Thursday, September 25, 2008

Back from Vacation!

We've been on vacation! We went up north for a holiday, and I'm just now catching up on my blogging. Before I did that, though, I spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen.

Pictured here is a batch of my favorite Chocolate Zucchini Bread. I froze one loaf, gave away another, and we've been enjoying the third loaf this week.

How Many Cans Can a Canner Can?

The last few days of our vacation, we played catch-up on work around the home, and I had fun getting back into canning.

First, I started a big pot of water bowling with apples that I picked from the trees in my father's backyard--dwarf apple trees my mother and I bought and planted together several years ago.

I didn't have to peel and core them. I just followed my sister's advice and the instructions inside a package of Sure-Jell, and only washed the apples, quatered them, and cut off the blossom end and the stem. Then I bowled them until they were soft enough to mash with an antique potato masher that I inherited from one of my two grandmothers.

After boiling the mashed apples, I put them through a sieve lined with a jelly bag my mother had made from cheesecloth. That netted enough apple juice to make two batches of apple jelly, and then I went to work with the sieve again to make apple butter.

The first photo with this post shows my sieve with its wooden tool for pressing the fruit against the sides. I had to do a lot of pressing for the juice for the jelly, but I got even more of an upper-body workout pressing without the jelly bag to make the apple butter. But after enjoying a baking powder biscuit last night with a generous smear of homemade apple butter, I would gladly do it all again.

After pressing the apple mush through the sieve, leaving just the hard cores and seeds in the sieve, plus the remaining mush that I decided to compost, I sweetened it using a formula I found in 1950s-era cookbook--measure the apple mush to find the volume and add 1/3 of that volume of sugar to the apple mush. Then, heat in a big pot on the stove until its bubbly.

While the sweetened apple mush was cooking, I added a couple of teaspoons of almond extract (just until it tasted right to me). And then I canned the apple butter.

My last canning effort of the day was another batch of those luscious Italian-Style Banana Peppers I made before our vacation. One taste of what I had made then, and I knew that I had to buy more banana peppers from the farmers market. I canned two jars and put the rest into the refrigerator to use right away...What a treat it will be this winter to enjoy home-canned produce from the summer and fall! And I'm thinking that I might use a few of the jars of apple jelly for gifts this Christmas.

He's a Happy Boy!

While I was in our yard taking photos of our fall flowers, Charlie was following me around, as usual. I stooped to shoot the black-eyed susans that you see in this picture, and guess who sat right next to them to be part of the photo?

Doesn't he look like he's having a good time? This is why we call little Charlie our Happy Boy! :-)

Easter Lilies in September

What a thrill to see Easter lilies blooming in my garden in the fall!

My dear mother-in-law has been giving me the Easter lily she buys in honor of her husband every year for the past two or three years. Each year I've enjoyed them while the blossoms lasted after Easter and then planted them into my garden, but I've never had them blossom again...until this summer and fall!

These are the second set of liles to blossom this year. The first came in August, and the second came right before we left from our vacation up north (a couple of weeks ago), and I was thrilled to return home and find that they were still blooming.

Another thing that was thrilling and amazing to me was that I didn't expect more than one lily plant to sprout from the ground where I planted just one plant. I knew that I might have more than one blossom per plant, but I didn't know that after planting the lily from the pot and watching it shrivel back a bit and look like it would be focusing on putting down roots this year, when the plants came up again (either the next year or, this year, it happened later the same season), I would have multiple plants from that one planting. What you see in this photo here is what I planted this year from one plant, and you might be able to pick out in this photo that there are three distinct plants coming up in this area.

I'm no botanist, so I don't know why this happened, or whether this means that these particular plants that bloomed this month will die over the winter since they didn't spend the summer this year just putting down roots. But I'm just going to enjoy what came up when it's here. It reminds of that verse in the Bible...

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fast and Easy Huevos Rancheros

I found this recipe on another cooking blog called Smitten Kitchen. It was more of a tutorial there than it was a recipe, but it really made a great dinner for us this past week. I'll try to add a photo of it here as soon as we make it again.

The only change that I made from the original is that I couldn't find Goya Black Bean Soup in our local grocery, so I improvised with a can of black beans, chopped onion, minced garlic, and seasonings. I liked that combination so well that I probably won't worry about continuing to look for the commercial soup.

1 can black beans
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Garlic salt, ground black pepper, cumin, and cayenne pepper to taste

4 small flour tortillas
Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 large eggs
Light sour cream

Saute onions in a small amount of olive oil or another cooking oil until translucent. Add minced garlic, black beans (undrained), and seasonings to taste. Simmer until well combined.

In a frying pan, lightly brown one side of a tortilla, then flip to the other side and sprinkle a little shredded cheese on top. Crack and egg over it, season, and flip the whole thing when egg is halfway set. When egg is cooked to your taste, slide it onto a plate and serve with black beans, salsa, and sour cream. Repeat with three other tortillas, eggs, etc.

Chocolate Loaf Cake (made with yogurt)

I can't take any credit for this recipe. It came from a great blog I only recent discovered. This was super easy to make, and really good...but only after it sits for a few hours on the counter in a plastic bag...I know that sounds strange, but it's true.

I tried a sliced of this loaf cake when it was still warm, and I wasn't terribly impressed. But I cut a few more slices anyway for my husband to try when he got home from work. I put a plastic zipper bag over the whole thing to keep it moist and, low and behold, it tasted really great after that! It seemed more moist, and the flavors seemed to have blended better by then. It also seemed more chocolate-y and rich, even though the only change was a little time on the counter and the bag. My only guess about this is that, since this is a lower-fat recipe than many chocolate recipes, and since the yogurt has such a distinctive flavor, it just needed the time to blend and soften a bit.
I'm definitely going to make this recipe again, but next time, despite how good it smells while it's baking, I'm going to resist the temptation to try a piece until it's had a little time to rest.

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1-1/4 cups sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup plain, low-fat yogurt

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly grease a 9x5 loaf pan.

Whisk first four ingredients together. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg and egg white. Mix in 1/3 of the flour mixture.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk remaining ingredients until smooth. Add half to the sugar mixture, followed by another 1/3 of the flour mixture. Stir in the remaining yogurt and remaining flour, stirring only until no streaks of flour remain. Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cake cool in pan for about 10 minutes. Then carefully loosen the sides of the cake from the pan with a knife and turn it out into a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.

Note: Did you notice that the instructions call for letting it sit until cool? I should not have ignored these instructions the first time. :-)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sewing Fall Clothes Again

It's been feeling like fall already. We had a really warm and humid Labor Day, but overnight everything changed. So it seemed like a really good week to work on new fall clothes.

Also, I've been keeping odd hours this week, due to a temporary job that my husband took during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. He's working 12- to 14-hour days from mid-afternoons through after midnight every night until the convention is over on Friday.

Thankfully, I work with really gracious people, and I was able to shift my hours this week to match my husband's hours. So I'm working midday through late evening, which still leaves me with about four hours after I finish work before my husband is home for the night. And, for the most part, I'm using the time in the sewing room.

The two blouses are both sleeveless, so they'll be mostly worn under a cardigan, and I know that I'm going to get a lot of use out of this long, khaki-colored skirt. I've been wanting a skirt like this for at least a couple of years, and I finally gave up scouring the thrift and consignment stores to find them...I almost never buy new clothes, unless you count clothes that just new to me. I try to buy everything except for lingerie and swimsuits second-hand, other than what I take time to sew.

Though you can't tell this in the photo of the skirt, I still need to hem it before I can really wear it. But that will have to wait until my husband is done with this temp job and our life is back to normal hours again. Hopefully this weekend, he'll have the time and energy to indulge me again as my "hemming assistant"...I really do have a wonderful guy in my husband.

Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole

I've been trying to use what we have on hand lately, just to keep our food bills lower than usual, but we sure didn't feel like we were living on a budget when we enjoyed this Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole for dinner today.

I've always enjoyed wild rice, but I had never tried cooking it at home. Since I had some in the pantry, and we had bone-in chicken breasts in the freezer, this seemed like a good recipe to try...and it was.

1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. garlic salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 can (14.5 oz.) chicken broth (I actually made my own broth from the bones after broiling the chicken breasts)
1 cup half and half cream
4 cups cubed cooked chicken (I brined the chicken first just to make sure that it would be nice and juicy)
4 cups cooked wild rice
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
4 oz. diced pimientos, drained
1 Tbsp. fresh minced parsley
1/3 cup slivered almonds, roasted

In a large saucepan, saute onion in butter until translucent, then add garlic and saute for a couple more minutes. Stir in flour, garlic salt, and pepper until blended. Gradually stir in broth, bring to a boil. Boil and stir until thickened and bubbly. Stir in the cream, chicken, rice, mushrooms, pimientos, and parsley, and heat through. Transfer to a greased 2-1/2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with almonds. Bake, uncovered at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, or until bubbly. (Serves 6-8.)

Note: In case you're new to wild rice, like I was...First wash 1 cup of wild rice thoroughly in hot tap water, then heat it in a pan with three cups of water and 1 tsp. salt. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer until rice is tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, draining any extra water when the rice is tender but not mushy.

Another Note: If you'd like to try brining the chicken before cooking it, like I did, for 4 lbs. of bone-in chicken breasts, mix 2 quarts water, 1/4 cup salt, and 1/4 cup sugar in a large container. I used a clean, empty, 5-quart ice cream bucket. Add the chicken breasts to the brining solution and refrigerate for an hour. Then rinse and cook as intended.