28 June 2009

Italian Casserole

I made this on one of those nights when I came home and wondered exactly what the heck I was going to do for dinner. It's not haute cuisine (or hottie cwi-zee-nee as my husband likes to pronounce it), but it's tasty and can be ready fairly quickly with minimal ingredients and minimal mess.

The evening's guests of honor:

It's one pound of regular sausage, a box of pasta, a 32 oz can of crushed tomatoes and a 2 cup size bag of cheese. I like buying the sausage "plain" as it were and adding my own spices to control both the flavor and the heat rather than buying the "Italian" sausage links. The pasta is whatever will hold the sauce so I will usually go for radiatore or something with ridges, and the cheese is just whatever grabs me. Mostly it's mozzarella or a mix of mozarella and parmesan, but I have made a Mexican version of this with sharp cheddar and sharp cheddar/queso fresco.

Brown the sausage in a pan and add whatever spices follow along with the theme. If I'm making an Italian version, I'll usually throw in some salt, pepper, oregano, and just a touch of cayenne for some added heat. I just season to taste and the heat level my family is comfortable with. If I'm making a Mexican version, I will usually throw in some cumin and some chili powder as well; again, tasting as I go to make sure that nobody will (as Lisa Simpson says) "see through time".

As the sausage is cooking, I also get my pasta water started and my pasta cooking. Once the sausage is all cooked and the spices have been added, open up the can of crushed tomatoes and pour them in. I will sometimes add a few teaspoons of sugar to this to cut the acidity of the tomatoes (the Spousal Unit doesn't do so well with that sometimes). Stir to combine and let heat through. Mmmmmm...

By this time, the pasta should be ready. Go ahead and drain it and either dump it into a bowl or into a 13x9x2 casserole dish already sprayed with Pam. Add the meat/sauce mixture and stir to combine. Now comes my favorite part. Break out the cheese!

Put it in the oven at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or so - give or take on whether you like your cheese melty or more brown and crispy on the top with meltiness on the inside. And...voila! Dinner.

The SU instantly liked this and has requested it nearly weekly ever since. He prefers the Italian over the Mexican but I like both. I've also played with adding veggies to it such as crimini mushrooms or zucchini that I've cubed or cut into small matchsticks. I'll cook the sausage first and then saute the vegetables in the drippings left over before adding the sausage back and then the crushed tomatoes. It adds more "good" filler to the casserole and I can cut down on the pasta used. I've also used ground turkey, but if I do, I try to get at least the 85/15 version so it's not quite so dry as the 90/10 can be.

Plus, you know, there's cheese. You can never go wrong with cheese :).

26 June 2009

The child is becoming the parent

Am tired. Am so very, very tired. (Started with a typo of "I'm tied". At least then, I might be able to be stuck in a dark closet somewhere where no one could find me and I could at least sleep!).

The usual suspects are still making me tired: working at my regular job plus learning the opening business of our restaurant so I can come in on Saturday mornings and allow the Spousal Unit at least one day where he can sleep in past 5:30. I'm getting there - the lunches and dinners are easier somehow and I don't know why. I can make lattes and coffee well enough but I have to think about the breakfast items a little longer, be a little more deliberate whereas the coffee drinks are, mentally, much more of a 1-2-3-done kind of deal.

The thing that is really exhausting me, though, is my mom. I knew there would be caretaking involved when my dad died in 2007 simply because my mom has never really been on her own in her entire life. She met my dad when they were 14, she went straight from high school to nursing school to marriage at age 20. Then, through a combination of my dad's own particular issues and her acceptance of them, she learned basically nothing about the requirements of running a home and paying bills beyond the basics of groceries, laundry, cleaning, etc.

Now, before I go any further, I need to express a caveat for myself if nothing else. Those things she did all through my growing up years and working as an OB/GYN RN on top of it were important things. I am utterly grateful to her for them. But the fact remains that there was a lot she was very content to let my dad take care of and was largely an observer of life in general.

While she's certainly made fantastic strides in learning how to deal with things like taxes, home maintenance, et cetera, she is still remarkably, almost aggressively, passive about her own life. My brother and I work on making her get out of the house for something besides a grocery or post office run, but since he is an hour away and I am across the country, it is unfortunately easier for her to ignore our efforts than we would like.

I think she gets that we are wise to her attempts to be a hermit so now things have turned to matters of her health. She sees a doctor every few months for bloodwork, checking up on her diabetes, etc. However, she also has a host of other symptoms that are worrying: random vomiting with no apparent trigger, bowel issues, incontinence issues, and sleep issues. It took me a few months to get her to mention these issues to her doctor at all after several iterations of this basic conversation:

Me: "Mom, make a list of these things. Take it to the doctor and ask him the questions."

Mom: "Well, it's just stuff. It doesn't happen all the time/it went away/other random excuse."

Me: "Mom, take the list to the doctor. Ask him the questions. I will call you after the appointment. If you didn't ask the questions, I will call your doctor and have this conversation with him."

The latest struggle has been over her potential sleep apnea. The Spousal Unit has it so I'm familiar with the signs and she has many of the same symptoms; has her whole life. I can remember her snoring like a house afire from the time I was a wee hermit. I finally got her to agree to ask the doctor about it, telling her that the CPAP device had helped with the SU's sleep, memory issues, fatigue, etc; all things she was experiencing. What does she tell the doctor?

Well, my daughter thinks this might be what I have but I won't wear a CPAP.

Cue now-slightly-bigger hermit banging her head against her desk in frustration. When I talked to her on the phone, I wanted to say, "So, you'll bitch about this ad nauseum to me but you won't do anything that could take care of the issue and improve your quality of life?" What I did say was, "You know, mom. That's your choice. I think you would be much happier getting a full night's sleep but obviously that's up to you."

Because, really, short of hogtying her to a bed and supergluing a CPAP to her face? There isn't anything I can do. And that's probably one of the hardest things to deal with as this one-eighty from child to caretaker-parent continues to take place. As a former health-care provider, I know she cared deeply about her patients and their care. She would fight doctors if she felt what they were doing was incorrect, not enough, or that they weren't providing a high enough standard of care. But, as herself, as a 70-year-old woman mired in depression who has just...given up, she doesn't care enough about herself to fight for the things that could help her.

It's so frustrating to watch this. Both my brother and I are physically limited in what we can do based on time and distance. Plus, she is not at a stage where we feel we can or should make decisions for her living arrangements and care that force her into a situation she is not ready for. That will only serve to alienate her and make her feel like we're trying to push her off somewhere where neither of us have to deal with her anymore. But, dammit, it's so frustrating to be constantly met with a wet blanket of learned helplessness that she stays in because it's comfortable and it's what she knows. "No, I won't..." is her mantra. Won't learn how to hit "reply" on an e-mail (so she reads e-mail only and that took a year to get her to do), won't listen to voice mail on a cell phone (so don't bother to ever call it), won't ask her doctor for tests or help in diagnosing issues because "they go away", won't get estimates on work because she "doesn't know how to do these things" and continually tries to put these things off on me or my brother...but refuses our help if we offer it in the first place.

I am...emotionally drained. But I can't give in. I need to keep calling her every night to talk to her because I'm pretty much the only human interaction she has during the day besides the drive-thru clerk at McDonalds or the cashier at the grocery store. I need to keep trying to be there for her because there is going to come a time where she is no longer able to be on her own, to keep the house up, to take care of herself and will need the resources of both myself and my brother to help her move on to that next stage.

But it's hard.

19 June 2009

Chocolate Stout Cake with Bailey's Cream Cheese Frosting

I used to bake a lot when I was younger but I'd moved out of the realm of desserts and much more heavily into dinner-type foods and more savory dishes (e.g. appetizers) before my last break from cooking. However, I still like to bake and when I saw this recipe, I knew I had to give it a try. Chocolate and beer! What's not to like?

(recipe from Closet Cooking)


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup stout (such as Guinness)

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups all purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

2/3 cup sour cream


1. Melt the butter in a sauce pan, remove from heat and let cool a bit.

2. Mix in the stout and cocoa powder.

3. Mix the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.

4. Mix the eggs and sour cream in another large bowl.

5. Mix the stout mixture into the egg mixture.

6. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet.

7. Pour the batter into one or two greased and parchment lined circular cake pan(s).

8. Bake in a preheated 350F oven until a toothpick pushed into the center comes out clean. If you bake it in a single pan then it should take about 40-50 minutes. If you bake it in two cake pans then it should take about 20-30 minutes.

**The batter itself is fairly loose. It's not a particularly thick batter like you might think considering the quantity of dry ingredients. I found it worked better if I popped open the Guinness, poured approximately half a cup into the measuring cup and then waited for the head to subside a bit before pouring the rest.

Since I had made cakes before in these particular pans and had not used parchment paper when it was called for (since the cakes had turned out fine), I didn't this time, either. When I make this cake again, however, I will definitely use the parchment. The cake itself is moist. Very moist. And it sticks to the bottom of even a non-stick, greased cake pan. I lost a little bit of the first cake to the pan and the other layer, even after cooling, was still somewhat firmly attached to the bottom of its pan and I had to coax it out. Heeeere, cakey-cakey. Good cakey-cakey. Who's a good cake now?

Yeah, okay. So I didn't just put Guinness in the cake!

Bailey's Cream Cheese Frosting Ingredients:

4 ounces cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons of Bailey’s Irish cream


1. Mix everything.

**On Closet Cooking, the picture is of a single layer cake. I, being me, which means not wont to entirely follow directions sometimes, decided I would make this a two-layer cake and doubled the icing recipe. Still not enough. There was about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the cake in back that was not iced on the outside (there was icing in between the layers, though). That, combined with an almost overly moist cake that added crumbs to my icing was a bit...annoying, shall we say? Still, I managed to get most of it iced and put it in the fridge to set up a bit.

Finished product? Duuuuuuuuude. Even with setting up in the fridge (which can sometimes dry cakes out), this cake was still soft and spongy. You could definitely taste the Guinness. Combined with the unsweetened cocoa, it made for a more earthy taste than I might have thought, but it was leavened by the sweetness of the icing. The confectioner's sugar and Bailey's cut the slight bitterness of the Guinness and the cocoa and stout helped make not the icing not so sweet, which it might have been with a lighter cake both texturally and taste-wise. I will definitely be making this again.

15 June 2009

I, Cattius

I'm not entirely sure how I got my husband to agree to a cat - much less two. Maybe I was especially cute and winsome that day...or maybe he was tired of hearing me bang on about it. Our neighbors' cat was the feline version of Ma Duggar and so our neighbors were constantly putting up signs about cats being free to good homes. I'd had several pet cats while growing up and missed them. My husband, on the other hand, had grown up in a pet-free household and, up to that point, seemed to have been determined to keep it that way.

But there we were...summer of 2001...in our neighbors house, looking at the kitten I'd chosen and named Munchkin since she was the runt of the litter. While we were sitting in the living room with Munchkin, her sister (then known as "Ziggy") came gamboling out as fast as her six-week-old legs would carry her like she scented chum in the water; or, more likely, a potential soft touch. She ran up the Spousal Unit's leg, turned around and planted all four legs firmly on his thigh. Her tail quivering like some kind of furry flag, it was as though she was announcing "I claim this one."

Eight years later, we have this:

That would be Munchkin - all 15 pounds of her - giving me her usual barely patient glare. I'm firmly convinced that Munchkin means "Soul of Ennui" in some language. However, my husband would swear it means Bitch Kitty. I'd never hear a cat complain until we got her. It was bizarre. Instead of a sweetly questioning meow or the occasional pitiful vocalization, we are regaled with complaints on a regular basis. God forbid the cat food in her dish isn't up to her freshness standards because you will hear about her displeasure. Even if it's three in the morning, you will hear from Her Majesty.

(It's at that point the Spousal Unit and I play a half-awake game of Rock/Scissors/Paper to find out who has to get up and kick the cat's ass this time.)

Curious Grace (the artist formerly known as "Ziggy") is on the right. That would be her come hither stare, which is meant for my husband and my husband only. To her, I am the Other Woman. We (my husband and I) sit and watch TV at night. We hold hands...we snuggle. Gracie can't stand this. She is firmly convinced that if she can just muscle in between us, she can show my husband the Error of His Ways and Their Love Will Be. This usually involves one of two tactics:

1. She will sit on the floor in front of our recliners and stare at us. We're not just talking your average kitty notation of the goings-on. Oh no. This cat does. not. blink. She's worse than Max Von Sydow in that movie about Jesus they show every Easter. As she sits there, unblinking, you can clearly see a thought bubble forming above her head as she stares at me. There is one word in that thought bubble and it is "Bitch".

2. The Death Ray Stare (tm) apparently not working fast enough for her, Gracie's next tactic is to play Stealth Kitty. I guess in her world she's slyer than James Bond and more invisible than the Stealth Raptor built by the Chief's crew on BSG. However, her version of stealth leaves something to be desired. First, she will jump up on the end table by my recliner. From there, she will leap to the top of my recliner while I'm sitting in it. Because nobody is going to notice another 15 pounds of cat essentially leaping on to their head. She'll lay up there for a while and then eeeeeeeever so slowly start inching down the recliner towards our joined hands so she can leap over them and try to lay on the Spousal Unit's chest. (At which point the Spousal Unit generally shoves her off him with the verbal notation that I was here first and there is no contest. Awwwww, my hero :)).

Some days, I just gotta wonder what I was thinking.

13 June 2009

Sweet Potato Fries

I love sweet potatoes. But I rarely find recipes that aren't full of brown sugar this, marshmallow fluff that and just...eeeuw. Too much sweetness. It's like a pumpkin pie casserole on steroids and my tastes tend to run more towards mixing the natural sweetness of the potato with something a little more savory. Hence today's experiment.

The jumping off point was ourbestbites.com. Since I hadn't been cooking regularly for a while, I wanted to get some ideas as to time and temperature. First I peeled the potatoes and cut them in half, then made multiple slices from the halfs before finally making matchstick pieces (or as close as I could) from them:

Once they were cut, I put them in a bowl, poured about two to three tablespoons of olive oil over them and tossed them until they were coated. The spices in order of appearance were salt, pepper and cumin - probably about two teaspoons of salt and pepper and close to a teaspoon of cumin. You can't really tell it's cumin in the picture but it is (still figuring out the camera options):

After mixing it all up with my hands to make sure everything was distributed, I put them potato pieces on a baking sheet sprayed with Pam:

I started the temperature at 425 degrees and let them cook, checking on them on occasion to make sure nothing was, you know, burning uncontrollably. At the 20 minute mark, I went to flip them over and noticed there was a good deal of browning already taking place - perhaps a bit too much. I flipped the fries over and lowered the temperature to 400 degrees to finish the cooking process, letting them go for about another 15 minutes. The end result?

They were more...roasted than anything else. I liked the taste and the consistency - some light crunchiness/firmness on the outside and a soft inside, but they weren't really what I was looking for in terms of being a sweet potato fry. I would definitely up the ante on the spices. More salt, more pepper and look at some dried herbs or even some parmesan. I might also experiment with cooking them at slightly different temperatures by going a little lower and slower with one batch and then upping the oven temp with another batch to see how they compare. Overall, though, they made a pretty good accompaniment to a broiled steak and a green salad.

10 June 2009

Kitchen Aid

For most of my life, I had avoided cooking or anything resembling actual work in the kitchen of the food preparation variety. I'm not sure but I think it started way back when my dad told my mom that she needed to teach me how to cook because I wasn't ever going to get married unless I could cook. Being the Type B (i.e., quietly rebellious) child that I was, I determined that if cooking was a prerequisite for marriage, then some poor schlub was going to go hungry a lot or become very well known at the drive-thru.

I did manage to get married without a pop quiz into my cooking skills (outmaneuvered you on that one, Dad!). The motto of our marriage was "If music be the food of love, play on" (I married a musician). For the first years of my marriage, I could cook if I had to or felt like it, but they were generally uninspired dishes; easy things like Cornflake Chicken or tacos. Neither of us starved but we didn't exactly set the culinary world on fire.

When we moved to Georgia, the Spousal Unit got smacked around by several health issues - Hello, diabetes! Good day to you, heart problems! - and I started cooking. A lot. As in poring over magazines and recipes, watching the Food Network, and buying ingredients I'd never heard of. Flat-leaf parsley may not be exotic to me now (or to anyone else as a general rule) but back then? Might as well have asked me to go harvest it myself from the Italian outback.

footnote: Yes, I know there isn't an Italian outback. It's a metaphor. Then again, my father might not think so. He also hated that I was an absolute dunce at geography. Really ruined those "friendly" family Trivial Pursuit games.

For several years, I had a sweet relationship with my kitchen. We were BFF. I'd go into there, open some cupboards, pull out some ingredients, smack some pans down and create, baby! Booyah!

Then we moved to Tennessee and I got very involved with training/fighting muay thai and such...and stopped cooking again. The Spousal Unit was also working long hours as well - first for another company and then for himself - and also ended up having gastric bypass surgery. Once again, for a very long time, we went back to subsistence cooking. Meals boiled down to what was in the fridge/freezer that could be easily thawed/thrown together/broiled/what have you.

Long story short, it's now almost five years later. I've cooked enough to keep my hand in and my skills fairly sharp, but I haven't had the relationship with my kitchen that I had in Georgia and I've missed it. The kitchen had become my Zen, my relaxation, a place to sip a drink and pore over the potentials of a new or previously made recipe. Do I follow the instructions exactly? Do I want to change it up a bit? What if I do X instead of Y? I wonder how that would come out if I...well, you get the idea.

I find that I miss it. A lot. So I've made some changes. I'm not going to be training for a while and that gets me home several hours earlier in the day versus the oh-crap-it's-almost-8p.m.-what-do-I-do-for-food routine we've been locked into for many, many months. I've refreshed my cooking bookmarks, dusted off my cookbooks, pulled out my recipe folders and re-installed my cooking software. I hope to detail some of what I make in this blog, but my bigger hope to reconnect with that quietly creative part of me that's been silent for a while and revive the pleasure and satisfaction that came from taking diverse ingredients and making something good from them.

Let the experimentation begin :).