Monday, January 26, 2015

The Ultimate Comfort Soup

Maybe it's because it's the deep, dark winter, but I've been savoring the comfort food lately.  I mean, really savoring it.  The simple pleasure of a delicious meal prepared in my own kitchen has been a freaking God-send lately.

Could it be because it's been nothing but dark, dreary, overcast, and rainy for weeks upon weeks?  Upon weeks!  It's bordering on ridiculous.  And it's getting old.  Oh, rain is in the forecast for tomorrow?  And the next day?  And the next 12 days after that?  Soooper.

I guess I needed a weather-themed mini rant. - Although, we did just have a sunny, crisp, blue skied weekend and had a nice change of pace with some snow today.  Brightens up the landscape, for sure.

Let me reel myself back in to the topic at hand - which also helps to lift the crushing effect of the non-stop rain & dreariness:  Ina Garten's Winter Minestrone is OUTstanding.  We're talking top notch.  The best.  Second to none.  The bees knees!  Come on, how can I resist the opportunity to bust out with the bees knees?  Yet another phrase that I can't help but wonder about the origin of.  But again, I digress.

Ina's Winter Minestrone recipe is one of my all time favorite Minestrone recipes. It's so flavorful!  You can get the recipe here if you're interested in giving it a go. - Which you should if you're looking for a hearty soup for a chilly weekend night. I think the only soup that might top this one for me these days is a kick-ass homemade chicken noodle soup. 

Full disclosure, there's a fair amount of prep work as far as chopping veggies, but the end result is well worth the time and effort.  Definitely a weekend undertaking - not a quick, easy week night meal.

Here's the gist of what you'll need to pull this one off:

I love how colorful and aromatic the veggies get when they're all combined together and getting happy with the olive oil & spices.  The butternut squash is the "winter" veggie that makes the soup a little different than your standard minestrone.  But man, what a pain in the ass is it to peel and chop those mothers!  Pretty sure I curse all throughout the process. 

But, I think the real secret ingredients are the pesto and white wine added right before serving.  They add an excellent depth to the flavor of the soup.  The very last ingredient to add is the spinach, and I love how vibrantly green it looks:

It's one of those soups that gets in my head and I crave if I think about it for long enough.  I find myself making it a few times each winter.  The chunky vegetables, the texture, the flavor?  It's the best.  I've said it before, but Ina knows what's up in the kitchen.  Here's our Ina Garten's Winter Minestrone with garlic bruschetta, ready to get gobbled up:

How can you resist giving it a go after looking at that bowl full o' love?  You won't regret it.  And I bet it'll brighten that winter malaise if you've got that going on.  (Shush, Floridians) From my kitchen in the deep, dark Alaskan winter to yours...xoxo.

Ta-ta for now.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dear Dad

Quick little note:  This post is a noticeable departure from my usual yammering about fluffy, inconsequential topics.  This one’s a little more weighty, sad, and personal.  Hope it’s not too much of a downer.  It just spilled out when I sat down to write.  I didn’t even know it was there brewing under the surface.  Maybe it’ll strike a chord with someone somewhere.  xo

Dear Dad,

I turned 40 last year.  I'd like to think you know that, and that somehow you've been keeping tabs on me.  On all of us, really.  What's going on in our lives.  Where we live.  How we're doing.

I'd like to think you pop in now and then to say hi and check in.  In a dream.  Or one of those overwhelming moments where I just know you're there.

I'd say that 90% of me believes that to be true.  But nobody can ever really know whether that's the case until we all inevitably reach our expiration date.  And hopefully meet again.

I wish so many things that can't become reality.  I wish we didn't have to lose you so young.  Young for you...and young for us, too.  Strange to think that your oldest daughter has now outlived you.  And in less than a decade, I will have outlived you too. (Here's hoping) That fact alone crystallizes exactly how young you were when you died.  All of us are so close to the age you were when your life ended in our own lives right now.  It's surreal and it messes with me a little bit if I think about it too long. 

Me & Dad, Brooklyn, NY - 1975

I wish I could have had a relationship with you as an adult.  I was only 11 years old when we lost you, so to me you were just Dad.  "Dad" in the most innocent, little kid, center of the universe type of way.  You weren't an actual person to me yet.  You were just Dad, and I had no idea that that's the only way I would ever know you.

I can't help but be a little envious of those people who have the enormous privilege of having an adult relationship with their father.  Those lucky enough to transition to that next phase.  When you're no longer lopsided, and become more like equals than constrained in the uneven roles of parent and child.  What I would give to hang out & have a beer with you!

Massapequa Park, NY - 1982

I think you would be proud of the man I married.  Another man in blue...just a different kind of blue.  I think you would have appreciated and respected the work he does, and the adventurous life he's given us.  I bet you'd come and visit Kodiak and hike a mountain with me.

I wish I could know how different my childhood would have been if you were able to stay in it.  No breaking down in tears to my religion teacher on a Sunday a few weeks after you died - because I didn't know whether you were "in heaven" or not.

No seeing my brother cry for the first time.

No watching my sisters struggle under the weight of startling loss in their fragile, early teen and young adult years.

No seeing Mom cope with the heaviness of grief and the unplanned circumstance of taking the reigns for a family of 5 on her own.  No watching her fall apart in the car because "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin came on the radio.

I wish you could have experienced the life you didn't have.  Toasting the accomplishments of each of us at our milestones.  Walking your daughters down the aisle.  Seeing me graduate with my master's degree.  Meeting your grandchildren and son-in-laws.  Seeing your son grow into a solid, good man who is universally loved by those who are lucky to know him and call him a friend.  Celebrating anniversary after anniversary with Mom.  You'd be somewhere around your fiftieth anniversary by now.

Remember the Cabbage Patch Kid craze in the mid-eighties?
I love his classic Giants hat.  He always wore baseball hats so high on his head.

I wish you could know what distinct, compelling memories I have of you during the 11 short years I had to know you.  The unwavering stability there was in seeing you walk through the front door of our house after work.  The pure, childhood joy of being on the receiving end of your attention.  When you're a kid, it really doesn't get any better than that.  There was no back better for "riding horseback" around the living room on than yours!  I hope somehow you know all of these things that I wish and all of these memories that I cherish.

Riding "horseback" - 1981

But again, maybe you already do.  I miss you.  I love you.  Until we meet again.

Your Pugga

New York's Finest.  Brooklyn, 1971

Massapequa Park, NY - circa 1984.  This one picture captures the essence of him so well.  It's perfect.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My "Fancy" Breakfast

It's not really fancy.  It just feels that way when you get a taste of it!  Ever tried baked eggs?  I don't remember where I first read about them, but I've been experimenting with all sorts of baked egg recipes over the last year or so, and it's become one of my favorite leisurely weekend breakfasts.

Baked eggs are all about layering.  And good cheese.  I recommend using smoked Gouda or smoked Gruyere, along with the king of cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Alright, first things first.  I always start my baked eggs with some kind of leafy green.  Either spinach, swiss chard, or kale.  I find myself starting so many meals in this way, and the baked eggs are no exception:  good extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground sea salt and freshly ground pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, and garlic (either a dried spice variety or fresh - when I use a dry spice I use Tastefully Simple Garlic Garlic Seasoning Blend that someone gave me as a gift.  It's pretty good)

Once I get the pan heated up with the olive oil and spices, I wilt the greens over medium heat, and add just a splash of either white wine or chicken broth and cook it off at the very end for flavor.  Depending on what I have on hand, I'll add onions or peppers to the greens, too.  I've also added very thinly sliced mushrooms or shallots.  Whatever's in the fridge!

Kale, yellow peppers & onions

Meanwhile, you'll want to butter your ramekins.  I know it's not a standard kitchen accessory, but they actually come in surprisingly handy - I've used them often.  If you don't have any ramekins, you could also use a muffin tin.  Once the veggies are done and the ramekins are buttered, pile all the veggies in.

Then, just layer it up!  On top of the veggies, you'll want to add your cheese, and I like to add a little dollop of Greek yogurt here, too.  Like I mentioned before, a quality smoked cheese and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano work well.  I also sprinkle a little bacon bits or fresh bacon crumbles on top of the cheese.  Because, duh.

Next up is to crack the egg.  Grate a little more Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, along with salt and pepper & you're ready for the oven.

Left: Veggies in the buttered ramekin         Right:  Egg ready to go in the oven

Pop your eggs into the oven on 400 for about 12 minutes.  The goal is to have set whites and a runny yolk.  This probably won't be your cup of tea if you're not into egg yolk.  But if you are, I'm telling you, this is such a flavorful breakfast!  So much going on with the greens, cheese and yolk.

I usually serve it with either a toasted crusty bread if I have it, or whole wheat toast or English muffin.  It looks pretty when you take it out of the oven, but I like to mix it all up inside the ramekin to get all the flavors and yolk all melded together.  I top little bits of the mixture onto my toast and it's fabulous.

C'mon!  You know want to give some fancy breakfast a try!

Ta-ta for now.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Taming One of the the Beasts

Happy New Year!  Doesn't this mean we all have to start talking about goals, and organizing, and fresh starts?  That's a law somewhere, right? 

Well, I'll be happy to tackle the organizing part.  Because frankly, we're at a tipping point in this house.  I don't even know how it happened - I mean come on, we've only been here for 18 months.  How much disarray could there possibly be? The hubby insists it's not that bad, but we'll just call our tolerance levels for clutter...different.

I'll fully embrace that I'm a little nuts when it comes to being tidy.  I blame my mom.  "A place for everything and everything in it's place."  Now be sure that you read that in a slightly screechy, naggy, mom-type voice to really get the full effect.

My first "let's get our act together" project (one of many to come) was to get a handle on the food pantry.  Now, maybe my before picture isn't as bad as I think, but the space needed some help.  Considering the range of items stored there went from canned goods to exercise accessories to camping gear, it definitely met my criteria for a re-org.  Here are a few less than orderly before pictures:

The answer to the question "Is that a 6 lb medicine ball in the middle of the pantry floor?" is yes.  The shame.

So maybe it wasn't too terrible, but it definitely needed some TLC.  The shelves were all over the place, some overflowing, with no rhyme or reason to what was stored where.  Which of course resulted in not being able to easily see and find things, not really knowing what was in the pantry, and buying products we didn't realize we already had.  Not ideal. I realize it could be much worse than this, but it was cluttered enough for me!

But, the real mess is around the corner.  Talk about using a space to shove whatever we didn't feel like dealing with - for whatever reason - for over a year!  Under this pile of crap was anything from toilet paper, to what seemed like an excessive amount of reusable cloth grocery bags, to a jump rope, to one of those plastic dog cone of shame contraptions, to a space heater, to snorkel fins and masks, to a ukelele.  You get the picture, right?  It had become the shove it spot for anything and everything and it needed to be tamed!

Ugh.  Look away!  Look away!

My strategy was to purchase a few organizational tools to help me get the space whipped into shape.  Think hooks, over-door shelving, and baskets.  I procrastinated for about a month before I finally just sucked it up and did it already.  And I'm SO happy with the results.

I think the biggest difference is the over-the-door shelves.  They provide so much more space and take advantage of an area that was completely unused before.  How about this paragon of efficiency:

With room to spare!

My two other favorite features of the new and improved pantry space are the hooks I used for the step stool and reusable grocery bags, and the plastic bag recycling container.  Before, we just shoved plastic bags in a cardboard box that was never unpacked & was left in the pantry, and the reusable grocery bags were thrown all willy-nilly in the empty space. This is so much better!

I'd say the pantry's looking better now:

I went with baking supplies and sweets on the top shelf, pasta and canned goods on the second, rice/dried goods/beans in the basket on the third shelf, and all booze and booze-related things in the canvas basket.

Paper goods and cleaners are on the floor, and I used a wood side table we weren't using anywhere else to bring the clear 3-drawer shelf up off of the floor.

Not really a fun project, but it's one of those tasks that once you stop procrastinating about and just do, you immediately feel better about having finally finished it.  And maybe - if you're feeling particularly inspired, you'll be motivated to tackle the next organizing project.  Cause ya know there's a next one!

I'm so relieved that step one of taming the clutter is done!  I think my next project will be the drawers in the kitchen.  You know the ones.  We all have them.  Battlefield kitchen accessories.

I'd say 2015 is off to a refreshingly organized start!  Maybe there's something to the whole clich├ęd "let's start fresh" mindset for the new year.  I know I'm a happy camper with that black hole of a pantry finally tackled.  So, what are you going to take on for the new year?

Ta-ta for now.

Pizza break.  Almost done!

So much better!