Category Archives: Food

Steak and Potato Soup in the Slow Cooker


In an alternate universe, I’m a food blogger. Today I’m zipping through the wormhole to share a recipe I tried that worked out well. No photo—we ate it all before it occurred to me to write down the recipe. But this turned out well, so I’ll share in hopes that someone might enjoy this hearty soup—and perhaps share his/her favorite slow-cooker recipe with me.

We recently visited the Newport Hills neighborhood of Bellevue, Washington, where my husband lived many moons ago. Of course, much has changed, and one new addition is the Mustard Seed Grill and Pub, a casual sports tavern where I had their delicious Pepper Pot Soup, tender cubes of beef and velvety potatoes in a creamy white base–perfect dish for a soggy, chilly fall day.

To lure our vegetable-phobic friend in for a weekday jam session—R and D on guitar and me on uke—I did my best to recreate this soup. Haute cuisine it ain’t; nevertheless, it’s delicious.

I diced up a big yellow onion, about a cup and half of celery, including the leaves, and three big carrots. Into the slow cooker that went, along with three diced cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, a generous grinding of black pepper, and about 2 teaspoons of Herbes de Provence.

I trimmed the biggest chunks of fat from a big ol’ beef chuck steak, a bit more than a pound. I diced the meat up small, about ½ inch cubes, peppered it generously and dredged it in flour. I browned that in olive oil in two batches, adding each to the slow cooker atop the vegetables. I peeled and diced up a monster russet potato—again, about ½ cubes. Then I filled the pot with four cups of beef broth and one can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup—the kind with roasted garlic. More pepper, a generous dash of Worcestershire sauce, and on goes the lid.

I intended to cook it on high for a few hours and then turn it down to low. Well, I forgot to switch to low, so I ended up leaving it on high for a good six hours. The result was perfect: tender meat, velvety potatoes, and a nice peppery bite. This made enough for at least six main-course bowlfuls. Our meat-loving friends were pleased. I’ll make this one again.

What’s your favorite slow-cooker recipe for a drizzly winter day?

The Leftover Project: Lentil Soup in the New Kitchen

The kitchen 1

The kitchen is finished! Welcome, new temple of culinary rites. Welcome, new heart of our home. Farewell to camping in the living room.

The kitchen 2

For the past six weeks, we’ve been subsisting on what could be grilled in the back yard or quickly prepared in the “camp kitchen” a mini-microwave, an electric skillet and a slow cooker. The trouble with cooking in the living room as that pervasive odors, like garlic, cling to the furniture. There’s a reason we don’t put sofas in the kitchen.

Thank goodness for take-out. I’ve eaten more sushi in the past month than in the previous year. But take-out food is expensive, and I’ve really missed cooking. The first dish I made in the new kitchen was pasta, something I just couldn’t prepare on the grill. And last night the weather turned from warm May splendor back to our usual gray drizzle. Time for lentil soup!

Lentil soup is a worthy addition to my leftover project, a collection of basic recipes to help me (and perhaps you?) use up leftovers before they go to waste. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, “about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. When this figure is converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. In a world full of hunger, volatile food prices, and social unrest, these statistics are more than just shocking:  they are environmentally, morally and economically outrageous.”

Knowing this, I feel like a complete cretin when, because I haven’t paid attention to what’s in my fridge, I end up discarding food that’s become too old to eat. It feels like throwing money directly into the garbage can, not to mention the natural resources involved, and the work of all the people who produced, transported and packaged that food. Thus, the Leftover Project.

Lentil soup is a delicious way to use up leftover bits of this and that. I often throw in greens that are starting to wilt, sad tomatoes, and bits of cooked meat. Today’s version was pretty much the basic recipe, and gave a home to some slightly soggy celery and a lone potato that would otherwise have melted into gooey oblivion.

Here’s the basic recipe to serve six. We’re only two, but I freeze the rest for I-don’t-wanna-cook days.

  • First, I chop up 2-4 peeled carrots, 2-4 stalks celery, including the leaves, and a big ol’ onion, chopped, or all the bits of various onions, green onions, shallots, and/or leeks I have lying around, to equal the volume of one large onion. I sauté all this in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. (Doesn’t that sound like a term of affection? Come on over here, my heavy-bottomed soup pot.) Put the lid on and sweat the veggies for about five minutes over medium heat.

The veggies

  • Now, I throw in 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (more would be fine). If you’re adding greens, like spinach, kale, etc., now would be the time to shred or chop them up and throw them in. If your greens are already cooked, throw them in later, toward the end. Anyway, I also add a few bay leaves and stir this for a few minutes, then pour in about eight cups of water and the lentils—any type. This time I used the green ones which hold their shape in the finished soup. The brown ones soften up and dissolve more, making a more velvety soup. Nothing’s stopping you from using your stick blender (AKA immersion blender) to partially puree the finished soup, if you prefer a creamier consistency. You could use red lentils too, but they seem to call for Middle Eastern or Indian seasonings, whereas the green ones feel more French, Spanish or Italian. Last night we were heading toward Italy, so I added several grinds of black pepper and a good shake of Penzi’s Tuscan Sunset herb blend (so good!) and let the lentils simmer for about forty minutes.
  • While the lentils cooked, I squish the guts out of six raw chicken Italian sausage from Trader Joe’s. I brown that up and set aside half the pan for future dishes—I love this crumbled sausage in my stuffed peppers, zucchini or eggplant—also great vehicles for leftovers.
  • When the lentils are starting to soften, I add about a tablespoon of beef bouillon concentrate, the stuff in a jar. You could use the chicken concentrate or the veggie. I dump in a can (14 oz.) of diced tomatoes, two medium potatoes, peeled and diced, and the sausage, which could just as easily have been replaced with diced ham, roast beef or chicken, or even vegetarian sausage.
  • And here it is! It turns out I’d grabbed the spicy sausage, which gave the soup just a bit of a kick. Delicious!

Lentil soup

After dinner, we went to Tacoma’s B Sharp Coffee House to hear the T-Town Blues Review. Vocalist Paul Green roared on harmonica, and the excellent band raised the roof. What a great evening.

T-Town Blues Review 2

What’s your favorite way to use up leftovers?

R is for Real Food

Rfruits and veggies

“Just keepin’ it real” is a popular phrase these days. Authenticity is a quality I admire greatly, especially in our culture, which promotes phoniness at every turn. One of the most important arenas for keeping it real is on our plates.

So many health problems are due to eating fake food. Of course, processed foods are tasty (if overly-salted and overly-sweetened foods are what you’re used to), cheap and easy. Our federal government provides generous subsidies to growers of corn, and soy, making high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil available to food manufacturers at rock-bottom prices. Take a stroll through the center aisles of your supermarket, where the bulk of the processed foods are found, and just try to find a processed item that doesn’t contain one of these. And even if they don’t use HFC, food manufacturers put added sugar into the most amazing places: salad dressing, sauces, all sorts of instant dinners and side dishes—dehydrated or frozen—bread, salty crackers, chips…it boggles the mind.

And we’ve all read how food manufacturers manipulate the terrible trio of fat, salt and sugar to make processed foods addicting. Judging by the crap I see in the supermarket carts of my fellow shoppers, especially the folks who are obviously in poor health, I don’t think addiction is too strong a word for processed foods’ hold on us. And it’s not just our weight that suffers when we eat too much of this junk; consumption of processed foods has been linked to cancers, gout, heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, allergies, and even Alzheimer’s disease. That shit will literally kill you.

As you can tell, real food and the dangers of fake food is a subject that interests me greatly. I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan’s books, and try to live his advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Another phrase of his I love is “edible food-like substances,” which describes most of what you’ll find in the center of the supermarket.  A good film documentary can be a powerful educational tool. When I was teaching persuasive and informative writing to my high school students, I’d show them films like Food Inc. and Fast Food Nation, along with TED talks on the topic of unhealthy diet. The discussions that followed were fascinating, and I’m glad to have given my students some food for thought. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Let me also insert a plug for one of my favorite blogs: Snack Girl! Part home cook, part investigative journalist, and an excellent food writer, she provides recipes for healthy alternatives to nasty, phony “treats.”

Hubs and I have been without a kitchen for three weeks now, but we’ve managed to prepare real food most of those days using a borrowed electric skillet (Thanks, Kim!), a slow-cooker, a microwave and our backyard grill. Last night I made a posole-ish stew using some leftover grilled pork tenderloin. Of course, I could’ve done much better if I’d had a stove, but it was still pretty tasty.

Into the slow cooker went:

  • Two cups of chicken broth
  • A can of diced tomatoes
  • A can of mild green chiles, chopped
  • A can of yellow hominy (Yes, canned food is processed, but not necessarily fake. I check the labels and choose products without added sugar, salt, and the fewest possible lab-made chemicals)
  • Diced cooked pork tenderloin
  • Cumin
  • Oregano
  • Chili powder

When it was done, we topped each bowl with radishes, green onions, cilantro and a bit of cheese. Real food, very tasty–and another entry in The Leftover Project.


Happy cooking!


The Leftover Project: Southwestern-ish Stuffed Peppers

My ongoing goal is to stop food waste by transforming leftover ingredients into new dishes. Of course, my dishes must be made of actual food—no food-like-eating-substances allowed. (I’m looking at you, canned biscuits!) Stuffed vegetables are a great way to use up bits of leftover grains or bread, vegetables, and protein. You can go in a Middle Eastern direction with your spices, or Italian, or even Asian. Yesterday I was feeling like some Mexican food, but I had a fridge full of leftovers that needed using up.

We don’t often eat beef steak, or any other kind of beef, for that matter, but last night, after a hard day of substitute teaching—middle school band—I needed a stiff drink and a sturdy dinner. Hubs bought three lovely filet mignon steaks; why do they always come in packages of three? In the end, we weren’t as hungry as we’d thought, so there was a leftover steak. Now, it just won’t do to waste such beautiful meat.

Here’s what I had that needed using up:

The ingredients

  • Two bell peppers, one red, one yellow
  • Half a cucumber
  • Half an avocado
  • Half a bunch of cilantro
  • The steak
  • A pot of rice
  • A zucchini going soft
  • A few sad-looking mushrooms
  • Half a big onion
  • Some strips of green bell pepper left over from Superbowl crudités
  • Half a lemon
  • One canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce—I’d divided them up into little containers and froze them, because when would you ever use a whole can, unless you’re making chili?
  • Half a head of romaine lettuce
  • Some mini carrots
  • A few green onions
  • A handful of cherry tomatoes

For the stuffed peppers (serves two):

I diced up the onion, green pepper strips, half the zucchini and mushrooms, and sautéed them in a pan with a bit of olive oil. Next, I threw in two cloves of minced garlic, and seasoned it all with ground cumin, dried oregano, salt and black pepper. Next I added a big handful of chopped cilantro and the steak, which I’d diced, plus about two cups of cooked rice. (Any grain would be good here: quinoa, barley, farro, brown rice—go wild!) I moistened that with a bit of my favorite sauce for stuffed veggies: V-8 juice. Really, it works very well to moisten the stuffing without drowning it in a thick tomato sauce.

Vegetables for filling the stuffed peppers

Vegetables for filling the stuffed peppers

While those ingredients were getting acquainted, I nuked the halved bell peppers in a covered dish for three minutes to soften them, then put them in an oiled (olive, of course) glass baking dish. I filled the peppers with the mixture—there’s always a bit of extra filling that slops into the pan, but so what?

I minced up the chipotle pepper, and stirred it and its adobo sauce into the rest of the V-8 juice, about a cup. I dumped this over the now-stuffed peppers and sprinkled them with some grated cheddar cheese. Of course, it would be cool to use a more authentic Mexican cheese if you have one—I didn’t. Oh, I found about two tablespoons of sliced green olives, the pimento-stuffed kind, so I sprinkled that on top of the filled peppers too. That provided a nice contrast to the mild filling; next time I’ll add more olives.

The cooked peppers.

The cooked peppers.

While the peppers were baking at 375 degrees F for about half an hour, I made a salad with a romaine, carrots, sliced green onions, some diced zucchini (from the non-soggy end), and the cherry tomatoes.

I used this salad dressing recipe, more or less, adding a pinch of cayenne pepper. This used up the cucumber and avocado. It’s really good—light and refreshing. You should try this!

And here you go! A veggie-rich dinner that salvaged lots of leftovers and transformed them into something new and tasty.

peppers on the plates

The Leftover Project: Greenie Fettuccine

In my quest to reduce food waste, I continue to look for ways to use up the odds and ends that lurk in the back of my fridge or pantry. We’ve been eating lighter since the holidays, and I’ve been making more vegetarian meals. Last night, as I pondered what to fix for dinner, I noticed that my veggie drawer was full of bits and pieces of green veggies. Here’s what I had:

The ingredients

  • a partial bag of baby spinach
  • a zucchini
  • some green onions
  • a partial head of broccoli
  • a partial jar of basil pesto

And, of course, I had a few staples on hand:

  • a box of fettuccine
  • a hunk of Parmesan cheese
  • fresh garlic
  • walnuts

Well, this reminded me of my childhood favorite, “green spaghetti.” Back then, the sauce came from a packet of dehydrated pesto mix, but it was so delicious—green and garlicky and cheesy. This dish was a great improvement, even if I didn’t make my own fresh pesto this time.

First, I toasted a handful of walnuts in the oven at 375 degrees for about ten minutes, until fragrant. Next, I chopped up the veggies rather small and sautéed them in my wok in a bit of olive oil. The broccoli went in first, since it takes the longest to cook, and then the diced zucchini and green onions, with a minced clove of garlic. The spinach went in last; I chopped it up a bit so as to avoid long strings of spinach stuck in our teeth. I seasoned all that with kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper—does anyone use pre-ground pepper now that you can buy your pepper preloaded in those inexpensive grinders? There’s something so sharp, so pure about the fragrance of fresh veggies with just salt and pepper.

The veggies, cooked

I boiled up enough fettuccine for two and, when it was done, tossed it into the wok along with the jarred pesto, the walnuts, which I’d chopped up roughly, and a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Was it Anthony Bourdain who taught me this trick? Not in person, of course—wouldn’t that be fun? I mean that he mentioned in one of his books how adding a bit of the pasta’s starchy cooking water helps to bind all the ingredients into a sauce that clings to the pasta.

I stirred in some freshly-shredded Parmesan cheese. I love how my Microplane grater transforms a small hunk of cheese into a mountain of fluffy, cheesy snow. I should have photographed the results before dumping more cheese on top, but there you go.

Fettuccini with rosesfettuccine, close up

It was delicious, light, and very fresh. The veggies were still crisp-tender, and the toasted walnuts added protein and crunch. I look forward to trying this again with other green veggies: peas, chard, asparagus, fennel…

What’s your favorite quick pasta sauce?

Book Review: Provence, 1970, by Luke Barr

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste 
This book is a delight for foodies and Francophiles. The grand-nephew of eminent American food writer M.F.K. Fischer writes about a winter she spent in Provence in the company of Julia child, James Beard, and other influential food writers. Barr uses the extensive letters and journals of the participants, as well as interviews with a few who are still living, to reconstruct this period in which the American cooking scene took a new direction–away from bland convenience foods and stiff, complicated formality and toward freshness, simplicity, and fusion. I loved Barr’s descriptions of Provencal towns and cities, and especially of the meals prepared and shared there. If you’ve enjoyed the writings of Child and Fischer, you’ll love this.

Back in the (Fast Diet) Saddle Again

A few years ago I wrote here about the ease and virtue of the Fast Diet.

Following this plan helped me to drop twenty pounds in about six months with minimal suffering. Dr. Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer have published an updated book explaining the diet and the science behind it. I also recommend The Fast Diet Cookbook by Mimi Spencer and Sarah Schenker, which offers tasty, low-calorie recipes, from simple to fancy, and would be useful to anyone who wants to cook low-calorie meals.

The Fast Diet        The Fast Diet Cookbook

Of course, you can buy both of these on Amazon.

I must admit, once we arrived in the U.S. last summer, I slid out of my previous good habits. I figured that continuing the Fast Diet would be too difficult here; I no longer have my job to distract me from my hunger pangs, and now—well, my office is just across from the kitchen. Besides, I spend so much time at the gym.

Well, I have toned arms and legs, but a rather round belly from all this sitting—and snacking. (Writing is just so much easier with Triscuits and cheese.) Exercise alone obviously isn’t going to cut it, so I’m back on the Fast Diet. Actually, two weeks into the program, I’m feeling good and have dropped a few pounds. Hey, if I can endure discomfort at the gym, I can put up with the discomfort of feeling hungry twice a week. I am Woman, hear me (and my stomach) roar!

Yesterday was fast day. That means no starch (crackers, bread, noodles, potatoes, rice), no sugar, no alcohol, and very little fat. My favorite eating schedule on fast days is to skip breakfast, have a light lunch after spending the morning at the gym, and then have a light dinner around 7 P.M. OK—I might go slightly over my 500 calorie recommended allowance for the fast day, but not much.

Today for lunch I made skinny kale with eggs.

I know, I know—kale is trendy, and you’re probably sick of hearing about kale. But we all know it’s really good for us, has plenty of fiber, and helps keep us full. For my fast day, I wanted to keep the calories down, so I chopped up about a quarter of a sweet onion (maybe 3 Tbs.) and a small clove of garlic. I sprayed a non-stick pan with PAM and stirred that around a bit for 2-3 minutes, then threw in about three cups of chopped curly kale, minus the tough stems, of course. I stirred this a bit to blend, then added lots of freshly-ground black pepper, a squirt of lemon juice, about half a cup of water, and half a teaspoon of chicken broth base—the stuff that comes in a jar. I continued to sauté until the water was mostly gone, about five more minutes. The lemon and chicken broth really added a marvelous, bright flavor. On top of this I plopped two eggs “fried” in a non-stick pan with a spray of PAM. Oh my! The runny egg yolk oozing onto the tender kale…pretty damn good for a diet day meal. The highly unscientific calorie count, based on some quick internet research, would be 276 calories. Not bad!

Fast Day Kale and Eggs

I decided to make dinner right away while I was still full from breakfast. The weather was finally cooling off, and I felt like something soup-ish. I adapted my recipe for chicken chili, omitting the oil (for sautéing the veg.), the corn, the sour cream and cheese. No tortilla chips either, alas. But that’s the beauty of the Fast Diet—I can eat chips again tomorrow, if I wish. Here are the ingredients that I used:

Ingredients for Fast Day Chicken Chili

  • four skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • half a large onion, diced
  • a red bell pepper, diced
  • four cloves of garlic, minced
  • a jalapeño chile, minced
  • a can of diced tomatoes
  • a can of diced mild green chiles
  • a jar of tomatillo and cilantro cooking sauce
  • water to cover all the ingredients
  • 2 tsp. of chicken broth base
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. chipotle chili powder
  • 1 Tbs. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

I dumped all that into the slow cooker and let it cook on high for four hours, then turned it down to low and dumped in a can of white beans, mostly drained. By the time we were ready to eat, the house smelled heavenly. I topped each serving with sliced radishes, sliced green onions, and fresh cilantro. Marvelous! This recipe makes four generous servings, leaving me some to freeze for future fast days. There are 140 calories in a boneless, skinless chicken breast, so I’m sure this comes out to fewer than 300 calories per serving.

¡Buen provecho!

¡Buen provecho!

What’s your favorite low-calorie recipe?


Un Experimento Culinario: Carnitas de Cerdo

So far, on this blog I’ve shared only recipes that offer creative ways to use up leftovers—but this culinary experiment turned out so well that I wanted to share it with you.

I was looking for a big beef chuck roast to make shredded beef burritos for our class Cinco de Mayo party, but wow! Who knew beef was so expensive? So I went to the Grocery Outlet and found a five-pound pork loin roast. Surely I could do something with this, right?

I perused several recipes for Mexican-style shredded pork and determined that I was heading in a carnitas direction. This recipe combines the suggestions of several online recipes.

The pork was pretty lean, so I coated the bottom of my lidded roasting pan with about 2 Tbs. olive oil. Then I rubbed the pork with:

  • 1 ½ Tbs. salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbs. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. chipotle chili powder

I placed the pork in the roasting pan, fat side up, and added

  • one white onion, pretty large, coarsely chopped,
  • 2 Anaheim chiles, cut into strips
  • 4 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

I poured around this

  • one cup of orange juice
  • one cup of water

and put it into a preheated 350 degree oven with the lid on.

Two hours later, I took off the lid, basted the meat with the juices, and continued cooking for another hour and a half, basting every 20 minutes or so—mostly because that makes me feel important. I kept poking it until I was sure it was soft enough to shred.

After the meat cooled, I shredded it with two forks and mixed in the juices from the pan. At first, it looked like there’d be too much liquid, but the meat soaked it right up.

For our Cinco de Mayo party in Spanish class, I served this with flour tortillas, fresh cilantro, purchased salsa verde, and Mexican queso fresco. ¡Estupendo! The shredded pork would also be great for tacos, enchiladas, over rice…or just random forkfuls snatched whenever passing the fridge. ¡Buen provecho!

The Leftover Project: Thai-ish Curry

I didn’t take a photo of this one because – well, it wasn’t pretty. But it tasted marvelous. Here’s what I needed to use up:

  • a leftover poached chicken breast
  • some grilled vegetables, including potato, red onion, zucchini, red and yellow bell peppers, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes
  • a few leaves of kale

Here’s how I transformed that into something quite different:

  1. I chopped half an onion and sauteed that in olive oil. I shredded up the kale (no ribs, of course) and threw that in. I cooked this over medium heat until the kale was softened, about five minutes.
  2. I added a tablespoon of green Thai curry paste. This stuff keeps forever in the fridge, and a little goes a long way. Once that was fragrant, I added a can of light coconut milk. Trader Joe’s makes a nice one. I let that simmer for another five minutes or so over low heat, and then
  3. I added the chicken, cut into bite-size pieces, and the grilled veggies, likewise chunked up.
  4. I let it simmer for another five minutes or so. Hmm – a bit bland. I added a bit of soy sauce and a bit of lime juice, and suddenly it tasted Thai! Well, Thai-ish. The flavor of the chicken infused nicely into the sauce, the kale was tender, and all the ingredients got along splendidly.
  5. I served it over brown basmati rice. Very nice! And it’s gluten- and dairy-free, if you care about that sort of thing.