Christmas gifts

Merry Christmas to All

I'll keep this brief, since I imagine most of your online time will be spent shopping, at this point! Retailers will hate me for saying it, but wouldn't it be lovely if Christmas were more like Thanksgiving? Just food and family and decorations, and no presents???

Notwithstanding my Grinchiness, I did receive this lovely offering from a neighbor who has since moved:

That would be my very own rosemary plant, since I'd always had permission to clip her rosemary and mint and basil when she lived next door. (And, in all honesty, I had continued to sneak over and furtively snip more sprigs even after she moved out because the new neighbor has not yet moved in.)

My latest guilty foray had been for the double batch of Rosemary-Cayenne Cashews I toasted up for my husband's team at work.

If you still have to come up with some little gifts and are tiring of sweets, try this last-minute recipe.

Rosemary-Cayenne Cashews (courtesy of S. H.)
1 lb roasted, unsalted cashews
2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, depending on how spicy you like it
2 tsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp salt (reduce if using salted cashews!)
1 Tbsp melted butter

Preheat oven to 350F.

Spread cashews out on a sheet pan. Toast until warm, about five minutes.

In a large bowl, combine spices and melted butter. Toss with warm cashews.

Cool completely and serve or package.

I personally love rosemary, so I would even go for a little more than 2 Tbsp for fellow rosemary fans.

Merry Christmas to all and best wishes for a good holiday season. In the New Year I hope to post my experiments with recipes from this new cookbook I've received:


But, of course, that will probably have to wait until after we've gotten through Sugar-Free January...

Gifts and Stocking Stuffers for the Practical Foodie

I had to throw in that bit about practical foodies because I consider myself one. Which means I've stopped buying weird, esoteric, one-recipe ingredients, and I don't want any single-purpose kitchenware that takes up space, much as I have occasionally yearned for a tortilla press. I've tossed cookbooks from which I only liked a couple recipes. I feel guilt if I take home restaurant leftovers in a Styrofoam container that I know can't be recycled. You get the idea.

So without further ado, here are some gift ideas for practical foodies in your life:

1. Yogurt starter. All those probiotics do wonders for the gut and general health and weight, but who needs the added sugars and all those plastic containers?

New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. pic!

I've successfully made very tasty homemade yogurt with these starter packets, Organic Valley whole milk, some powdered dry milk, and a quart thermos. See this post for details. It wasn't too difficult and, apart from a candy thermometer, required no fancy appliance or special equipment. When the yogurt is done, you spoon some out, swirl in fresh fruit or good jam, and you're off to the races!

2. Produce bags. I've bought the mesh, reusable kind at Whole Foods and Fred Meyer and much prefer the brand carried at Fred Meyer. Who needs more plastic bags at home, even if they can be rinsed, gathered with other plastic bags, and recycled? Much easier just to use your own. They're washable, too, if you're a germaphobe.

3. Homemade healthy food. Because we all get enough cookies and sweet quick breads at Christmas. So how about granola or a homemade soup or chili kit? How about homemade salsa or a loaf of sliced and freezer-ready artisan bread?

This one isn't sliced, but you get the idea

4. A foodie book. My favorite food-related book of the year for 2015 was Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect, which I wrote about here. Even our livestock eat processed, synthetically-flavored food now! See if reading this book won't turn you into a label-reader...

5. Genuine flavoring. Beware--once you smell and taste Penzey's Almond Extract, you can never go back. Just water, alcohol, and almond oil. This is the secret ingredient to our sugar cookie icing and our spritz cookies. It's also good for just taking deep, deep whiffs of, to send yourself into a swoon worthy of the Victorian era.

6. The present of your presence. Most recently I read a memoir called Black Man in a White Coat, about a black doctor and his experiences with colleagues, patients, race and class prejudice (including his own biases!), and his meditations on whether medicine can really help those who don't want to do what it takes to get well. This got me to thinking about exercise, which is about as close as I usually get to actually exercising because--well, yuck. But I'd also read and enjoyed this book about the lifelong benefits of human connection and community:

so I had the brilliant idea of combining the two. Exercise AND face-to-face contact. How about scheduling some one-on-one walks with that friend or family member you're always trying to connect with? Or give a gift certificate to a dance class you can take together, just for laughs. A friend offers these classes, and I'm thinking this would be so fun to do as couples or with a bunch of girlfriends.

Happy run-up-to-the-holidays to all!

Christmas Ideas 2014

We've been going Amish this Christmas. Not out of any life philosophy, but rather due to the fact that everything technological in the house (and a thing or two biological) is breaking down. The microwave is out of commission. The toaster oven is only toasting the back end of whatever you insert. Even Manifold Destiny is out because the Subaru is leaking an awful gas smell (after having been "repaired" of the issue last week).

Remember this? A brilliant idea only a guy could come up with

Nevertheless, it's my annual Christmas gift post, and, thank heaven, the regular oven still works. Check out these puppies:

Those would be "Megan's Sugar Cookies," which I posted about here. I tend to get stuck in gift ruts, so the neighbors will find a few sugar cookies on their annual plates.

And a friend came by yesterday bearing a gift. I was empty-handed, but fortunately I was also in the process of making granola, and she went away with a baggie-ful. This was the granola I traditionally give out to some of my husband's co-workers, and which I posted here.

NOT how yesterday's was presented, but you get the idea

If you're into no-bake this Christmas, give my "Payraise Bars" a try. In fact--SPOILER ALERT--this is what my husband's co-workers are getting this year instead of the usual granola, and you can find the recipe here.

And finally, if you'd rather they did some of the cooking, you can always give them a new cookbook and get a concrete date on the calendar for a potluck dinner. I'm still plugging this cookbook because I use it at least once a week:

Imagine how often I'd use it if I actually were vegetarian!

The kale salad new to this edition is pretty tasty! And you still can't beat her pico de gallo, butternut squash souffle, tomato tart, and stir-fried vegetables with fermented black beans. I know everyone gets their recipes online nowadays, including me many times, but I still go back to a handful of cookbooks, and it's a lot less alarming if I spill/splatter/drip on them, rather than my laptop.

Merry Christmas (or Christmas-Alternative) to all. I'll be taking Christmas Eve off, but then I'll come roaring back with the usual get-your-food-life-in-gear New Year's post!

Christmas Food Gifts 2013

Pics are shot by fools like me, but only God can make a frosty tree

 This year my husband complained that we were giving his co-workers granola "again." As if anyone could ever have too much granola! If you haven't yet overtaxed everyone's granola tolerance, link to past granola recipe posts here and here. As I reminded him, the one time I skipped the granola, a recipient wailed, "No granola this year?"

Fear not. Under the general rubric of do-unto-others, I am giving out granola again, this time with some freeze-dried blueberries added as the fruit.

If you won't eat it, I will

The piano teacher is getting our plate of homemade Christmas cookies and my husband's fudge:

At Christmas all my UrbanFarmJunkie ways are in abeyance, as I wrap things in cellophane and add gel paste food coloring to icing. The trick to the sugar cookies is to use almond extract instead of vanilla in the frosting. So much better!

I've tried a few sugar cookie recipes and now use only Megan's recipe:

Megan's Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 Tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
4 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and milk and vanilla. Mix well. Sift dry ingredients together and mix into butter mixture until combined. Refrigerate dough 1 hour. (I usually divide the dough into four portions, so I can roll out one portion at a time without all the dough getting warm.) Roll out a portion to 1/4" thick. Cut out cookies. Bake at 350F 10 minutes and cool on racks.

If you don't have time to frost that day, just freeze the baked cookies until convenient (don't freeze the unbaked dough--I found it caused the cookies to spread when baking). I then make an icing of 2 cups powdered sugar, 1/4-1/2 tsp almond extract and a Tbsp or two of milk. For colored icing, I add a dab of gel paste food coloring.

I saw on Twitter yesterday that 30% of Americans try to avoid gluten. If you still have friends and family in the 70%, and they're trying to avoid sugar instead, why not give them a loaf of your homemade artisan bread? I've posted my attempts here.

No time or equipment to become a wannabe artisan baker? Then go for ye olde quick bread favorite: banana bread. This one goes out to our swim carpool buddies. In case you don't already have a favorite recipe, here's my variation on an old Cooking Light one (i.e., with the fat added back in):

Banana Bread

2 large or 3 small very ripe bananas
1/2 cup sugar (scant)
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1/2 stick butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
2 cups flour (okay to substitute up to 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup chopped pecans or 1/8 cup flaxseeds, optional (meaning, my kids don't want them)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a standard loaf pan. With a mixer, combine bananas through eggs. Sift dry ingredients together and then stir into banana mixture until just blended. Transfer batter to pan.

Bake 1 hour and 5 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on wire rack. Then remove from pan and cool completely on rack.

***Word to the wise: don't try to wrap or store it when it's still warm. It'll get soggy. You can pre-slice this bread and freeze it, so folks can eat it a slice at a time, though when I mentioned this to the carpool buddies, they looked sheepish and said they ate the whole thing at one sitting.***

There's a banana bread in there somewhere

Happy holidays to all! I won't be posting on Christmas Day, but look for me the week after because I just read a fascinating book on food safety. Plus, it'll be time to think of our New Year's Food Resolutions for 2014!

Homemade Food Christmas Gifts

Homemade custard pie, baby!

Does the world really need another post on this? "Need" might be putting it strongly, but as someone who loves to give and receive food, I fall into the you-can-never-have-enough camp. Not to mention, after reading so many books on the evils of processed food, I'm convinced that nothing shows the love like the real, homemade deal. Homemade food gifts say, "Not only do I love you enough to bust my behind in the kitchen (because who does that, nowadays, except for professional food bloggers and authors?), but I also refuse to contribute to the chemicals, pesticides, additives, and emulsifiers circulating in your system." I suppose giving homemade sweets still contributes to the future potential onset of diabetes, but--heck--you can't have everything.

This year I convinced my side of the family to exchange "electronic or edible" gifts among the adults, mostly because I looked around the house and thought we could not handle another truckload of stuff. We're giving gift cards and ebooks and and DS games on the electronic side, and I've already received a box of Harry & David pears coddled in their individual nests, ripening bit by bit. For my parents (who do not read my blogs) I located a bakery in Niles, California, which does a Pie-of-the-Month club! The first Wednesday of the month in 2013 will hereafter be Pie Day, when they go pick up a fresh-baked, locally-sourced, seasonal pie. How I wish there were such a thing around here, since apparently, according to a Wall Street Journal article, "self-gifting" is in. Big time. Just move that Amazon Wish List straight to your own shopping cart.

But I digress.

Last year I passed on a recipe for homemade granola. I'm planning on whipping up another batch this go-round, and incorporating it in a new recipe, courtesy of Creamy and Crunchy, a history of peanut butter which I'm nearly done with and will likely review here next week. Creamy and Crunchy in turn credits The Great American Peanut Butter Book (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985).

Granola Goodness Mix

2/3 cup creamy peanut butter
2/3 cup honey (hope you still have lots from the Market!)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
4 cups granola
1 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped dates
1/4 cup chopped figs
1 cup peanuts

Preheat oven to 300F. Combine peanut butter, honey, and cinnamon in a saucepan and heat until mixture is smooth and creamy. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and granola.

Spoon mixture into a greased 9x13" pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn oven off. Mix in remaining ingredients. Let stand in unlit oven for about 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally until dry.

Store in a covered container. (Yields about 8 cups of mix)

For those of you who would prefer not to give something sugary, here are two recipes that you could can the old-fashioned way in sterilized jars or, more casually, freeze it for them. Or, bookmark these recipes and self-gift them! I no longer buy these items in stores.

Quick, No-Cook Pizza Sauce

15 ozs tomato sauce (large can)
6 ozs tomato paste (small can)
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1-1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp sugar

Mix together and you're done!

(Compare to the ingredients in Ragu's Pizza Quick sauce:

INGREDIENTS: TOMATO PUREE (WATER, TOMATO PASTE), SOYBEAN OIL, SALT, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, DRIED ONIONS, SPICES, SUGAR, NATURAL FLAVOR.)

Homemade Enchilada Sauce (courtesy of About.com)

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 cups water
8 ozs tomato paste (small can)
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp salt

Heat the oil, flour and chili powder together in a large pot. Allow to cook for a minute or two. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a slow simmer. Stir well to combine and dissolve tomato paste in water. Allow to cook for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more spices as desired.

(Compare to the ingredients in Pace Enchilada Sauce:

WATER, CRUSHED TOMATOES (WATER, CONCENTRATED CRUSHED TOMATOES), MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, CHILI POWDER (CHILI PEPPER, CUMIN, OREGANO, DEHYDRATED GARLIC), VEGETABLE OIL (CORN, COTTONSEED AND/OR CANOLA), SALT, ONION POWDER, DEHYDRATED GARLIC, SPICE, CITRIC ACID AND SODIUM BENZOATE (PRESERVATIVE).)

Enchiladas are a fabulous way to use up leftovers from the fridge: meat, beans, cheese, vegetables. I just mix the leftover item(s) with some shredded cheese and salsa and roll them up!

So skip the mall, if you can, and give one of these a go. And check back before Christmas. I won a fabulous almond shortbread cake at auction and intend to research and reproduce it...

The Gift of Granola

The finished product!

My kids are processed breakfast cereal freaks. I knew I shouldn't have taken that leap from baby oatmeal to "finger food" Cheerios because my kids never went back. They now physically gag if I serve oatmeal. Breakfast cereals may be convenient, but they're also often made of who-knows-what (see my post on adulterated honey) and cost an arm and a leg. The current household favorite: Heritage Bites from Nature's Path. Yes, it's de-li-cious and organic and high in fiber, but I only ever buy it on sale because it comes in diminutive boxes meant to keep the price under, say, the cost of repairing your roof or giving your dog a few rounds of chemo.

Thank heavens for homemade granola. Crunchy like processed cereals but with ingredients I can control and a price I can stomach. Granola also doubles as a great food gift for Christmas or hostesses. Nobody doesn't like it, and it's easy to make gluten-free or nut-free or dairy-free versions for your more allergic acquaintances. I've pointed you toward Deborah Madison's recipe before, the typical one made in our house, but this Christmas I've laid hold of Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day cookbook and have decided to give out a version "inspired by"combining her recipe with Deborah Madison's. Meaning, I'll try the coconut, walnut, currant combo she suggests but substitute local honey for the more distant, more expensive maple syrup and oil for the butter.

To wit:
2011 Christmas Granola

6 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup wheat germ
1 cup shredded coconut
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1/2 cup oil
3/4 cup honey
grated zest of two oranges (optional)

Toss all together and spread over two rimmed cookie sheets. Bake at 300F for about 30-35 minutes, rotating the pans between the upper and lower rack every 10-12 minutes. Let cool. Add 1 cup currants and toss. Store in an airtight container or divvy up and give out as gifts!

Compare the homemade recipe to that of Quaker Oats Granola:

Ingredients

WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS, WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED WHEAT, BROWN SUGAR, RAISINS, BROWN CRISP RICE (WHOLE GRAIN BROWN RICE, SUGAR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, SALT), CORN FLAKES (CORN, SUGAR, SALT, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, CORN SYRUP), INULIN, PUFFED RICE, WHEY, GLYCERIN, CANOLA OIL, ALMONDS, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, HONEY, DRIED COCONUT, SALT, NATURAL FLAVOR, SUNFLOWER OIL, CINNAMON, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL MIXED TOCOPHEROLS (ADDED TO PRESERVE FRESHNESS).

Hmm...(1) Corn flakes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't these a much cheaper cereal that I haven't bought in decades? Not to mention, I'm pretty anti- agroindustrial corn, since it's just about always genetically modified and low in nutritional value. (2) Inulin. A sweetish, fiber-y carb filler/stretcher. (3) Glycerin. Sweetener, filler, thickening agent. (4) Natural flavor. Uh-huh. (5) Soy lecithin. An emulsifier that keeps ingredients from separating. (6) Natural mixed tocopherols. Preservatives. But at least some people take them as supplements.

Not so bad, really, for a processed food. But I guarantee you, if you make/give your own granola, it won't be around long enough to require preservatives!

Five Christmas Gifts for Your Food-Lover

It works for her! (Photo: Good Housekeeping)

And, really, who isn't a food lover? There are the occasional oh-so-superior people who don't like sweets (!!), but these, thankfully, are few and far between, as natural selection keeps them to a minimum. (Who could date--much less marry and have children with--a person who, after dinner, carelessly passed on dessert or chocolate when you yourself were dying for some?)

Food-related gifts can't be beat at Christmas for so many reasons, including:

  1. They don't junk up the house and end up in a Goodwill bag a few years down the line.
  2. They don't break.
  3. They are frequently shared with the recipient's family, if not with the very giver.
  4. They can reap benefits for all involved in cases like restaurant gift certificates, cookbooks, or actual food (see #3).

Therefore, if you were thinking of reaching for another tie, pair of slippers, Barnes & Noble gift card, or what-have-you, consider these suggestions instead.

(1) A meal at a new restaurant. Forget the big chains--we had some great chefs visit the Bellevue Farmers Market over the past few years, and in the Market off-season we can still sample their tasty food locally. A partial list:

    • Cantinetta Bellevue for Tuscan-inspired Italian food incorporating Pacific NW ingredients.
    • Seastar or John Howie Steak. Most likely you've eaten at one of John Howie's restaurants already, but who ever objects to a repeat visit?
    • Bradley Dickenson's stylish Pearl. Fresh seafood, steaks, NW ingredients, and local vegetables.
    • And the venerable Bis on Main for French/Italian/Delicious.
    • If gift certificates aren't your thing, consider a scavenger hunt with clues ending at the restaurant, or even a "kidnapping" on a certain date. Design something related to these to put under the tree.

(2) Food itself. I've got Market-made jam, peanut brittle, salmon, and honey waiting to be handed over as-is or incorporated in homemade food gifts. Many of the vendors featured at the Bellevue Farmers Market can be found at other local farmers markets (use the locator link from my previous post) or in specialty stores. Get creative! How about a Local-Food-of-the-Month Club? Doesn't have to be big. Just some seasonal produce or cheese or beef jerky or whatever. Something to look forward to.

(3) How about a cooking class? Talk about a gift that keeps on giving. And if you've read Kathleen Flinn's THE KITCHEN-COUNTER COOKING SCHOOL, which I reviewed here, you know something as simple as learning to use a knife properly can change someone's life. Flinn offers a link to video cooking classes, which I haven't checked out, but plenty of local places offer a Knife Skills class.

(4) A cookbook. Yes, I cook using online recipes frequently, but it's not my favorite. I don't want to print the recipes out (waste of paper) or write them out (too lazy), so I end up bringing my laptop into the kitchen, a habit that will one day end in disaster. I still love a good cookbook. If your friend has too many cookbooks already, consider a homemade album of your absolute favorites? I bought mini photo albums one year and typed up ten of my go-to recipes for the bread machine. My mom still uses hers!

(5) A book about food. I've mentioned many on this blog, and many have hit the bestseller list. They do tend to get political, given the state of food in America, so keep that in mind. Some past ideas:

    • Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. A memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Depression. Talk about self-sufficiency! Sad how much food Iowa must import now because it's all gone the way of corn and soybeans.
    • The Kitchen-Counter Cooking School (see above).
    • Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. More a book about how her autism gave her a better understanding of animals. Grandin has worked in the livestock-processing industry and her experiences are moving and eye-opening.

Hope this helps. Feel free to recommend other books or food-gift ideas in the comments!