Saturday, May 19, 2012

Now It’s All in the (Foodie) Family

Photo Credit: The Girl

We in the Foodie family are a team.  (Not a basketball team, in spite of the photo above–that’s me trying to photograph The Boy in action, to update his picture on this blog, while The Girl takes a photo of the family in action.  The Hubs is playing rebounder, so The Boy won’t have to run around.)  More often than not, we operate as a cohesive unit:  when one of us is upset or sick or overwhelmed by life or otherwise out of sorts, everyone else springs into action.  No one even has to ask for assistance.  This is true of both The Hubs and I as well as the Foodie children, who are quick to offer comfort to each other when trouble strikes.  Like all siblings, they squabble when they have nothing better to do–but when it really matters, they step up.  I’m not sure how The Hubs and I have managed to create such a terrific family, but we’ve very proud that these are the people we get to come home to every evening.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that, when I agreed to take on some administrative responsibilities at my university next year, The Hubs made a proposal:  making dinner for the family each evening needed to become a shared enterprise.  What if he and the Foodie children each took over planning and making dinner one night a week?  And what if one evening were a do-it-yourself affair?  Although my new position won’t kick in until August, the Foodie children were eager to get started–and it made sense for them to get in the habit of looking for recipes and making a shopping list (all requests submitted to me by Thursday evening) before their participation in those activities was absolutely crucial.

We’ve been following our new dinner plan for about two weeks now.  In that time, we’ve enjoyed

  • Crispy shrimp tacos with a sour cream and lime sauce, courtesy of The Girl
  • Cheeseburger mac and cheese, courtesy of The Boy; and
  • Gluten-free lasagna, courtesy of The Hubs.

All perfectly delicious, I might add.  But it’s been surprisingly difficult for me to let go of the reins–not because the Foodie children sometimes require a little help in the kitchen (very little–The Boy, in fact, shooed me out of the kitchen while he was cooking), but because I’m used to making dinners the way I like them, and eating a meal prepared by someone else means accepting what they offer with gratitude–even if you would have made it a little differently.  You wouldn’t go to a friend’s house and offer suggestions for improving the meal next time around, so I certainly can’t say this to the most important people in my life.  In letting the Foodie children take the lead in the kitchen, I’ve had to learn to model what it means to be a gracious guest at another family member’s dinner table.

We’re still tweaking the system.  This week, The Girl discovered how many of the recipes she’d like to make aren’t gluten-free, so I stepped in to suggest a small alteration for my portion of the meal.   Because we each have a designated night to cook dinner, school events and unexpected commitments occasionally interrupt the order, and we haven’t yet decided what that means:  should someone just get a night off?  Should that person prepare his or her meal on what would have been do-it-yourself night?  Should the chef trade nights with someone else if he or she suddenly can’t be home in time for dinner–and is that fair to ask of someone who wasn’t planning to cook?  We don’t have answers to those questions yet, and it may turn out that our answers change each time a question is asked.

The most important benefit of this system (so far, anyway) is that it’s encouraging the rest of the Foodie family to think about the food we eat.  The Boy found one of his recipes on the back of a ketchup bottle, and I’m fairly certain he’d never even noticed there were recipes anywhere other than in books and magazines before that moment.  Suddenly, though, he’s finding them everywhere.  The Girl realized, planning this week’s meal, that she’d made shrimp dishes for us twice in a row, which made her think about the importance of variety.  The Hubs discovered the importance of planning ahead when he waited to shop for dinner ingredients until the evening on which his dinner needed to be made–which left him with no time to actually make a meal.  All the work that goes into making a meal for the family every night is suddenly becoming clear to everyone.

So, we’re all learning valuable lessons–and that’s the way it should be.  This time next year, The Girl will be finishing high school, and she’ll need to know how to cook for herself if she’s going to avoid eating fast food for every meal.  The Boy has a little more time with us at home, but why not spend that time learning new ways to take care of himself?  Sharing the responsibility for making dinner has been more of a challenge than a relief for me, but I know it’s the right thing to do.  And I know the whole family will benefit.  In the long run, that’s what matters.

 

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Shortbread Cookie Mix (Product Review)

We’re going through a rainy patch in south Texas.  After the past several years of extreme drought, I can’t complain about this–in fact, in spite of the fact that it keeps me indoors, a rainy day once in awhile is a welcome thing.  It gives me a good excuse to settle in and do what needs to be done:  prepare for my summer school class, catch up on email, and (of course) do some baking.

All right, all right.  If you’re going to be technical, baking probably doesn’t qualify as a need.  But I’ve had several packages of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Shortbread Cookie Mix in my pantry for awhile, and I did need to try it out.  Nothing lasts forever, after all.  And summer is almost upon us.  Around these parts, that means the definite end of baking season.

I’ve had good luck with Bob’s Red Mill products in the past, so I had high hopes for this mix as well.  One of the reasons I’d put off trying it is that the package directions call for rolling out and cutting the cookie dough into shapes.  Had I known that before I ordered the mix online, I probably wouldn’t have bought it at all–cut-out cookies are generally  more of an effort than I’m willing to put forth in the kitchen.  But that would have been a big mistake.   After following the package directions and mixing the dry ingredients with butter, water, and an egg yolk, I had the inspired idea of dividing the dough in half, covering each portion in plastic wrap, and rolling each into a long tube.  (If I’d had pecans on hand, I would have rolled one of the tubes in chopped nuts–I love pecans in shortbread.)  Half an hour in the refrigerator produced cookie dough was firm enough to slice and bake.  No cookie cutters required. and the cookies were all relatively the same size and shape.

This method gave me about 3 dozen cookies.  The first batch, I sprinkled with cinnamon sugar before they went into the oven, to approximate the snickerdoodles that we love.  The second batch, I sprinkled with turbinado sugar, to give the cookies a bit of crunch.  And the final batch I left plain before baking, but frosted with a sunny yellow buttercream after they’d cooled.  A frosted sugar cookie is one of The Hubs’ favorite things, and the Foodie children also love their cookies super sweet.

Of those three options, I liked the turbinado-sprinkled cookies best.  No surprise, since those are the ones I made with myself in mind.

With a chai latte, they made an excellent treat to brighten up the rainy afternoon.   The texture of these cookies is very tender, which was a pleasant surprise–it’s unusual for gluten-free cookies, in my experience.  They tend toward the crunchy end of the spectrum.  This shortbread isn’t chewy, by any means, but it’s much more delicate than I expected it to be.   The Foodie children were delighted to find cookies waiting for them at home after school, and even The Girl (who is a gluten purist, when it comes to baked goods) tried a frosted cookie,  then had a second, and added a snickerdoodle for good measure.

The verdict?  This mix is definitely worthy buying.  The package directions called for 2 tablespoons of water, but because the dough looked very dry I added an extra tablespoon.  I think I might add yet another tablespoon next time I make them, to see if that helps make the cookies even more tender.  A tablespoon of lemon zest would also be a tasty addition, and if I try that option I’ll probably top the cookies with a lemon juice & powdered sugar glaze.  (Two tablespoons of juice and a cup of powdered sugar will give you a pourable glaze–add some lemon zest if you want to boost the lemon flavor.)  As I worked with the dough, it reminded me of the base I normally use for lemon bars, so I might also try a version of those with this shortbread as a bottom layer.

Bob’s Red Mill has yet to let me down with their gluten-free mixes.  I’m still learning to make the things the Foodie family likes without wheat flour, and it’s good to know I can rely on this line of products to make that a little easier.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Newbie’s Guide to BlogHer Food

This time last year, I was preparing for my first trip to a BloghHer Food conference.  Or, for that matter, any food blogging conference.  I’d been blogging for less than a year, and I knew I still had a lot to learn–so in addition to being filled with anticipation, I was also really nervous and, I admit, having second thoughts about whether going to a blogging conference was a good idea. Maybe I was still too early in my blogging life to benefit from it.  Maybe I was too much of an amateur and people would scoff at my blog.  Maybe I wouldn’t know the secret blogger handshake and no one would let me into the conference sessions.

As it turns out, I had a great time at Blogher Food 11 and needn’t have worried about any of those things (or the thousands of other concerns that crossed my mind in the weeks leading up to the conference.)  I met some wonderful people, learned a lot, and came back home feeling both inspired and motivated to do more with my blog.  My transition from a free Blogger blog to the one you’re reading now was a result of my trip to the conference, and I credit the development of my photography skills (such as they are) to a session I attended last year.  I had the chance to make contacts with companies like Bob’s Red Mill that have been an important part of my blogging and cooking for the past year, especially after I learned that I needed to go gluten-free.  Most of all, I gained the confidence that my blog doesn’t need to be anything other than what I want it to be.  I don’t have to be like anyone else.  In fact, it’s probably better if I’m not.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about BlogHer Food 12 in Seattle.  But for those who are new to BlogHer Food this year, as I was last year, I offer these words of advice.

1.  Don’t stress out about your clothes.  I spent way too much time worried about how I would dress at the conference, and I’m not a person who typically devotes a lot of brain power to this subject.  I was headed into a new environment, though, and I didn’t know the rules, and I hate not knowing what to expect from a situation.  What I learned was that bloggers run the gamut, just like all groups of people do: there were chic New York bloggers in black, cute young things in flirty dresses, moms in yoga pants, and everything in between.  I wore things I’d normally wear to work, and I didn’t feel like a sore thumb for even a moment.  This year I’ll probably pack a dress for evening events, but that’s the only thing I’ll change.  Bring comfortable shoes for daytime and a sweater for the refrigerated conference sessions–other than that, bring what makes you feel like you.  (Also–bring business cards printed with the name of your blog, your Twitter handle, and your email address.  Exchanging business cards is an easy way to keep track of who you’ve met and to drive traffic to your blog, even after the conference.)

2.  Don’t stress about not knowing anyone.  I didn’t know a soul when I went to BlogHer Food 11, and I’m not a particularly outgoing person.  In fact, I’m very shy.  (I suspect this is true of many bloggers, since we’ve all chosen to do something that involves spending a lot of time alone with a computer rather than surrounded by people.)  But the very first evening, I met three people who became familiar faces throughout the conference.  The next morning, at breakfast, I met a few more.   It didn’t take long before I’d amassed a small posse with whom I could hang out in any setting and through whom I met others.  One purpose of an event like this is to network–to introduce yourself, meet new people and make new connections–so not knowing people really isn’t a problem at all.  Getting to know people is what you’re supposed to be doing.  Those who travel with a friend are, I think, probably more likely to stay in their comfort zone and to miss out on opportunities for connection.

3.  Be prepared for posturing.  In the first few moments of the very first event I attended, I introduced myself to someone, exchanged business cards, and started making small talk.  Within a few moments, she looked past me and said, in a very excited tone, “Oh wow, Famous Blogger cut her hair!”  Then she excused herself and headed off through the crowd.  The fact that she referred to Famous Blogger by her first name led me to believe they were close personal friends, which just fed my insecurity about not being part of this community.  As it turns out, though, that person had only been blogging for a few months longer than I had, and she was no more established or famous or connected than I was.  She just wanted me to think so.  Once I figured that out, of course, it just made her look sad and desperate.  Recognize that you’re going to bump into some people who want to position themselves in relation to you: more experienced, more connected, more important, whatever.  Some of those people may be downright rude, mentioning private parties to which you have not been invited.   And while this positioning may or may not be accurate, the important thing to remember is that it has nothing at all to do with you.  This is all about the other person’s need to feel important.  You don’t need to feel bad about where you are right now–even Famous Blogger herself was there, at some point.

4. Make peace with over-stimulation.  As I mentioned above, I’m not a social person by nature.  I find it exhausting to make small talk and be around people for large chunks of time, but that’s the name of the game at a conference.  One thing I’ve learned is that when I attend conferences of any sort, I need to take breaks to prevent a meltdown.  This might involve going back to my room for a bit (although that’s always dangerous, because it’s so easy to get comfortable and talk myself out of heading back into the throng), or it might simply involve taking off my name tag, finding a quiet corner of the hotel, and pretending to be a guest who has nothing to do with the conference.  Maybe I’ll check email, read a magazine, have a cup of coffee.   I might also decide to just get out of the hotel for a bit, to get some fresh air and take a walk around the neighborhood.  And on that note . . .

5. See the city.  I’d been to Atlanta before, and I live in the South, so I didn’t feel the need to do a lot of exploring last year.  I was really focused on the conference, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  But after coming home and reading about other bloggers’ adventures in the city, I regretted the fact that I hadn’t taken some time just to be in Atlanta.  This year, BlogHer Food 12  happens to be one of my favorite places on the planet (Hello, Seattle!), and I’ve been looking at the schedule to see if there are sessions I can afford to skip.   (For those of you from smaller cities and towns, a note about walking around in cities by yourself: I’m a college professor.  I teach Women’s Studies.  I know all the statistics,  and I am not afraid to walk around alone in a city.  You shouldn’t be either.  Stay in lighted areas where other people are around, pay attention to your surroundings, walk with confidence, and use common sense about purses and packages.  You’ll be fine.  If you don’t have a conference buddy, don’t let that stop you from seeing the city.)

If you’re headed to BlogHer Food 12 for the first time this year, or if you’re headed back after previous experiences, drop me a line in the comments section.  I’d love to see you there!

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good Dog Treats

Yesterday, I was hanging out on Facebook–a not unusual pastime, truth be told–when I came across a picture of a lovely dog, a German Shepard mix, on the San Antonio Pets Alive page.  The wonderful people at SAPA were trying to assist her owner in finding Natasha a new place to live because they didn’t have room to keep her at their no-kill facility.  Natasha’s family had run into the kind of bad luck that requires big changes in your life. This meant that, although she had been a very good friend to a young boy with autism, that boy’s single father had to give Natasha up for adoption and move himself and his son across the country.  They were headed for housing that simply wouldn’t permit them to keep their very special dog.

Natasha is seven years old, and she’s a larger breed.  Those were two big strikes against her, in terms of finding her a new family.  The father had 24 hours left before Natasha would have to be surrendered to Animal Control–and as an older, owner-surrendered dog, Natasha wouldn’t be kept for long after that happened.  I see stories like this on a fairly regular basis, via the SAPA Facebook feed, and they always break my heart, but something about this particular story compelled me to click on the “Share” button.  I don’t do that very often.  Not because I don’t care, but because everybody has their own sorrows in this world, and I don’t see the point in adding to that load.

Well.

Perhaps I don’t need to remind you of this, but there are angels among us here on Earth.  Within minutes of sharing that photo–literally, minutes–my friend Cyn left me a message saying that she would email the owner and adopt Natasha.  Various logistical machinations and one day later, Cyn and her husband brought Natasha–now named Preacher–to their home.  And within minutes of seeing that message, I started gathering the ingredients to make a batch of Good Dog Treats to welcome Preacher to our neighborhood.

I started with this recipe, though in the end I was just doing my own thing, as is so often the case in the Foodie kitchen.  These treats are really easy to make and full of things that are good for any canine companion.  (Also for people, but because they have no sugar and are very, very hard, I don’t recommend eating them.)   You don’t even need a rolling pin, in spite of the fact that these are cut-out treats.  Just work with half of the dough at a time, pat it into a circle about a quarter of an inch thick, and use your favorite cookie cutter to create the treats.  I used a bone-shaped cutter, for obvious reasons, but these would be a very cute Christmas gift for a friend’s dog if you cut them into holiday shapes.  (Long ago, I knew a dog named Spiderman.  Imagine the fun you could have making treats for that dog on his birthday.)  I also included a bone-shaped cutter in the bowl of treats I took to Cyn, just so she’d be set up to make her own batch when these run out.

The number of treats you’ll end up with depends completely on the size of treats you’ll make, as does the baking time.  For larger treats, like the bones in the photos above, 30 to 40 minutes will do the trick.  The treats should not be soft on top when you touch them lightly–they should have the texture of dog biscuits even before they come out of the oven.  For the tiny treats, which I made from the leftover scraps of dough, about 10 minutes will give them the desired texture.  These are handy for quick reinforcement of good behavior.  You could turn a whole batch of this dough into tiny treats, for that matter, although you’d be sacrificing the “They’re so cute!” factor.

Before I took these treats to Cyn and Preacher, I tried them out on the Foodie family’s faithful sidekick, Hailey.  She has never been known to turn away from a snack, so I figured she was an excellent test subject.  Her verdict?  See for yourself.

And with that, I headed off to meet the dog whose new name is a testament in itself:  she tells me that bad situations can turn into something good, that open hearts aren’t that hard to come by, that people care about each other (and about each others’ animals) even when they don’t absolutely have to–and that sometimes, the opportunity to help somebody out is as easy as clicking a button with your computer mouse.   It doesn’t cost a thing to spread the word.

Welcome home, Preacher, you beautiful girl!

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Good Dog Treats

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups flour (whole wheat or all-purpose white)
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 eggs
1 cup pumpkin puree
3 T. smooth peanut butter
2 T. molasses
More flour, for kneading and cutting

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and stir to distribute. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture; add the eggs, pumpkin, peanut butter and molasses to the well. Using a wooden spoon, stir to create a sticky dough.

Sprinkle flour on a cutting board or countertop. Place half of the dough on this surface and sprinkle the dough with more flour. Knead the dough until it's dry and pliable, adding more flour if necessary. Pat the dough into a circle about 1/4-inch thick and cut into shapes, using cookie cutters. (You can also use a sharp knife to create bars or tiny treats of any shape.)

Transfer the cut-out treats to a cookie sheet. Bake larger treats for 30 minutes, then test the surface texture. They should be firm, not squishy, before they come out of the oven. Smaller treats may need to bake only 10 to 15 minutes.

Repeat this process with the other half of the dough.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rhubarb, Round Two: Rhubarb Almond Custard Pie

Since I took the easy route with my first bunch of rhubarb–that rhubarb sauce has been the star attraction of my breakfast yogurt this week–I decided to go a little fancy for Round Two.   That ruled out the rhubarb upside-down cake I’d been thinking about.  Instead, I considered a rhubarb torte that my mom used to make, and a rhubarb cake with boiled coconut icing that The Hubs’ grandmother used to make for him.  Neither of those choices seemed quite right, though.  I was in the mood for pie.  But fancy pie.

After all, doesn’t rhubarb this gorgeous deserve a fancy pie?

Since I started eating gluten-free, pie means an almond flour crust.  I still haven’t mastered a gluten-free version of rolled pie crust, but more importantly, I really like the flavor of almonds with fruit. This sort of crust demands a cooked pie filling, however, not the sort that bakes along with the crust.  So I thought about making a rhubarb filling on the stovetop.  And then I thought about making a slightly fancy rhubarb filling, similar to what my mom used for her rhubarb torte.  And that’s when I came up with this recipe for Rhubarb Almond Custard Pie.

If you’re not a fan of meringue toppings, this pie doesn’t absolutely need one.  I like the contrast of the thick custard filling and the fluffy meringue, but a whipped cream topping would work nicely as well.  Feel free to use any kind of milk in the custard, keeping in mind that the lower the fat content of your milk, the looser your custard will be.  Liquidy custard isn’t a tragedy–it still tastes good–but it will make your almond crust soggy, so cook the custard until it’s very thick.

This pie is not a keeper.  The almond crust will absorb moisture from the filling, so the pie won’t last more than a day or two–not a problem in the Foodie family, where pie for breakfast isn’t unheard of.  But keep this in mind if you’re making the pie in advance of a gathering, and be sure to refrigerate this pie once the custard cools to room temperature.

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Rhubarb Almond Custard Pie

Ingredients:

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups almond flour
3 T. sugar
3 T. melted butter

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups sugar
3 T. corn starch
1/3 cup milk
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. almond extract
4 cups rhubarb, chopped into small pieces

For the topping:

3 eggs whites
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Make the crust: In a large bowl, combine the almond flour, sugar, and melted butter. Stir to distribute the butter throughout. Turn this mixture into a 9-inch pie plate and press into a thin layer across the bottom and up the sides. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, until golden brown.

Make the filling: While the crust is baking, combine the sugar and corn starch in a large saucepan. Whisk in the milk, egg yolks, and almond extract. Stir in the rhubarb. Over medium heat, allow this mixture to cook until bubbles begin to form around the edges, stirring frequently. When the custard comes to a boil, lower the heat (so the custard doesn't scorch on the bottom) and continue cooking until it reaches the consistency of pudding, about 20 minutes. Pour the custard into the hot crust.

Make the topping: In the large bowl of a mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar to the sugar; gradually add to the mixing bowl as the egg whites begin to thicken. Beat until stiff peaks form. Spread the meringue over the custard, covering it completely, making sure the meringue touches the crust at the edges. This will prevent the meringue from shrinking as it bakes. Return the pie to the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the meringue is golden brown.

Allow the pie to cool to room temperature before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.

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