Monday, November 26, 2012

2 Years and Counting...

This marks the second anniversary of Crackers on the Couch!  I can't believe it!  Thank you so much for visiting this little place and encouraging me!

 While it's still the 26th, I think I'll go ahead and get this up...

Just in case you've got some Thanksgiving leftovers left, this is what I did with mine.  Basically, you put all your leftovers into ramekins and top it with leftover mashed potatoes.  It helps if you've got gravy made, too.  This really isn't a recipe so much as a technique.

Leftover Thanksgiving Shepherd's Pie
This year's pies had green beans, sweet potatoes, gravy, chicken, apples, celery, and onion.  I left the stuffing out as a side and topped them with mashed potatoes and a dollop of cranberry sauce when they were done cooking.  You can use virtually any side in these.  Last year, leftover roast veggies were perfect for these, for example.  Adding extra herbs like thyme, parsley, or rosemary is a nice touch, too.

Preheat oven to 350°.  Chop one onion, and sauté in olive oil until cooked, add cold veggies and gravy and cook until everything is warm.  Fill ramekins 3/4 full with filling mixture and top with mashed potatoes.  Place ramekins on a cookie sheet and heat in the oven until the mashed potatoes have heated through and begun to brown (about 20-30 minutes).  Remove from oven, serve with stuffing and a drop of cranberry sauce if available.

The great thing about these is that everything on the Thanksgiving plate usually tastes great together.  My favorite thing as a kid was getting a fork full of everything.  That's exactly what you get with these.  My youngest even eagerly chomped down onions, apples and celery that he totally skipped on during the regular meal. 

Get ready to begin another 12 Days of Christmas next week!  I can't wait to show you what Cara and I have in store!
Thank you all for another wonderful year!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Cake is a LIE!!

My boys are big fans of the game Portal.  Their Dad brought home an inflatable turret a few months ago and they just had a cow about it.  They begged for a Portal birthday party and I said, "YES!"  My regular readers probably won't have any idea what to make of all the geeking that's about to go on up in heah, so I'll try to explain as well as I can along the way.  Oh, and it should also be said that I've never played the game nor have I seen the game played because when I watch it, it makes me want to zook.  My inner ear does not like first person games.  Everything I know about Portal I've learned from accounts by my children, my husband, and online.  This is how it goes:

OK, so like, you're in this science experiment, right?  And you have this guide named Wheatly. 

And he's all good until he turns bad or bad until he turns good or whatever.  There's a companion cube.  You love it.  It has hearts on it. 

You use a gun like this to shoot holes in the walls.  Sometimes they have blue flames and sometimes they have orange flames.  They look sorta like this:

These portal mirrors were an ingenious find!  My husband put these together with mirrors and rope lights from Home Depot.

 and this:

Our friend Sam showed up with this because he is fraktastically awesome!

and this:

When you shoot a hole in one wall and shoot a hole in another wall, you can jump through one and come out the other one because of this, like, space warp type thing.

An old Ikea tunnel with painted entrances worked pretty well!

One more note about portals:
If your birthday candles fall into a portal, they come out on other cupcakes!  It's happening everywhere people, you should really be careful about that...

Sometimes you're in a room with turrets.  They shoot at you.  Fortunately, these don't really...

The place where the testing occurs is Aperture Laboratories.

Propulsion Gel and Repulsion Gel... do... something...?

This gel (a.k.a. gak) was made following this recipe.  I used Wilton's gel coloring to get the orange and aqua.  Be careful with the blue, though.  That stuff stains like nobody's business.  I found those little tins for .99 cents at Michael's.  A wise man once said, "We're throwing science at the wall here to see what sticks."  This stuff will definitely stick in the name of science.

Though, in the game, the gels will rot your skeleton, this next gel (a.k.a. Jell-o) is much more user friendly!  (It probably will only rot your teeth.  Most likely...)

Push up containers and stand came from Amazon.

The man who is putting you through all these tests is named Cave Johnson, CEO of Aperture Laboratories.  Also, apparently, he has a hard time putting his name tag on...

It could be because his assistants were all blindfolded... 

Your reward for battling sarcastic robots, turrets, and GLaDOS in the name of Science is a wonderful cake.  Unfortunately, along the way you find out that the cake is, in fact, a lie.  Until the end, when you find it and it isn't anymore.  It's a chocolate cake with cherries.

Or is it?

That's right, folks.  This cake is a lie.  Meatloaf, mashed potato filling, bean frosting, mashed potato "whipped cream", and cherry tomatoes on top where those lovely cherries should go.  More about how I pulled this feat off later...

Meanwhile, everyone knows scientists in the future drink from juice pouches turned backward to look more "science y."

They also love hummus and carrots and mini quiche.

These hobos test subjects are definitely up to the task of being subjected to tests.

Our little test subjects got to go home with a bag full of gear and a couple of portals as well as a tin of Propulsion or Repulsion Gel.  You can buy a bunch of Portal swag at Think Geek, but my husband knows someone who knows someone (possibly Cave Johnson?) and scored us a bunch of this stuff for free.  I got the idea for the gels from Pamela Smerker who threw her very own super-awesome Portal party last year.

Guests at our party were serenaded by the sweet sounds of selected tracks from the Portal soundtrack and Still Alive by Jonathan Coulton.

And now back to that "cake."

     A wise man once said, "They say great science is built on the shoulders of giants - not here. At Aperture we do all our science from scratch; no hand holding."  And that wise man was Cave Johnson.  To honor his great (and wise) spirit, I shall give you a little hint about how I made this cake, though I'm afraid there really isn't a recipe.

The Cake is a Lie Portal Cake
     I made two round cake pans full of meatloaf.  It used 4 pounds of ground beef and two onions.  I made a gluten free cake so I substituted the contents of 1 (3.5 oz) bag of pork rinds ground in the food processor.  It sounds weird, but it's an old low carb diet trick that I used many times when my hubby was on the Atkins diet.  You can't tell, really.  It worked out to about 2 cups of crumbs.  I used 1 egg for every pound of meat and put the rest of the ketchup that was in the bottle, probably about 1/2 C.  Salt and pepper.  I baked it at 350° for about an hour, until the center reached 160°.

     The mashed potatoes are just regular old mashed potatoes with butter and salt and milk and a little pepper but not enough to give anything away on the outside decoration.

     The hardest part was the frosting.  Traditionally, meatloaf cake is frosted with mashed potatoes, but the Potal cake is chocolate.  Mashed potatoes aren't brown.  On Thursday I had an epiphany!  Refried beans!  I spent a day testing the best way to color the beans to make them look like chocolate.  Soy sauce tasted funny and Worcestershire sauce wasn't dark enough.  Black beans didn't work either.  Finally, I consulted my favorite message board over at Baby Center for help.  Baby Center user ~*downwithNCB*~ suggested Kitchen Bouquet as a darkener.  Kitchen Bouquet FTW!  The flavor was a bit meh, so I hid it with Worcestershire sauce and raw garlic.  Worked like magic, folks!  For the beans, I cooked a pound of pinto beans in the pressure cooker because I wasn't sure how much frosting I'd need.  I probably could have done it with half a pound.  When the beans were done cooking I let them sit in the fridge overnight to firm up.  The next day, I reheated them slowly on the stove with no extra water while the meatloaf was cooking.  I pureed them with a hand blender and added Kitchen Bouquet until it looked "chocolatey" enough.  Then I added Worcestershire sauce and pressed about 2 cloves of garlic until I couldn't taste the KB anymore and the bean flavor was pretty well masked.  Salt and pepper to season a little more, and then I slathered it on the cake!

People loved it!  I only heard one adult say, "I'm not sure I can eat this!  It looks too much like chocolate cake!"  I am never sure with meat dishes of course, but I badgered my husband to give me the honest-and-for-real-truth and he says it was pretty good!  I wasn't sure how the beans would be with the meatloaf, but nobody complained and my eldest son has been pestering me for leftovers all day, so I think it must have been OK!  The only drawback is that it really does look so much like chocolate cake that now I want to make one...

5 and 7 here we come!  Onward for Science!!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Let Us Give Thanks...

     Uhhh... Sorry about that folks... I'm not sure what happened... Anyway, some of you may have gotten an advanced, advanced, advanced version of my Thanksgiving post... Bwoops!  I guess that's just a little insight into how I write my posts... derp.

    This is hardly how I wanted to start this post, but sometimes things happen that you don't expect.  Weather hits, election results come in, someone calls with a happy surprise, someone calls with bad news, a butterfly lands on your nose, you forget the Brussels sprouts in the oven... you know, stuff happens.  On the days when the downers outnumber the warm fuzzies, it's especially important to be Thankful for what you have.

     I love the song by the Shaker, Elder Joseph Brackett, called "Simple Gifts."  I think it nicely sums up the Shaker ideal of simplicity as worship and I think conveys an air of thankfulness.  Especially in this day and age when we rarely seem grateful for what we have and never seem to stop wanting more.  I think the opening lines are my favorite.

"Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free."

     Simplicity is a gift.  I'm giving it to myself this Thanksgiving.  Nothing crazy.  Nothing spectacular.  Something simple that will not leave me harried on Thanksgiving but will nourish myself and my family, whom I am terribly, tremendously, unabashedly, humbly, Thankful for.

     Freedom is a gift.  Those pilgrims who ventured to the new world so many years ago searched for freedom.  They found it here and I am thankful this country is still a place people come to find it.

     Last year I posted an elaborate Thanksgiving meal with fancy pumpkin cornbread stuffing and fancy chicken and other fancy stuff of fanciness.  This year, simplicity.

Simple Roast Chicken
Basic Cornbread Stuffing
 Roast Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic Vinegar
Steamed Sweet Potatoes
 Mashed Potatoes
Cranberry Sauce
Quick Roast Fennel
Roast Pears with Fresh Ricotta and Chestnuts
Pumpkin Mousse

I am going to list the recipes here in the order they should be started.  Beginning with the cornbread stuffing which actually takes two or three days.  I swear it's simple.  It's mostly waiting for things to dry out!  Lol!

Basic Stuffing
First, make the cornbread.  Let cool and crumble.  Leave on the counter overnight to dry out.  The next day, chop 1 medium onion, 4 stalks of celery, 1 C walnuts, 1 Tbs fresh sage, 1 Tbs fresh thyme, and 2 cloves garlic.  Heat 1 Tbs olive oil in a skillet and saute celery and onion until the vegetables have softened.  Add garlic, walnuts, and herbs and cook just a moment or two more until the herbs and garlic become fragrant.  Remove from heat.  Add to crumbled cornbread and add 1 C stock (I like mushroom stock, but chicken or vegetable is fine, too) and stir to combine.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Put the stuffing mixture into a glass casserole dish.  Place in preheated oven uncovered and bake for 20 minutes at 350° until the top is toasted and the nuts are crunchy.  Serve warm.  It's even better the second day.  I usually make it a day ahead and store it in a covered casserole in the fridge (this is where that pesky third day comes in).  Reheat at 350° uncovered for about half an hour.  Cover if top becomes too brown. 

     The Cranberries I made last year can easily be made a day ahead.  They take 5 minutes.  Seriously.

      What can be easier on your Thanksgiving time budget than a dessert you make the day before?  I found this Pumpkin Mousse recipe last year at Country Living for our Halloween party.  It's orange, white, and black and perfect for the Halloween color scheme, but it's full-on pumpkin-pie-without-the-pie flavor is made for Thanksgiving.

I followed this recipe exactly except I substituted agar flakes for the gelatin.  I made this recipe last year and the agar didn't dissolve properly in the rum.  It happened again this year.  I think the gelatin is supposed to give the mousse a more pie-like texture, which I'm not crazy about anyway.  The agar left little chewy lumps in it.  I kinda like it.  But next time, I think I'll leave it out all together and see what happens.  This tastes just like pumpkin pie with out the weird consistency.  Woohoo for pie haters!

     This homemade ricotta recipe from Zestuous is for the pears (see recipe below).  You can make it the day before (or several if you need to) but it takes about a total of 35 minutes.  5 for boiling the milk, 30 for letting it drain.  Seriously hands-off stuff, folks.

     Since this Thanksgiving is all about ease, this chicken is the very easiest thing I've ever done.  I make it all the time when my family is hungry and all I have the brain cells for is slamming a chicken in the oven.  It's modified from this recipe on Epicurious.
Roast Chicken
One 2- to 3-pound chicken
Salt (I use sea salt, but kosher is what the original recipe calls for)
Kitchen twine

Preheat the oven to 425°. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. Salt the cavity, then truss the bird.  Salt the exterior liberally.  Place the chicken in a roasting pan and roast it for about an hour.  Don't baste it, don't fiddle with it, just let the skin get crispy.  When the internal temp reaches 165°, remove it from the oven and tent the chicken by covering it with aluminum foil.  Let it rest for about 15 minutes.

The only problem with this chicken is that roasting it at such high temps tends to make the fat explode everywhere.  Talk about smoke!  I put a layer of aluminum foil over the top rack and the bottom rack to catch drips and splatters.  The skin doesn't get as beautifully dark as when you leave them off, but the house doesn't get all smoky, either.  I take the top aluminum off for the last 15-20 minutes of cooking to let it brown.  If I forget to put the aluminum foil on, not only does my oven smoke while I'm cooking the chicken, it smokes every time I use it for the next 3 or 4 uses!  Unless I clean it, but who does that?

     Say, did you notice what temperature that bird was roasted at?  425°, right?  Guess what?  Everything else bakes at 425°!  How awesome is that?!

Roast Brussels Sprouts
Preheat oven to 425°.  Slice Brussels sprouts in half.  Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet. Place sprouts in the heated oil cut side down.  Saute with a little salt and pepper until the sprouts have turned bright green and the cut side has begun to brown slightly.  Toss in a little balsamic vinegar (about 1/4 C) and stir to coat the Brussels sprouts.  Place frying pan into preheated oven and bake until sprouts are tender about 15 minutes.

Roast fennel
Remove the fronds and core of the fennel.  Slice thinly with a mandoline (watch your fingers!).  Toss with a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.  Lay the fennel on a baking sheet in a thin layer.  Roast at 425° for about 5-10 minutes until the fennel is soft and the licorice flavor is mostly gone.  (Say, didn't those Brussels sprouts take about 15 minutes?)  This large fennel bulb was enough for my husband and I to have a small side with no leftovers, the boys wouldn't eat any.  If your family likes fennel, you will probably want to plan at least 3/4 large bulb per adult.

Roast Pears with Homemade Ricotta and Chestnuts
1/2 Pear per diner
1 Tbs lemon juice (or more as needed)
2 Tbs Sucanat or other sugar with a high molasses content (plus more as needed)
1/2 C Fresh ricotta
4-5 chestnuts

Slice pears in half.  Remove seeds with a melon baller.  Brush with lemon juice.  Place cut side down onto a cookie sheet.  Cut X's into chestnuts and place on the same tray as the pears X side up. Bake for 10 minutes at 425°.  Remove chestnuts from pan and place on the counter to cool.  Flip pears cut side up and sprinkle with Sucanat.  Bake an additional 5 minutes.  Peel chestnuts and chop finely.  When pears are done, place a melon ball size scoop of homemade ricotta into the hole and sprinkle with chestnuts.

For a stronger cheese flavor try goat cheese or feta or maybe even blue, if you're brave.  I'm not.

     You may be saying to yourself, "Hey! Those pears also take about 15 minutes!" to which I say, "Yep!"  I shoved all these things in the oven at the same time and 15 minutes later, they all came out ready to go.

All of these recipes are quick and simple.  Added together, they do take some time, but I hope you can find at least one to substitute into your day to make it a tiny bit less hectic.  It can be hard to focus on Thankfulness when you're focusing on not burning off your eyebrows with the kitchen torch.  Here's to simplicity, everybody.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Support for Sandy

I don't do this kind of post... well... ever... but one of my favorite blogs, Jenn Cuisine, has teamed up with Creative Culinary to create this web event to support victims of Hurricane Sandy.  Basically they asked food bloggers to post a comfort food type dish and encourage readers to donate to the charity of their choice.  The link on the right goes to the Red Cross, since they're my favorite in times like this, but others include the Salvation Army and Feeding AmericaSave the Children is providing support specifically for children and the Humane Society is there doing their part for beloved pets. 

I am fortunate that none of my friends or family members on the East coast were much more than inconvenienced by the storm, though a friend of mine on the outer banks of NC saw a lot of water and more than her fair share of sand.  Many, many people out there cannot say the same.  The North East is basically on the brink of anarchy by some accounts.  At the very least, there are a lot of displaced, desperate people there right now.  There's not much I can do from way out here in Washington State except donate and ask you to do the same.

My dish is macaroni and cheese.  It's my kid's favorite.  Comfort food to the max.  No oven required.

Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 4-6 Servings
Calories: 6 bazillion 
1/2 lb dry macaroni noodles (I use whole wheat)
1/4- 1/2 C Milk (any fat content will do, I usually use skim, but whole is great, too!)
1/4 - 1/2 lb Medium Cheddar Cheese (I use Tillamook Brand, usually)
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Sour Cream

Bring a pot of water to boil on the stove and add the macaroni.  Bring back to a boil and cook about 15-20 minutes, until pasta is tender, but not mushy.  Turn off stove, and drain pasta (do not rinse).  Return to stove, but leave heat off.  Add the first 1/4 C milk and stir to coat the noodles.  You can shred the cheese if you want it to melt faster, but I mostly just put vaguely uniform chunks into it.  Start with a quarter pound but you can go up to a half pound if you like yours really cheesy!  Turn the heat to low and cook until cheese melts and can be stirred into the pasta, about 5 minutes.  Add more milk as necessary.  Salt and pepper to taste.  If you would like to add sour cream, add it at the very end before serving.

Full disclosure, I really don't like baked macaroni.  I have had some I have liked, but as a whole, it's mushy, gloopy, eggy, and tastes like baked cheddar cheese.  I am not a fan of baked cheddar cheese.  This is the macaroni I grew up on (except for the whole wheat noodles).  It's so simple.  No roux, no preheating, just boiling and adding cheese.  I love it and my kids do, too.  If I could send a vat of it to New York I would.  Maybe next week I'll take up a donation for a macaroni vat.  Until then, I hope you will consider sending a donation to one of the more legitimate charities out there!
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