minutes to track down and measure all the spices, and you’re looking at 20 minutes of prep time, and that’s allowing for a minute of staring into the fridge wondering what you opened the fridge to get, and forgetting that your cutting board is in the dishwasher so you have to wash it really quickly, and having to open a brand-new jar of garlic because your old jar is depleted WHAT. It is a delightful time saver and I will not apologize for it.

The chicken, of course, is another matter. I hate websites and people who recommend doing all your prep work the instant you get home from the grocery store, because who wants to do that once you’ve just expended all that energy GROCERY SHOPPING? Not me.

But it does help, grumble grumble. I plan out what I’m going to cook for the week, and then when I am being Super Productive, I will trim and freeze my meat in whatever marinade I’m using. I label the Ziploc with the contents and where the recipe lives online, and then I have waged half the battle when it comes time to actually cook the stuff.

So for this recipe, I would cut up the chicken breasts on Day 1, and then the night before I plan to make this meal, I would remove the chicken from the freezer and throw my cup of yogurt into the Ziploc to marinate as the chicken thaws in my fridge overnight. Then it’s ready to go.

Well, no matter how much I love this recipe, it’s only going to make it into your rotation if it works for you. So I will stop trying to shove it down your metaphorical throat. Maybe you can come over for dinner next time I make it, and see for yourself.

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When I left for the grocery store yesterday, I was feeling pretty smug. My freezer is FULL of meat, which is generally the most expensive item on my shopping list, and I’d come up with a meal plan that required only a small package of beef for stir frying. So I was feeling confident that my grocery bill would be nice and low.

Well, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, higher than normal. As I was doing Lamaze-style breathing while the checker scanned and scanned and scanned, my GAWD haven’t you reached the divider between my groceries and the next person’s yet?, I kept soothing myself with this thought: But they’re STAPLES.

I’d hit the trifecta of 1) Lots of fresh fruit at decent prices, and 2) Lots of good sales on Things We Always Need, and 3) Needing to buy more of things we’d either just run out of, or were close to running out of.

The woman behind me had a full cart, too. And it was kind of interesting to see the things that she was buying, in comparison to the things that I was buying. For instance, she had two gallons of milk (I buy a quart every… whatever the lifespan of a quart of milk is), a bunch of boxes of bran cereal, Thousand Island dressing, a big bag of pre-washed spinach, and a watermelon (among other things; I tend not to take thorough notes while poking through someone else’s grocery cart). I would never buy watermelon! I have only purchased spinach a few times! It’s so fun to see how different our lives are from other people’s!

It’s fun to think about what other people consider “staples.” Outside of flour and salt and olive oil, or whatever. Recently, I mentioned that half-and-half is a staple in our house, and Swistle, in the comments, noted that half-and-half is a staple in her home as well. And so I’ve been kind of wondering, what are the staples at YOUR house?

Here’s what they are in mine…

Produce: My husband eats a banana every morning, so I buy those every week. My daughter LOVES fruit, so I buy whatever is in season and least expensive. (Although yesterday I kind of went crazy, buying strawberries AND blueberries AND cherries, and I PLEDGE TO THE INTERNET GODS THAT I WILL WASH AND FORCE MY FAMILY TO EAT EVERY LAST MORSEL.) We eat a lot of broccoli and green beans as sides, so they’re usually on the list. Same goes for iceberg lettuce, which is (probably, I haven’t done any tests) nutritionally meaningless, and yet I can’t quit it. And onions, potatoes, and lemons are super versatile, so I buy them most trips to the grocery store, unless we’re flush with them for some reason.

Dairy: Shredded cheese is totally a staple around here. We eat tacos maybe once a week, and I like to make pizzas for lunch. My husband eats yogurt every day for lunch, so I’m always loading up on yogurt when there’s a good sale. Carla eats yogurt fairly regularly, but then sometimes she’ll boycott yogurt completely, and it’s impossible to tell what the next day will hold, so I buy a lot of the yogurt pouches you can freeze. They are super expensive, so when they are on sale I grab a ton. Half-and-half and sour cream are also staples.

Frozen: Carla, for some reason, loves frozen vegetables. So we usually have a bag of frozen green beans and a bag of frozen broccoli florets in the freezer at all times, and often a backup. She also enjoys the Mrs. T’s pierogis, so when they are on sale, I toss a box into my cart. Same goes for pancakes, French toast sticks, fish sticks, and chicken nuggets. You can almost guarantee you’ll find those things in our house on a given day, so if they are on sale I have trouble NOT buying them. (Which sometimes results in two unopened boxes of fish sticks in the freezer at the same time, so I really need to figure out how to curb that particular Must! Buy! Now! impulse. I think I am what advertisers call “a dream consumer.”)

Meat: We eat a lot of chicken and pork. I get my chicken at the grocery store when it’s on sale and freeze it in two-to-a-bag Ziplocs. I get the pork tenderloin at Costco (unless there’s a good sale). I also get beef at Costco and then grind my own meat for spaghetti, tacos, and chili. Carla LOVES fish. She started out strongly preferring salmon, but she’s branched out into things like opah and swordfish and tuna. So when it’s a good price, I buy some, cut it into small Carla-size chunks, and freeze it. Yesterday the wild salmon was $34.99 a pound and I wish I could all-caps a number because WHAT. So I am glad I still have a piece of more reasonably priced salmon lounging in my freezer for the next time Carla has a salmon craving.

Pantry: Our grocery store is always having sales on canned beans, which means that sometimes my pantry is overflowing with black beans, chickpeas, and dark red kidney beans. We always have a lot of tomato sauce on hand, as well as coconut milk, chicken stock, rice, and taco shells. Carla loves Cheez-Its and Goldfish, so we usually have one or both of those in our pantry. My husband drinks coffee and I drink tea, so we always have those on hand. My husband eats a specific brand of pretzels every day for lunch, and it is now impossible to find them at Target, so I buy two bags at a time just to make sure we don’t run out. Rice Krispies and applesauce are two other must-haves, although I HATE buying Rice Krispies when it’s not on sale, so sometimes we go without.

Spices: The spices I cannot live without are cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin, garam masala, cardamom, and coriander. I am constantly buying those things on sale, to the point that one day I discovered I had more cumin than any person could ever use in a lifetime. (I have now gone for several months without buying cumin, which makes me feel a little panicky.)

Condiments: Ketchup is one of Carla’s I-Cannot-Live-Without-You condiment. She also likes maple syrup to an absurd degree; this morning she asked if I could pour some maple syrup into a little bowl for her so she could dip her strawberries in it. Um, no. Then there’s hot sauce, which I count up there with oxygen. Which is how my husband feels about peanut butter, so there’s always plenty of that to be found.

Alcohol: I am the only person in our household who drinks alcohol really at all, so I usually pick up a bottle of Riesling. We typically have gin on hand, for in-law visits and occasional gimlet cravings, but we are OUT of gin right now and I am not interested in replenishing it at this time. If we’re anywhere near having guests, I keep an eye out for wines with high Wine Spectator rankings that are under $10. Come to my house for cumin, stay for the cheap wine.

One of the magical things my mom could always do was whip up a meal out of items just lying around our house. (She didn’t, like, store pasta on the couch or anything. The items she cooked with were in normal food-storage locations.) I suppose, now that I think about it, she probably did meal planning just like I do. But it appeared that she could come home, open the freezer and take a peek in the pantry, and then just throw something together. After many years of buying my own groceries and making my own meals, I feel like I’ve finally reached that point. I prefer to plan out meals in advance (hahahaha – just kidding; I HATE meal planning) (but I do it anyway) (shakes fist at adulthood), but when I haven’t been able to get to the store, or we are just back from a vacation or whatever, I feel pretty confident that I can pull something meal-adjacent out of the items we have on hand. I mean, as long as I have some chicken breasts, a lemon, a potato, and some white wine, I can feed you something pretty delicious, if lacking in greenery.

(Re-reading this, I’m realizing that I am super lucky to be able to buy and stock so many fresh [and otherwise] foods, and I feel a Food Pantry Stock Up trip to the store with Carla coming on, so we can help other people fill their cupboards and bellies, too.)

Okay, now, your turn. Let me peek inside your grocery cart and pantry and fridge. What are the Must Haves and Can’t Live Withouts in YOUR house?

 

Groceries

Don’t be fooled; we had six total grocery bags, packed FULL of groceries. This is just a representative sampling because I didn’t have any other photos to add to the post. For example, I came home with four times the pictured amount of yogurt ALONE. 

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We use a lot of citrus around here – I like lemony flavored dinners and limey flavored drinks – but our current juicer wasn’t really cutting it for me.

 

Here it is:

Old juicer

I searched Amazon, Sur la Table, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target, and couldn’t find this for sale anywhere, so maybe I’m not alone in thinking this could be improved upon.

I mean, it’s FINE, but it tends to get seeds in the food and it requires some elbow grease to extract juice, so it’s not PERFECT.

So the last time my husband and I were at Sur la Table (for a hot! date!), I asked if we could look at the juicers and see if there were any better options.

I was thinking of something like this, where you can use gravity to aid in the juice extraction process.

Glass juicer

Glass Citrus Juicer, $12.00 (photo from Sur la Table)

But instead, during the course of our hot! date!, we got to see THIS juicer in action.

Juicer 2

And lo! it was amazing!

So even though it was $14.99, we bought it. And it is my new favorite thing EVER.

It’s SO easy to use.

But! It is also non-intuitive to use!

If I had bought it on sight rather than after seeing a demonstration, I would never have guessed how to use it properly. And the website is no help. There are multiple photos, including a somewhat disturbing one of juice falling from the juicer, but not ONE showing how you put the fruit into the juicer.

I would have put the cut lemon or lime into the bowl of the juicer with the rind nestled down in the little bowl all snug, and the pulp facing up. So that when I squeezed the arms of the juicer together, they all fit together in a nice nested fashion, and that the emptied-of-juice lemon ended up looking like a little empty bowl at the end.

No!

Instead, you put the lemon in round side UP, and pulp side DOWN. Like so!

Juicer 4

I do know this is a lime and not a lemon. Also, it’s not a FULL lime. There are limits to what I will do for a post.

At the end, you have an inside-out lemon. And lots of delicious juice.

A real live chef showed us this method, so I am choosing to believe that this is The Best and Proper Way to use it. Although I haven’t tried it the other way. So perhaps it works equally well if you put the lemon in round side down.

It is – and I am not being compensated at ALL for this opinion (call me, Sur la Table) – FULLY worth the $14.99. In fact, I plan to buy one for each family member at Christmas. Okay, I also now see that there is a very similar version on Amazon for $8.95. Whatever. I don’t regret a thing.

Perhaps you do not use lemons and limes as frequently as I do. I still recommend this tool because it is AWESOME.

Juicer 1

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