Category Archives: Food

Easy Zucchini Pancakes

Zucchini pancakes are one of the few reliable tantrum-free ways to get green food into my toddler. This afternoon felt like a good time to cook up a batch, so I got my equipment ready and then shared my plans with Twitter. As one does.

Screenshot from 2016-04-15 13:02:43And then someone on Twitter asked me for the recipe.

Uh-oh. Think fast.

I rarely follow recipes when I cook. I assemble meals out of some fresh stuff and some packaged stuff, call it a win, and then never manage to make that meal quite the same way ever again. The zucchini pancakes are no different. I “invented” my “recipe” almost a year ago when I had some pureed zucchini the kid refused to eat, and I turned to the millions of DIY baby food blogs hoping to find a way to use it up. I found lots of pancake suggestions, but they were all from scratch, because that’s how you prove your love as a mother, I guess? They wanted me to get out flour. Baking powder. Eggs. Blah. I have a box of pancake mix right here, how hard could this be to figure out? Let’s wing it.

Lazy Zucchini Pancakes

You need:

  • Zucchinis
  • Pancake mix
  • Water
  • Big microwave-safe bowl with lid (or plastic wrap to cover it)
  • Stick blender or regular blender

Wash and dice the zucchinis, skin and all. No, I didn’t tell you how many zucchinis to use. How many do you have? Use that many. We’re winging it, remember? Dump the diced bits into a microwave-safe bowl, add a splash of water, cover it tightly, and microwave until the zucchini is super squishy. 3-4 minutes usually does it for two zucchinis diced small.

Drain the water out carefully into a bowl or cup and save it in case you need to add it back in. Or dump it down the sink and just use regular non-zucchini water to thin stuff out later. No biggie, really.

Puree the zucchini. I use a stick blender, because it’s fast and much easier to clean than a regular blender, but either one will work. You can leave it chunkier or you can puree it completely smooth. I don’t mind chunks, but kiddo spits them out when he finds them, so I pretty much liquefy the stuff.

pureeing microwaved zucchini

Pour in some pancake mix. Maybe about half as much in volume as the amount of puree you have? Start with less; you can always add more. Mix it all in with a spoon. Or a fork: I’m not here to judge. Then just keep adjusting it by adding more pancake mix or more water until you get a consistency that looks like a thick (greenish) pancake batter. You’ve made regular pancakes using the directions on the box before, right? You know what pancake batter should look like? If not, maybe go do that first, then come back. I’ll wait.

making zucchini pancakes

Once the batter looks right, you’re ready to make pancakes.

Cooking zucchini pancakes

It’s hard to really screw this up – the worst that’ll happen is you’ll have too much zucchini in there and you’ll end up with really dense cakes that stay kind of squishy and taste more like zucchini fritters. If you’ve got more mix than zucchini in there, you’ll get nice fluffy pancakes, but you’ll have less zucchini per pancake that way. Be flexible and be prepared to play around with this one, because it’s such a variable process. How big are the zucchinis? How well did you drain them? What brand of mix are you using?

These pancakes freeze very well. Just lay them flat on a baking sheet or cutting board or something, and put them in the freezer. Once they’re frozen, pop them off and put them into a freezer bag. They last at least a month and can be thawed overnight in the fridge and microwaved back to warmth in the morning. They can also be microwaved from frozen, but you’ll need to flip them over a lot to avoid the frozen-middle-and-lava-edges problem.

easy zucchini pancakes

Go make some of these pancakes and show me! I want to see you winging it!

 

Aeropress Guide for Normal People

Aeropress coffee

Current favorite mug, full of fresh-pressed coffee goodness

I just received an Aeropress as a gift. How do I get good coffee out of it?

I want to be a coffee snob when I grow up, but I just haven’t had the time or money or patience to really start down that path yet. One of my most lovely friends knew of my dream and sent me an Aeropress to try, and I unboxed it with absolute delight. Coffee snobbery, here I come!

One tiny hiccup in my plan: my new Aeropress was secondhand, and didn’t come with instructions! I had a basic idea what to do with it, since I’ve used a French press before and the concept is similar enough, but I wanted to do it right, and get perfect coffee out of the Aeropress on my very first try. So I searched online for how-to guides. There are a ton of them. Every coffee blog out there has an illustrated step-by-step guide to the perfect Aeropressing. They’re lovely, and I’m sure they’re accurate. But I am an amateur coffee snob. I’m the kind of person who usually buys Kirkland Colombian coffee in the 3lb bucket, not handpicked singing Arabica beans delivered from the Hawaiian mountainside by emerald hummingbirds.

“Measure out 17g of coffee.”

“Add 200g of water.”

“Heat your water to 190F.” (They make programmable kettles! Did you know that? What a world!)

You guys. Please.

I just want coffee. I don’t want to drag out a kitchen scale and a thermometer. It’s 6am. My toddler will be up any second. Coffee. Now. Please.

How can a normal person get great coffee out of an Aeropress?

I’m mostly normal. Depends who you ask. Here’s how I’ve been doing it so far. I’ve got a whole week of use behind me, so I’m totally qualified to write my own how-to guide.

1. Collect all your junk in one place. Coffee, coffee scoop, cup, spoon, Aeropress parts, and Aeropress filters. Fill up a measuring cup with water (about 1.5 cups) and put it into the microwave to boil. Or get the kettle on. Whatever it takes to get boiling water.

Aeropress setup

The set-up

2. Assemble the Aeropress so the plunger is just inside the chamber making a nice tight seal. Stand it up, upside-down, and put in two flat scoops of coffee. My scoop delivers about 1.5 tablespoons when flat and about 2 tablespoons in a rounded scoop. So we’re looking at about 3 tablespoons total of fine-grind coffee.

Adding coffee to Aeropress

Add the coffee

3. Fit a paper filter into the holder, then go get your water. Carefully, and over your mug in case you spill, pour a tiny bit of water onto the filter to wet it and help it stick in place. I use a spoon to do this because I can’t be that precise with boiling water, especially before I’ve had my coffee!

Wet Aeropress filter

Wet the filter

4. Pour hot water into the chamber of the Aeropress, over your coffee grinds, until it’s about half an inch shy of the edge. Stick a spoon in there and give it a good stir. One of the coffier-than-thou how-to-Aeropress guides I found suggested that I should “stir the grounds with a bamboo paddle or butter knife.” What, I ask you, is wrong with a spoon? YOU ARE STIRRING A THING. USE A SPOON.

Stir coffee in Aeropress chamber

SPOON.

5. Wait 2 minutes or so. This will vary depending on personal taste and what kind of coffee you’re using, but I find that it’s better to err on the side of stronger coffee, because I can always dilute it with hot water afterwards. There’s no good way to rescue a weak cup of coffee. My current favorite fancy “treat myself” coffee is Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend, and I find that two minutes is exactly right for a full chamber and two scoops.

6. Carefully attach the filter holder to the chamber – remember, this is almost-boiling water we’re playing with – and then flip the whole thing over onto your mug. I haven’t experienced any leaking during the flip, but you can always sit your empty mug upside down over the Aeropress and flip the whole thing over that way if you’re concerned. I usually use the plastic funnel attachment to that the thing sits more securely in my mug and is less likely to tip.

Aeropress inverted with filter attached

Aeropress with filter in place

7.  Slowly press down on the plunger and squeeze coffee out into your mug. It should take about 30 seconds of steady pressure, and you’ll hear a little hiss from the filter when you’ve hit the bottom.

Pressing the Aeropress

Squeeeeeeze! (Note the plastic funnel for extra stability)

8. Sample the coffee concentrate, add hot water until it tastes right to you, and then enjoy.

Notes

You have to press pretty hard on your Aeropress to get the coffee out, so I wouldn’t recommend using a delicate family heirloom coffee mug for this. You can always use something stronger, like a small measuring cup, to press into, and then transfer the coffee to the mug afterwards. I just try to use a good tough mug, because I don’t want extra dishes.

I’m sure that if I took the extra effort to weigh out my coffee and water and to measure the exact temperature, I’d end up with better coffee. But I’m not aiming to win coffee competitions, just to get a tasty cup of coffee in the morning. Please, if you’re into precision, get out that scale and weigh your 17g of coffee. You’ll probably have better coffee than me. I can live with that.

This is the “Aeropress inverted method,” since we’re starting with the gadget upside-down. You can also do it the other way, and start with the filter in place and the Aeropress standing up over your mug. You’d add water to the chamber, wait, put the plunger in, and press, instead of screwing the filter on just before flipping the whole thing. I do the inverted method because I live for the danger. Also because my friend told me it was better, and I got tired of reading the coffee snob sites to see if she was right.

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My Third Favorite Cake

Cake with cherries

Image credit: Erich Ferdinand, CC BY 2.0

I have a friend – a good friend, mind you, not just a friend I made up for the purposes of this post – who likes to ask people what their third favorite kind of cake is.

And that makes me crazy.

First of all, being asked about cake makes me think about cake. About at least three different types of cake, all of them proud medalists in the cake Olympics of my mind. So, the BEST cakes. She always asks me this question when I am at work and nowhere near cake. It’s torture. It’s not like being presented with a golden fork and a table full of cakes and being asked which of the delicious soon-to-be-fork-stabbing-victims is your third favorite. That’s high-calorie heaven. But being subjected to a cruel thought experiment where cake only exists inside your head? Inhumane. I think there’s a footnote in some UN document about it.

Cruelty aside, I hate the question because it’s impossible for me to play favorites with cake. I can tell you what cakes I don’t like. That’s an easy question. Like fruitcake – that’s not even real cake. And vegetables aren’t dessert, so you’ll never sell me on carrot cake (although I may pout and lick off the frosting). But there’s a reason it takes me twenty minutes to choose my dessert at the Cheesecake Factory.

I love so many kinds of cake. So many. Chocolate, vanilla, marble, yellow, funfetti, almond, lemon, pumpkin spice. Coffee cakes and cheesecakes. Buttercreams and cream cheeses and whipped cream frostings. Sprinkles! Chocolate shavings! Obscenely large frosting balloons!

Taking out the cakes I don’t like doesn’t do much to simplify the problem. Infinity minus ten is still pretty much infinity. I stare into the abyss and infinite cakes stare back at me.

I love you all, my sweet children. Every layer and every crumb. I love you all. I can’t play favorites.

 

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An Open Letter to the People Who Make M&Ms

Dear M&Ms people,

Why would you put an odd number of M&Ms in a fun-size package, when the only acceptable way to eat M&Ms is in pairs?

rsz_mms

I’ll allow you the necessity of a random selection of colors, even when that means I’ll be forced into a panicked on-the-spot decision about whether yellow or brown is a more acceptable mate to green. Multicolored candies are kind of your thing. I understand that the machinery is set up to dump a colorful mix into every bag with no consideration given to those like me who need to eat things in an orderly fashion. It’s just business. But I know you’ve got an extensive quality control system set up. Every bag of M&Ms, fun-size or otherwise, is allowed an exact number of grams of candy with no tolerance in either direction. I just want to know why you’re monsters and set that limit such that an odd number of M&Ms meets your release criteria. You have the power to change this. Do the right thing.

Sincerely,

Me.

Stuffing Chicken Pot Pies

By special request, I’m putting my stuffing chicken pot pie not-quite-recipe recipe out into the world to grow and flourish.

I’ve posted a chicken pot pie recipe before, but it was years ago and I’ve learned a lot since then. I never use a recipe now, and when I look back at my old one, all the amounts seem off. So here’s a fresh start and maybe a good dinner.

chicken pot pie stuffing

Chicken pot pies!

 

Ingredients

  • Butter
  • Flour
  • ½ a medium onion, diced small
  • One box (32oz) chicken broth
  • Poultry seasoning (or thyme & sage if that’s all you’ve got)
  • Frozen mixed veggies (peas/carrots/green beans)
  • 2 medium potatoes, diced small
  • Diced rotisserie chicken
  • Dry stuffing mix

How-To

Get a medium pot (one that holds 6 cups or so) and melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter to saute the diced onion until it’s soft. Sprinkle in some flour and whisk it into the butter to make a roux, and don’t worry if you add too much and get lumps – this dish can survive lumps. Add in the chicken broth a little at a time, whisking lumps to death as you go. Once you’ve got a nice smooth slurry, pour in the rest of the broth and add in a generous sprinkle of the poultry seasoning – it should smell like thanksgiving stuffing when you sniff your pot. Stir in as many frozen veggies you feel appropriate, lower the heat to simmer, and stir the pot every couple of minutes. After ten minutes, test them for doneness – when they seem right, add the chicken to the pot. Taste and add extra seasoning if it needs more. At this point you can just call this a stew or thick soup and go to town with a giant spoon, and nobody would judge you.

But you want pot pies! That’s why you’re here!

In that case, ladle the stew/soup mix into oven-safe dishes that’ll hold however much you want to eat. I use 16oz Corningware dishes, because I’m hungry. It’d probably work pretty well as a casserole, too, but I’ve never tried it that way. Whatever you choose, leave some space at the top. The stuffing needs to fit!

Get some stuffing ready. I use the kind that’s little crouton cubes in a bag, and I don’t bother with the directions. I just put about a cup of cubes in a bowl, and pour enough hot water over them to soften them up a bit. Scoop the stuffing on top of the dishes and press it in place gently. Put the dishes onto a baking sheet and pop them into the oven for about 10-15 minutes at 350, until they’re bubbling and the top of the stuffing has crisped up a little.

 

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It’s not beer, it’s me. Or maybe it’s you.

Tasha is one of my best friends. Tasha is a beer geek – she’s serious enough about the stuff that she’s working towards getting her Cicerone certification, which I think is amazing. On her MetaCookBook blog this week, she’s asked for people’s thoughts on the beer community and what sorts of topics they should be talking about. Tough topics – like diversity in the community. I’m very interested to read the replies, but I wasn’t going to join in the conversation, because beer isn’t my world. I can only understand Tasha’s passion by comparing it to my loves of other things, because I don’t really “get” beer. I like the stuff (some of it) well enough. But I’m intimidated by beer geeks sometimes, because I don’t feel like I belong to their “community.” So maybe I do have something to say after all.

I’m not saying that beer lovers are hipsters and phonies and are running this exclusionary club on purpose. Maybe it’s my own perception of “beer people” that makes me hesitant to really get into beer.

I feel like there’s this big movement around beer, and some people take it super seriously. There are beer bloggers and beer conventions and people have opinions. I don’t want to commit to all that. I just want to sometimes drink something that doesn’t suck. With friends who also don’t suck. I don’t read beer blogs or keep up on beer news and I don’t know a lager from an ale. I just know a few kinds I like and I usually order those. So far nobody I’ve ever gone out for a drink with has ever rolled their eyes at me or made me feel bad for liking the “wrong” beer, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel a small twinge of anxiety every time I order. Beer is intimidating.

That’s a totally weird thing for me to say, because I love wine and wine tastings, (hell, I made wine charms this one time) and I get all nerdy over the tasting notes (which are all lies, people – NOBODY tastes plum and leather in Merlot. NOBODY). I learned about wine by going to tastings and having pros guide me through the general characteristics of different styles, and there’s no reason not to do that with beers. Except that I don’t know where to go. And I have this vague impression that the beer tasting rooms will be populated with dudes and I’ll feel out of place and/or not be taken seriously because I’m a woman. There are Groupon “wine and canvas nights” marketed to moms like me, and memes about mommy needing a glass of wine after a hard week, but I feel like beer is for daddy. It’s such a pervasive concept that we’re even slapping it on baby onesies. Why?

mommy wine daddy beer

WHY? (Available at femailcreations.com, if you’re so inclined)

Again, I’m not saying that anyone is making me feel this way. It’s just these hazy impressions I have of “the beer community.” And since Tasha wanted to know what the beer community should be talking about, here’s my thought: why do I feel like the world of beer probably isn’t for me? Is it all my own self-doubt and social anxiety, or is there some subtle signal I’m getting from the beercommunity that this isn’t my place?

Here Comes Cookie Day

I spent the entire evening baking cookies yesterday. It made my house smell delicious. I made several dozen oatmeal chocolate chip Craisin cookies. They’re chewy and cinnamony and absolutely perfect, but this batch isn’t for me. These are sharing cookies. I made enough to give away to the family this weekend, when we all get together for Cookie Day.

CAM00623

C is for coooookie

Cookie day is an annual tradition here with my Maryland family. December comes, and it’s so easy to get swept up in a Christmas panic. We all take a Saturday off, away from the crowds at the mall, and spend an afternoon at my in-laws’. The guys put up and decorate the tree, and the women bake and decorate dozens of Christmas cookies. It’s a comfy, casual day, and I always look forward to it.

We always have to make Hershey’s kiss “peanut blossom” cookies, because there would be a general revolt from the guys if we didn’t. We’ve been alternating between sugar cookies and shortbread cookies, both of which wear holiday sprinkles well. We’ve tried a few other kinds, too, including the oatmeal ones I just got done with tonight. We won’t have time to bake more than two kinds of cookie this weekend, though. Even with someone making the sugar cookie dough in advance. See, Cookie Day got more complicated once my nephew arrived on the scene. A baby (and then a toddler) needs constant supervision, so there was less time and attention available for baking. This year, we’ve got his little sister around, distracting us even more from the tough cookie work. No complaints here; a cute nephew and niece are much more worthy of my attention than sugar cookies! But we all love cookies, and it’s more fun to have a big variety. And, honestly? A few dozen cookies, split between three families, taken home on the first weekend of December? They have no hope of lasting until Christmas. I figured that I’d use up a bit of my spare energy and chocolate chips and bring a couple dozen to Cookie Day. All the cookies, none of the effort (for them, anyway)!

This year, my nephew will be old enough to help us decorate the sugar cookies with sprinkles, which will be so much fun. I know he’s probably just going to dump sprinkles all over everything, but I can’t wait to eat his masterpieces.

Cookie day just keeps getting better.

Recipe Bookmarks – Tomatoes done right

IMG_0708s

Ah, that’s more like it.

If cooked tomatoes are going to get all soft and squishy, then let’s put them in a pasta dish where that won’t matter! You expect tomatoes to be soft and warm and squishy in a pasta sauce.

Normally, when I have too many cherry or grape tomatoes and can’t get them all into salads before they go soft, I use them in my Fish & Tomatoes dinner. But it’s nice to have other options, and this Spaghetti with Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes seemed like an easy place to start.

It’s incredibly simple: just tomatoes, oil, and garlic to make the “sauce”, then some fresh mozzarella and basil added after the pasta’s tossed in. Because the sauce is so basic, the quality of the ingredients makes a difference. I used fresh basil leaves from my garden and found some of the good squishy fresh mozzarella at the cheese counter at Wegmans. I didn’t use “heirloom” tomatoes, as the goal was to use up my grape tomatoes that had already started to go soft, but I don’t think that took away from the flavor. Where I compromised was to use a store brand box of fettuccine. Oh, it was still a tasty dinner. But I think if I’d splurged on some fancier pasta, or gone all-out and made my own fresh pasta, it would have taken it to a whole other delicious level.

Yay, an excuse to try making fresh pasta again! I’ll just need a free weekend, because that’s a big project!

Recipe Bookmarks – Tomatoes done wrong

When it’s summer and tomato season, I always feel like buying up all the big (or little!) red tomatoes I see at the farmers markets. I can only use up so many in salads, though, so I’m always looking for other tomato recipes I can try.

Look at these baked parmesan tomatoes, from Eating Well. Don’t they look pretty? All cheesy and tomatoey and delicious? One of the reviews said the baked tomatoes tasted like pizza, and who doesn’t love pizza?

Official Eating Well photo for this recipe

The only detour I made from the recipe was to slice my big tomatoes into four thick slices, so they’d look more like that photo. The recipe says to halve them, but my tomatoes were pretty big, so I felt safe making the change.

The results made me sad. They were bland, and the flavors all stayed independent instead of working together to contribute to a yummy whole. Normally, I would be willing to try the recipe again with a few tweaks to the spices, but this dish didn’t have any other redeeming qualities. The tomato part was delicious, because I started with delicious tomatoes, but it was incredibly soggy. The slices were falling apart as I moved them to our dinner plates.

IMG_0624s

My sad, soggy slices.

The other thing is, Parmesan isn’t a good melting cheese. The grated cheese I put on the tomato slices stayed in clumps, barely melted, and didn’t brown at all. Why am I putting this cheese in the oven if it’s not going to get melty and brown? That’s the entire point of oven cheese! Looking back at the official Eating Well photo for this recipe, I suspect they cheated and threw on some mozzarella or a shredded “Italian cheese” blend. No way is that straight Parmesan.

Maybe this recipe would work with less-juicy tomatoes. Or with different cheeses. Or with more oregano, or maybe some basil. But there are so many other things to make, and so little time.

Moving on. Pin deleted.

Potato Masher Upgrade

I swear I’ll get back to deep and thoughtful posts soon. But something happened this week and I just couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. It’s important.

I bought a new potato masher.

I already had a potato masher, but it had issues. I’m sure the skill of the operator has something to do with the end product, but the old black plastic masher never did an acceptable job at lump removal. Lumpy mashed potatoes are no fun unless you’re deliberately going for some rustic-looking recipe from a Food Network show where the cook says “y’all” and tells you to leave the skins on and dump in a stick or two of butter. My only reliable technique for obtaining smooth mashed potatoes was to use my hand mixer and whip them up, but that meant digging out the mixer and the beaters, moving to where there’s a free plug, and washing more dishes. Not to mention the racket.

Weeks ago, at Ikea, I cradled a potato ricer in my hands and asked my husband if we could keep it. As usual, he told me to go ahead and get it if I wanted it. I hesitated at such an impulsive purchase, and asked a friend we were shopping with about his experience with potato ricers. He told me he adheres to the Alton Brown philosophy of kitchen gadgets: Don’t buy gadgets that are only good for one thing.

Ikea’s IDEALISK

He was right, of course. Buying a bunch of specialized kitchen implements is really a waste of money and storage space. How often does the average person pit cherries or slice eggs? I’ve been trying to downsize my kitchen junk, and a ricer would take up space much more often than it would be useful. And it sure looks like a pain in the ass to clean.

So little IDEALISK went back into the bin and I moved on to the textiles section without looking back. But my unlumpy mashed potato needs remained unmet, and I was sad.

A week later, I completely caved and bought a new potato masher. Which, if you think about it, is as much a single-purpose item as a potato ricer, making me a liar. But since I already had a masher, I felt like this was somehow a less frivolous purchase. It was a replacement. An upgrade.

IMG_0702s

Left: old boring masher. Right: NEW AND SHINY!

I love that the handle is across the top, because you can get more muscle behind your mashing that way. It’s much easier to clean than my old masher, and the potatoes are a lot more smooth. Not perfect, but I guess nothing but a good whipping will ever get all the lumps out.

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