Thursday, December 26, 2013

From My Kitchen: Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Casserole with Pecan and Almond Crunch

Disclaimer: This recipe was developed on the fly mere days ago and I am working off scribbled notes, so individual results may wildly vary. 

I love sweet potatoes and butternut squash and will admit to loving me some church casserole. What I don't love are overly sweet, overly processed casseroles topped with crackers and baked to death. I wanted a sweet potato souffle that was a little like my grannies, but more in line with the way I want to eat. This was a great addition to our holiday feast.

Tools to Use.
Oven, preheat to 350
Casserole dish, 3 quarts with a lid, or based on the volume of the veg you use
Baking Sheet, greased with veggie oil or use parchment paper to line the pan.
Mixer, hand or stand - this is an easy mix.
Two large bowls
One small bowls

Your Shopping List.

Sweet potato
Butternut squash
Pumpkin Pie Spice - See the image to the left. You can buy the pre-mixed stuff in the spice aisle which is totally usable, but if you have the basics it's tasty to make it yourself. (Image credit and recipe)
2 eggs
Sliced almonds
Pecan pieces
All Purpose Flour
Brown sugar
Salt, sea or kosher
Olive Oil

The Base. 
3 medium sweet potato, washed
1 small butternut squash or half of a large one, cut in half and with the skin on
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
** Poke holes in the sweet potatoes and put them on the baking sheet (or use a baking pan so they don't slide around)
** Coat the squash in olive oil and put it cut side down on the baking sheet
** Roast both the squash and the sweet potato in the oven for 20 to 40 min or until it's soft
** Remove and let them cool until you can handle them easily
** After they cool, peel off the skins of the sweet potatoes and use a paring knife to take off the butternut squash skin (or use a spoon)
** Add the eggs, spice and sugar to the veg and beat until it's fluffy
** Out the mixture in the baking dish

The Topping. 
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup almonds
3/4 cup pecans
4 Tblspoons butter, room temp
dash salt

This is the part where you get your hands dirty.
** Dump it all into a bowl and work it until the nuts partially break down, you have worked in all the butter and you are left will a very lumpy crumb.

** Put the squash mix in the baking dish and sprinkle the topping in an even layer.
** Bake at 350 until the topping is browning and it's warmed completely through.

It's Tinsel Time At My House

I have a real, aching love for tacky Christmas lights. Not being a supporter of most things Christmas, I can pass on all the professionally produced lights, but the allure of a house covered in C9 lights in weird or random patterns is too much for me to bah-humbug about. My family suffers my "OH! Look over there" followed by a sharp turn of the wheel and our slow crawl past the house. There is a giant bin in my garage with lights and such, begging me for the last 2 years to do something interesting, but I have failed 2 years in a row.

This year I decided that I would put up some kind of tree to put the kiddo's presents around. He is the only person I still buy presents specifically for this holiday and since it's all about finding my joy in his experience, I wanted to give him festive without covering the house in Santa Claus. The end result:

The tree does actually twinkle thanks to the strand of twinkle lights I wrapped around the pole that holds up the tinsel tree. I got the tree at my local bullseye-themed big box retail store for less than $20. Tree, plus $3 in twinkle lights and $0.97 worth of tinsel garland and TADA Shiny Celebration Tree!!

Part of what I love most about the house we moved into last year is this giant mantle. The snowmen you see are a small bit of my college obsession. Prior to my low clutter days, I loved to have boxes and boxes of holiday decor. I have no interest in lugging that around every time I move, so I have paired it down to some fun pieces that really hold my interest.

That's about $5 in tinsel garland, $7 worth of pre-cut glittered snowflakes and a $2 bag of bows.

What is left of what used to be a slightly obsessive snowman collection. 

Menu: Tinsel Holiday Family Dinner

The "holiday season" is my least favorite time of any year. However - I do love food and I do love my family and this year I had a chance to feed the people I love the most so I grabbed it.

The weekend before the main holiday event my dad came down from Ohio, Robert's dad came over and we all sat around the dining table while D opened his presents and then we feasted.

I was a kitchen god.

The Menu

* Cheese-ball, summer sausage and crackers
(I didn't make these, dad brought them)
* Olive and Pickled Tray
* Deviled Eggs

I splurged and bought a Honeybaked Ham, which has turned into several meals (more on that later)

* Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Casserole with Almond and Pecan Crunch
* Slow Cooked Green Beans with Country Ham and Black Pepper
* Braised Brussel Sprouts with Leeks

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

From My Kitchen: Toffee Almond Caramel Coconut Dark Chocolate Bars

We are not a Christmas holiday celebrating household, but I do like a nice family dinner and all the baked goods that come along with a holiday built for gorging yourself. This recipe started as a reason to use toffee and came out as a new holiday favorite.

Tools to use:
Oven, pre-heated to 350F. Do this first and make sure that the oven is hot.
Mixer, I'm a shameless Kitchen Aid stand whore, but stand if you can, shortbread is a bitch to hand mix.
Baking Pan, 13x9x2 either well greased with butter, bakers spray or lined with parchment. Without it, this cookie is like a construction project to get out of the pan. (Helpful hints on stuck cookies below)
High sided, flat bottom medium sauce pan. You want ample room.
2 Spatulas, both silicone if you have them, things are about to get sticky.

Your Shopping List. 

Unsalted butter
White sugar
All-Purpose flour
Salt, kosher or sea
Toffee bits without any chocolate coating
Light corn syrup
Sliced Almonds
Shredded, unsweetened coconut
Dark chocolate chips

The Shortbread.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup white granulated sugar
2 cups AP flour
pinch salt, sea or kosher
** mix butter and sugar in mixer until pale and airy
** stir flour and salt together with a fork
** add the flour mix to the butter mix, gradually until combined.

Your batter will be on the dry side, it's shortbread, not a chewy cookie. You want dense, but mold-able. The dough will melt in your hands, which is what makes it sticky and results in a greasy shortbread. Handle it a little as possible; dump it in the middle of the greased or lined jelly roll pan and use a rolling pin (this is my favorite kind), side of a can or the back of a large metal spoon to push the dough as evenly as possible into the baking pan.

Pop that into your waiting 350F oven for 10 to 15 min or until the edges are lightly golden brown the and middle looks more opaque.

While you stand around inhaling the ever growing buttery goodness coming from the oven, make your toffee topping.

The Topping.

Disclaimer: This is not a dessert for those with weak, fake or broken teeth. It's the gift that pulls out fillings if you are not careful.

1 1/2 cups plain toffee, pounded into bits - they sell bits in the baking aisle, or, you can buy toffee bars and beat them with your heavy plastic rolling pin like I do. Just toffee, not toffee covered in chocolate or that contains bits of nuts.
3/4 cup of light corn syrup
pinch of salt, kosher or sea
1 Tblsp unsalted butter
1 cup of sliced almonds, divided in half
1/2 cup of unsweetened shredded coconut
8 oz of dark chocolate chips

** in the medium saucepan, add the toffee bits and corn syrup and cook over medium heat stirring constantly until the toffee chips are melted into the syrup.
** take it off the heat and add the butter, stir in
** turn the heat to low, stir in 1/2 cup sliced almonds, 1/2 cup of coconut and a pinch of salt.
** turn off the heat and set the caramel mix aside


** take the shortbread out of the oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot shortbread and spread around with a spatula
** pour the caramel topping over the shortbread and chocolate
** sprinkle the remaining almonds over the top
** pop the whole thing back in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the top bubbles

Let the whole pan cool down and then use a sharp knife to score the topping down to the short bread.

Try not to eat all of them, it's hard.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

App Review: Pepperplate

What its for : Recipe organization, meal planning, shopping list organizing, weekly food packing.
Personal Technology: Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.0 (app & Chrome) & HTC OneX (ICS app) & Windows 7 (Chrome)

I'm taking a little break from the Portland posts to laud the wonderfulness that is Pepperplate.

I've been looking for a menu planning app that may all my wants in a single app and this one comes the closest.

Pepperplate gives me a place to collate my own recipes, many of which only existed in my head or on random scraps of paper stuck in cookbooks, along with ones I pull from my favorite websites. Those recipes can then be organized into menus, those menus into plans and those plans into shopping lists. It makes my little organizational heart go pitter-pat.

When you are ready to start cooking, you can set several timers to help get it all on the table at the same time. I've found this a little clunky, but it's still helpful to know in the beginning of cooking a dish when you should start your sides, but if you aren't good at getting a meal on the table (like me) this isn't going to help you much.

East of access is king in this app - from my laptop (at work when I come across some awesome idea for a meal), my phone (at the grocery store while I'm shopping), and my tablet (while I'm cooking in the kitchen) has meant better meals and less frustrating shopping experiences. 

The sync feature is my largest gripe and that's pretty minimal. Occasionally, the sync doesn't complete until you restart the app, or, reverts to a prior shopping list while in the middle of a shopping trip. Annoying, but it's not enough to make me not want to use it.

Being able to make notes on recipes that came from somewhere else is helpful, since I have to make adjustments for the tastes in my household.

The applet Chrome uses on the tablet doesn't function the way the developers obviously wanted it to. You can't easily import or copy and paste. Again, annoying but until I run out of interesting things from Bon Appetit and it's not keeping me from using it.

You can get the app from Google Play (or iTunes)  and from here on the Web.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Portland, Day One : Fat Girl Eats Portland

The Nerd Llama menacing the harbor in Portland. 

With a photo like this, what else was I supposed to title this post?

Several months ago, my BFF said "We're going on vacation. Where do you want to go?" The agreement was that we had to go somewhere neither of us had ever been before. Given that she is a travelling sales rep and I have traveled pretty extensively, our options for virgin meets interesting destinations were few.

Portland, OR. Tada! So, last week we were off to help keep Portland weird.

Chasing the sunset on a 747.

The upside to late evening flights heading west is that you are forever chasing the sunset across the country. We arrived at PDX at about 9pm local time, the sun had just set, but my body thought it was midnight. The only way to cure jetlag - pizza and beer.

Local brew total - 2.

Rather than staying in a hotel we used to find a condo. I can tell you that unless I have to, I might not ever stay in another hotel on vacation. It was nice to stay in a place that made you feel more like part of the city, rather than a tourist.

The condo we stayed in was in a building mostly populated by college students (Portland State University was just blocks away) and older professionals. You can see the actual condo we stayed in here. It was a cute little 'bachelor pad' of an apartment but it did us just fine.

Views from the porch:
The view from above to the courtyard below.
To the west, downtown and PSU

To the east, the Williamette River, with Mt. Hood beyond. 

Day Two: Goonies, Oysters and Beer.... coming shortly.

Planting All The Sits

My cat, Obi "The Wan" Kenobi (aka the Giant Grey One), hates plants, but she LOVES to plant sits.

Via Reddit, this is not my cat, but it's close.

So far, she has removed via her not insubstantial weight: my bibb lettuce, romaine, all the wild flowers I planted on the porch in containers,  a rosemary plant and attempted to replant sits in place of some of the day lilies that grow on the side of my driveway. She's a more effective sit gardener than I seem to be at making anything edible grow.

Luckily, she hates the citronella plant near the porch (which I can understand, it really smells terrible) and doesn't seem to like the tomato plants, so those are doing nicely.

Here are some photos of the front yard in full bloom. These were taken two weeks ago or so, just before the four straight days of rain we got here in the ATL. Now, the gardenias are blooming and smell lovely. I'll take more photos this weekend.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Little rambling spots

Tumblr at the Nerd Llama is mostly random photos and brief snippets of the random shit that goes through my head.

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Getting Dirty - First Planting of the Year

Its been a wonderful weekend of beautiful Georgia spring weather- long walks, good friends, happy laughter, cold beer, giant pillow fights that got broken up by the cops, the first sunburn of the season and the best thing about spring - planting in the dirt.

I love to be outside, prefer it to inside in most every instance when the weather is warm. Today was the first day it felt right to get some new annuals in the ground and plant some herbs and greens. I ended up with some tomatoes as well. Our landlord already has some beautiful landscaping, but that means I'm working around established plants I don't want to take out of the ground. So, its container gardening for this season.
Having moved in over the winter, and with some big, old gorgeous hardwoods in the yard I'm only vaguely sure where I can plant, so boxes on the ground are out for the moment.

Planning where the pots go before I started filling them.

Today's trip to the plant store:
I took my own basket to the plant store. This is how I keep from buying too much.

Moss rose
Creeping phlox
Citrus mint
Red lettuce
Bibb lettuce
Spicy basil
Roma tomatoes
Big boy tomatoes
Hybrid cherry tomatoes

You can barely see the new phylox at the edge of the bed. Romas (left) Grape tomatoes (right)

Super artsy photo of the new lettuce bed down the back path
Wild backyard. I'm cleaning it up a little, but I like all the mounding clover and pretty little flowers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From My Kitchen: Bacon Roasted Chicken

I posted this picture just down the page, but it's so sexy, Imagonna post it again.

That is a short-brined, whole chicken covered in homemade, thick cut bacon and packed in with brussel sprouts, apples, whole clove garlic and, oh, yeah, that's it... more bacon. So sexy. Ah yeah.

Brining is the new culinary technique in my arsenal. I made my very first at-home Thanksgiving meal last year and used a Alton Brown inspired brine for that and it came out AMAZING. We buy a whole hog raised by friends of ours who have a homestead just outside of Knoxville (read about it here) so I learned how to brine my own bacon our first year. It was pretty terrible. The brine was too strong and I left it in too long and then had no way to smoke it. The turkey being a success was my first positive step in the brine department, but until a beautiful 9lb. pork belly made it's way to my kitchen a couple of weeks ago I hadn't had the urge to brine.

So I brined that pork belly and I made some unsmoked bacon. Had to use a little on SOMETHING, so I decided to layer it over a roast chicken for the first 30 min of the cooking time to keep the breast moist.
Wait.... I'm jumping ahead.

The Brine.

 General rule for a simple brine: 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water and 1 hour of brine to 1 pound of meat.

Very artsy photo of a raw chicken in a metal bowl, floating. :)

What's in it? 

1 gallon of water (I use tap water)
1 cup kosher salt (use sea or kosher or rock, but don't use table salt)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar (you can fake it with white sugar and molasses in a pinch- Google it)
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 gala apple, quartered (any sweet apple would work here)
1 Tbs. whole peppercorns
1 bunch celery, tops and leafs
5 whole fennel seeds, which is about 1/2 a tsp.

Put the water, salt, sugar and vinegar into a large stock pot and bring to a full boil. Add everything else and rapid boil for 10 min.

Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool. I cheat and use ice or my chest freezer to cool it down faster.

While your brine is chilling...

The Bird.

1 whole chicken, 2 - 3 lbs, giblets removed, thawed and rinsed.

Put it in a bowl that will allow the liquid to completely cover the bird.

Drench in the brine liquid, with it's solids, and put it in the fridge for 2 to 5 hours, or more, if you want a slightly saltier bird. This time, I was right at 5 and the legs were a little on the salty side, but the flavor was right on the money.

Preheat your oven to 400 and make sure that it's fully warmed up.

While you are heating your oven, get your mis en place ready.

1 lb of brussel sprouts, washed (whole if they are little, halved if they are the giant ones.)
1 gala apple, cored and chopped large.
5 cloves of garlic, peeled, whole
1/4lb. of thick cut bacon, chopped up into bite size pieces.
Olive oil to coat
5 to 7 slices of bacon, thick and if you can manage it, homemade. (Nitrate free (no pink salt), or, 'uncured' if you get it from the grocery.)

Put all of this, except the bacon slices, into a big bowl and mix it up good. You want the oil and flavor to get into the sprouts (why halved is best) and want a good solid coating on each bit.

Once it's fully coated with oily, salty, peppery, pork fatty goodness- spread it all into the bottom of a roasting pan, or, in my case the bottom a of foil-lined 13x9 cake pan..

Take the brined chicken, rinse it in cold water, pat it dry and put it in the pan with the sprouts. Whether you put the bird on the sprouts or make a hole and put the chicken in, it's cook's choice.

Stuff the bird with the apples and celery from the brine and truss that bird up. I was out of twine that I felt safe in my food, so I improvised and used a 12" bamboo skewer poked through the thighs to keep the legs in place and the holes closed.

Cover that bird in the bacon slices, like a happy pig blanket for your chicken.

The Roasting.

Put the bird in the oven, uncovered at 400 degrees for about 30 min. The bacon on top should have started to render it's juice, basting the top of the bird in fatty goodness. After the first 30min, drop the temp to 350, pull the bacon slices off, putting them on the sprout mixture as not to lose any porky goodness, or just take them out and fry them up as a waiting-for-your-dinner treat.

From this point, it is going to depend on the size of bird you have, the temperature consistency of your oven and how well done you like your fowl. Set your timer for 15min and when it beeps, baste your chicken and check it's temp. Chicken is safe when it hits 155, carry over while it sits should get you another 7 to 10 degrees of cooking temp. Remember, you want to take the temp in the center of the breast and at the thigh. You also don't want to start taking that temp until you are reasonably sure it's there, the skin will be golden and hopefully crisp. The less you poke the flesh, the less the juices will escape.

Remove the bird from the pan and over it loosely with foil. Carry over is important! Let the meat rest for at least 10 min, 15 would be better. The longer you leave it to sit, the more juicy the meat will be.

While you are letting your bacon chicken rest, address your sprouts. Stir them around, spread them in the pan and turn up the heat in your oven to 400, or, put them under the broiler to get a little crisp on the outside.

I served this with a green salad and some mashed potatoes, but I was going for a late-Sunday-post-church-at-my-grannies-house kind of meal.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Letter to Clear Channel : MisInformation Antivax Billboards

I am a Phil Plait fan-girl, so I read Bad Astronomy every day. Some days, it's about topics closer to home and Alpha Centauri. Today, Phil draws attention the Clear Channel billboards in Arizona, Oregon, Illinois and Texas paid for by The National Vaccination Information Center, which is a very official sounding organization with a terrible agenda. 

NVIC is an antivax group, plain and simple. Despite hugely overwhelming tsunami-level amounts of evidence showing no link between vaccines and autism, they still think there is one. They go on and on about “vaccine injuries”, yet actual severe side effects from vaccines are very rare, especially when you realize that many millions of vaccines are given every year. The NVIC relies on anecdotes of injuries as evidence, but that's very dangerous thinking. Stories and personal observations are a good place to start—it’s how you might notice a connection between two things—but it’s not where you end. You must apply rigorous testing to your ideas, so that you can make sure you’re not seeing a connection where none exists. (Phil Plait, 3/15/13)

The billboards they are paying to display : 

"Know the risks and failures"

Antivax people make me crazy. Certifiable. I am all for researching what you put in your body and the body of your child, but do not in the face of consistent evidence that there is no link between vaccines and increased risks of long-term mental or physical ill-effects, continue to try and 'educate' the public in your bad science and fear mongering. 

Vaccination is the most effective medical primary prevention measure. The efficacy and utility of vaccination in controlling widely feared infectious diseases is convincingly demonstrated by the eradication of smallpox and the successful combating of poliomyelitis and diphtheria. In 1930s Germany around 6000 people, most of them children, died annually of diphtheria and a further 500 succumbed to poliomyelitis. Thanks to vaccination, these diseases have now disappeared from Germany. The risks of vaccination must be seen alongside its benefits. It goes without saying that the adverse effects of a vaccine must not exceed acceptable limits, i.e., a vaccine may not inflict lasting damage on the vaccinee’s health. (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 8/25/2008)

 The MMR vaccine controversy from 1998 which linked vaccine and autism panicked parents and created a celebrity ground-swell that only served to legitimize terrible science. Antivax became a 'fad' where parents stopped vaccinating their children, focus was sucked away from real science around autism and it's treatment and resulted in the delay of Europe's goal of eradicating measles by 2010. 

The fact that the NVIC is continuing to advertise this kind of nonsense infuriates me, so being a good libertarian, rather than stomping my feet, shaking my fist and saying, "let's make this illegal" I took Phil's lead and sent a note to Clear Channel (I stole Phil's first paragraph, shamelessly): 

It has come to my attention that the anti vaccination organization NVIC is advertising on your billboards. NVIC promotes dangerous misinformation about vaccinations, using outdated and simply wrong information trying to tie vaccines to autism and other health issues despite overwhelming scientific evidence against them. To be frank, this puts people—including babies—at risk of contracting preventable diseases like pertussis, measles, and the flu.
As a parent to a high-functioning autistic child, it makes me angry to see any attention being taken away from quality education about those with autism and how best to integrate them into the larger society. Add that to the dangerous nature of not vaccinating our population and I am appalled to see Clear Channel advertising anything this potentially harmful to your target audience -which is everyone. 
I would urge you to consider not taking any more money from the NVIC and having the billboards removed. 
Thank you, 
Lee Watts

Links for you to go and do your own vaccine research:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Daily Snapshot : Monday 3/11

Monday was pretty chappy as days go. Work stress, doctors appointment, nagging cough, steroids injection in the butt. Not a red banner kind of day. Using this sweet photo of my and my best dog ever, Kai. She's a 5 year old Aussie and my favorite of all our managerie.

Daily Snapshot : Sunday 3/10

Dinner prep, and final product. Roasted chicken with homemade bacon, Brussels, gala apples and garlic. Single pan of wonderful chicken/bacon/veg goodness. Full post with instructions, coming later today.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Drunk Tank : Palate Wrecker Hamilton's Ale

The Drunk Tank will be a regular feature on this blog for beers and spirits I try at home (more likely) or if I remember to take notes at the bar (less likely). Being that I live within stumbling distance of places like The Porter and The Midway Pub, I don't lack for options for a good draft but I do like drinking beer and playing video games in my pjs on my couch, so I am not much of a beer 'snob' and will try anything once.

The Beer: Palate Wrecker Hamiltion's Ale
The Brewery: Greenflash Brewery
The Consumption: Straight out of the bottle - classy as fuck. 

The Verdict: When they say "palate wrecker" they are NOT kidding. Not for casual Saturday afternoon drinking, but not terrible as long as you like your hops aggressive and on the nose.

Calling this beer just 'hoppy' is like calling that scary rabbit demon from Donnie Darko a 'bunny'. The moment the top came off I found myself turning my head away from the opening, like they teach you to do in high school chemistry class. Did I mention hoppy, 'cause yeah.

I think that my first mistake was that it was too cold. I prefer my hoptastic beers to be in the almost impossible to maintain sweet spot between just out of the fridge and just over the line into warm. For that beautiful moment, it was forceful at first but the finish was smooth and intense. Too cold and it was sharp and unappealing. Too warm and it left an odd after taste that would have made it impossible to pair with anything if you still wanted to taste your food. In that middle it was a well crafted IPA with a punch of hops.

I'm unlikely to go back to this particular beer again, but it did peak my interest in what else Greenflash has to offer.