Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Bland Taste of Failure

I view failure in my own special way. I have yet to cook anything that is completely inedible (The Carnivore still holds that title from The Catfish Stew incident), but the past two nights have been disappointing nonetheless. Both dinners required about two hours of prep and cooking time, so I had high hopes each time, especially with such yummy-sounding new recipes as Potato Pancakes with Goat Cheese, and Garden-Style Lasagna. But the finished products were booorrring, and the end result has been much pouting and an uncontrollable itch to redeem myself with better meals. I may as well clear my calendar for this weekend, because I can see where this is leading...

Potato pancakes have long been a favorite for me (my old housemate used to make great ones for Hanukkah each year - maybe you have to be Jewish to get these right), but this was the second recipe I have tried for them and I think I'm close to admitting defeat. I'm not entirely sure if the problem lies with the tasteless results, or the fact that my pancakes never hold together. I lean towards the latter since my salmon cakes and my black bean patties never quite hold their shape either (at least they taste good though). But I find it so dang hard to give up without a fight.

The lasagna recipe should have been fabulous. It took two cups each of chopped onions, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots and broccoli; and I tend to expect sustained hard work to correlate with stellar results. I hate it when I'm wrong. The veggies were sauteed with garlic and layered with a cheese mixture, lasagna noodles and a spinach cream sauce. Sounds fabulous. Had no taste whatsoever. I'm not at all willing to give up on this recipe though, and I plan to tweak it just as soon as I get my cooking confidence back. Maybe with some herbs and spices, and stronger cheeses...

Matter of fact, both of my recipes came from Cooking Light magazine, and therein may lie the problem. Thus far, most of the recipes I have tried from this source have turned out wonderfully, but sometimes you have to sacrifice too much flavor when trying to cut back on the fat content. There is a fine line between eating healthy and eating boring, and I can only go so far with this. As far as I'm concerned, the goals are to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, to eat whole grains instead of refined ones, and to avoid processed foods. As long as those goals are met, I say bring on the full-fat dairy products (as long as they're organic, of course). The lasagna suffered from the use of cottage cheese in place of ricotta, and by using low-fat milk thickened up with flour instead of just using half-and-half or, God forbid, heavy cream. I don't intend to make that mistake again.

Here's to fattening up those light recipes.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Creatures of Habit

When little somethings are bothering me, I worry a lot. Like when company is coming and the house is a mess, I sit around and fret and waste time before I realize that I could better spend my time by actually cleaning up the mess. Asinine? Yes. But when big somethings are going on, like this new financial mess, I am perfectly capable of grinning and bearing it. After all, the worst really COULD happen in this case, so I am fully aware that I could sit around fretting or I could do my best to work hard and trust that things are going to work out fine in the end. I mean, thank God, but I am not in charge of life so there is most likely no point in trying to carry around the weight of the world on my shoulders right now. So I allowed myself about an hour Monday night to freak out. And then I freaked out for another 30 minutes on Tuesday morning. And then I did what I do best. I baked a pie.

I am a creature of habit. I like to have a fairly steady schedule, and I'm not particularly fond of surprises. Of course, I have a toddler, so routines change every few months, and it throws me for a loop every time until I adjust. Odd Toddler's nap routine went really well for a few months there. At around 11:30am every day, he would eat some yogurt, rub his eyes, and then lay down quietly in his crib and sleep for two and a half hours. I could set my clock by him. All that has changed. He now takes his nap at about 1:30pm every day, and he needs about 30 minutes of snuggle time first. Then he only sleeps for about an hour. I am now, more than ever, the queen of efficiency. After all, I only have one hour a day now to get done All The Things You Can't Do When A Toddler Is Making His Demands.

I love our 30 minutes of snuggle time. Frankly, I need the snuggles now. After losing a baby, I am more aware than ever of the fragility of life, and so I am better able to actually slow down for half an hour and do nothing but sit in a rocking chair and love on Ray-Ray while he drifts off to sleep. Better yet, since efficiency is still the name of the game, I have timed this snuggle time to coincide with my favorite Food Network show, Everyday Italian. I absolutely CANNOT sit down in the middle of the day and watch a TV show without feeling like the laziest, most useless wench in the world. So I am eternally grateful to Odd Toddler for giving me the opportunity to sit down, guilt-free, right smack dab in the middle of the day and stock up on snuggles (which are becoming rare now that Ray-Ray is growing up on me) and at the same time, get to learn new food tricks and recipes. Nearly every day, as soon as Ray-Ray is sound asleep and the show has gone off, I go online and print out one or two of the recipes that Giada made during the show.

On Sunday afternoon, Giada made a chocolate ricotta pie. Yes, a Chocolate Ricotta Pie. I know, it made me swoon too. A mere 48 hours later, I was digging through the fridge and the pantry to see if I had the ingredients I would need to make said pie. I didn't have time to make a pie crust, and I'm still kind of wary of pie-crust-making in general, so I broke one of my cardinal rules and pulled a store-bought crust out of the freezer. Giada's pie was made with a pine nut crust, and then topped with a generous pile of more pine nuts. I am not fond of pine nuts, so I scrapped that ingredient altogether.

And Giada's version used semi-sweet chocolate chips. I not only didn't have any of those on hand, but I'm more of a dark chocolate kind of person anyway, so I decided to substitute the Hershey Special Dark chocolate chips that I had in the fridge. One can rarely, if ever, go wrong with dark chocolate. Besides, its better for you. The big issue was the whole busted food processor problem. Mom tried to help that morning by finding me most of the parts to an extra one she had. However, the attachment that stops the chopped items from being flung out the chute was missing, and that was going to be a CRUCIAL part of the processor considering I was going to be combining LIQUID ingredients. No matter how much I NEEDED that pie for emotional comfort, I was not willing to wipe liquid chocolate off of the walls of my kitchen.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth until The Carnivore managed to locate all of the parts to a blender my sister-in-law passed down to me, and then succeeded in figuring out how to operate it even though all of the words had rubbed off of the many oddly-placed buttons on the machine. He worked hard on this. Apparently Preston needed this pie as much as I did.

When all was said and done, the pie was crazy easy to make, especially since I skipped the time-consuming crust-making stage. And, OHMYWORD, this pie came straight from heaven. It. Was. So. Darned. Fabulous.


  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 8 oz dark chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 3 oz lowfat cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • 3 egg yolks (I HATE separating eggs, but it was worth it. This time.)
  • Deep dish pie shell
  1. Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Cool the sugar syrup slightly.
  2. Melt the chocolate chips any way you see fit. I used the microwave to warm the chips a little, and then stirred them until they fully melted. Giada recommends using a double boiler. I don't have one.
  3. Pulse the ricotta and cream cheese in a food processor (or whatever rigged up mechanical kitchen utensil you have on hand) until smooth. Add the egg and the yolks and process until combined. Giada recommends adding the eggs one at a time. I didn't feel like doing that.
  4. Add the melted chocolate to the cheese mixture and process until combined. With the machine running, add the sugar syrup in a thin steady stream and process until smooth.
  5. Pour the custard into the pie shell and bake at 350 degrees until the custard has set. The recipe said this should take 30 minutes, but it took an hour when I tried it.

The Carnivore and I loved this recipe. It tastes like an Italian chocolate cheesecake. Deysi and Yolie lucked into some leftovers that I brought to mom. Deysi loved it, but I'm not sure about Yolie. She opened the Tupperware container and SMELLED the pie before she tasted it. WHY WOULD YOU SMELL A PIE? My family is pretty weird to begin with, but that takes the cake. Or, in this case, the pie.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Kitchen Therapy

If I'm stressed out over something, I go to the kitchen. If I'm sad, if I'm anxious, if I'm cranky or mad, I do the same thing: I go to the kitchen. The easiest way to guage my mood is to come into my kitchen and see how many different recipes I have laid out on the counter. My moodiness greatly contributes to the happiness of my husband, my son and my mother, all of whom are required to eat up so that I can make room in the fridge for more leftovers.

We have been slapped with some heavy financial burdens recently, and I nearly fell apart last night when the latest disaster exploded in the form of our tax return. The day started off badly enough with an email that my friend's father had died. By the time I added together our monthly budget shortfall (which has #*%&^ increased lately), I had completely lost my appetite, so much so that I couldn't even eat my nightly square of espresso dark chocolate (and thats saying a lot).

Early this morning, I gave up and went to the kitchen. There aren't very many recipes that are conducive to being worked on at seven in the morning, but I have been carrying around a recipe for a veggie sandwich for a few weeks and I have been dying to try it. My Carnivorous husband is very open to eating vegetarian dishes, but this particular sandwich seemed too light to suffice for a filling-enough supper.

I've had a fun time recently bringing leftovers to my mother, so I decided this morning to prep the ingredients for this sandwich so that I could bring everything to my mother's house to assemble for our lunch. I pulled the recipe from a recent AJC Food Section, where it was included in an article on the now-defunct Good Ole Days restaurant in Atlanta, somewhere I never had the pleasure of eating. Actually, considering I only eat out around 3 or 4 times a year, my restaurant repertoire is fairly limited.

Happily, my sister Cristy was over at lunchtime as well, so I had the pleasure of serving the sandwiches for the three of us. Out of my vast collection of siblings, Cristy is probably the most culinarily adventurous (and the only one besides me who doesn't eat red meat or chicken). The praise I received for this meal did a lot to improve my mood.

GOOD OLE DAYS SANDWICH, adapted by Sarah of course (makes 3 sandwiches)
  • 1/4 cup shredded sweet onion
  • 1/4 cup shredded carrot
  • 1/4 cup shredded sweet potato
  • 6 oz shredded cheddar cheese
  • 6 oz shredded swiss cheese
  • 6 slices whole wheat bread
  • shredded lettuce
  • 1/2 can mung bean sprouts
  1. Combine the onion, carrot and sweet potato in a freezer-proof container and freeze for an hour or more. Remove from freezer and thaw completely.
  2. Divide the thawed vegetables over three slices of bread.
  3. Top with cheddar and then swiss.
  4. Bake at 350 degrees for 3 to 5 minutes (also bake remaining three pieces of bread at same time).
  5. Top melted cheese with lettuce and bean sprouts, and top with remaining bread.
  6. Serve warm.
I busted my food processor this weekend and thus found it to be a mongo pain in my butt to shred the vegetables on a hand-held cheese grater (especially the carrot - ever tried to shred a skinny little carrot without shredding your hand with it?). 'Twas worth the trouble.

The brilliance of this recipe is that you can make a big batch of the veggies ahead of time and pull them from the freezer as needed. As a matter of fact, the ingredients all travel well, enough so that everything could be thrown into sandwich bags and taken to work, where the sandwich could be assembled and popped into a small toaster oven for a few minutes. The fiber and protein combo make for a great midday energy boost.