More Produce Coupons – Free Carrots!

Organic produce company Earthbound Farm has more coupons again. This one is only available today. Just go to their website and sign up. You’ll then be able to print today’s coupon, which is listed as 75 cents off “Dippin Doubles,” a line of pre-cut produce. But once you print it, you’ll see that it’s actually good on any Earthbound Farm product. My grocery store sells 1 pound of their carrots for $1.49, and they double coupons, meaning I’ll get them for free this way. And remember, you can print the coupon twice!

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New House Things…

Maybe my bread-baking skills finally paid off, because we finally received an offer on our house and are hoping to close within the next several weeks.

In preparation for the move to our new home, I’ve been looking at Pinterest and various design blogs. One of them is Once Upon a Tea Time, which features design and lifestyle posts. They are having a contest to win an Anthropologie gift card, and as one of my entries, I’m blogging about the contest here. I have my eye on an apron and some cute colorful bowls, so I’m really hoping to win.

And hopefully soon, I can look forward to some better blog videos, as the new kitchen layout will make it much easier to film. But in the meantime, I will still be doing a few more videos in my current house.

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Homemade Frozen Pizza

I realize that with this recipe I’m straying into “semi-homemade” territory by using a store-bought flatbread (nan) as the crust. I’m not about to abandon my philosophy of scratch cooking to become the next Sandra Lee, but there is a method to my madness. I consider this a “stepping stone” recipe, as it uses more homemade ingredients than a microwave pizza from the supermarket, but is still convenient for people who are pressed for time or feel that they aren’t ready to bake their own bread yet. Although it may not seem like it, I do realize that 100% scratch cooking isn’t realistic for most people.

I do sometimes make my own pizza crust, but I still have this recipe in my repertoire. The reason is that I can keep almost all the necessary ingredients in my freezer (even the sauce, as you’ll see), and if I need dinner in a pinch, those ingredients can come out of the freezer and become a hot pizza literally 10 minutes later. Sure, it’s longer than the time it takes to microwave a store-bought pizza, but 10 minutes isn’t bad at all.

This recipe was inspired by a recipe for “Naan Pizza” in the book Forever Summer (aka Nigella Fresh) by Nigella Lawson. When I first tried her recipe several years ago, I was surprised to see that the sauce was nothing more than tomato puree. At that point, I hadn’t considered using anything other than the cans labeled “pizza sauce” at the store. The idea of just using tomatoes, and adding your own seasonings, was completely new to me, but I discovered that it was cheaper and tasted just as good. Ever since then, I have used this same sauce recipe for other pizzas too.

Because the nan flatbread is just the right size for a pizza-for-one, it works great for casual entertaining. Once we had a group of friends over for dinner and a movie, and I used this recipe. I put out the nan, tomato puree, assorted shredded cheeses and other toppings, and let everyone assemble their own pizza, which I then baked in the oven. Everyone enjoyed it.

The recipe follows the video below.

Freezer Pizza
(Adapted from “Naan Pizza” in the book Forever Summer, now retitled Nigella Fresh
Serves 1

1 nan (or naan), an Indian flatbread
3 tbsp tomato puree (frozen into cubes)
1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) fontina cheese, shredded
pepperoni or other desired toppings
1/4 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp basil

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
2. Thaw the tomato puree cubes in the microwave, heating for 15-second intervals and stirring.
3. Mix the tomato puree in a small bowl with the oregano and basil.
4. Spread the tomato puree mixture over the naan, then top with cheese and other toppings.
5. Put in the oven on a pan for 5-7 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.

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Making Tortilla Bowls

If you watched my video on making Tortilla Quiche for a weekend lunch, you saw me recommend a fluted baking pan that can be used to turn a flour tortilla into an edible bowl. I also mentioned that you can get a similar result by using an oven-safe mug, or a muffin tin.

Now there’s another option. Productivity blog Lifehacker recently posted an article showing how you can make these tortilla bowls by using your muffin tin upside-down. If you are following the Tortilla Quiche recipe, you may want to try baking the tortilla by itself for a few minutes first, just to make sure it holds its shape once you add the egg mixture.

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Valentine’s Dinner Recap

As you’ve previously read (if you follow this blog), I planned a restaurant-style Valentine’s Day dinner, to save money since we are having a new house built. I posted the recipe and video for the bread I made for dinner, and kept meaning to post a recap of how the whole meal went. Unfortunately, real life kept getting in the way for a while, so I’m just now getting around to the recap, 2 weeks later.

Going back to the list I previously posted, of features I wanted to include in the dinner, here’s how it turned out:

Background Music: Remembering that many of the fancy restaurants we’ve been to have played old standards or jazz, I made a playlist to provide our dinner music. It was mostly instrumental, with a few romantic standards thrown in:

Artist Song Album
Dave Brubeck Quartet Take Five Time Out
Frank Sinatra Fly Me to the Moon It Might as Well be Swing
Quincy Jones Se E Tarde Me Pardoa Big Band Bossa Nova
Frank Sinatra The Way You Look Tonight The Reprise Collection
Vince Guaraldi Trio Generique Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus
Michael Buble For Once in My Life Michael Buble
Dave Brubeck Quartet Three to Get Ready Time Out
Bobby Darin More Ultra Lounge 5: Wild, Cool, & Swingin’
Quincy Jones Serenata Big Band Bossa Nova
Nat King Cole L.O.V.E. Ultra Lounge 5: Wild, Coll & Swingin’
Vince Guaraldi Trio Samba De Orpheus Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus
Dave Brubeck Quartet Everybody’s Jumpin’ Time Out
Quincy Jones Chega de Saudade Big Band Bossa Nova
Vince Guaraldi Trio Looking for a Boy A Flower is a Lovesome Thing
Dave Brubeck Quartet Pick Up Sticks Time Out
Vince Guaraldi Trio The Lady’s In Love With You Vince Guaraldi Trio
Vince Guaraldi Trio Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise A Flower is a Lovesome Thing

Cost: $0, since I already owned all of the music.

Romantic Lighting: As previously mentioned, I used these tea light holders. They did cost money when I originally bought them, but since I already owned them and didn’t buy them specifically for this dinner, I won’t count the cost. Of course, just about any kind of candles would work here.
Cost: $0

Wine: Since I needed some red wine to make sauce for the dinner, I bought a bottle of reasonably-priced Cabernet Sauvignon for us to drink.
Cost: $15, a big savings considering we sometimes order 2 glasses each, at a cost of $7 or more.

Crusty Bread: Demonstrated in my previous post. It turned out great, just like the bread we get in a restaurant. And I was able to make it ahead, then let it cool while I prepared the main course.
Cost: $.86

Filet Mignon and a vegetable: I admit that for this particular dinner, I focused more on the meat than on the vegetable. For most of the year, I do try to put as much effort into making a nice vegetable dish (or two) as I do with the meat. But since we don’t eat a lot of red meat in general, and this was a special occasion, I kept it similar to our previous Valentine’s day dinners. I went with steamed carrots because they were simple, and focused mainly on the meat dish: bacon-wrapped filet mignon and red wine sauce, two recipes from Cook’s Illustrated. First I made the sauce and put it aside. Then I browned the meat, wrapped the bacon around it (using a broken spaghetti noodle because I couldn’t find the toothpicks), and then let them finish in the oven while we started on the bread and wine. While it wasn’t quite as scrumptious as the same dish served at Daniel’s Restaurant in Hamburg, NY, it did turn out very good.
Cost: $18, which is still a big savings considering some restaurants charge up to $35 per person for a dish like this.

A Decadent Chocolate Dessert: I know that molten chocolate cakes are so cliche now, but it’s still something we both like. I followed the recipe exactly, including the idea to make it ahead and keep in the fridge until you are almost ready to eat them (since they only take 12 minutes to bake). So I put them in the oven when we were partly finished with the meat and vegetables. However, after turning them over and realizing they were a bit underdone (even for a molten cake) I realized I should have added a minute or two to the baking time, since they were coming out of the fridge. Still, they tasted great and are definitely something I will make again.
Cost: $3

Total Cost of Dinner: $36.86, a savings of about 70%, considering a comparable restaurant dinner can run $125 or more. All in all, the meal was a success, and possibly the beginning of a new tradition for us.

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Bread that’s so easy, there’s “no knead” to fear it!

Please forgive the bad pun in the title. But truly, this is an easy loaf of bread, and even if you’ve never baked bread before, I encourage you to try it. Basically all you do is mix the ingredients and then leave the dough alone – with a few intermediate steps like folding the dough once and preheating the oven. The no-knead technique first got widespread attention in a New York Times article in 2006 by Mark Bittman, reporting on a technique by Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery.

When I started planning our Valentine’s Day dinner, I knew that I wanted a chewy, crusty bread, like the kind we get in a restaurant while we’re waiting for the main course. And that’s exactly the type of bread that results from this no-knead recipe. (Unfortunately, this technique is not good for a soft sandwich loaf – that’s another recipe for another time.)

Only 4 ingredients are used: flour, water, salt and instant yeast. You can easily find the last ingredient in individual packets in the baking aisle of the grocery store…

Instant Yeast Packets

…or if you do a lot of baking, you may want to buy a large container and keep the yeast in your freezer (like I do).

Instant Yeast, 1 lb bulk

Since this is instant yeast instead of active dry yeast there is no need to mix it separately with water and let it “bloom.” Rather, all the ingredients are mixed together in one fell swoop. Easy peasy! (Read more about the differences in these types of yeast here.)

While editing my video, I realized that at about 15 minutes, it may seem like a lot of work, especially when compared to this short video by Bittman and Lahey showing you the same thing. But in my defense, I break down each step, including a technique for measuring flour. The Bittman/Lahey video breezes through several steps, not showing a second rise and a few other things listed in the recipe.

So, while the recipe didn’t involve much work on my part, it did involve a lot of time. Here was my timeline:
Monday 9:00pm – make dough; cover to let rise
Tuesday 3:00pm – fold dough over to deflate; let rest 15 minutes
Tuesday 3:15pm – shape dough into ball; cover with cloth to let rise again
Tuesday 4:45pm – preheat oven & pot
Tuesday 5:15pm – place dough into pot; cover
Tuesday 5:45pm – remove lid, bake bread for 15 more minutes
Tuesday 6:00pm – remove bread from oven, let cool slightly
Tuesday 6:15pm – Enjoy!

Yes, there were a lot of steps, but they were all tiny ones! Most of the time involves letting the dough do the work – not me. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get all these steps in if you work outside the home full-time. I scheduled a doctor appointment that day, since I would be taking a day off work for it, and then could use the afternoon to get things started for dinner. Obviously that’s not something I can do all the time. However, I could have easily done all these steps a day earlier, and had the bread ready on Monday evening (after getting home from work). So it’s certainly not impossible to do this on a weekday. Or if you are planning to make this for a party and are home on the weekend, it’s very easy to do it then.

Below the video are two versions of the recipe: The New York Times one that I followed, and the just slightly different version on the Sullivan Street Bakery’s website. You’ll also find links to 2 supplementary videos: Bittman/Lahey’s version of a video demonstration of this recipe, as well as a video from King Arthur Flour demonstrating the same flour-measuring technique that I showed.

The big oops!

While making this dough I made what turned out to be a major goof. I clearly did not sprinkle enough flour on the cotton towel before letting the dough have its second rise. You can see me struggle to get the dough off the towel when it was time to put in the pot, although I cut it a bit short with video editing. I considered redoing the video but I didn’t because 1) I’m lazy and 2) I figured, why not show an actual mistake? Some people may be hesitant to bake bread because they are worried about making mistakes, so this way I can show that it happens to everyone. The bread turned out a little smaller than it would have otherwise, but it still tasted fine, and since there were only 2 of us eating, we had plenty left over. So take the plunge and give bread-baking a try. And make sure to use plenty of flour when preparing for the second rise!

No-Knead Bread
Makes a 1 1/2 pound loaf

New York Times, November 8, 2006: Recipe: No-Knead Bread
Sullivan Street Bakery: Baking the Perfect Loaf of Bread at Home
New York Times video: No-Knead Bread
King Arthur Flour video: Measuring Flour

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A “Restaurant” Valentine’s Day Dinner at Home

Ever since we have been together, Dave and I have always gone out to a fancy restaurant for dinner on Valentine’s Day – one of the few occasions where we splurge when dining out. We always enjoy it, but it is definitely expensive. We usually each get wine, often order steak for a main course, and always have dessert. On many occasions, the bill has been over $125.

Since we are having a new house built and will move sometime in spring, we have been trying to save money wherever possible. So I decided that I would plan a “restaurant” dinner at home, by taking all the aspects we like about fancy dining, and try to recreate them. Some of the features I’m trying to incorporate are:

  • pleasant background music
  • romantic lighting
  • wine
  • crusty bread to enjoy with the wine before the main course
  • a steak main course with a side vegetable
  • a decadent chocolate dessert

For background music, I’m going to create an mp3 playlist. I could simply pick out a bunch of love songs, but generally when we eat out, the restaurants aren’t specifically playing romantic music. Rather, we often hear old standards (think Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin) or instrumental jazz. I’m thinking of picking out some older jazz by Vince Guaraldi or Dave Brubeck.

To achieve romantic lighting, I’ll just dim the lights a bit, and use some candles. Several years ago I bought these tea light holders but haven’t had many occasions to use them. Now is a great occasion!

I plan to get a fairly inexpensive wine – probably around $10 or $15. That will still be a bargain, considering we sometimes order 2 glasses each, at a cost of $7 or $8 each.

The crusty bread will be homemade. My first attempt at baking bread last year was at a class where we learned how to make “no-knead” bread, made famous in a New York Times article in 2006. This technique is super easy, and results in a crusty, chewy loaf of bread, just the thing for dipping in olive oil or spreading with warm butter while you enjoy a glass of wine. And best of all, the dough is made the night before, so all I have to do before dinner time is pop it in the oven.

The steak main course will be my attempt at recreating a dish from our favorite restaurant, Daniel’s in Hamburg, NY. The first time we went there, we had bacon-wrapped filet mignon in red wine sauce, and we have gone back twice, getting the same dish each time. I found two recipes from Cook’s Illustrated (one for the steak, another for the sauce) that I’m hoping will be almost as good. I think the side vegetable will be steamed carrots, because they don’t involve a lot of work, and might go well with a bit of the red wine sauce.

Since we are both chocoholics, one of our favorite desserts is chocolate lava cake (aka molten chocolate cake). Several years ago I took a cooking class where we made this dessert, using a recipe from Dave Lieberman. The recipe states that the batter can be mixed up ahead of time, so when you’re ready for dessert, all you have to do is bake them for 12 minutes, and serve immediately.

So, that’s the plan. The fact that the bread & dessert will be mostly made ahead should help things go smoothly. I will try to make a video for at least part of the preparation, possibly no-knead bread since it’s so easy, and may encourage some people who have never tried bread-baking before. Wish me luck!

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I Knew Bread-Baking Would Come In Handy!

We are currently trying to sell our house. Our agent planned an open house today, but Dave and I were fairly skeptical, since this isn’t prime house-buying season. Still, we spent this morning cleaning, dusting and vacuuming. And since just about every single person I know has told me I should bake bread before someone comes to view the house, I did that today. I guess the smell of freshly-baked bread helps to make the house smell pleasant and comforting. So, even though we still have half a loaf left from the one I previously baked, I made another one today.

Right before leaving, I took the bread out of the oven to let it cool while we were out, and continue to give off its scent. I usually put my bread in a container after about 90 minutes, but figured that the additional smells were worth the risk of drying out the bread. After coming back over 2 hours later, we could still smell it in the kitchen (and it wasn’t too dry). And it turns out we had 18 parties coming through! No word yet on how interested they were, but I’m hoping this means we might have an offer soon. Hopefully the scent of my bread put some of them in a buying mood. :)

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Smoothies – An Easy, On-The-Go Breakfast

Okay, back to the topic of food. Continuing with the theme of breakfasts, this video shows two variations on a fruit smoothie. I think smoothies make a great breakfast because if you are pressed for time in the morning, you can drink them as you drive to work, or even at your desk once you’ve arrived. It’s an easy way to get some more fruit into your diet, and the possible variations are almost endless.

I think of smoothies as having 3 basic components: whole fruit, liquid, and fat. Berries are a popular choice for the fruit, but also consider bananas, pineapple and oranges. If the fruit is frozen, it gives the smoothie a nice frosty texture – or you could use fresh fruit with some ice. You might even want to consider vegetables to sub for some of the fruits, such as spinach or other leafy greens, or shredded carrots. The Green Monster Movement is a great source for smoothie recipes that include greens, without tasting too “vegetal.”

For the liquid, you can use a fruit juice, milk, or a non-dairy alternative such as almond milk or soy milk. I feel that fat is an important component because it helps you to better absorb the nutrients from the fruit, and also helps to prevent blood sugar spikes. Fat choices include avocado, various nut butters, yogurt or even cottage cheese.

In the video I use a Magic Bullet to blend the smoothies, because I like the convenience of blending the drink in the same cup you drink it from. But if I could afford it, I would really like to get a VitaMix blender. Supposedly they can liquify almost anything, so they are great for making all kinds of smoothies. Maybe I’ll get one someday.

The two recipes follow the video.

Fruit Smoothie #1 (my all-time favorite)
Serves 1

1/2 cup frozen blueberries
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 tsp chia seeds
1/2 avocado

Place all ingredients in blender and blend until combined.

Fruit Smoothie #2 (good for saving money, or if you don’t have avocados on hand, or just don’t like them)
Serves 1

1/2 cup frozen blueberries
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp chia seeds
1 tbsp almond butter

Place all ingredients in blender and blend until combined.

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The Reason For Freezing Dry Goods

After posting my video on how I bug-proofed my kitchen, I received a question about my practice of freezing my dry goods for a week after purchase. Tracy asked:

I like how you explained that with the airtight containers you would be able to see moths before you open the jar and that the infestation would be contained. In other words, you would know that your product was contaminated and therefore you would not use it. However, if you kill the larve in the freezer, how would you know? You would then unknowingly be eating larvae. Wouldn’t it be better to leave them out of the freezer so the larve could hatch and warn you not to eat it?

A good point, and I realize I should have addressed this in the other post. Basically, the point of freezing the products is to kill the moths while they are still eggs, before they hatch and become larvae. If you freeze the product as soon as you bring it home, it is more likely that any moths that got into the product are still just eggs. But, yes, this does mean that there would be dead eggs in your flour or rice, and that you would be eating them. Sounds gross, right? However, the eggs are microscopic, and while the idea of eating them is pretty gross, you would never see, feel or taste them, and they wouldn’t hurt you. Actually, just about any food product you buy is going to have what the FDA calls “unavoidable defects.”

Take a look at this list and scroll down to the entry for wheat flour. The FDA’s allowable limit for “insect filth” is “Average of 75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams.” So, short of milling your own flour and growing your own oats, having some undesirable product in your food is unavoidable. But at least by freezing it, I can keep the undesirable stuff at the microscopic level, before it grows into something else.

Which reminds me…I was looking at my WordPress stats to see how people were finding this site. Someone apparently found my previous post by searching for these words in Google:

founds some moths in my flour can i still use it

Maybe chomping into a moth larvae wouldn’t kill you, especially since many people around the world do eat various kinds of insects. And indeed, the reason I went to such lengths to have a bug-free kitchen was mainly due to the “ick” factor, rather than any health concerns. But if you’re asking the question, you probably have some doubts, so, when in doubt, throw it out! Unless you want a little “surprise” showing up in your cake or bread, just take the loss and buy a new bag of flour.

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