Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuna casserole that isn't terrible

Tuna casserole is one of those dinners I tend to put on our menu when I have completely run out of inspiration or I am trying to be frugal, or both. I suspect the recipe I have came from the back of a can of mushroom soup. It is just so very bland and boring and what I think of when I think of 1950s recipes (the ones you see in old magazines, with lots of Jello "salads"). Since it <i>is</i> handy to have an inexpensive, mostly healthy casserole recipe in one's back pocket, I have started to tinker with my tuna casserole, and the last two times I done so, everyone has gone back for seconds. Tonight, I got raves (from everyone except Malcolm, but he really just wanted a candy cane anyway). After I mentioned this fact on Facebook, several people said they'd like a recipe, so here it is, annotated. I hope it works as well for you as it does for me.

Hope's Tuna Casserole
Preparation: 20  minutes
Cooking time: 20-30 minutes

1 pound pasta - bowties or some other shapes work well. They are sturdier and hold the sauce better than the traditional egg noodles.
1-2 Tbsp oil, divided
1/2-3/4 cup diced onion
2 sticks celery, diced
1 cup or so chopped mushrooms - I prefer baby bellas, but whatever sort you like/can find at the store would be fine.
2 cans tuna - I keep it simple and use chunk light tuna in water
1 can cream of chicken or cream of celery soup (this is the biggest change - cream of mushroom is just so...gray)
1/2 cup milk - I used whole milk this time, but whatever you normally use would be fine. 
1 1/2 cups frozen green peas or frozen peas and carrots
salt and pepper
1 cup grated cheese - I used sharp cheddar this time, but I have also used pepper jack with success

1) Preheat oven to 375. 
2) Cook pasta according to the instructions on the bag/box. Drain and put back into pot or in a large mixing bowl.
3) Sauté the onion and celery in half of the oil until soft, but not brown. When finished, add to the noodles.
4) Heat the second half of the oil and sauté the mushrooms until they are soft and have released some of their juices. Add to the noodles and onion/celery mix.
5) Drain the tuna and add to the pot. Also add the soup, the milk, and the peas. Stir everything together and season with the salt and pepper to taste. 
6) Pour the noodle mixture into a two quart casserole dish. Top with the grated cheese.
7) Bake for 20-30 minutes until bubbling and the cheese is melted. If you like the cheese a little browner, turn on the broiler for the last couple of minutes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thanksgiving dinner

Since this is apparently now primarily a food blog, here is the Thanksgiving dinner we had this year. As you can see, it isn't the traditional turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Some years we go to all that trouble, but more often we prefer to make something different. It is more fun, usually less work, and perhaps even a little bit healthy. This year, we had turkey-zucchini meatballs and sumac sauce from the Jerusalem cookbook. (Here is a slightly modified version from Simply Recipes, if you don't want to seek out the book. But you should at least get it from the library, since it is a beautiful book, as well as full of good recipes). The recipe calls them burgers, but I call them meatballs.  Either way, they are delicious, and the sauce is good enough to justify seeking out sumac. (You can order it from Penzey's, here.)

To accompany the turkey, I made acorn squash stuffed with black beans, corn, and broccoli from a recipe I found at the New York Times website. It was intended as a vegan main course, and I think it would definitely be good for that, but it was also a perfect side. It is very American too, with the squash, corn and beans. I left out the optional rice, since we made our own wild/brown rice as well. To round out the plate we had sweet potato biscuits brought by a friend.

I neglected to get a picture of the pumpkin cheesecake that we had for dessert. Too busy eating it. It also turned out really well. I used ginger snaps in place of the graham crackers in the crust, and they added just enough snap and flavor.

In short, we had a lovely meal, and I heartily recommend giving alternative menus a try for the holidays.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Oh, granola

You know how I complained a while ago about my problems with oatmeal? About how it never keeps me going and how it makes me have blood sugar crashes? This makes me sad, because I do like oats and oatmeal, and it is a good whole grain to have in my diet. It must be something about the cooking process that makes oatmeal not like me, because I have no such problems with granola.

I have posted a lovely granola recipe here before, and I still love it, but with all the various dried fruits that require a trip to Whole Foods, I don't make it very often these days. And after making my own, I can't really face the granola from the store - it is just not worth it. Luckily, I found a new, simpler recipe for granola on one of the best food blogs ever, Orangette. It is just oats, nuts (I used almonds and pecans), salt, coconut, maple syrup (which doesn't taste at all maple-y after cooking, in case you - like Benjamin - don't like maple flavor) and oil, and it tastes heavenly. I made a half batch a week or so ago, and devoured it. I made another batch today, larger this time, because I was craving it.

Here is the original recipe and post over on Orangette. I am not going to post the actual recipe because you should go read it straight from her - she is such a good writer - and because she has some helpful instructions. Not to mention links to other granola recipes. Go try it. You will thank me.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Let's revisit my summer with fruit

The weather is finally turning cold here in Arkansas, and a polar vortex is threatening later this week. The leaves are falling (and falling and falling. Turns out some oak trees are marcescent, which means they retain some of their dead leaves all winter, or as it plays out in our backyard, about half the leaves take two months to fall in October and November, and the other half stay on until March, when I have to rake all over again.) Anyway, as I was going to say, before I interrupted myself, it is getting cold, and while I am perfectly happy with that, it seems like a good time to revisit some of the lovely warm days of summer, and the food I never got around to showing you.

Oh, heavenly blueberries!

This year, for the first time since I left Washington 13 years ago, I found a farm offering u-pick blueberries. As I have mentioned before, my summers growing up were full of fresh berries, and one of the things I have missed dreadfully over the years is berry picking. It is one of the experiences of my childhood that I most wanted to be able to share with Malcolm, and I feared it would only happen on the occasional trip back to Washington.

Malcolm, with one of his favorite foods
 I have never been so happy to be wrong. Wye Mountain Flowers and Berries is about 45 minutes away from us, and they have blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. We went twice and picked all three. Malcolm caught on immediately, and while there was a certain amount of berry eating, a la Blueberries for Sal, he actually got some in the bucket too.

Blackberry jam
We had so many berries that we couldn't eat them all right away, so I did what any sensible person would do and made jam. Blackberry jam (above), blueberry jam, and even blueberry ginger jam (recipe from a fellow Whitman Alumna's great canning blog). Add these to the strawberry jam I made earlier in the year, and we might just make it to next summer.

Pickle coins!
I made pickles around the same time as well, although we still have some from last year. I can't help it - when cucumbers are so easily available and so easy to preserve, I sort of get carried away.

Mid-way through the process
After berry season ends in mid-to-late June, pesto season is not far away. I have always planted basil in my garden, and I usually have enough to make pesto. The last couple of years, I have had so much basil that not only do I make pesto by the quart, I have enough to dry and freeze for other cooking uses as well.

Mmm, pesto.
Last year, I decided to use pistachios instead of pine nuts, and this year I used cashews. Both are delicious alternatives if you are one of those people who have an allergic reaction to pine nuts. We usually freeze our pesto and use it all winter long, both on pasta and as a pizza sauce. So much better than the stuff you buy in jars at the super market!

The second box of the season, Golden Delicious
And of course, how could it be fall without a box of apples, or rather two, 40 pound boxes of apples, in my kitchen? I didn't manage to score enough peaches this year to preserve any - not sure if it just wasn't a good year for them, or if I just didn't try hard enough (probably the latter, since I do know an orchard that does u-pick), but I made up for it with the apples.

My apple processing workspace.
You'd think that after spending several days peeling, slicing and dehydrating apples, not to mention several pies, including a *real* double crust apple pie, I would have had enough of apples. You'd be wrong. I immediately bought a second box, and am only restraining myself with difficulty from getting a third of a different variety.

I was mightily proud of this pie. Usually I go for a more rustic (read, easier) sort of pie.
And that concludes my tour through my summer cooking. Now it is fall, and time to bake warm bread and cookies and pumpkin goodies. Wonder what I will make next?

Monday, October 27, 2014

I'm back, and I bring soup

Yup, it has been a while since I last blogged anything. Life has gotten in the way, and to be honest, Facebook has made me tired and wary of so much sharing of personal details. But I miss blogging, and this soup has inspired me - it is a soup that everyone in the house loves, and something that good has to be shared.

My dad always brings recipes when he comes to visit; we look forward to not having to cook while he is here, and he looks forward to sharing favorites with a new audience. During his visit in March, he made this one for us, and it was a big hit. It is a broccoli, bean, and pasta soup from an Italian cookbook that he bought in Florence, Italy called Cucina Rustica by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman (it looks like it is/was available here in the United States as well, if you are inspired to find it yourself). On first glance, it doesn't appear to be magical - just broccoli, beans, and pasta - but there is just something about the way the ingredients come together. Malcolm is not a picky eater by any means, especially compared to other toddlers, but he tends not to eat soup in its fully assembled state; he will eat beans, and vegetables, and pasta, and meat - just not all in one spoonful. This soup? He slurps up and asks for seconds. So do I, and I don't mind that the recipe yields so much soup that I end up eating it for days afterwards. 

I didn't remember to get a picture while it was fresh, so this is a little less soup-like than it is when first cooked, but I think you could add more broth when you reheat it, if that bothers you. I like just as it is.

Without further ado, here it is:
Minestra della Fattoria (Broccoli, Bean and Pasta Soup) from Cucina Rustica by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman. Serves 6-8. Takes about an hour.

1 red onion, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I confess to using canola some times)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 sprig fresh oregano (I used 1 teaspoon dried)
2 springs fresh thyme (I used 1 teaspoon dried)
1 bunch broccoli, chopped very fine (I use one of the bundled bunches from the grocery store that have three crowns, and use some of the stems too if they look OK)
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, undrained, or three cups cooked dried white beans with their cooking liquid
6 cups chicken stock
4 ounces dried pasta, such as elbows, broken spaghetti, or tiny shells (this time I used a mix of elbow macaroni and ditalini)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (I used about 1 teaspoon of salt this time - the amount may vary, depending on how salty the beans and broth are)
Parmesan cheese for grating at the table

Saute the onion in the olive oil in a soup pot until it is soft. Add the garlic and saute until it turns opaque and releases its aroma, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the herbs and the broccoli, and cook over moderate heat until the broccoli is quite soft. Add the beans with all their liquid and the chicken stock. Cook at least 15 minutes, or until the soup thickens. Add the pasta and cook it in the soup until al dente. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately and pass Parmesan cheese to grate into the soup.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Oatmeal blues

I have a like/hate relationship with oatmeal. It is one of those foods that nutritionists, health magazines, food writers, and bloggers always recommend as a healthy and filling breakfast. According to them, it will fill you up and get you set for the day - you will have energy and not need to eat again until lunch. So, several years ago, after years of only eating oatmeal in cookies or when camping, and then only the instant packets, I set out to reintroduce oatmeal into my life. I tried rolled oats and couldn't stand them, not even when doctored with sugar and spices. Then I discovered steel cut oats (also sold as Irish oats) which are much chewier and heartier. I figured out a recipe that made them taste good without being too sweet or too bland. (And I have tried many, many variations.) Apart from taking a long time to cook (which can be reduced by soaking them overnight) they seemed to be a good breakfast alternative. 

And then I ran into a problem - in direct contradiction of everything the bloggers, food writers and nutrion people said, if I ate oatmeal for breakfast, I would inevitably have a drastic drop in blood sugar about an hour after eating. And when I say my blood sugar drops, I mean I get the shakes, I can hardly do anything and have to eat something else immediately. At first I thought it was because I sometimes ate oatmeal with grapefruit. But even without the grapefruit involved, I still had the problem. Then I tried adding peanut butter, to provide some more protein, and that helped some of the time. But lately, even that hasn't been enough. If I have oatmeal for breakfast, I spend the rest of the day regretting it; I am tired, low energy and can't seem to get my blood sugar back to normal. 

This is kind of a bummer, because I actually do like oatmeal once in a while, but I am on the verge of giving it up as a lost cause. 

Does anyone else have this problem?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Grandpa's visit

A couple of weeks ago, my dad came to visit Malcolm (well, us too, but mostly Malcolm).

We did all sorts of fun things, like gymnastics. Malcolm loves swinging on the bar. We go almost every week, and today he was practicing letting go and falling on his bottom, which he thought was hilarious.

There was story time at the library. Malcolm enjoyed showing Grandpa the cars that he was playing with before it started, and the scarves and shakers they play with every week.

As usual when he comes to visit, my dad also had to do some yard work. Even after all the raking I did in the fall, there were still plenty of leaves to be raked. Malcolm is getting to the point where he can almost be helpful, instead of just a hindrance.

And of course we had to have some Southern food, so we headed to Cotham's for burgers, fried okra and fried green tomatoes, in matching Hawaiian shirts. Malcolm loves fried okra, Grandpa loved the fried green tomatoes. 

Two of my favorite guys.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Downtown Dash 10K report

I've tried to start this post several different ways, but my brain just keeps going back to "Woo! I ran a 10K! I ran a 10K!" On the scale of athletic accomplishments, I know it isn't huge - just the result of consistent training - but as someone who used to loathe just the idea of running, I am pretty excited.

I accomplished all my goals: I finished, I didn't have to walk at all, and I even enjoyed myself. For those of you who care, I ran it in 1:07:12, around a 10:50 mile pace. That is a slower pace than my fastest 5K, but then I was running with a more experienced runner friend, and she helped push the pace. It is faster than I think I have been running on my training runs, especially the ones where I pushed Malcolm in his stroller. I am not certain about that though, because I don't have anything remotely capable of telling me my pace, not since I lost my only digital watch on a run back in late January.

It certainly helped that the course - two laps of a circuit around some of the eastern parts of downtown Little Rock - was a lot flatter than almost anything I ran during training. Any long run I do in Maumelle has at least a couple of really steep hills, not to mention the hill I walk up at the end of every run just to get home. I was super happy that I was never even tempted to start walking. The weather also helped; it was cool and gray, but not raining. Just about perfect running weather - a lot better than the first 5K I ran when it was at least 80 with 80% humidity at the start, and a lot better than the last 5K when it rained the entire time.

So, to recap - I ran a 10K, it didn't suck, and now I want to do it again! I think 10K is just about right for me at this point. I could probably do longer runs, but with Malcolm around and tennis as my main sport, my training time is somewhat limited. I can do a long run of 6 miles on the weekend without much trouble or disruption to the other adults in the house, and the weekday runs aren't so long that Malcolm gets bored riding along in his stroller.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Uh, about that Spring...

After a week of nice spring weather, winter reasserted itself. Sunday started cold and gray and rainy, and got colder as the day went on. By dinnertime, the rain had turned to freezing rain and sleet. All that white stuff is accumulated sleet, not snow.

The ice coats everything it touches, and is much, much harder to get off than snow, especially from your windshield and the roads. The main streets in town were treated, but all the side roads, including ours, were left alone. In front of our house, the street looks like an ice rink.

These poor miniature daffodils were just starting to bloom when the storm hit. Luckily for me, they were only the first little clump - the majority have yet to bloom. I am hopeful that the rest survived to bloom once it warms up.

Malcolm is not a fan of the ice (or snow, for that matter). His expression mirrors Benjamin's feeling on the matter as well, since he has had classes canceled 4 times now for bad weather. Lets just hope this is the last of winter and that we can get back to our regularly scheduled spring!

Friday, February 21, 2014


Soaking up the sun

Today is a complete contrast to my last post. The sun is out and it is warm. Not hot, not warm as in "it has been so cold that anything above freezing counts as warm," but genuinely springtime warm. Malcolm and I went to the park this morning to watch geese and play on the playground; this week I've been trimming the crepe myrtles, and the first seeds of the vegetable garden have been planted.

Last night before bed I was reading Aimless Love, the new collection of poetry by Billy Collins (one of my absolute favorite poets) when I rediscovered this poem, which completely captures my feelings about our spring weather:


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden sprouting tulips

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

(Also available online from Poetry Magazine)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Another icy day

Malcolm and I are sharing a slice of lemon sour cream pound cake, covered in Nutella, because that is the kind of day it is. Icy, rainy, and generally unpleasant; a good day for pound cake and sitting on the couch.


Now that I have started running regularly though, I feel a little twitchy at the thought of sitting around all day. Thank goodness the gym is open. I will have to go later and get in some time on a treadmill, just to feel like I have moved around (and burned off some of that Nutella).

Until then, I'm going to go cut another slice.

Edited: I can't believe this is another recipe I haven't shared yet. It is the Cooking Light Sour Cream Pound Cake from the April 2002 magazine. It is my go-to recipe for pot lucks. Try it. You will thank me.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pumpkin Muffins

I cannot believe that I have never posted this recipe here, since it is one of my favorites, but it doesn't show up in my search of the site.When I used to make these, Benjamin and I would hoard our portions, stretching them to last several days; now, there are four of us in the house (Benjamin, me, Malcolm, and Benjamin's mom), and a dozen muffins was reduced to two lone survivors by the end of the day.

From Gourmet November 2006
Adapted from the American Club
Makes 1 dozen
Active time: 15 min.
Start to finish: 1 hour

1.5 cups all-purpose flour (I used 1 cup white flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat)
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin (I used a little over 1 cup of baked, purreed pumpkin)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 tsp pumpkin-pie spice (a combo of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and allspice) (I used 3/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/4 or 1/8 of the rest)
1.25 cups plus 1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

Equipment: 12 foil or paper muffin liners; a muffin pan with 12 (1/2-cup) muffin cups

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350F. Put liners in muffin cups.

Whisk together flour and baking powder in a small bowl.

Whisk together pumpkin, oil, eggs, pumpkin-pie spice, 1.25 cups sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl until smooth, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.

Stir together cinnamon and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar in another bowl.

Divide batter among muffin cups (each should be about 3/4 full), then sprinkle tops with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake until puffed and golden brown and a wooden pick or skewer inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then transfer muffins from pan to rack and cool to warm or room temperature.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Running again

Over the holidays, as a form of motivation to keep me from overindulging,  I decided that I want to run a 10K this spring. It is also a bit of unfinished business - at some point while I was pregnant, I had promised myself that I would (a) get back to my pre-baby tennis form and (b) run a 10K. I have achieved the former, but that took all my energy for a while. Now that Malcolm is older, and I have more babysitting options, it is time to get running. The race I picked is scheduled for March 15th, so I have about 8 weeks left to train.

I'm almost two weeks in to my training plan, and while I am enjoying it, the more I run, the slower I feel! I'm trying not to worry about how long any of the distances take, and I'm running slower than I would on the treadmill so I don't get burnt out or hurt, but sometimes I wish I moved more like a racehorse than a chubby pony. Oh well - my goal isn't to win the race, after all, but to finish without walking (although I won't be too upset if I end up walking a bit).

A question for the runners out there: What do you do once the race is over? I mean, what sort of running routine do you have in ordinary time, as it were? I'm not sure how much running would be a good goal to maintain fitness and maybe work on gaining a little speed, without having a deadline to aim for. I'm not really interested in running any more races for now; mostly I want to use running to keep in good shape for tennis, although I am not ruling out a half in the future. If you have any thoughts, share them in the comments.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Birding with Malcolm

Brown Creeper
Back in December, we had an ice/sleet/snow storm that kept us all at home and inside for several days - it was far too slick to even walk in the backyard! To keep ourselves occupied, Malcolm and I spent a lot of time watching birds out of his window. I had recently relocated the bird feeder to the front yard, in part so that we could do precisely that (and partly to keep it away from the dog, who developed an unhealthy obsession with it, and would spend hours trying to keep all the birds out of his yard).

Cardinal, white chinned sparrows, and mourning doves
Because it was so icy, the feeder was the best place around to get food, and we had about 20 different species of birds show up over the 3 days. Malcolm was captivated by them, and spent 30 minutes or more at a time standing on his little chair, watching them.

Eventually I remembered that I have a telephoto lens for my camera and I started taking pictures of as many of the birds as I could. It is just a standard zoom, so I couldn't get as close as I would have liked, and I was shooting out of a (not entirely clean) window, but I still managed to get some good shots.

Carolina Wren

I am delighted that Malcolm is already interested in bird watching, since it is the favorite past time of his grandmother and great-grandparents, who used to travel all over the world to see birds. And I am happy because he is already developing a love for nature that experts warn is becoming rarer and rarer among children these days. Not that I was particularly worried about him, since Benjamin and I both love being outdoors and doing nature-related activities, and plan to take him hiking and camping as often as possible.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Since he is getting started early, I am sure Malcolm will be a better birder than I am by the time he is 5 or 6. He even started getting the hang of binoculars (when he wasn't putting them in his mouth).

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Now that the ice and snow are gone, it is a bit harder to spot birds, and they aren't coming in such numbers, but we still spend time every day looking out the window to see if there are any birds.

My favorite, the Tufted Titmouse

Friday, January 10, 2014

My time is not my own

One thing I would not have predicted missing quite so much after having a baby is being able to choose when I get up. I knew I would have to get up when the baby got up and so forth, but I think I had a naive idea in my head that babies slept 12 or 13 hours a night, and so if Malcolm went to bed at 7 PM, he would sleep until 7 or 8 AM and I could get up before him and have a little time to myself. Ha ha ha. Silly Hope.

Anyway, Malcolm currently sleeps about 10 hours a night, on a good night, which means he is getting up around 6 AM most days. (And this is, I might add, an enormous improvement over the summer, when he was getting up between 4:30 and 5 AM many days, even with a blackout curtain and extended cuddling). Since I rarely ever slept past 7 AM, even on weekends, and usually got up no later than 5:30 on weekdays, 6 AM is generally an OK time to get up. No, it isn't really sleeping in that I miss; it is being able to wake up on my own terms. Yes, I used to wake up with an alarm clock, but I controlled that alarm clock. I set the alarm myself before bed, and if, in the morning, I changed my mind and wanted to sleep in, I could turn it off. Or I could lie in bed and listen to the news for 5 minutes, or 15. (OK, now I am being a little selective in my memories, because in reality, I got up at least an hour before Benjamin most days, so I never actually let the radio just play. I usually hopped out of bed and either turned it off and got out of bed, or turned it off and went back to sleep. None of this lying there waking up slowly business). On weekends, I woke up when I woke up and got out of bed when I was good and ready.

Now, I wake up when Malcolm wakes up. I get up when he is ready to get up, be it 4 AM (as it was over Christmas when we were in Seattle, and two hours behind his internal clock), or 6:15, or 7. I never know when I will have to get up; I can't just hit snooze and go back to sleep. When he is ready to be up, he is ready, no stopping him. Someday, someday I will be able to get up when I want to. But by then I will probably be waking up at 4 AM myself.