Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gettin' all Little House on the Prairie up in this joint

I love to bake. Cookies, cakes, pies, breads - oh, bread! I love working with yeast dough - the smell, the texture, the kneading and stretching and rising and punching and rising again. If I was a KW (that's kept woman, or stay-at-home wife, if you prefer) we would eat only bread I baked myself. And I would do all sorts of other crafty and pioneer woman kinds of stuff.

But crafting dough and dough-based foodstuffs takes time - hours upon hours of resting and proofing. And when you work full time, sling plastic part time, are active in community organizations, and try to have a satisfying married and social life as well, there's just not much time left for dough. But I'm trying to learn to live again, remember? So I shall bake more this year than I have in the last three years.

When I do find time to bake, though, I get sidetracked easily and I go take a nap or start another project while my dough is rising and then it takes twice as long to get anything done. So I'm working to enlist the help of my friend P to the Enny to have an all-out baking day. She's game, but our schedules are both so hectic that - again - it's hard to find the time. But find the time we must! We're planning to work our baking day into the whole freezer cooking concept as well by either freezing several batches of dough or freezing finished bread products. I especially want to bake up a mess of bagels and freeze them to have for breakfast throughout the week. I found a bagel recipe on Smitten Kitchen that just looks amazing. I can't wait to try it out myself. Even if you don't plan to ever make your own bagels, pop on over to her blog to see the beautiful photos that accompany her recipes. I'm jealous.

So tell me, readers - do any of you have a favorite go-to bread recipe? Do you have a secret for finding the time to bake and making it happen? Do you bake at all? Or do you find it intimidating and just not worth the effort. I love seeing your comments, so share with me! Tell me your stories! Use the little "Post a Comment" box below. Let me know you're out there.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Secret Helpers

I love female sneakery and inspirational stories of anonymous do-gooders. So, when I happened across this headline today, of course I had to click and read more. The Business 9 Women Kept A Secret For Three Decades, by Lori Weiss is the story of nine Southern women on a mission to help others - secretly.

My last post was about paying it forward and cooking for others in need. To see this article so soon after that post just reinforced my belief that I need to be doing more of this. I have nothing else to say today. Just read the story linked above and be inspired.

gift tags
Image source: 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Taking a meal to a friend in need...and other musings on paying it forward

Since early in our marriage, whenever I hear of a close friend or family member who's had a death in the family, major surgery, extended illness, birth of a child, or some such life event, I've been the type of person who immediately thinks, "I may need to take this person a meal." It all started in 2004 when a good friend delivered her son at 28 weeks, and he spent the first months of his life in the hospital. Our mutual friend suggested a few of us having a cooking day and provide the family with several freezer meals they could heat at their convenience. (My very first freezer cooking adventure!) I immediately agreed to the plan because the Big Guy and I had experienced our own family crisis a couple years earlier, and the thing I remember most fondly is those friends and co-workers who showed up with a meal. It was one less thing we had to worry about during the most difficult time of our young marriage.

That's part of the reason this whole freezer cooking adventure appeals to me so much. When you have meals already prepared in your freezer, ready to thaw and reheat, it makes helping others so effortless! Friend had a baby? Grab a casserole on your way out the door to visit! Relative had knee replacement surgery? Snatch up a bag of soup from the freezer and you're on your way! There have been so many people in my life in the past year who I have wanted to help with meals or in some other small way, but I've just been stretched too thin. If I had had meals already in the freezer, it would've been a cinch. But now that I have several go-to meals on hand, I don't have to worry anymore about my busy schedule preventing me from helping my friends and family in the best way I know how. And that makes me very happy.

Another thing that makes me very happy is a website I ran across during my freezer cooking research, and it is what prompted today's post. Take Them a Meal is a site that allows people to coordinate meal-taking efforts online. Simply create a free account, invite friends via email to join your effort, and the person in need will have a meal delivered to their door as often as needed. Brilliant! The site also features recipes, a blog, and tips for coordinating meals but also for other simple ways to help those in need. Created by a group of friends who saw a need and were tired of coordinating meal-taking through endless phone calls, this site has grown into a useful tool for anyone - even those who don't want or have time to cook or deliver a meal, or who live at too great a distance. Through their partnership with A Bowl of Good, you can simply order a pre-made meal online to be shipped directly to the friend you're helping.

How do you help your friends in need? How do you give back to your community in general? I've found that, no matter how much I have going on in my own life, no matter how self-absorbed I am at any given moment, what sometimes brings me the most pleasure is carving out time to give back to someone or some organization. Taking a meal is something simple I love to do because (selfishly) I love to cook and (for whatever ulterior motive) I love to share my cooking with others. In the last several years, this has carried over into other areas of my life - this desire to help others. Whether it's through our non-profit activities, or through the "give-back" team at my office, or just through helping a dear friend, I carve out time weekly to pay it forward.

Recently I lost someone who I considered to be a good friend - though I learned at her funeral that, truly, I hardly knew her at all. Miss Mary and I were both members of the same ladies' organization. I always knew her as just this sweet old woman who happened to also be a member of the club. But a few years ago, while we were attending a convention in Florida, Miss Mary became ill in the middle of the night. Her roommate, Miss Wilda, called me - knowing I was the only person in our group who did not have to go to the business session the next day - and asked if I would accompany them to the emergency room. The three of us spent the next several hours at the hospital and filled our time with conversation. I learned so much about these beautiful women who had been the best of friends for more than 50 years. And as Miss Mary began to feel a bit better the next day, she and I spent more time together and I learned even more about her life and what kind of person she was. The most important thing I learned that week about Miss Mary was that there was so much more to her quiet demeanor than met the eye. But I never realized just how much more until people got up to speak at her funeral. Miss Mary - and her husband, who survives her - are the model for living a life of service to others.

Being child-free, I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, "Don't you want a family of your own?" "But won't you be lonely in your old age?" "Who's going to take care of you when you get older?" I wish the people who have asked me these questions (sometimes repeatedly) could have been at Miss Mary's funeral. It was a testament to how not alone and how very cared for an elderly person can be...IF they've lived their life right. Miss Mary had no children of her own - no grieving "immediate family" left other than her husband. The funeral home was unprepared for the number of people who attended. It was standing room only. The pastor even commented during his eulogy that he's done many funerals for 85-year-old women, and there is never a crowd that size. Several people stood up after the pastor and spoke about what Miss Mary meant to them. She and Mr. Lefty touched countless lives on their journey, believing strongly that, as Christians, their primary duty on Earth was to humbly serve others. 

That is Miss Mary's legacy - a peaceful life of service to her fellow human beings. Whether that service was simply delivering a batch of homemade jam to say thank you or giving a ride to someone who had no transportation or even opening their home to a single parent and child who had nowhere else to go, Miss Mary and Mr. Lefty exemplified Christian love every day. And because of this, in their last years of life, this childless couple has been surrounded by loved ones. They've not been lonely. They've not been forgotten. Because throughout their lives they made sure others were not lonely - others were not forgotten. 

The Big Guy and I talked at length after Miss Mary's funeral about this legacy, and we know we want it to be ours as well. I believe most people find themselves alone at the end of their lives as a consequence of how they've lived their lives and what kind of relationships they nurtured - or allowed to wither - along the way. So I will strive to focus on those relationships that can be nurtured. The ones that will continue to grow and be fruitful throughout our lives. And I will continue to try to live a life of service - even if that service is simply taking a meal to a friend in need. Sometimes it's the simplest things that make the most lasting impact on a person's life. 

How will you try to serve others in your life? Who will you take a meal to this year?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Freezer Cooking Adventure #1

My freezer is full, and I'm pooped! Yesterday was our first freezer cooking group event. It was a long day, and my shoulders are aching from chopping, wrapping, stirring and scooping, but I think it was a great success, overall. Our little group of four unexpectedly grew to five, but we had a massive table to work around, and some of us had prepared extra meals, so it was all good. Four of us prepared multiples of two recipes each, and the fifth person prepared multiples of one recipe. Every person walked away with at least one (in some cases more) each of nine different meals. Score! Variety!

As you read in my previous post, we spent a couple hours last Saturday planning and organizing the event. Since so many people would be prepping and cooking all at the same time in one kitchen, we each made a packing list of all the tools we would need to bring with us, in addition to the ingredients for each of our recipes. So when we arrived at Olivia's house, step one was to "apron up" and unpack the goods! (I think Christina wins the prize for best apron. Nice briefs, Batman.)
Step 1: Apron Up & Unpack!
Community Box

We also decided during our planning meeting to create a community box that we would each donate items to for group use and one person would be the designated keeper of. I donated the storage tub, the aluminum baking pans and covers, a Sharpie, and the wax paper. Others donated quart and gallon-size freezer bags, plastic wrap, commercial-size aluminum foil, and salt and pepper. We got this idea from an awesome book called Don't Panic - Dinner's in the Freezer. Such a great resource for planning and for recipes with detailed freezing and reheating instructions. I'm so glad I invested in it.

Step 2: Organize Tools & Ingredients
Step 3: Cook!

We were blessed to have such a massive kitchen table to work around. With only a little shuffling, there was room for everyone to prep their food and wrap and package their meals. We each staked our claim on a little section of table and stuck with our spots the entire day. Another imperative was a sink full of hot, soapy water all day. Staying on top of washing the pots, pans, mixing bowls, cutting boards, and utensils was an absolute must to stay sane.

The only thing I would prefer to have different next time would be no kids and no pets. We had a small army of four children (I'm pretty sure there were four - they didn't stop moving long enough for me to accurately count them all) and three dogs beating a path through the kitchen all day. At least the doggies had manners and didn't try to snatch any meat off the table like they would have at my house! (My boys are rotten and have no manners.) My plan is to talk to my church about the possibility of using our church kitchen (industrial, lots of open space, LOVE IT) in the future. I'm also planning a baking day with my girl Penny (AKA P Diddy).

Baby, the sweetest black lab, and Pixie, an equally sweet
American bulldog puppy. Beggars, the both of them.
Assembly line for breakfast burritos

So, do you want to see the fruits of our labors all laid out at once? Do you? It's pretty darned impressive. Recipes provided where possible. What you see below is:

  • 80 Breakfast Burritos - Scrambled the eggs separately and formed an assembly line to divide the labor; made some with onions & peppers, all WITHOUT hash browns - I've done that before; it was gross with the potatoes.
  • 8 portions of Stromboli meat - Each portion makes 6 sandwiches - recipe below.
  • 6 portions of Meatloaf - Some portions divided into individual packaging for easy husband lunches and some divided into 2 smaller loaves for smaller families. Recipe below.
  • 4 Chicken Pot Pies 
  • 8 (I think) 4-count bags of French Onion Burger patties
  • 4 gallons of Broccoli Cheese Soup
  • 4 Cheesy Ham & Potato Bakes
  • 4 Chicken Potato Casseroles
  • 4 portions of Chicken Tacos (cooked in the crock pot all day - shredded chicken, salsa, taco seasoning, black beans, and I'm not sure what all else - they look delicious!)

Easy Meatloaf 
(makes two loaves that serve approx. 6 each)

2 lbs ground beef
8 oz Pepperidge Farm Herbed Stuffing Mix
2 eggs
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup water

~1 cup ketchup
~1/2 cup brown sugar

Combine all meatloaf ingredients and mix well. Form into two loaves. Place both loaves in 9x13 pan. Combine topping ingredients and spread evenly over top of loaves. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees, or until done.

If freezing, wrap each loaf in plastic wrap, then in foil, and place in gallon freezer bag. Then place in freezer. When ready to cook, thaw overnight in the fridge, mix topping ingredients and spread on meatloaf, and cook as directed above. Loaves can be cooked individually and can be frozen in loaf pans, if desired.

Barbecue sauce is a nice alternative topping as well.

Miss Wendy's Strombolis
(makes 6 sandwiches)

This recipe comes from an old friend of mine. When we were in grade school, our teacher asked each of us to bring in a family recipe and a story about it for a classroom recipe book. My friend Jake brought his mom's Stromboli recipe. My mom started making it soon after, and it's been a family favorite ever since. Incorporated below are a couple of my own tweaks I've made over the years, but they are so insignificant that I felt the need to give Miss Wendy credit where credit is due.

1 lb ground beef
1/2 lb pork sausage
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup pizza sauce
1/2 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese (the fake powdered kind)
1 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp oregano or Italian seasoning blend
6 steak or hoagie buns
12 slices provolone or mozzarella cheese

Brown beef, sausage and onion. Drain. Stir in sauce, ketchup, Parmesan cheese, garlic powder and oregano. Cook over medium low heat for 20 minutes. Split the rolls and divide meat evenly on bottom buns. Top with cheese slices - 2 per sandwich. (I fold my slices in half so they don't hang over the edge of the bun and cook onto the foil wrapper. I want to make sure ALL the cheese goes on my sandwich and in my belly!) Close sandwiches and wrap in foil, leaving open at the top. Heat in the oven 15 minutes at 350 degrees to melt cheese and toast buns.

If freezing, stop after cooking meat and sauce mixture for 20 minutes. Let mixture cool. Place in quart-size freezer bag, squeeze all air out of bag, lay flat on counter and gently press mixture flat. Flash freeze and store. When ready to eat, either thaw mixture in refrigerator or open bag and defrost in microwave. Either way, warm meat in microwave before assembling sandwiches to ensure finished sandwiches are hot all the way through.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

T-minus 3 days until Freezer Cooking Adventure #1

I can't wait, y'all. I just can't freaking wait. Saturday morning just can't come soon enough. We're gonna get our freezer cooking on! As you may have read last weekend, I've joined forces with three other women to begin freezer cooking every so often. We haven't landed on a schedule for repeat cooking days yet - going to see how the inaugural one goes first. We have high hopes that this will become a regular adventure, though, and hopefully grow into a larger swap meet for freezer meals.

For the first cooking day, we're starting small. Each person is responsible for two recipes. I say "responsible for" rather than "each person is preparing" because we have one person in the group who apparently cannot be trusted in her own kitchen. Plus she wants to make hamburgers but will not touch raw meat...anyone else see the problem here? So we all agreed that since she is so graciously volunteering her huge kitchen, providing the cooking day snacks, and paying for all her own ingredients, we'll share the duties of preparing her meals for her and let her swap with us as normal. I'm trying to put her on dishes duty as well. Not because I think she needs to contribute more; I just don't like doing dishes. She also apparently has no kitchen tools (because she can't be trusted in her own kitchen), so we're all taking all hardware we need as well as ingredients. Must remember to pack all that crap up Friday night.

This little group should prove to be very interesting, to say the least. This whole escapade is the brainchild of my high school nemesis friend Christina, aka the Dark Queen/Zombie Queen/Mother of All Things Dark & Creepy (and puppies!). Of the other women in our group - one of whom I met last Saturday morning and the other whom I'll meet for the first time this Saturday - one is a devout Christian, studying theology and working at a Christian Church; one is all hot pink, sparkly, recently saved and all about church; and one is a snarky, foul-mouthed, workaholic, Methodist girl. (Can you guess which one is me?) I can't wait to see this entire dynamic at work. And I should probably check in with Chris to make sure the other two ladies aren't going to be offended by my mouth. I held it in check last weekend during the planning session, but during a whole day of cooking? No way. An F-bomb is guaranteed to slip at some point. And at least one That's What She Said. Guaran-frickin-teed.

Going to do my grocery shopping Thursday night for Saturday's festivities, and I'm planning to stock up on chicken as well since our local Schnucks is running a hella-deal on leg quarters (59 cents/lb in 10lb bags - woot!). This whole scanning circulars and watching grocery sale trends to maximize savings for bulk buying thing is going to take some practice. But hopefully it will positively impact our grocery bill and my weeknight dinner stress in the long run! We shall see. And I'm excited you are all going to be part of the journey! Here's a sneak peek at the planning sheets I've been using:

Oh, and for those keeping tabs on Materpalooza 2013, check out what I get to process tonight for sauce. For you Tupperware nerds, yes, that is a Thatsa Bowl chock full of little Romas. For those of you who are not YET Tupperware devotees, the Thatsa Bowl has a 32-cup capacity. That's a lot of maters. About two gallons of sauce. Which means lots and lots of trimming, seeding, and pureeing tonight! Hooray! 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Taking off the training wheels

It's official! I'm live and worldwide!

Just changed the settings on my blog to viewable by everyone. Yikers. It took a lot of talking myself into it, but I've finally done it. Now we'll see if I can deal with the haters who I hear are so prevalent in the blogosphere.

Since this is my first post since going live, I've got to give props to a couple of people. A friend of a friend - who is a social media consultant/guru and blogger extraordinaire - lit a fire under me a couple of years ago to get serious about blogging this time. Then I just had to find the time to devote to it.

Now that I've carved out a little time to do this, I needed a name. I went through a few different blog names and urls and was really struggling with what to call my new creation. Nothing felt right. So I turned to my Sista From Another Mista, Rachel, who is a very creative and wordy person, and she nailed it with only her second or third suggestion. My friends always joke about my undiagnosed OCD - especially in the kitchen - so her suggestion of Obsessive Cooking Disorder just seemed perfect.

So I'm now taking the training wheels off my shiny new bike. I hope you enjoy it. Please don't run over it with your giant SUV or steal my nifty basket. Thank you.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Freezer cooking adventure starts now!

I'm absolutely giddy with excitement right now. I love starting a new project. It's the follow-through I usually have trouble with - which is why it's taken me years to finally start this blog. But when I have cohorts, I have a better chance at success. So, tomorrow morning, a couple of ladies are coming over to have our first freezer cooking planning session! The planning nerd in me has been fapping nonstop for two days.

TMI? Sorry, you'll have to get used to it on this blog. That's how I roll.

The timing of this whole initiative is just perfect. It dovetails so well with the beginning of my blog and gives me more fuel for posts. And I didn't even plan it this way. It's just kismet. My old high school nemesis (now grown-up friend) Christina posted on Facebook earlier this week about how tight her family's budget is and that she would like to get her family living more frugally but also be healthier and shop more locally. One of the best ways you can control what your family eats while also being budget-minded is to do freezer cooking - cooking large batches of a few meals and freezing them to cook or reheat later for easy weeknight meals. And it gets even better when you go about it with friends - greater variety of meals, much-needed girl time, larger quantities often mean smaller cost per meal, and so on.

I'll be keeping track of our progress right here and sharing it with all of you. Fingers crossed I remember to bring my camera to our first cooking session next weekend!

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about freezer cooking too, Pinterest has a ton of resources. has a lot of great resources, plus I invested in a couple of books I found on Amazon that were highly rated.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A night 25 years in the making

Sunday night was a night I have waited 25 years to experience. My first New Kids on the Block concert!! And Boyz II Men were the whipped cream & nuts on top. 98 Degrees was the cherry. If you know me, you know I usually suck the whipped cream off the cherry and give it to the Big Guy. That's kinda how the concert was...I enjoyed looking at how pretty Nick Lachey is and then left it to the Big Guy to sing along to their songs. He's a closet late-90's boy band nerd. I blame his misspent college years.

The highlight of the night, though, was my sweet NKOTB. Donnie was almost close enough to touch. Le sigh. Here's the photographic evidence:

Shawn - Boyz II Men
Joey MacIntyre!

My girl Amanda, who accompanied us to the event, praised my ticket-selection skills about a dozen times. I gotta admit, I was pretty proud of myself. I rewarded myself pre-show with an iced Dunkacino from the Dunkin Donuts next door. It was a massive let-down that has cured me of my DD cravings for at least a year. (Don't tell the Big Guy or my friend in Boston who loves to ridicule my love of DD coffee.)

Since we didn't make it home until 2 a.m. that morning following the concert, I took (most of) the day off work to chill. Ended up sleeping half the day, as per usual. But I did accomplish two things that evening in the kitchen. 

First, I made a batch of pizza dough for the freezer. This recipe from Annie's Eats is incredible. Try it. Right now. Go mix up the dough and come back here to finish reading while your dough is rising. I mean it. It's that good.

While my dough was rising Monday night, I made my famous spaghetti with tomato basil sauce using ingredients from my own garden. This is the recipe my friends request I make the most. They cannot get enough of it. It's so fresh and yummy and simple to make. My favorite thing about this recipe is where I first learned it (though I've tweaked it and made it my own over the years). When we were living in Orlando, Florida, I worked next door to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. One of my coworkers took cooking classes there with her husband once a month or so. One weekend they weren't able to go, so she gave me her ticket. It was the greatest experience. I learned knife basics; how to butcher, truss, and roast a chicken; and how to make this splendid spaghetti sauce using the ingredients we had just practiced chopping, mincing, and chiffonade-ing. This is one of the few recipes in my arsenal that I don't have exact measurements for, so just do your best and wing it, just like I do every time I make it. :)

Tiny Roma tomatoes fresh from my garden. It's materpalooza this year!

Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato Basil Sauce

1 lb spaghetti, cooked & drained
2 Tbsp olive oil
1-1/2 sticks of butter, divided
2 large or 3 medium shallots, minced or grated
3-5 cloves of garlic, minced or grated (we like garlic in our house)
3-4 cups pureed Roma tomatoes (if mine are big enough, I like to skin them first - personal preference)
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Kosher salt & pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Melt half of butter in a large skillet with olive oil. Saute shallots and garlic over medium heat until translucent. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add tomatoes and cook down while boiling water and cooking pasta. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed while simmering. Tomatoes need salt! (And quit using that iodized crap. Go kosher.) When your pasta is just about done, chiffonade the basil leaves and add to sauce along with remaining butter. (What's chiffonade? Stack all the leaves on top of one another and, starting on the long side, roll them up like a jo...I mean, cigar. Then thinly slice across the tiny herb log so you end up with little ribbons of basil to sprinkle over your sauce.) Stir to combine and fully melt butter. Toss with drained pasta and serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese (no cheating with the powdered crap - this sauce deserves the real deal!). Serve with warm, toasty bits of chewy garlic bread.

Go make it now while your pizza dough is still rising. Now. (Geez, I'm a little bossy, aren't I?)