Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Tsagaan Sar Edition

3:08 PM 5 Comments
As I've previously mentioned, my husband and I met as Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia. When you share something like that (how many people can say they met their husband when he was on his way to the market to buy fermented mare's milk?), it is not surprising that certain elements of the culture and customs stick with you years beyond your return. When you bring kids into the mix, it becomes important all over again to introduce and share some of that experience with them.

With that in mind, every February Sean and I get into Tsagaan Sar mode. Tsagaan Sar (translated as "White Moon") is the Mongolian Lunar New Year celebration. In Mongolia, it is a three day celebration of visiting family and friends, paying respects to elders, and consuming copious amounts of meat dumplings, sheep back fat, salty milk tea, and vodka. Around these parts, we take it down a notch, but we do our best to bring some of the spirit of the holiday to our home. Here are a few highlights from 2012:

  • We currently have Mongolian vests for both of our kids. The smaller silk vest was sent by a Mongolian friend when Finn was born. The larger felt vest was purchased for my nephew when I was in Mongolia and has since been passed back to me.

  •  Every year, Sean goes to great lengths to prepare a traditional Mongolian tower of cookies as a centerpiece for the Tsagaan Sar table. The cookies, called "ul boov" (which translates to "shoe sole") are typically deep fried in huge vats of oil then arranged in a circular tower and topped with candy and pieces of dried cheese. We tried this one year, and multiple sacks of flour and jugs of oil later, we had a big oily mess. The next year we tried adapting an unleavened bread recipe. It worked a bit better but still wasn't quite right. This year, after my Christmas craft discovery, we decided to construct the ul boov out of salt dough then stamp them...and not only did it work beautifully, but we never have to worry about making it again - after Tsagaan Sar dinner, Sean deconstructed and packed away the cookies for next year's centerpiece. 

  •  We taught Finn the traditional Mongolian greeting, and he welcomed our guests to the gathering. Finn speaking Mongolian in his gruff little voice was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

All in all, a very successful and celebratory Tsagaan Sar gathering. From our family to yours, we hope your two-year-old horse has enough fat for the winter, your two-year-old yak has enough muscle, and all of your animals passed the winter safely!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dinner Tonight: Chico's Roasted Red Pepper Soup

3:08 PM 1 Comments
I'd say that nearly 90% of what I cook for dinner can be made in 45 minutes or less, and I would venture to guess that the same is true for many of you. I put a lot of effort into planning and making good meals for my family, but I generally avoid recipes that require a lot of time; I'd rather spend that time with aforementioned family, after all. There are, however, a handful of super special recipes in my stash that take a lot of time and effort but that are so worth the time and effort. This recipe is one of those.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Montana, do. It is an incredibly special place with a rich history, year-round geothermally heated pools, and an amazing gourmet restaurant. It also happens to be up the road from Yellowstone National Park and in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountains. I have been fortunate enough to spend some time at Chico, and on my first visit, I picked up their cookbook, A Montana Table by Seabring Davis. Of all the recipes I've made from this book, this recipe for Roasted Red Pepper Soup is the one I go back to again and again.  

The recipe as transcribed below includes several tweaks I have made over the years. Additionally, here are a few tips:

- The original recipe calls for 2 quarts of homemade chicken stock. I have always used vegetarian Better than Bouillon to keep the recipe meatless.

- I typically take two days to make this recipe - one to roast, peel, and seed the peppers and a second to throw the soup together. I have always used fresh bell peppers (this is my go-to recipe when red peppers are really cheap at the farmer's market) but I suppose you could use jarred. Eight peeled and seeded roasted peppers yields about 3 cups.

- The recipe calls for 1 cup of sherry. I typically use super cheap cooking sherry with great results. You can also use red wine if that is what you have around.

- Because the soup gets pureed in the end, don't waste your time with precision cutting on the veggies. Just give them a rough chop.

- The original recipe has 1/2 tsp saffron whisked in with the cream. I have always skipped this since I generally don't have saffron around, but if you do, by all means use it.

- As noted in the cookbook, you can add steamed mussels, clams, or other shellfish as a last-minute topping. You can also add a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano.


Image courtesy of A Montana Table

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Adapted from A Montana Table


6 to 8 large red bell peppers
2 quarts soup stock
canola oil
2 large yellow onions, peeled and chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
4 large shallots, peeled and chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 cup sherry, divided
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp of hot sauce (optional but oh-so-good)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Roast whole red bell peppers over an open flame on a gas burning stovetop or grill; remove from flame when skin is mostly blackened and immerse in an ice bath to remove skin easily. Seed and dice. ALTERNATE METHOD: Roast peppers in a 450 degree oven, turning occasionally, until blackened. Put peppers in a paper bag and close the top for 10-15 minutes to loosen the skin. Peel, seed, and dice. Set aside. (Can be done one day ahead - store in fridge).

2. In a large soup pot, warm stock on medium-high heat until boiling. Add roasted red peppers and let simmer.

3. Heat a large saute pan with canola oil and saute onion, carrot, shallots, celery, and garlic until browned (about ten minutes). Add tomatoes and heat through. Transfer vegetables to soup pot. Use 1/2 cup sherry to deglaze the saute pan and add to soup pot. Cook over medium-high heat, allowing mixture to reduce to half, about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

4. The next step is to puree the soup. I have found that this is both difficult and dangerous to do while the soup is hot unless you have an immersion blender. If you don't, let it cool a bit before transferring it to a blender or food processor and pureeing until smooth.

5. Return to soup pot on low heat. Whisk in cream, lemon juice, remaining 1/2 cup sherry, and the optional hot sauce. Add salt and pepper to your taste, simmer for ten minutes, and serve!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wood + Photography = Love

3:48 PM 3 Comments
I've rediscovered my love of Pinterest in the last few weeks. It supplied me with my Valentine's Day breakfast treat for my boys. It's where I found the idea for the paint chip bookmarks I wrote about earlier. And it lead me to this ridiculously cool tutorial on how to use a block of wood and a printout of a photograph to make a really awesome present for my husband:

A few additional tips garnered in the process:

  • I didn't know what gel medium was. I found it at Michael's in the aisle with the artist supplies (not the craft paints but the oils/acrylics/etc.)
  • When rubbing off the paper, don't rub too hard. I made that mistake in my first attempt and my husband ended up losing his face. I used a gentler hand the second time. Fortunately the block of wood has two sides.
  • My favorite part of the video is where she has a baby sitting on her lap as she attempts to finish the project. Not really a tip, but thank you, unnamed super cool wood photography lady, for that dose of reality in your web tutorial.
And that is about all I have to say. This was a fun, easy, results-oriented project that I will be repeating many many times in the future. Here's the finished result. It looks kind of washed out since the flash reflected on the mod podge, but you get the idea. It's an old photo of Sean and me, but one of my favorites:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Breakfast of Champions

9:43 AM 2 Comments
Every once in a while I get on a homemade granola kick, and every time I am amazed at how good it is. This particular kick was inspired by a project referenced in an earlier post: in the process of weeding through my stacks of old cooking magazines, I came across this recipe from Molly Wizenberg, who writes at Orangette and, until recently, was regularly featured in Bon Appetit. I'm not sure why she is no longer writing for Bon Appetit, as her article was always one of the highlights of the magazine for me. Her book was really amazing, too. But I digress.

Here's the thing. Homemade granola is exponentially better than store-bought granola in just about every way. It is cheaper, you have total control of the ingredients (which means you can control the sweetness and fat), it tastes far fresher, and it stores beautifully. I made a batch a week ago, and I am amazed every morning at how light it is; I don't think I have ever tasted a store-bought granola that I would describe as "light."  Anyway, I strongly encourage you to give this a go. Homemade granola, vanilla yogurt, and a cup of coffee - in my world, there is really no better way to start the day.

The recipe below is a tweaked version of the Wizenberg recipe. It is infinitely adaptable - feel free to switch out the nuts, add seeds, change the sweetener, throw in some dried fruit, crumble up a chocolate bar - and will probably look different the next time I make it. In the Bon Appetit article in which her recipe was featured, Wizenberg recommends aiming for about 1/2 cup of liquid for every five to six cups of dry ingredients. She also strongly recommends allowing the granola to get golden. This is a delicate matter, as it can go from golden to scorched in seconds, so keep an eye on it.

Everyday Granola
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg
Makes about 5 cups


3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup coarsely chopped nuts (I use sliced almonds; she uses pecans)
1/2 cup shredded coconut (the original calls for unsweetened; I use sweetened)
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
Optional stir-ins: 1 cup dried fruit, 1 cup chopped up bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment.

Mix first six ingredients in a large bowl.

Stir maple syrup and oil in saucepan over medium-low heat until smooth.

Pour syrup mixture over oat mixture; toss.

Spread on prepared sheet.

Bake until golden, stirring every 10 minutes, about 40 minutes total.

Once cool, add optional stir-ins. Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I Heart Paint Chips

2:28 PM 0 Comments
When I was a little girl growing up in the Chicago suburbs, there weren't too many places you could go on foot. There were, however, a few small shops just a few blocks from my house that, by the time I was in elementary school, I could walk to on my own. My two personal favorites were Mr. Gs, a hot dog stand that sold soft serve ice cream cones, and Hines Hardware Store, my earliest source for paint chips. It was one of those wonderful, hard-to-find locally owned hardware stores that had a little bit of everything, and I loved going in there, usually with an ice cream cone in hand, and picking out a few paint chips to take home. I typically used them as bookmarks in my library books.

I never thought of using paint chips for crafts until the wonderful blogosphere introduced me to the idea. And so, with a little help from my trusty sidekick, I put together a few Valentine's inspired paint chip crafts. I bought the heart shaped punch from Michaels, and that, in combination with a covert, satchel-stuffing visit to the paint department of the local hardware store, was pretty much the only expense.  What I am most proud of is that I was able to use nearly every scrap of every paint chip - the punched out hearts were every bit as pretty as the punched out outlines. Finn and I made three entirely different crafts with the stack of paint chips that I had...not bad for a days work!

I started with these bookmarks, courtesy of Foxy Inspirations:

I then ran the leftover heart outlines through my sewing machine, to make this funky rainbow garland:

 I gave Finn the heart punch, some stickers, the remaining paint chips, some cardstock, a few markers, and a rubber stamp and commissioned him with making Valentines for his preschool friends. He called it a "decorating picnic" as we were able to sit outside in the sunshine to work on the cards. It is not usually this warm in the midwest in February, so we are soaking up every bit of sun we can!

Happy February, all!

Dinner Tonight: Slow Cooker Chicken Curry

8:20 AM 0 Comments
I have kind of a love-hate relationship with my slow cooker. There was no slow cooker included among my wedding shower haul; in fact I did not own one until about a year ago, so I'm kind of late coming to the game. The thing is, I love the idea of the slow cooker, and for the past year I've been checking out slow cooker cookbooks from the library, reading blogs, searching online for recipes, and trying desperately to make it work for our family.  I constantly find something that sounds like it will be really good, but four times out of five, it ends up overcooked. I almost feel like my slow cooker is a bit too good; I always follow the lesser recommended time, but more often than not my dinner is mush. So I've still got some experimenting to do.

On the cookbook front, I'll take a moment to highly recommend Make It Fast, Cook It Slow: it's from Stephanie O'Dea of crockpot365 and is chock full of good stuff. I particularly like the chatty tone and the inclusion of personal comments and occasionally snarky reflections with each recipe. So if you haven't seen it, and you are interested in upping your crock pot game, check it out.

This recipe, however, comes from the old stalwart Fix It and Forget It. Not my favorite cookbook, admittedly, but I occasionally find a few gems. This recipe was super easy, the chicken remained very tender (I have more luck with dark meat in the slow cooker than with white meat, as a general rule), and the flavor was nice. The potatoes were a little soft, but it actually worked in this recipe. I served it over rice with mango pickle, plain yogurt, and grocery-store naan. Yum.

Slow Cooker Chicken Curry
Makes: 6 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 5 - 10 hours


1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, quartered
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks, about 2 cups
1 apple, chopped
2 tbsp. curry powder
1 14 1/2 oz can chicken broth
1 medium onion, chopped

1. Place all ingredients in slow cooker. Mix together gently.

2. Cover and cook on low 8-10 hours or on high 5 hours, or until chicken is tender but not dry.

3. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over hot cooked rice.