From One Pot Meal to Four Course Dinner

I am over a week behind on my post. For the Dark Days Challenge, we were to make a one-pot meal. I planned a soup for our meal. However, after the week we had with our mountains of laundry, I felt the need for some order. On my trip to the store, I got to thinking about how to mentally overcome the chaos in our house. Our soup suddenly became a four course meal, complete with candles and china. It must be noted that it was a Saturday, so we had more time than usual. I proposed my idea to the boys when I got home, and they seemed open to the idea. While I started cooking, I had the boys help set the table. They set the table with my Great-Grandma’s china and glass goblets. I have recently come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if a plate gets broken. What’s the use of having the dishes if we don’t use them?

Fancy dinner with the boys in regular Saturday clothes.

Our first course was locally made cheese and Honeycrisp apples from Wisconsin. I suggested we should dress up for our fancy dinner, but my idea was ignored. The boys sat down and quickly went through some cheese, apples and crackers (not local). The most exciting part about this course was that the boys got to drink sparkling pear juice in “fancy glasses”. As soon as they had their fill, they asked to be excused and went off to play.

The second course was a salad with spinach, lettuce, Honeycrisp apples and a homemade vinaigrette. Between courses, the boys discovered our costume stash. This was our Superhero course. We ate with Superman, a Knight, and Spiderman. It was awesome. The greens game from my recent local food find. I started a winter CSA share from Rock Spring Farm in Iowa. Technically, it is 153 miles from me, but the extra 3 miles seems like a reasonable exception.

Course three was the soup I had originally planned as our one-pot meal. It was Beet and Braised Beef Soup, with some substitutions. I used the turtle beans from a previous week instead of lima beans, and omitted the scallions and celery root. I could have gotten local celery root, but it wasn’t available at the store that day. The soup was tasty, but the beef wasn’t quite as tender as I’d like, due to me rushing the soup. It was getting late and we’d been dragging out dinner long enough. The leftovers were even better.

Our last course was a total cheat on the local food front. I gave myself permission on this one because it was the day before my birthday and when I saw the dessert at the store, I had to have it. The store cleverly displayed shortbread, marscapone and blueberries together and it looked delicious. With the marscapone, I added some milk, lemon zest, lemon juice and a bit of sugar. Yum! My husband also served me one for breakfast in bed on my birthday with a cup of coffee. Best birthday breakfast ever!

So was the four course meal worth the time and effort? In my opinion, yes. My boys thought the special meal was fun (especially the costume changes), and because it was a drawn out meal, it was more time spent together without any screen time interrupting our conversation. We’ll try to do it more often, but don’t know that I have the energy to do it on a weekly or monthly basis. Maybe once a season. Best of all, my Great-Grandma’s dishes and goblets survived the experience and I can feel good about using them.

 

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Menu Planning

I have a confession to make. I ate fast food last week. Not once, not twice, but three times!  It’s been a tough week for our family. On Sunday, we discovered lice in Son #1’s hair. On Tuesday, Son #2 had a fever that lasted four days. On Thursday, Son #1 got the stomach flu. On Saturday, Son #2 threw up on four sets of sheets in two hours. I have never done so much laundry in my life. We still haven’t caught up.

All these “bugs” were annoying to say the least, but not having my meals planned made it even worse. In the middle of all the laundry, I couldn’t stop to figure out a healthy meal. It cost our family money and a whole lot more calories. Over the years, I’ve developed a habit of planning our meals. When I slip and don’t plan, I feel lost. I usually plan three or four meals per week. I used to plan five, but found that we often threw out food because something always comes up and I can’t make that fifth meal. If I need to cook another meal, I will pull something from the freezer and/or pantry ingredients, or we will eat leftovers.

I go to different sources for my meal planning, but I’m realizing that cooking locally requires me to think backwards. Instead of finding the recipes and shopping for the ingredients, I’m searching for recipes that work with my ingredients. This happens more naturally in the summer with ingredients I’m accustomed to. Winter has been tougher, but I’m feeling more comfortable each week.

Sauteed vegetables, minus a full turnip.

Mixed root vegetables, from Harmony Valley Farm.

While shopping at my co-op, I found a bag of mixed local root vegetables and a recipe for soup on the back. My particular bag had carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery root and rutabagas. While I was chopping, Son #3, the 2-year old, was curious about what I was doing. He asked what the purple vegetable was. I told him it was a turnip, and he said “I love turnips!” I gave him some to eat and he proceeded to tell me “Hooray for turnips! I like licking turnips. Mommy, do you like turnips?” I couldn’t help laughing, because honestly, who loves turnips that much? He was so thrilled about it, I swear he could have talked the most reluctant eater into trying one. He ate all the pieces I gave him and I even had to fish some out of the pot so he could have more.

The soup turned out delicious but was not received well by the boys. While Son #3 loved raw turnips, he wasn’t a fan of them in pureed form. Son #2, my broth lover, thought it was okay. Son #1 barely touched it. This is where my second confession comes in. I had some chicken sausage and crescent rolls that didn’t get cooked up for our New Year’s Eve party and I made “pigs in a blanket” for the boys on the side. They weren’t local, but I had them on hand and needed to use them.

Golden Potage

  • 1 small onion chopped
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bag soup mix, chopped in 1 inch pieces
  • 6 cups stock (I used the chicken stock I made recently)
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half

Saute onions in oil. Add chopped roots and garlic, sautee for 10 minutes. Add stock and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Puree until smooth. Whisk in half-and-half and return to simmer until heated thoroughly.

 

Golden Potage Soup

After my terrible week of sickness and bad food, I’m realizing that meal planning needs to be placed higher on my priority list. Not everyone loves perusing recipes as much as I do, but there are great tools for people who want their meals planned for them. My favorite is Saving Dinner. I started using it back in 2004 or so. The recipes are wonderful, interesting and family friendly. The grocery lists, recipes and suggested sides are easy to use and save time and money. I love it so much, I’ve started working for Saving Dinner Fundraising. Yes, this is a bit of a plug, but I absolutely believe in the company and the fundraiser is fantastic for organizations because they earn 50% of the sales and families benefit by eating healthier and having more time to eat together as a family. Let me know if your organization wants an easy, healthy and profitable fundraiser. I’d love to help!

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What is Kid Food?

In the last few weeks, I’ve been pondering the same question. What is kid food, anyway? Several of my friends comment about our adventurous eaters and I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Why do my boys eat like they do? My answer to that is I don’t make “kid food”. Or at least what others consider kid food. I like trying new recipes and I vary the flavors all the time. My boys have been exposed to a lot of different types of food and they are used to trying new things.

It also got me thinking about why our society separates kid food from adult food all the time. Children in Japan eat what they are exposed to and most likely eat a lot of fish, rice, and vegetables, depending on where they live. Would they look at a chicken nugget and find it appetizing? Probably not. Our society somehow has taught children that they should only like peanut butter, chicken nuggets and french fries. I’ve stopped going to certain restaurants because their kids menu contains only “kid food” and won’t let us buy a half order for our son who prefers to eat from the regular menu. Someday I’ll make a list of the restaurants that I consider kid friendly for our family.

So am I judging your family if your children only eat “kid food”? Absolutely not! We have our battles at home on a daily basis. Son #2 is our toughest child to feed. He spent three full years complaining about not being able to bring peanut butter for lunch to Montessori School. Literally, he never gave up after three years. We had some awful struggles finding things he’d agree to eat because of his fixation. Feeding kids is hard and I don’t think there is one answer. Here are some things that help:

1) Make a rule that your child must TRY the food you serve. Emphasize that they are not required to like it, just required to taste it. We all have our own tastes and I don’t like being told what I should like either.

2) Have your children help make the food. I’m convinced that Son #2 loves risotto only because he knows how to make it. He’s proud of his accomplishment.

3) Grow your own food, even if it is just one pot of herbs or tomatoes. We started small with our garden and it gets bigger every year. When kids know where food comes from, they are more willing to try it.

4) Check out The Family Dinner website, which is based off the book by Laurie David. I’m reading the book now and like her suggestions.

 

All this “preaching” brings me to my latest Dark Days Challenge, which was a total failure in my boys’ eyes. Son#1 reluctantly tried it, and Sons #2 and #3 wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Yes, I know I just said it is a rule to try everything, but I give you permission to make an exception. Especially after a holiday week when you are exhausted and ready for school to begin again. I found black turtle beans from Whole Grain Milling and was excited to find locally grown carrots. I was able to use my chicken stock for this recipe, and my only exceptions were the spices. My co-op had local Pepper Jack cheese that I added to the recipe. By the way, it was delicious and I had plenty of leftovers for lunch.

BLACK TURTLE BEAN SOUP
Saute:
1/2 lb. bacon
1 1/2 c. chopped onion
1 1/2 c. carrots
1 tbsp.minced garlic
1 tsp. bay leaves or 1 whole bay leaf
1 tsp. dry thyme
3 tbsp. ground cumin (Saute only 1 tbsp. now. Save 2 tbsp. for later.)
1/2 tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
6 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
Pepper Jack cheese, shredded
Saute first four ingredients and add spices. Add water and chicken stock, bring to a boil, and simmer for 2 to 3 hours, until beans are tender. For a thicker consistency, blend part of the beans with an immersion blender and return to soup. Top bowls of soup with cheese, if desired.

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Memories

Merry Christmas from all of us!

Week 4 of the Dark Days Challenge came during the week of Christmas. All week long, I kept reminiscing about the food I grew up eating for Christmas and how important traditions are. Each time I thought about the food, I immediately thought about the people I ate with and who made it.

I am very fortunate to have had both my grandmothers growing up (and both still living). Each grandmother has different memories tied to them. With my dad’s mom, I think of how each Christmas with her, I politely ate Lutefisk for her. I never really enjoyed it, but I did it because I knew it was important to her. I fondly remember the potato sausage, rice pudding, swedish meatballs and lefse we ate along with it. Outside of the Christmas season, I can’t eat a cherry without thinking of my Grandma P.

We had to travel 14 hours to see my mom’s mom each year. My memories of her food is mostly tied to the variety of food. She made sure to make everyone’s favorite. I think it was her way of showing her love for us. She made “Steve’s Casserole” and “Brett’s cookies” and bought a separate cereal for each of us. My all-time favorite was a chicken and broccoli casserole with curry. The smell of curry reminds me of my Grandma J.

This year, I realized that my kids are already developing their own food memories. They couldn’t wait to go to Grandma P’s house for brunch on Christmas Eve for bacon and sausage. They gorged on Grandma R’s Chex Mix and spritz cookies. They call one Grandma the “cake Grandma” and the other one is the “cookie Grandma”. Many years to come, they will remember this food and the love that came with it.

We started our own tradition two years ago, by accident. A lot of people do egg bakes or cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, but I decided that crepes sounded good. My mom and cousin and I went to Paris en route to Africa in 1996, and we had crepes with Nutella and bananas while on a walk from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe (which is another story). They were easier to make than I thought, and we’ve done them every year since. Since I only make them once a year, they’ve become our Christmas Crepes. Son #1 tells me I make the best crepes in the world. I love the compliment, but his experience is pretty limited. On Christmas morning, we let the kids open Santa gifts, take a break to make and eat the crepes, and then go back to open family gifts. This year, Son #2 helped me make the whipped cream and the older boys cut the bananas for the inside of the crepes.

This year's crepes with the addition of raspberries and blackberries.

For our local meal, I used leftovers from Week 3. What I love about roasting a whole chicken is how many meals I can get out of one chicken. I heated up the creamed chicken and corn, added a bit of milk to thin it a bit, and added some Sno Pac frozen peas. The corn meal mix made a perfect crust to make a chicken pot pie, so I buttered a casserole dish, poured in the chicken mixture and put the corn meal mix on top.

Chicken Pot Pie made from leftovers

The previous night I had made stock from the carcass of the roasted chicken. I had a couple of carrots left from our CSA to use that were very large and perfect for stock. There were some herbs already in the carcass and I just added some peppercorns, salt a couple of bay leaves, some garlic, a halved onion (with skin) and added water. After bringing it to a boil, it simmered a couple of hours. After cooling, I strained it and froze about 8 cups of chicken stock that I’ll be able to use in future local meals.

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Week 3: Adapting Recipes

It’s all about flexibility. We are in Week 3 of the Dark Days Challenge , and I’m feeling more comfortable as the weeks go by. I’m learning more about available local food and am getting better about searching for recipes. Finding ingredients may not be as convenient as heading to the nearest grocery store, but I’m enjoying the challenge at this point. I’m learning to combine errands and pick up things as I find them. I’ve had to change the way I menu plan for this meal, as I’ve realized I can’t plan the meal before I head to the store because I can’t guarantee that the ingredient will be available.

This week, we had lunch downtown for my husband’s birthday at our favorite sushi restaurant. Our 2-year old devoured over half of our edamame and ate a whole order of gyoza, then insisted he try some “shushi”. I love seeing my boys receptive to trying food. This is the same son that requested broccoli for a snack this week, and sadly I had to tell him we were out. As we drove to the restaurant, I spotted a specialty grocery store I’d been wanting to try, Local D’Lish. After lunch, we stopped by and I found some local black beans, some pasta, and a whole chicken. I meant to make something with the black beans and the chicken, but I couldn’t find that perfect meal without using lime, cilantro, or some other non-local food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That led me to Epicurious, where I found a recipe for Creamed Chicken with Corn and Bacon over Polenta. I remembered seeing cornmeal and thought this would be the perfect recipe. However, when I got to the store, they only had corncake/waffle mix that was local. I considered “cheating” with organic polenta, but decided to try the mix. While I was roasting the chicken (first adaptation), I decided to do a trial run to see if the corncake mix would pass as polenta. The texture didn’t come out right and it just didn’t taste right. Thankfully, my neighbor stopped by and while I was explaining my dilemma, I realized that I could make corn cakes instead of polenta. The recipe turned out to be almost an upside down pot pie and it was delicious! All my boys loved it and Son #2 kept talking about the “bun”. Sometimes flexibility leads to an improvement – I don’t know that my boys would have loved the polenta as much as the corncakes.

New this week was Sno Pac frozen corn in place of fresh corn, some hydroponic tomatoes (which were on the small side, but locally grown), and the corncake mix from Whole Grain Milling from Welcome, MN, which is just over 150 miles from my house. The best part? I have leftovers and plan to make a pot pie tomorrow by adding some Sno Pac frozen peas and baking the corncake mix on top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One other noteworthy part of my roasted chicken was my herbs. We’ve had an unusually mild winter so far. When I came home from the grocery store, I noticed some green in my abandoned herb pots outside. I was able to pick a bit of oregano and thyme to place in the chicken cavity. I was so excited to be able to use them just a week before Christmas! With that, I’ll wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and hope you are all as blessed as we have been this year. 

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Meat and potatoes in Minnesota

It is Week Two of the Dark Days Challenge. I decided to make meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It is getting cold up here in Minnesota, and I feel like eating comfort food more often. This week’s challenge made me reflect on generations before mine. In the past, I’ve joked about how grandparents seem to only know how to make meat and potatoes.  Where are the fresh veggies? Where are the spices? Where is the variety? The answer is simple, but I just never took the time to think about it. My grandparents were doing what they knew. They were eating local food. Only it wasn’t called local food, it was just food.

In Minnesota, local food means a lot of meat, dairy and root vegetables. That is, unless you’ve thought ahead and preserved food from the summer. I don’t have a great stash this year. My tomato sauce is almost gone and I really didn’t preserve much else. The first reason is that I’m still learning how to preserve. The second reason is that I had my fourth son on July 25th, and preserving food just wasn’t at the top of my list. Survival was more a priority. Now that Son #4 is four months, things are going more smoothly and I’m already dreaming of what I will can and freeze for next year.

Roasted tomatoes from my freezer.

I made my meatloaf with local ground pork and beef, eggs, and onions. I looked through a recipe, which I loosely followed and realized that ketchup was an ingredient.  How would I find local ketchup in the next hour? Then I remembered my roasted tomatoes that were in the freezer. I added some water and used my handheld blender.  Ta-da! Ketchup! Except this was fancy ketchup with rosemary, garlic and whatever other spices I threw on the baking sheet when I roasted them.  My exceptions were dried basil, garlic powder, salt, pepper and the breadcrumbs.  Although the bread was baked locally, I realized I can’t guarantee that all the ingredients are local. I’ll have to research that for another week. I decided to put the remaining roasted tomatoes on top of the meatloaf.  They turned out to be my favorite part of the meal.

My ketchup solution

For the mashed potatoes, I used locally grown russets, some cream, butter from Hope Creamery, some roasted garlic, and my exceptions were salt and pepper. The meal turned out to be a hit with my boys. No complaining during a meal means it is a success. A compliment means I’ve really outdone myself. This time, it was a “no complaint” meal.  I enjoyed the meal, but I really missed having some vegetables like steamed broccoli or green beans. I need to figure out a way to get some variety in my meals.

A final note on the meatloaf.  I make meatloaf straight on the baking sheet because I like the crust on the whole meatloaf, not just the top. The meatloaf was about the largest I’ve ever seen. Some days I feel I was destined to have four boys. I can’t seem to make anything in small quantities. Think how prepared I’ll be when we enter the teenage years.

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The final product. I'm researching new camera options so the food looks better. I'd love suggestions.

Ingredients for the mashed potatoes

Meatloaf ready for the oven.

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The Dark Days have begun

It’s official. I am listed as a blogger participating in the Dark Days Challenge . I can’t decide if I’m more excited or nervous about it. The Dark Days Challenge involves cooking one meal each week using all local ingredients.  Local is normally defined as 100 miles, but 150 is allowed for winter.  I’m finding that living in Minnesota may mean I have to stretch that to up to 180 miles some weeks, but I’ll do my best.

I consider myself a rookie in both the blog writing and cooking local. I started my blog last March on a whim, just to see what it was like. In the past eight months it has been fun to write about what I cook, how my boys react, and a way to keep track of what we are up to. I’m a terrible mom in terms of baby books. I take a million photos, but I forget to write any details. I used to have a terrific memory, but four boys has zapped that out of me. I can track our lives through our meals and look back on how the boys are growing and changing. It’s been said a million times, but it all goes so quickly, and you don’t fully understand it until you are a parent.

As for the local food part, my journey has been gradual and each season I learn more. My first exposure came through shopping at the Farmer’s Market in my city. We lived six blocks from the market and it became our Saturday morning outing when Son #1 was a baby. We would shop at the market, play at the park and head home. It was casual and not intentional. About five years ago, I first starting hearing about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.  I signed up for my first share four years ago, and although I liked it, I wasn’t very happy with the produce.  The next winter, after a lot of research, I chose a new farm and we’ve stuck with Hog’s Back Farm ever since.  If you are in the Twin Cities area and are looking for a CSA, check out Hog’s Back Farm.  They are wonderful!  Three years ago, I grew my first official garden (I had tried with little success at our previous house). Each year, I grow more and more.  This past year, I coordinated a community garden at our church, Bethany Covenant Church, and my sons’ Montessori school, Augsburg Park Montessori School.  The garden is called Bethany Gardens. It was a pretty successful inaugural season. It is a communal garden and we donated almost 300 pounds of food to our community and to local food shelves. This summer I also began buying meat from a local farm called Hilltop Pastures and I’ve had a hard time buying meat from a grocery store ever since. Most of my experience with local cooking has been strictly seasonal and I’ve found it easy to make meals with local food in the summer when produce is plentiful. I’ve never tried this in the winter and know it will truly be a challenge for me. I’m excited for the challenge and know I’ll learn a lot.  So, here it goes…

For the first week, I went straight to my nearest co-op because I wasn’t sure what to expect at this time of year. Meat and dairy will be a piece of cake. Veggies and fruit? I’m going to have to get creative. I decided for my first meal, I had to go with something familiar and was able to find all the ingredients for Pasta Carbonara, a family favorite.  It is Son #1’s most requested meal.  I was able to find locally made pasta, which was the one ingredient I wasn’t sure about until I saw the fettuccine that I often buy at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market.  The eggs, bacon, cream, parmesan, and garlic were easy bets for local items. I started feeling like I needed to branch out a bit and include some veggies.  Local veggies in Minnesota this time of year are most commonly root vegetables. I found some squash and some apples and searched for recipes while in the store (thanks to my Epicurious app).  I normally wouldn’t pair carbonara with squash, but I figured it was my first try, so I had to start somewhere.  The carbonara was delicious, but my boys did not eat well. The squash was barely touched by them. Son #1, my most adventurous eater has a long history of disliking any kind of squash. He once vomited at the table after eating it. I still make him taste one bite each time I make it, but this will be a battle for years to come.

I didn’t use a recipe for my carbonara. It is once of those things I just make, and it’s never quite the same, but always great. I do think the Cedar Summit Farm cream made it extra good this time around.  The squash recipe can be found at Epicurious, but I made substitutions. I did use curry as my spice exception. The recipe calls for apple juice and currants.  I left out the currants and instead of apple juice, I used local honey and some water and let that reduce.  The result was great (but don’t ask my boys about it).

Pasta Carbonara with Apple Filled Curried Squash

 

There it is. My first week. I’m feeling enthusiastic at this point, and promise to keep my future posts shorter. We’ll see what the next four months bring.

Cedar Summit Farm cream and local garlic

 

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