Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Happy Pancake Day/Shrove Tuesday!

Yay! Today is Pancake Day and no matter what your diet of the week is, there’s a pancake for you! In fact, there are as many versions of pancakes as there are people eating them. Gluten-free is probably the most common specialized diet situation these days, right? But there is one thing - although I think whatever food journey anyone is on is great, I do have a slight beef with the whole gluten-free movement.

Obviously, if you have a medical condition that requires you to eliminate certain foods, you’ve got to do that. But for the other (vast majority) of gluten-free eaters, the thing that bothers me the most is the thought that JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS GLUTEN-FREE means it’s good for you. That’s so not true.

I hate that as long as a package says gluten-free, no matter how processed it is, people think it’s okay. The fact that you’re buying something in a package is the first hint that something might be wrong. Some who would never buy a cake mix, for example, suddenly think that a gluten-free cake mix is fine, that it’s healthy and maybe even good for you. Arrgghh!

People should eat and buy whatever they want, but I just don’t like that a (somewhat garbage-y) food labelled gluten-free is considered somehow holier than other just regular garbage-y foods.

If I had to pick my favorite weirdo diet at the moment, it would be the Paleo one. It’s actually far more restrictive than a gluten-free plan. It’s basically meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, but I like the emphasis on fresh food. Of course, a lot of these “diet plans” are aspirational, whether Paleo, gluten-free or whatever. They’re not something that’s easy to live with 100% of the time. The main thing to me is to eat real food…most of the time.

Soooo to come back to Shrove Tuesday, here is a recipe for some super-duper Paleo Pancakes, which gluten-free folks will love as well as just regular people who don’t need lists or books to decide what to eat.

One caveat to these pancakes – they are a pain to turn. You need a super skinny spatula (as in pancake turner, not a rubber scraper) and patience. Oh, and the longer and slower you can cook them, the easier they are to turn over. BUT these WILL be a hit, including for those whose eating habits are slightly annoying.

I serve them with a sensational and sensationally easy blueberry sauce. (I always freeze blueberries in the summer, so this is made with fresh or fresh/frozen blueberries. The ones in the bag will do, but these are better…)

Note: Don’t skip toasting the almonds. There are so few ingredients here that they add an important punch of flavor. Do a big batch at one time and keep the extras in a tightly sealed jar. 

Paleo Pancakes (makes 10 pancakes)

10 toasted almonds 
1 banana
1 egg
½ tsp. cinnamon 
Blueberry Sauce 
1 cup fresh and/or frozen blueberries
1 tsp. cinnamon
optional: if you feel like it, add a nice slice of lemon peel before cooking

Place almonds in food processor and process until fine. Add remaining ingredients. Process until smooth.

Spray a large nonstick pan with Pam. Heat on medium. Using a large serving spoon, spoon 5 pancakes into pan.  


Cook on medium low heat for 5 minutes. After checking to see if the bottoms are browned, flip them very carefully. (It isn’t easy. And I usually flip them in the order I placed them in the pan.) Cook for another 5 minutes on medium low.

Turn on toaster oven to 200°F. Cover toaster oven pan with new piece of foil. Place cooked pancakes on pan and keep them warm while cooking the second batch.

Spoon remaining batter in nonstick pan. Cook as above. 

For blueberry sauce, while the first batch of pancakes is cooking, place blueberries and cinnamon in 2 cup Pyrex jug or 2 cup microwavable bowl. 

Cook on high for one minute. Stir well. Cover with paper towel or wax paper. Cook for another minute. Stir well. Remove from microwave and set aside. (If you have a very powerful microwave, do the last minute in 30 second intervals.) Pour on top of pancakes just before serving. 

More notes: If I want to continue to cook the pancakes just a bit, I move them to one side of the pan, while I cook the new batch. 

The first pancakes usually come out like this:

 The second batch like this:

Both are good.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Trouble And Turmoil Of Renovating

The fun part of a renovation is that just like having an appendicitis or falling off a roof or surviving a hurricane, it gives you lots of common ground with other people who have gone through the same thing. What’s better than sharing war stories? Of course, it bores the people around you to death. Take a look at this New Yorker cartoon. It’s perfect.

So I will (try to) keep my renovation story short. But what's a renovation without an incompetent contractor, one fired architect, lots of delays, crooked angles and millions of inspections? Actually the architect is a funny story...

I hired the architect first (before the contractor), because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I found a great woman. We were very simpatico and she came up with some gorgeous plans. (We were just adding a small bump-out and having the bathroom switch places with the laundry room, which was next to the guest room. Plus we added a powder room.)

I thought things were going well, but then my architect kept taking longer and longer to get back to me about the latest drawings and such. Finally it got so bad that I had to fire her. But we ended on a perfectly civilized note, with her admitting that my job was really small and that it had taken a back burner to her other projects. I reported this to H(usband), who you have to know was not involved in the planning, execution or ANYTHING having to do with the reno. (In other words, he thought the whole thing was dumb and didn’t care about half-dressed guests appearing in the kitchen.) When I told him about the firing, he said, “DARN! I was sending her a hundred dollars a week NOT to answer your emails or phone calls.” Har-har.

A new architect, who was great, came on board and there were no problems until I realized the contractor had little idea of what he was doing. My next mistake was keeping HIM too long. But in my defense, we were planning a wedding at the same time and, luckily, I did find someone to finish up everything and correct many (but not all) of his transgressions. Unhappily, the renovation that was supposed to be finished in July WELL BEFORE my daughter’s September wedding did not get completed until 2 1/2 months AFTER the wedding and TWO days before Thanksgiving. It was actually done 16 hours before the houseguests arrived who were supposed to be using this new guestroom suite.

I would never recommend planning a wedding and doing a renovation at the same time. But in that vein, I’ve come to believe that picking the right contractor is as essential to a successful renovation as picking the right groom or bride is to a successful marriage. If you have any doubts, don't do it! You have to live with your decision. And in both cases, picking poorly can be a costly mistake.

Anyway, here are a few before and after pictures, and, yes, I was responsible for that “wonderful” sponge painting (back in the 90’s) in the old bathroom. (I really liked it for the longest time.)

This was the old bathroom:


Note the beautiful drawing on the left:

That was the first nude I ever did in art class when I was an artsy pre-teen. The funny thing is that I drew it on a tiny section of a huge piece of paper. That was as far as my talents could take me at the time (and forever).

Here is the new bathroom, which gives my guests (and me!) all the privacy we could want:


Old guest room:
 New guest room:

Old laundry room:


New laundry room:


New powder room:

Anyhoo...All's well that ends well. (It's been a few months, so I can say that now...) The new spaces function exactly as I hoped they would and no ceilings have fallen down...yet.  As much as I love to go on about my renovation, I also love to hear about other people's. I hope all your remodeling dreams have come true with a minimum of drama...and ineptitude.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Wedding And The Reno (One was great...one was a test of endurance...)

Don’t faint…Here I am after months of blog silence. Hello again! My main problem was just plain human nature. The longer I didn’t blog…the longer I didn’t blog. Gosh, I’ve missed you all, but I’ve been lurking for the longest time and I know lots of things that have been going on. ;-)   (Rach, I’m glad you’re feeling better, ALOHA, Em! and Hi Tom!)

I mentioned last summer(!!!) that I was busy planning my daughter’s wedding and living through a renovation. Both were accomplished - the wedding mostly without a hitch and the renovation with MANY problems. But at the end of the day, everything came together beautifully. My daughter and son-in-law’s gorgeous wedding was a total love fest. Everybody was happy and happy to be there. AND I now have a guest room where people staying over don’t have to practically walk into the kitchen naked to do their ablutions. They have their own PRIVATE bathroom. (The reno nightmare also included a revamped laundry room and powder room.)

Sooo….here are some wedding pictures. (I was going to show only a few, but no mother of the bride has that much self-restraint. I’ll get back to food blogging next time…Actually, I’ll probably share some renovation pictures too and THEN we can talk food!)  






Sunday, June 15, 2014

Back Into The Swing Of Things With Pioneer Woman Plus to Scald or Not

Pioneer Woman with Ree Drummond

Pioneer Woman is certainly one way to get back to blogging. There’s always something to talk about with Ree and her crew. But, first, just so you know, I really haven’t fallen off the face of the earth…just the computer. What’s been taking center stage lately is my renovation and my wedding. Okay, it’s not technically MY wedding, but D(aughter) calls it that to get on my good side.

My latest projects have been to pick out tile and plan D’s bridal shower. I had no idea that a new bathroom had the potential for so much tile and that there were so many napkin possibilities for a bridal shower. Each one cuter than the last… The funny thing is that I’ve been spending tons more time (and effort) “designing” the napkins for the bridal shower than I’ve spent picking out tile for the ACTUAL shower.

A friend told me that the tile was going to last a lot longer than the napkins, so I should get my act in gear, but what could be more fun than looking through 50 shades of purple and deciding whether the text should be foil or not?!! The napkins are finally done, but I’ve found another shower (bridal) project that is endless – Tissue Paper Flowers.

I started by making them myself, until D said they looked like something people would blow their noses with. She wasn’t being horrible, it was true! So I ordered some from Etsy. Really great, EXCEPT I still have to unfold the million layers of tissue to get them to the flower stage. Gosh, what difficult problems I have!

Let’s talk about some real world issues. Ree is cooking for Lance Ladd (Happy Father's Day!) and the kids after they’ve spent the afternoon “burning” the fields or outback or whatever. Is that a good idea with the drought they’re having? I’m hoping they know what they’re doing.

Ree takes a drive “up to” the lodge to make dinner. I had no idea it was so far from her actual house. She’s driving forever on dirt roads to get there. I guess it’s in in the back 40. I love that expression. I always talk about our back 40 when I go from the end of the deck to the back fence…which probably isn’t even 40 FEET, much less 40 acres.

They show the family (sans Ree) driving fire trucks out to the pasture. Oh my! This burning of fields is a really big deal that takes the whole town to help. I’m feeling uneasy that a 16 year old is driving one of these things. I guess kids grow up faster on the range than in these here parts. I wouldn’t even let my kids light a match until they were 20.

Ree is grilling most of dinner…in keeping with the day’s activities. She’s starting with dessert, though – homemade vanilla ice cream. I like that she takes 2 quarts of heavy cream from the fridge. What could be wrong with that? Oh, it’s half and half. I guess I can live with that.

Ree warms up the half and half with some sugar. Interesting. I always add the sugar to the egg yolks for the base of the custard. She splits a vanilla bean and scraps out the seeds and adds both to the pot. She beats egg yolks in a mixer and then tempers them with some of the hot half and half mixture. Nothing wrong here, but it does feel weird to me that the egg yolks are sugar-less. Next Ree pours the tempered eggs (removing the vanilla bean pod) back into the half and half. She cooks it for a few minutes, stirring all the time.

About scalding the cream, in the olden days (you know, way back in 2000 something and before) recipes would always direct you to scald the milk for a custard. Nowadays, that’s not the case. Scalding used to be necessary before milk was pasteurized to kill bacteria. We don’t have that worry now, but there’s another reason for it. Scalding kills an enzyme in milk that hinders the egg yolks thickening. Some believe that custard just doesn’t set the same way with non-scalded milk.

I’m pretty set in my ways, so I always heat my milk and/or cream for a custard. I like that it dissolves the sugar and I may be imagining this, but I also like the flavor of heated-up milk. I could be making this up, but milk tastes sweeter to me after it’s been boiled. Even if I’m making a cold latte, I boil the milk first. I was once refused hot milk in an iced latte at Starbucks, because it was against the rules. So I had them make me a regular latte and I asked for a large cup of ice. Out of eyeshot, I poured it over the cup of ice. Perfect.

PS One more thing - Scalding milk in bread-making gives the dough a better volume, because it kills an enzyme that inhibits the development of gluten and prevents the dough from rising properly. 

Back to Ree, she adds the cooked custard to 3 cups of cold heavy cream.  Hmmm, so she scalded half the cream and the other half she used cold. Adding it cold WILL cool down the mixture faster and allow it to get into the ice cream machine faster. But I heat all the cream and milk to make the custard and then I cool it overnight, so it’s really cold.

By the way, my typical vanilla ice cream recipe is 5 cups of milk and cream to 6 egg yolks and 1 cup of sugar (actually, I take out 2 tablespoons). Ree’s has tons more sugar…6 cups of cream and half and half to 8 yolks and TWO cups of sugar.

Oh, Ree says she does sometimes chill the mixture first, but if you have a good ice cream machine, it will do it for you. NO, don’t assume that.  If you put a warmish custard into an ice cream machine, it will never get cold enough to do its creamy, velvety, whole point of ice cream thing.  It will never get beyond that super slushy phase within the time the ice cream machine is designed to run. My Cuisinart countertop ice cream machine loses its cool (literally) after about 35 minutes, although I never let it go past 25 to 30 minutes. (It says to turn it off after 45 minutes.) First rule of ice cream, start with a cold base.

While the ice cream is churning, Ree explains why they light their ranch on fire every spring. Apparently burning is “an important part of pasture management”. It makes the grass more nutritious for the cattle. Oh, and it “helps revitalize the prairie”. Who wouldn’t want that? They burn a perimeter around each pasture first and then put THAT fire out so the main fire in the middle of the pasture doesn’t spread. I sure hope nothing goes awry with their plan.

Ree takes the ice cream out of the machine. It looks a little soft. WHAT did I say? ;-)  She packs it into containers and puts it in the freezer until dinner.

Next up is individual blackberry pies. Ree adds sugar to frozen blackberries in a pot and then adds vanilla extract and heats it up. Nope, don’t do that. Add the vanilla after it comes off the heat, so you don’t burn all that expensive flavor away.

Ree cooks the blackberry mixture just until it comes to the boil. (That poor vanilla!) She adds lots of cornstarch to a little water and pours it into the blackberries and simmers it and then cools it. Again, don’t subject your vanilla to the same raucous boiling that the cornstarch requires.

Ree rolls out her pie crust. She made it by mixing flour (with salt), SALTED butter and shortening. Way too much salt, but salty stuff is so popular with dessert these days. I would never buy salted butter (the only good use I’ve ever heard for it is toast), but it might make a heartier tasting pie crust that contrasts nicely to the sweet berries. Maybe.

Ree mixes it all with a pastry blender and then she adds a beaten egg and cold water and white vinegar. WHY would she add vinegar? She doesn’t say, but it’s supposed to make a flakier crust because the acid inhibits the development of the gluten and the vinegar also prevents overbrowning. I’ve never added vinegar, but I have used lemon juice occasionally. Now that I think about it, it would make sense for a pie that bakes for a long time – pecan pie or a deep dish apple pie.

Ooh, so what have we learned? Vinegar in pie crust inhibits gluten and makes a flaky pie crust and scalded milk in yeast doughs does exactly the opposite. It ENCOURAGES the development of gluten. Do I have that right? Yup, I think so.

One other comment about Ree’s pastry. She says to use cold water. That’s not good enough, it should be ICE water. You’re trying to keep the butter or other fat as cold as it can be before it goes into the oven. Ree forms her pie dough into a disk and chills it. Oy, of course she does. And I know that’s what most people do. I have to mention (you’ve probably heard it before) my own weird method of dealing with pastry.

As soon as it’s mixed up, I roll out the beautifully pliable dough between two sheets of plastic wrap. It’s such a complete pleasure to work with soft dough, unlike dough from the fridge that you have to fight with and beat with a rolling pin. Mine is pliable and relaxed and delightful. And you’ve protected it from sticking with the plastic. (I have used foil too.) Then I lay the dough round on the top of an overturned baking sheet and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. I can also freeze it like that, which means I can get the messy and hard part of making a pie crust out of the way in advance. If I’m making a pie that day, I just take the dough from the fridge and fit it into the pie dish and maybe chill it just a bit longer before filling and baking, so it keeps it shape. 

Back to Ree’s pies - She cuts out the rolled out dough just big enough to cover her baby cast iron skillets. I love those. And I do love having special equipment for every little thing in the kitchen, but I have to admit those are not in my pantry. Life is too short to have EVERYTHING and individual cast iron skillets are not part of my stockpile (at the moment). I suppose you could use big ramekins or whatever you use for onion soup, for example.

Ree uses a ladle to get the filling into the skillets. She tops them the pastry rounds and brushes the crusts with egg wash and vents them. Meanwhile, we see the family starting fires…and putting them out. Ree bakes the little pies at 350°F for 20 to 25 minutes until they’re browned.

Apparently, the burning is going okay. We see scads of smoke and fire. They’re refilling the water trucks. Probably a good idea.

The pies come out of the oven.

Next are potatoes. Ree chops unpeeled russet potatoes into big chunks. She mixes in some chopped onion and puts them in heavy duty foil squares with a chunk of butter.  That’s a bit dull. And no salt? Oh, she adds some cream on top AND salt and pepper AND some paprika AND some chopped parsley. That sounds better. She folds up the squares and puts them on a hot grill. They cook for 30 minutes. (I find sometimes potatoes never cook through like that. I would be tempted to dump those potato pieces into boiling water for about 90 seconds and then proceed with the recipe.)

Ree finishes up the meal by making grilled corn with bell pepper butter. She processes really cold butter with 3 colors of peppers. She says to add a jalapeƱo too, if you want. Salt and pepper go in and she pulses it until it’s all combined. It looks chunky rather than smooth. Ree adds the flavored butter to individual foil packets of corn. She wraps them tight. We see Ladd hurling himself up into the cab of a big truck.

The corn packages go on the grill, not on the hottest part, Ree says. (Won’t they steam rather than grill? I guess that’s what she’s going for.) Ree puts chicken on the grill for 3 minutes on each side. (They’re boneless breasts.) She adds pre-sliced cheddar to the chicken. Oh and the chicken was marinated in vegetable oil, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and chopped onion.

Ree plates the chicken (before the family has arrived) and takes everything else off the grill.

One last thing to do. She fries bacon for the sliders. The kids and Ladd arrive. Their faces are covered in soot and their clothes smell like smoke. They wash their hands and sit down at the table. Ick, I would want them fumigated before they touched any furniture. Ree is much more relaxed. They eat whatever she’s made and drink water from jam jars and are very happy with their little pies and ice cream. Luckily, their fire-mongering went well, and they didn’t need that jam jar water to put out any blazes.