Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chocolate and PB Chip Oatmeal Cookies

I want to own a bakery. Well, at least that's what I tell myself. In reality, I just want it a warm, comforting, local, delicious kitchen that I can play around in and call it my job. I want to spend my days there, flour dusting my pants, greeting new friends and old, and making people happy, sharing in their everyday joys and special celebrations. I want wood floors, mismatched chairs, and an old upright piano in the corner so I can rip into "Rondo Alla Turca" whenever the desire strikes me.


I know, I know. Baking is hard work. Bad hours, worse pay. The piano would get covered in flour and I'd move it after six months just so I wouldn't have another thing to dust. I know all this. But last weekend to satisfy my curiosity, we checked out the old George's Bakery on Main in Mandan, which shut down a few years ago when George decided to retire after running the place for 40 years. The place was best known for doughnuts, kuchen, and free cookies for kids. George just passed away this year and his shop still sits dark, looking like he just locked it up yesterday. All the pans, shelves, and equipment are still there. There is still even writing up on the menu board. It's just waiting for someone to turn on the lights, heat up the oven, and get the place rolling again (and invest buku bucks to make it OSHA compliant).

One problem: I'm not really a great baker. In fact, I'd call myself a completely average baker.

Sure, I love baking, but enthusiasm only gets you so far. I'm actually a lazy baker, rarely using a timer and often eyeballing measurements - big no-nos in baking chemistry. Last night I tried making pie crust from a recipe rather than my usual eyeball method - and ended up throwing the mess in the garbage with disgust, leaving me crabby for the rest of the evening. Not a graceful reaction, I know.

Regardless of my slovenly baking style, for the past five years I've baked with the same questions always popping up in my mind: 'Would anyone buy this? Is this marketable? How can I make it better?'

So I do stuff like this. I made these cookies, making little changes to each pan and figuring out which one I like best and why.

#1: underbaked, to my hubby's delight. I'm not a fan, plus I think they look flat and squishy.


#2: parfait, in my opinion. A little crisp layer on the outside, and then chewy inside. Thick enough to hold its shape - I just wish it was a little prettier.


#3: a little overdone. I actually kinda like it this way too - the darkness adds a little caramel flavor, but it's dry on the edges, so no-go overall.


However, I don't think bakery customers are interested in buying this. Too simple, not cutesy enough. I think people want the cookie version of the Ace of Cakes - highly stylized, decorated, fondant-and-royal-icing covered. Package it. Market it. Give an experience. Meanwhile, I'm the chick who removes most of her frosting before eating the cake.

Regardless, in the heat of the moment, I went to Hobby Lobby. Dangerous, I know. I splurged on some decorating tools and have plans to make some cut-outs in the near future, despite the fact that I'm usually too practical to really get into decorating anything, preferring to pass out my gingerbread men sans decor in years past. But gotta explore these things, right?


In the meantime, check out the choc and pb chip cookie recipe here. I followed it almost to the letter, just omitting the white sugar. I ate an embarrassingly large amount of them, but it was all in the name of research, k?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fish Cakes

Yesterday Kent and my dad went fishing on the Missouri River down by Hazelton. My dad caught four and my hubby caught zero, but Kent still came home with a bag of walleye fillets thanks to my dear dad's generous nature.


I can't tell you how thankful I am that they get along so well. They can go hang out and talk in a boat all day without me being there - that's pretty cool. I hear so many stories of difficult in-law relationships that end up pitting spouse against parent and vice versa. I've even heard of these relationships tearing families apart. Kent and I are so lucky not to have that drama hanging over our little family. Instead, our relationships with each other's parents has blossomed into a loving, supportive network of extended family, creating a warm and cozy environment for our little boy to grow up in.

Ben wearing Dad's fishing hat. Classic.


Back to the fish, Fine Cooking had a great piece on crab cakes recently. I adore crab cakes, but fresh crab in ND is frankly outside our grocery budget. So I thought, 'Why not substitute fish?' I steamed those fresh fillets that were just pulled out of the water hours ago, broke it up into chunks, and followed the crab cake recipe - and it worked beautifully!


Fish Cakes
I used walleye, but other fish would probably work - trout, cod, maybe even catfish (although catfish can get mushy in my experience). Old Bay seasoning is available in the spice aisle of your grocery store.

1 lb. fish fillets, steamed, cooled, and broken into small chunks
1 egg
1/4 c. mayo
1 and 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 and 1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 and 1/4 cups fresh breadcrumbs (i.e. grind up 4 slices Wonder bread in food processor)
1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. olive oil
Lemon wedges

Put fish in medium mixing bowl and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together egg, mayo, mustard, Old Bay, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and salt. Pour mixture over fish and mix gently until combined - don't want to break up the fish into mush.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs and parsley over mixture, then mix thoroughly but gently - mixture should still be somewhat loose. Refrigerate mixture for one hour.

Shape mixture into 8 cakes about 1" thick. Heat butter and oil over medium heat in cast-iron or non-stick pan until butter is melted and frothy. Add cakes to pan and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip and cook on other side until browned, another 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve with lemon wedges.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Grouse with Tomatoes and Rosemary

This past weekend, I traded the prairies for the mountains and hopped the train to Whitefish, Montana. I went to visit Molly, a dear friend of mine, and her wonderful family to celebrate her daughter’s first birthday. I also went for some fresh pine-scented mountain air, to feel revived and refreshed in the way only a good trip away from home can do.


Oh, and yes, I went to eat.


Everything tastes better in the mountains of Montana. Seriously. I don’t know if it’s the altitude, the brisk mornings, the fresh air, or the fact that I typically spend all day hiking and building up a ravenous appetite, but many of my most memorable tastes come from MT.


(That's Ben and I in Glacier.)

The best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life was after a night of tent camping on a chilly summer morning at a little hippie mountain café in Big Sky (name of café now forgotten). The best pie I’ve ever tasted was on another camping trip to Glacier at Park Café in St. Mary’s – still the standard by which my husband and I compare every other slice. The best milkshake was a huckleberry milkshake this past weekend at The Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse after a hike in Glacier with my 18 lb baby strapped to me. That milkshake was manna from heaven. Just the memory of it makes me swoon.


Our trip was short and sweet. Even the 12 hr train ride proved to be enjoyable – or as enjoyable as it could be with a teething baby. While I was away, I was actually on the radio (ah, the magic of pre-recording)! My buddy Doug and I talked about grouse – and in all my travel preparations, I neglected to get a post up with the recipe we talked about. Better late than never? Click here to hear the radio clip (Titled Sept. 19 - Part #4) and check out this recipe. With the grouse numbers down this year, you’ll be working up an appetite during your grouse hunt – but your dinner will taste all the better because of it.

Post-script: the Big Sky coffee place was called The Huckleberry Cafe, although I think it's in a new location now compared to when we were there.

Grouse with Tomatoes and Rosemary
Adapted from Savoring the Seasons by Lucia Watson, it's one of my favorite ways to prepare grouse. Of course, chicken could be the non-game substitute, although I'm willing to bet it would work great with rabbit too.

6 or 8 grouse breasts
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
3 Tbls olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1 small red onion, chopped
1 cup dry red wine (merlot, cabernet, etc)
1 cup chicken broth
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 fresh tomatoes, diced or 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
2 Tablespoons butter

Rinse grouse, pat dry, season generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large skillet and brown the grouse (no need to cook through, just brown the outside). Add garlic and onion, saute for one minute. Add wine, broth, rosemary, and tomatoes, cover the skillet, and simmer over low heat until grouse is cooked through (about 20 mins). Remove rosemary sprigs and discard. Remove grouse and set on platter (can put in 200 degree oven to keep warm). Bring the remaining liquid to a boil and reduce by half, about 15 minutes. Turn off heat, whisk in butter, and serve grouse drizzled with sauce.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gazpacho

It was a moment of weakness. The Target ad screamed “Sale! $15! Lowest price of the season!” My resolve to fix my old blender faltered. I bought a brand-spankin’ new one.

I’m relieved to have a blender again. Summer just hasn’t been the same without it. No milkshakes. No orange Julius. What else can you do with overripe fruit other than make smoothies? A gal can only eat so much compote.

I still have my old blender and it still only requires a little piece to hold the blade in place and make it usable again. I told my hubby that I’m going to take it to an appliance guy to see if it can be repaired. “Because, you know, then we’ll have a back-up blender.” He starts laughing. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say you wanted to have an extra of ANYTHING around,” he says.

Valid point. I’m notorious for cleaning closets, paring down, purging, simplifying to the point of austerity. Do we use it? Do we need it? Can we get by without it? Then let it go…but I now rewrite the rules for blenders.

With a garden burgeoning with tomatoes and cucumbers, I broke in my new blender by making gazpacho. Oh, gazpacho, we’ve had some good times. Remember when we first met? I was a giggly teenager on her first trip to Spain, eating a late dinner in Madrid. And you, you were a revelation. Cold tomato soup, yes, but you were so much more. Summer in a spoon. Elegant simplicity. A dish that is so much more that a sum of its parts. We’ve met a few times since then, and it’s always a happy reunion. Let’s do this more often.


There are only a few warm summery days left! Enjoy every last drop!

Gazpacho
Based of allrecipes.com recipe. Make it prettier with fun garnishes like bread cubes, avocado, chopped chives - I'm old school and just eat it straight up.

8 large tomatoes - peeled, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, minced
2-3 slices white bread (dry, stale French bread is ideal, but a couple slices of Wonder bread works too)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Kosher salt to taste

Combine tomatoes, bread, and oil in a large bowl, moistening with a 1/2 cup of water if needed to get bread moistened. Let set for five minutes, then puree in a blender or food processor in batches until all is pureed; set aside. Then puree onion, garlic, cucumber, and green pepper. Mix together, add vinegar and salt to taste.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Neighborhood Ice Cream Party

So what would you do with a million dollars? Ever sit around and ponder that question? Besides taking a trip to Europe and buying a hobby farm, I think I know my answer: I’d write. And bake. Well, I'd probably write about baking, how's that?

Writing is my favorite part of this blog. Wait, eating is my very favorite part, but creating in this little online journal and hearing from you all is a very close second.

Now I’m certainly not a stellar writer – it’s just something I enjoy. During maternity leave, I still tried to spend some time writing. I don’t know where I found the time to put fingers to the keyboard, but I even wrote an article for a local publication on growing and using herbs – my first paid writing job! I also wrote this essay:

This year was one of the toughest winters on record in North Dakota, with six months of freezing temperatures, mountains of accumulated snow, and a flood at the end to top it all off. However, it's in tough times that the kindness of others really shines through.

In March we had a hopeful glimpse of spring with warming temperatures, but we weren't out of the woods yet. The biggest blizzard of the season hit in late March.

Did I mention that we are foolhardy enough not to own a snow blower?

And did I mention I was nearly nine months pregnant at the time?

With my husband away at work, I was literally stranded in my house as the snow piled up so quickly. Early that morning as I contemplated how I was going to shovel my way out, I heard the distinct hum of a snow blower outside. Without prompting, our neighbor Marv was out in our driveway, despite the wind and frigid temperatures, clearing our long driveway and sidewalks. As it continued snowing through the day, another neighbor Joe cleared out our driveway yet again!

Ten days later, as the warming sun started to melt the snow banks, our son Ben was born and the offers to babysit from our smitten neighbors started rolling in. If it takes a village to raise a child, then we picked the right village with neighbors as kind-hearted as ours.

Every summer, Edy’s Ice Cream Company gives away neighborhood ice cream parties, selecting 1,500 essays and sending them everything they need to hold a neighborhood party – ice cream included. What a great idea, right? So I sent in that essay about my wonderful neighbors (based off this blog post) – and won! Gallons of ice cream were dropped off on my doorstep in a large Styrofoam cooler loaded with dry ice, along with all the bowls, spoons, scoops, name tags, apron, everything I could need for an ice cream gathering. Yay!


I set the date for Sunday, Sept. 13th. Last weekend I went for a walk with Ben in the stroller, feeling a bit nervous as I put invites on three blocks of doorknobs and sandwiching them in door jambs. It’s an interesting exercise, walking up to the front door of peoples’ homes. You realize how little you know about your neighbors and their lives behind those doors, wondering if they are as enthusiastic about the idea of meeting their fellow neighbors as you are, wondering if they’ll come to your party, wondering if they’ll ALL come to your party, wondering if you’ll be sitting at your party alone, ice cream melting onto the grass.


So yesterday, the big day arrived. With the help of a couple neighbors, I set up a few tables and chairs. I bought some balloons. I put a flower in my hair. And then I waited. Will they come? Will people interact? Will this just be weird for everyone?

I knew everything would be ok when the first couple arrived. This husband and wife have been in the neighborhood for 34 years. Some days her Parkinson’s bothers her, but yesterday she had a good day and felt up to making the most lovely little spritz cookies for the party. “Not too sweet, so they’ll be good with ice cream,” she said.


The older neighborhood residents were the first to arrive – the families with young children tumbled in a bit later. On the name tags, people were asked to include their favorite ice cream flavor. Maple nut and butter pecan were often cited as a favorite among the older group. Middle aged folk loved chocolate. I saw a lot of vanilla or chunky specialties (choc chip, cookies, swirly whirly whatever) on the tags of the kids. And then Lee, who lives kiddy-corner from us, just put “All.” That’s an honest man right there.


Kids ran around the yard and checked out the koi fish in my neighbor’s pond. New friends and old acquaintances talked and laughed. And yes, everyone had a healthy helping of ice cream. All in all, we had around 40-50 people attend – about half the neighborhood!


I watched the last few kids head home at the end of the evening, walking down the sidewalk with chocolate-smeared faces and balloons in hand, and I was thankful. Thankful that the party was a success. Thankful that people came and enjoyed themselves. Thankful to Edy’s for coming up with such a cool promo. Thankful to live amongst such wonderful people.

Want a party for your neighborhood? Get more info here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Gringo Huevos Rancheros

I have a habit of taking mini-shampoos whenever I'm staying at a hotel. And soaps. And those tiny sewing kits that seem so handy but I never really use. But who doesn't do this, right?

Recently I was cleaning out that bathroom cabinet and noticing all the little shampoo bottles knocking around in there, I decided to use up some of that hotel shampoo. Next time I took a shower, I grabbed one of those little bottles - and suddenly, I realized I was using the same shampoo from our honeymoon. The smell of the shampoo triggered wonderful memories, such a happy little surprise.

We spent our honeymoon in Mexico. We flew into Cancun, but instead of heading south of Cancun to the mega-tourist mecca of Riviera Maya, we grabbed public bus tickets for $6 a piece and rode with the locals north to the very tip of the Yucatan peninsula to a fishing village on Isla Holbox.

Wow, talk about culture shock. We were the only non-latinos on the bus. Mariachi music blared on the radio and all the windows were open to provide a tiny bit of relief in the stuffy, no a/c bus. The road was big enough for just the bus, although it was obviously used for traffic going both ways when we'd see oncoming traffic coming our way and the vehicles would squeeze by each other. We sped through the humid jungle, stopping only once at a tiny puebla so the driver and his buddy could grab a couple cervezas, and then off again. We weren't sure how long the ride would be, not even really sure where we were going, but we just knew that we were together having a great adventure.

Vendors would climb aboard the bus occasionally and hawk their wares. There was a guy selling a book of natural home remedies. There was the sandwich guy selling jamon y queso sandwiches, the ham and cheese oddly wrapped in some sort of sweet bread. And then the fruit guy. We purchased a bag of cut-up pineapple from the fruit guy - he offered us "picante" to go with it, basically chili powder to dust over the top. Confused, we politely declined. Confused by our refusal, he went on his way. Then we bit into the pineapple - it was salted. We still ate it, but I was really curious as to what we'd be eating in the tiny village by our rustic honeymoon grass hut.

Fortunately, our grass hut was at a lovely little eco-resort with a fantastic restaurant. Nothing fancy, but the food was real Mexican food and absolutely delicious. I nearly cried over the arroz con leche. Dinner was always fresh fish and seafood - perfect for us since I adore fish and my husband can eat shrimp for every meal - an interesting quirk for a landlocked ND guy.



At this tiny Mexican heaven, every morning for breakfast I would order huevos rancheros and I've been trying to replicate them ever since. I'm still not there, but here's what I call "gringo" huevos rancheros. And they're still pretty darn good, but I hope we can make it back to that small fishing village someday for the real deal. In the meantime, I'll just crack open that tiny shampoo bottle again for a mini-vacation.

Gringo Huevos Rancheros
Traditional huevos rancheros include either black beans or refried beans - feel free to add beans, but having a spouse who is a bit picky about beans, I leave them out. Please use corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas - it makes a world of difference.

4 corn tortillas, warmed and toasted quickly in a hot skillet
8 eggs, scrambled
1 cup shredded cheese
1 small onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 tomato, diced
1 Tbls. vegetable oil
Salsa or hot sauce

Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet. Add onion and pepper - saute until softened. Add tomato and cook an additional 3-5 mins, until tomato breaks down a bit.

Assemble dish by placing a couple corn tortillas on plate - top with scrambled eggs and cheese. Melt the cheese on top either by microwave or oven - then top with veggies and salsa or hot sauce.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hunter's Spaghetti

There's no question that I love my husband and I always will. But every now and then, there are little things that make me stop for a moment and think, 'Hmm. Ok, we'll roll with this...' Case in point: looking outside my kitchen window this morning and seeing a massive elk head lying in the backyard. Think the Godfather horse head scene, but outside and with antlers.


This weekend was The Elk Hunt. Remember me talking about this before? It was a big deal. However, I did not partake in the hunt. As you can imagine, it was a major guy thing - a testosterone and Coors Light fueled adventure in the Badlands. Guys in blaze orange covering themselves in elk urine scent, letting their 5-0'clock shadows become, well, a little beyond scruffy. By the end of the hunt, all had their fair share of blood, sweat, and tears. Well, maybe not tears. Unless you count tears of joy.


And guess what? He got his elk. That means 100+ lbs of organic, free-range, ain't-getting-more-real-than-this elk burger and steaks are coming our way. And that means a winter full of elk recipe postings coming your way - are you excited yet?


While the elk was hanging in a friend's cooler, my hunter came home: dirty, smelly, scruffy, tap-dancin' happy...and hungry! Time to carb load with spaghetti, and lots of it.


Hunter's Spaghetti
I typically roll my eyes at any recipe that says "start with a jar of marinara sauce", but I'm just keeping it real here. It's sauce from a jar, yes, but it's doctored up - if you're hardcore, go ahead and make marinara from scratch (and then invite me over). If you're going with the jar, check the label and avoid HFCS and any ingredients that you don't recognize as whole foods. I like Newman's Own, but there are lots of decent jarred sauces out there.

1 pound spaghetti (I like to use half whole wheat noodles and half regular spaghetti noodles)
1 pound bulk Italian sausage
1 jar marinara sauce
1 medium onion, diced
1 or 2 Anaheim peppers, diced
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
Handful of green or Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
Olive oil
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
Parmesean cheese, freshly grated

Cook spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente.

Meanwhile, add a couple swirls of olive oil to a large saucepan over medium heat. Add sausage, onion, and peppers, cooking until sausage is cooked through and onion and peppers are tender.

Add tomatoes, olives, along with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste. Cook until tomatoes break down a bit, about 5 mins. Add pasta sauce, mix and heat through.

Toss spaghetti with sauce. Top generously with parmesean cheese and serve.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

REO, Target, and Good Karma

Ok, I know karma is crazy and powerful, but I could never have known on Friday morning that I would be seeing this by the end of the day:




How can you not LOVE this song? "Take it on the run, baby...if that's the way you want it, baby..."

I posted my last blog entry over my lunch hour Friday in an effort to throw some good energy into the wind and lighten the mood a bit. I was feeling better after that post, but upon my return to the office, I have to share what happened:

1. I got an awesome parking spot.
2. I walked in my office and immediately one of my co-workers stopped by with the cutest darn outfit for Ben as a belated baby gift.
3. Another one of my co-workers came by and gave me an ice cream sandwich.
4. My friend Amber called with a free extra ticket to that night’s Styx/REO Speedwagon concert (10th row!).
5. I miraculously found a babysitter, allowing me to attend the concert.

I certainly didn’t expect the universe to drop all this abundance on my plate, but if I ever once doubted the power of a positive attitude, I just got a big kick-in-the-pants reminder to look on the bright side of things. And yes, I do believe the post and your comments helped bring this all about and I thank all of you for helping with this! You're great! And the concert rocked! And Amber caught the drumstick from the Styx drummer! Yesss!

So the gift card. Went to random.org and the random number it gave me was (drumroll please, with that awesome Styx drumstick)...three! So happy day, JJandEJ, I'll be sending you $10 for whatever pleases your blessed little heart at Target! But I love y'all so much, I'm sending the rest of you $5 gift cards. Yay!

Ok, enough exclamation points for one day. Back to our usual food-loving programming tomorrow...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Freebie Friday

Let’s stop and chat for a bit here, have a little heart-to-heart.

I don't know about you, but I've had a helluva week. I did not lose my job, unlike nearly 500 others in our community this week with the closing of a manufacturing plant. I got flipped off by some rude guy in a Suburban the other day as I tried to navigate our under-road-construction streets to get home and pump over my lunch break. Our neighbors are building a fence because they don't like our dandelions. I have nothing to wear. There's no food in the house.

Note to self: do not blog when cranky and tired.

But there are still rays of sunshine out there. Like you all. My tiny blog world is always so positive and energizing. I can always read my friends posts and be reminded of being part of a small, caring community. I've never met most of you, but you all are really, really cool people, doing amazing things each and everyday - and then finding the energy to share it with the rest of us.

And then there are these guys.


My joy, my world. Yes, as long as I have these two in my life, I'll be ok.

With all the negativity floating around right now, I want to start the weekend off right and counteract all that in my own tiny little way. Let’s take a moment to count our blessings and remind ourselves that there is so much to be thankful for. Let’s remember that life is beautiful, that the world is filled with abundance, that people at their core are nice and decent beings, that this one moment is fleeting and we must appreciate it.

And hey, let's add to the positive karma. I just happen to have a $10 Target gift card. And I want to give it to you.


I know, Ben! Super exciting! (Actually, he's just trying to eat his shirt here, but I thought it was a cute look of shock and awe.)

I realize $10 isn’t much, and retail therapy can be dangerous, but sometimes a new t-shirt and a Ritter Sport bar can make everything better. Or a new spatula. Or a 128-pack of crayons with built-in sharpener. Whatever that little thing is, I want you to have it. No gimmick, no strings attached, just a little note to say “hey, you’re great - hope this makes your day”.

Sound good? Want in? Then just leave a comment with something happy, something positive, something you are thankful for today. I’ll pull a Pioneer Woman by drawing a random number and bingo, that person gets the gift card (commenting ends Saturday evening - let's say 5 pm Central - I’ll do my best to get in contact with the winner). And hopefully all of us can take a moment to think about the good things in life, carrying that feeling into the long weekend ahead.

Happy Labor Day!