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Side by Side: Potatoes on hand (white or sweet potatoes)

One of my priorities in giving Thanksgiving recipes here is to make things as simple for the cook on the Day Of as possible.  The challenge for Thanksgiving every year is that most of us only have one stove and one oven, and managing turkey plus pies plus sides plus gravy plus all this stuff at once is the main headache, because all of a sudden everything is done at once and you’re not sure how to navigate it all…the slow cooker can take a lot of pressure off on that front. And this, by the way, is not just a holiday idea–try this year-round, it makes life much simpler at dinnertime!

Today I’m talking about potatoes, and prepping for both sweet and mashed: you have to cook the potatoes first before doing anything else with them, which can be either done on the stovetop in two big pots (basically, cut ’em up, boil them for twenty minutes or so or just until fork tender, and drain ’em in cold water to stop cooking) or in the crockpot overnight the night before.  Stephanie over at “A Year of Slow Cooking” has crockpot baked potato instructions that will work perfectly well for this–essentially, wash and dry your potatoes (sweet or white), poke ’em with a fork a few times, wrap each one individually in foil, and cook them on low in the crockpot for 8-10 hours or so or until soft all the way through.  Then you can take them out, let them cool, and deal with them as you wish.  Note: you are not really baking the potatoes in here, you are steaming them. Which is better for most Thanksgiving applications anyway.

Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams: the eternal debate, happens every year. Is there a difference? Yes.  Will it have any effect at all on your cooking them for Thanksgiving? Not a damn thing. According to this site, the confusion comes from mis-naming sweet potatoes as yams for a long time, alongside with the other confusion that there are tons of different sweet potato varieties–bottom line is that normally we are eating sweet potatoes even when we think they are yams, because sweet potatoes are the ones indigenous to most of our climates, and 95% of genuine yams are grown in Africa and are indigenous to Africa and Asia.

Types of Potatoes to Mash: This is really up to you. But you should know that the whiter, starchier potatoes (the ones we usually bake) like russets and Idahos (Idahos are usually Russets, actually), have more starch in them and don’t stand up to boiling as well, and the smaller waxier ones  have more moisture and tend to turn to glue if you smooth them too much. I like “smashed potatoes” better than the smooth creamy ones we all usually think of as “mashed” (really more “whipped” potatoes)–most sites I look at suggest that “Yukon Gold” is a good sort of middle-of-the-road potato…

I’m giving this potato-pre-prep thing its own post, because really this is something you can do any time–toss a few potatoes into the crockpot in foil before you go to work in the morning, and by the time you get home you can turn them into all kinds of things in a matter of minutes.  Mash ’em, smash ’em, add a little salt and butter to the white ones or brown sugar and cinnamon to sweet ones, you can do all kinds of things. And put some in the fridge for tomorrow or the next day too.


Attack of the Giant Mutant Zucchinis, part IV: Healthier meatloaf

I have always liked meatloaf, but health-wise it’s usually fairly horrific.  The inspiration for the first incarnation of “my own” meatloaf recipe actually came from Susan Powter–remember that crazy woman with the blond crew cut who was hugely famous for 15 minutes about 15 years ago? She published this cookbook called something like “C’mon, America, Let’s Eat!” with lightened up versions of a lot of American “classics.” (These were in the days when All Fat was Bad and All Carbs were Good…so nice that we are all becoming so much wiser.) (That was mild sarcasm, by the way. Food fads annoy the heck out of me.)  There are actually some really good recipes in there.  She had a meat loaf recipe that used a really high proportion of grated veggies to the amount of meat in it, and it was quite tasty…this is sort of a variation on that, only with more veggies than she used, and almost all of the veggies here are–you guessed it–zucchini.  And lots of barbecue sauce.  Because I like barbecue sauce.

Healthier Meatloaf (with barbecue sauce)

In a bowl, squish the following into gross homogenous submission:

  • 3 cups grated zucchini
  • 1 chopped onion (medium-sized)
  • 3-4 cloves crushed garlic, or more if you like garlic a lot
  • 1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup barbecue sauce (from bottle or your own favorite recipe)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 lb lean ground meat

Place into 9×9 baking dish; pour a little more barbecue sauce over the top if you wish. Bake at 350 for about an hour. Take out and let rest for 10-15 minutes (to let the juices re-absorb.)

This will be tonight’s dinner; I’ll come back later with an edit to say how it went.

ETA, edit, later: Okay, it was good.  Very good.  And this is a way to use 3 whole cups of grated squash and only a pound of ground beef and get easily 6-7 servings out of it.  But…there’s something that happens when you use a really high proportion of veggies to meat, and what happens is that you really can’t taste any flavor of the meat in there at all.  The barbecue sauce sort of fools you a bit, but honestly it has very little actual meat flavor. I find myself wondering if a packet of boullion concentrate in there would intensify the flavor a bit, but that’s an experiment for another day.

That said–my husband liked it and wanted seconds.  My kids thought it was gross and made gagging faces and my son tried to wipe the last molecules off his tongue with the back of his hand so as to remove the vile pollution.  But that’s business as usual.  This makes a nice meatloaf.

And I’m only on the second mutant zuke.  This is going to be a long blog series.


The full Giant Mutant Zucchini series:  Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part IV.

Breakfast for Dinner, and making my own pancake mix

One of the “convenience” foods I’ve depended on for years, sort of ridiculously, has been that boxed “baking mix”–Bisquick or whatever store-brand equivalent I happen to be using at the time–for making family pancakes and waffles.  At some point it occurred to me that this wasn’t really all that convenient, and that I had really no idea what “multigrain” meant in the mind of the manufacturer…

So I combed the internet (which was obliging as usual) for a recipe to make my own, and as usual came up with something that didn’t quite match what anyone else had but was fairly close to all of them.  This recipe was sort of the template, although this one looks possibly nicer, but either way I shifted things around a bit:

Homemade Baking Mix

Mix in a big bowl or ziploc bag:

  • 1/3 cup sugar (or less)
  • 5 cups flour (mixture of white and wheat; I did 2 cups whole wheat and 3 cups white flour. A mixture of white, wheat, and oat would probably be nice too.
  • 2 1/2 tbs baking powder
  • 1/2 tbs salt
  • 3/4 cup powdered milk  or buttermilk (this could probably be left out, but then you’d want to use milk instead of water in any recipe you make. Of course, you could do that anyway…)

(makes about 6 cups mix)

To make about a dozen pancakes, you blend 2 cups of the mix, 1 egg, 1 1/2 cups water or milk, and about 3 tbs melted butter (or other oil…the butter is just so yummy…) and off you go. I think this same blend would also work for waffles, but I haven’t tried it yet.

This made very nice pancakes–they weren’t as light and fluffy as they could have been, and I wonder if adding a little baking soda might help that–though honestly I didn’t miss it much.  They had just the right amount of sweetness even without syrup (which I don’t use), and the whole wheat flavor did not overpower the way it sometimes does in pancakes.

My son gave these a vote of “100% success.”  That’s rare in my house.



“Real” hot cocoa

I could pretend this is about recipes for children, but the truth is that I love hot cocoa and drink it almost daily, especially since I’m trying to at least sporadically get off of coffee. 

Powdered pre-made cocoa=bleech. In my obviously fairly biased opinion.  It’s too sweet, sorta fake, and I don’t really know what’s in there besides lots and lots of sugar and a comparatively small amount of actual chocolate.  Thing is, once I discovered how unbelievably easy it is to make “real” hot cocoa, I’ve effectively stopped drinking it except in a pinch at chorus rehearsals when I need a little sugar hit during a break. (okay, it’s not that bad. But it doesn’t compare to the real stuff.)

So: Unbelievably Easy Single Serving Hot Cocoa

  • heat 1 cup (8 oz) milk in the microwave; pyrex cup is good for this
  • while it’s heating, put 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder and 2 tsp sugar into a mug. (To taste–my kids like less cocoa and more sugar–yeah, big surprise!–but when I make it for myself I’ll often almost double the cocoa. Just for the antioxidants. ;-))
  • (optional) if desired, add a sprinkle of cinnamon, a few drops of vanilla, or half a teaspoon of instant coffee powder
  • when milk is hot, pour a little–just a couple tbs.–into the cocoa/sugar mixture; mix to form a paste. This will keep it from being lumpy. (Don’t even consider skipping this step; it’s key.)
  • Pour the rest of the milk in, stir, and enjoy.

Another way is to use hot tap water to make the paste, pour cold milk into the mug, and heat that in the microwave, but I’ve had too many experiences of the paste rising to the top and forming a big bubble that explodes all over the microwave.  The instant pre-made stuff is prone to that too, by the way.

Of course, you can also make your own hot chocolate mix using cocoa, powdered milk, and sugar–this would be in the “cooking in quantity” category, and on a green level (like the above) would have its own positive garbage-reduction impact; take a little reusable container to work to keep in the desk, keep some at home, etc. and you avoid those unrecyclable foil-filled envelopes.  (Do they still use those? You can tell it’s been a while since I’ve bought them…) Also, naturally, you have the ability to know exactly what’s going into your drink–organic milk, free trade organic cocoa, and such, if that’s your thing.  It certainly is mine. I haven’t done a free trade rant on this blog yet, but one of these days I’ll get to it; in the meantime talks about “externalizing costs” for the things we buy so cheaply, which is another way of saying that I get it cheap because someone else is shouldering the cost, whether it’s people or the planet itself…which is Not Really Fair, when you think of it, ya know?  Especially if there’s a bunch of corporate weenies between me and the cacao farmer who are getting filthy rich in the process.  (Okay, I guess that was a mini-rant.)

Where was I? Ah yes, instant hot cocoa recipe (and I have to say I’m fairly incensed at how many of the recipes for “make your own instant cocoa” one finds online have Coffee-Mate of all things as their main ingredient.)

This makes a great “teacher gift” for kids to give their teachers at the holidays, by the way.  Unless your kids go to the same school as mine, in which case I have dibs.

Instant Hot Cocoa Bulk Recipe (easy to remember)

  • 1 part unsweetened cocoa (fair trade and organic!?:-))
  • 2 parts sugar
  • 3 parts nonfat dry milk

Put 1/3 cup mix into a mug; pour hot water over it.

Could that be any easier? You don’t even exactly have to know what kind of measuring-thing you have, just as long as the ratios are pretty clear.  Obviously you can play around with the ratios a bit, depending on how chocolatey you want it, or how sweet (this recipe is pretty sweet–it’s my “kid” version).  And you can add cinnamon to the mix if you choose–maybe 2 tsp per cup of actual cocoa powder (reduce or increase as you wish).  If you want to get really schmantzy, store a couple of vanilla beans in your sugar for a month or two, and you have vanilla sugar, which is great for almost anything but really shines in hot cocoa.

Note: it’s really important to pour the water over the mix, not the mix into the hot water, especially with your own recipe.  Otherwise it lumps and gloops horribly.  Some recommend that you blend or food process (or sift or sieve, but who has time for that?) the mix after combining the ingredients, because the powdered milk doesn’t always dissolve well; I have never had any problem at all with that in hot water, but your mileage may vary.  Sometimes I put it in a ziploc bag and pound it a bit, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference in my final product.

Those of us watching our calorie counts–well, do the math. 1 cup of nonfat milk is what, 100 calories? 2 tsp sugar is 32, 1 tsp cocoa powder is something like 7.  Not bad for a fairly decadent-tasting chocolate fix.



p.s. unsweetened cocoa powder should be very firmly distinguished from what you can now sometimes find under the label of “drinking chocolate”–this stuff is much more expensive, takes much more per cup, has way more calories, and is absolutely to die for.  It’s sort of to ordinary hot cocoa what espresso is to coffee, and is usually drunk in espresso-like quantities.  At least in public. 🙂 I don’t generally go near it because it would quickly ruin me for the regular stuff, nor have I explored how to make it myself (same reason), but please feel free to explore your own personal nirvana.

Homemade baby food!

I am so excited–a young mom I know just told me that now that her son is 7 months old and starting to eat solids (Hurray! She nursed exclusively for the first six months and beyond!), she is going to learn to puree her own baby food for him (Hurray! Lots of money saved, much more control over what he’s eating!). Honestly, though I hadn’t really known about the green thing four years ago when I was feeding baby food to a kid, it’s probably not hard at all–like anything else, you make it in quantity and freeze it in small portions, like the size of an ice cube in an ice cube tray…there are, of course, about 5,398,235 websites to tell you how to make baby food (including, which seems to be a fairly basic resource–though I am suspicious of  “wholesome do it yourself” websites that advertise for big chain products or stores), but honestly what’s to teach? I mean, I guess one would need to know how to steam a sweet potato and use a blender, but my approach would probably be to see what they’re selling in the stores and make that, you know? And/or whatever the kid will eat.  As I recall, we did a lot of “apple and” baby foods, because both kids would eat stuff with apple in it that they wouldn’t eat without…

I feel like there’s hope for the world.



Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart

Actually, they say that if you soak the beans, dump that water, and then cook them in new water, you’ll avoid a lot of the…side effects.

They also say that if red kidney beans aren’t cooked really well, there’s a toxin in them that can make you pretty sick. (I don’t actually care for the red beans as much, so I don’t cook them on anything like a regular basis.)

So for me, “beans” means either black or white, and if white, usually Great Northern because they’re easier to find than cannellinis. (Cannelinis are yummy, though.)  One of my ways to try not to generate so much throwaway packaging (not to mention the cost to transport beans in metal cans full of a lot of liquid that’s going to be drained away anyway) is to mass-cook dried beans in my crockpot periodically.

I have a big 6-quart cooker, so I can do 4 cups of dried beans at a go. (Not really more than that, though. I think that’s about 2 lbs.)

I usually start in an ordinary stockpot, though, just for speed, to get the beans soaked.  To do this, put the beans in a big pot, covered with at least 2-3 inches of water.  I use my pot with the pasta insert because it makes draining them really easy.  Bring it t a boil on the stove and let it boil for a few minutes (some sources say 2 minutes, some say 10, I figure it’s a pretty inexact science!), then turn the heat off, cover the pot, and let it sit for at least an hour untouched. (Again, some sources say an hour, others say 5, others say you can leave it up to 24.)   Basically, in the soaking process you’re just shortening the amount of time actual cooking will take, although some say it also affects how soft your beans can actually get after cooking…My MO is to start the process when I get home from work, boil the beans and then let them sit in their water for a few hours.

Then  (usually after the kids have gone to bed) I drain the soaked beans and drop them in the crockpot. At this point, there’s a lot more than 4 cups of beans because of all the water they’ve picked up, so they probably fill the crockpot 2/3 or 3/4 of the way full.   Fill it the rest of the way with water (it’s honestly at this point about as full as I can get it!)  Put it on low overnight, or for 8-10 hours, or sometimes more, depending on how old the beans were and how long you soaked them.  The only way to really tell is to test them and see if they taste right.

At that point, I drain them again.  At this point I have two choices: either I can put larger quantities in quart ziploc bags in the freezer (they stack very nicely and take up not much space), or if I have more time to futz I put half cup quantities into my muffin tins, and freeze the tins for a day or so.  Then I can take the nicely pre-measured “bean muffins” out of the muffin tins and put them back in the freezer in ziplocs, and I have nice, easily thaw-able, pre-measured cooked beans.  They are easier to get out of the muffin tins if you plunge the cup parts into hot water for a couple of seconds until the “muffin” loosens.  From the original 4 cups of dried beans I ended up with 24 “muffins,” i.e. about 12 cups of beans.)   I will have to again do the cost-benefit analysis of doing it this way, but in terms of greening my footprint, it’s a fairly easy no-brainer.

So now I have a freezerful of black and white beans, waiting for salads and chilies and all that good stuff…

Peppers and Onions, while I’m thinking about it

If I don’t do this now, I’ll forget.

Sauteed Peppers and Onions
Slice 2 or 3 large white onions into rings or strips, as desired.
Cut maybe 4 or more bell peppers (color of choice) into strips (Trader Joe does it for me and freezes them)
Put a little olive oil into a skillet (cast iron is best) and heat on medium-high. Into oil, put 1 tsp ground cumin and/or 1 tsp dried (or 3 tsp fresh) chopped oregano. Or other spices. Whatever. McCormick has a good fajita seasoning that’s good too.
Drop vegetables in, stir till softened and hopefully browned on edges. Your call how long to do it.

These make great taco garnishes, burrito or sandwich fillings (may I mention yogurt cheese again?),  what-have-you.  And it freezes well. Make lots, save in small quantities for future cooking.

If you want to hedge your bets, leave the cumin out and use just garlic and a little salt to season while sauteeing, and you can use it for various ethnicities of cooking…


Yogurt in the Crockpot

Those who read my blog with any regularity are probably sick of hearing me sing the praises of Stephanie the Crockpot Lady —-I don’t know if I’ve ranted much about her here on wordpress yet, but there ya go.

A month or two ago I became intrigued by her method of making yogurt in the crockpot.

The first time I tried it, it worked well, although it was very runny and didn’t strain well. (That was the time I followed her directions pretty much to a T.)  The end result was better suited to “kefir” (that yogurt drink you pay an arm and a leg for at Whole Foods) than any more traditional yogurt.

The second time I tried it, I made a gallon instead of a half gallon and threw in some powdered milk as well–the basic method I used:

  • heat a gallon (Stephanie did 1/2 gallon, so I’m adjusting) milk in crockpot on low for 2.5 hours
  • unplug crockpot and let sit another 3 hours
  • whisk a cup of plain yogurt in a bowl; whisk in a cup or three of the warm milk till it’s nicely mixed, then pour back into the crock. (Here I added a cup of powdered nonfat milk.)
  • Cover the crock, drape a couple of heavy towels over it for insulation, and let sit unplugged overnight.

This second time I let the yogurt incubate a lot longer–10-12 hours rather than the initially suggested 8. (Perhaps longer than safe…the greenmama is not responsible for your kids’ stomach upsets if you follow any bad advice I give on this blog.  I tried it, I felt fine, it tasted perfectly good, my kids ate it, all was okay.) This time it strained like a dream.  Turns out (thank you, internet) that once the yogurt incubates past a certain point, the whey and curd naturally separate, so the gelatinous fragility of lots of store-bought yogurt actually intensifies, and it just starts to “leak”.  (This happens with bigger containers of store-bought yogurt too, after you’ve cut into them with a spoon, you’ve probably noticed.)

This time I immediately strained it, putting a piece of natural muslin (from my fabric stash, prewashed of course and dampened before dumping the yogurt in) into a vegetable strainer over a big pyrex measuring container–I used a measuring container because I was curious about how much whey would actually drain out.  Also, every 10 minutes or so I scraped the muslin with a spoon, to clear away the already strained stuff and make room for more; not sure how big a difference this made.

The strainer held about a quart of unstrained yogurt and over about half an hour abandoned about a cup of clear whey, leaving a nice thick creamy yogurt in the muslin.  I did this three times, transferring the finished strained yogurt into old saved yogurt containers.  The kids took this to lunch and ate it for snacks, and we went through 2+ quarts in maybe a week.  I would put some of the yogurt into one of those little cup tupperware things and drizzle some honey or maple syrup or even chocolate sauce over it.  I bet apple butter would be yummy too. 

The last of the unstrained yogurt (1 gallon=4 quarts) I put in the muslin/strainer over the pyrex again, but this time since it was time to go to work I put it all into the fridge and let it drain for 6 hours or so.  By the time I got home it had given up just over 2 cups of whey, and  was honestly “yogurt cheese,” a thick stuff about the consistency of cream cheese.  I’ve made dip with it, or used it as a mayonnaise substitute on sandwiches.  Good stuff.

Cost Analysis: Okay, a quart of organic yogurt at Trader Joe’s costs about $3.  To make this, I needed a gallon of organic milk ($6–obviously WAY cheaper if you get conventional), a cup of regular plain yogurt ($1-ish, but once you’ve made it once you can keep using the starter for subsequent batches), and the powdered milk (hard to gauge, since I bought a giant box ages ago that I just keep around).  So, assuming I’d’ve gotten about 3 quarts of plain yogurt out of this, that comes to about $2 savings, which isn’t much.  Again, using conventional milk and yogurt starter would drop the cost of making my own dramatically.  Plus…well, it’s sort of fun.

I’m told that one can use instant gelatin in the milk to help it set a bit more, though I haven’t tried it.  And apparently when the fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts get made, they actually put the fruit in first, then the infected milk, and let it incubate right there over the fruit, so that’s how it keeps its nice still gelatin texture in the commercial brands.  That’s also, I presume, why the “yogurt makers” you buy use all the little cups instead of doing one big Vat of yogurt like the crockpot does. 

So…bon appetit!  It’s fun! And healthy! And reduces your footprint by not going through (as I do) 2 plastic quart containers every week!


(UPDATE: I’ve upped my total amount of GOOD usable yogurt to 4 quarts from a gallon of milk simply by paying attention to temperatures: the initial heat-up needs to get to 180 degrees; after cool-down, it should be back down to 116 degrees.  I think my crock wasn’t letting it cool enough and so when I dumped the yogurt in to innoculate the milk, the heat killed most of the yogurt culture and that’s why my end result was so runny. I’d recommend trying it once with an actual thermometer, if you’re having trouble at all, and then see what happens! When I made the yogurt with a cup of powdered milk to a gallon of liquid 1% milk, and observed these temperature guides, I got nice thick yogurt that didn’t need to be drained at all.  Which of course alters the cost-effective question a lot–I’m now getting twice as much finished product from the same outlay, i.e. 4 quarts of yogurt for $6 of milk plus a cup each plain yogurt and powdered milk, which I get in larger amounts anyway…that’s about half off from what I’d pay for organic plain yogurt in the store.)

Crockpot Pasta Sauce

A couple of weeks ago I made a huge mess of pasta sauce.

A lot of my green efforts come from an increasing p.o.’d-ness at how many pasta sauce jars and yogurt containers and applesauce jars I find myself throwing into the recycling bin.  It’s a a lot of refuse.  Makes me mad.

So I saved a few jars from purchased pasta sauce, and I made sauce in the crockpot.  A whole lot.  Again, the basic easy ridiculous recipe involves a lot of non-measuring and throwing of handfuls of stuff into the pot.  Something like this:

Vegetarian Crockpot Pasta Sauce:

  • Fill the crock about 2/3 full of various raw veggies: mushrooms (not more than half a pound unless you brown them first), cut up bell peppers, chopped onion, zucchini, whatever else you can think of.
  • Add maybe 3-4 (or more, if you’re me) spoonfuls of crushed garlic from a jar, or the real stuff if you’re up for it, in with the veggies.
  • Ditto a few teaspoonsful of Italian dried (or 3 times as much of fresh) herbs and spices.
  • Pour 4 big cans of diced tomatoes with juice into the pot.  Add 1 can of tomato paste.  Stir if you want to, or don’t bother.
  • Cook on low all day.  Give it a good stir when you get home from work.
  • About half an hour before serving, start some pasta to go under it, toss in a couple of glubs of cheap red wine, 1-2 tsp. salt, and more Italian herbs.
  • If you live with kids who won’t eat recognizable veggies, attack it (gently!) with an immersion blender to obliterate/disguise the veggie pieces.  (And as careful as you’re being, don’t wear your white tank top while you do it, because if you’re wearing a white tank top you’re guaranteed to splatter.  Murphy’s law.)

Got a total of 4-5 jars of pasta sauce this way, with very little work and not much cost either.  And it’s pretty darn healthy.

Think that’s what we’re having for dinner tonight…