The Big Thaw

It was -14 when I left my house on Friday and it’s supposed to be subzero for the better part of this week. I’ve been joking that I won’t warm up until May, but I’m starting to think that it might be the truth.

One of the few things that temporarily warms my cold, winter soul is a bowl of homemade soup. In addition to the warmth factor, soups can usually be created from whatever you already have in your pantry. When it gets to the end of February and the weather is alternating blizzard like conditions and subzero temperatures, not having to leave the house is a big deal.

lentil soup

Ethiopian Inspired Lentil Soup with Berbere Seasoning

My formula for putting together soups and stews is pretty simple. I start with about a pound of whatever meat I happen to have on hand. Usually I can count on my freezer for some smoked or Italian sausage and that becomes the base. If I’m doing a vegetarian soup, like the lentil soup pictured above, I just use beans and grains to give it some heft.  You could also use veggie sausage*. Once I have a base for the soup, I choose my spices. If I’m using sausages I use fewer spices since the sausage has plenty of seasoning in it. If I’m using chicken, beans, or a ground meat for my base then I get more creative.  Lately I’ve been experimenting with a jar of Berbere (Ethiopian) and some Ras El Hanout (Moroccan) that I acquired on vacation last year. Other good choices include Curry Powder, Cajun Seasoning, and Paprika. Once the spices are picked out,  I choose my aromatics (Things like onion, garlic, carrots, celery), my other vegetables, beans if I want them, grains, and any greens I might want. I created a chart that can help you build your own soup.


Click to enlarge image

Once the choices are made the process is pretty easy.

  1. Start by cooking your aromatics in a little bit of oil
  2. Add meat and cook until it is browned
  3. Add spices and vegetables and cook until spices are fragrant (about a minute)
  4. Add liquid and beans
  5. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer for about 30 minutes
  6. While it’s simmering cook any grains that you want to add
  7. Add greens for 5-10 minutes before you’re ready to serve. (If using spinach add that at the very end)
  8. Add cooked pasta/grains
  9. Enjoy the warmth of a homemade bowl of soup


  • If you don’t have broth, use water. This is especially true if you are using a flavored sausage. You can also add a little bit of Better Than Bouillon to your water to make a quick broth.
  • I usually use canned beans and I drain and rinse them to remove excess sodium. If you just pour them from can to pot, then maybe use less liquid.
  • The amount of liquid you use depends on how soupy you want it vs. how stewy you want it. I usually use between 2 and 6 cups of liquid. A lot of this depends on how many cans of tomatoes I’m using.
  • Cook pasta and grains separately and add it to each serving. I find that for leftovers the grains soak up too much liquid and you are left with not even much of a stew. This is always sad because soup tastes so much better the next day.

Some ideas to get you started

  • Taco Soup: Hamburger, Onion, Garlic, Jalapeno Peppers, Black Beans, Taco Seasoning, Diced Tomatoes, Green Chiles
  • Cajun Minestrone: Bell Peppers, Celery, Carrots, Onion, Cajun Seasoning, Veggie Broth, Red Beans, Tomatoes, Zucchini, Macaroni
  • Sausage Tortellini: Onion, Garlic, Carrots, Italian Sausage, Italian Seasoning, Chicken Broth, White Beans, Tortellini, Spinach

*I think Field Roast makes a few different kinds that are widely available.

A Journey of a Thousand Biscuits

Sometimes, you don’t get it right on the first try. To many people this probably seems like common sense, but to me this is a constant struggle. I’m the kind of person who is naturally good at enough things that I tend to get angry if I’m not automatically good at something new.   Anybody who has ever gone to the bowling alley with me, tried to get me to play some stupid lawn game, or introduced me to a new board game has probably seen me melt down like a toddler when I start losing.

I was thinking about all of this when I was making buttermilk biscuits this weekend. After a successful drop biscuit experiment last week, I thought I was ready to take on real southern biscuits. I compared recipes, I did my research on what to expect, I bought butter, and I got out the White Lily flour. In my head I was going to knock it out of the park on my first try. In my head I had perfect biscuit making technique. In my head I had already made the best biscuits in the world. My daydream ignored the fact that I’m an Ohio Yankee who doesn’t know the first thing about biscuit making other than what I’ve read in books and online. In my head I was perfect.

All seemed to be going well until I added the buttermilk, that’s when I felt the tantrum starting. I ended up with a dough that was crazy sticky. I knew I had to fold it over on itself at least a few times, but this dough seemed unworkable. Every time I tried to touch it I ended up with dough on my hands and no movement of the giant dough ball on the counter. The temptation to just pitch everything in the trash and give up was definitely there. But, I really want to learn how to master biscuits and it occurred to me that maybe it was the kind of thing that requires patience and practice. So I put myself back together, put a little more flour on the dough and did what I could. I cut out my biscuits put them in the oven and hoped for the best. And this is what came out of the oven:

My biscuit attempt

It’s a biscuit. Not a perfect biscuit, but not inedible. It tasted rich and buttery and better than the biscuits that come in a tube. I may not ever be able to make a perfect biscuit, but I’m not afraid to keep trying.

Under the Weather

I love New Year’s Day. There is something hopeful about being able to start the year with a clean slate. This year, however, I started the year off with a raging cold virus. Being sick is not the optimal way to spend one’s vacation, but it did give me an excuse to eat all of my favorite comfort foods.

When I was growing up, being sick meant healthy doses of Mom’s chicken noodle soup. I still love chicken noodle soup, and Mom makes a really good one, but I have a confession. When I’m really under the weather there is another soup I crave – Avgolemono AKA Greek Lemon, Chicken, and Rice Soup. Lucky for me there is a little Greek place not too far from me that has an amazing homemade version. This is good because as much as I love to cook, when I’m sick I prefer somebody else do it for me. This soup uses simple ingredients: homemade broth, eggs, fresh Lemon juice, rice, and if desired the meat from your broth. The rice is cooked in the broth and then the lemon juice and eggs are whisked together, tempered with some broth and added back to the soup. Then if adding meat, you would put that in and serve it up. It has everything you would want in a healing soup: Vitamin C from the lemon, all the nutrients from a hearty chicken stock, and some protein.

Another soup that I crave when I am sick is Chinese Hot and Sour Soup. A staple of most Chinese Take-Out restaurants, I love this soup because the hit of sour  clears out my sinuses. Fun fact, the sour in the hot and sour soup comes from Black Vinegar, which is essentially rice vinegar that has been aged to give it a complex and completely unique flavor. Recipes will tell you that you can approximate the flavor by combining balsamic vinegar with rice wine vinegar or red wine vinegar, but I wouldn’t bother with that. If you’re going to make your own hot and sour soup, take the extra step and pick up a bottle of the real stuff at your local Asian grocery where it will be around $4 or $5 for a bottle. If you don’t see it labelled as Black Vinegar, look for Chinkiang or Zhenjiang Vinegar, which is a specific type of black vinegar. (Chinkiang being the region in China that first popularized it)

available at your local Asian market

available at your local Asian market

During my sickness the one thing that I was willing to make for myself was a hot toddy. It took me entirely too long to realize that all of the ingredients needed to make this magical elixir were already in my cupboards. I squeezed half a lemon into a mug, added 2 oz. of bourbon and then put it in the microwave for 45 seconds. When it was nice and warm I added a spoonful of honey. It’s a cough syrup that works just as well as anything you can buy and tastes twice as good.

It will cure what ails you

It will cure what ails you

So there you have it, my prescription for eating while under the weather. What do you crave when you’re sick?

Meal Planning: Save Money and Time

Homemade Chicken Tortilla Soup

Homemade Chicken Tortilla Soup

What’s for dinner? Even if you love to cook, finding the time to cook dinner every night can be a challenge.  As a commuter, I understand how easy it is to fall into unhealthy, expensive eating patterns. Before I started regularly meal planning, my weeks went something like this: Go to the grocery store at the last minute on Sunday with a vague plan for things we might want to eat that week. Go to work, get home and not really feel like figuring out what to do with the groceries in the fridge, suggest ordering take out (an idea that very seldom meets with resistance), and end up doing this a few times a week. When I finally did decide to use the groceries I would realize that the vague plan was not enough and I would be missing a few key ingredients necessitating another trip to the store.  I was spending too much on takeout and wasting too much food because I wasn’t planning.

When I read an article in the NY Times about menu planning services  I thought that this just might be the answer. I joined The Fresh 20 and every Friday I was granted access to 5 recipes that focused on whole food, clean eating and a list of 20 ingredients that would allow me to make these recipes. Common wisdom says that it takes 21 days to make a habit.  Well, I don’t know if it took 21 days, but I was soon in the habit of grocery shopping once a week and making food that made me feel good about eating it.  This left me free to enjoy eating out on the weekend guilt free.

I did the Fresh 20 for a little over a year and then something strange happened.  I graduated from needing my menu planning service to plan the menu for me to being able to plan my own menu. I started creating my own list. I started looking through my cookbooks and finding recipes I wanted to try. Of course we live in a wired society, so I quickly found a new service that would help me plan my own menus. Now I use Plan to Eat, which allows me to input my own recipes and collect recipes from online. Every week I can drag and drop my selected recipes into the calendar and a grocery list is generated for me.  It’s great and when I tell people about my commitment to meal planning I get responses like: “I should try that” or “that’s a great idea!”.  I realized that my experiences might help those who wanted to get in the habit of meal planning.I hope that the tips below inspire you to make meal planning a regular part of your week.

  • Set aside the time to plan your menu. This is where it all begins. If you don’t spend the time to plan your meals and your grocery list, you won’t be able to make it work. I’ve made it a priority to dedicate an hour or so on Friday after work or on Saturday morning to create our menu for the week.
  • Prep what you can on Saturday or Sunday. If there are vegetables that can be chopped up or things that can be measured, take the time to do it. One of the reasons professional kitchens run so smoothly is that there are prep cooks on staff to prepare everything in advance.
  • Find recipes that are designed to be cooked for weekday meals. It’s no longer in publication, but Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food was a great source of these types of recipes. Luckily, before it ceased publication, a few cookbooks of recipes from the magazine were published. I also find Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook to be an inspirational source.


    My weekday meal inspiration

  • Save big cooking projects for the weekend. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, because my favorite cookbooks tend to be the kind that contains long, involved recipes*. I had to teach myself to save these recipes for the days when I had the most time to spend on them. Cooking can’t be fun if you are stressing out about getting everything done in a reasonable time to eat dinner and still have a little bit of time to yourself.
  • Find recipes that use the same ingredients and make double batches when appropriate. In the sample menu below I made a double batch of taco meat early in the week. One half was for enchiladas and the other half was used for taco salad. This is an especially good technique when you know you have a busy week ahead. Other combinations include turning chili leftovers into chili mac and using leftover roast meats in fried rice.
  • Have a well-stocked pantry. This is a topic I’ve written about before . To that blog post I would add that you should have a high quality balsamic vinegar on hand at all times.  Also, make sure you check your pantry before you go shopping to stock up on items that you might need.

*Deborah Madison, I’m looking at you

And finally, here is an example week

  • Sunday: Chickpea Minestrone
  • Monday: Tex-Mex Turkey Enchiladas (make double meat for taco salads)
  • Tuesday: Leftover Minestrone
  • Wednesday: Turkey Taco Salad
  • Thursday: Garlic Lemon Mahi-Mahi
  • Friday: Hit and Run Pan Baked Chicken

Jamie Oliver’s Hit and Run Pan Baked Chicken

Happy Dog

If you live near Cleveland and you haven’t been to Happy Dog, you should know that you are missing out.  Located in the Gordon Arts District, Happy Dog has become one of our go-to Cleveland restaurant destinations.

Happy Dog Menu

The idea is that you get a hot dog and as many toppings as can fit on top of the dog.  I don’t just mean mustard, onions, chili and coleslaw*. I’m talking things like Oaxacan Red Chile and Chocolate Mole Sauce, Bacon Spiked Southern Greens, Habanero Hot Sauce from Momocho, and Warm Pineapple-Ginger-Currant Chutney.

Dog with Spanish Onions, Habanero Hot Sauce, Mole Sauce, and Housemade Peanut Butter. Tots with a side of Chimichurri Sauce

When you sit down at your table there is a notepad that has the menu selections, a cup of golf pencils and a laminated card that has some “Suggestive Wieners”.  You simply check off if you want a hot dog or a vegan sausage and the toppings you want. If you flip your paper over you will see your next tough choice. Fries or Tots.  It’s never a bad idea to go with the tots and there is a selection of sauces that you can pick from. For another $1 you can add from a variety of cheeses, chilis, and an egg to your potatoes.

One of the suggestive wieners. It has "Everything Bagel" Cream Cheese, Southern spiked Greens, and hot sauce.

We have never been disappointed. My last trip there I discovered the Brazilian Chimichurri sauce as a dip for my tots. It was so good that when I ran out of tots I was eating the sauce with my spoon. There are endless combinations for your hot dog and it has a really nice dive bar ambiance. Not as in “EEW, my feet are sticking to the floor!” but as in the waitresses all wear punk band T-Shirts and it looks like the building has always been the neighborhood bar. It’s a great restaurant in an area  that has really seen a lot of growth in the past few years.  If you’re looking for a bite to eat in Cleveland, you’ve gotta try Happy Dog!

*Please note: Ketchup was deliberately left off this list. Everybody knows it  does not belong on hot dogs.

Salad days

If you know me, you know that I equally love incredibly healthy food and over the top unhealthy food. Lately the scales have been tipped in favor of unhealthy food, so we made the decision to try to eat salad once a week. There are some things to keep in mind when turning to salad as a healthy option:

  • Watch the dressing. If you douse the salad with unhealthy dressings you are running counterproductive to your goal. I try to make my own dressing. It’s easier that you would ever think, and soon you will be wondering why you ever bought dressing in the first place.
  • Add some protein. Since we are making this a main dish, I find that adding some meat makes it more filling. Of course if you are a Vegetarian you can pick your favorite veggie based protein.

Cobb Salad

Making Your Own Dressing

The most basic vinaigrette consists of four ingredients: Oil, Vinegar, Salt, and Pepper. I usually add a little bit of dijon mustard to make it emulsify nicely. The basic proportion is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (vinegar). Be a miser with the salt and a crazy man with the pepper. Once you get this down, you can play around and make all kinds of variations. You can add fresh herbs, or even replace some of the vinegar with citrus juice. It can turn into an Asian vinaigrette with the addition of some soy and sesame oil.

Greek Salad

Salad Topping Ideas
Here are some ideas to get started. A Build Your Own Salad Bar is always fun and allows everyone to have the toppings they want.

  • Artichoke Hearts
  • Sun Dried Tomatoes
  • Roasted Red Peppers
  • Kalamata Olives
  • Feta Cheese
  • Blue Cheese
  • Apples and Pears
  • Berries
  • Nuts (Almonds, Walnuts, Sunflower Seeds etc…)
  • Mandarin Oranges
  • Hard Boiled Eggs
  • Snow Peas
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Corn
  • Black Beans
  • Taco Meat (Use Lean Ground Turkey)

Asian Salad with Flank Steak

Kitchen Tips: Pantry For The Beginning Home Cook

I know, I know. I promised myself I was going to blog every week. Wanna hear my excuse? It’s not because I haven’t been cooking, in fact I’ve been cooking more than ever. I’ve even been developing my own recipes, and I have a whole folder that includes what will hopefully become an award winning chili. So why no blogging? Here is my confession…food blogs should have pictures. Gorgeous, colorful pictures that make you wish you could reach into the computer and taste the food being shown.  I don’t have a nice enough camera to take photos of my food, so I sort of started to ignore my blog. But then I had an epiphany. MFK Fisher didn’t need photographs to be the best food writer ever*, so why not let my English degree work for me a little bit while I wait to get a camera? So I’m back. Hopefully this time to stay.

And this week I bring you some simple kitchen tips regarding what to keep in the pantry. Much of this may seem common sense, and experienced cooks will probably be bored reading it, however for those who are just starting to experiment in the kitchen you will find that with these ingredients on hand you will always be able to whip up something amazing.  Here is my annotated list.

Eggs-Frittatas and Omelettes make beautiful dinners especially if you have a bunch of leftover produce you need to use. The varieties are endless and you can experiment with all kinds of spices and herbs. Also having eggs on hand means baked goods, like cookies. (For an example Frittata recipe check out this post from 101 cookbooks.)

Spices-Build a good collection of spices. I find that spices at CostPlus World Market are that rare blend of cheap but decent quality.  It can be expensive to buy them all at the same time so pick a few different ones each trip. The spices I use most are: Cumin, Coriander, Chipotle Chili Powder, Chili Powder, Sun brand Madras Curry Powder, Crushed Red Pepper, and Cayenne Pepper.

Butter-The real stuff. Your cookies will thank you. Also mix room temp butter with an equal amount of flour to create a beurre manie that will thicken your sauces and soups nicely.

Olive Oil-Find a good mid-level olive oil for everyday use. The expensive olive oil is better for dipping and drizzling as a sauce.

Pasta-I try to keep several varieties on hand. My favorites are Penne,Campanelle, and Orrichette

Milk-Combine with eggs and you have the basis for custard which will help you create a variety of sweet and savory dishes.

Good Cheese-Fontina, Aged Cheddar, Gruyere all make dishes that would be boring with velveeta or american sing. And I always have a big chunk of Parmesan in the fridge for sprinkling over pasta dishes.

Sugar– With sugar, eggs, flour and butter you will be able to create baked masterpieces in a moments notice. Bonus if you always have a bag of chocolate chips on hand.

Canned beans-Technically this should be dried beans which are cheaper and healthier, but I haven’t figured out how to cook and freeze dried beans so I usually have cans of black beans, kidney beans,  garbanzo beans,  and white beans. Remember to rinse your beans in cold water to get rid of the excess sodium.

Rice-My favorite rice to keep on hand is Lundberg Short Grain Brown, but any rice will do and if you’re feeling adventurous you can keep a variety on hand. Others that I keep on hand include Basmati and Jasmine

Canned Tomatoes-I keep a variety of can sizes on hand. Some 28 oz. cans of whole and diced tomatoes for sauce and chilis, some 14.5 oz. cans for smaller dishes and as secondary ingredients. I’m partial to Muir Glen’s Fire Roasted Tomatoes, which pack a lot of flavor.

Fresh Garlic-Garlic in a jar and garlic powder can’t match the flavor that is offered by fresh cloves.

Flour-Unbleached, all purpose. For baked goods like breads and cookies there is no better than King Arthur’s Flour.

So what kinds of last minute dinners can you make with these ingredients?

  • Sauteed chickpeas tossed with olive oil, pasta, and Parmesan cheese.
  • Beans and Rice (Experiement with spices to find the flavor you want)
  • Cheese Omelette
  • Vegetable Frittata
  • Homemade Mac and Cheese
  • Spaghetti Sauce
  • Vegetarian Chili
  • Shortbread Cookies
  • Muffins
  • Pancakes

*I’m not insinuating that I have the talent of Ms. Fisher. I do not. yet.