Monday, November 8, 2010

Kindle me this, Kindle me that

I believe I may be a purist. There seems to be something amiss with this whole digital book thing. I get that it saves trees, that it's thinner than any book worth reading, that you have a virtual library at your fingertips 24 hours a day and that it has the potential to be less expensive than purchasing paper copies. But... there is something so completely wonderful about holding a book in my hands.

My love of books started at an early age. I remember spending hours pouring over pictures and taking myself into their world. Whether a family was on a picnic with sandwiches cut into perfect triangles, a monster came over to swing and I was the one sitting in his lap or a cat was being shooed away from a pie on a windowsill, I would go on wonderful adventures inside my books. As I grew, the books changed and I put myself into stories where there were no pictures. I could walk along the road with the children who were abandoned by their crazy mother, I could feel the heat on their shoulders as I anxiously turned page after page. I could see that if I kept on reading at that feverish pace, I could finish the book before midnight. I can remember my first year of marriage where we lived only a few blocks from the local library. I would check out book after book and sometimes stay up all night, reading straight through until morning. When I heard my husband get up for work, I would pretend to  have fallen asleep reading because I knew he didn't understand how a book could be so good that you would give up sleep for it. Just one more chapter, just one more chapter until I could see dawn coming through the front window in all it's pink hues and wonder where the time went.

I developed a love of Jane Austen novels and the language she used. If I were to live in an era other than this, that is where I would choose to time travel. And I can sit in my living room and look at the bookcases that flank our big, glowing television screen and see the spines of my beloved novels and remember certain scenes that took my breath away or made may laugh. They are like old friends that I sat up and conversed with late into the night. They didn't mind my tears, they didn't glance at me sideways when I read the same paragraph over and over because I had lost myself in my imagination. They even let me use my lame English accent when it's needed without judgment or snickering. I read my books as if I'm a narrator, with all the inflection and passion you would expect to hear from a movie trailer. And with each turning page the excitement builds.

I have passed down my love of books to my children. Even now at 10 & 12 years of age, I still read books to them with all the voices and I can feel their fear and listen to them laugh. They hear their favorite stories in new ways and have become fearless in putting their own ideas into action when they read a new book to me. They love when I pull out my old storybooks from when I was little and share them. I even have a few of my mothers storybooks from when she was a child. I have saved my kids books from when they were toddlers. One day when they have kids of their own, I'll pull them out and read their favorite stories to my grandchildren. We have books for each season as well, that get packed away with the decorations and then brought back out again the next year. Their favorite part of decorating is finding the books at the bottom of the bins. All decorating stops when the books surface and we'll sit and read and look through the pictures. I've already bought two new Christmas books and it's not yet Thanksgiving.

I just don't see how a handheld screen could bring these joys. I look at a screen all day at work. I want to look at my books and remember the times I had with them. I have no interest in passing down a kindle. I have the distinct privilege to pass down a legacy of being a great reader who enjoys bright colors and vivid imaginations with the sound of the pages turning almost like rustling leaves. It is a beautiful thing.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Squash Quesadilla's

One of the more fun foods we have on occasion at our house is quesadilla's. You can put all sorts of things between two flour tortilla's and make a meal... or dessert (thin sliced apples, crushed nuts, honey). But on this particular day, my daughter was having her best friend spend the night and they had all sorts of fall activities planned. When I saw the idea of a squash quesadilla, I thought it was pretty cool. However, pureed squash and cheese just didn't give me the festive dinner I was looking for. So I improvised and what followed was a really delicious, fun meal that my family and our little guest requested I make again, very soon.

What you'll need: butternut squash, onion, olive oil, cilantro, chili powder, a 1/4 cup liquid (butter, heavy cream, chicken stock, veggie stock, etc.), cheese, flour tortilla's

Wash the outside of you squash, cut the top off, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Rub a little olive oil on the orange flesh and then place them flat side down on a cookie sheet covered in aluminum foil that has been rubbed with olive oil. Roast them in the oven for about 40 minutes at 375-400 degrees. You should be able to insert a knife through the rind easily when the squash is done cooking.

While your squash is roasting in the oven, dice an onion and put it in a large skillet with a drizzle of olive oil. Saute the onions on medium until they are translucent and slightly caramelized.

While the onions are caramelizing, chop up about 1 ounce or 1 bunch of cilantro. When the squash is done roasting, scoop it out and put it in the pan with the onions. Add 1 tsp of chili powder and 1/4 cup of liquid. If there isn't any liquid, it gets really thick.  Choose whichever liquid you like according to taste and diet. Also remember that all of these items so far have no seasoning, so salt and pepper would be appropriate at this time.

Stir it all up so it's nice and hot. Even with the 1/4 cup liquid, it's still going to be a little thick. That's a good thing because you don't want the mixture oozing out from between the tortilla's.

Take a large spoonful and spread it around on the tortilla leaving a 1 inch margin. This will allow for melting items to not escape as easily when they are pressed and heated.

Sprinkle with shredded cheese. Just a word to the wise, shred your own cheese. The cheese that you buy pre-shredded in a bag is packed with sawdust. Yep... I said sawdust. It probably reads on the bag as cellulose or something like that. They use the sawdust to keep the cheese from sticking in a big glob in the bag. So, unless you are seriously lacking in fiber, say no to the bag.

We were lucky enough to find a sweet little quesadilla press at a local store for a great price. If you don't have one of these beauties, a skillet on your stove top will work just fine. Put the tortilla with the squash mixture and the cheese on the bottom plate.

Top with another flour tortilla and close the press.

After 3 minutes, lift the lid and using a spatula transfer the quesadilla to a dinner plate.

Using a pizza wheel, cut the quesadilla on the pressed lines. You can serve them with sour cream, salsa or whatever you like best. When we make these again, we'll probably add some cayenne pepper for heat and a little garlic. Hope you enjoy them!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pretzel Cabin

I saw this craft idea years ago in a Martha Stewart Magazine and decided I couldn't wait for President's Day to make it. It's really simple and my daughter and her best friend had a great time with this project.

What you need: 1/2 pint dairy container, peanut butter, thin wheat crackers, pretzel sticks, pretzel squares, graham crackers

Empty the carton of the cream and rinse thoroughly with hot water. Tape closed the top where you opened the container.

Spread a thick layer of inexpensive peanut butter all over the outside of the carton.

Be sure to fill the open triangle with peanut butter because it will show if you don't cover it with pretzel sticks.

Put all of your pieces in a dish so they're easy to grab quickly. It's also a good idea to use scissors to cut your pretzel rods to shape over this dish so the pretzel crumbs stay somewhat contained.

Use the checkerboard pretzels for windows, the thin wheat crackers for the roof shingles and the pretzel sticks for the logs. The graham cracker makes a great front door. My daughters best friend got a little creative and used a spare piece of pretzel for a small door knob.

You could even decorate this with holiday candy to make it for a festive occasion. If you make it without the candy, you can put it out for the birds and squirrels. Have fun, I know we did!

Butternut Squash

Have you ever looked at these in the grocery store and thought they were fall decorations that go next to the bumpy little gourds by the indian corn? I did for a really long time. Aside from their odd shape, they really aren't much to look at. Their drab color doesn't do much for them either. But once you get to know this gourd, you might find that it holds a lot of interest. It's mighty nutritious. Go here for more information on that, you won't be sorry. There are many ways to cook and serve it. My biggest goal in this particular blog, is to dispel the mystery on how to use it. My family likes it roasted, so that's what we're going to do.

Before you start, make sure you place a damp paper towel under your cutting board. This will keep your board from sliding as you maneuver this odd shaped vegetable.

There are two ways to peel it. You can use a pairing knife or a peeler. When using a knife, number one... use extreme caution. The outside layer is slick and hard. Peel around the top first.

Then run your knife down the side to the place where the squash bumps out.

Once you have peeled the top portion, cut it off so that the bottom is easier to handle.

Then use your knife to peel around the bottom. Again using extreme caution.

Now I don't know how many of you have this kind of peeler, but I am still questioning myself as to why I waited so long to get one. Maybe because it's not what I grew up using in my mom's house. But I broke down and bought one so I could see if it would make the job of peeling this monster easier. DON'T WAIT!!! Go buy yourself one right now! I will never be without this kind of peeler again.

It made ridiculously quick work of this squash. I almost had tears in my eyes it went so fast. Again... GO BUY ONE NOW!!!

I can't believe how struggle free it was. All done peeling in a matter of minutes and way safer. However, a side note would be that when I have used this peeler on smaller items like apples, I took a nice chunk out of my finger. So use a little more caution with the smaller produce.

Take the top portion of the squash and cut it in 1/2 inch slices.

Then cut those in 1/2 inch slices

Then 1/2 inch chunks.

Next cut open the bottom half. This will look like the inside of a pumpkin since they are both squashes.

Use a spoon to scoop out the insides and discard. I suppose you could clean them off and roast them or dehydrate them like pumpkin seeds, but I've never tried it.

Cut the little bottom buttons off.

Then slice the bottom half into 1/2 inch slices.

Turn them on their sides for safety and cut these, one by one, into 1/2 inch pieces.

Throw them in a bowl, toss with some olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.

Layer on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour.

This is what not to do! I put too many on this sheet and when they were done roasting, some were burned and some were just soft. None of them caramelized and got yummy and sweet. Look back at the oven shot and see how they were sitting on top of each other. Now look at the picture below.

These are all in a single layer. They are crowded, but most importantly, they are in a single layer.

If you look at this, the only ones that burned were some small ones on the outside edge (that's normal). The other ones shrunk beautifully and caramelized like a champ. I serve these just as they are as a side to some sort of protein. If they aren't quite sweet enough for your young ones, you can drizzle a small amount of local maple syrup or some raw honey on top. We seem to do just fine without that though.

I really hope you try this if you've never liked this squash before (pureed, uck!) And if you've never tried it, I hope you will give it a go.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Wisdom of Marilla

Anne of Green Gables has been a movie I have cherished since High School. It's a story of a young orphan girl that is adopted by an elderly brother and sister. Through a series of verbal exchanges though, the information was skewed and instead of them getting a boy to help on the farm like they had requested, they got Anne. Upon finding out that Marilla planned on sending her back because she wasn't a boy, Anne replies "I'm in the depths of despair." to which Marilla's responds, "To despair is to turn your back on God." The meaning didn't stick with me so much as the memory of the exchange between them.

Yesterday, I found myself in a state of despair. I found myself in a situation very similar to Anne where I had been anticipating an event for months with every fiber of my body. I could not wait for it to happen. I had made all the necessary preparations to be there at the exact time, with the proper materials, I was eager. I waited... for almost an hour. And as I resigned myself to the fact that no one was coming I trudged slowly out to the parking lot. My heart was heavy and disappointed. And the tears began to roll. I wasn't actually crying, but my body was weeping. Big, fat, hot tears slid down my cheeks as I closed myself in my vehicle. The silence was deafening. And I thought, "I'm in the depths of despair." However, I am highly realistic and reminded myself that this was nothing that warranted that description. Maybe I wasn't in the depths of despair, but I was despairing. And being a realistic person, I realized the first thing I needed to do was get myself out of the dark parking lot in a not so good part of town and go somewhere where I could process what just happened.

As I drove I ended up turning my focus away from my despair on to what Marilla had said, "To despair is to turn your back on God." What did she mean by that?! If I let myself get into such a state that I'm despairing, I have centered myself more on my issue than where God is in my situation. I am in essence telling God that he can't pull me out of that place. He's not able.  This is more than contrary to what the Bible teaches and what I believe. And so I decided to do the grown up thing and not despair... I sulked.

After doing some searching on my computer I found an email I had neglected to read that informed me that the class I was so eager to attend had been postponed until February 2011. I am no longer sulking, but eagerly looking forward to February.

Lesson learned: read my email. They are important.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Zucchini & Yellow Squash

This is about the time of year when you run out of ideas of what to do with the bumper crop of squash you have raked in. There's the ever faithful Zucchini Bread recipe (I'm a huge fan) and I've even heard of Chocolate Zucchini Muffins. But at our house, we like yellow squash too and the two seem to go hand in hand.

This is a fast and easy way to make a healthy side dish that is full of flavor. Do you have one of these? It's called a mandolin. It makes quick work of items that need sliced thinly. If you don't have one, a sharp knife will do the job.

I use the mandolin to slice the zucchini right into my sauté pan. Discard the bottom and use the stem to hold on to while you are slicing.

Do the same with the yellow squash. However, you will notice that this one started to get a little big because there are seeds developing. It really is true that you want to pick the smaller squashes than larger. It still tastes good, but they just don't look as nice when they cook up.

Depending on how well you like garlic, put in as much as you like. But it is best to use fresh when doing a dish like this. Just give it a good whack to get the shell off and then either mince or press it right into the pan with the squash.

Depending on how much heat you want, add some red pepper flake. Even if you think you don't want it spicy, just add some to give it a little life. And then drizzle with olive oil.

Now this is the point where you put the lid on and let it steam on medium high. But if you're me, your biggest sauté pan did not come with a lid. So I cover it with foil and let it vent out the back. Take the lid/foil off every once in awhile to stir things up. I'm a fan of tongs. They are great for grabbing and flipping things. Think of them like extended hands that won't get burned. A very useful tool.

Once the squash gets transparent, they are pretty much done. You can serve this with fresh sliced tomato and a little freshly shredded Parmesan cheese. This is best piping hot, so make sure it is the last thing you finish before you plate your dinner.

It really is low maintenance and a fast way to use up your surplus garden stock. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

All Natural Peanut Butter

I know what you may be thinking...

"Nasty paste. I'd rather take my chances with the hydrogenated oils and chemical preservatives."

But when done properly, the all natural, organic peanut butter is really good. Stay tuned for some quick helpful tips on how to keep your PB smooth and spreadable.

There it is. Can you see the beautiful golden layer on top. That my friend is peanut oil. Without that, you will have "nasty paste".

Use a spatula and transfer all the contents of the jar (organic roasted peanuts and a smidgen of salt) into a large bowl. The peanut butter will sit in a puddle of peanut oil. If you'll notice, on the left side of the picture the PB looks dry and hard. That's what was at the bottom of the jar and if you don't mix it with the oil, it will stay that hard.

Using an electric mixer, start to blend the PB with the peanut oil slowly until fully incorporated. Then turn that baby on high and whip it for a little bit. This will make it a little more light in texture. It should be real smooth too.

Once your done whipping the PB, use your spatula to guide the PB back into the jar. This takes a little finesse, but shouldn't be too tough. You can see the volume of the PB is more now than it was when you took the lid off.

By whipping the PB before you put it in the refrigerator you eliminate the oil separating from the PB while it is stored. It also spreads much easier than if it is just stirred inside the jar with a knife. Once the jar is open it has to be stored in the refrigerator to prevent the natural oils from going rancid. If you find that it is still to firm to spread on really soft bread, take the metal lid off and microwave the jar for about 30 seconds on high. Stir the PB. If it is still too firm, give it another 30 seconds.

I promise your family will grow accustomed to the natural taste and texture over time and they will never miss the sugar and chemical laden version that lasts indefinitely in your cupboard.