Wednesday, December 14, 2011

First Tastes: Baked Sweetbreads and Mushrooms

When I started this project, my goal was to make every recipe in the box, take pictures, taste it, and then write a story about it. I was excited because it would push the limits of my comfort zone and force me to try new things. I thought this was a great idea – until I came across the card for Baked Sweetbreads and Mushrooms.

I knew I had heard the term “sweetbread” before, but I couldn’t remember the exact definition. My sweet tooth began conjuring images of cake with chocolate fudge drizzled – no poured – all over it. But there was this nagging voice of reason giggling in the back of my mind telling me that my fantasy was about to be destroyed. Somewhere deep in my memory vault was the definition of sweetbreads, but it was too chicken to reveal itself. So I enlisted the help of Google to discover the truth…and immediately amended my goal for the blog.

I found a few variations on the definition, but basically sweetbreads are the thymus glands or pancreas of veal, beef, lamb and pork. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know I’m no Andrew Zimmern. This pushes the limits of my comfort zone a little too far and I’m just not brave enough to purchase these supposed delicacies, let alone bake them and put them in my mouth. But a recent commercial on TV sparked an idea for a different theme for this post.

If you’ve been watching NBC recently, then you’ve probably heard that they’ve resurrected the show Fear Factor, one of the original “reality” shows and probably one of the first places on American TV where people subjected themselves to horrifying stunts, such as eating live bugs or animal eyeballs, for a shot at a large chunk of prize money.

Thinking back to those early episodes of the show, when it was such a revolutionary idea to make people eat disgusting things for money, made me ponder the idea of “first tastes.” Lucy is starting to eat real food now and it’s fun to watch her reaction to different foods. 

Lucy's first taste of rice cereal -- this picture makes me crack up every time I see it.
 Everything is new – the texture, the smell, the taste – and everything needs to be examined thoroughly before it’s allowed to slip past her two teeth and down her throat. It’s been so long that I’ve tried something completely new that I’ve forgotten that feeling of hesitation and apprehension. She first pokes the item with her finger. If it is squishy and sticky, such as a banana, then it’s quickly rejected and sent to the floor for the dog to eat. If it is bread or something crunchy, like a cracker, then it’s carefully picked up and tentatively placed just inside her lips. And if it passes the test, then it’s gobbled up. Her little fingers work together furiously to grab as many pieces as possible and shovel them into her open mouth. Fortunately, the combination of her zeal and lack of coordination sends most of the pieces to her lap so she doesn’t choke on them. 

My little Irish lass gobbling down potatoes at McGuire's Irish Pub in Pensacola, FL.
Lucy’s a pretty adventurous eater. Aside from her aversion to certain textures, there really isn’t too much she won’t eat, or at least try. But I wonder if even she would be brave enough to try sweetbreads. Watching her explore the world has already rekindled so much in me that has lain dormant for way too long. Maybe I should take a lesson from her and give some new foods a try. But instead of taking the plunge and starting with sweetbreads, I think I’ll wade in and give Brussels sprouts a try instead. Does anyone have any good recipes to share?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Waffles

 When Ryan and I started dating, we lived six hours apart. There was a lot of time spent on the phone or driving to see one another. But all that time away just made the moments we got to be together that much more special. Often times we’d pick a place in the middle and meet there for a long weekend. And there was one thing we always looked forward to during those trips…waffles (that’s not what you thought I was going to say, was it?).

We loved to find the hotels that offered not only a free continental breakfast, but one which included a “make your own waffle” station – with the batter pre-measured into little paper Dixie cups that could be easily poured into a piping hot waffle iron. In the morning, we’d patiently wait our turn to choose just the right cup of batter, then listen to it sizzle and pop as we carefully spread the thick liquid evenly through the channels of the iron. Smiles spread across our faces as the smell of cooking waffles slowly drifted up to our noses. At the sound of the timer, we’d pry our breakfast out with a plastic fork, drop it onto a paper plate and carry it to our table where we’d sit and enjoy our “home cooked” meal.

It’s not that they were the best waffles I’d ever eaten – most of the time they were mediocre at best, hardly better than their frozen cousins. It was what they represented that made them so special. Eating those waffles meant that I was spending time with Ryan, something I only got to do a few hours a month. They became part of our routine, something that’s hard to establish when you see each other infrequently and each time it’s in a different place. But it was a routine nonetheless.
After a year and a half of dating long distance, we decided it was time to save some gas money and move closer to each other. And the rest is history. But those waffles never lost their special meaning. We still seek them out at hotels when we’re traveling. It’s as if they are a talisman that we cling to, reminding us of where we started and how far we’ve come. Over the years, we even got a waffle iron of our own. We’ve tried several waffle batter variations, but they never seem to be the same as the ones in the hotels. So we were excited to find a recipe in the box that we could put to the test.

Sadly, we weren’t too impressed with this recipe. The consistency was a little runny and the waffles were thin and limp. But, because of the baby and money being tight from unemployment, we haven’t traveled much in the past few years. So when that familiar sizzling sound hit our ears and the enticing smell of batter cooking on a hot iron drifted into our noses, we felt “home” again. It’s true what they say, absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Before I began this project, I never imagined that I would miss being in the kitchen  making a mess with flour all over the counters, swearing at boiled icing, or waiting to see if the cake I pull from the oven will be light and fluffy or hard and caved in. But in those moments between the time when Lucy finally falls asleep and when my body gives into the exhaustion and passes out, my mind carries me back to the same thought time and time again: I miss writing and cooking. I miss them the same way I used to miss Ryan after  we’d packed our bags at the hotel on Sunday afternoon, each driving away in opposite directions.

There are things that are just a part of who we are. A long time ago, I learned that I am a “writer.” It’s deep in my soul. No matter what I do, nothing will ever change that. It doesn’t matter if I ever get published or if anyone else reads what I’ve written, I need to feel the soft glide of ink across paper, get a cramp in my hand when my body can’t write fast enough to keep up with my excited mind, or listen to the tip tap of my fingers as they type out thoughts on the keyboard. There have been times in my life when writing and I have taken a vacation apart from each other, but we’ve always come back. We are like lovers who see each other on opposite ends of the beach and run, almost in slow motion, towards each other until we slam against one another in a tight embrace, as if we are trying to fuse our bodies into one so that we may never be separated again.

Only now, I’ve come to realize that cooking, too, has entered that embrace. As I stare at my lonely kitchen utensils and realize it has been months since I’ve made a Found Recipe Box recipe and posted it on the blog, I get that pang deep in my gut and long for an afternoon in the kitchen.

Lucy just turned six months old. I can’t believe it. Everyone said it would go by fast, but I never imagined time could move this quickly.

She’s getting so grown up already and insists that she’s a big girl. I want to freeze time and enjoy each precious moment for as long as I can. But I also can’t wait for the day when she can join me in the kitchen. I love to watch her interact with the world. She’s so inquisitive and pays close attention to everything around her – I think she’ll catch onto baking quickly. And someday, I’ll pull out the waffle iron and teach her how to prepare her own batch of batter, all the while regaling her with stories of all the adventures her mom and dad went on…after their fulfilling breakfast of fresh-made waffles, of course. Hopefully by then we’ll have perfected the recipe, finding just the right blend to recreate those thick, flavorful hotel waffles.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Forever Friend: Frozen Lemon Dessert

 The week before Memorial Day, my family had to say a very unexpected goodbye to a very special friend. My parents’ dog Sage lost his brief, but heroic battle against an illness – whose cause is still undetermined – only days before I returned home for the holiday weekend.

Ever since I was a baby, my family has always had a dog. And during that time, we’ve had some incredible dogs, the kinds of dogs that easily transcend from being the family pet to a member of the family. Every one of them left a paw print on my heart, but there are a few who were so special, there’s no other way to describe them than as a “forever friend.”

I already introduced you to one of those special dogs, Buck, who was our very first Flactcoated Retriever. Well, Sage (also a Flatcoat), was another one of those dogs. When he fell ill, I kept the highest of hopes that he’d recover quickly so he could keep spreading his special kind of joy to the world. But when I heard from my parents that he had lost his valiant fight, I was in shock. I couldn’t believe I’d never bury my face in his soft ears again, never hear him “woo woo” at me when I walked in the door, never cuddle up next to him, scratch his head and literally feel him radiate happiness. Sage, like Buck, was the kind of dog who not only left a paw print on your heart, but also a gaping hole in it when he left. He was one of those dogs who was truly man’s best friend – a friend you’d long to see at the end of a rough day, a friend who would make all your worries wash away, a friend who you’d remember forever. I still get a pang of sadness when I think about Buck. And I know it will be the same years from now when I remember Sage.

You didn’t have to be a dog lover to appreciate how special Sage was; even people who weren’t all that fond of flying clumps of dog hair, sloppy kisses or barking loved that dog. There was something about him that just changed the mood in the air when he walked into a room. It was as if he had special powers and could just emanate happiness (for all you Twilight fans, he was basically like Jasper and had the power to change your mood). And you couldn’t help but chuckle when you watched him clumsily run across the yard – his legs flailing about, ears flapping in the wind, tongue hanging out and a look of childlike giddiness spread across his face. Graceful he was not, but that dog truly knew how to enjoy life.

So when I dove into the box in search of a recipe to make in his honor, I knew it had to be something pretty special. It took some digging, but I eventually found the perfect dish: Frozen Lemon Dessert. This worked on several levels.

First, one of Sage’s favorite treats was ice cubes. Not because he liked to eat them, but because his favorite pastime was making a mess and next to tearing up Kleenex or digging holes in the yard, these proved to be perfect tools for accomplishing his goal. Whenever he got one, he’d carry it into the dining room and chew it into pieces, which he then left to melt on the floor. You’d think we’d learn to stop giving the dog ice cubes right? Not when you saw the look of pure bliss on his face as he bounded off with the coveted treat tucked into his lips. How can you deny him such happiness?

So the fact that it was a frozen dessert was a perfect choice for Sage. Second, he was the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. Honestly. He could turn even the bitterest moment into something heartwarming. And that’s just what this dessert did to the lemons. On their own, lemons make your mouth pucker and choke, but mix them with a little sugar and whipped cream and your lips curl right into a bright smile.

This is a pretty simple dessert to make and doesn’t take much time at all. I only made one change and used graham crackers for the crust instead of the vanilla wafers. After a short time in the freezer, it was ready to serve. Each bite filled me with warm memories of Sage and left a cool hint of lemon on my tongue. It was the perfect way to honor his memory. As a tribute to him, I even thought about leaving chunks of ice cubes on the floor, but the warm temperatures would have quickly melted my memorial and left only a big mess to clean up. And that just isn’t as much fun to do when Sage wasn’t the one who made it.

Murphy agrees that this is the perfect tribute to Sage
I miss you so much, Mr. Sage. I still can’t believe you’re gone. I keep hoping to wake up from this terrible dream and hear you in the background when I’m talking to mom and dad on the phone chewing your squeaky ball and annoying the bejesus out of everyone within ear shot (he could chew those obnoxious toys for hours and never get bored, it’s amazing he didn’t go deaf).

Sage and his favorite squeeky ball

But as I said when Buck died, life can be cruel sometimes and insanely unfair. Such a sweet life certainly didn’t deserve such a tragic and untimely end. You touched many lives though, and your love lives on in all of us, especially my sweet Dorie who I know misses you more than any of us. You will always be my friend, Sage, forever and ever.

Sage & Dorie

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Reduced Menu: Sweet Potato Recipes

 Lucy recently turned three months old (I still can’t believe it) and during that time, we’ve faced many feeding issues. She lost a lot of weight after coming home from the hospital and had to go straight back in to see the doctor. We learned that she wasn’t getting enough to eat and we had to start supplementing her meals with formula. Once that was figured out, she began to spit up. Then the spit up became more significant. The doctor thought she may have a food intolerance and suggested I begin by eliminating dairy from my diet. Easy enough right? I quickly learned that dairy is not only in a lot of my favorite foods (pizza, pasta dishes, sweets, etc…) but also food items I never imagined contained milk (bread, crackers, and some lunch meat for example). After some internet research, I found several great resources that provided lists of dairy-free food products and was able to easily change my menu. And I’ve even been able to indulge on some sweets. Did you know that Oreos don’t contain dairy? Neither does Pillsbury’s sugar cookie dough. I can still have warm cookies straight from the oven!

After a few weeks, Lucy was better, but was still having occasional bouts of heavy spit up. The doctor then recommended that I try the elimination diet, which basically cuts out any possible allergen. For a week and a half, I ate nothing more than chicken, pears, potatoes, squash, rice and water. I was miserable, but Lucy felt great. I slowly started to add things back in to determine what was disagreeing with her. I am still dairy-free, but have not been able to positively identify any other triggers. It can be extremely difficult to see such a tiny little body heave out such exceptionally massive amounts of liquid. The other morning, 15 minutes before I needed to leave for work, she expelled an impressive arc of stomach contents that left her, me and the floor completely soaked. She got a bath, I took a second shower and the floor got a quick mop-down. But through it all, Lucy never stopped smiling.

Although eliminating dairy wasn’t as difficult as I originally imagined, I am still looking forward to the day when she is able to tolerate it again (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this is a temporary issue and not an actual allergy). I really miss pizza. And chocolate. And a glass of milk with dinner. And when I dug into the Found Recipe Box for recipes to post on the blog, I realized how many of them listed milk or butter as a main ingredient. There was one, however, that stood out right away and I knew I needed to post it as a tribute to my stint on the elimination diet: sweet potato recipes. There are a few variations listed on the card, but I chose the glazed sweet potatoes. They resemble thick-cut baked sweet potato fries. It didn’t take long for the house to fill with the delicious aroma of the beautiful orange tuber baking with brown sugar…and smoke. I had placed the potato slices onto parchment paper in a metal baking dish. The paper, though, didn’t fit the entire bottom of the dish. Some of the glaze slid off the paper and onto the metal where it began to bubble and burn and turn into a material that resembled black Hawaiian lava rock. Thankfully it was nothing that a quick soak in soapy, hot water couldn’t fix.

Once the smoke had cleared and we were able to sit down to dinner, we dug into the sweet potatoes and discovered they were delicious! In honor of the elimination diet, we also had squash, but swapped out the chicken for tilapia. The best part of this meal, though, was that it was in celebration of my very first Mother’s Day. This day has always been special because of how much my own mother means to me. But this year, as I gazed into the bright blue eyes of my beautiful baby girl, it gained a whole new meaning. Thank you Lucy and Ryan for making my very first Mother’s Day so incredibly special!

I found several other recipes in the box that are dairy-free so I hope to have more to post soon. Otherwise, I guess I’ll just have to make the recipes for cakes and pies and give them away. Luckily, I think I know a few people who wouldn’t mind receiving the gift of a fresh-baked cake.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Loving the Leftovers: Cream of Crabmeat Soup

These days, free time comes in short supply and when I do find an extra moment during the day I either make a mad dash for the shower or run to the basement to throw yet another load of dirty burp cloths and baby clothes into the washing machine. So when it comes to meals, time is of the essence and the easier the preparation, the better. We’ve found a few favorite dinners that are easy to put together and make enough to throw leftovers into the freezer for a future meal. Our freezer, which was previously virtually unused, is now stocked full with Tupperware icicles just waiting to be unthawed.

One of our favorite meals to make is soup. Before Lucy was born, we dug into the Found Recipe Box for some new recipes to try and pulled out the card for Cream of Crabmeat Soup. At that time, I didn’t appreciate how easy this recipe is to prepare. I took my time opening cans and pouring them into the soup pot, scraping each one to make sure I got every last drop. I carefully cut up the crabmeat, daydreaming the whole time about what life would be like with a baby and how I couldn’t wait to share the Found Recipe Box with my little girl. When it came time to eat, Ryan and I both sat down at the same time, savored each spoonful of soup and lingered around the dinner table after we finished so that we could see the end of our TV show before doing dishes. As we poured the rest of the soup into a container to freeze, I never imagined how different our lives would be the next time we tasted that rich, creamy broth.

Now, unless we can time meal preparation perfectly to catch a moment when Lucy is sleeping, Ryan and I take shifts to eat – and by “eat” I mean devour our food so quickly we barely taste it so that the next person can dive into their meal which has already started cooling off. I am no longer reading recipe cards, but instead am following the heating instructions for already prepared meals. And any daydreams I have are usually the result of dozing off on the couch with Murphy while Ryan and Lucy spend quality time together discussing her future of following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a soccer player – a sport which she practiced frequently while in the womb.

But, life moves quickly and I know that these sleep-deprived days will be over before I know it. Soon, Lucy will be crawling around collecting dog hair on the floor while I heat up those frozen meals. Then she’ll be walking, soon after running, and chasing Murphy around the yard. So I’ve taken the lesson Cream of Crabmeat Soup taught me and I’m savoring every moment I have with Lucy. When she falls asleep in my arms, I just stare at her instead of placing her in bed to sleep like all the books recommend. I absorb her warmth, memorize her face and place soft kisses on her forehead, careful not to disturb her peaceful slumber. Sometimes I wish I could press pause, freezing those moments just like I did the leftover soup, and linger there just a little longer before thawing it out and moving into the future. Because you can always throw a cold meal in the microwave to reheat it, but if I let those precious moments I have with Lucy go, I can never get them back. And nothing is more delicious than spending time with my little soccer player/future Found Recipe Box baker.

She's trying to think of something sweeter than her...shortbread tarts, chocolate cake? Nope, not even those!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Introducing the Newest Little Cook in the Kitchen: Pink & White Birthday Cake

On Monday, January 31st, Ryan and I welcomed the newest addition to our family into the world and I am very excited to introduce you to Lucy:

Although she decided to join us one week earlier than expected, she took her own sweet time in arriving. After 30 grueling hours of labor, we were finally united with our beautiful little girl. She weighed in at 7 pounds, 8 ounces and measured 20 inches long. We had a few bumps in the road throughout delivery and Lucy had to spend two days in the Special Care Nursery, but she’s a trooper and was ready to head home with Ryan and me when we left the hospital. We were so happy to bring her home and there were a lot of people who were very excited to meet her, especially her big fur brother, Murphy.

Although, his enthusiasm wore off pretty quickly when he realized that she would be keeping him up throughout the night. He tossed and turned and grunted his frustration through those first few late night feedings, but has since learned to sleep through it and has grown quite fond of his new little sister.

Lucy and I have been slowly recovering and adjusting to life apart from each other. It was a weird feeling to not be pregnant any longer. I used to spend so much time with my hand on my belly eagerly awaiting my baby’s next kick. Then, all of a sudden (well, after 30 hours), she wasn’t there anymore. It was an empty feeling, until I got to cradle her in my arms, stare into her wide blue eyes, run my fingers through her thick hair (can you believe all that hair?!) and hold those tiny little feet to see firsthand what was creating all those kicks I had grown so fond of.

Look at all that hair!
 I’ve never really been a person who sits still very well; I always have to be doing something. But since Lucy has come into my life, I have discovered that I could spend hour upon hour simply sitting and staring at my beautiful baby girl. I am in complete awe of her.

I have also discovered that it was a lot easier to get things done during the day when she was still that little bundle of joy kicking inside my belly. I haven’t had more than a couple of hours of sleep at a time in over a month, showering has become a luxury and laundry has turned into a daily chore. But thanks to a rare afternoon when Lucy took a nap for about four hours, I was able to sneak into the kitchen and make the cake I picked out for her as soon as we found out we were having a girl: Pink & White Birthday Cake. I made a few changes to the recipe to save some time. I only made two layers instead of three and I chose to make them marbled pink and white instead of solid color layers. And I also used store-bought pink vanilla frosting (with Funfetti of course!). The cake was delicious and was a huge hit with all of the visitors who came over to meet Lucy. It was the perfect recipe from the box to celebrate Lucy’s birth.

Once Lucy and I have a better routine, I’m hoping to be able to spend a little more time in the kitchen. But until then, my postings will be a little sporadic. I apologize for the huge delays, but promise that I will be back. We still have a lot of recipes to make and I’m committed to making every single one in The Found Recipe Box! Hopefully I can finish before Lucy starts school...or gets her driver's license.