Monday, May 23, 2011

A Garden Update

We made a lot of progress in the garden this weekend. Of course, a garden's work is never really DONE, but I feel pretty good about where we're at with it.

Planted as of 5/22/11
  • Lettuce - some green leaf variety, Boston maybe?
  • Red swiss chard
  • Kale
  • Tomatoes - JetStar, cherry, and possibly a third variety (should check with Aaron the Tomato Master)
  • Kentucky pole beans
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Cucumbers
  • Zucchini
  • Butternut squash
  • Chives
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Scallions/green onions
  • Cilantro
To Be Planted
  • Rosemary
  • Bell peppers
  • Jalapeños
Showing signs of hope
  • Strawberry plants have MANY blossoms
  • Lettuce, kale, and swiss chard are growing and looking promising
  • Sugar snap peas are taller each day
  • The peach tree allegedly has small green fruit on it
Showing signs of trouble
  • The apple tree is being eaten by the evil winter moth larvae. Grr.
  • We must protect our strawberries before the squirrel and birds make their moves.
We're pretty excited about the developments. At least the garden reminds us that all the rain serves a good purpose. We hope for sunnier days to help the tomatoes grow and the beans not to rot. As the garden begins to look more interesting, pictures will be forthcoming.

Baked Oatmeal - YUM!

Caleb and Aaron recently went to Wisconsin for a father-son retreat at a summer camp. They came home and both raved about baked oatmeal. I had no clue what baked oatmeal was, despite my midwestern upbringing. After some Google searching and getting a reasonably accurate description from Aaron, I found a serviceable recipe. It makes a great snack or breakfast and is wonderfully filling. See my notes below for a few suggested changes.

Baked Oatmeal
Serves 8

6 c. quick cooking oats
3/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
6 eggs
2 c. milk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 c. canola oil
1/2 c. coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400. Grease and flour a 13x9 baking pan. In a large bowl, stir together the oats, brown sugar, salt and baking powder. In a separate medium bowl, stir together the eggs, milk, vanilla, and canola oil. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until well-blended. Spoon into the prepared baking pan, and spread evenly. Sprinkle walnuts over the top.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

I made a few changes to the ingredients. First, I used "old-fashioned oats." I think the recipe simply means don't use instant or steel cut. Also, I reduced the sugar to 1/2 c because I didn't feel like packing an extra 1/4 c. I substituted extra virgin olive oil for canola.

I made one change in the process. I decided to mix the walnuts into the batter and then sprinkle a few walnuts on top. I think this would be good with any nut. I may try pecans next time because I adore pecans.

The next time I make this, I will add cinnamon, and maybe something like nutmeg. It was yummy and comforting without the extra spice, but I think we'll enjoy it more with the spices. I also may try a nut-free version so that Caleb can take it to school.

Classic Chicken Soup with Noodles

A friend of mine is sick today and I thought I would send her a link to this great recipe. Until I figured out that I had not posted this great recipe to my blog! SO, here goes - a really tasty Chicken Noodle Soup for you and your family to try!

Classic Chicken Soup with Noodles
From Weight Watchers - 8 PointsPlus per serving
Serves 6

3 pounds skinless chicken drumstick and/or thighs, trimmed of visible fat (I used some skinless thighs, I think)
6 c. water
5 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces (I skipped this for my neighbors because they don't like celery)
2 medium onions, each cut into 8 wedges
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 oz. parsley, about 3 sprigs (I probably didn't measure my dry parsley)
1/8 oz. thyme, fresh, 2 sprigs (ditto)
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper, freshly ground
2 c. uncooked egg noodles
1/4 c. parsley, flat leaf variety (for garnish, I'm sure I skipped)

Bring the chicken, water, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper to a boil in a Dutch oven (I use large pot). Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the chicken is no longer pink inside and the vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes. Discard the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Garden Growth

Our garden is starting to show signs of life, and I've been meaning to write about it for a while now. No pictures yet, but really the view isn't that interesting unless you're practically IN the dirt. :)

For those of you who don't know about our backyard garden adventures, let me give you a bit of history. We have 2 raised beds, a very enthusiastic strawberry patch, 2 unproductive blueberry bushes, and 2 young fruit trees (apple and peach). We also typically grow a ridiculous quantity of basil so that we can make never-enough pesto. The raised beds have brought us pole beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, swiss chard, and unanticipated squash (thank you compost pile). We tried planting zucchini, yellow squash and pumpkin last year and were sadly disappointed. It was a learning experience. I never knew about squash vine borers before, and I assumed that plants would know to produce both male and female plants so that fruit, or in this case squash, would occur. I also planted some sunflowers only to have them destroyed by the local wildlife (aka my arch nemesis - the squirrel population).

Having this garden is a great opportunity for my kids to learn about food. They appreciate fresh real food. They learn about the effort that goes into making food. They love watching the changes over time in the garden.

This year we are trying a few new crops and sticking with some past successes. As soon as the ground was workable, we planted romaine lettuce, red chard, and some variety of kale - maybe a red stem? I also took a chance and planted sugar snap peas. I'm delighted to report that all 4 have started sprouting. The lettuce and the kale are doing extremely well. I tried thinning the kale this week, but I may have killed a few plants. I'm going to wait another week or 2 to figure out whether I did and whether I should try more thinning so that the plants have room to grow. The weeds have been annoyingly productive this year as well. Maybe I didn't care as much about weeds last year, but I feel like I have to keep plucking little bits of this and that out of each bed, even when I've just finished weeding.

The other new development in our garden is a much sturdier fence around the larger of the 2 raised beds. Aaron and Caleb built a wood frame and attached plastic fencing to it. Other than spying a small brown bird or 2 in the bed, I think the fence is fairly secure. I'm hoping they will build similar protection for the other bed and for our strawberry patch.

The strawberry patch continues to spread just like the weed it actually is. I gave two peony bushes to my neighbor to make room for the berry plants. She thinks I'm nuts for giving up the flowers, but she is quite happy with the bushes and I'm quite happy with my future strawberries. The strawberries have their first flowers this week, so they need some protection ASAP. I put the net from last year over what I could, but it isn't much of a deterrent nor a true protection since any animal really could figure out that the plants aren't fully covered. The netting we have covers about 1/2 of our plants and not even very well, so we'll have to figure out something better. That said, I'm still delighted to see strawberry flowers! They just look so happy and promising.

Coming up in the next few weeks, we will plant the rest of our crop. We're planning on pole beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I'm still debating whether to try squash again. I would need to clear out a patch for them in the "wild" part of our flower beds, but I do not look forward to that project. On the other hand, I hate having an unused "wild" part of the garden; it looks blah and icky to give it a technical description. I'm also still disappointed in last year's experience, but I suppose this would be a chance to do better. As you can probably guess, I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A surprising success

As I wrote about our recent recipe failures, I remembered a surprising successful recipe and thought I would share it. I found this recipe while I was doing some menu planning on Thursday morning. I pulled out a Weight Watchers cookbook to get some inspiration, and Caleb started looking over my shoulder. The cookbook has lovely pictures throughout, and he asked all sorts of questions about what each dish was and of course made all sorts of comments (nice and not) about what he saw. I was near the end of the book when he demanded that I turn back a few pages. He pointed to a picture with a skillet of spinach and some garlic cloves and insisted that we make and eat it. I was really skeptical even though I know Caleb likes kale and will eat salad fixings as long as they have no dressing. Still, I figured getting more greens in my diet is a good thing. Even if your kids won't touch green vegetables, you might want to try this as a side because it's yummy and pretty simple.

Tuscan-style Garlic Spinach
From Weight Watchers - 2 PointsPlus per serving
Serves 4

2 lbs. spinach, touch stems removed
1 Tbsp. olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, halved
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add spinach, in batches if necessary, and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse under cold running water. Squeeze out excess water and chop.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 4 minutes. Add spinach and increase heat to medium-high. Add salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until spinach is heated through, about 3 minutes.

I didn't have the 2 lbs. of spinach on hand, more like 1-1.5 pounds, and I would definitely try this recipe with even more spinach. I don't think it would make good leftovers, but I definitely would appreciate having more. Chopping wet spinach is not the easiest thing to do. Yes, I drained and squeezed. I ended up having a lump of spinach which I cut in a grid shape. Speaking of spinach, I'm not sure what the Weight Watchers folks think I buy for spinach when they talk about the tough stems, but I used baby spinach and was quite pleased.

Tasty Recipes Which Fail

I am coming out of a cooking rut. For the past month, our eating simply has not been that exciting. I wish I had a great post about Passover eating, but I really don't. We tried more processed foods than I would have liked during Passover, and my kids didn't even really like those foods much. Once the week of Passover had passed (ha ha), I started thinking again about what I wanted to be eating and what I wanted my kids to be eating. The answer hasn't changed much - real food, a variety of it, and of course I want it to taste good.

This week I tried 2 new recipes which Aaron and I loved and the kids absolutely rejected. I did not try both recipes at the same meal because I figure I'll have better luck getting the kids to try something new if there isn't too much truly new at a meal. Without further ado, here are the recipes for you to try. Perhaps your families will enjoy them.

Maple Pecan Chicken
From SparkRecipes - 5 PointsPlus per serving
Serves 6

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into 6 pieces
1/2 c. halved pecans
1/4 c. plain bread crumbs
1 tsp. pepper
1/2 c. reduced calories syrup

Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the pecans and bread crumbs into a good processor. Combine until all of the pecans are chopped into the same consistency as the bread crumbs. Put into shallow bowl. Put syrup into another bowl.

Put chicken into the syrup, coating both sides completely. Put chicken into the pecan and bread crumb mixture. Coat each side completely.

Lay the breaded chicken on the prepared baking sheet. Coat the rest of the chicken pieces.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until all of the chicken is cooked through.

I do not measure pepper, and I don't actually remember using it. I use panko in place of bread crumbs. I also used our local maple syrup rather than a store purchased reduced calorie syrup. I did not end up using all of the syrup to coat my chicken.

Aaron and I really enjoyed this recipe for chicken. The chicken breast was much moister than I would have expected, and the breading was crisp and crunchy thanks to the pecans. The pecans get toasted in the oven, which makes them even yummier than they are when uncooked. Caleb rejected the chicken saying that it did NOT taste like maple syrup and that it tasted like chicken. Once he rejected it, Ellie didn't even want to lick it. She did end up trying a bite in the end and saying she liked it but didn't have any more. Aaron thinks calling this dish "maple candy chicken" would have been more successful. I'm not so sure. I think I'll make this again anyway because repeat exposure may change my kids' opinions.

This next recipe makes a great side dish to fish and probably anything else.

Asparagus Risotto

From Weight Watchers - 5 PointsPlus per serving
Serves 6

1/2 tsp. salt, for cooking water
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
2 sprays cooking spray
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 small shallots, minced
1 c. uncooked arborio rice
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
4 c. canned chicken brother
1/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/8 tsp. table salt or to taste
1/8 tsp. black pepper or to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Add asparagus to pot; blanch for 2 minutes. Immediately remove asparagus from pot and place them into ice water to stop them from cooking and help retain their bright green color. Set aside.

Coat a medium pot with cooking spray and set over medium heat; melt butter. Add shallots; cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add rice and toss to coat; cook for 2 minutes. Add lemon juice; cook, until all lemon juice has been absorbed, stirring continuously so rice does not stick to sides of pot, about 1 minute.

Meanwhile, bring broth to a simmer (in separate pot); keep warm.

Add 1/2 c. of hot broth to pot at a time; stir until absorbed. Repeat with remaining brother, making sure each addition of broth is absorbed before adding more. This process takes about 20 minutes.

When rice turns creamy and just done (should be slightly chewy and not mushy), remove pot from heat; add cheese and stir well. Stir in asparagus; season with salt and pepper.

1 serving = 1 scant cup.

When trimming the asparagus, make sure to remove the stiff woody ends. You probably could substitute vegetable broth if you want to make this vegetarian.

Again Aaron and I loved this recipe. I was hopeful that Caleb would like it because he loves asparagus. I was certain Ellie would at least eat the rice since she often requests cheesy rice for meals. I was absolutely wrong.
Unfortunately Caleb does not like creamy foods with the exception of Trader Joe's black cherry yogurt and Annie's mac and cheese. The creaminess overruled his love of asparagus. And again, his opinion affected Ellie's eating. Argh. She wouldn't even SMELL the food and spent the meal begging for her piñata candy, which I refused to give her (mean mommy). I'm sure I'll make this again anyway, and I'll just provide a different vegetable option for the kids.