Back in the Saddle (and Recipes to Feed a Crowd)
It’s been a long time, friends. The holidays and end-of-semester grading frenzy were bad enough, but in the middle of it all, Dave and I decided we want more land to grow vegetables and raise animals. So, we put our house up for sale. Much painting and many minor repairs ensued. We emptied out and sorted every closet, toy chest, crawlspace, bookshelf, drawer, and medicine cabinet. The girls parted ways with stuffed animals they hadn’t thought about for two years. And we cleaned–scrubbed the baseboards, dusted the ceiling fans, and finally pulled up the old carpeting on the stairs to the third floor.
Now, here we are, house pristine (well, mostly) and facing the worse real estate market in decades. Ah well. If nothing else, trying to sell this place lit a fire under our lazy winter bums and made us do all the projects we’ve been talking about for years. But cross your fingers for us. More acreage will mean more gardening (Blueberry bushes! Apple trees!), a steer and a hog in the barn (I’m still trying to convince Dave about this one … he wants a fish pond), and countless misadventures as we bungle our way toward self-sufficiency.
Typing today feels like slogging through a pool while wearing layers of winter coats and a pair of steel-toed boots. I suppose that’s what I get for abandoning the blog for over two months. What should I tell you about – how we lost two of our white chickens to egg bind; how we’ve gained four new chickens but keep them separate from the old girls because chickens are perhaps the worst bullies on the planet; how one of the new chickens is really a Belgian pheasant and lays green eggs; how nearly all of the chickens are molting and look as if they were in an eighties metal band; how Dave brought home two pounds of beets and two pounds of turnips, and we ate every single one even though I can’t get over my hatred of both; how Red Haven Farm, the place where we’ve bought all of our meat for the last year, is no longer – the land is for sale, the owners moving on to other things; how for Christmas everyone bought me cookbooks; how Q turns 6 this week and I want to stop her and E from getting any older (all I can see are drivers’ licenses and prom dresses); how next week I turn 34; how my mom got me the world’s most amazing food processor; how right now all I want to do is eat the leftover icing from Quinn’s cake that’s singing its siren song from the fridge; how I’ve chosen the gym over this blog since the beginning of December and am so much happier for being strong and fit again; how there’s been so little snow this winter, and today my daffodils are poking up through the soil. How the house is silent and all mine for a few hours and I rejoice, rejoice, rejoice.
Cooking lately isn’t dissimilar to the slogging-through-words typing gloom. I was on a year-long high of budget-conscious, tasty meals, and now I’m kind of sad. I feel like I figured out how to eat well, be thrifty, and focus on the local. It’s not so much a challenge as a daily routine. And I like the routine. I like knowing where most of our food comes from, I like baking bread and spreading my own peach preserves on toast, I adore my chickens, and I get a kick out of selling their eggs to friends and colleagues. But sometimes thrift and self-sufficiency is a pain in the ass. I’m always worried about the clock – how much time do I need to budget for the bread to rise? How much time will it take to make dinner? Do I have enough time to cook and get Q to piano lessons? How many hours will it take to find recipes and make the grocery list and do the shopping? And now that Red Haven is gone, where will I find locally and humanely raised meat? How much time will it take to research other farms, let alone drive there? And on a more immediate level, there are the unexpected emergencies – like soaking an egg-bound chicken in hot water for twenty minutes at a stretch, four times a day, when what you really need to be doing is grading papers. And sometimes, this ‘project’ is heartbreaking. Especially when that poor chicken didn’t get better and we had to give her the coup de grace. Until this winter, I’d never killed a creature before – well, apart from wasps and stinkbugs. I’ve never even had to put a dog or cat to sleep. I cried over that chicken. Maybe more because I failed to save her than anything else. If there’s one thing I should know by now, it’s that for all the control I try to have over our food and the hours in our day, I can’t control life and death and the interior troubles of chickens. I don’t know if anyone ever truly learns to accept this. I’m trying.
So what have I been cooking in the last few months? A lot of my favorites from the past year – like Lamb Meatballs with Mint. There’s been weird stuff, too – like Turnip Soufflé and Turnip Gratin. If you enjoy turnips, I recommend both recipes. But if you’re not a turnip fan already, well, I have a feeling that there isn’t much that will convert you. Then there was a Roasted Beet Salad with Nuts and Goat Cheese – yummy, and a dinner in itself.
But if I look back on the last few months, what I’ve been getting better at is cooking for a crowd and finding ways to cook fewer nights of the week. Here are three meals we’ve loved first for their taste, second for the amount of food that gets made for relatively cheap, and third for the number of nights I can breathe a little and just eat leftovers.
Pulled Pork in the Slow Cooker, from Mel’s Kitchen Café. For the past few years, I’ve hosted Christmas at my place, and because everyone lives out of town, it’s not just a one-day cooking affair; it usually stretches into five days of kitchen mania. This year, on a night when I thought I could just throw leftovers on the table, a few other guests joined us. Suddenly, there weren’t enough leftovers, and since there’s nothing I love more than to cook something delicious for people I haven’t seen in a long time, I settled on a picnic dinner: pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, and a green salad. I adore this recipe for pulled pork because it makes the house smell delicious, and you don’t need a smoker – just a great big pork shoulder, a crock pot, some barbecue sauce, and the secret ingredient: liquid smoke. Find it in the same grocery aisle as barbecue sauce and ketchup. By the way – Mel’s Kitchen Café is a new favorite blog … lots of family-friendly recipes, and Mel’s been blogging for over three years. Her archive is incredible.
White Bean, Swiss Chard, and Sausage Soup, modified from Paula Deen. Paula’s been in the news lately, and people have had some pretty mean things to say about her cooking – so much butter, so much fat, and look where it got her: type 2 diabetes. Well, none of us are perfect, and we’ve all made terrible decisions when it comes to health. I say look on the bright side: Paula Deen has increased the profile of home cooking, and if you know how to modify a recipe to reduce fat and salt, many of her dishes are true gems. This soup is one of them. Just halve the amount of sausage, increase the Swiss chard to 5 cups, and use reduced salt beans. Serve over crusty whole wheat bread and top with grated Parmesan … and it’s a meal by itself. A few other pluses: the ingredients are really inexpensive, the soup comes together really quickly, and the flavors improve each day the leftovers rest in the fridge. But if your house is anything like mine, those leftovers won’t last long … you might even fight over who gets the last serving.
Cheesy Pasta and Spinach Bake. E and Q are pretty good green-veggie eaters, but when it comes to spinach, Swiss chard, or kale, they’ll spend half an hour picking out every single leaf from their dish. This is the one exception. Another plus: this is easier than lasagna – no layering or wrestling with globs of ricotta. Two other notes: 1.) this makes A LOT of food – if you’re using tin pans, it’ll do a 11×7 pan plus an 8×8, which means you can freeze one for another day. Or, if your freezer is full, just make one deep dish 11×9 like I did. 2.) This takes a little time to put together – for me, about 1.5 hours, start to finish.
2 large onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 box penne
1 lb ground beef, turkey, pork, or lamb
1 lb baby spinach
1 can diced tomatoes, almost completely drained
1 jar spaghetti sauce
4 cups grated mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
1.) In a large Dutch oven or skillet, combine the ground meat, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. Add Italian seasoning to your preference (I love herbs, so I used 2 tablespoons). Cook until meat is browned. Drain the fat from the skillet.
2.) Return the meat mixture to the Dutch oven; add diced tomatoes. Cook uncovered 10-15 minutes over medium heat, until the tomatoes have started to break down.
3.) Add the spaghetti sauce and bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer about 30 minutes. Your goal is to fuse all of the flavors.
4.) While mixture is cooking, put water on to boil for the pasta.
5.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly oil your pans, bottom and sides.
6.) When the pasta is done, drain well.
5.) Once your mixture has simmered 30 minutes, add 3 cups mozzarella to the mix and stir. Then add spinach and stir again.
6.) Pour the mixture into your oiled pans. Top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.
7.) Bake 30 minutes, uncovered. Let rest 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!