Relaxation: the final product of continual potlucks

I had my third potluck of the year last night; while a couple of new friends and N’s boyfriend came for the first time, the core of the group had all been to my house before and new the drill: we fill our giant dining room table with food, you help yourself to drinks and pile plates high, and we mingle between rooms and the back porch all evening. Nearly everyone knew where the bathroom was, and no one seemed shy about raiding the fridge.

I had anticipated, as I moved from crockpot to oven to stove with the various foods I was cooking, some nerves or butterflies or just general anxiety about the party. However, it really never arrived; around 7 I put on some background music and people began arriving. It felt comfortable: a couple of my more shy friends sat on the back porch where it was quieter, and Husband started a fire in our firepit and talked heat transfer with a couple coworkers. We played one silly party game, but it was mostly to make each other laugh, not because there was nothing to talk about.

As for food… soup and bread turned out to be a wonderful theme! We had tomato soup, butternut squash soup, Indian mulligatawny, chili, gumbo, a sweet red bean soup from China, golden curry, and potato leek soup. For breads, we had roti, naan, fluffy peasant bread, crusty artisan bread, sesame seed bread from the farmer’s market, cornbread casserole, and smores bites for dessert! I also made some gingerbread cookies, which I’m happy to see have survived to the second day. 🙂

I include this picture of N putting away a pile of spilled toothpicks because she is grinning, and because it makes me smile too; parties aren’t perfect, just like spilled toothpicks are no fun to pick up, but if you get to know people and spend time eating with them and sharing life stories with them, you will eventually find a comfy rhythm that can actually look like being relaxed, not like being a stressed host.

Preserving leftovers for eating later!

Husband and I have been taking a hard look at our food expenses; we aren’t being super irresponsible with groceries and restaurant expenses, but it seems like an area where we could trim back a little just by wasting less. I hate it, but there are drips and drabs of food that get thrown out because we either get sick of it, or it sits in the fridge too long, or we just miscalculate and make too much.

One place where we have room to work harder is when we have these parties – they are potlucks, and pretty much always involve more food than is needed. This time, since soup is involved, I’ve got one plan: I read online that many soups that freeze well can be frozen into ice cube trays and then stored in freezer bags until needed. I like this, because the soups I’m making might actually make nice sauces in the future.

If you have favorite ways to preserve extras after a party, do comment! I am especially in need for bread reuses (though I do love croutons and french toast for that), because i think we may have excess homemade bread tonight. 🙂

Party time, the third!

It’s coming. The third potluck. I think back to when I started this blog, and I can hardly believe it – the original plan was 35 recipes and 4 dinner parties. The 35 recipes has mushroomed, but I’m still only 2 out of 4 for the potlucks. Thankfully, the third is coming. When N expressed just as much excitement as I did about the idea of a party themed around soups and breads, we decided to go halves on hosting again – she’s going to bring friends from where she lives, 30 minutes away, and I’m inviting friends who live in my town, all the join each other for some autumnal enjoyment at my house.

Soups are one of my favorite foods, and that’s a little strange because they weren’t hugely important in my childhood. My dad makes a mean Korean noodle soup, and my Mom knows her way around a pot of chicken and dumplings, but purees, chilis, etc. just weren’t that common for us. However, I’ve got big plans: I’m going for a chunky tomato and gouda (won’t call it a bisque because my tomatoes may not whip up smooth, but a soup nonetheless) and a version of my curried butternut squash soup that has some apple in it for added sweetness and depth. I want to make the buttered-bowl peasant bread again, and then something for dessert… I will dig through the recipes I still have to use, but I’m thinking maybe gingerbread? Tasty but also autumnal in their flavors?

One of my favorite parts of eating soup is dipping a really good piece of bread into it, so I hope to have a wide variety of soups and breads to share with you once the party is over and the soup has all been packed in pyrex to take to work the next day. I’m hoping for good fall weather, though, because we have had a bit of a heat wave lately.

 

Homemade Salsa – Delicious Veggies in Disguise!

Some of my favorite aspects of Mexican food (and all the American variants on Mexican food) are also the fattiest ones – avocados mashed together with garlic and pepper, sour cream on top of a taco, and that glorious spicy goo that is hot queso. I generally saw salsa as a garnish on top of other food.

I have had two experiences where salsa became one of my favorite foods, and where I realized that it is pretty much all veggies while not tasting anything like salad. One was when a classmate brought in homemade pico de gallo and we all crunched into tortilla chips covered in the fresh, spicy mix; I noted how refreshing it was, while still feeling substantial – iceberg lettuce, it is not. The other time was at a girl’s night, when I was first getting to know three friends, B, K, and J, who live near where I live now. They made an enormous bowl of corn and black bean salsa, which is pretty substantial and filling without being super calorie dense like guacamole or queso. I could eat it all evening long and still leave a reasonable level of full. Also, it utilized red wine vinegar and had this amazing, addictive combination of sweet and savory. For something similar, check out this recipe from Culinary Hill: http://www.culinaryhill.com/black-bean-salsa/

So when Husband proposed a Taco Tuesday this week, I thought I’d whip out the food processor and make some homemade salsa; we still have mountains of tomatoes coming in and it seemed a great way to liven them up and try using some spices other than my go-to italian-driven palate. I didn’t have any cilantro – our one little cilantro plant had a sad and short life this year – so I employed this recipe – http://www.food.com/recipe/salsa-no-cilantro-370600 – and used lots of onion, garlic, and spices to bring the tomato to life. Instead of layering cheese and avocado on my tacos, I put a large bed of this spicy salsa in and left less room for my fattier favorites. The result was a more fresh-tasting taco that didn’t leave me feeling like a blob afterwards. Delicious.

 

Roasted Butternut Squash Seeds

I have always liked a good toasted pumpkin seed, so when I started realizing that my butternut squash plant was producing like crazy, I googled whether or not their seeds were good to eat. Seeds are so nutricious, and I now had so many of them!

The hardest part about this recipe is certainly the acquiring of clean seeds from the mountains of orange slime inside each squash. This website made me feel so much more sane as I was doing it, and includes a recipe for the seeds themselves: http://toriavey.com/how-to/2012/10/all-about-butternut-squash-how-to-peel-seed-slice-and-prepare/ I doubt I would have attempted this at all, if it weren’t for the advice to submerge the seeds in water, which was essential to getting the slimy orange goo off.

I used paprika, salt, and garlic once I had tossed the seeds with butter, and toasted them until there was a decent bit of char on them. I thought, as I often do, that I might have ruined them, but they were light, crisp – really much better than pumpkin seeds, which tend to retain an internal chewiness. These were like popcorn, in the sense of being completely crisp and airy.

I packaged them up in a tupperware container and accidentally left them in my car on the way to work, where I discovered that they are the perfect snack for when you are going home but you are already hungry after work. I would eat enough to be less ravenous  but stop in time to still want my dinner once I got home – a rare and wonderful combination. The allure of fast food always goes down when I have some kind of snack, and these fit the bill perfectly. Like popcorn, I also enjoyed them while watching movies with Husband. Overall, a great and easy treat if you are making butternut squash anyway!

You cannot be a fair weather friend when you own a house.

There has been less cooking than usual in our house this weekend. The reason is that we had a lot of rain for a few days, and the city where we live has a rather old storm water/sewer system. The result was an inch of muck and water in our basement, coming up through the drains. Eek.

We found it Friday afternoon, and after a brief bit of non-elegant annoyance, I settled in to the reality of our weekend. With bleach and brooms and piles of wet cardboard being thrown into our trash bin, we cleared out the basement, disinfected it, and returned it to a state that was actually far cleaner than it had been before. Judging from the others who had water in their basements near us, we actually got lucky – for the most part, ours pooled over the drains and went back down as the storm water pipes got less overwhelmed. Still, there was damage to lots of stuff, and it made me decide never to leave clothes in laundry baskets on my basement floor… goodbye, fair clothing!

Just like I was talking about with handmade gifts and handmade food, this weekend made me realize that what I’ve committed to this house with Husband is more than I committed to apartments (all I’ve ever lived in as an adult). If you buy your apartment rather than renting it, you do this same thing. You are committed to learning as the home goes through troubles – sure, you may have insurance, but you might have to learn what you want to file claims about, and learn how you will replace what was lost. Husband and I spent much of yesterday figuring out what we want in a hot water heater (you have no idea the options if you’ve never had to do this), and feeling at a loss quite often.

What comforts me is that the house will get fixed through channels that others have gone through before and can help us deal with. We will be able to, someday, tell others about how we got water out of our basement and how we picked the hot water heater that worked for us, and how it got paid for and installed. Doing everything that is new and strange for me this year has been tough, but I have to think about the information about fixing a house the way I look at a new recipe: namely, someone has made this work before, and even though I will probably modify the steps and ingredients a little, I can make it work for me too.

What homemade blankets mean as gifts

There is an author, Tamora Pierce, who created a young adults book series all about magic. One of the ways magic worked was that a character could weave the magic into a blanket or a quilt or a shawl, giving powers to whoever had it. It made for very imaginative writing.

I tend to think that a little bit of that magic exists in the real world with handmade gifts – I don’t make fancy blankets when I crochet, but they do require me to think through colors and styles, and keep the final product looking clean and tidy. When I was working on this blanket these past few weeks, I was thinking of M, and her new daughter G who is receiving it. G is so tiny and sleepy all the time at 6 weeks old, but M has taken to motherhood like she was born to it; the perfect mix of attentive and calm. I was thinking about how G will grow up in the same town as me, and maybe I’ll babysit her, or at least see her at the free concerts downtown each summer. All those thoughts for the future, and all my memories of M from the past, were on my mind as I made stitches.

When I visited M to deliver the present, she made a big deal out of it, even though as you can see, it’s pretty small and simple. She insisted that I take a big bag of basil, oregano, and jalapenos because she had more than she could use in her garden. We chatted about school and work and just the very existence of the blanket brought us a little closer. The same thing happens when you bring over food to a pair of new parents, or when you find a way to craft something for a birthday that leads to a lovely story. It’s intangible, but there’s a little magic in it.

The Ripening of an Interesting Year

I was visiting the community garden and saw this plant, big and lush and green, but until I got down at grass level, I couldn’t tell that there was indeed a big purple eggplant growing under there.

I’m sure, if you are like me, that sometimes, you don’t feel like you have seen any fruit for all the efforts you’ve put in. Maybe you are a blogger and you feel like not a lot of people are reading your work; maybe you are a student who has yet to receive stellar feedback from faculty members; maybe you are a cook whose toddler looks at every meal with suspicion despite the many times you have fed them delicious things. It can take a long time to see results from many worthwhile endeavors.

Yesterday, I visited with a former Professor of mine, who asked me questions about my future. I hadn’t had any questions like that in a long time – where was I going, did I want to stay at the place where I worked, what did I want to do next? It seems that in the hustle and bustle of getting married, starting first jobs, getting to know a new community, I had been let off the hook for future plans for a while. Now, as the beginning of the semester seems to be finally settling into a pattern instead of non-stop new demands, it seems that the future is something to be asked about.

It makes me think about the future of my writing and my cooking, but it also makes me feel like here and there, I’ve found some “surprise eggplants,” some fruit. I have written a few articles for websites, which I hadn’t done previously. I have a rough, but complete, draft of my novel. I’m running, for better or for worse, a 10K tomorrow. There are little displays of results, if I’m willing to look.

It makes me want to know what I’m looking for in the next few years, though. I think it’s easier to identify your successes when you think about where you want to go and where you’ve been sometimes. What goals are you setting for yourself lately, cooking or writing or otherwise?

Chicken Parm Bites! and cooking by feel.

This is a version of a dish I’ve made a zillion times – cut up chicken into bites and fry it in butter on high heat, mix tomatoes and onions and a zillion spices and simmer/boil until rich and thick, add cheese. But something last night was different.

Husband was working on some work in the living room, and we had music playing, and I realized, as I cut onions and felt the familiar eye-burn, and grabbed half-a-dozen spice bottles from the shelf, liberally seasoning without measuring, and it somewhat hit me: I make something like this frequently. Some combination of a tomato sauce, something cheesy, and chicken or beef or pepperoni to add protein. I am actually a “regular” at this particular dish.

At the beginning of this year, I was only a regular for a few things, and most of them were dubiously cooking: does adding cheese to a meager-topping-ed frozen pizza count? Stir-frying a frozen veggie mix was a big deal to me. I certainly didn’t have an intuitive sense for how much red pepper flake I should add to a sauce. Now, I know how to shake in enough to get Husband to say “this is good, hon,” without shaking enough to send me gasping for water.

It’s still not true for every dish, but this dish was fun because chicken parm tends to be heavy on the parmesan and heavy on the chicken, but my version reversed the proportion. I served the whole thing on a bed of the chunky sauce, treating that like the main dish, with a sprinkling of chicken bites and shredded parmesan on top. It was pretty filling (I thickened the sauce with some corn flour, to my great happiness. Thank you to all the bloggers who gave me advice about my watery sauce last time!) but not reliant on cheese the way I generally am with dishes. Whatever your favorite chicken parm recipe is, consider using all the same ingredients but proportioning it this way – the sauce is a treat itself and fills you up!img_4678