Lifestyles of the Destitute and Obscure

dazzling and interesting on a shoestring

Category Archives: cooking

Dazzling and Sparkling Wine Picks for the Cash-Strapped

This is a guest post, starring my dear friend, Kristin. This is the gal who taught me the nitty-gritty about blogging and has been encouraging me all the way. Not only is she a blogging babe and a belly dancing diva like myself, but she happens to be a wine maven extraordinaire and works as the event coordinator for a local posh wine club. Lucky us, she’s going to share a bit of her knowledge so that we can celebrate, polish up our wine panache and do so without adding to our holiday debt. So buy a bottle without guilt and toast to your new sophisticated palate and to our lovely Kristin! Happy New Year, y’all!!

There are many special occasions this time of year, when reaching for something with a stem just seems like the right thing to do.

Whether it’s New Year’s Eve or the season premier of Walking Dead, something in a pretty glass with tiny little bubbles is just proper. One of my recommendations for those, like myself, who are on a beer budget but have a taste for champagne is a sparkling Vouvray. Like it’s cousin, Champagne, it is also from France it is also elegant, but with a much lower price-point. One of my favorite sparkling Vouvrays, is from Domaine Vigneau. It usually retails for $20-24 per bottle. It has the complexity and brightness of true Champagne, but with a hint of honey on the finish. It looks and tastes “fancy-pants” without the strain on your wallet.

th-1Get Down and Snuggle
On a blustery winter night, sometimes you just get a hankering for a hearty stew in a hot bowl in front of the fireplace. When I prepare my Mama’s stew recipe on these nights, I grab a bottle of Don Miguel Gascon Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. I like the 2013 vintage, and all of the vintages that I’ve tasted I’ve been most impressed with this one. This bottle is usually under $20 at most stores, but tastes like a much more expensive bottle of wine. To me, it tastes like chocolate-covered cherries and has a very smooth and velvety finish.

Just ‘cause
Sometimes, you need a wine “just because”- just because a girlfriend popped by unexpectedly, just because you had a bad day at work, just because your kids are driving you bat-poop crazy! A perfect go-to for me is something crisp, light, white, and with a twist-off top. Why add stress and carpel tunnel to your world unnecessarily? I recommend Clos DuBois Pinot Grigio- retails for under $10 a bottle at most stores, has easy access (twist-off), and is so pretty and delicate with aromas of pink grapefruit and peach. It has lively acidity and a crisp finish, and it goes with everything! Brie, apples and peanut butter, popcorn and string cheese, Triscuits with cream cheese- anything can be quickly whipped up to set on the coffee table with this little hidden gem!

Impress the crap out of ‘em
Every once in a while, you have the need to impress the crap out of someone with a really damn good bottle of wine. Whether it’s your bosses birthday, your best friend’s 40th, or your anniversary, there are a few very impressive tasting, yet light on the budget wines that I would recommend. The first is the Prisoner- a red blend that is so incredibly palate-pleasing to so many types of wine drinkers. Very fruit-forward and jammy, yet silky and velvety- under $40 a bottle, whether someone is a “wine snob”, or just cutting their teeth on their vino repertoire, I’ve rarely met an individual who didn’t love this particular wine.

Another one of my prized picks is the Frank Family 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, around $50 a bottle, whether the recipient is drinking it now, or saving for a few years, it is an opulent, gorgeous Cab, with a beautiful label, and has the score of 92 points with Robert Parker.

thMy number one fave (I saved the best for last!), is the 2013 Cave Blend by Del Dotto. Not only does it have an absolutely beautiful Italian-styled label that looks like lace, the wine itself is so decadent and dark, yet supple and silky at the same time. Hailing from one of the most beautiful vineyards in Napa that I have ever visited, it is literally little drops of heaven in a bottle. If you have the chance to visit either of their locations, I highly recommend it!

I hope that you have enjoyed my vino recommendations, and wish to you and yours an incredibly fulfilling, scrumptious and prosperous New Year! Cheers!!

clinking glasses image courtesy of Stuart Miles

Fancy Cafes are Overrated

sideboard.pasteriesI’m a working mom who stays home with the kiddos for part of the day because now they are all in school. Seventy percent of my paycheck goes to preschool but at least eighty percent of my sanity is intact.

So while the twins are at preschool, I’m working. I had fanciful visions of going to the local chic café, ordering a cappuccino and a scone and working on my laptop… until I nearly froze in their rustic hardwood floor and vaulted ceiling eating area and spent $8 that I didn’t really have. That was nearly satisfying until I couldn’t send an email because the wifi was so blasted ineffective. Back to the warm, quiet and free library.   So now I work off-line in the car with a pre-packed snack, my favorite coffee brewed strong enough to resemble used motor oil and a lovely wool blanket that kept me warm in Colorado and still snuggles my daughter. It even doubles as a picnic blanket in the spring and summer. A fine investment if I do say so myself.

So goodbye dreams of fancy workspaces; the best one is my trusty minivan and the good ol’ fashioned public library.
I make better scones and when I can one day afford my own espresso machine, I can put my six years of barista skills to work and make a better cappuccino. Who needs hardwood floors and antique forks?

To make your own workspace that much cozier, take one of these scones with you and I promise that your cubicle, car or park bench will feel more like a chic suburban café.my.nepenthe.

Orange Oat Scone Recipe bogarted from the book, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur which they borrowed from Stars Bakery in San Francisco (now loooong gone). And so the karmic circle of baked goods passes this recipe along to you.


3 cups flour

½ cup turbinado sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small pieces

2 cups whole oats

zest of 1 orange (or ½ teaspoon of dried orange rind)

¾ cup heavy cream or buttermilk

¼ cup coarse sugar or turbinado sugar for sprinkling on top


Preheat the oven 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Combine the flour, turbinado sugar, baking powder, and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor. (I use a battered medium sized bowl and a 25 year-old pastry cutter and that seems to work just fine. Also, you can measure out these dry ingredients and set them aside easily if suddenly you find you need to run a carpool or referee a sibling squabble. You can do this really quick and then finish up the mixing and baking when you have a little more time.)

Add the butter piece by piece, pulsing until pearl size. If you’re using a bowl and a pastry cutter, then cut the butter until the flour and butter mixture is fairly uniform and mealy and the butter pieces are very small. Transfer the dough to a bowl if you used the food processor and stir in the oats and orange zest.

Stir in the cream or buttermilk until just moistened. (I ‘make’ buttermilk by measuring out my milk and then adding 1-2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Let it sit for about 5 minutes and then voilà, you have buttermilk.)

Bring the dough together with your hands and gently pat into an 8-inch round. Cut into triangle shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, separating them so they do not touch. Sprinkle the tops with course sugar. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly golden brown. I always rotate my baking sheet about 2/3 of the way through because my oven is crappy and I want to make sure all the items get baked evenly.

**There are a number of variations and substitutions, including switching the orange for lemon zest and then adding 2-3 Tablespoons of poppy seeds. You can also add 1 cup of dried currants, raisins, cranberries, cherries or blueberries as you bring the dough together. Seriously, the possibilities are endless.

Note: Check out the cookbook from your local public library and ooh and ahh over the photographs of the bohemian ‘60’s and ‘70’s (there’s even a belly dancer!) and all the wonderful, whimsical décor. It is a lovely cookbook as well as a collection of history and style.

Homemade Granola from an Empty Pantry

DSC_1580Think the cupboard is empty?  It’s amazing what you can make when you really look around the kitchen.  You can make something out of nothing.  Here’s what I do when I want granola:  Granola is one of the most expensive over-rated items on the grocery store shelf.  Do you know how easy it is to make?  So easy, really.  And the variations are endless.  The only two things you must have are oats and oil—peanut or canola oil is best.

My grandfather used to make his own granola with these basic pedestrian ingredients, but you can swap out the peanuts for almonds or the raisins for cranberries, or any other chopped nut or dried fruit, depending on how fancy you want to get, or what you happen to have on the shelves or in your nearly empty pantry.  Put it on yogurt, eat with your favorite cereal and dairy or dairy substitute or heat it up to make fancier oatmeal.  Plus, when you make it, you get the added benefit of having your house smell all toasty and cozy when it’s cold outside.

Here’s my Grandpa Alden’s list of ingredients for granola:
4 cups old-fashioned oats
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped peanuts
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup wheat germ
½ cup bran
3 ½ ounces flaked coconut
½ cup peanut oil
½ cup honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup raisins

As you can see, the ingredients are cheap and healthy, though not for the peanut allergenic.  I made this recipe for my family, and my husband thought the peanuts were weird, because he has a somewhat European sense of breakfast food.  I don’t particularly like flaked coconut, either—it’s a texture thing.  We also happened to have a rather large amount of flax meal, leftover from a pumpkin pie recipe gone terribly wrong.

DSC_1651So here’s what I did to make my own granola recipe:
4 cups oats
1 cup chopped almonds (to replace the peanuts, though they do cost a bit more)
1 cup flax meal
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup canola oil (to replace the peanut oil, since that’s what we’ve got)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup (to replace ½ the honey, because we were poor in honey but rich in syrup)
½ t. vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dried apricots

As you can see, any nut or dried fruit can be swapped out, you can add any number of lovely fall spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves) to the dry ingredients and the ½ cup of honey can be traded for any sort of sweet, sticky medium—agave, maple syrup or any combination of what you’ve got, provided it doesn’t get too weird.  The flax meal or bran could be any combination of these or some other roast-able ingredient to add a bit of flavor, health and digestibility.

mix.granolaOnce you’ve got your ingredients all decided on (I always pull everything out and put it on our tiny acreage of counter before I begin, that way I don’t discover that I’m missing something halfway through the process) here’s how you’ll mix it up:
Combine oats, nuts, flax meal (wheat germ, bran, etc.) and coconut (if you like it and have it) and spices (if you choose) in a large bowl.  Heat oil, honey (or other sticky stuff to equal ½ cup) and vanilla to just below boiling—you’ll start to see bubbles form on the bottom of the pan, when you do, take it off the heat.
Pour your sticky stuff over the oat mixture and toss/stir it all to coat the oats and stuff thoroughly.  Spread it all evenly into two (or three) roasting pans (in my Grandpa’s recipe they call them ‘jelly roll’ pans, which just make me think of Leadbelly songs… but I digress).
Roast it all for 30 minutes in the oven at 300 degrees, stirring it up every 10 minutes to have it cook evenly, or until it’s a light brown (or a little darker as I prefer, or if I’m in the middle of changing diapers and forget to take it out in time).  Remove from the oven and let it cool, then stir in the dried fruit.

Voila—your very own homemade granola!

Best New Cooking Show

Only, it doesn’t exist– yet.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIn my wildest blogging fantasies, I dream of hosting a cooking show.  But wait—not just the same old ‘here’s a nifty dip to serve at a barbeque.’  And definitely not ‘let’s watch a professional chef verbally abuse people for your entertainment.’  Let’s imagine a nicer mix of the two.  I’d like to believe that this new cooking show– something friendly, funny and helpful– might make for good ratings.  I’m no television expert—we don’t even have cable—but I know what it’s like to cook and I try to practice my daily acts of kindness and beauty and bumper-sticker philosophy (okay, to a point—some bumper-sticker philosophy just gets ridiculous).

What I want to offer viewers in my new cooking show, is the chance to learn to cook better, while getting a peek inside an American household (we’ll go international, of course, once it catches on) and adding that irresistible flash of hot, charming celebrity.  It would be a whole new category of helpful reality television.  I recommend choosing families from all demographics, geographical regions, socio-economic status, gender partner pairing (tripling or squaring) marital status and generational mixing.  If we’re going American, let’s really represent America.  In the end, it will try to have nothing to do with politics.

Here are the ingredients:

1 family cook and his or her family
1 family recipe (not taken from a chef/restaurant cookbook)
1 celebrity cook/chef (my picks: Pioneer Woman— Ree Drummond, Anthony Bourdain, or Bobby Flay.  If you have any other suggestions, please chime in below.)


Invite celebrity chef of the week (preferably, a different one every week for added variety) to a family dinner.  The family cook prepares the meal and serves it to their own family plus chef and any guests.  Everyone enjoys the meal.
Then, celebrity chef and family cook sit down and discuss the merits of the meal and constructively discuss possible improvements.  This would be a nice time to talk about the significance or history of the family recipe.

Finally, the celebrity chef and the home cook make the meal together, implementing many or all of the improvements to the meal.  They all enjoy it together and the family cook has learned from a pro.

Fun, no?

For added participatory fun, let’s vote for our favorite celebrity chef to star in my imaginary cooking show:

Birthday Cake and Baking Mistakes

At our house, a cake baked is not just a receptacle for birthday candles, but a gift of love as well, and so, our birthday cakes are homemade ones.  They usually taste pretty good, offer an activity for creative hands and often provide a few laughs.  Who can say that about a bakery-bought birthday cake?


My trusty assistant adds just a teaspoon of vanilla… I hope.

We used our tried-and-true 1-2-3-4 Cake Recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Panisse, and as per my little helper’s request, we mixed up some turquoise frosting—turquoise is fast replacing pink as the color of choice for… just about everything.

Humorously enough, I started this post, thinking that this cake would bake and get put together just as easily as the Thunder Cake we made last month.  My cake, however, had other plans.
It mixed up just fine, thanks to the ol’ Scovil hand mixer and seemed to fluff properly when I folded in the egg whites.  In hindsight, however, I vaguely recall thinking that it might look a bit deflated.  But I carried forth anyhow.


Cake surgery and the creation of Franken-cake

I planned to fill it with strawberry jam for the very specific reason that it was what we had in the house.  At the end of April, even in Northern California, the local, in-season fruit selection is minimal.  Strawberries are your best (almost only) option, if you don’t want to be eating fruit that hopped on a plane to get to your local supermarket.  Kiwis are an option, but I don’t like them, so I feed them to everyone else in my family.  Babies ate their first kiwi today, as a matter of fact.  Fortunately, I loooooove strawberries.  I eat them for lunch, breakfast, dinner, snack and with my bedtime nightcap (herbal tea).  I try not to cry in July when they’re really too pale and dry to be delicious.  I am, however, easily placated by the arrival of peach season.

But anyhow, we made another cake.  And this time, I was going to try and make it pretty, too.  Not beauty pageant, high-maintenance gorgeous, but down-home pretty.  Think more Emma Stone and less Kim Kardashian.  Okay, great.  Now imagine that they are both birthday cakes…
And then my oven limitations and my baking abilities got into the mix with my pretty Hollywood Starlet fantasies and I ended up with Franken-cake.  For some reason, one of the cake pans decided not to cook her cake all the way through.  The other decided to sink in the middle like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs (and Leo DiCaprio when he couldn’t hold on to the wreckage).  It was a sad, sorry sight.  But I was not to be deterred.  I don’t toss food just because it’s ugly—unless of course, it’s ugly because of the gray-green fuzz growing on it.  So I performed a bit of surgery.  I cut off the good parts of the half-baked one and then cut the other in half, for a double half-layer cake—in other words, a single layer cake with jam in the middle.


Spreading the delicious turquoise frosting.


Decorating a cake as a team.

Post-confectionary surgery, we needed to frost the cake.  My trusty assistant determined that blue and just a bit of green to achieve the desired turquoise.  Only we didn’t have enough powdered sugar.  As I said before, we were determined to make this cake—it was my birthday cake, darn it, and I was not going to let a simple lack of powdered sugar keep me from my frosting.  Unfortunately, my neighbors are not the baking types, otherwise I would’ve had my five year-old trot over and beg a cup from them.  The technique is fun and old-fashioned, almost always reciprocated and a great way to get to know people.  But luckily, we now own a Vitamix (that’s another birthday story for another time) and I made, yes, made powdered sugar.
Thank you Vitamix and thank you, Internet.  Nifty, no?   So, after my trusty assistant came back to the kitchen after the Vitamix was done making noise, we mixed a little bit of pink and a bit more turquoise, with the pre-determined amount of food coloring.

Together, we decorated it with pink flowers (of course) and had a mini spelling lesson—that’s M-O-M-M-Y.

DSC_1412Happy Birthday to me.  🙂

Baking a Chocolate Cake

ThunderCakeCoverI want to live in the Midwest, simply so I can have fireflies, church potlucks and thunderstorms.  Patricia Polacco’s book, Thunder Cake, really makes me long for chickens, antique Russian Orthodox iconography scattered about, a cat, some bright turquoise furniture, a samovar (don’t ask me why on that one, I just do) a few odd goats, and a good, old-fashioned thunderstorm.Thunder.Cake.Vr.Mary

So, even though we don’t have thunderstorms in Northern California, my eldest and I made Thunder Cake.  It helped that it was raining that morning.  And the weather was obliging enough to rain again the following week when I whipped up the frosting and my little helper was there to top the cake with the strawberries and lick the leftover frosting off the spatula.Thunder.cake.Smile

The rain and wind didn’t stop my neighbor from walking around in his athletic shorts, barefoot and without shoes.  He’s out sunbathing by the pool the second the temperature breaks 60 degrees.  He won’t be vitamin D deficient, that’s for sure.  Ah, apartment living is always so lively!  Ahem, but I digress…

Thunder.Cake.Strawb.So we made mixed up the cake batter with help from Julia, the Kitchen Aid mixer, and whipped those egg whites into a frothy frenzy with my mother’s Scovil hand mixer from 1972 (I say ‘we’, but my helper had to go to her room and close the door, because the Scovil battering against the metal bowl was too loud) and baked our two layers of chocolate cake.  I froze those puppies for a few days, and then thawed them to celebrate the end of my husband’s abstinence from eggs and dairy.  And what a way to celebrate—we’re all on the verge of a diabetic coma, and there’s three quarters of a chocolate cake left over.  Who wants to come over and help us eat it?  (Said the Little Red Hen.)

Note: for further fun and games, literary adventures and updates on one of the coolest children’s book author/illustrators ever, visit Polacco’s site. (click on the nifty link here and make your own postcards from Thunder Cake.)


Our version won’t win any beauty pageants, but here are a few tips to help round out the frighteningly brief recipe at the end of Polacco’s book.  Thunder.Cake.RecipeI supplemented the directions with the 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Pannise cookbook. The instructions are written for children (and when it comes to baking cakes, I am a beginner at the elementary level) and anything from Waters’ is bound to be a gem.

Thunder.Cake.Fanny.Chez.I scoured epicurious for a simple buttercream recipe, and was completely bamboozled by the one I found that suggested a 1:12 ratio for butter and powdered sugar.  Yikes.  I ended up with a powdery mess, then figured that there had to be more butter in it, especially since I added 1/3 of a cup of cocoa, and made it even drier.  So here’s what I did instead—learn from my mistakes.

Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
2 sticks butter (1 cup) at room temperature, so it actually mixes
4 cups powdered sugar (sifted!)
1/3 cup cocoa (sift this, too.  I didn’t, because I was annoyed and in a hurry, and the cake has a bit of a grainy, pimply complexion—like I said, it’s no Beauty Queen)
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix the butter all by its lonesome until it’s nice and smooth.  Add half the powdered sugar and mix until creamy.  Then add the cocoa, the vanilla, and little by little the last 2 cups of the sugar.  You may not need it all.  Just mix it until it looks like, well, frosting.  It should have a nice, smooth, spreadable quality about it.  Don’t dip your finger in and lick it until the cake’s all frosted.
Note:  I added a thin layer of strawberry jam to the middle instead of frosting, just for a little change-up, and because it is my nature to rebel against the recipe.  I suppose you could cook down and macerate your own strawberries, but the jam is cheap and easy, and that’s just the way we do things around here.

Kale Recipes, Cheap and Easy

kale of mineGet more from your greens without shelling out the greenbacks.  Kale is a wonderful dark, leafy vegetable, found this time of year at bargain prices from your local supermarket and friendly local farmer.  All hail the glorious kale!  Step aside, you pale and withering icebergs!  Make way, you mounds of pompous field greens!  Here comes the kale —rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and now, made delicious with a few culinary tricks.  All that, and it comes in several varieties, including dinosaur kale.  Tell that to your preschooler and see if they’ll shun it now.  “Come to the table, kids and eat your dinosaur kale!”  My oldest eats in out of the bag, raw.  It’s all I can do to get through the market and to the check-out stand before she’s eaten half the bag.

Here are a couple kale recipes to get you started:

kale and tofu saladPan-Seared Tofu and Kale Salad with Lemon-Soy Vinaigrette
This is delightful dish I make on a regular basis, taken from the newspaper and altered only slightly to my tastes.  We serve it with brown rice (not white rice; really, white rice was made by the devil, boxed with a picture of a perfectly nice-looking Black man and sold to the unenlightened.  I mean it, ditch the white rice and eat the brown stuff.  You’ll get used to it, I swear, and then there will be no going back.) and even eat it all mixed together the next day for lunch.

1 block of firm tofu (10 oz., says the recipe)
¼ low sodium soy sauce (because why blow the health benefits with a ton of salt)
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice, about ½ a lemon’s worth
2 tablespoons honey (though I don’t think I put in that much)
2 tablespoons sesame oil (or toasted sesame oil; either one will do)
1 tablespoon olive oil
black pepper
8 cups chopped kale (a big bunch or two smaller bunches; either curly or dinosaur kale)
½ cup peanuts (salted or unsalted, whichever you munch on during snack time)

Cut the tofu into bite-sized cubes and let it all drain on a paper towel or cloth.  Whisk together the soy sauce, lemon juice, honey, sesame oil and pepper.  Add the tofu to the mixture and slosh around to get all the pieces nice and marinated.  Let it hang out for about 10-15 minutes, or however long it takes you to wash and slice up the kale (in addition to listening to your babbling kids/spouse/neighbor/friend if needed, or trying to catch the baseball/hockey/basketball/soccer score on the radio).
Here’s the best way to slice that kale:  First find yourself a large knife.  Carefully carve out those thick ribs out of the center of each leaf—I slice up one side and down the other with the point of the knife.  Then you want to chop it finely—a nice julienne will do, about ¼- ½ inch thick.  Put all that into a bowl.  It’s good to have a bowl that’s not too wide, because in a few minutes, you’ll need to put something over it—a cutting board or lid.  You’ll see why in a couple sentences.
Heat up your olive oil in a non-stick skillet (anything other than non-stick for tofu, and you may end up with a scramble and some tears of frustration) on medium-high heat.  Now that your tofu’s looking well-coated, gently lift it into the hot pan, without the marinade.  Let the tofu sizzle and brown for 2-3 minutes, and then gently turn and rotate them, so each cube gets a turn in the middle (the hottest part of the pan) and gets brown on more than one side.  Give ‘em a few more minutes and then carefully add the rest of the soy sauce mixture.  Let it bubble and boil for another minute, and then pour it all over your big bowl of kale.  Put a cover/lid/cutting board over the top and let the heat of the tofu and the marinade wilt and warm the kale for a couple minutes.  Toss the peanuts in and gently mix the salad, so as not to break up your gloriously browned chunks of tofu.

This next recipe was taken originally from Martha Stewart’s fine little Living mag, but I altered my photocopied (from the library,of course,) version that I can hardly understand my own corrections.  The good news, is that I make it often enough, and enough of it to share—to rave reviews, that I feel that I can call it my own without suffering the wrath of the cooking and entertaining mogul/maven.  Notice, however, that there is no link (or link back) to Ms. Stewart and her publication.  I may be broke, but I’m not stupid.

kale sauteeKale and Rice- Stuffed Peppers
2 cups kale, finely chopped
1/4 cup orange juice (from the orange, or from the juice pitcher—either is fine)
½ cup chopped onion
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp. coriander
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. cumin
salt and pepper
1 can (12-14 oz.) crushed/chopped tomatoes (not the kind with the basil)
2 cups cooked basmati rice (see white rice vs. brown rice note above)
½ cup raisins
½ cup almonds, coarsely chopped
2 large red peppers

Sautee your kale in a frying pan on medium heat for about 3 minutes, and then add the orange juice, stirring it around until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Set it aside and let it cool.  Next, heat up your olive oil (the same pan is fine, and cuts down on the dish-washing) and add the onion.  Let them cook on medium-high heat until they’re wilt-y and less pungent, then add the garlic and cook for another minute.  Add your coriander, cumin, and cinnamon, salt and pepper and bathe all those lovely onions in spice.  Lower the heat and add your tomatoes and rice.  Stir around about until the mixture is thick and the aroma is delicious—5-7 minutes or so, then toss in the raisins and almonds and take it off the heat.  In a large bowl, mix the kale and your rice concoction together.  While it’s cooling a bit, take your peppers and chop of their heads (or rather, their tops.  You may do impersonations of either the Queen of Hearts or Henry VIII as you do so, but not in front of the pets or the children; you don’t want to frighten them.  Unless of course, they get the joke and think it’s funny, too) and pull out the ribs and seeds.  kale n rice casseroleNow you’re ready to stuff those peppers with the rice and kale filling.  There will be lots of extra stuffing, so just put that in the bottom of a baking/casserole dish and then place the peppers in on top.  Plunk a lid or foil on top of the dish and bake in the over on 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.  Hearty and delicious!

Note for carnivorous omnivores:  A half-pound of cooked ground beef or ground turkey mixed in with the stuffing could be yummy, too.  Just go ahead and brown it in the pan after you’ve wilted those onions.  Then add the garlic and carry on with the rest of the recipe, including the corny literary and historical impersonations.  Over and out. 

Try it, let me know if you like it… or not.  And most important, EAT MORE KALE!


cheers and thanks to Russell Yip of the San Francisco Chronicle for the Tofu Salad pic

For further healthy cooking (and eating!) read this:

*Chicken Broccoli Casserole -by fabulous guest blogger, Andrea
Tamale Pie (after the pic of the green Le Crueset)
*My Grandmother’s Salmon Loaf (at the bottom of the post)

Nicoise Salad and Greek Salad

In the continued Olympic Spirit of international sharing and cooperation, I bring you two yummy, inexpensive salads perfect for hot summer days and that utilize seasonal produce.

Salad Nicoise w/Tuna
This version of a French classic is pulled from my local newspaper’s weekend Food and Wine section, which is a great way to plump up your recipe collection.  (If you don’t want to order the daily paper, you can subscribe to only the Sunday paper, or request somebody’s discarded Food section; most people don’t read the majority of their enormous Sunday papers anyhow.)  It’s easy, inexpensive and quick if you’ve hard-boiled the eggs ahead of time, and takes very little cooking, so it won’t heat up the kitchen on a hot summer day.

Le dressing:
(I love this dressing, so I use the larger amounts…increase at your discretion)
3-4 tablespoons Champagne vinegar (an essential staple in my pantry)
1-2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
pinch salt
1/3 cup olive oil
a shake of black pepper

La salad:
3 large fistfuls of green beans, (the recipe goes by pounds, but I never weigh anything at the store, unless my child and I are playing with the scale in the produce section) ends trimmed off and cut into 1 inch pieces
3 radishes (I’m not as generous with these, but if you love ‘em, then by all means, pile them on) thinly sliced
1/2- 3/4 cup kalamata olives, pitted and torn in half
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half so they don’t roll all over the plate, eluding your fork
2-3 cans albacore tuna in water (though if you want to be healthier and more environmentally conscious then use skipjack or another tuna further down the food chain)
3 hard-boiled eggs
Loaf of crusty bread— sour French being the best, though baguettes tend to be too small for the purpose of this salad (and you can use the leftovers to make croutons)
Red leaf lettuce torn into bite-size pieces

For the dressing, throw together the vinegar and Dijon and a bit of salt.  Mix thoroughly and then whisk the olive oil into the vinegar in a slow, steady stream while you’re whisking, so that sucker emulsifies.  Add a pinch of pepper.
Steam your green beans for a few minutes until they’re just the other side of raw, also known as what fancy chef-people like to call ‘tender crisp.’  Then throw the beans in some cool water, so they’re salad-ready.
Toss together your cherry tomatoes, olives, beans, and radishes with about ½ the dressing.  Flake in the tuna, but don’t pulverize it.
Cut two slices of bread per person and toast it—it soaks up the dressing better this way.  Arrange bread on a plate and top it with the lettuce and then the tuna mixture.  Chop the eggs into a few pieces and add a little bit more dressing.  I put the extra dressing on the table, too, because oil, vinegar and Dijon are a divine mélange.  And voila, you are done.

Greek Salad
If you prefer a salad with more Mediterranean flair and less je ne sais quoi, this is a great side salad for burgers, falafel, or pizza.   In my kitchen, we’ve utilized the generous harvest of my friend’s cucumbers and tomatoes.

3-4 cucumbers— mostly peeled, depending on your preference for cuke skin, seeded (or not, depending on the time you’ve got) and diced
2-3 tomatoes— diced
¼ cup diced red onion
1 tsp. fresh oregano from your herb garden or ½ teaspoon dried oregano
2 Tbsp.  red wine vinegar

Toss all your veggies together, mix in the vinegar and toss around again.  Sprinkle in your oregano and give it one more stir with the spoon.  This salad is best cold (who wants to eat a warm cucumber… after all, the phrase is ‘cool as…’) so let its flavors meld in the fridge for an hour or so.  And, it’s even better the next day.

Enjoy your last days of summer and all your back-to-schooling if you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere.  If you’re down under, best wishes for a happy spring!

Ciao and Chow!
Ms. D

WIC program– Making it Work for You

How does the government seek to support the Destitute and Obscure?  Well, I signed my lil’ ol’ self up for the WIC (that would be Women, Infants and Children) program, with all my documentation in tow—sonograms, blood tests, power bill, passports, proof of (lack) of income and first-born child.

As a WIC participant, both my child and I receive checks that I can use at the local Safeway to buy certain wholesome foods.  At least that is the general idea. In practice, however, the selection options aren’t that good.  I get $17 total for the two of us to buy produce, and I buy organic, so that gets me a red pepper, an avocado and about two separate weeks worth of bananas.  We eat A LOT more produce than that.  The only other option I have to buy organic is tofu, which I do, and we get two blocks per month, which takes care of two meals for my family.  I have options to buy juice, bread, lots of cereal, dry beans or lentils, peanut butter, canned fish, milk and eggs.  And one block of cheese per month.  None of these options can be organic, which translates to the following:  bread made with high-fructose corn syrup (um, really?!  In bread?) cereal that can contain high amounts of sugar, dried beans that are too time-consuming for me to use (okay, that’s pretty much my own thing) peanut butter that will contain sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup unless I get the ‘natural’ variety, which I do, and dairy that is loaded with hormones, antibiotics and heaven only knows what else.  The juice is sugar regardless, so sometimes I buy it and sometimes not, but they allow for the two of us to get up to six 32 ounce bottles of it.

So, in this review of items, the WIC program seems to be pro-sugar and supportive of lots of processed cereal.  The inability to buy organic dairy is what irritates me the most, considering California’s Senator Diane Feinstien has introduced legislation that would ban the use of subtherapeutic (and already intensive) use of antibiotics in the dairy, egg and meat industry.  It seems that a state-run program should follow support this legislation, but no.  It’s the politicians (at the state, not national level) who make the rules (not the mothers, children or WIC nutritionists) about what I can or cannot buy with these checks.  It seems like a great idea—to offer low-income moms and kids free food— and for some, it may improve their nutrition and the ability to provide for their families, but it doesn’t go the extra mile.  Maybe more like an extra inch or two.

Here’s how the savvy Ms. D maneuvers these obstacles and stays on track with her highfalutin nutritional ideals:

  • I don’t get the eggs, bread or milk… oh well.
  • Since I can’t get organic cheese, I buy Tillamook, which is rBGH (recumbent bovine growth hormone) free and uses vegetable rennet.  This takes most of the hormones out of my cheese, and it’s yummy… and I wish I was allowed to get more.
  • I get canned salmon and make salmonloaf with it—yummy and cheap.  Recipe to follow.
  • I buy Cheerios (the plain kind) and while they aren’t as good as the Whole Foods brand, both my kid and I eat them—with organic milk bought somewhere else.
  • I buy the ‘natural’ peanut butter—Adams, and Laura Scudders both make a version I can purchase.
  • I buy the frozen orange juice and have it when I need it.
  • I use my produce check mostly on bananas, which I realize aren’t particularly environmentally sound, but they aren’t local regardless of where I shop.  The organic produce at my Safeway is a bit sub-par and never local.

It may save us a little bit of money, maybe $20 a month, which is something, but when I factor in the fact that I have to drive 20 minutes to the WIC office and spend a couple hours of my time per month to save the money, I begin to wonder if it’s really worth it.  The hours spent at the local WIC office aren’t just waiting for the slow, overburdened grind of a government agency to process my checks.  In addition to showing proof of my pregnancy (do think I swallowed a basketball?) and my health, I have to attend short classes about baby care.  Perhaps I am being a bit snobbish, but um, I know what it means when a baby cries.  I know how to breastfeed.  I’ve done my own research, I read at least 50% of what’s been written on the subject by experts and non-experts alike and not least of all worth noting— I’ve done this baby-thing before.  I already have a child.  But I suppose they have to cover every possible range of informed or uninformed mom, and I try my best to check my attitude at the door.  I try, really, but I pride myself on being well-read, and I don’t like to be herded into the shallow end of the informed.

The WIC program, like any other government-sponsored program does the best it can with the funding it’s got—which is never much—and progresses at the snail-pace of legislation.  It’s come a long way over the years, but it’s still woefully behind in terms of nutrition.  With all the recent journalism  and research about processed food and nutrition moving at a dizzying pace, WIC is getting left in the dust.  I appreciate the help, believe me I do, but my first consideration is the health of my family and that of the environment, second being saving a few bucks.  I’ll save another way, not at the expense of our long-term health.

My Grandma’s Salmonloaf

I don’t know if my dear grandmother made this recipe up, or whether it comes from one of those curious 1950’s cookbooks, or even further back to the war-time cookbooks with all the meat alternatives.  In any case, it was passed down to my mother, and she taught me how to make it once I had a family of my own.  It’s cheap and easy, delicious and nutritious, and like meatloaf, you can put it in a sandwich the next day for lunch.  You can garnish it with a bit of lemon juice, but we use ketchup or tartar sauce in my house. 

1 15 oz. can of salmon (usually pink or sockeye; it’s better than the red salmon)
1 sleeve Saltine crackers (watch out for Nabisco brand—they contain high fructose corn syrup.  Why, I’m not quite sure.)
1 egg

Start with the fun part: smash the Saltines in a plastic bag.  Smash ‘em to smithereens—nice pea-sized crumbs, not dust.  Open the can of salmon, pour the liquid into a measuring cup and set aside.  Then move on to the nitty-gritty part, which is dumping the contents of the can of salmon into a bowl and going through and meticulously removing all the skin and most of the big bones.  Messy work, but it all the skin and bones down the garbage disposal.  It’s okay to leave a few of the little bones, as they’re already cooked down and they’ll cook down even further when you put it together and bake it.  Plus, you get a bit of added calcium.  My mother nibbles on them while she prepares the recipe, but I’m not quite that bold.  Now, with cleaned hands, add just enough milk to your reserved salmon juice to make ½ cup of liquid.  Note: any milk substitute will work here if you don’t do cow’s milk.  Add the egg to the liquid and mix it all up, then add to the salmon.  I mix it with my hands, because I’ve already gooped them up once, so why not do it again?  When the liquid and the salmon are mixed together evenly, and all the fish chunks are broken up, add the crushed crackers and mix those in—again, I use my hands.
Press the whole mixture to a greased (I use olive oil) loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until the top is vaguely browned.

How to make Homemade Croutons

I have artisan baguette taste, but I’m on a Wonder Bread kind of budget.  This may be my current lot in life, and ‘waste not, want not’ are words to live by.  So I buy au bon pain—aka the good bread— because a healthy body is the ultimate life investment.  Ahem—do not be fooled by ‘enriched’ bread products; ‘enriched’ is a load of hooey, usually chemical and unnatural.

All kinds of crusty bread work well—baguettes, ciabatta, sour or sweet batards, even old plain bagels.  So, if I’m not pregnant and on intense carbo-load (which I am—on both counts), there’s usually some bread left over.  What’s an Obscure lass to do?  When life gives you bread, make croutons!  If you haven’t the time to slice and toast seasoned bread cubes (it only takes about 20 minutes, and half that is cooking time; but I understand that sometimes those precious minutes are hard to find) then wrap your leftover bread in a plastic bag or plastic wrap.  It will still be soft enough to slice, though a bit chewier than its fresh self.

When you’ve got the time for making the most delicious croutons in the world (the restaurant and store-bought ones will shudder in inferiority) then first turn the oven on to 450 degrees.  This is important—the oven should be hot, hence the pre-heat instructions on most recipes.  A good, sharp bread knife is essential, and worth the expense, because the crust can begin to get a bit tough and rubbery after a couple days wrapped in plastic.

Other ingredients you’ll need:

  • 2-3 gloves garlic, chopped in half
  • Olive oil
  • Handful of herbs—all or a few of the following: rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley, thyme.

Begin by slicing your bread and then cutting it into bite-size chunks.  Layer the chunks in a single layer along the bottom of a rimmed cookie sheet, brownie pan, roasting pan, or whatever you’ve got that has a rim.  Use whatever size you need, based on the amount of leftover bread you’ve got.

Don’t use a flat cookie sheet, because if the oil runs off the edge, it could set your oven on fire.  I speak from experience, and Ms. Obscure would like to help you learn from her mistakes.
Once you’ve got your pile of bread cubes, coarsely chop your herbs and sprinkle them over the top.  Scatter your chopped garlic and shake it all around a bit.  Then drizzle your olive oil on top, trying to get a little bit on each piece of bread.

This is actually quite a bit of oil, but don’t worry about that.  Olive oil is a ‘good fat’ and croutons on salad were not meant for stingy calorie counters.

Shake the whole mixture around a bit more and then pop it into your hot oven for about 10 minutes, or until most of the pieces are light brown.  Stir the bread as needed after 7 minutes or rotate the whole pan and bake for the remaining few minutes.  Ideally, your croutons should be golden brown, crunchy on the outside and give a little in the middle.  Discard the biggest chunks of herbs, and if you don’t like roasted garlic (are you crazy?!… okay, just kidding.  Different strokes, etc.) then chuck those, too.  Store in an air-tight container and use liberally on salad.  Be sure to sample a few when they’re warm, too.  No, seriously, just a few—you do want to leave a few for your salads.

Ciao and chow!
Ms. D