Snow Day Cooking: Pasta with Lentils

Today it’s another snowy day, something that is unusual in my part of the world.   We get snow a bit in the winter, but I’ve never seen this much or had it last for this long.  I cook differently in cold weather than I do in the summer and today decided to make one of my favorite winter-weather recipes for lunch:  Pasta with lentils.  This is easy, fairly quick, and always warms me up. It’s also made out of ingredients that I pretty much always have on hand.

Here’s the recipe:

Pasta with Lentils 

1/3 cup lentils 

2 -1/3 cups water

3 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion (chopped)

2  carrots (diced- usually 1-1/2 to 2 cups worth)

1 tsp. Italian seasoning

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. black pepper

½ cup orzo pasta (measured dry, before cooking)

 

Bring water and lentils to a boil.  Cover and reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook for 15 minutes. 

While lentils are cooking, cut up onion and carrot.  Heat olive oil over medium heat and add onions.  Cook for a few minutes and add carrots, stirring occasionally (and actually, I usually start cooking the onions while I’m cutting up the carrots).  When lentils are done cooking, add them and all of the cooking water to the onions and carrots.  

Rinse out the lentil pan and fill with water to cook pasta. When water is boiling, add pasta, reduce heat a bit and cook for 10 minutes.

While waiting for the pasta water to boil, add Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper to lentil mixture.  Reduce heat to low while pasta is cooking. 

Drain pasta and add to lentil mixture.  Cook together for a couple of minutes.  This makes about 4 servings.  

I usually serve this with grated cheese, but it’s good without it, too.  It also reheats well.  This is one of my very favorite winter lunches.  

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Natural Pink Food Coloring for a Princess Cake

I’ve mentioned here before that our family does not eat foods containing artificial flavors or colors.  3 out of 4 people in our house feel better this way, and since one of them is me and the other two are my kids, that’s how the food gets made here.  Over several years of eating this way, I’ve learned a few tricks to make our food more fun for those times that call for that.  While no one really needs for food coloring  to be added to things like frosting, it’s definitely more interesting to have it available.  There are some natural food colors available now, but they are expensive, don’t have a long shelf life,  and even more importantly, they have to be ordered through the mail in my small town.  This  means that spontaneous food coloring can’t really happen.  Because of this, we’ve done lots of experimenting with making our own natural colors from ingredients we can easily find locally.  The easiest of these is making pink food dye from beets.

When I first heard about making my own dyes, the instructions I found for pink said simply to reduce beet juice. Now that makes sense, but at the time I had no idea how to do that.  For those new to this, here are instructions for exactly how I do that.  

First, I purchase canned beets.  Open the beets, dumping the pink water into a pan.  For this batch, I used 3 cans of beet juice water.  You can eat the beets, freeze them for later, or as I did with this batch, feed them to the chickens who love everything :).  Here’s a picture of my beet water, which was about 2 cups worth of liquid at this point:

Next bring this mixture to a boil.  I keep the temperature on medium-high until the juice has reduced quite a bit.  I then turn it down a bit and stir it to reduce the last little bit.  It will get all thick and syrup-y.  Here’s a picture at the end:

I put it into a jelly jar to keep- the original 2 cups of liquid reduced to about 3 Tablespoons of food coloring:

 

 

At this point, I keep it in the refrigerator if I’m using it soon or the freezer for longer storage.  

 

The batch I made yesterday was for a specific purpose.  My daughter was making a birthday cake for  a princess- themed  surprise party for a friend and wanted pink frosting.  My daughter tinted all of the frosting a pale pink for the main cake and then added a little more beet coloring to make the deeper pink accents.  Here is her finished cake, which I think turned out very well for a 14 year old- it’s certainly better than I can do :). 

Summer Squash Fritters

Since summer squash is plentiful in my part of the world right now, I thought I’d share a recipe I’ve been making a lot lately- actually for lunch 3 times so far this week :).

This recipe is inspired by the one in a favorite cookbook of mine this time of year, Simply in Season.  Here is the recipe mostly as published ( I’ll share my major variations at the end):

Vegetable Fritters

Place in a bowl:

3 cups shredded summer squash

1/3 cup minced onion or 2 cloves minced garlic

Mix together:

1/3 cup flour or whole wheat flour ( brown rice works, too)

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

2 eggs, beaten

Mix gently with squash mixture. Heat a pan over medium heat (I use a cast iron frying pan).  Add a bit of oil or your chosen fat ( I usually use a bit of unsalted butter.)  Drop by spoonfuls into frying pan- I flatten it a bit with my spoon to help it spread a little.  Cook until golden then turn over to cook the second side.

The first time I made these, I used a mix of green and yellow summer squash.  The next time, I experimented more and substituted some grated carrot for some of the squash.  Other times, I’ve also added some finely chopped cabbage.  It seems to work best if summer squash makes up at least 2/3 of the ingredients.  I love how colorful they look when I use both yellow and green squash and orange carrots.  Today I only had yellow squash and yellow carrots, so they aren’t as colorful, but they taste good either way:)  Also, I often use both onion and garlic.  I always use garlic, sometimes even doubling it if the cloves are small because I love garlic (and also usually press it instead of mincing it).  I also add whatever fresh herbs I have around- today’s batch had some chopped up fresh basil added that came in my CSA box this week.  I experimented with brown rice flour yesterday and used it again today as I like it a little better- my daughter says she can’t tell the difference, though.  Also, for lunch, I usually just make half of a batch (and just sort of guess that my 1/3 cup measure is filled more or less half-way full as I don’t feel like getting out the tablespoons and teaspoons to measure it exactly!).

These are also good with a little cheese sprinkled on them.  I know I’m going to be making this quite a few more times before squash season is over.

Cooking From My CSA Box

Each week, I pick up a box of a variety of fruits and vegetables from a wonderful local CSA, Welcome Table Farm .  I really enjoy it as there is always a variety of different fresh foods, including lots of stuff that I really like but never think to buy when I am in auto-pilot shopping mode.  I’ve also had the opportunity to try a few new things and my daughter learned that she adores fresh beets, something that I seldom even think of buying otherwise.

Last Friday, we were invited to a neighborhood barbecue/potluck for the 4th of July and I decided I wanted to try a new recipe using lots of foods from my most recent box.  I decide to try a recipe that had sounded good to me for a long time from a cookbook I really like, Simply in Season (and if you visit this site, you have the option of signing up to have a recipe from this book sent to you each week).  I decided I wanted to make the Veggie Bread Ring recipe.  Here’s a picture, followed by my version of the recipe (I changed a few things as I nearly always do for some reason!) :

Veggie Bread Ring:

4 cloves garlic (pressed)

2 cups assorted fresh vegetables,minced (I used broccoli, grated carrots, green onions, and yellow summer squash)

1 cup ricotta cheese

2 cups grated cheese (I used a mixture of cheddar, monterey jack and parmesan)

2-3 tablespoons fresh herbs (I used fresh dill)

1/2 teaspoon salt

A few shakes of black pepper

Mix well.

1/2 recipe Zucchini Yeast Rolls (recipe below- or  the recipe says you can use any whole wheat bread dough for one loaf)

Prepare dough according to directions through first rising. Punch down. On a lightly floured surface roll into an 18 x 24-inch rectangle. Cover with vegetable-cheese mixture, pressing down lightly. Roll dough into a long log, as for cinnamon buns. Bring ends of the log together and pinch shut. Transfer ring to a greased baking sheet. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, slice into ring at 1-inch  intervals, going about three-fourths of the way into the log. After making cuts all the way around, twist each piece slightly so the rolls fan out from center of the ring.

Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place 25 minutes. Bake in preheated oven at 350F for 25 minutes. Eat immediately or cool on wire rack and store in refrigerator.

Here is the recipe for the Zucchini Yeast Rolls (also changed slightly from the recipe in Simply in Season):

2-3 cups summer squash, shredded (I used both green and yellow)

1 cup milk

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons oil (I used olive oil, but may try melted butter next time)

2 tsp. salt

Combine above ingredients in a saucepan and heat slowly until warm.

Mix together in large mixing bowl:

1 cup bread flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 Tablespoons active dry yeast

Add liquid ingredients and beat well until smooth.

Stir in additional flour- from 1-3/4 to 2-1/2 cups (I needed a bit more, I think due to using the higher amount of very juicy summer squash) to make a soft dough.  Knead for 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic (I used my kitchenaid  mixer for this part, and kneaded for about 6 minutes).

Place dough in greased bowl (turn to grease both sides), cover with a damp cloth and let rise until double (which only took about 40 minutes in my warm kitchen).

At this point divide dough in half and proceed to make veggie ring with one part and rolls with the other part.  I made a pan of 16 rolls with the remaining half.   Let rise again(covered) for 25 minutes, as in instructions for Veggie Ring.   Bake both rolls and veggie ring for about 25 minutes, until golden brown.

Here’s a picture of the finished rolls:

This is a great way to use  zucchini and other summer squash, which I’ll be making again.  And- every speck of both the rolls and the veggie bread ring were eaten at the picnic, with lots of requests for the recipes.

Helping With Children’s Theatre

My daughter has been part of a local summer children’s theatre program for the past 6 years.  The program is directed by a good friend of mine, and my daughter loves it.  I love being involved, too.  I always sew a few costumes, help the kids tie-dye cast shirts (hot pink this year!), help with the kids backstage, help sell treats at intermission or do whatever may be needed at a particular time.  I love getting to know the kids and the other parents.  Everyone is tired by the end, but it’s a great experience.  The last performance was yesterday, so it’s the usual day after filled with mixed emotions here- happy for a rest, but sad that the experience is over.

This year’s show was a fairy tale set in the 1950’s with lots of fun costumes and music.  My daughter and her friend were cast as UPS drivers, and the original costume plan was to just borrow some clothes from the local UPS office.  My daughter decided that she wanted to have a fun swishy 50’s skirt, so she proposed that we create a 50’s version UPS costume.  The director was fine with that idea, so we went with it.  Here is the result (the photos are a little dark and fuzzy, but give the idea, anyway!):

My daughter is the one on the left in both pictures.

After yesterday’s final performance, there was a cast party/potluck.  If there is an event of any sort, my daughter likes to make and decorate a cake.  She had very little time to make these cakes, so they weren’t as elaborate as her original vision.  I think they turned out very cute, though. They are both decorated with chocolate fudge frosting and sundrops candies.

Here’s the juke box cake, made from a 9 x13 cake with half of a round cake added to one end:

And here is the record cake, made out of the extra round cake:

Turkey Cake

One of the kids in my daughter’s youth group goes by the nickname of “Turkey Joe.”  I have no idea why- his name  is not even Joe, but this is what everyone calls him.  His birthday was yesterday, and my daughter was challenged to make him a turkey-themed birthday cake.  She and I brainstormed a bit and came up with this:

It was apparently a hit at the party. Turkey Joe said Anna is “the most awesome person ever” for making him a turkey cake.
The details:

It’s just a regular homemade 2 layer cake, frosted with chocolate frosting.  The feathers are Pepperidge Farms Milano cookies, accented with Sunspire Sundrops.  The eyes, beak and legs are made from Florida’s Naturals strawberry fruit nuggets (some of which were conveniently oddly shaped for making the beak!). “Joe” is written in more sundrops.

Thoughts on Eco-Crafting, Cooking, and Family Magazines

The latest issue of Family Fun magazine came in the mail today.  It’s a magazine I’ve subscribed to for years, long after I quit reading most parenting and family type magazines.  I’ve loved that there is a place that still seemed to embrace making old-fashioned crafts, things like construction paper valentines and make-your-own family birthday cakes, and pull-it-together Halloween costumes.  In a time when so many things must be “professional” and slick and over-processed, I appreciate ideas for activities for kids that could have been used by me in Girls Scouts 35 years ago just as easily as by my own children and young friends today. 

Still, today as I was reading, while I found a few good ideas, I realized that I’ve really changed in recent months.  I found myself reacting to many ideas in the magazine more than I was tucking them away to share with kids in my life. 

In the last year or so, I’ve done lots of reading and changing and trying to figure out how to live more lightly on the planet.  I’ve been trying to recycle and reuse as much as I can.  I buy locally from small businesses as much as possible. I buy used books.  I eat locally as much as I can, and try to stick to fresh foods that are in season.  I avoid as much plastic as I can. I use cloth bags for grocery shopping.  I know that I probably still use more than my share of the earth’s resources, but I’m trying to change and be more thoughtful in my choices.  Also, our family stopped eating foods with artificial colors and flavors several years ago for health reasons.

So, today, as I quickly glanced through the magazine, the first thing that caught my eye was the healthy heart shaped Valentine snacks- cut out of pieces of watermelon.  Rather than how cute and healthy it was, I wondered how many thousands of miles that watermelon had to travel to get to a supermarket this time of year.  Since watermelon is a very heavy fruit, I’m betting it took quite a bit of fuel to get it to a supermarket near me, and after all of that travel, the nutrient value is probably diminished, too.  And really, it probably wouldn’t even taste good, as every out-of-season-watermelon-wedge on a restaurant plate I’ve ever tasted has had less than stellar flavor.  No thank you, I’ll keep eating the delicious watermelons in summer that grow just down the road from me.  Surely, there is some other healthy snack available with less negative environmental impact.

Then, I saw the how-to-make-a-coiled basket page.  I thought it was a good idea, but thought it would have been a great place to mention how cut up old t-shirts or other cast off clothing would work great for fabric.  If I really wanted something not already in my house, I know there are tons of cool patterns to be found in the clothing at my favorite local humane society thrift store.  I could have a fun outing with my kids, choosing our “fabric,” help care for local animals with the money we spend, and be recycling some articles of clothing.  There could possibly be a few tips about cutting up recycled clothing into strips to use for this sort of project. I’ve also been thinking that old jeans might be able to be cut into strips to use as the coiling rope- or maybe some cut up t-shirt strips that are braided together.  Something to try very soon- then my cut-up- a-t-shirt instructions could be used for something more than knitting!

Then there were the Styrofoam animals.  Yes, they are cute, but there is no way I could bring myself to purchase Styrofoam any more.  I don’t have any quick alternatives at the moment, but I’m vaguely remembering a sheep my daughter made at some long ago event made from recycled cardboard, some yarn and sticks.  I’m sure if I really wanted to make some cute little creatures, I could come up with something recycled or at least more eco-friendly than all of that Styrofoam. 

And then, there was a little section about food myths.  I didn’t read them all, but I did read the one about sugar.  They said that studies showed that sugar was not the culprit in hyperactivity at things like birthday parties.  They mentioned that it was probably mostly the excitement.  However, the recent double-blind study reported in The Lancet showed that especially in young children, it wasn’t the sugar in the birthday cake, but there WAS another culprit there- the artificial flavors and colors.  Those things were shown to truly affect kids, causing hyperactivity even in kids that weren’t diagnosed as hyperactive.  I really wished they’d added THAT part of the study.  It would be really cool to see an article talking about some of the natural colors that are available, and how to make some of them easily at home on your own.  One of the easiest- concentrated beet juice- would have been great in a Valentine issue as it can color frosting anything from soft to an amazingly shocking pink. 

The orange-wedge-filled-with-gelatin feature brought a similar reaction.  The recipe could have talked about making your own gelatin out of the juice of the oranges, possibly some other fruit juices and unflavored gelatin powder. It would be nice to at least have a mention of an alternative to the store-version gelatin that was suggested, which is full of artificial flavors and colors.  I’d even be fine with a little sugar in the recipe, and maybe a mention that if  a brighter color was desired, that there is a brand of natural food coloring that is a lovely orange that comes from the plant, annatto.    

I dream of an issue full of all-natural birthday cakes and recycled crafts.  Maybe something made from the shiny silver found inside granola bar wrapping (I admit that I buy these more often than I make them :) ). Possibly a craft involving making your own paper out of old junk mail- that you could then use to make those hand-made valentines I love.  And then maybe a reminder to start collecting your onion skins now, to have a good amount for coloring Easter eggs in a couple of months. 

I’m not going to hold my breath that I will see this sometime soon on a newsstand near me.  However, maybe a few of these alternative ideas will soon appear in my blog. I guess I’m still thankful for the inspiration of this magazine- even if it’s not quite in the way that they expected to inspire me :). 

All Natural Peanut Butter Reindeer Cookies

My daughter had a party to attend today and decided that she wanted to bring Reindeer cookies.  These are a favorite at our house and have been for several years, ever since the first year that I found the recipe in an ad in a magazine.  Over the years, I’ve made a couple of simple changes to the recipe to make them all natural.  Here’s my version:

Ingredients:

1/2 cup softened butter

3/4 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1-1/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

3/4 tsp. baking soda

Mini pretzel twists

Pink and brown Sunspire Sundrops

Preheat oven to 375.  Beat together butter, peanut butter, sugar and egg.  Stir in flour, baking powder and baking soda.  Divide dough into 24 balls.  Then divide each of those balls into two balls, one that’s a little larger than the other.  Place the larger ball on top of the smaller one on a cookie sheet like this:

Now press the balls and flatten them slightly like this:

Next, press pretzel twists into the dough to make antlers like this:

Now, bake cookies for 10-12 minutes.  Pull them out of the oven, and immediately press sundrops into the still- soft cookies to make the eyes and nose, as seen in the top picture.  Allow cookies to cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet before carefully removing them to a wire rack to finish cooling.  If you use M&M’s for the eyes and nose, you can press them in before baking, but pressing them in after works better for me with the Sundrops.

Both of my kids love these and they are always a hit when we bring them to a party!

Whole Wheat Homemade Better Than Pumpkin Pie Cake

Last week, I saw a recipe being shared around the internet for Better Than Pumpkin Pie Cake.  It sounded interesting to me, but because of one of the ingredients was a spice cake mix and because we have family allergies to many ingredients in traditional cake mixes, I knew I’d have to either find an ultra-expensive “natural” cake mix or figure out a way to make it from scratch. 

I didn’t have time to experiment before Thanksgiving, but today, I came up with my own version.  I decided to take the dry ingredients of a basic cake recipe we use frequently, changing the flour to all whole wheat pastry flour, which I thought would add something to this recipe. I have a grain mill, so used fresh ground soft white wheat berries for this. I’m pretty sure that regular all-purpose flour would also work here if that’s what you prefer or what you have on hand.  I’m all for using what’s already on hand :).  I also used the spices listed in another recipe I have for a spice cake to make my own version of spice cake mix.  I used the rest of the recipe I’ve seen circling around the internet as written.  In my recipe, where “sugar” is mentioned, I used Wholesome Sweeteners Evaporated Cane Juice.  For the brown sugar, I used Wholesome Sweeteners Dark Brown Sugar.  I may experiment with using a bit less sugar on a future baking day, but didn’t want to change too many things the first time I tried this. 

Here’s my version:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt one stick of butter.

While that’s melting, mix together:

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

1 cup brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

½ tsp. allspice

½ tsp. ginger

Reserve one cup of this mixture.

To remaining cake mix mixture, stir in melted butter and one egg.   This will be very thick.  Pat this into a greased 9 X 13 inch pan- I used my hands. 

In the mixer bowl (I just used the same one), mix together:

1- 29 oz. can pumpkin

1- 5 oz. can evaporated milk (and a note- if you find you only have a 12 oz. can, like I did, you can use ½ cup plus 2 TBSP to get this amount)

3 eggs

1/2 cup brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Pour this mixture over the first layer in the pan.

Now make the topping:

Mix together:

Reserved dry cake mix

½ cup sugar

½ cup nuts if desired (I didn’t use these as I didn’t have any, but I think they would be good)

Cut in:

½ cup softened butter

Sprinkle this over the top of pumpkin mixture.  Bake for 50-55 minutes.  Cool for 30 minutes. 

We thought it was good warm, but even better after it had been refrigerated.  A successful experiment!

In Memory of Grandma Letha

My Grandma Letha was a special woman that I did not get to know well until she was in her 70’s. She was my grandfather’s 3rd wife. My grandfather had been widowed twice before. Letha had previously been married to my grandfather’s brother, and I met her a couple of times as a young child. She lived very far away, though, so even though at that point she was my great aunt, I didn’t really know her at all.

That all changed when after several years of being alone after the deaths of their loved ones, love blossomed for Letha and my grandfather and they decided to marry. At that point they moved to the town where my parents lived and also where I lived, newly married with a young child. I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know Letha at that time. I have many wonderful memories of her. She was an oil painter and I loved looking at her paintings and hearing her talk about them. She was wonderful about sharing recipes with me when my husband or I would comment that we liked them, written on recipe cards in her neat handwriting. She also always had treats for my young son. She kept a glass pig up on top of a cabinet filled with small candies that my son liked, that he came to call “pig candy.”

Soon after their move to our town, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. I helped with some of the care that he needed, and we all grew closer to Letha during those very regular visits to their home. Her marriage to my grandfather was to be a short one as the cancer took him too soon. We continued our regular visits with Letha until she decided to move to her daughter’s town in a far away state. I only saw her one time after that, at a family reunion. At that time, her memory was beginning to fail and she no longer remembered me.

I heard the news that she died yesterday. I am so glad for the time I had to get to know the beautiful woman that she was, and to have some wonderful memories of her. My son was just two at the time she moved away, but I asked him today (he’s now 17) and he still remembers pig candy:).

I pulled out one of her handwritten recipe cards today.

RecipeRecipe

 

Just looking at her handwriting brings back many memories for me of those short years that I now treasure. I’m rejoicing today that her mind and her body are whole once again and she is now reunited with those she loved that died before her.

I decided to make one of her recipes today in her honor, the one pictured in the card above. Here are the ingredients and method exactly as she wrote them:

 

In large bowl dissolve 1 pkg yeast and ½ cup sugar in 1 cup water.

Add:

3 T. melted oleo

1 t. salt

½ cup dry milk

1 cup pumpkin

1-1/2 t. cinnamon

¾ t. cloves

¾ t. nutmeg

¾ t. ginger

Beat well to blend, then add 4 cups flour to make a stiff dough. Knead until smooth (15-20 minutes) adding flour as needed. Cover and let rise until doubled, 1-1/2 to 2 hours). Punch down and knead briefly to release air. Divide dough into 32 equal pieces. Shape each into smooth balls. Place balls in greased baking pans. Cover and let rise until almost doubled ( about 1 hour). Bake in 375 degree oven for 25 minutes or until browned.

Here is my variation:

 

Replace oleo with butter. Melt in a small pan. Add 1 cup milk to pan and heat just until lukewarm (takes less than a minute). Pour into mixer bowl (I have a heavy duty Kitchenaid). Sprinkle on yeast. Add sugar, 2 cups flour, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and pumpkin (dry milk is omitted). Mix until smooth and then add remaining 2 cups flour. (For two cups of the flour, I used fresh ground soft white whole wheat- basically whole wheat pastry flour.) Add a bit more flour as needed to make a smooth, not sticky dough. I needed to add an additional half cup of flour, but this varies depending upon humidity and other mysterious kitchen forces :).

 

Let rise as directed. Form all of it into rolls, or as I did today, divide dough in half. Roll out half into a rectangle for cinnamon rolls. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle on brown sugar and cinnamon (sorry- no amounts- I just do what looks right to me). Roll up and cut into slices. Form other half into 16 rolls as in original recipe. Allow all rolls to rise and bake as in original recipe. Cinnamon rolls can be frosted with a mixture of powdered sugar and a bit of milk that is drizzled on while still hot. And a note- the clove taste is pretty strong, so reduce it if you are not a big fan of cloves.

We will be eating these tonight in honor and memory of my Grandma Letha.

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