Tag Archives: Dinner

Recipes: Butternut Squash

6 Sep

One of the issues with meal planning that I run into over and over again is that of leftovers. Sometimes the problem isn’t even with the prepared food itself but with the uncooked portions I have leftover in the fridge. In this case, the food in question is butternut squash.

My friend Jake has been helping us with our garden and thanks to him we have both pumpkin and butternut squash plants in our yard. Gardening is way harder than I believed it to be, particularly so because we’re not using pesticides and all the local garden centers stopped carrying ladybugs months ago. Aphids are really kicking our ass over here, and Jacob finally came up with a solution involving spraying each goddamn bug with a magical, organic substance that will shred the critter and knock him to the ground, thereby preventing anymore identical bastards to pop out of his pooper, and, as Anthony put it, “ruin Halloween.”

All that aside, Jake’s plants have managed to produce butternuts, and they are awesome. He gave one to me and I immediately set about the task of slicing it into rounds and baking it. I was originally trying to make steamed disks of butternut so that I could slather them with goat cheese, honey and toasted pecans and feast thusly until my husband returned home from sword practice.

Of course I forgot about them in the oven so that didn’t happen.

I ate them anyway and realized that as divine as steamed squash could be, these were chips, and they were even better. I really think that Jake raised a superior squash because I’ve recreated this experiment a few times since then and while the results of have been delicious, that first squash I used was far and away superior. Perhaps the defining factor was the way that squash was made: it was small, had a very small globe end and a very long cylinder end. When I sliced it the squash divided into perfect disks. Squash I bought from the farmer’s market was too large, so I had to resort to slicing it into half-moon shapes.

After they were sliced I brushed them with olive oil and set them on a foil-lined baking tray. This is about the thickness I was going for.

As you can see from the photo, they weren’t all perfect and some were thinner and some were thicker. I divided up my squash moons into a thinner and a thicker pile so I could cook them in batches. This really wasn’t extra work because I couldn’t fit them all in at once anyway.

Some received a dusting of spices, including cinnamon, cumin, curry, and five spice powder. These were all very good, especially the cinnamon and curry powder, and just by adding the slight addition of powdered spice you could completely change the character of the chip. My favorite is still probably a sprinkling of sea salt, but don’t bother adding that until the chips are out of the oven. If you add it before baking the salt will pull the moisture from the chips and they will steam instead of bake.

I threw leftover chips in a large zippy bag and toasted them throughout the week. They suffered no ill effects from this treatment and could probably survive five or six days like that. Squash are hardy.

They come out like this, though I had quite a few burn and quite a few remain soft and stick. The handy thing about cutting them into rounds is that the skin helps the squash retain its shape and there’s less burning and steaming because you don’t have that bit of squash flesh at one end.

I roasted them for about 35 minutes at 400, but you really have to watch these guys carefully and will almost certainly have to adjust the time and temperature of your oven for their temperament. Mistakes will still be delicious, even if they aren’t chips. The burnt parts are almost completely caramelized plant sugars and they taste like toasted marshmallows.

If they end up too soft, break out the honey and the goat cheese or feta and enjoy them that way.

Chips aside, you are going to have leftover squash. The globe-like ends are not fit for chips, but scoop out the seeds, rub with oil and roast all the same.

After roasting these I mashed them with a fork, discarded the peel, and added them to shiitake risotto (made by adding dried shiitake mushrooms to the stock while it heats, then adding the sliced mushrooms and butternut puree to the plain risotto at the end) and Oh. My.

It was so good I nearly cried when I ate the last bowl. I served it to Anthony in these wooden bowls I salvaged from my bestie’s yard sale. The color of the squash mellows in the creamy whiteness of the risotto and Anthony thought the color came from cheddar cheese, but the pale orange is actually the squash. I threw a squash chip on top for garnish and added a dusting of cheese and for the next ten minutes my life was complete.

Other things I made with the leftover squash include a butternut squash puree which I later realized would have made a perfect baby food. I roasted and mashed the squash then added butter and crumbled feta along with salt and pepper. I decided then and there that all babies should eat so well.

I stirred the leftovers of the puree into a black bean  and bell pepper hash that I had in the fridge and it was so very good. If Jake gives me anymore I’m going to make soup. Do you have a favorite way to prepare butternut or other winter squash? I’d love to hear it. As the summer winds down I expect I’ll get a few thrown at my car when people are at a loss to deal with them.  I’ll point them this way for ideas.

Asparagus Shiitake Risotto

9 Jun

Recently I made some exceptionally delicious asparagus risotto after reading about E making it. It was creamy and unctuous, but the perky hit of the lemon kept it from being too rich. The asparagus was perfect and gave the whole dish the herbal hit that made me want to eat whole bowlfuls of it at a sitting. It wasn’t side dish risotto. It was main dish risotto.

I’ve been looking for more dishes that feature asparagus since its still in season, and while at the store I noticed some reasonably-priced sliced shiitake mushrooms. Now, shiitake mushrooms might be one of my favorite foods ever, but I usually only buy them dried. It’s much more economical that way (until I grow them myself), but since they were on sale I splurged and brought a container home. I’d seen mention of asparagus shiitake risotto before, so I pulled up a recipe and got to work. I made some changes as I always do.

I also decided the one photo of me wearing my onion goggles wasn’t enough, so here’s another. I’m making duckface because that’s the only way these goggles can get any sexier.

Again, I had me some medicinal wine.

And here’s a tip for amateur food photographers: don’t have access to even a cheap, DIY lightbox? (Let’s face it, if I left mine up the kid or the cats would destroy it.) A brightly lit clean white sink works well, especially if you can edit out any scratches or water droplets in post.

I had extremely high hopes for this risotto. Back when Anthony and I lived in a one bedroom apartment with a kitchen the size of a coach airline seat and a counter barely deep enough to rest a blender on, I used to cook constantly. Before I developed crohn’s I spent whole days cooking. One of the best things I ever made was a wild mushroom risotto, and the memory of that meal is indelibly burned into my palette. I’ve been aching to recreate the amazing flavor of that meal, and since this dish used shiitake I felt sure I’d taste the echos of it in the bowl.

I hate to say this recipe disappoints, but it does.  Asparagus and shiitake are two of my favorite things, and they taste wonderfully together, but, I couldn’t help but compare it to the asparagus risotto and the wild mushroom risotto of the past. The asparagus in this dish just wasn’t as good as the asparagus in the other, and same for the mushrooms.

It looked beautiful, and I don’t deny it was absolutely delicious. It just didn’t compete with the memory of the other two dishes. I kept expecting to taste that bright hit of the lemon, or that deep flavor of the dried shiitake.

Anthony and Isobel loved it, however, and although I made a ton it only lasted into the next day. It made me realize, however, that I’m going to have to try a bit harder to recreate the wild mushroom risotto I made a few years ago.

Anthony has been making this salad a lot lately, inspired by one we get at our favorite Greek place, and fortunately, it was even better than I remembered it.

Lunch, Menu Planning, and Eating Healthily

17 Mar

Before I make good on the promise I made few days ago, I wanted to point you in the direction of this post by MK. It is an excellent resource to ways you can donate to various charities assisting in the relief effort in Japan. As days go by and the situation becomes even more grim and horrible, all I can do is sniff my daughter’s head as I sadly watch the news. Of course, it feels that way, but it’s not true: I can help by donating. And you can, too.

It’s been nearly a year now since I first discussed my meal planning goal, and meal planning in general is something I still work on and think about several days a week. As a family we are much closer to my ideal of eating a home cooked meal together every night, but we’re not quite there yet.

Weekly meal planning  got me through that time when I was fighting to come out of post-partum depression. I needed a set menu plan to tell me exactly, precisely what to do without any thought on my part. When you’re depressed you need help putting one foot in front of the other to soldier on. While I didn’t stick to the set weekly menu plan for very long, I use ideas and meals from it frequently as a backup plan. When we get busy, or when our plans fall through, it is always there, reliable and easy and comforting.

So I thought, maybe I’m going about this backward? I like variety at dinner, I like to improvise and cook based on mood and energy level. But I eat the same breakfast everyday (oatmeal, coffee) and am content. Lunch is more difficult, since I tend to rely on either leftovers or a soup and a salad.  I’m one of those people who work through lunch unless I have to stop. I enjoy food immensely, obviously, but if my head’s all wrapped up in a project I tend to ignore things like eating or sleeping—you know, the details. I seldom care about variety at lunch; I just want to get fed so I can go back to what I’m doing.  I also noticed that when I go out to eat at lunch I don’t try new things on a menu—I stick to my favorites, what I know I like.

The past few weeks I’ve been making variations on a turkey sandwich, inspired by the delicious sandwiches at Leland Tea Company. My current fave is a turkey and Swiss cheese on whole wheat bread with mayo, honey mustard, arugula greens, alfalfa sprouts, scallions, and thinly sliced tomatoes and pickles.

I realized I could eat essentially the same (with room for variation) breakfast and lunch everyday, and this fit in perfectly with my desire to monitor my calories. I could calculate the calories for lunch and breakfast once and be done with it, giving myself flexibility—and a calorie reserve—at dinner.  The next step is planning four or so different lunch and breakfast items that I love and working out the caloric intake for each so I always have healthy options for the first two meals of the day.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Flip Book: Dinner

20 Feb


Bloject 25: Steak

10 Feb

It’s about time I quit worrying and love the bomb procrastinating and get down to it: I joined former guest-poster Cookbook in her Bloject 25, a project designed to inspire people to cook 25 things they’d always wanted to cook but, for whatever reason, just haven’t yet. One of the items I wanted to conquer was steak. My list can be found here. If this is something you are interested in, join us! We’d love to have you.

Steak is expensive, so I’ve passed it up many times in favor of flank steak, or carne asada, or stew meat. It was something we only ate if we ordered it in restaurants. But all too often I experience the sting a disappointment when my requested medium-rare steak comes back grey and tough and well-done. At ten bucks a pop, though, I could never afford to experiment at home.

Hooray for steady employment and blojects, though, because last weekend I felt justified in buying two giant steaks. I decided to use a Pioneer Woman recipe because I figure, if anyone knows how to cook a steak, it’s someone from a family who raises cows for slaughter! The day of, however, I read the recipe I chose more carefully: the sauce is explained in full PW detail, with pictures accompanying each step. The method of cooking for the steak, however, was summed up cheerfully as, “Cook till done!” Not helpful for your average n00b. But she does make a killer blue cheese sauce, so I kept her recipe and went looking for another one.

After googling my problem  (“zomg why won’t PW tell me how to cook a steak!!!1!!!”) I discovered a recipe by Alton Brown that looked promising. Good old Alton. I still trust you, dude. All that weirdness from Next Iron Chef aside. I was especially excited because the recipe described the steak as “pan seared.” YES. This was what I wanted.

First off, when you cook steak, you’re probably going to want your sous chef to help. She might need to be pulled away from other, very important, cooking projects, though.

The meat needs to be at room temperature before it’s cooked, which, as Sunday recently mentioned in her post about salmon, all meat should be at room temperature first. I set my steaks face-down on the stove as it preheated. The reason for this was twofold: to absorb some of the heat, but also, to keep Jupiter’s thieving paws away from our dinner. I’d never leave the kitchen with them unattended, because one stray second away and he’s got himself some very expensive cat food, but it worked well enough when I was near.

Your sous chef, by this time, will be joining you.

I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but since I’ve been pregnant, I cannot just casually chop onions anymore. I used to chop bucketfuls without a second thought, but since the pregnancy, onions make my eyes fill with the sulfuric tears of Satan. It’s not the crying I mind, hell–I’d gladly take it–it’s the complete inability to open my eyes and the horrible, horrible pain. I can barely stand near a sautéing pan of them without the fumes getting to me at least a little. I have no idea if this change in me is really due to pregnancy or my advanced age or what, but my relationship with onions has changed. I tried all the tips and tricks and nothing worked. I avoided onions as much as possible.

And then, my friends Zack and Heidi got me a lovely Amazon giftcard for my birthday last year. And I broke down and bought these.

They work perfectly! I can now mince onions with the best of them, pain-free. The husband makes fun of me, of course, but whatever. I can slice onions again!

(Note on the make and model: they work, are not cute, and aren’t particularly sturdy. They are like very inexpensive sunglasses with foam attached. But the foam is well attached and sturdy and they work beautifully. They do everything they say they do and store easily in this little pouch.)

(Thanks again, Zack and Heidi!)

Here I am, chop-chopping.

Okay, not really. I’m actually pretending to chop while I take a picture. It’s technically a reenactment.

  Beautiful onions! I’ve missed you so.

The onions got to work caramelizing, like so, while I pulled the very hot pan out of the oven and plopped in the room-temperature meat. Just like Alton said, I waited the full 2 minutes before turning, and…

Dissapointment! No sear, or at least, barely any sear. This made me very sad as I do enjoy the burned bits. When I put them in the oven to finish them I realized: I had done nothing wrong. My oven didn’t get as hot as it was supposed to because after cooking for the recommended time for medium-rare, they were completely and totally raw in the middle. I put them in for a few minutes more, testing and thought about what I would do next time.

My not-so-hot oven explains the lack of sear, as well.

So, sauce is bubbling, meat is cooking, let’s have some veg, shall we? I steamed broccoli, because it’s one of Isobel’s favorite foods right now, and sliced up some grape tomatoes because I needed to eat them before they spoiled. They didn’t need the careful slicing I gave them—they would have been fine sliced in half or simply left whole. But I am so paranoid of Isobel choking I wanted to make sure they were easily ingested.

Sauce, you are looking wonderful. How’s our sous chef doing?

 Manning the kitchen towel station, I see.

OMG. Heart attack imminent.

If you don’t have an adorable sous chef, no need to panic: you can easily throw a towel over your own head and shout, “Peekaboo!” a few times as you whisk it off and you’re all set.

And now, the blue cheese.

I loved blue cheese as a child and then didn’t encounter it again for years. Anthony thought the effect was a little strong, and he’s not the hugest proponent of blue cheese with steak. Something I didn’t realize as he likes it otherwise. Well, crap. Fortunately, though, he loved the steak and dipped in the sauce more conservatively than I did.

Mmm! Here’s my plate. (Anthony’s plate is the photo at the top of the page.) First off, notice how lovely and pink it came out. Perfect. You’ll notice that Anthony’s portion is huge: for some reason I thought they’d shrink up a lot more than they did. We each ate about half of our steak and saved the rest for lunch the next day.

Isobel only had a couple bites of meat, as her ear infection messed with her appetite. She eagerly reached for the broccoli, though.

Those carefully sliced cherry tomatoes went totally untouched. Of course.

She sings constantly, and dinner is no exception. I love her broccoli crumbs.

Isobel always manages to sneak at least some of her meal on the floor for Jupiter. She’s a crazy cat lady already.

I normally make a sauce for the vegetables, or at least sprinkle over a little tamari or olive oil. In this case I knew there’d be sauce for miles, so I didn’t bother. I used the leftover sauce, onions, and meat and made THE BEST sandwich with a crusty French roll the next day. (I’m sure the snugness of my waistband is just a coincidence.)

And before I leave you, I wanted to tell you I saved all the jus from the meat, labeled it, and tossed it in the fridge to add to stew or gravy next time I make some. You all totally have a bag in your freezer labeled “meat juice” too, right? Right.

The Haps

9 Dec

Here’s the haps:

* First and foremost, I’m participating in my Etsy Team’s sale, which means everything in the Little Big Shop is 15% off for shoppers who use the coupon code “librarylove.” Today is the last day of the sale. As my friend Librarianearp says, tell all your friends about the sale, or the terrorists win.

* The lovely and talented Windsor Grace allowed me to interview her. Check out her blog and an Etsy shop.

* I guest blogged for world-traveler and good friend Marie on her food blog Five Flavors. She asked me to post a recipe that I make often and so I’m sharing with you my version of Rebaked Potatoes. I attribute the success of my marriage to this recipe. It’s hard to fight when you’re eating enormous amounts of cheese. You’re just too damn happy.

* It’s worth mentioning that Marie is in New Zealand, which means I’m reaching a whole new audience: Middle Earth.  

* Anthony went to his first Christmas party with his new company. And he didn’t get drunk and Xerox his butt! I’m counting that as a win.

* Last night we did some shopping at Target and Isobel ran through the aisles shouting, “WE DID IT! WE DID IT! WE DID IT!” She also does this new thing where she says, “No biting! No biting!” before she tries to bite you. She’s also obsessed with the concept of sleeping. If the TV’s not on, it’s sleeping. If the bathtub isn’t full, it’s sleeping, if the neighbor dog isn’t currently barking, he’s sleeping. It’s adorable. Everything she does is adorable, though.

* Isobel quit using binkies when she was just a few months old. I really think that was tipping point in between her being a newborn infant and her being just a baby. Sometimes Isobel rummages through her old baskets and comes across her old binkes. She generally starts shouting, “Baby! Baby! A BABY!” The other day while I was doing laundry she left the room and came back a minute later with two binkies. One she put in her mouth and one she insisted go in mine. So we finished the laundry with binkies in our mouths.

When you have a toddler, you just have to roll with it.

* My daughter SINGS. She sings “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Ring Around the Roses,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and pretty much everything on Yo Gabba Gabba. Grandma taught her how to sing, “La Cucaracha”, and the other night she learned “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in about three minutes. I’ve been trying to get a video of her singing. She’ll sing sponantously: at dinner, in the car, while playing with her toys. She’s a big (little) girl now.

Home Movies: Buddha Baby

24 Oct

Isobel has the uncanny ability to locate statues of Buddhas no matter where we go or what we are doing. Most recently she’s been obsessing over the Buddha statues on my patio. She refers to them as “baby” and she loves talking to them and waving at them.

Possibly trying to fly?

My in laws took us to dinner the other night at a Chinese restaurant a couple towns over, and Isobel zeroed in on a rotund, happy, “laughing” Buddha statue. This one really did resemble a baby and she became quite fond of it. She talked to it, waved at it and blew kisses. I think they are pen pals now.

I happened to have my flip camera with me and I took this video of her and the “baby.” She points out his eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and hair.

Birthday Sushi

17 Oct


Thank you friends who took time out of your busy lives and drove into town to visit me and share in my birthday dinner.

Thank you to my husband for watching Isobel when it was time for Mama to have her time.

Thank you to friends who came even though it wasn’t the easiest or most convenient thing to do.


Thank you so much for all the birthday wishes. I was truly awesome that so many people wished me well yesterday. I had a great day.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Meal Planning Update: The Soup

17 Oct

Now that I’m back at work I’ve been relying on my meal planning more than ever to make sure I get a decent lunch. Money’s so tight that eating out isn’t an option I’m comfortable with so making sure I have the components for salad, soups, eggs and sandwiches is a necessity.

When I first started making this meal plan I assumed my default soup would be minestrone. It’s delicious and easy to throw together without much thought on my part—a crucial detail. But as I started planning meals I became focused on using up extras to save money and prevent waste. My husband turned any fruit surplus in danger of becoming overripe into delicious smoothies. I’ve been using up any leftovers in the vegetable bin to make soup.

It’s not an original idea, I know, but it saves money and gets the job done. I discovered a secret to quick soups, the kind that are thrown together with canned broth, that sometimes need a boost in the flavor department: dried mushrooms. Not the most glamorous of ingredients, but if you love mushrooms it gives any soup a delicious flavor boost.

The first leftover soup I made happened when we had a surplus of celery and onions. Celery soup, not exactly the most enticing. I cooked it up with caramelized onions, potatoes for heft, and a generous addition of dried wild mushrooms. It was especially good the second day, after the mushrooms had imparted all of their savory goodness.

I had so much leftover cooked chicken for the next go-around I made a chicken noodle with dried porcini mushrooms and it was excellent. I froze a bunch to pull out later in the winter when cold season is in its full, miserable force.

Last weekend I had a surplus of cauliflower and the first soup that came up when I googled ‘cauliflower soup’ was the Ree’s velvety vegetable version. Score. This recipe had enough going on with the richness of the roux to not need a mushroom booster and it came out perfect. Isobel is positively addicted to it. (Call CPS! My toddler is addicted to cauliflower!)

Keeping good bread on hand, cheese or other salad garnishes, and hard boiled eggs for salads if I need a protein boost has really helped keep me on track. I feel like after all this time I’m finally succeeding.

Since it’s Sunday I wanted to share a home movie with you.

Since it’s my birthday weekend I also wanted to share a video with you that pnkrcklibrarian shared with me:

“Mr. Darcy has been a freestyle disco champion these last dozen years.”

Dinner Update II

28 Sep

Since I first discussed my meal planning woes here on Little Big I’ve been plugging away at dinner each night, trying to get something delicious and healthy on the table in a timely fashion. I feel that dinner is a task of Sisyphusian proportions. Do it well or do it wrong, either way that boulder is rolling right back down the mountain to be pushed back up the next day. For all my complaining you might assume that I hate cooking, or find working in the kitchen a chore, but it’s just the opposite: when I have free time cooking and meal planning are what I enjoy. The problem is, I don’t always have the time, and I have my limited budget of time and energy to contend with. Like a Top Chef quickfire challenge, home cooks have to produce a wonderful meal within a narrow scope of limitations.

I learned a lot from that initial post and the subsequent post made up of all of your wonderful advice. I made some decisions and went forward with a new plan: a set weekly menu. The concept of “themes” was touched upon in the comments but I really had to go through the process of trial and error for myself before I learned what worked with that and what doesn’t. I think a lot of my problem lies in that delicate balance between preparation and spontaneity. I’ve tried planning everything out to the letter and I’ve tried cobbling dinner together each night at the last minute. Both result in unsatisfying meals and wasted money.

Predictably I became bored serving the same thing week after week, but what is working a whole lot better for us is almost the same thing week after week. The freedom and flexibility make it work. I need the structure of themes but also the room to improvise.

CHICKEN: My favorite is baked chicken with caramelized shallots, but all sorts of variations of baked chicken fit here. I keep packages of chicken in the freezer and put them in the fridge a day or two before to thaw. I stock up on chicken when on sale or at Costco to save money. Variations on the chicken theme include marinades, barbecue sauce, herb and spice blends, and pan gravy.

PASTA: Default pasta night is spaghetti, but I can only eat so much spaghetti before I long for a change. Fortunately, pasta is the kind of dish with a multitude of variables: pasta shapes, sauces, meats and vegetables can be made ahead or mixed at the last second with wonderful results. I like researching pasta recipes and daydreaming about which one I’ll use this week. Variations: seriously limitless, although a favorite of mine is spinach pasta with Parmesan cheese and sautéed mushrooms, or creamy lemon pasta with prosciutto and peas.

EGGS: I like eggs, but the true reason I devote a whole evening to them is that they are cost-effective. We splurge and by the organic, free-range eggs and even then they are still cheaper than a lot of different kinds of meat. And sometimes that’s what counts. Fortunately, the eggs we buy are fresh and delicious so I don’t mind relying on them to get dinner on the table. I love baking eggs, also. There’s something very comforting about that. Anthony is a fan of scrambled eggs and omelets, and I always have hardboiled eggs around for adding to salads.

STIR-FRY: So far this is my weakest night. I admit it. I know more variations of a theme for the other nights so I usually end up making either teriyaki chicken bowl, stir-fried veggies with rice, or a noodle-dish from prepared Chinese noodles from the produce aisle. I need to build up more of a repertoire for this night. But, I’m sticking with this night because it’s a tasty way to serve veggies and Anthony and I are suckers for Asian flavors.

LEFTOVER REMIX: I like to plan dinners for 5ish meals a week. Anthony and I meet friends and family for dinner quite frequently, or often we’ll have one of those nights when he works and baby and I just kind of scrounge around for dinner. Either way I’ve learned it’s useful to have a day set aside for making smoothies from leftover fruit and soup from whatever’s in the veggie bin. If we have leftovers I’ll try to revamp them in a way that makes the most of what we have. Anthony is very good at this kind of dinner. I’m working on it. (Want to know a dirty secret? Sometimes this night just ends up being a big green salad with a baked potato with leftover roast chicken and bacon on the side.)

This revised menu works as a default plan and some weeks we deviate from it quite a lot. Maybe we’ll have chicken like usual but we’ll mix it up with Anthony volunteering for cooking duty (aside from smoothies he’s quite good at burgers and quesadillas), or perhaps I’ll volunteer to make something more elaborate. I refuse to stick to any meal plan slavishly but have learned from trial and error that no menu plan means I tend to surrender and grab dinner from a taco truck. The main thing is that I’ve planned to have the wherewithal to put any of these meals together any particular night. And that gives me freedom.