New Year, new resolve, and a NEW POST!

So, I hope I’m not the only person who found herself so busy over the Christmas holiday season that she couldn’t find time to blog! Anyway, for the one or two of you still around… I’m baaaack!

So here’s what I’ve been up to: I changed jobs… TWICE. Y’all knew about the first one, and that it wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. Well, on a whim I applied for a position that involved a pretty large promotion. It was a whim. I mean while I had the job experience, I do NOT do well in the interview process. Well, I got called in for an interview…

And I got the job!

So I started in mid-December, was there for a week, and then spent two and a half glorious weeks at home, finishing up Christmas gifts (small businesses, artisans, and lots of handmade love too!), celebrating with family and friends, starting the New Year’s purge of junk we don’t use… you get the picture. Oh, and putting our house on the market.

So yeah, I have been a little busy, and that busy has translated into VERY poor eating habits. Oh I’ve been mostly gluten-free, and our Christmas feast was entirely gluten and corn free for my sister in law… but there’s only so many dozens of gluten-free cupcakes and tins of Williams-Sonoma Peppermint Bark you can eat before your pants start to get a little tight around the thighs. It’s so damned unfair.

So now it’s a new year, and I am going to climb back onto my Paleo horse and ride it to a looser pants. Today was day one, and it went fine. I went to Mom’s Organic Market over the weekend, making sure to get some coconut milk, some coconut yogurt, and my favorite Applegate Farms lunch meats. Over the weekend I had also made some Paleo-friendly beef stew. So breakfast was deli meat rolls and a cup of brewed tea sweetened with just a touch of this coconut syrup sweetener. Lunch was my yummy leftover beef stew.

By the way for those of you who aren’t familiar with Paleolithic eating, here’s the really short version:

No Grains
No Legumes (soy, peanuts, beans, peas) Green beans, sugar snap peas, snow peas are ok since you are primarily eating the pod, which is vegetable matter.
No processed cane/beet sugar, and no artificial sweeteners either! For sweetness, I use the coconut stuff, or a little organic raw honey.
No dairy (at first… I will add a little bit of fermented cheese after my first month)
Food labels should be SIMPLE! If there are chemical names on the label, don’t eat what’s in the package!

So, what do I eat? I eat meat, poultry, fish, veggies, nuts, seeds, fruit, and eggs. I eat all that delicious produce I put up in the freezer over the summer, and the cow, pig, and chickens that share space in there. My dairy substitutions come from coconut or almond milk… oh, and I have dark chocolate and red wine.

I did this last year, and felt so danged GREAT! I was cooking a lot, and eating well, and losing weight… and then life happened. I let things slip…I let myself take the easy way out. We all do. But rather than beat myself up, I will just get back on what I KNOW works. Clean eating, REAL food, and paying attention to my body.

The key for me, is finding that balance of being creative and still EASY! I get the creative part when I get to cook. The easy part happens when I cook enough for leftovers that make up my lunches. So tonight, I wasn’t hungry (I ate my beef stew later in the afternoon since my all protein breakfast kept me full) and I decided to whip up a few things for easy lunch.

I am now in love with Brussels sprouts. I got 3 POUNDS of little tiny ones the final weekend our local farmer’s market was open and so tonight I cleaned them, tossed them in a few tablespoons of olive oil just to coat, and poured them onto a baking sheet. I sprinkled them liberally with kosher salt and into a pre-heated 400 degree oven. I then let them do their magical little thing… roasting until the outer leaves turned brown and got all crispy.

MY GOSH, how did I live so long without Brussels sprouts? Seriously, these things are MAGIC. Roasting makes them all delicious and nutty and I am not kidding you, I can just pick them up with my fingers and pop them into my mouth as a snack. Holy moly. Forget the mushy, stinky, gross Brussels sprouts that my mother would cook… the secret here is small tender sprouts, high heat, good fat, and short cooking time. For bigger sprouts, cut them in half (or quarters) and quickly blanch them in boiling water before roasting them. The end result is yummy deliciousness and no bitterness!

For what it’s worth, my FAVORITE way to cook Brussels sprouts is in a cast iron skillet, in bacon fat. Same deal…hot pan, good fat, short cooking time (just enough time to let the sprouts brown and crisp up) and YUM. Sprinkle those hot bacon-y sprouts with pomegranate seeds and let it change your life.

I also roasted some chicken parts, coated with olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, garlic powder, and lemon juice until done with crispy skin. Sounds like lunch tomorrow is going to be SO SO good.

So there it is! My first post of the new year…an ode to the Brussels sprout.

And as a way of bribing you to keep returning, and to tell your friends about my blog, I leave you with a photo of my kids in their Christmas pajama pants made by ME! Aren’t they cute? And the kids aren’t bad either!!

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The absolute BEST not-macaroni and cheese EVER

Intrigued yet?

So this weekend, seeing as how I was going to the mecca of grocery stores (WEGMAN’s) I embarked upon the mission of cooking ALL the produce left in my fridge. I had two eggplant, which I baked, hollowed out, and then stuffed with a mixture of sausage, onion, and cheese. I had fresh green beans which got blanched, and bundled wrapped in bacon. I popped them into a hot oven to let the bacon crisp up and man were they good. I had Brussels sprouts and broccoli, which got prepped, tossed with olive oil and slivered garlic, and then roasted until caramelized and gorgeous.

Then there was the spaghetti squash.

I wasn’t in the mood for “regular” spaghetti squash, I wanted something different…. something other than pretending that the squash was noodles to carry marinara. I wasn’t in the mood for marinara at all…it’s getting to be winter, it’s cold, and I needed something hearty enough to kind of act as a main dish with all these other veggie side dishes. And then I remembered it… a recipe given to me by my BFFF (Best Foodie Friend Forever) DeeJay for a “not-macaroni-and-cheese” using the squash, cheese, onion, and bacon.

It has always been my belief that damned near ANYTHING can be made to taste better if you add onion, bacon, and cheese. So, I halved the squash and popped it face down in the microwave for 15 minutes to cook. While that was going on I fried up 7 strips of nitrite free bacon until they were crisp but not overly so. Setting the bacon aside on a paper towel, I poured out all the bacon grease except for a tablespoon or so and used that grease to fry up some diced sweet onion until tender and just starting to brown.

I got two other saucepans out and in one I started about 4 cups of milk just to heat up to a scald. To the second saucepan I added some butter and an equal amount of my cup for cup gluten-free flour (about 2 ounces of each). I cooked these two together for a few moments, and then slowly whisked in the hot milk, dissolving all the solids. The sauce thickened up rather quickly. I added salt and pepper and then whisked in an assortment of shredded cheese I had in the fridge. I had sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, three cheese blend, and mozzarella. All of these cheeses were in the bag and were “convenience purchases” for me, so this helped me by emptying out all of these partially opened bags. I also added 2 cloves of garlic I had put through the garlic press. I kept whisking until the sauce was beautifully smooth. I have noticed that when making sauces or gravies with gluten-free flour, I almost NEVER get lumps!

I buttered a shallow casserole dish and as the squash was done, I pulled it out of the microwave. I took half and scraped out the flesh with a fork, causing the “strings” of squash to fill the bottom of the dish. I chopped up the bacon, and added it and the onions over the surface of the squash. I took half of my cheese sauce and poured it over. Next, I scraped out the OTHER half of my squash and layered it into the casserole, finishing it with the rest of the sauce. Smoothing it all over with a spatula, I popped the lid on (Foil would work here too) and put it in a 350 degree oven. I let everything bake until the casserole was hot and bubbling just a bit around the edges. I pulled the lid off, dusted the top with grated Parmesan, and then let it cook another 15 minutes or so so the top could get brown and yummy. I had one piece of bacon left over so I chopped it up and sprinkled it on top just before serving.

HOLY MOLY…I cannot even begin to explain just how good this was. The cheese sauce baked up beautifully, light and creamy and cheesy…the onions were sweet, the bacon salty and smoky. Best of all, this was EVERYTHING mac and cheese could be, minus the heavy pasta and the OUCH from me eating gluten. So, SO good. Yet another reason my BFFF is one of my favorite people. So dinner ended up being the not-macaroni and cheese, the beans and roasted veggies, and I ended up being one very satisfied woman with a full belly and an empty refrigerator.

Hope your weekend was equally savory and delicious.

Too stressed to eat

I know, right?  So at one point I was stressed and eating ice cream for dinner.  Then I was stressed and bored because there’s no NHL hockey season yet so I was eating chips and dip, or salsa, or whatever OTHER junk I had on hand.  NOW I’ve started a new job and the first month has been, well, a challenge.  An unpleasant challenge. 

And now I’m so stressed I can’t eat.

Apparently the stress also causes me to clench my jaw because I can FEEL the muscles being tight and the accompanying headache sucks big time.  

HOWEVER, I am now home for the weekend, unwinding and I WILL be enjoying some foodie time.  My BFFF (Best Foodie Friend Forever) and I are making the trek to Wegmans, or Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s…or somewhere marvelous to get what we need for Thanksgiving.  Dinner will be for 26 this year I believe.  I am going to need more chairs.

I am responsible for turkey (I have two) and ham, stuffing (gluten free!), and gravy.  Oh and cranberry sauce because I cannot abide the jelly junk in the cans, mine is so much better and it’s SO SO easy.  Don’t believe me?  Let me tell you, my friend Karen from my former (wonderful) job asked me about fresh cranberry sauce and when I gave her my recipe, she couldn’t believe how easy it was… then she made it and definitely couldn’t believe how delicious it was.  This is a woman whose family didn’t like cranberry sauce and now they eat it for more than just Thanksgiving.  

It’s easy to remember too…just think one, one, and one.

One package of fresh cranberries, one cup of white sugar, one cup of orange juice.  

Wash the cranberries and pick through, getting rid of any stems, as well as berries that are soft, blemished, or under-ripe.  Combine the sugar and orange juice in a sauce pan and heat on medium heat until sugar is dissolved.  Add cranberries and cook until they start to pop (about 10-15 minutes).  Once the berries have popped, remove from heat and transfer to a bowl.  As the sauce cools it will thicken like jam/preserves.  

This is the basic recipe, but if you want to jazz it up you can add any one of the following:  the zest of one orange, one tablespoon fresh or candied ginger (grated), 2 ounces of gold or spiced rum, or even 2 teaspoons tequila and a finely chopped jalapeno pepper!  

I love cranberry sauce.  It’s that deep delicious mix of sweet and tart that is perfection with turkey, chicken, pork, or even a delicious beef roast.  It also SCREAMS “holiday!” and that is definitely something to be thankful for.

Long time no post, I know

Sorry for the lengthy delay in posting. Two weeks ago, my children’s Godmother (and the mother to MY Godchildren) passed away unexpectedly. To say that I was shocked and saddened would be a gross understatement. Even now I have a tough time processing the fact that this wonderful person is gone from my life forever. She was one of those people that no matter how long had passed since we last talked, we always picked RIGHT up where we left off. I had spoken to her less than a month before her death and she sounded great, happy…everything I loved about her. So that is how I will remember her, not the last few days of her life and her untimely death.

So I came back home from her memorial services, and back into my routine. New job, kid stuff, market runs, hit and miss dinners.

HOWEVER, I was able to make Italian stuffed cabbage rolls for my family as well as an extra pan which I delivered to friends who are brand new parents. I’ll do the tutorial on those later (they were LABOR INTENSIVE but oh so good!), but today I wanted to celebrate the most delicious, easiest side dish/salad I’ve had in a long long time. I call it “Zucchini Ribbon Salad” and it seriously couldn’t be easier.

I was fortunate enough to snag some tiny yellow squash and some small zucchini from the farmer’s market, hooray for fall plantings! and I needed something delicious to do with them. So here’s my answer… warning…it’s addictive.

I used four small yellow squash and two small zucchini… as well as a small red onion. I put them on the mandolin, and sliced them super thin into ribbons. I sliced the onion thin as well, and popped it into ice water to take some of the “bite” out of it. You could also use a simple vegetable peeler to get the ribbon effect from the squash, but since I had the mandolin out, I couldn’t resist!

I put one large clove of garlic through the garlic press into a bowl. I added the zest of a lemon and then the juice of that lemon to the bowl. I chopped up a handful of fresh parsley, added salt, and then whisked in a generous amount of olive oil to make a lemon vinaigrette. Be sure to taste! You want it lemony, but not so tart it causes the pucker factor.

I added the squash ribbons to the vinaigrette, making sure to separate them (no clumps of ribbons for me), and removed the onion from the water. I patted it dry on paper towels, and added it to the squash, then tossed everything together, mixing well and coating it with that delicious dressing. To serve, I used tongs and pulled the ribbons out, piling them loosely on the side of the plate. I topped it with some feta cheese, and it was perfect. Fresh, lemony, slightly salty from the feta… YUM. I could have eaten the entire bowl by myself. AND it was even better the next day.

It ended up being a great end to a pretty crappy couple of weeks.

Now I’m back and working on my next passion: Christmas shopping! But my idea for Christmas this year is to eschew the big box stores as much as I can, and either make gifts by hand, or purchase from local vendors, artisans, craftsmen, and small businesses. Yes, I know, Wally World hires people in my neighborhood, but ultimately a lot of the money goes to product manufacturers in China, and the profits to stockholder portfolios. However, by purchasing locally, the money goes in the hands of REAL people in my community. Plus these folks are putting their talent, their passion into their product…they deserve to be rewarded for that!

So, this Christmas it will be pre-paid meals (or gift cards) from the locally owned restaurant, or fitness classes with the personal trainer, or handcrafted jewelry, or prints of local nature photography.

Feel free to find us on Facebook and get the ball rolling in your own neighborhood! Our group is open to anyone, come shop with us, or promote your own ideas. I’d love for this to become a nationwide movement, just think of all the benefits we could bring to the economy if we all shopped small?

An Outside the Box (Store) Christmas on Facebook.

I get by with a little help

Fall for me, is a warm and sentimental time. I find myself being more sympathetic, empathetic, and sensitive to others. Maybe it’s the change in the weather that makes me want to surround myself in comforting things… I don’t know. What I do know is that despite the absolute sheer horror of what the victims of Superstorm Sandy are going through, and the extreme ugliness of both sides during this election season, I continue to believe, and I continue to find that love actually is all around (name that movie!)

When we lived our old neighborhood, Halloween night was always amazingly fun. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, and we’d hook up with the neighbors and do a potluck dinner out in our front yard. We’d set up tables, and everyone would contribute something. There was always chili, or soup, or beef stew… along with tons of other goodies. I’d make a crock pot full of my Kahlua Caramel Apple Cider, and as the sun set, we’d have a feast of fun, food, and fellowship. Our kids would take off in a pack to collect candy from all our neighbors, and we grown ups would set up with our candy, and the parade of princesses, superheroes, wildlife, and ghastly ghouls, would make one stop with all of us adults filling candy buckets and praising the costumes. Moving away from that neighborhood and to the end of our secluded dirt road was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

So lately we’ve had another tradition that has sprung up on Halloween night. Spouse and I take the kids and we head over to a friends home for dinner and trick or treating. Debbie and Mike live in a neighborhood not too far from our old one, and for the past few years, we’ve hung out with them. The boys grab beers and shepherd the smaller kids for trick or treating while the women and older girls hang out on the porch, delighting in the hundreds of kids that come by. Tonight was no exception except Debbie said she would take care of dinner. I offered to bring something, but she said “Oh I’ll find something gluten free to throw together.” Debbie is a beautiful Italian woman, and I know better than to argue with her.

We arrived tonight, jack-o-lantern and candy in tow… the boy was dressed as a Crash Test Dummy, and Mads was ketchup. I was delighted to find our friend Karen and her daughter were there too. Debbie had a super nice veggie tray, a pepperoni and cheese tray and some drinks all ready. She also had a big pot of chili on the stove, along with Fritos, sour cream, and cheese…and a gluten free cornbread fresh out of the oven. That cornbread was delicious too.. it was light, airy, and sweet with glutenous rice flour substituted in for the wheat flour. Karen had also chipped in and supplied a warm, cheesy, buffalo chicken mixture that was the centerpiece of wrapped sandwiches, made from super soft 100% corn tortillas and crisp romaine lettuce. My two girlfriends had put together a feast and I could eat every single thing! Now I have always seen my dietary issues as mine to deal with. I mean they’re my problem…I don’t expect others to do anything special to accommodate me. But to have my friends go to the lengths they did really touches my heart.

What’s funny is that this morning, I woke up with the song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story running through my head. It stayed there ALL DAY, so much so that I found myself humming it. I figured the universe was giving me a signal to be a friend, a blessing to others and I concentrated on being that person all day today. Then tonight, it seems I learned that being a blessing to others will often result in being blessed yourself. There’s a lesson in there my children… for all of us.

Kahlua Caramel Apple Cider:
Quality apple cider
Kahlua – 1.5 ounces for every 8 ounces of cider
cinnamon sticks
Apple wedges

Add all ingredients to crock pot and turn on. You want the cider to just warm through. Ladle into cups, and enjoy not only the juice but the apples as well. Don’t eat the cinnamon sticks though! The drink tastes like a delicious caramel apple, and is guaranteed to warm you all the way to your toes. Perfect for a chilly Halloween night, or equally as good when chilling out in front of a crackling fire.

A product review

So, remember that gluten-free cupcake mix I got from Williams Sonoma? I’ve been less than impressed with gluten-free mixes in the past, but knowing the W-S quality, thought I’d at least give it a try.

Tonight it was red velvet cupcakes…. and I learned a few valuable things. First off, contrary to normal baking, when baking gluten free you must have all ingredients at room temperature. Eggs, butter, milk…. ROOM TEMPERATURE. Then blend those ingredients well. Very well. As in 3 minutes or more well…you want a completely homogeneous mixture before you start adding the dry ingredients. The dry stuff should be added in small batches, scraping down the bowl periodically. Once it’s all combined, beat again THOROUGHLY for 3+ minutes. You wouldn’t do this with regular flour because you don’t want the gluten to develop…it makes the cake TOUGH. But gluten free flour doesn’t have that problem, and benefits from the prolonged mixing period.

So, that’s what I did and I ended up with a thickened, silky smooth batter that I spooned into twelve paper lined cupcake cups. Honestly, it looked more like ketchup than any cake batter I’d ever made.

Into a pre-heated oven (don’t cheat on this step…make SURE your oven is pre-heated)

and 22 minutes later, I had cupcakes that had risen, and were PRETTY! I let the pan cool on a rack for five minutes, then pulled the cupcakes out and let them cool individually on the rack while the spouse and I ran some errands. Once the cupcakes were completely cool, I mixed up some cream cheese frosting to top them off.

Here’s my cream cheese frosting recipe:
One 8 ounce block of cream cheese at room temperature
One stick of butter at room temperature
Powdered sugar – 1 3/4 cup
One teaspoon good vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese on medium until smooth and fluffy (about three minutes). Add the butter and beat another 3 minutes until smooth and fluffy. Add the sugar in stages, stopping to scrape down the bowl periodically… until all sugar is incorporated and there are no lumps. Finally add the teaspoon of vanilla and beat on medium until completely combined and the texture is smooth and slightly shiny. You will end up with a cream cheese frosting that is light as a cloud and not too sweet. Spread on completely cooled cupcakes.

Aren’t they pretty? But the final test was yet to come….

Heavens to Betsy (whoever she is) these cupcakes are DELICIOUS. The crumb is tender, the texture absolutely perfect, and the taste is richly cocoa without being overpowering. The rich taste is balanced beautifully by that light as air frosting, and I swear, this is the BEST gluten-free baked good I’ve ever made during an entire year of experimenting.

These cupcakes got thumbs up from the ENTIRE family. YAY! We may actually get to experience things like birthday cake, cupcakes, and the occasional dessert now. I can’t wait.

And for the record, Williams Sonoma has NO idea who I even am…I am not paid for this review, the only thing I got was delicious red velvet cupcakes after paying for my mix like anyone else. So for all you other normal folks who have to eat gluten free…. try the cupcake mix. It’s awesome!

PIG DAY!!

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today, I got my pig. Well… WE got OUR pig. Part of it anyway. There was a mix up at the butcher, so I’m still minus ham, and ham steaks, and ALL THE BACON… but we’ll fix that soon enough.

Spareribs, baby back ribs, tenderloin, pork roasts, chops, shoulder steaks, sweet Italian sausage… I honestly cannot WAIT to try out all the recipes swirling around my head.

So, our visit to ION Farms in Nanjemoy was awesome! Lee and Tasha are super cool people who treat their animals a lot like pets. I got to meet a bunch of them, including the new breeding piglets. They’re all little redheads… good thing I didn’t meet this cuteness FIRST, I couldn’t stand it.

Look! Ginger piglets!


Goats, cows, chickens, guineafowl, rabbits, a mama cat and her kittens… Lee and Tasha have a cross between a menagerie and a petting zoo. As Lee puts it “we know the eventual purpose of these animals, but that doesn’t stop us from treating them like pets and spoiling them while we have them.” It sure shows too, as the animals are all just so calm, relaxed, and happy. Honestly, there isn’t a single iota of stress that shows on these animals. Also, they invite any of their customers to come and visit, see the animals, view their environment and their feed. It’s so refreshing to meet food producers with no secrets, no agenda, just the desire to bring wholesome delicious food from the farm to the table. You can read a bit about ION Farm at Eat Wild. Contact them, go see them, and enjoy your visit to the country. You’ll be impressed, I promise.

I realize also that I owe you a recipe for my ham with cabbage, apples, and carrot. So here goes… I took three organic carrots, peeled and cut them into rounds. I also peeled, cored, and diced three apples (one red delicious, one empire, and one granny smith since that’s what I had on hand). I heated up some bacon grease, and put the carrots and apples in there with some salt to let them soften. I cut half a medium cabbage into strips, and set them aside. When the carrots and apples just start to soften, I removed them, and laid the section of ham into the skillet. I laid the cabbage strips over the ham, spooned the apples and carrots on top, and then poured in enough organic apple cider to have the liquid come halfway up the sides of my deep skillet. I added a grating of black pepper and popping on the lid, I put the entire shebang into the oven at 350 degrees. I let the dish cook for a while, the liquid braising that cabbage until tender and luscious.

SO SO SO good! The apple cider, salt, and pepper added enough warmth and a hint of a spicy flavor that I didn’t need anything else. The carrots were sweet, the apples gave a tartness, and the cabbage just tasted earthy and had soaked up so much ham flavor it was incredible. It was also the perfect foil to my kale and ham hocks. The best news? There were enough leftovers that Mads and the Boy had some with mac and cheese for dinner tonight while Spouse and I went pig fetching.

OH! And in geek news, I got to help a fellow foodie @glutenfreefreak on tips to clean leeks! Look for her on Twitter and give her a follow. She’s the BOMB when it comes to gluten-free food finds. Oh, and feel free to follow me too, (@stacyo513) even though I tweet more about sports than food it seems.

Another work day awaits tomorrow, but you can believe I’ll be SO unproductive as I’m dreaming of ways to cook pork!