Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jam Session

I know that canning foods can be a bit intimidating. It is a very laborious and exacting process, requiring specialized equipment. Making freezer jam is none of the above. And it's delicious. And it's nutritious. And it's budget-friendly. I don't know why it's not more popular. Or is it popular, and I just don't realize it? Any other jam freezers out there?

The only downside is you have to store it in the freezer. Several years ago, I experimented with canning jam, so that I could store it in the pantry. Experiment is not really a verb you want to use when it comes to canning. Suffice it to say I ended up with a lot of spoiled jam. And I also found that in cooking the strawberries with required copious amount of sugar, you lose out on a lot of the freshness that makes jam so appealing.

So, I have ended my dabbling ways and started an exclusive relationship with freezer jam. I just follow the recipe on the back of the pectin container, but here it is, with step-by-step photos.

1. Go to your nearest u-pick strawberry field and pick about 4 quarts of super ripe berries. This will be plenty for one big recipe of jam, and then you'll have some leftovers. Chocolate covered strawberries, anyone? 

2. Wash, hull, and halve the berries. 

3. Mash them in small batches with a potato masher.

4. Repeat until you have 5 cups of mashed berries.

5. Mix together 2 cups of sugar and 6 tablespoons of freezer jam pectin. I use Ball brand. Pectin is the gelling agent in the jam. 

6. Add in berries, and stir for three minutes.

7. Ladle into glass jars (must be straight up and down jars), or any smallish plastic containers you have. This recipe says it makes 6 cups, but I ended up with 7. 

8. Let the jars rest for 30 minutes before you put them in the freezer.

9. Enjoy for the next year on toast and ice cream or in smoothies and milkshakes. Or straight out of the jar with a spoon.

Now here's the skinny, if I did my calculations correctly. It's less than half of the calories and grams of sugar in Smuckers.

The cost ends up at about $1/jar, again about half as much as Smuckers.

The difference in taste is immeasurable. Happy jamming! 

Saturday, April 28, 2012


This is one of my favorite words to teach my PSAT students.  The sound of it has such a negative connotation, but once you start employing it in your vernacular, it becomes so pleasantly positive.  I usually describe it as a little cottage in the woods.  But from now on, I could just show them these Instagram pictures, from my perfectly bucolic Saturday. 


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Go-To Lunch: Mexican Lasagna

Look for some posts about my go-to lunches in the coming weeks. I'm not ready to give you all of them right now. I'm going to make you wait for them. Because I haven't written them yet. Because that way you'll appreciate them more.

Remember this post? I made a Mexican-style pork butt and froze the leftovers for other uses. Well, here's another use. I make one (or in this case, two) of these casseroles every so often, then freeze it in pre-portioned servings to take to school for lunch when I'm racing the clock. And yes, that happens 95% of the time, so during the school year, I go through these rather quickly. 

This does involve some prep work and assembly, but it's so worth it to have a frozen meal, in which you can name every ingredient.

What you'll need for one casserole:
  • About 2 cups of the frozen pork, thawed, then quickly heated in canola oil. Add about 1/2 cup of pickled jalapenos. 
  • This corn mixed with these caramelized onions. This is a favorite, if you haven't noticed. So delicious. So versatile. 
  • Two cans of pinto beans (or red or kidney, whatever you have on hand), drained and mostly rinsed, then heated up on the stove with some water and Mexican spices added. I like a lot of cumin and oregano, then a bit of garlic powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper. 
  • One block of queso fresco 
  • One package of shredded colby jack cheese 
  • One package of small flour tortillas. Note: I've tried this with corn tortillas, and the flavor is good, but they end up disintegrating and becoming a bit pasty. And no one likes paste. 
  • One can of green chile enchilada sauce (I use Las Palmas.) 

The assembly:

  • Set up an area in your kitchen like this, so it goes faster. 
  • Pour a bit of the enchilada sauce on the bottom of your pan. 
  • Then dip several tortillas in the enchilada sauce and place them in the pan. 
  • Alternate layers of pork, corn and onions, and beans, and always end with a layer of both cheeses before the next tortilla layer. Dip the tortillas in the enchilada sauce before commencing the next layer. 
  • End with a layer of tortillas and top with a hefty amount of both cheeses. 
  • Bake it at 350 for about 30 minutes. You could feed a crowd right away, or let it cool in the refrigerator, portion it, and freeze it in zip-loc bags. 
Ready for the oven

Hello, beautiful. 

I like to serve mine with salsa verde and Greek yogurt. I hope you enjoy!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Austerity Measures

In the spirit of both spring cleaning and frugality, I decided to give myself a challenge in the kitchen: do not go to the grocery store for one month.  Doesn't seem like that big of a deal, as long as you plan, right?  But the catch is, the last time I went to the store was Sunday, April 15th.  The challenge had not yet been born, so I didn't go in with the intention of stocking up for weeks of so-called austerity.  I just got my regulars like yogurt, salad greens, bananas, eggs, etc. 

This is a look at my pantry and fridge as of Thursday, April 19th.  Pantry - fully stocked, and quite messy.  Fridge - already looking a bit bare. 

One of my kitchen faults is wasting food.  Sometimes I am a perfect meal planner, make a list of all meals for the week, convert that into a grocery list, and buy only what I need.  But more often I am not.  I wander the aisles of the store, selecting items that pique my interest at the time, but that I have no desire to actually prepare, cook, or eat (see: tahini, shelf 1).

This challenge is going to force me to get the creative juices flowing in the kitchen.  My pantry has staples like beans, grains, and canned tomato products.  And my freezer has some leftover roasted chicken, pulled pork, and some veggies, so I'm not going to subsist on a diet of mayonnaise and ketchup.  But once the eggs are gone, they're gone.  Same goes for the lettuce, bananas, milk, and, oh yeah, the tahini. 

This week has been pretty tame, as far as my meals were concerned.  I located a freezer bag full of roasted chicken pieces (score!), and made an orzo salad with that plus asparagus, broccoli, and pesto.  I'm already out of English muffins, so breakfast this morning was banana bread oatmeal - delicious! 

Once May 15th rolls around, you might want to check back to see the potential horror on my dinner plate.  Barley + ketchup + frozen corn?  I hope it doesn't come to that.

A couple notes on the challenge: 
1. I will not deprive myself of dinners out with friends.
2. I will not eat any take-out.
3. I will seek out free food whenever possible. (Oh but wait, I do that already. #teacherproblems)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

All Aboard the Cycling Wagon

I have been a runner for the last 18 years, and it's always been my #1 fitness activity of choice.  I consider myself to be quite the capable runner, and I have acquired a bit of hardware over the years to back it up.

While fast and furious on my feet I may be, I have no real athletic skills.  Yet that hasn't stopped me from trying to find that niche sport that I'm going to make my millions doing.

The normal ones: tennis, golf, basketball, softball, swimming, soccer, figure skating, squash, volleyball, racquetball.  The outdoorsy ones: kayaking, water skiing, snow skiing, surfing. The more recreational ones: billiards, darts, wiffle ball, bocce ball, badminton, table tennis, bowling, cornhole, broomball, horseshoes.

While I thoroughly enjoy my time on the ice rink, in a kayak, and at the dart board, my skill level in all of the above activities is mediocre to poor.  Yet I'm still on a mission to find my hidden athletic talent.  Next on my list: falconry, jai alai, and car racing.

Tangential to this lifelong quest, I have recently found the perfect companion to my running: bicycling.  I have always somewhat enjoyed biking as a means of transportation or a fun recreational activity, but I never thought of it as a fitness opportunity.  Until now.  I got a new bike about six weeks ago, and it is a dream.  It's lightweight, smooth, fast, and even has that new-bike smell.  Living one minute from the longest bike trail in Memphis affords me the opportunity to ride often.

And I love it.

Today I participated in my first duathlon.  While a complete success it was not (see: bike wreck, mi 6), I had fun and really enjoyed the atmosphere of the race.  So Lance, don't get too comfortable in your yellow jersey. I'm coming for you.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Procrastination at its Best

This is what I do when I have a mound of papers to grade: 

Granted, these are not for personal use.  Chapter six puppet plays are tomorrow, and I wanted to have some stuff ready.  But I in no way needed to spend three hours making puppets.  I needed to spend three hours grading tests. 

Sock puppets; apparently another manifestation of my aversion to grading. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Six Quick Cooking Tips

I present to you my six best cooking tips.  Legggggoooooo!*

1. Cast iron skillet
Unlike other skillets, a cast iron skillet will last forever, and it will actually get better with age.  It can go from the stovetop to the oven.  And it actually adds iron to your food.  And it's just so retro. 

2. Podcasts
This tip is especially for those who don't particularly enjoy cooking. Listening to podcasts will get your mind off the sometimes menial tasks of chopping and mixing. When I'm doing a lot of cooking, I often catch up on This American Life. I also use the podcast trick when I'm cleaning my house. It has turned cleaning into something I look forward to don't dread. 

3. Chicken stock
I know you can buy chicken stock at the grocery store, but homemade broth makes all the difference in the world in your cooking. And chicken stock comes up in lots of recipes. Whenever I make bone-in chicken, I freeze the bones, and once I have amassed a pot-full of bones, I make a batch of chicken stock. It goes back into the freezer in pint-sized freezer bags. 

4. Rice wine vinegar
A splash of acid turns the most tired boring dish into a beautiful flavor explosion. (I'm working on my Iron Chef Judge audition, in case you were wondering.) If you've ever cooked something and it just doesn't have that je ne sais quo, try adding a bit of rice wine vinegar. It wakes up all the flavors and turns bland into bright. (*Note: Rice vinegar and rice wine vinegar are the same thing, in case you were wondering.)

5. Freeze
I freeze everything. When my bananas are overripe, I just throw them in the freezer until I'm ready to make banana bread, hummingbird cake, or these pancakes. I freeze chicken bones to make chicken stock. I freeze vegetable remnants to make vegetable stock. When I have a lot of basil, I make pesto and freeze it in baby food jars. In the spring, I freeze jam. In the summer, I freeze corn.  I'm not a big fan of frozen foods at the grocery store, so I always like to have some go-to lunches on hand, frozen in individual containers, like mexican casserole or eggplant parmesan. 

6. Penzey's Spices
I was not sold on this tip until I tried it myself.  The difference between supermarket spices and Penzey's is legit.  If you're lucky enough to live near a retail store, just go there.  Like ASAP.  If you're not among the lucky, they have an online store.  Go to the website and scroll through the list.  It'll make you very hungry and very inspired.  Not only do they sound delicious, they really do improve the flavor of your cooking.  

*According to my students, I am not hip enough to use such expressions, but watch me defy them. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Quinoa al Tonno

This is a recipe I've made many times before using orzo or spaghetti.  Due to my recent, well-documented love affair with quinoa, I decided to use it instead of pasta.  It still tastes really good, but if you consider yourself a "texture" person, I recommend keeping the orzo.  The juice in the tomatoes and tuna gets absorbed by the quinoa, making the dish a bit soggy.  But it still makes for a delightful Saturday lunch.

Quinoa al Tonno

1 onion, chopped
1 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 2/3 cup chicken broth
1 tsp salt
1 can chunk light tuna in water
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped black olives
1/4 cup chopped parsley
feta cheese and toasted pine nuts, as toppings

Saute the onion in olive oil in a pot on medium for about 5 minutes. Add in the quinoa and toast for another 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth and salt, and turn up the heat to high. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat to low, put a lid on it, and cook for about 20 minutes.

Once the broth has all been absorbed, put the quinoa in the refrigerator to cool. Add in the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Top with the feta and pine nuts.

Buon appetito!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hummingbird Pancakes

Don't get me wrong, getting a day off school is a wonderful feeling, but often I try to fit in errands, appointments, and the the like.  It can sometimes devolve into a day of waiting rooms, lines at the post office, and paying bills.  Today was different.  I gave myself a complete and total free day.  So what did I do with my free day? I cooked, of course!

Talking to a friend at school yesterday about pancakes had me craving them this morning.  I've been training a lot lately and trying to keep a slim waistline, so I set out to find a healthy recipe.  After some internet research, I discovered you can make pancakes by putting egg whites, old fashioned oats, and any other flavorings in a food processor. Genius, right?

I decided to try it using the ingredients in my favorite cake, hummingbird cake.  Now, these are not light and fluffy pancakes.  I would describe them as stick-to-your-ribs pancakes, as they are high in protein and all other sorts of yummy nutrients. You won't even want to put butter on them.  Here's the recipe:

Hummingbird Pancakes

For the pancakes:
1 cup old fashioned oats
2 egg whites
1 t honey
1/2 overripe, mashed banana
3 T crushed pineapple (make sure you include some juice in that)
1/2 t baking powder
pinch of cinnamon

sliced banana
fresh pineapple chunks
toasted coconut
toasted pecans, chopped
greek yogurt, mixed with honey and pineapple juice to thin out (this will be the syrup)

1. Put all the pancake ingredients into the food processor and process until smooth and runny.

2. Cook like you would normal pancakes.
3. Top with all the yummy toppings, and you have hummingbird cake in a pancake.  Enjoy!

Lunch was Greek quinoa with tuna. I also made a Mexican casserole to freeze for lunches. Look for those recipes soon.