Friday, April 29, 2011

Pet Peeves

Pet peeves. Mine are infinitely numerous and varied. I've tried to pare my list down to the ones that are really important so you'll still like me after I'm done ranting.

Chefs who taste their own food at the end of their TV show. We know they’re going to say it’s delicious, and I can also do without the yummy noises that accompany the tasting.

Fortune cookies that analyze your character instead of telling your fortune.

Acceptable: You will win the lottery tomorrow.

Unacceptable: You have a winning personality.

I know what I’m like; just tell me what’s gonna happen to me.

Toy packaging. Twisty ties. Need I say more?

People who ask if you’ve seen a certain show/movie/commercial, and when you say yes, they proceed to describe it in detail. Yeah, I know. I saw it. Remember you just asked me that?

Checkout clerks who ask, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” and then if you say “Actually, I couldn’t find the okra,” they make a sympathetic clucking sound and that’s the end of it.

Vanity plates that describe the car. You paid how much to get a personalized plate that says BLUEBMW? I can see that.

It’s supposedly, not supposably.

I’ve got a million more, so maybe we can make this an ongoing series, and I'll include yours too. Am I the only one? I can't be the only one. Let's hear your pet peeves!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Golden Beet Salad

If you saw this table loaded with gorgeous produce, could you pass it by? I couldn't either and found myself buying a bunch of golden beets because I'd never tried them before. I got them home and didn't know what to do with them but what I knew was that I wanted to taste the beets, and not mask their flavor. Here's what I ended up with:

Golden Beet Salad
Wash one bunch of beets (about 5) and wrap in foil; roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until soft; let cool. Peel off skin and chop the beets into 1/2 inch cubes. Chill. While the beets are chilling, make a simple vinaigrette out of 1/4 cup oil, 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice, 3 Tbsp. chopped basil, 1/4 tsp. sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk until it's emulsified, then toss with chilled beets. I happened to have some leftovers from my foray into cheesemaking, but you can use 1/2 cup of crumbled feta.

The golden beets had a nice mild flavor. Serve your salad on a lettuce leaf for a simple, healthy, delicious lunch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Half the Sky

When my friend April said she had a great book for me to read, I was excited. Would it be witty and wry? Tense and thrilling? Neither. It's the real-life story of crimes against women throughout the world, including honor killings and sexual trafficking.

Hmmmm....has Dave Barry written anything lately? But April was insistent so I gave it a go. It is truly a shock to realize that slavery still exists today, usually in the form of forced prostitution. The authors interviewed girls who were lured from their families with the promise of jobs in the big city, then forced into prostitution. In other parts of the world, women who speak out risk having acid thrown in their faces. I could go on and on (and the book does).

But the thing that makes me recommend this book to you, as April said, is the message of hope that pervades each chapter. The number one idea stressed over and over is that
educating women will help stop violence against women. Educated women are more confident, and a society where women contribute is one where women wield some of the power. Women who are educated can help support their families, so their little sisters don't have to go looking for work. This brutality can be stopped, at the grassroots level, if we all pitch in, and the book outlines many specific ways we can help.

Rating: Life-changing. I so admire the way the authors were able to write about such tragedy and leave the reader with a sense of hope. I guess that's why they won the Pulitzer.

p.s. If you only support charities that Ashton believes in (doesn't that apply to most of us?), this is the one for you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Homemade Cheese

I consider myself a decent cook, and I can look at most dishes and recreate them with a moderate amount of success. Two things, however, completely baffle me: yogurt pretzels and cheese. Where do I even begin? No idea.

For my birthday, my friend Jen gave me a super cool book called "The One-Block Feast" by the editors of Sunset magazine. It talks a lot about raising your own food and cooking from local, fresh ingredients. So inspiring, except for the section on raising your own hive of bees. I can only imagine what my homeowner's association would have to say about that.

But there was a section about making cheese, and it looked really easy. I grabbed the nearest lazy spring-break child I could find (this one happened to need a haircut) and got started.

The first thing you do is boil a gallon of pasteurized or raw milk over medium heat in a large stockpot, stirring occasionally so it doesn't scorch. I thought I'd go all the way and get raw milk but it cost about $8 per half gallon so I decided I liked pasteurized better anyway. Just don't use ultra-pasteurized. The book says it won't work and that it tastes weird.

Squeeze 1/2 cup of lemon juice from Grandpa's lemon tree (or the store, if you must).

When the milk starts to boil, turn off the heat and drizzle the juice into the milk, stirring with a rubber spatula until the milk separates into curds and whey. This is cooking magic; it happens in seconds and will make your kid say "whoa!". If your milk separates but the whey looks milky, not clear, put the pot back on the burner and cook at low temp until the whey is clear.

Strain the curds into a cheesecloth-lined strainer (or just a clean dishtowel like I did) and let drain.

Bring the dishtowel up into a ball, give the curds a good squeeze, and let rest, draining still, for about 45 minutes. It'll look like this when it's done.

Knead the cheese with your stand mixer and a dough hook, or by hand, for about 10 minutes. At some point it'll come together and not be loose curds.

I don't know what kind of cheese this is (the book says to add chives during the kneading but of course my little guy opted out of that ingredient). It has a mozzarella taste but a cream cheese-ish consistency. I drizzled a little honey that I had bought at the farmer's market over it, and served it with Wheat Thins. I also used some in pasta for last night's dinner. It's excellent both ways.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Quinoa Pizza

This girl loves animals. She has such a soft spot for them that when she buys a stuffed animal, she always chooses the one with the ripped seam, or the eye that is scratched, because that one won't be chosen by anyone else.

This girl told me when she was 7 years old, "Sorry Mom but I think I'm going to be a vegetarian when I start 3rd grade." She was serious. This girl is now 12 years old and except for a rare indulgence in a piece of bacon or the chicken fingers at Islands, she eats no meat.

It's a challenge to keep her protein intake high, and though she does eat a good amount of beans and cheese, I'm always on the lookout for other sources. Recently, I discovered quinoa and am amazed at its nutritional benefits--for us, the biggest benefit is that it's a complete protein.

Of course, the trick with kids is always getting them to eat the good stuff. This week, with Elise in mind, I've developed a quinoa pizza. I made the pizza dough in the bread machine (but easy enough to buy premade pizza dough and knead in 1/4 cup of raw quinoa).

Amy at the Grody Gourmet warned me when we chose this ingredient for this week's friendly competition that I had to "rinse the heck out of it." (She didn't actually say "heck" but this is a family blog.) The grain is apparently coated with a natural toxin that is bitter if not rinsed thoroughly. So while I rinsed the grain in a mesh strainer, I also rubbed it between my hands while the water was running. I did this for a good two minutes to wash away any trace of the bitterness (or poison, if you're concerned about that type of thing).

I don't know if this counts as an official recipe, because rather than showcase the ingredient, I kind of snuck it in, hoping it would fly under the radar and end up in my kids' bellies against their better judgment. It did. Suckers.

Quinoa Pizza
For the crust, make your own or use your favorite pre-made dough (Trader Joe's sells it for a buck or two) and add in 1/4 cup of uncooked (but well rinsed) quinoa. Knead it into pre-made dough and roll out as usual. I made my own dough in a bread machine and added the quinoa at the very beginning. Bake the crust for 5 minutes at 400 degrees.

For the pizza topping, brush the crust with some fresh garlic and olive oil. Sprinkle on some mozzarella and fresh grated Parmesan. Saute about 10 finely chopped brussels sprouts in 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Add 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1 cup ricotta cheese, and 1/4 cup more Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Put blobs of this mixture here and there (mush them down a little) on your pizza, and bake the whole thing at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, until it looks bubbly and pizza-ish. Yum! This was surprisingly delicious and I can't wait for lunch tomorrow so I can eat the leftovers.

If you like quinoa and want another idea for a simple, tasty recipe, here's one submitted by my new Etsy friend Natalia at Full Circle Images, who took the cool quinoa photo from my Monday post.

Natalia's Quinoa Salad
Cook quinoa like usual (just like rice, in boiling water until the water is all gone). Turn off the heat and add in green beans and dried cranberries. I always add extra cranberries for added sweetness. You can also substitute the green beans for okra and it's delicious! Then add in a dressing that is 1 part balsamic vinegar and 2 parts olive oil. Mix it all up, cool in the fridge, and serve chilled. It's super easy, super yummy, and very healthy.

Natalia's note: I'm one of those cooks that eyeballs all the measurements, so I honestly don't have quantities of each ingredient. but this recipe is so easy that it really is just to taste. I would suggest going a little easy on the dressing because otherwise the oil becomes overpowering.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fondant Easter Cookies

Lately, it seems that any time I turn on the TV, I can find some variation of a cake decorating show. I have to say, they kind of suck you in. The contest ones are fun (Oh no! The frosting is melting because those cupcakes didn't have time to cool and the buzzer is about to ring!), but I prefer the ones where they just make a super amazing cake. There's still drama (will it fall over on the way to the wedding?) and I don't really want to know how it tastes anyway--I just want to see what it looks like.

My daughter has been a fan of Sculpey clay since she was a preschooler, and if they sold it at Costco we'd buy it by the ton. Through all those cake decorating shows, I discovered fondant--clay that tastes like candy. Elise's personal nirvana!

We found some at Michaels and tinted four good-sized blobs in Easter colors, then let Elise and her friend get to work, decorating egg-shaped sugar cookies to put out for Easter dessert. The fondant made the project way more fun than just using frosting and sprinkles, and also kept the girls busy for hours (spring break time-killer, anyone?).

Elise even created a "Glee" cheerleader. I'm sure Grandma will appreciate that. If you don't already have a favorite sugar cookie recipe, this one was pretty good; it didn't spread much and was tasty to boot.

Here's what you'll need to gather:
Egg-shaped sugar cookies, baked and cooled
Frosting (any buttercream will do)
Fondant, tinted in several different colors and rolled thin (roll it out on a board sprinkled with powdered sugar if it sticks)
Assorted sprinkles

I'll respect your intelligence and stop the instructions here--I'm sure you've done the sugar cookie thing before.

Happy Easter everyone!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What I Just Read: Shopgirl

Steve Martin. What's not to like? He's funny and smart and looks ever so handsome in a tuxedo. I'm way behind the 8-ball here but just discovered his writing. I started with The Pleasure of My Company and then most recently, Shopgirl. I liked them both but Shopgirl was my favorite. I can't quite put my finger on why I love his writing style so much, but there's just a certain sweetness to the way he tells a story. Someone told me that his newest work, An Object of Beauty, is not sweet at all, but that's just another reason to love Steve--he's so diverse! And did I mention how good he looks in a tuxedo?

Rating: Recommended, especially for a vacation read. It's fewer than 200 pages long and easy to pick up, read a few pages, yell at kids for splashing the old man in the pool, and pick up again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back of the Box: Minute Rice

I'm Chinese, and I think it's unethical--and quite possibly illegal--for me to make Minute Rice. So I was as surprised as anyone when I found myself standing in line for a chance to spin the wheel and win a prize from the Minute Rice booth at a charity walk a few weeks ago. Even more surprising was how embarrassingly giddy I became when I won a full-size box of Minute Rice, and all the losers around me just got refrigerator magnets and pencils. Ha!

I came home, put it in my pantry, and never gave it another thought, until today when I was trying to come up with a dinner that would not require a trip to the store. On the back of the box was a recipe for Parmesan Crusted Chicken. I have Parmesan! I have chicken! The only thing I didn't have was asparagus, but as it turned out, the recipe just said to serve the asparagus on the side. As if we can't think of our own side dish? Sheesh.

Parmesan Crusted Chicken
2 cups Minute Brown Rice, uncooked
1 can (14 1/2 oz) chicken broth, divided
1/2 cup water
6 butter crackers, finely crushed (double this)
2 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese, grated (double this too)
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tsp. oil
1/2 cup chive and onion cream cheese
lb. asparagus spears, trimmed

Prepare rice according to package directions, using 1 1/4 cups of broth and water. Meanwhile, mix cracker crumbs and Parmesan cheese on the plate. Rinse chicken with cold water; gently shake off excess water. Dip chicken in crumb mixture, turning over to evenly coat both sides of each chicken breast with the crumb mixture.

Heat oil in nonstick skillet on medium heat. Add chicken; cook 5 to 6 minutes on each side or until golden brown on both sides and cooked through. Place chicken on serving platter; cover to keep warm. Add remaining 1/2 cup broth and cream cheese to same skillet. Cook on medium heat until mixture just comes to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer 3 minutes or until sauce is thickened, stirring frequently. Serve chicken over rice. Spoon sauce over chicken. Serve with asparagus.

Rating: Weird. This is the strangest back of the box recipe I've ever seen. It's just telling you to cook rice, and serve it next to other things. The chicken recipe really has nothing to do with the rice, and why tell us to serve it with asparagus when we might prefer peas, or corn, or beans? Seems like rice should be an ingredient in the recipe. However, nitpicking aside, the chicken was good, and the sauce was delicious, considering how easy it was to make.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Friendly Competition: Quinoa

Our bellies are still full of grilled cheese and Amy at the Grody Gourmet and I are ready to cook healthy. We've chosen that supergrain known as quinoa as the featured ingredient in this week's recipe challenge.

I did a little research on quinoa and found that not only is it a complete protein (great for vegans), but it is high in antioxidants, can help people who suffer from migraines, can improve cardiovascular health--and pretty much everything else. I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow they announced it could reverse male pattern baldness. Why are we not eating this every day?

As always, we'll post our favorite recipes on Friday, and we'd love to have you join in. If you have a great quinoa recipe, let me know and I'll post a link to your blog as well.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friendly Competition: Breakfast Grilled Cheese

This week's challenge with Amy at The Grody Gourmet was to come up with a great grilled cheese recipe. For most of the week I was planning to do sort of a chile relleno thing with Anaheim peppers and Monterey Jack cheese. I was toying with the idea of adding mango, when my brain kind of wandered into breakfast territory. What about mango with cream cheese on grilled raisin bread? No wait! Cinnamon bread! After much inner turmoil, I settled on this:

Breakfast Grilled Cheese with Pumpkin Butter

Butter two slices of bread, and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar (1 part cinnamon to 3 parts sugar). Spread the insides of the bread with cream cheese and about 2 Tbsp. pumpkin butter. Grill until it's brown and the cinnamon sugar is caramelized on the bread. It gets all crunchy and awesome. This is a quick and reasonably healthy breakfast food that the kids can finish in the car, if necessary. (Now you know how our mornings go.)

Pumpkin Butter
1 15-oz. can pureed pumpkin
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. pumpkin pie spice, plus another Tbsp. of cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt

Simmer all ingredients on low heat for about an hour, until very thick and the mixture doesn't slide off a spoon.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shameless Plug: Imaginative Play Toys

Perfect for the little boy who dreams of a career in the construction field
(note the absence of a "middle management" playhouse).

Your child's name above the door and felt "mail" with your street number
is a great tool to help kids learn their address.

Today I'm plugging an amazing shop that happens to belong to my Etsy BFF, Julie. She sews playhouses out of felt that fit over your card table, and fold up when you need to use the card table for something boring, like eating...or playing cards.

Look at all the details she puts in--makes my
scissors hand tired just thinking about it.

If you really want to send the playgroup (or better yet, the playgroup moms) into a tizzy, get Jr. the "Palatial Playhouse", with a peaked roof that allows the kids room to play standing up.

If you're like me, a grunt type who doesn't mind the labor but doesn't have the creative vision to design one of these, you can buy detailed patterns and sew it yourself. Check out Imaginative Play Toys at

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Back of the Can: Breakfast Casserole

Evaporated Milk: It's what's for breakfast.
Carlsbad 5000 weekend! This annual race is a big deal in our town. Runners from all over the world come for the "world's fastest 5K" but the day before the big race, it's all about the kids. The Jr. 5000 is an annual tradition for many families here, including ours, starting when they register for the "diaper dash" and all the way up to age 12.

That guy on the left can't believe his eyes when my daughter flies past him. It's like a bolt of lightning!

Max and his buddy, collecting their first place medals (along with a zillion other kids).

Clashing mightily with the 5000 this year is Sean's favorite tradition, "good breakfast" day. I've somehow been suckered into making him some combination of meat, eggs, and potatoes once a week. So while he slept in (he's 15 now and has done his time at the 5000) and the little kids got ready, I mixed up a quick batch of this breakfast casserole from the back of the Carnation Evaporated Milk can.

I put it in the oven when I came home but what I didn't realize was how long it took to cook: one hour. We were starving by the time it was ready.

Rating: Not that great but has potential. Really, what is there to mess up? But the fat free milk gave it a really weird chemical taste. I think Carnation's recipe would have been great, had we substituted half and half or regular milk for the Carnation. Should I suggest it to them?

Hash Brown Casserole

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
6 large eggs, beaten
1 can (12 oz) Carnation Evaporated Fat-Free Milk (make it regular milk and you'll be a lot happier)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 pkg (30 oz) frozen hash brown potatoes (I just used 4 potatoes, shredded)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, chopped (I used a combo of different colored bells)
10 slices turkey bacon, cooked and chopped (I used sausage)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13x9-inch baking dish. Combine cheese, eggs, milk, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Add potatoes, onion, bell pepper, and bacon. Mix well and pour mixture into baking dish. Bake 1 hour or until set.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kittytown, or Do it Yourself Cat Fencing

Can you spot the hidden Rocco?


She's thinking how immature he is. He doesn't care.

A few months ago, my friend Jennifer sent me a link to a story about a guy in Florida who has built a tall fence around several acres of land and runs a cat sanctuary called Caboodle Ranch, where the cats can roam freely about the property. Starting a dog and cat sanctuary is my ultimate dream, and this guy is my hero.

Since my home is built on a tiny 7,000-square-foot lot, for now I'll have to settle for (much) less. Jen's email got me thinking, though...what if I could fence the yard in so the cats could go outside? It has been difficult for me to keep the cats inside for their entire lives; it's just not natural. Yes, I realize it's safer for them but it would be safer for humans as well to never step foot outside the house. Doesn't quality of life count for anything?

So I dug in--literally. I began by Googling "cat fencing." You'd be amazed at how many companies there are that will provide you with an entire system. Some of them even launch the cats back into the yard when they try to escape--the video is quite amusing, I must say. The one thing that was consistent about each of these companies was their prohibitive cost. So being the resourceful type, I decided this was not rocket science, and I would do it myself.

Objectives: To keep the cats from escaping under, over, and through.

First step: a trip to Home Depot--hooray!--for chicken wire or any type of strong mesh with small holes (under and through) and something called garden fencing (over) that's apparently used to keep rabbits out of your yard. You'll also need lots of garden ties and possibly some smooth metal sheeting if you have trees that your cats can use to climb and escape.

Under: Try not to tackle this step on the hottest day of the year, like we did. Dig a trench under your fence that's about 8 inches deep. Bury a foot-high strip of chicken wire partially underground, bending it toward you when you lay it in the trench so the cats won't be able to dig under it. Make sure the top part of the chicken wire sticks out of the trench by at least a few inches.

Through: For any areas of fencing that are not solid wood, get your mesh or chicken wire, and zip-tie it to the entire length of the fence. Use more zip ties to attach the pieces of chicken wire that are sticking up from the trenches underneath the fence.

Over: If your fence is solid and nearly touches the ground, you may not need either the under or the through steps, but you'll definitely need the over. Fold your garden fencing over where the smaller rectangles meet the larger squares. I could manage about 8-foot sections at a time. Lay them so that the large squares are against the fence and the rectangles angle back in to the yard, creating a ceiling that your cats won't be able to jump over. I found u-shaped nails that worked great to attach these pieces to the fence.

Over (gate): If you have a gate, attach a length just to the gate, so it can swing out still, and put the garden wire at a slightly lower height on either side of the gate so the wire sections won't knock into each other when you open it.

Over (trees): If your cat can climb a tree and use a branch as a launching point, they will do it. George has mastered the trick of building up speed and then launching herself to heights I did not think possible. Bad kitty. I cut open the plastic zip tie canister (though when I get back to Home Depot I'll probably use a piece of metal sheeting) and wrapped it around the trunk of the tree so she could only go so high. Every time she races across the yard and then hits that plastic, I can almost hear the Flintstone brake squealing sound effect and see her legs spinning with smoke coming out. I yell "ha ha" at her every time this happens.

Your fence will probably look nicer than mine; I'm definitely a "let's get it done, right now and quickly" sort of person, rather than a perfectionist. (Imagine how happy that makes my engineer husband!) You will have to be vigilant about watching the cats for the first week or so; you'll be surprised at how they will find a way to escape through a tiny opening you left, or a piece of fencing bent down a little too much at the top that they can scale.

Now I have help with the yardwork!