Crazy Bread Life Hack

I have posted before about my desire to implement more natural, sustainable food choices in our home and my gardening/farmers-market adventures to that end. But I have also admitted to being far from perfect in this quest – sadly too often convenience wins out. So I hope none of you will be too disappointed to hear me admit that, from time to time, my family very much enjoys picking up a pizza for dinner. My boys probably enjoy it a little too much. But one thing I DON’T enjoy is wasting food. And often times, when we pick up a family meal deal, complete with crazy bread and a drink, that is just what happens. Because, let’s face it, who likes to eat leftover crazy bread? It gets so hard and tough in the refrigerator that, even my cheap thrifty, waste-abhorring side gives in and feeds it to the garbage. Until today! Today I had an idea. A wonderful, awful idea, to borrow words from the notorious Grinch. Whenever they give you crazy bread, they also give you a little tub of pizza sauce to go with it, which invariably also gets thrown out. So why not put the two together, add a little bit of cheese (and some pepperonis if you happen to have them), and make a whole new pizza! I tried this today for our lunch and, let me tell you, it was a great success.

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Here is a quick run down of what I did if you’d like to give it a try:
– Slice each bread stick in half, length wise, to make it a little thinner and give you more pizza
– Spread the pizza sauce over the rough side of the bread
– Add toppings. I added pepperonis (sliced in half), grated mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, and a little bit of Italian seasoning.
– Bake at 350 degrees till the cheese is melted and slightly browned (approximately 10 minutes).
– Enjoy!

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The boys loved it. And so did Mama’s wallet. Hope you all do too.

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A Beginner’s Foray into Canning

Having recently shared my thoughts about the need for more sustainable food choices and my family’s efforts toward that end, I thought it would be àpropos to show you what I’ve been doing with all the proceeds from my backyard garden. Since we do not have an extra freezer, nor the funds to get one at the moment, canning was the obvious choice for preserving our produce. And, oh boy, did we get some! I was pulling two or three cucumbers every day. The tomatoes came in spurts, ten at a time. The peppers stayed small, but we had lots of them. The cantaloupes were like nothing you’ve ever tasted! And we had herbs galore. Some things, like the peas and beans, struggled due to pests and I plan to look into some more organic options for controlling that in the future. But for a first time effort, I give myself a hearty pat on the back.

Now for my disclaimer: All that I learned about canning, I learned from Google and YouTube. I did not have a mother or grandmother who gardened or preserved to show me the ropes. So please, take everything I share here with a grain of salt and do plenty of research on your own. I am not claiming to be an expert by any means, but merely trying to help other beginners like myself get started and overcome the fear of the unknown. ‘Cause, let me tell you, it is not nearly as difficult as you may think! I was initially dreading the process, but knew that it was a necessary evil given the incredible amount of effort I had put into the garden – I wasn’t about to give it all away or let it go to waste. So I bought myself a stock pot and some canning jars, watched some online tutorials, and dove right in. And, much to my amazement, the evil turned out to be good! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just like the garden, I found it wholesome, earthy, rich, and fulfilling. There is something so satisfying about taking a small, insignificant seed, and, through much love and hard work, turning it into rows of food that line your pantry throughout the year. So far, I have canned 20 jars of pickles, 11 jars of salsa, and 10 jars of pear sauce – and I could have done much more had I overcome my fear sooner and started the whole process right away.

So without further ado, let me tell you about the basic techniques that I followed. I will start with the process of making pickles because it is the most involved (and the one for which I took the most pictures). Sadly, the pickles turned out softer than I would have liked, but I think this is because I used ordinary garden cucumbers instead of pickling cucumbers. Next year I will plant the pickling variety and hope for a crisper result. I am told they are just as good to eat raw, so it’s a win/win.

1) The first step is to slice and wash your cucumbers. They can be wedge slices, like I’ve shown here, or they can be sandwich slices, or even whole if the cucumbers are small enough. It is important to cut off the ends as there are enzymes on the blossom ends that can spoil the pickles. Also, it is best to use under-ripe rather than over-ripe cucumbers because they will likely be crisper. (This may also have been one of my mistakes leading to softer pickles than I’d like).  Put these washed and sliced cucumbers in an ice water bath for an hour or two while you get everything else ready. This is also an ideal time to put all your jars, lids and rings into the dishwasher on the sanitize cycle since this cycle takes a while to complete.

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2) Next, prepare your brine. I used a pickling mix, plus a few of my own garden herbs. This takes the guess-work out of how much of each ingredient to use. I used Mrs. Wages brand and it tells you the exact of amount of vinegar and water to put in the mix. Be careful not to use an aluminum pot though as this could leach a metallic flavor into your pickles and cloud the brine. Bring this to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer to keep it hot.

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3) Now, while your brine is simmering and your pickles are chilling, prep your additional herbs and put them in the jars. I used one garlic clove, about 10 peppercorns, 3 small green onions, and one medium size dill flower in each jar. The green onions and dill flowers came from my garden. If you don’t want to use any of these additional herbs, don’t worry about it, ’cause the mix you use will work just fine. It simply adds a bit of visual interest and flavor to each jar. Also, start your canning pot boiling at this time. I used a LARGE stock pot filled about half full so it won’t overflow when you put your jars in.

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4) Next you get to fill the jars with your chilled cucumbers. Load them tightly to keep them from floating to the top of the jar and add your dill flowers last.

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5) Now fill each jar with the brine mixture, leaving an inch of head space. Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean dry towel to ensure a good seal and put the lids and rings on the jars and tighten by hand.

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6) Lastly, process your jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes for pint size jars. The water should be about an inch above the tops of the jars and the time should start when the water returns to a boil after adding the jars. The first batch I processed, I did not have a jar grabber and attempted using tongs. Needless to say, there were a few close calls with disaster and I highly recommend buying a jar grabber. You’ll thank me later.

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7) After removing the jars from the water bath, let them sit, unmoved for 24 hours to ensure a proper seal. Within an hour or so, you should hear the delightfully happy sound the lids pinging down as the jars seal. If any jars do not seal properly, you can either reprocess them, or put them in the fridge and use them first. They’ll be good for weeks in the fridge and the ones that did seal properly will keep for years in the pantry! Let them sit for 4-6 weeks to give them time to ferment and absorb the flavors. The wait will kill you, but it will be worth it.

Salsa: There are so many versions of salsa out there, just pick one that suits you. This is much easier than pickles because it’s not so scientific. I simply sliced and mixed up all the vegetables raw – tomatoes, green onions, white onions, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and garlic. For everything but the tomatoes and the cilantro, I used a food processor. Then I added an appropriate amount (this will depend on your quantity of vegetables) of tomato sauce, vinegar, salt, and cumin. Next I mixed everything up in a big bowl, filled the sanitized jars to within an inch of head space, removed air bubbles with a rubber spatula, wiped the rims clean, sealed and processed them in a water bath for 20 minutes.

Pear (or Apple) Sauce: This was the easiest of all the canning and, although we didn’t can it when I was a child, I did make a lot of applesauce with my mother so the process was particularly nostalgic as I worked on it with my son. We used pears because I have two friends with pear trees who gave me a LOT of pears. The texture is slightly different but not significantly. The important thing here is that you buy a conical strainer with pestle or a food mill so that you don’t have to peel, core, and seed all of your pears. All you need to do is slice them and throw them in a pot to boil. Boil them until they are VERY soft and then drain off any excess water. Process them through the strainer or food mill and return them to the stove to simmer if you have to do multiple batches. Then add any additional spices to taste. It shouldn’t need any sugar if the fruit is sweet enough, but I chose to add some cinnamon. Fill the jars – leaving an inch of head space, wipe the rims clean before sealing, and process them in a water bath for 15 minute.

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If you are more experienced at canning than I am and have any helpful suggestions or tips (or corrections), I’d love to hear any feed back. This has been quite a journey for me and one I hope to continue well into the future.

LOOK! A recipe from NITM was featured on the local news!

I know it’s been forever since I wrote. I’m going to do the very clichéd thing and blame the baby (since he can’t defend himself). I will be back to my regular writing routine very soon, but until then, check this out! My recipe for “Salmon Cake Melts” was featured on a local news broadcast.

For this recipe, and others like it, visit my “Recipes” page. And feel free to share with your friends!

Delicious Does Not Have To Be Difficult!

Sometimes in cooking (as in life) a recipe does not have to be difficult to be delicious. The more variables or ingredients or steps in the process, the easier it is to complicate a dish or confuse simple, rich flavors that are best left alone. The recipe I’m about to share is a prime example of this. It is hard to imagine it being much simpler, but it is so delightful that my family, especially my son, practically begs me to make it on a regular basis. It can be put together in 15 minutes and is a complete meal unto itself, requiring no side dishes or elaboration, unless, of course, you just can’t help yourself.

Now for the caveat . . . many of the other dishes that I have shared, being more intricate and involved, are made primarily from scratch. This recipe, however has several ready-made ingredients.  Some may consider this cheating. Some may consider it the norm. But whichever the case, if you are not inclined to cook with such ingredients, please feel free to make these elements from scratch. This, however, will most definitely take the dish out of the “ready in 15 minutes” category. Now, without further ado:

Tomato Cream Ravioli

1 package of frozen, cheese ravioli
3 tbsp of butter or margarine
4 good size mushrooms, chopped (not diced)
1/2 of a large red onion, chopped (not diced)
1 heaping tsp of minced garlic
1 jar of Bertolli (or your favorite brand) Alfredo sauce
1 can of tomato sauce
3 tbsp of Parmesan cheese
Salt
Pepper
Parsley

Place ravioli in a large pan and cover with water. Sprinkle with salt and bring to a boil. Boil until ravioli is tender, careful not to over cook as the ravioli will break apart.

In a large skillet (preferably with sides), melt butter and add mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Saute until onions are soft. Season with salt, pepper and parsley to taste. Stir in Alfredo sauce, tomato sauce, and Parmesan cheese. Simmer for 5 minutes to allow sauce to heat and flavors to blend.

Serve sauce over ravioli and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese and parsley as desired. This dish would go excellently with french bread and asparagus on the side but does not need it if you are in a hurry.

This may seem too good to be true, but trust me, the results far outweigh the effort and make it an easy dish with which to impress dinner guest and make them believe that you slaved for hours in the kitchen. Not that I’ve ever done that . . .

The Versatile Blogger Award

Well, I’d like to thank the Academy… I mean Stephicakes, one of the most recent jewels I’ve found in my blog surfing, for nominating me for this award. It is good to know that someone I enjoy reading enjoys reading my work as well. And not only enjoys reading it, but thinks I am versatile in my choice/style of writing topics. This is not the first time I’ve received this nomination, but, not knowing how seriously to take it and always being a bit leery of the facebook-type fill-in-the-blank and pass-it-along publicity stunts, I never followed through. But since I felt flattered when I received it then, as I do now, I figured I’d flatter a few other people and pass it along. So here goes:

The rules for accepting this award are as follows:

1. Thank the award-givers and link back to them in your post.

2. Share 7 things about yourself.

3. Pass this award along to 15 other bloggers.

4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

Seven Things About Myself:

1.) I am hopelessly in love with three men at the same time! Scandalous, I know! OK, I’ll admit it, two of them are men-in-the-making… but still. Anyone who has read any of my blog probably knows that I’m referring to my hubby and my two boys, the second of which is scheduled to make his debut in only a few short weeks. I ADORE being a mother, even if I’m not always very good at it. It has been one of the most fulfilling (and dang difficult) endeavors I have ever undertaken. And the lessons I have learned in the process are often the topics of this blog.

2.) I aspire to one day be a published author. I know, I know… what consistent and dedicated blogger doesn’t? I’m not entirely sure that I will accomplish this goal some day, but it would be amazing and wonderful if I did. I hope to write children’s books primarily and am constantly toying with new ideas.

3.) One of my biggest motivators in writing this blog (or one day attempting to get published) is the desire to leave a written legacy to my children and grandchildren. To pass on tidbits of wisdom and humility, humor and beauty, and small vignettes of what life looked like when I was young (OK, maybe not so young anymore, but youngER).

4.) Although it is a significant battle sometimes, I REFUSE to give in to cynicism. I prefer instead to believe the best of people and let them continually surprise me; to not always plan for the worst case scenario, but rather the best; and to not let the things that so easily bog us down take a more prominent seat to those that are quietly beautiful.

5.) I LOVE shopping! More specifically bargain hunting. I can’t really explain it, but it gives me a rush of satisfaction and relieves stress in ways very little else can.

6.) I adore cooking and frequently create my own recipes. I see it as a creative outlet, building dishes that are unique and interesting and satisfying out of sometimes surprising ingredients. I rarely use, or perhaps I should say follow, a recipe unless it’s as a springboard for ideas or to remind myself of something lovely I created in the past. My cooking is experimental and, although not all of these experiments are a success, I like to share the ones that are with you, my faithful readers. I imagine that you all jump to cook my most recent recipe post as soon as it comes up, and although I know this is probably not the case, a girl can dream, right ;)

7.) I host a book club once a month that has proven to be an excellent outlet for intellectually stimulating adult conversation that does not center around family and children and everyday life. It has also kept me consistently reading new and surprising books – something that has always been very important for my development both as a person and as a writer.

8.) BONUS tidbit – Although I love being a mother, I HATE being pregnant. Perhaps this is only relevant to me right now because I am enormous and uncomfortable, but it’s true. I also know many of you would gasp and think, “Pregnancy is beautiful and magical, etc. Enjoy every minute!” To those people I want to say, “You are very lucky if that was your experience, and more power to you! Pop out as many kids as you please and embrace the magic!” But for me, this will most likely be my last pregnancy.

So there are just a few things about me you may have already known, or perhaps you didn’t. This is definitely not a comprehensive list, nor is it written in any particular order other than the order in which they popped into my mind. If you are intrigued and would like to know more about me, keep reading . . . I am certainly not shy or private in my writing.

As far as who I’d like to pass this award on to, here is an incomplete list. I don’t want to pick 15 simply because I have to, so I’m picking the ones that I actually consistently read and am personally inspired by:

Life As I Know It – a blog about the many hats of a mom.

Broadside – a blog by a writer in NY who’s life inspires me and whose writing is always intriguing.

Doodlemum – a charming sketch blog that always hits very close to home.

Pomp And Circumstance – a design AND fashion blog, how can you beat that?

Utterly Smitten – tidbits of design and daily life.

The Cotton Boll Conspiracy – a history blog with anecdotes about history that are often surprising.

Redesigning Sarah – a design blog that is always beautiful and a great source for inspiration.

Xanax or Running Shoes? – an honest take on life as a working mom.

Chai Thoughts – my friend’s beautiful blog about life, photography, family, and inspiration.

Dear Photograph – I can’t even summarize this one. You must go check it out.

Jeeze, Julia! – a delightfully whimsical view into one woman’s life and style.

2 Sleeping Babies – a friend’s blog about motherhood and all that it entails.

With a Little Pixie Magic – another friend’s blog who writes about a little of everything in life that just takes a little magic.

Hope you find all of these blogs as intriguing as I do, and show everyone a little love while you’re there!