Adventures in meal subscription boxes

Okay, I know I haven’t shared any “Sunday Dinner” posts for a while. What can I say, life is hectic! So hectic, I decided to try one of those food crate subscription things. After looking through some sites and talking to some people, I settled on Marley Spoon as a first try.

I went for the “family” plan, which is intended to serve two adults and two kids under 12. So far we’ve done three meals (one week) and here, dear readers, are my findings!

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The ingredients for meal #1: skillet beef & rice
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My kids LOVED this!

First, the negatives:

  1. Small serving sizes. Now, I have spoken to other people who say they have plenty of leftovers, but those people are on the “2 adults” plan, not the family one. Maybe my family are just big eaters? I don’t know. All I know is, there haven’t been any leftovers and I kind of like leftovers. Also, it’s only been one adult and 2 kids eating these and there still were no leftovers, so I’m not sure the servings are “full meal” size. At least not for us.
  2. A bit pricey. I could definitely go to the store and get the same ingredients for significantly less money.
  3. Not a ton of vegetarian options. Possibly other services have more though. My kids and husband eat meat, and combined with the fact the servings are small so it really only serves the three of them it works out. But I’d like more veggie choices.
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Meal #2 prep: tomato & feta bake. One ciabatta roll for 4 people??? I added another one from my own stash, and it was still a small casserole.
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This looks kind of gross but it was fabulous. I will absolutely make this again.

The positives:

  1. New ideas. I don’t know about you, but I cook the same dozen things over and over and over. This subscription has given me some new ideas and pushed me to try some new techniques.
  2. Fun family activity. I decided if we were going to splurge on this it was going to be a family activity. So I’ve pretty much been having my kids cook these meals, with me as supervision. They’ve been loving it! And because they’ve made it, they are more willing to try these new foods, which is pretty awesome.wp-1466718186141.jpg
  3. Easy and fast to prepare. Nothing has taken more than 35 minutes to make, and everything is super easy to do. My 9 & 11 year old have been cooking this stuff, if that tells you anything. Clear step-by-step directions and everything is pre-measured, with just enough prep to make you feel like you’re actually cooking.
  4. No “what’s for dinner” stress. This is possibly the biggest “pro” of these things. God, I hate having to figure out what to make every night!! This takes a few of those decisions away and eases the stress a lot.
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Meal #3: sausage & beans with greens
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This definitely didn’t come out as good looking as the recipe card photo. But everyone seemed to enjoy it.

So overall, I think I will keep this subscription for a few months, and maybe try another company, too. It’s not something I’ll do forever, but for now I’m enjoying it.

How about you? Have you tried any of these? Blue Apron? Hello Fresh? What did you think?

marmalade experiments

I’m a homemade-gift-giver. To me, receiving a home-made gift is so special and sweet. And I hope that the people I give home-made gifts to feel the same. I’ve been making my Christmas gifts for my entire adult life. It started in college, when I was dead broke and had to find a way to make a hundred dollars equal a few dozen gifts.

I’m still pretty broke. But I can buy gifts for most people. Still, it feels wrong and weird to exchange candles and gloves and bottles of wine. Especially when the people on my list generally have more money than I do! They can all buy their own wine, and candles, and other low-priced gift items.

But after 20+ years of making gifts, it’s getting tough to come up with new ideas.

I give out my fruitcake, but some people don’t care for it (fools!!) so I can’t give it to everyone. I used to make an ornament each year, but nowadays my kids do that so mine would be redundant (giving to the same people) so I don’t do that much anymore. I’ve given crocheted gifts, and sewn gifts, and sculpted ones, and seashell jewelry, and homemade lotions and soaps, and all kinds of things.

This year, my plan is to give small loafs of nice homemade oatmeal bread along with a few jars of preserves. I have my blackberry jam of course, but I thought a marmalade would be fun. I’ve never made marmalade before.

Experiment time!

I did some research and realized that marmalade is kind of a big deal to some people. And the procedures for making it are wildly varied.

I found an easy one from Whole Foods. It was indeed very simple, but the result wasn’t so great. It is way too thick, the orange slices remain too firm for my tastes, and there isn’t much jelly. I think it will be a great accompaniment to roast meat, maybe even a good glaze for ham or fish, but not fantastic on toast. (this didn’t stop me from eating almost half a jar, however! lol the flavor is good, it’s the texture I didn’t love.)

 Armed with this experience, a lot of internet research, and a few cookbooks from my shelf, I improvised a new recipe:

  • 4 navel oranges (obviously Seville oranges are preferable, but those are a January thing)
  • 2 lemons
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup minced fresh ginger root
  • 8 cups water  
  1. Peel the orange with a vegetable peeler and chop into bits (however large you like). Cut off the pith (white parts) of the orange and put into a cheesecloth. Chop up the flesh and put it into the pot, along with the bits of peel.
  2. Peel one lemon and chop the rind as you did the orange rinds, add that to the pot too.
  3. Gather up all the pith (and any seeds) in the cheesecloth bag and put that into the pot as well.
  4. Add 8c. water to the pot and bring to a boil. Let boil until the water is reduced by about half. (this took me about an hour and a half, I think) Meanwhile, peel and mince the ginger, and juice the lemons.
  5. Remove the cheesecloth bag, and add the lemon juice, ginger, and sugar to the pot. Squeeze out the bag and put that juice back into the pot.
  6. Boil until set. (220f on a candy thermometer, or do the spoon sheet test)
  7. ladle into clean, sterilized jars and seal.

I definitely prefer the second, experimental, batch. The ginger flavor is a LOT stronger, which I love (I wanted to call this “orange-ginger-marmalade” due to an inside joke with my cousin – this stuff fits that label well) and the texture is way nicer.

I think I should have added extra water along with the sugar, as the jelly-to-bits ratio is not ideal. I also think longer pre-sugar boiling time would have helped make the rinds more soft (they are fairly firm). And clearly: I over-boiled. Next time I will trust the thermometer (it looked so watery at 220 though!!) Even still: these are gift-worthy!

But you know, I can’t leave well enough alone 🙂 So I made one more experimental batch. This time, lemon-cranberry!

  • 3 lemons
  • 1 cup fresh cranberries
  • 2 tbsp fresh minced ginger
  • 9 cups water
  • 4 cups sugar

Basically following the exact same procedure, but using the lemons instead of oranges, and adding the cranberries (chopped) with the ginger and sugar.

 This came out beautiful! What a gorgeous pink color! BUT…super tart. I don’t know what I was expecting, what with lemon and cranberries being the only fruit ingredients, but yeah, tarty tart tart. Still really good, though. It would be fantastic as a topping for ham or other meat. It would even be good on a very rich bread, or as a glaze for a fruit tart, or poured over a brick of cream cheese and served with crackers as an appetizer.

If I make it again, I’d boil the cranberries and ginger with the lemons from the start, and increase the sugar. On the positive side, I now know the correct ratio of water to rind, as this one is pretty near perfect (in my opinion) as far as texture goes.

Overall, my marmalade experiments were fun, cheap, and tasty, and I feel sure the results will be appreciated by my family members. I might do some test-cooking with them, and give a recipe card with the jars instead of (or in addition to) a loaf of bread.

As far as preserving goes, I will most likely stick to jam, though, unless I am in the mood for a lot more science experimenting! ❤

 

Sunday Dinner: Avgolemono Soup

Avgolemono is a Greek soup (or sometimes a sauce) made with egg (avgo) and lemon (lemono) and usually chicken broth. I am not Greek. But my husband is and so I learned to make this soup the way his mother makes it, because… Well, because I wanted to, I guess.

This soup is the one a lot of Greek mothers make for their kids when they are sick, and it is a very nice comfort food. It’s plain but not bland, simple enough to not offend most palates. But it also has a bit of zing and enough flavor complexity to be eaten even when no one is ill. It is healthy and filling, and definitely a welcome dish on a cold, rainy day. 🙂

There are hundreds of variations of this soup. Some use milk. Some use cornstarch. Some use whole eggs, some use rice. I’m doing the one my mother in law makes. I hope you like it! Here goes. (It’s really easy.)

So step one is you need a great chicken stock. I am old fashioned (being raised by an Italian grandmother will do that, lol) so I make my own stock by boiling the carcass of a previously roasted bird. If you are unfamiliar with this process (and it shocks me how many people are) all you have to do is take a chicken which you have roasted and eaten, pick off all the remaining good meat and set it aside (for sandwiches or whatever) and put the whole thing – bones, skin, jelly-broth and all – into a stock pot, cover it with water, and boil it for about two hours. Then strain it and you’ll have a fantastic, and pretty much free, chicken stock. And no gross boiled chicken to eat (how do people deal with that???)

Take your stock and bring it to a boil. Add some orzo pasta. I usually use half a box, which is maybe like a cup? A cup and a half? Don’t sweat it, just dump it in. You’re cooking here, not building a rocket!

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Pouring the orzo into the stock. (not sure why I thought this needed a photo but whatevs)

So while that cooks you get your egg-lemon ready. This is the only “trick” to this soup. You need about 2 lemons juiced, and 3 or 4 egg yolks. (again, let’s not get all fussy and measure. Don’t ruin this with math!) You can fry up the leftover egg whites and serve them to your family to tide them over until the soup is done. 🙂

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Be sure to squeeze the lemon over a strainer. Because lemon seeds in a soup are not good.

So you whisk up the eggs and lemon, in a bowl. Then you do a thing called “tempering” which means you pour a little bit of the hot, boiling soup/broth into the eggs, whisking all the while, so that your eggs don’t scramble. I think two ladle-fulls are plenty for this task. Then take the tempered egg/lemon mixture and dump it into the soup. Be sure to stir it well. I like to let the soup come back to a boil because I’m always nervous about raw eggs but that’s just me.

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Tempering step one: pour a ladle of hot broth into the egg-lemon.
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Tempering step two: pour the tempered egg-lemon into the pot.

That’s it! You can top with freshly ground black pepper and serve this with a crusty bread, and it will make a fine meal anytime.

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Some people call this “yellow soup” which will make complete sense when you see it. It’s very yellow.

I’m going to try to get better about my “sunday dinner” blog posts, because taking crappy iPhone photos of my cooking process is super fun for me. Let me know what you think! And if you make this (or any of my other recipes) I’d love to hear how they came out.

Sunday Dinner

So I had an idea for a series of blog posts…since I post a lot of recipe/food related stuff, I was thinking maybe I will try to post one every week? Or almost every week? No promises, let’s just see how we do.

So for my first “Sunday Dinner” post, I decided to share a favorite that is also related to my recent release Night Vision: Dolmades

My main character, Theron, loves to cook. And he is Greek. I thought, surely he would enjoy cooking and eating Dolmades, right? I think so. This is a very simple recipe, and I am confident that anyone can make them. Stuffed grape leaves have a tangy flavor, from the leaves themselves as well as from the lemon juice they are baked with, and they make a lovely appetizer because they can be served cold, so you can prepare them ahead and they will still taste great! Or, just eat them in massive quantities directly out of the fridge while standing in your kitchen at 1am. Either way! So here it is:

Theron’s Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves)

  • 1 jar of grape leaves
  • 1 ½ cup rice (uncooked, preferably long grain)
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • ½ cup Olive Oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh dill, or 2 Tbsp. dry dill
  • 1 onion, grated (or minced)

First, you have to drain the grape leaves and boil them for a few minutes. Some people say 10 minutes, the jar label usually says 1 minute, so I like to split the difference and leave them on the boil for 5 minutes. Then take them off the stove but leave them in the water until you are ready to roll.

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All the ingredients laid out on my crappy old cutting board!

Mix all the ingredients, and prepare a casserole pan by oiling it.

Then the fun part: rolling up the grape leaves! Place 1 teaspoon (don’t measure, just use a small spoon) of the rice mixture on the lower portion of a leaf, fold over the sides, and roll it up. Try to keep it fairly tight and neat. But I usually have my kids help and sometimes the leaves are messy – they taste great regardless, so don’t sweat it. If some of the leaves are too small you can overlap two and use them as one to make a bigger leaf. It’s fine, trust me.IMG_2576

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It’s like a tiny little burrito! Seriously, don’t sweat the technique, as long as it’s all sealed.

Line up the little parcels in your casserole pan, then add water to almost cover them, wrap the top tightly with foil, and bake at 350®F for about an hour.

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See those few that are on top? Yeah, those aren’t going to cook as well. Try to keep it to a single layer.
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All cooked!

Serve warm or cold 🙂

I hope you enjoy making (and eating) these! IMG_2584

a snow day making dumplings

I love all kinds of Asian food. Well, okay, I love all kinds of food, period, but Asian food has a sort of special quality. The fresh ingredients, the mysterious sauces, the careful construction- it all makes the food seem extra important, to me.

Once, when I was in high school, I was really sick with bronchitis. I was in bed for days, and I read an Amy Tan book, which I am 99% sure was The Kitchen God’s Wife. In it, there were a ton of scenes about making dumplings, and eating dumplings. It was very sensual, and made me crave dumplings from my then favorite local Chinese restaurant. As soon as I got well, I ordered two plates of steamed dumplings and ate them all by myself.

Since then, I have given up eating meat. Sometimes I eat fish, but rarely. And one food item that is almost impossible to find is a vegetarian steamed dumpling. I’ve found a few, but they are never the same. The dough is usually off, or the filling is too loose and chunky, but either way the bottom line is I haven’t had a decent dumpling in over a decade.

Until today.

I found a recipe online, and it blew me away. First of all, that delicious, soft sticky dough? I thought for sure it must be some kind of elaborate recipe, or a super complicated technique I could never hope to duplicate. But I read this recipe, and it lists for the dough only two ingredients: flour and water. Seriously? All these years and it was basically glue??? So of course after reading that I MUST try to make them.

And the filling, mostly ground pork, but everything else seemed basic enough – ginger, scallions, cabbage – I felt like I could do it.

So today, since we are in a blizzard and my kids are home, I convinced my daughter to help me (not difficult, she loves Asian food too) and we spent our snow day making dumplings. They came out really really good!

First of all, click the link (here) and look at those pictures. They are what blog pictures should be. Clear, colorful, pleasing to the eye. Keep those in your head while you browse the remainder of my post. My photos suck.

Okay, second of all, I altered the recipe. I used “gimme lean” ground beef style vegetarian meat substitute (shut up it’s not bad) instead of ground pork. And to add some fat, I threw in half a stick of butter. Also I only had the smooth cabbage, not the good napa kind. And I was out of dried shitake mushrooms, and not sure if I could substitute porcini, so I used some baby portabellas. Otherwise, I followed the recipe exactly.IMG_2497 IMG_2500

My girl did a great job mixing! And so, of course I “let” her roll out the dough…

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And I put them together. My dumpling pleating technique leaves a lot to be desired, but they sealed well and none popped open in cooking, so I guess even though they were not the most attractive dumplings, it was fine.

IMG_2504I used a steamer lined with cabbage leaves to cook them. They came out fantastic!

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(Sorry again for the truly terrible photos.)

I used store-bought dipping sauce, which is kind of a cheat and in no way compares to the fantastic sauce they give out at the restaurant, but whatever. It wasn’t bad.

I saw a recipe for an alternative “sweet” dumpling, filled with apples! I might try that next 🙂 Happy snow day everyone!