Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Recipe Fails

If you've been here more than once or twice, you probably know that I love to cook. I learned to cook as a child, spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother and my father. In my late teens and early twenties, I started buying cookbooks for myself, and spent hours in my apartment kitchens, cooking up all kinds of vegetarian dishes for friends. Now I have a big ol' family, and I cook pretty much constantly. I'm forever trying new recipes, tweaking old ones, and experimenting with various ingredients. Most of the time, things go well. But sometimes... not.

Last night was one of  those times. I attempted to make a lentil and amaranth casserole from a recipe I found online. It seemed like a great, easy recipe... saute a little onion and carrot, mix together with some dry lentils, amaranth and vegetable stock. Add a little salt and pepper. Bake. Seemed like a perfect recipe for a busy weeknight. I followed the recipe pretty much exactly, except that I added some chopped kale, for a little green. I'm not sure if it was me that went wrong, or if it was just a bad recipe, but let me tell you...  nothing about this dish went as expected. It took about 15 minutes longer to cook than it was supposed to, and it never quite achieved "casserole" consistency. It was definitely more stew-like. We were OK with that... we like stew. It didn't look particularly appetizing, but looks aren't everything. Well, it didn't taste so appetizing, either. We were able to fix it up a bit with extra seasoning to make it edible, but it is definitely NOT something we'll attempt again.

The moral of this story is that even someone who has 30+ years of cooking experience is not immune to cooking disasters. You win some, you lose some. This is why it's best not to try out a new recipe for the first time on a special occasion. I made that mistake once, long ago, when I tried a new homemade ravioli recipe for a dinner party. The pasta was too thick, didn't cook properly, and the whole dish was heavy as lead. Awful. Embarrassing. Lesson Learned. I was able to laugh about it later, but at the time? Notsomuch.

Speaking of new recipes... tonight we'll be trying another new thing: Black bean spaghetti. The Man picked some up while shopping recently, because he thought it looked interesting. So I'm going to try making it into a simple pasta-and-veggie dish... fingers crossed it turns out good!





Monday, April 28, 2014

7-Year Life Cycles

This is a deeply personal post... about transitions, acceptance, and finding happiness.

I recently read an article about how we humans go through 7 year cycles in our lives. I became completely fascinated by this concept, and I've been reading more about it.

I find such comfort in Cycles... the seasons, the tides, the phases of the moon, etc. It calms me to think that everything has a natural rhythm. This "Life Cycle" concept speaks to me. Know how sometimes you read something and you just think to yourself, "Oh, YES! that's IT!!!" Well that's what happened. I realized that my life really did fall into pretty distinct 7-year cycles. They have built upon each other, one cycle sort of "preparing" me for the next. The last 7 year cycle, in particular, was SUCH a crazy ride and such a transformative time for me. I ended that cycle in a completely different place than I began. I feel now that it was a time of enormous growth and lessons to be learned, which prepared me to begin my current 7-year cycle.

When I turned 35, in 2006, I was married, with three beautiful children, ages 6, 4 and 18 months. I was a full-time, stay-at-home Mom, and I was loving every minute of it. Also, I was an artist, selling my work on Etsy and at Art and Craft shows. I did some theater... mostly children's theater, so I could have my kids with me. For the most part, I loved my life. The only downside was that my marriage wasn't going so well. My husband and I were pretty much living completely separate lives... I had my life with my kids and my art, and he had his life with his work and his theater stuff, and there was very little crossing of the two. It just wasn't at all how I imagined married life to be. We tried, and there were brief periods where we really made an effort, but it just came down to the fact that we were very different people, with VERY different life goals.

Thus began my last 7-year cycle.

By 2007, when I was 36, my marriage was really crumbling, and we moved to a new house, in an effort to "fix things." By 2008, my marriage was beyond repair, and we began a long and painful separation process. By the time 2009 rolled around, the financial toll of both the move and the separation left me in massive debt. I was struggling to find my way in the world as a single mom. I was working hard, trying to support myself and my children and continue to pay for the house that I really couldn't afford to maintain, while still trying to homeschool the kids. It was really, really hard. Although I knew that ending the marriage was the right decision, I still mourned the loss of the parts of my life that I had really loved.

There was one positive thing to come out of 2009, which is that I met The Man, and we started a beautiful relationship that is still going strong five years later. Still, I was pretty much in survival mode at that time. I focused my attentions on trying to just provide for my family while developing this new relationship. I felt like I was juggling so many things and not doing any of them particularly well. Over time, The Man and I have worked together to find a better balance. We're still working on it, but we've come a long way.

This cycle began to draw to a close in 2013, when my kids' dad, my former husband, lost his battle with cancer. That traumatic event made me take a good hard look at my life. It changed me in profound ways.

So now, at age 42, I am at the start of a new cycle. I'm continuing to nurture the parts of my life that bring me joy. I'm consciously working on changing the things that don't. The last cycle has paved the way for this one, and this cycle will pave the way for the next. I've learned from my mistakes, and I know that I will continue to learn from them. I have perspective. I have Peace.






Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Morning Tofu Scramble

So, no pizza post this week... mostly because last night's pizza was just a plain, ol' peppers, onions, spinach and tomato, nuthin' fancy, pizza. Delicious, satisfying Simplicity, but not really blog-worthy.

Instead, I have a recipe for Sunday Morning Tofu Scramble! Excited? I am! I LOVE me some Scramble. Tofu scramble is a vegan mainstay, and there are about a thousand different ways to make it. We make it different pretty much every time, depending on what we have in the fridge. Many good vegan cookbooks have a version of Scramble, and you'll find a bunch of different variations out on the Interwebs. This particular version is one based on a veggie egg scramble I used to make, back when I ate eggs.

Sunday Morning Tofu Scramble

Serves 4

1 block of extra firm tofu
1 large onion, diced
1 medium red pepper, diced
4 plump cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika (smoked paprika is my fave)
1/2 tsp turmeric
black pepper, to taste
2 cups chopped greens (spinach, arugula, kale, chard... whatever you have on hand)
1 tomato, diced
3 Tbsp nutritional yeast

*NOTE: To make this easier to prepare on Sunday morning, I sometimes dice up extra onion and pepper on Saturday nights, while I'm prepping our pizza, and store it in a little container in the fridge.

In a large non-stick skillet, saute the onion and pepper in a little oil until it's soft. Add the garlic, and cook a few more minutes. Drain the tofu, and then crumble it into the pan with your hands. Add the spices and mix together well, until the tofu is evenly coated in spices. Continue to cook on medium-high, stirring often, until the tofu starts to brown. Add the greens and the tomato, and stir until the greens start to wilt. Add in the nutritional yeast. Serve.

We always serve this with oven roasted potatoes. The Man also likes toast with his, but I skip the toast and just pile on the 'taters. Mmmm....

My Scramble, with roasted Yukon gold and sweet potatoes. 

Since this recipe serves 4, and usually only The Man and I eat it, there are usually leftovers. We love to eat the leftovers for lunch the next day served over a baked potato or in a wrap. So good.



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Family Rules (and Getting Kids to Follow Them)

Hanging up on our kitchen Command Center wall, we have a list of our Family Rules.

Our Family Rules


These rules are what I consider to be the basics of how we should behave toward one another, for a peaceful, happy home. I also feel that these rules embody the way I want my children to treat people in general, now, and as they grow up and leave the nest. Our rules are:


1.  Be kind and respectful
2.  Share
3.  No hitting
4.  No shouting
5.  No calling names
6.  Be considerate of each other's feelings
7.  Be helpful
8.  If you make a mistake, do what you can to fix it
9.  Treat each other the way you want to be treated
10. Schoolwork and chores must be done before play


We've had these same rules posted since the kids were really little, the only change being that we added #10 about 7 years ago, when my oldest was around 8 years old. One would think, after having these rules in place for pretty much their entire lives, my kids would be following them in their sleep, no? Well, if you think that, you'd be wrong. Adolescents are known for "challenging" the rules, and my precious angels are no exception. I realized after an evening where rules 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 were broken in about 2 minutes time by three kids that things were getting a bit out of hand. They were obviously not motivated to follow the rules in just to have a peaceful, happy house. I decided it was time to crack down and have some kind of consequences for not following the rules.

Enter: The Chore Jar. I made a list of household chores, cut them out, folded them up and tucked them in a mason jar. From now on, whenever a Family Rule is broken, the offender will have to draw a chore out of the mason jar and do it.


The Chore Jar
Before you start emailing me about how positive reinforcement is better than negative, etc etc etc... yes, yes, I know. We've tried rewards for good behavior (And that is still something we do) but in dealing with stubborn tweens and teens, we've also found that sometimes they need a little EXTRA motivation. Since my kids will do pretty much anything avoid doing extra chores, I'm hoping The Chore Jar will be effective motivation in this case. What can I say... I'm a desperate Mama, who is tired of listening to squabbles. Besides, I figure this is a no-lose situation. Even if they continue to disregard the rules, at least my house will be clean! ;)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Garden Time!

Between being really busy with work, homeschool and activities, and the weather not cooperating, we've gotten a very late start on our garden this year. But... we had a day off for Patriot's Day on Monday, so we designated it as Garden Day. It was a gorgeous day, warm and breezy, and it felt so wonderful to be digging in the dirt.

We did get quite a lot done, though not as much as I'd hoped. In addition to planting a bunch of seeds (peas, potatoes, carrots, beets, Swiss chard and spinach) we also moved a Japanese Maple out to make room for two blueberry bushes that needed to be moved to a sunnier spot. I also did some tidying up (some stuff I should have done last fall... oops!) and prepped a couple of other beds which will be planted in the next week or two.

We still have much to do in the coming weeks. Our vegetable garden consists of seven 6 foot by 8 foot raised beds. We also have a raised strawberry bed which is near some raspberry canes. Along one side, we have a border of flowers, to encourage native pollinators. Between our garden area and our patio, we have a border of perennial herbs, which, unfortunately, did not fare so well during our long, cold winter. We will have to replant most of those herbs, I fear. We will also soon be planting our seeds for sunflowers, summer squashes, winter squashes, cucumbers, beans and lettuces. Finally, we'll be transplanting the seeds we started inside (kale, cauliflower, broccoli, peppers) and we'll be getting some starts from the garden center for tomatoes and annual herbs.

Growing a garden of this size is a fair amount of work, but it's such satisfying work, which reaps huge rewards. There is nothing better than stepping out the back door and getting fresh produce from your own garden for dinner. Even the children love to go out and pick a salad for lunch. Growing a veggie garden is also frugal. Although there are up-front costs in getting it started, the amount of food we get in the end more than justifies the cost. On a good year, we end up with fresh food to eat every day, as well as having enough leftover to can and freeze for the colder months.

Today it's raining... a warm, spring rain, soaking the ground and helping the seeds grow. Tomorrow's forecast shows sunny skies, 58 degrees. I'm grateful for these perfect garden-growing conditions.
The blank slate of our garden... waiting for plants.

Monday, April 21, 2014

This Week's Homemade Pizza!

This week I went to Whole Foods to buy the fixin's for our regular Saturday Night Pizza. I was disappointed to find that they were out of our usual Daiya Mozzerella-style shreds, but I did see a new kind of vegan mozzarella called Teese which looked interesting. We decided to give it a go, and I must say I'm glad we did. It was an interesting change from our usual. This variety is not in shreds, but is packaged as a log, much like fresh mozzarella. The taste and texture were very similar to fresh mozzarella, as well. Rather than shred it for the pizza, I decided to treat it like I would a the "real" stuff, and just slice it for the pizza. No regrets. It worked out great!

Another new thing we tried this week was some Sun-dried Tomato Pesto. I'm a big fan of pesto, in general, especially on pizza. Since I happened to have sun dried tomatoes on hand, I decided to make this special pesto, and it was goooood. Here's the recipe: 

Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

Sun dried tomato pesto on a cracker
You will need: 

4 cups of basil leaves (fairly packed)
4-6 cloves of garlic (depending on how garlicky you like it)
½ cup of pine nuts or walnuts
¾ cup of extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup of sun dried tomatoes (if the type not packed in oil, soak in hot water for five minutes)
Salt to taste

Put everything into a food processor and blend until smooth. That's it! 

I must confess, The Man and I ate a fair amount of this on crackers while I was preparing the rest of the pizza. This stuff is so good, on crackers, in sandwiches, on pizza and on pasta. I could eat it by the spoonful.

So here is how it all came together... the finished pizza!

Multigrain crust, sundried tomato pesto, red peppers, red onion, spinach
 and vegan "mozzarella" Delicious! 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beet and Cauliflower Soup

First thing I must say about this soup: It is SO PRETTY! Seriously, this is GORGEOUS soup. It also happens to be delicious, but that's really secondary to how absolutely lovely it is. It's got the most beautiful jewel-like color... a bright, rosy, pinkish red. We ate this here at home on a regular ol' Friday night, but it would be right at home at a fancy dinner party, too. I mean, really... just look at this soup:

Beet and Cauliflower Soup, served here with a Cashew Cheese
and carmelized onion sammie on spelt bread. Deee-lish!

This recipe was based on a Martha Stewart recipe. I changed it up a bit, to make it vegan, and because I wanted the beet flavor to shine through a bit more. I also increased the dill, because I just really like dill, and added a dash of lemon. Here is my version:

Vegan Beet and Cauliflower Soup

Drizzle of olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 head of cauliflower, chopped (around 3 cups or so)
4 med-large beets, peeled and chopped
6 cups of light vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 Tbsp chopped fresh dill
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice (1-2 Tbsp)

Heat the oil in a soup pot, then add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the cauliflower and beets, then stir in the broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low until the veggies are very soft. Stir in the salt, pepper and dill. Remove from heat, Let cool for a bit, then puree in a blender in small batches until smooth, then return to the pot and heat through. Stir in the lemon juice, taste for salt, and serve, garnished with a wee bit of dill.

Word of warning: I am not kidding about cooling this a bit, nor am I kidding about pureeing this in small batches. If you try to blend this while it's too hot, or with too much in the blender, this will happen:

A pretty colored mess, but a big mess just the same. It really is best to puree in small batches, and let it cool a minute first. Lesson learned!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Learning to Make Soap

Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to have a soap-making lesson with my good friend Laura. I've been lucky enough to receive her homemade soap as a gifts in the past, and have always wanted to learn how to make it myself.

Laura stirring in some extra olive oil, to
make the soap extra moisturizing.
I was surprised at just how precise a science the whole process is! I always assumed soap making was like cooking, but it's a lot more like chemistry class than Home Ec. Safety is SO important when making soap, as lye is caustic and can cause severe burns. Laura covered every surface in the kitchen and we wore rubber gloves and safety glasses. It's also really important to measure everything exactly by weight, and to make sure everything is exactly the right temperature. If you don't, your soap will not turn out right. Seriously, soap-making is both an art and a science!

I'd planned to put the recipe we used here, with step-by-step photos, I didn't get pictures of every step, as I was too involved in the process to photograph it! So I guess I'll just have to make MORE soap, and take better pics, and I'll post the recipe next time.

Pouring our soap into paper cup molds
The recipe we used was a very basic olive oil soap, to which we added some lavender and mint essential oils. It smells amazing! The hardest part is the WAITING. After your soap is molded, you're supposed to wait at least a week or two before you can use it. There seems to be quite a bit of debate on this in the soap-making community. Some say a week is fine, others say that it's best to wait a month or more. With our batch, I grew impatient after 10 days, and it seemed fine, if maybe a bit on the soft side.

I love that this soap is totally handmade, gentle on skin, vegan, green and pretty inexpensive to make. I really enjoyed our afternoon of soap-making, and I look forward to making another batch soon. When I do, I will most definitely be posting a recipe with step-by-step instructions, as promised!

Our finished soap!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Week's Homemade Pizza...

I am not a picky eater at all. I love to try new things, new flavors, new cuisines. One food that I do have a slight aversion to is mushrooms. Funny thing is, I don't mind the ~taste~ of mushrooms, and if they're chopped up fine I actually enjoy their earthy flavor. But the texture of a mushroom? Ugh. That rubbery, chewy texture just wigs. me. out. I absolutely cannot eat a mushroom. No way, no how.

This causes a little bit of a culinary rift in our house, as the man LOVES mushrooms. To keep him happy, I try to toss a few mushrooms in his direction now and then. Which brings us to last night's Homemade Pizza, which I call The His-n-Hers Pizza, with mushrooms on just one side:

Pizza with vegan cheese, peppers, onions, arugula,
sliced garlic cloves, olives (and mushrooms on one side)
Last night was an extra-special Pizza Night. Not only did The Man get a mushroom fix, but it was also the first night that the weather cooperated enough for us to eat our pizza out on the patio, by the fire pit. It was a beautiful night where we live, and it was so nice to be outside, watching the sun set over the lake, and listening to fire crackling.
Glass of wine, crackling fire, pretty lake and good company.
(Only thing to make it better would be to have plants and
flowers growing in the yard and planters... soon, I hope!)


Sun setting over the lake behind The Homestead.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cookbook Inspiration

My cookbook shelf. The box on the bottom shelf contains
small recipe boxes which belonged to my grandmother.

I really love a good cookbook. Even though you can find pretty much any recipe in the world on the internet these days (and believe me, I do that, too!) there is no substitute for sitting in a comfy chair, perusing a cookbook.
I still own the very first cookbook I ever bought for myself, when I was first out on my own at the age of 18. It's called A Vegetarian's Ecstasy. It was my introduction to the world of vegetarian cooking, and it played a huge role in making me into the cook I am today. At this point in my life I have a pretty good collection of vegetarian cookbooks. I cull them ever year or two, donating the ones I don't use, to make room for new ones which somehow find their way into my house. When I redid my kitchen, I had a little built-in shelf installed just to store my collection.

Well-loved, bookmarked cookbooks.
When I get in a "recipe rut" of cooking the same meals over and over, I pull out a cookbook or two to look for inspiration. I also have my kids go through them from time to time, and pick out recipes that look good to them, that they would like me to make. My most-loved cookbooks are bookmarked with many scraps of paper, marking my favorite recipes. I also have little pencil notes in there, for the changes I've made to the recipes over time. That's the thing about a good recipe... you can cook it exactly as it's written, but you can also change up ingredients to make them your own. Maybe you like things a little spicier, or less spicy, or you don't like a particular ingredient, so you substitute something else. There is really no right or wrong when it comes to cooking, there is just what tastes good to you!

Sometimes people tell me I'm "lucky" that I know how to cook. I tell them that luck has nothing to do with it! If you can read, you can cook. If you want to learn how to cook, find a recipe that looks tasty, and follow the directions. That's it! The first time you make a recipe, follow it exactly. From there, you can start experimenting.

Currently, my favorite cookbooks are Vegan With a Vengeance and Appetite for Reduction, both by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I have also recently purchased Artisan Vegan Cheeses, which I haven't made anything from just yet, but I'm looking forward to it! I've heard good things about it.

What are your favorite cookbooks?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fitness Progress

It's been about a month since I last posted about my fitness journey... I figured it was time for an update!

The BIGGEST challenge for me as far as exercise goes? Fitting that exercise into my schedule! At this point, I've had to sacrifice sleep and some housework to fit it in. I've been getting up at 4:30 am to exercise, because it's the only time of day I can really do it! It's really only an hour earlier than I normally get up. My family has been really helpful on my workout mornings, picking up my slack and doing some of my regular morning tasks for me, like emptying the dishwasher and starting breakfast. I'm hoping once I close my daycare in September, I'll have more time to fit it all in AND still get some sleep.

In the last two months I've gone from maybe an hour a week of sporadic exercise to roughly 4 hours a week of moderate to intense exercise. Last week, I completed a four week, twice-a-week Fitness Bootcamp. It was rough getting up at 4:30 every Monday and Wednesday, and the first couple of sessions were HARD. By the eighth session, they were still hard, but instead of "OMG I can't do this!" I started to think, "This sucks, but I'm doing it!" Our instructor offers modifications for some of the harder exercises, and in the beginning, I was doing pretty much all the modifications. By the end, I was only doing a few, mostly for a wonky shoulder that can't quite do full pushups yet.

In addition to Bootcamp, I've been going to Zumba class once a week, and I've been trying to go for brisk walks on weekends.  Before I started, I weighed myself and took all my measurements. I kind of expected that I would see some dramatic weight loss in a month's time, but as of this past Friday I've only lost 3 pounds, and saw no change in my measurements. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little disappointed about that, but since I feel stronger and healthier overall, I do know that ~something~ good is happening from all this, and that is what's motivating me to keep going.

But the big question is... can I sustain this?  I'd like to say that daily exercise is just a regular part of my daily routine now, but it's really not, yet. At the moment, exercise classes have been a strong motivator to get me moving. I'm very frugal, so if I've paid for a class, I WILL go, so as not to waste that money. However... it would be great to someday have enough self-motivation to exercise without spending money to do it. But for now, this is what's working for me. I'm looking at it as an investment in my health.

Next post, we're going to talk about a weakness of mine... Cookbooks!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Vegan Bean Chili, Three (plus) Ways


I love meals that I can cook in a hurry. I also love meals that can freeze well so that I can have something to pull out for days that I REALLY don't have time to cook, AND I love meals that I can turn into something else for leftovers. My favorite Bean Chili fits the bill on ALL counts. Plus, it's healthy, hearty, filling and satisfying.

The other thing about this recipe is that it's versatile and VERY forgiving. You can double it or half it or change it up to suit your tastes. I usually start with dry beans that I cook myself, but if you can just as easily use drained and rinsed canned beans to make this recipe faster and easier.

Way #1: The Basic Chili

This recipe makes a lot, because I like to make this is big batches and freeze it for later meals.

Ingredients:

Drizzle of Olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 large red pepper, chopped
1 hot pepper of choice, finely chopped (optional, if you like a little heat)
2- 15oz cans of diced tomatoes
3-4 Tbsp Chili seasoning, or more, to taste (either store-bought or homemade)
2 cups cooked kidney beans
2 cup cooked black beans
2 cup cooked pinto beans
(you can really use any combo of beans... just have around 6 cups altogether. if using canned beans, it will be roughly 4 cans or so)
3/4 cup frozen corn
big handful of chopped cilantro (optional)
Diced avocado, to serve (optional)

In a big pot, heat the oil and cook the onion until translucent. Add the pepper, and cook a few more minutes. Pour in the tomatoes and add the seasoning, beans and corn. Cook on medium until it's really bubbly, then simmer on low for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Toss in the cilantro at the end. Serve in bowls, topped with diced avocado.

We have this for dinner probably twice a month, served along with a big salad and some cornbread or baked tortilla chips. Also great over brown rice.

Way #2: Chili Mac

This is comfort food, all the way! The best part about this meal is you can assemble it in the morning, or even the day before and stick it in the fridge. At dinner time, just pop it in the oven and bake at 350 until it's heated through and bubbly. While it's heating up, tossed together a salad.

Ingredients:

3 cups of leftover Bean Chili
12 oz box of elbow macaroni or other small pasta, cooked (use gluten-free pasta if you prefer to avoid wheat)
1/2 cup tomato sauce (I often just use leftover pasta sauce)
1/2 cup Daiya Pepper Jack Shreds (or other vegan cheese shreds)

Combine the first 3 ingredients and pour into a casserole dish. Top with the "cheese" shreds. Bake at 350 until heated through and bubbly.

Way #3: Chili Burritos

Ingredients:

Large tortillas or wraps
Leftover chili
diced avocado
shredded lettuce
Daiya Pepperjack shreds
vegan sour cream (optional)

This one is self-explanatory, no? Just assemble ingredients, Burrito-style. Mmm-mm good! Make sure the chili's good and hot so the cheese will get melty.

Bonus Way! Chili Potatoes!

This is our favorite day-after-chili lunch. Just top a baked potato with leftover chili. So good! Serve with some avocado and tomato slices.