Friday, November 18, 2011

Comfort foods

This has been a strange week and I have been feeling out-of-sorts since Monday.  Our chief underwriter at work passed away early this week after a battle with lymphoma and the chemotherapy that went with it.  He was only 60 and had just announced a month ago that he would be retiring next spring.  He said that something like cancer makes you look at your life and think about how you want to spend your time.  He had decided that he wanted to spend his time fishing, and that spring would be a good time to get on with that.  I know that people tend to elevate the recently departed to a higher level, choosing to remember them in a fonder light than we perhaps consider them in life, but he actually was a really nice, decent, approachable guy who did a lot of good both in his career and in his life.  The department was given the day off today to attend the memorial service or to remember and honor Chris in another way.  We packed that darn chapel full of underwriters and did our best to support his family.  And we talked to each other - a kind of rare gathering of 100+ of my closest co-workers.

Underwriting is an unusual profession.  Death, or rather "mortality", is in our daily language.  We have enough medical knowledge to know when someone says they have lymphoma, that we ask, "what kind and what stage?" and then we mentally begin assessing the risk.  We do this automatically, even off the clock.  We comfort ourselves with knowledge that our loved ones are getting the appropriate treatment to extend their life expectancy, but we still know the inherent risks with both the disease and the treatments.  We know that, statistically, a percentage of people with the disease are not going to survive 5 years.  Doctors and other medical professionals also know these risks, but they are in the business of giving hope.  People heal better with hope.  Underwriters are in the business of managing the risk.  Waiting until you are ill with a terminal disease to get life insurance is like applying for car insurance as you are heading the car toward a tree, or homeowner's insurance when the fire department is on the way.  When someone tells an underwriter that his doctor tells him he is perfectly healthy, what the underwriter finishes that sentence with is, "for someone who has had ___ disease."  Anyway, what I am saying is that I think about death every day and tend to have something of a gallows humor about it, but this week made me think.  I don't know when my time will be up.  Chris didn't know last November that he was eating his last Thanksgiving dinner or that the teleconference last month was the last time he would discuss our plans for year-end.

What do I want to spend my time doing?  I do love my job but struggle with balancing my work and "real-life" time. Would I still do this job if I didn't "need" to work?  Yes, I think so, but maybe only a couple days a week or on a reduced work-load basis - there are parts of the job that are very rewarding for me.  What else would I do with my time?  I would cook, read, knit, garden, scrapbook, spend more time with family and friends.  The same things I take comfort in now, just perhaps in greater quantity.  For now, until I am miraculously independently wealthy (can't win the lottery since I have almost never played the lottery), I can only strive to take more time for the people and activities that bring me comfort and joy, to live with more purpose and intention.

I am going now to knit some comfort items, plan some comfort food dinners, read a comforting familiar book, and then curl up in my comfortable bed.  I take comfort in knowing I have you, my friends and family, reading this and loving me despite the fact that I am assessing your mortality rate in my head.

Hoping this is not my last post,

Monday, November 14, 2011

More Soups for You!

Eating: As promised, some more soup recipes. 

Carrot Soup - The first time I had this soup was while I was working as a fill-in nanny for a crazy mean lady, taking care of her 3 adorable children while she went for coffee and to "workout".  She was an "artiste" so I think she also did some painting.  Oh, and she was a gourmet cook (according to her).  Anyway, this is a very tasty and easy soup.  This recipe has some curry in it but if you don't like curry, you can leave it out and still have a very yummy soup.
Heat 4 C. chicken broth.  Add 4 carrots (peeled and sliced), 1 small Granny Smith (or other tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped), 1/2 medium onion (chopped), 1-2 tsp curry powder to taste, and 1/2 tsp turmeric (as I type that, I don't think I have ever added the turmeric because I don't think I have ever had turmeric - feel free to leave it out).  Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.  Puree in small batches (no more than 1/2 blender full or you will have boiling carrot soup in your hair and on your hands and on your white t-shirt and... you get the picture).  Thin, if necessary, with additional broth.  Serve warm or cold.  Also freezes well.  Makes 4 generous servings.

Potage de Mme. Miclot - Along similar lines as the carrot soup, as far as texture and technique, is a French vegetable soup called potage (poe-tahge').  I had this soup at the beginning of nearly every meal the first 3 months or so that I lived chez Miclot in Angers, France, I think until the weather warmed up (having trouble remembering - that was nearly 20 years ago.  Good god, I am getting old.)  The recipe is written in French so I am translating as I type. 
Chop into pieces: 1/2 kg potatoes, 1/2 kg carrots, 1 onion and 1 or 2 leeks.  In a large pot, cover the veggies well with water, add a little salt and 2 bouillon cubes (or equivalent).  Cook a good half-hour until vegetables are very soft.  "Mixer et voila".  I think that means puree it and you are done.  If I remember correctly Huguette (aka Mme. Miclot) used a hand mixer.  One of those wand mixers would work well.  I would use my blender, because that is how I work.  Remember: in small batches unless you want to be scalded with soup on your face and hands.  Oh, and in case you have forgotten your conversions, 1 kg=2.2lbs.  So 1/2 kg is about a pound.

Lentil Soup - As long as I am on a roll here with soups E doesn't like, here is another.  This is a hearty vegetarian soup, which seems to me like a contradiction in terms.  Not a vegetarian (I like steak waaaay too much to eat a vegetarian diet), but I do like this soup. 
In a large pot, cook 1 large onion and 1 green pepper (both chopped), in 4 Tbls olive oil until soft.  Stir in 2 Tbls flour. Add: 1 16 oz can diced tomatoes (with the juice), 3 carrots (chopped), 2 C lentils (do not presoak), 1 Tbls salt (I prefer kosher salt unless I am baking), and 8 C water.  Cover and simmer on low for 2 hours. 

African Chicken Soup - Another soup E is not a fan of (I don't know why).  This recipe is from my mom.  She did not go to Africa to get the recipe - I think she got it at a coffee shop.  Loads of flavor,  very hearty and filling.  The secret ingredient is...peanut butter.
Heat 2 Tbls oil.  Cook 1 C cubed chicken breast in the oil 5 minutes.  Season with 1/8 tsp red pepper and 1/8 tsp black pepper and add 1 1/3 C chopped onions, until browned.  Add 1/3 C. diced green peppers, 1/3 C. diced red peppers, 1 Tbls minced garlic, 5 1/4 C chicken stock, 2 1/4 C canned diced tomatoes (28 oz can, drained), 1/3 C rice.  Simmer until the rice is done.  Stir in 1/2 C peanut butter.  Add peanuts for extra crunch and flavor.  Yum.  Soooo good.

Hamburger Soup - a slow-cooker/crock pot recipe, and one that E likes.  I got this one from Kate who I used to baby-sit for back in the mid '90s (before I gave up babysitting).  3 of her 4 little girls really liked it (ages 8, 6, and 4).  The other little one was just a baby and didn't yet eat soup.  I bet she grew up to love this one, though.  I would recommend using really good quality ground beef, very low in fat, because it cooks in the soup and you won't be draining the fat.  A trick on the onion soup mix if you have someone who doesn't like onions because of the texture - grind the contents up in a food processor so it is like dust - all the flavor but no discernible onion bits.
Crumble 1 lb ground beef into slow-cooker.  Add 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/4 tsp oregano, 1/4 tsp basil, 1/4 tsp seasoned salt, and 1 envelope onion soup mix.  Stir in 3 C boiling water, 8 oz can tomato sauce, 1 Tbls soy sauce.  Add 1 C sliced celery and 1 C thinly sliced carrots.  Cover an cook on low 6-8 hours.  Turn on high - add 1 C macaroni (cooked) and 1/4 C grated Parmesan cheese.  Cover and cook 10-15 minutes.

Oven Stew - Speaking of slow cooking, here is one of my all-time favorite recipes (I may have said this about other recipes but I really mean it about this one).  E likes this one a whole lot.  I love it for many reasons - it makes the whole house smell really good and happy, it warms us from the inside, it tastes really yummy, and (maybe most of all) it is a lazy person's dream recipe.  So many beef stew recipes I have seen start with "brown the stew meat" and involve making a gravy or sauce.  Not this one!  Dump it all in the pot, and then leave it bake for 4 hours.  A bit of chopping and that is it!  The original recipe does not call for potatoes but I say, "what is a stew without potatoes?!"  Another of my mom's recipes, I have been making this one for years.
2 lbs beef chuck cut into 2" cubes (you can buy "stew meat" which is already cut up - this is my lazy option); 1 onion, quartered; 4 carrots, pared and quartered; 4 celery stalks, quartered; 4 medium large potatoes, chopped in bite size pieces; 1/4 C quick-cooking tapioca (this is NOT pudding - it is the little tapioca pearls.  The same people who make Minute Rice have a quick cooking tapioca.  The box even looks like a mini-Minute Rice box.  This is the key to this recipe - do not skip it!); 1/4 C. dry bread crumbs; 1 tsp salt; 1/4 tsp pepper; 1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, undrained (you can break them up a bit if you like).  Note: I have been adding about a half a can (rinsing out the tomato can in the process) to this so it makes a less thick sauce.  Combine all ingredients in a large Dutch oven.  Cook at 300 degrees COVERED (do not uncover while cooking) for 4 hours.  That's it.  I told you it was easy - even the veggies are minimally prepared.

And my last soup recipe, Lazy Lasagna Chili.  I don't know why they call this one a chili but they do.  It is a Pampered Chef recipe and is pretty darn easy.  Other than browning and some chopping, hands-on work is minimal and it cooks up pretty quickly with things you might usually have on hand.
Remove the casings from1 lb sweet Italian turkey sausages (4 links).  Brown sausage with 1/2 C coarsely chopped onion, 2 cloves garlic (pressed).  Add 1 jar (26oz) of spaghetti sauce, 28 oz beef broth (2 - 14oz cans or water with beef bouillon or soup base), and 1 C. water.  Bring to a boil.  Stir in 1 1/2 C uncooked pasta nuggets (radiatore - rotelle also works).  Reduce heat, simmer uncovered for 7 minutes.  Stir in 1 C coarsely chopped zucchini.  Cook 2-4 minutes, or until zucchini is tender.  Remove from heat and stir in 2 Tbls snipped fresh basil.

I think that is all my usual soup recipes.  Seems I have some others but these are the main recipes I make.  Here's to a winter of warm tummies.

Soup's on!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Soup's on!

Eating: My favorite cold weather food is soup.  It warms us from the inside and warms the house while it simmers.  I like most soups and usually serve with a crusty French bread or biscuits.  These are some of my favorite soup recipes.

Chicken Noodle - who doesn't like good old chicken noodle?  I use either the carcass of a rotisserie or roast chicken (best for flavor) or whatever chicken I have on hand (usually boneless skinless breasts).  Simmer them in a pot of water with an onion, a couple carrots and some celery, all chopped up, a bit of chicken base or bouillion, and some herbs, fresh or dried - parsley, thyme, oregano, rosemary.  And of course salt and pepper.  Simmer until chicken is done (if raw) or until it falls off the bone (for leftover whole chicken).  Then skim off any fat or that foamy stuff.  I also usually take out the onion, etc. since the flavor is all cooked out of it by then anyway.  Chop the chicken into bite-size pieces and toss it bac.k in the stock.  Taste the stock and add seasoning as needed.  Add veggies of your choice (fresh or frozen - I like carrots, green beans, corn, lima beans and peas) and some noodles (we really like the "homestyle" frozen egg noodles - big fat noodles like grandma makes, but you could also use dry egg noodles, spaghetti or whatever).  Cook until noodles are done and veggies warmed.  You can also, of course, add rice instead (white, brown, wild or some other).    
Corn Chowder - my family has been making this soup for a really long time (since I was a kid).  Recipe is adapted from Betty Crocker cookbook ("Big Red") - This is howI make it.  Chop 1/2 pound of bacon into 1/2" pieces (bacon is nearly always frozen at my house so I just chop it from frozen and let it cook/thaw at the same time) and fry in a soup pot until crispy.  At the same time, boil some potatoes (cut into bite-size chunks).  Once bacon is done, remove it from the pan and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.  Discard all but 2 Tbls of the bacon drippings.  Saute 1/2 large onion and 2 stalks of celery (finely chopped) in the bacon drippings until crisp-tender.  Stir in 2 Tbls flour and mix until bubbly.  Remove from heat and whisk in 4 C milk.  Return to heat (and here comes the boring tedious part that I dislike) and heat over medium until boiling (stirring constantly - the super boring part).  Boil 1 minute.  Add about a cup of frozen corn (Betty calls for cream-style but someone at our house doesn't like cream-style so I just started using regular corn.  Betty also uses canned potatoes - no comment), and the potatoes (don't forget to drain them first!).  Heat over med low until warmed through.  Add bacon  and fresh-cracked pepper and serve. 
Zamboni Stew - This is a recipe that I made up.  E  called it chili but I said it was NOT chili and said it was nothing like chili and dubbed it (completely randomly) "Zamboni Stew".  I have no idea how my brain works - it has nothing to do with Zambonis and is not a thick stew (at least not until you have the leftovers the next day).  Brown 1 pound ground beef, with 1/2 green pepper, chopped (onion too, if you like).  At the same time, cook about 2 C macaroni according to usual macaroni-cooking directions.  To the ground beef, add one large can of tomato juice and a generous bunch of chili powder (I shake it in until the entire surface is covered with chili powder, then stir and taste and add some more).  Add about 1 C. frozen corn (or other veggie if you like) and heat until warmed through.  Stir in the cooked, drained macaroni.  I also add kidney beans to my portion.  I like to serve this one with corn muffins.
Cheese Soup - this is my mom's recipe.  Actually, I think she got it when she worked at a little place called Toby's way back when I was in 6th grade.  Mmmmm... Toby burgers...  Sorry - I am back now.  Cook 3 C bite-sized chunks of potatoes, 1/2 C chopped carrots, 1/2 C chopped celery (and 1/4 C. chopped onion if your family doesn't mind) in 1 C chicken stock/broth with salt, pepper and parsley flakes until veggies are tender.  Do not drain.  Whisk 2 Tbls flour into 1 1/2 C milk and add to the potato/carrot/stock mixture.  Cook until thickened.  Stir in 1/2 pound chopped Velveeta (don't say "ew" - it melts better than anything else and makes a smooth creamy soup, unlike cheddar or one of those other cheeses) until melted.  Add fresh cracked pepper and serve.
Other soups to look forward to in future posts: Carrot Soup, African Chicken Soup, Lentil Soup, Hamburger Soup, Lazy Lasagne Chili, Oven Stew, and Potage de Mme. Miclot (recipe from the woman I lived with in France).

Reading: I really really liked Treasure Island.  It was a fun adventure story, kept me guessing up until the end (was anyone going to get the treasure?  Was Long John Silver a bad guy or a good guy?  Would they get off the island?).  I would recommend this to most people.  And one of the women at book club had a really cool edition of the book that had multicolored wood block (wood cut?  not sure of the term for this type of art) pictures.  I could get that version, if I read it again.

I didn't re-read the "head in a bog" book, Haunted Ground for the Friday night book/dinner club.  I ran out of time and have been too sleepy.  It didn't matter because no one else had read it recently either.  And it turns out, we may have already read this book for this bookclub a few years ago.  We don't have a very good record keeper or, apparently, good memory, either.

Next up for Sunday night bookclub: I don't know.  It hasn't been picked yet, which is okay because we take December off.  Next up for Friday night club: I don't know.  Maybe the next head in a bog book?  Or maybe a biography of some sort?

What am I reading currently?  A knitting book I got from my mom: Knitting without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann.  It is a 'how-to' book but very chattily written (kind of in the style of this blog) and I am enjoying it.

Creating: Speaking of knitting, what am I knitting, you ask?  I still need to add the ear flaps and braids to E's Vikings hat.  I have the yarn for a pink fluffy scarf for a 5 year old.  That should knit up quickly (thick yarn).  I am percolating some ideas for Christmas presents and baby gifts, too.  I wish work wasn't so busy this time of the year - I need more knitting time!

Other creative projects: none in the works but ideas in my head all the time.  I like to make calendars and E has requested one for Christmas.  A couple years ago after getting a "scenic America" calendar from a realtor or insurance agent, I thought, "E takes really beautiful scenic pictures.  It would be cool to have a calendar with some of those, instead of these places we have never been."  Thus was born the idea for a personalized scenic calendar.  He loved seeing a new one of his photos each month.  The pictures are attached so he can remove and frame them after the year is over.  And it is useful as a calendar, too!  We'll see if I get one done for him this year.  Also working on other ideas for people who may read this blog so I will not mention those at this time...

Go eat some soup!
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