(Not quite) Masterchef

SN856889My latest obsession is cooking shows. To be more specific, cooking show contests such as Iron Chef, Masterchef and Cooked. It all started when I discovered Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares”. I watched all of them. I have worked in a number of restaurants and it was fun watching stupid owners and chefs get their asses handed to them. But it also reminded me that I know quite a lot about food and what makes food “good”. I come from a family of cooks. My dad cooked, my mom is the world’s best home cook, and my brother is a chef in California. I was always told I couldn’t cook. But my family only saw me in my lazy 20 year old period. It’s been getting better each year since then.

So tonight when I went into the kitchen to see what was for dinner, I realized that all we had was left over pizza (again) or boxed mac and cheese. The Mac & Cheese is what I call “Lazy food” – food we buy because we are too lazy to go shopping. The irony being that we didn’t go shopping because we were watching Masterchef. I grabbed the mac & cheese and thought to myself, “What would I do if this were the secret ingredient?”

SN856878I grabbed the butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese, bacon & hot dogs and went to town. I added spices. I cooked the hotdogs in a little bacon grease. I baked it after I cooked it on the stove top. I even added some fancy spread cheese and whole wheat breadcrumbs. When I was finished my dish looked almost homemade. Not only did I impress myself, I had fun doing it! This coming hot on the heels of my baking triumph of yesterday. (I tweaked a cupcake recipe and ended up with chocolate brownie cupcakes with cream cheese butter frosting. Delish!)

Watching other people cooking for countless hours on end seemed to make me a better cook. It also reaffirmed that I know what I am doing in the kitchen. I am proud of myself for taking a few extra steps to make my box of pasta into something actually edible. It tastes rich and creamy. There is bacon in it. BACON. And doesn’t look like it came from a box. Even if it is all organic – a box, is a box, is a box. But still, I used it and I used what else I had on hand to make it  into something better. I elevated the shit out of that box of pasta! I transformed a plain dish made for children into something that looks, and tastes, like it is for adults. It was simple, cheap and used minimal ingredients. The minimalist cook strikes again!

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Minimalist Baker

I just wanted to share the fruits of my weekend labor. I baked “Vanilla Bread” – which turns out to be basically a bunt cake. But it is delicious. And it was less than 10 ingredients to make. Here is a picture of the bread topped with a few fresh blackberries. Here is the recipe – enjoy!Image

  • 1 & 1/2 sticks of butter
  • 1 & 1/4 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla
  • 1 & 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan. Cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla, and mix well.

2) Add flour and baking powder, and stir until well combined.

3) Transfer batter into loaf pan and spread evenly (batter will be thick).

4) Bake for approximately 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the bread. Cool for ten minutes, and transfer bread from pan to a wire cooling rack.

5) The bread is yummy alone, but this simple syrup glaze adds moisture and even more vanilla flavor to the bread. So…

In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 tsp. vanilla. Bring just to a simmer and take off the heat. Brush the syrup over the top of the bread, once or twice (not too much), while the bread is cooling.

When the bread is completely cooled, wrap well and store in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

Simple Living with Kids

zerowastecupboardsLiving a simple life is not easy. There is no easy solution or road map to follow. It’s not for everyone, but it can make you happier. Last time we talked about editing your life in order to make room for the things you love. For me that meant cutting back on work hours so I could spend more time with my fella. If that sounds crazy to you, then you aren’t ready yet. For me, it is crazy to spend the time I have at a job rather than with someone I love. What could be more important than that?

Now that you have identified what is important to you (time, family, painting, exercise…) you can begin to make room in your life for them. This needs to happen in a tangible way and in an emotional way. First, the tangible. Go room by room, drawer by drawer and get rid of shit. Really purge! I went through my already sparse closet and still found a few things I never used. It made me feel good. I went through my pantry and took out all of those cardboard boxes and plastic bags and replaced them with jars. We bring the jars (or other containers) to the market and buy things like flour, cornmeal, quinoa or sugar in bulk so we don’t have paper/ plastic waste and we are making use of lovely sauce jars. Easy right? Just don’t let your emotions play a part in your purging. You can do without a lot of the “things” you have decided have value.

Clutter is very stressful and distracting. Walking into a messy room, or a cluttered kitchen just feels funny and uncomfortable. Every item in your home demands attention, and If you have kids, you might have a lot of “things”. If you have gone overboard on the buying, don’t worry. You can still fix it. The first step is: Stop Buying. Just stop. Little Bobby doesn’t NEED that Angry Birds plush toy. Little Stacy doesn’t NEED that coloring book, or that Princess video. Want and need are not the same. The sooner kids learn the difference the easier it will be. If your kids think Target is a fun place to spend a Saturday morning then you need to check yourself. Most of the kids at my school constantly tell me about things they “got” or things mommy “bought” for them instead of things they “do”. And that makes me sad.

6741750829_ebca16b816First and foremost, edit their rooms with them. You can’t go into your child’s room and just take their things away. Respect goes both ways. This is true whether you are 4 or 40. You can’t tell a child, “I bought it for you so I can take it away.” That is absurd and disrespectful. Instead, sit the child down and talk as a family. Start by saying that decision has been made to make do with less. Show her a finished space, and how you are unattached to what you are giving/throwing away. If you make it sound like a fun thing, and a cool thing – and if you are doing it – the kid will jump onboard.

Or you might have a fight on your hands. And that’s fine too. You (literally) bought it so now you have to deal with it. Give little Bob one hour to make two piles: Keep & Give. When you come back in an hour you can gauge if he needs more help or not. If he needs help, let him know that you (the parent!) will be making those choices if he cannot. Be brutal and merciless with your editing and let him know that after you will be MAKING some fun new things.

Sensory Bottle Collage for blogThat’s right – make. I promise that your kid doesn’t want or need a shit ton of store-bought, plastic toys. For the little ones: take all of those empty plastic juice or water bottles and fill them with anything. Seriously. Feathers, cotton, sand, bells, a little olive oil and some sequins or marbles. Babies enjoy rolling them, shaking them or putting them in the old pie hole. The fancy folks call them “Sensory bottles” but I call them cheap and easy. The point is, you don’t have to spend a ton on toys. The bigger kids will enjoy making cookies with you, or putting together a puzzle. Take them to the wood shop and build your own wooden toys. If you are saying. “Who has time for that?” then you might need to edit your commitments again. I mean, are you spending a ton of money on a fancy gym membership when you could be hiking with your kids? Exactly.

Hopefully after you have finished editing your home, closets, wardrobes, drawers, car, kids rooms and closets – you’ll feel lighter. You’ll feel happier. Your kid will feel the same. Life just feels nicer when it is free of crap. Below is a handy little system to help you stay on track. And remember, let your children have the responsibility of editing and cleaning their own things. It is not your right to decide what is important in their life. And, don’t pick up after them. Keeping the house “perfectly clean” isn’t the goal here. The goal is for a simple life in a simple home.

  • A place for everything… – Your child (and family) should know where to put something when it is not being used. If you are about to set something down on an available patch of surface space: STOP. Take a second to ask yourself, “Where does this belong?” and then take it there. Basically stop being a lazy jerk and put the dishes in the sink. Put the clothes in the hamper. Put the toys back in the toy bin.
  • Have a simple paper system – Incoming bills, notices, tax docs, school papers should all have a place where they are filed and looked at. Hopefully you are not using paper as much for bills and things, but in some cases it just can’t be helped. Help your kids to have a system for homework and projects as well. I can’t stress how important it is for a kid to feel personal responsibility. Never ever leave papers for “later”. File immediately. Throw junk mail out before it even reaches your door. Don’t leave papers lying around.
  • Clean up before bed & before walking out – I abhor waking up to a messy kitchen. I make sure (most of the time) to clean the dishes and the kitchen before bed, or before leaving the house. and stop multi-tasking. Multitasking is less efficient and more stressful than seeing one task to its completion. Just take a few minutes to de-clutter flat surfaces before bed and before you leave you house. It’s a good habit to get in, and your kids will do it if they see you doing it.
  • Re-purge every couple of months – No matter how hard you try, new stuff will happen. Just make sure you keep tabs on it. Maybe the first weekend of every month you de-clutter something in your home. Maybe you throw an item out if you bring a new one in. I don’t know, it’ll be personal for you. But just don’t let your shit get out of control again.

Just remember the word “now”. If you can remember to do what you need to do now, then later won’t be an issue. Hang your clothes up now, not later. Wash the dishes now, not later. Pay that bill… well, you get the picture.

Less stuff = more time = more happiness.

Spice Up My Life

Pumpkin Spice Cookies with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting - YUM!

Pumpkin Spice Cookies with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting – YUM!

One of the major complaints I had when living in the Czech Republic was the food. The Czech Republic is not known for its culinary delights, or for its fine grocery stores or farmers markets. Food is more of a necessity there than a pleasure. Traditional Czech food is bland. In fact, when I first moved there back in ’06, I deemed it “The Land of the Bland”. If you eat a typical Czech meal your plate will be covered in various brown or beige foods – mostly meat and potatoes. You’ll be lucky if you get any pepper, as Czech spices begin with salt and end with pepper. If you happen to find any fruits or vegetables they will most likely be cooked to death or made into some sort of dumpling. Prague has its share of good food,but nothing to write home about. Put it this way, Prague isn’t one of those European cities that will ever be known for fine dining.

Cooking at home in the Czech Republic is not much different. Sure, you can add actual spices to your food, but only if you can find them in the stores. There are a few specialty stores in and around Prague that sell such exotic spices as ground cumin, but it doesn’t go much farther than that. Cooking and eating in the Czech Republic is a lesson in settling for what you have. For example, the best Mexican food in Prague doesn’t even come close to the Mexican food in California, or some places in Texas. Same goes for burgers. I think us expats lower our standard of what  constitutes “good food” so that we don’t jump into the Charles River out of pure culinary boredom.

Now that I am back in America I am cooking up a storm. And baking. And buying spices. And sour dough bread! I have a choice of markets at which I can shop, and they are all very well stocked. Of course, American supermarkets are full of junk food, but so are the Czech ones. I went to to Central Market here in Austin this evening and saw some garam masala, (an ingredient I needed for my lentil soup, but never could get ahold of in Prague) ancho chili powder, and even truffle salt! I didn’t have to make a special trip, or post to a Facebook group before I went shopping. I also didn’t have to spend a fortune on a bottle of cumin. The possibilities and inspiration flooded my spirit. I was elated and excited and overcome with joy.  I almost cried.

I miss being in Prague every day, but it seems I can soothe my sad little soul with wonderful herbs and spices, fresh baked bread, and homemade cookies.

Paradise by the oven light

Holy shit you guys…I just put my first ever Thanksgiving Turkey in the oven. It’s 12:30 on T – Day. I hope I did it right. I put lots of carrots, celery and onion in and around the bird, put some garlic under its skin, laced it with Dijon mustard and some butter and topped it off with some white wine. Is that right? I don’t know. I did remember to take out the plastic bag of giblets, and much to Byron’s dismay I am not going to fry them up and eat them. Gross. It’s kind of fun making something new and in a foreign place where you can’t tell if you are buying salt or sugar because the packaging looks the same and you can read the label.

Our little group of displaced expats is trying our best to make Thanksgiving a real holiday. It’s funny, because to the rest of the city today is just another day. I could hardly tell it was Thanksgiving because the grocery stores are not lined with displays featuring cans of cranberry sauce, disposable roasting pans and marshmallows for the sweet potatoes. I was lucky to find a frozen turkey! It was mixed in with the dozens of frozen ducks, possibly looking for asylum from the nasty American holiday. No such luck my little gobbling friend, no such luck.

Our menu seems to be as follows: Brent is making potato corn chowder, Scott is bringing the mashed potatoes, Ben’s doing the green beans, GB and Davey are in charge of appetizers, Summer is doing a green salad, and of course I am making the final mockery of the holiday by roasting the bird. I kind of picture it like that scene in Brigitte Jones’s Diary where they eat the blue soup. At least we’ll all be drunk. It’s not Thanksgiving if I don’t get drunk by 8:00p.m. I will defiantly miss the Mac n cheese and the after feast festivities that always include Karaoke, at Rainbow’s house. I never thought I’d be nostalgic for Thanksgiving, given that I have always loathed this holiday. It has always been about forced festiveness, gluttony, football, having to wash a shit load of dishes and try not to offend the stupid, Rush Limbaugh loving, fascists I was forced to break bread with. People who say things like, “Being gay is just offensive.” Uh huh. Real fun. That’s why spending Thanksgiving with a group of liberals in Berkeley was astonishing to me. We would toast to a new Presidency and talk about cool bands and movies. I loved it. There was games and reefer and karaoke. That, THAT, is a good thanksgiving.

I know you are dying to know how the bird turned out, so I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. It was amazing! I swear! I made a Thanksgiving Turkey and it tasted good! And not just good, it was really tast

 

y and juicy and well, perfect. People were having second helpings and everything. I felt pretty good about it. Davey said I get the Thanksgiving MVP award … sweet.

It was one of the best Thanksgivings I can remember. Our new little family gathered and made it happen. Sure there was paper plates and we had to share bowl, but it was ours. The food was all-delicious and there was an abundance of wine. Brent’s potato corn chowder was amazing and Mary and Scott’s mashed potatoes were fantastic. We had a lot of potatoes, but heck it’s Prague. Who could ask for more?
Our new neighbor Jen (who we met at TEFL and lives across the hall from us – coincidence) also came and brought some yummy ice cream for dessert. We had a blast. The 20 Questions computer game astounded everyone as usual. Ben was amazed that it knew “lint” and at one point we became convinced that it could hear us so we began whispering the word we were thinking of. We laughed a lot. I think my favorite moment was the spontaneous karaoke like jam to the Meatloaf classic, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”. Davey, Jen and myself did the whole song – in parts – it was fantastic! Ben was shocked and amazed that we all knew the words to the song that he had never heard before. I told them all that my best friend back home is probably having some sort of conniption fit and doesn’t know why. Jenn (J-LO) hates, loathes, heck I might go as far as saying despises that song. Which is strange because I think she actually likes Meatloaf – or as we like to call him…The Loaf. Anyway.
That was Turkey Day – Prague style.