On Sleeplessness and Overripe Bananas

This morning at 4:45 a.m., after an hour of begging my body to return to sleep, I gave in to my sleeplessness.  I wandered out into the kitchen, fed the dogs, and pondered how to make myself useful until the sun came up.  TiVo, my trusted digital friend, had last night's episode of Private Practice as well as the Top Chef Reunion Show to offer me, but it was really the brown, nearly wrinkled bunch of bananas on the counter that I kept coming back to. 

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Why not bake at 5:00am?  I mean, I am sure mad scientist type things happen in the early hours of the morning.  Sure, I was a bit groggy having only had a couple of hours of sleep, but baking seemed like the perfect thing to take my mind off of all of the reasons I wasn't able to sleep.

You see, with baking there is a lot of precision and focus involved.  You can't just toss this and that in a bowl and presto!, you have something tasty.  With baking I have to concentrate, thoroughly read the instructions, consult several recipes to figure out how to most safely transform Banana Walnut Bread into Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.  While I was doing that I wasn't thinking about how the dogs were going to be boarded this weekend and probably wouldn't eat the entire time.  And I wasn't at all concerned about the changes going on at my office that will inevitable affect what role I play in my company.  Oh, and I for sure wasn't thinking about missing my stepdaughter's parade on Saturday because we have other commitments we made months ago.  It's just complicated being an adult, and that's when overripe bananas and a few cookbooks really come into play.

Overripe bananas  are uncomplicated and practically hang around forever before you can't use them.  In fact, my recipe specifically said the riper the better.  So I suppose all of the breakfasts this week where I intended to eat a banana but instead went flying out the door  late for meetings and all of the afternoon snacks of bananas and peanut butter that I meant to eat but just ran out of time trying to coordinate taking care of all of the things in my life--well, they all led up to these amazing Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.

The smell of them wooed my husband out of bed before I even pulled them out of the oven around 6:30 a.m.  As he pulled one of the warm muffins apart to see the oozing chocolate chips on the inside he said, "So this is what life would be like if you were a stay at home wife."

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Truthfully, I'd probably still have sleepless nights with a lot of things to think about.  That's just me.  At least I know that some quiet time in the kitchen will help me work through it.

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins
recipe adapted from The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook and Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook
makes 12-15 muffins

The muffins will end up somewhere between a banana bread and a breakfast muffin.  They were sweet, but not overly sweet.  If you'd rather them be more sweet, punch up the sugar.  If you only have yogurt and no sour cream--just use all yogurt.  If you like a pronounced contrast between sweet and salty, use salted butter.  If you'd rather have walnuts than chocolate chips, be my guest to make that swap.  Craisins sound mighty fine too. 

2.5 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 very ripe bananas, well-mashed
2 tbsp plain yogurt
2 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Spray a muffin pan with non-stick spray and set aside.  In a large bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.  In a medium bowl, combine eggs, bananas, yogurt, sour cream, vanilla, melted butter, and vegetable oil.  Mix well.  Fold banana mixture and chocolate chips into the flour mixture.  Be careful not to overmix.

Fill muffin wells 3/4 full.  Bake on the middle rack for 20-22 minutes.  Check for done ness.  If a toothpick comes out clean, then they are done.  If toothpick seems wet, bake for an additional 2 to 3 minutes and re-check.  Allow muffins to cool in pan for 10 minutes, and then transfer to a rack to cool.

Eat warm or room temp. 


Summer People

I think having been born in August has given me a bias towards summer.  The day I was born was probably a really hot one with the grass completely brown from thirst (not unlike August 2010) and humidity so thick in the air that it was like an invisible cloak.  I'm sure that I came out screaming with joy that it was just as hot outside of my mother as it was inside, and thus a lover of all things summer I was born to be. 

I feel like I can make a good case for summer, even to a winter person.  For one, there is the whole no-school thing.  Even when you are a slave to the man working a nine-to-five all year round, you can still see the sparkle in kids eyes when it comes to endless days of no homework.  Sure, there are summer camps, but it's called summer camp, not summer school, in order to trick kids into not realizing that they are learning about things like survival skills, world history, or space travel. 

And summers provide lots of opportunities to be outside.  Sure, winter people can say that they have snow skiing and building snowmen, but I think that swimming, boat rides, picnics, and baseball games have a more broad appeal.  Between the fact that I'm prone to sprained ankles and that I'm a summer person, I never had any desire to learn to snow ski, anyway. 

Then there is food.  Now, I'm not just talking here about what you can get on the corner farm stand (although I haven't been shy about my preference to shop from what's available locally), but summer makes me crave foods like mangos, creamy avocados, salty tortilla chips, margartas (rocks with salt), and pretty much anything else you'd imagine eating at a resort in the Carribean.  Because in the summer, you can sit outside and eat it here and feel like you might actually be there.

We had some mahi mahi fish tacos last night and even though the end of September is creeping up on us, I felt like summer was still lingering here with me.  Winter people--who are savoring every day that the temperature dips a few degrees lower--are really missing out. 


No Ordinary Spaghetti Dinner

Most of my life consists of ordinary days.  The type of day where I get up, go to work, come home, have dinner with my husband, play with our dogs, and then go to sleep.  Of course, there are certain days that are consumed with attending marching band competitions to watch Melissa perform, entire afternoons filled with anticipation of a new Mad Men episode, or planning trivia nights with new friends.  But these can be few and far between so Tim and I have settled into somewhat of a quiet routine with one another.  I can't complain--I'm lucky. 

I suppose some of my initial interest in blogging was to throw myself out there a little bit more, mix things up, have some new experiences.  And this little blog hasn't let me down.  I was able to attend an awesome luncheon on canning at Local 127; I have challenged myself to cook and bake things I've never made before; and I have started some new food traditions in my family that I look forward to continuing. 

But even with all of these new and interesting opportunities and foods, often the weeknight dinners are the meals that I love the best.  I like just being home with Tim and that makes an ordinary night special just because we are together.  Cheesey--I know--but it makes workdays pass a little more quickly and it makes me want to turn an ordinary spaghetti dinner into something with a little more "za za zu."

Because really, my life with Tim is no ordinary life.  It's a good life, and it deserves some good food to go with it. 

Baked Spaghetti and Mozzarella
adapted from Everday Food Magazine
serves 4

3/4 pound spaghetti
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2  28oz cans of whole peeled tomatoes
2 cups basil leaves, torn or coarsley chopped
salt & pepper
3/4 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat.  Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Cook at a simmer until tomatoes break down, using a wooden spoon or potato masher to break up pieces of tomatoes, about 12-15 minutes or until the sauce thickens.  Salt & pepper to taste. 

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook pasta about 5 minutes.  It should still be slightly crunchy.  Drain pasta and return to pot.  Add tomato sauce, basil, and half of the mozzarella and toss to combine.  Transfer mixture to a 3 quart baking dish and top with remaining mozzarella.

Bake until cheese is golden and edges are bubbling, about 25 minutes. 


Here I am, September

There is no denying it--it's September.  I don't even have to look at the calendar to know it.  September in southwest Ohio is always the same:  a crisp chill in the morning that makes me want to snuggle down deeper into my bed and then warm sunshine all afternoon that burns away the chill. 

The trees tell me, too, in their own sly way; turning orange so slowly that I hardly notice and then one afternoon I take a longer look and wonder "when did that happen?"

Without even realizing it my grocery list starts transitioning from greens, fresh fruits, and soft cheeses to sweet potatoes, grains, and hearty proteins.  I think it's because September gives me an anticipation of pumpkin patches, corn mazes, and fuzzy sweaters.  Here I am, September--my arms (and appetite) are wide open for you. 

And for you, my darling reader, is a recipe for a three-bean chili.  It was warm, spicy, and filling, and I didn't miss the meat at all.  You won't either.

Three Bean Chili
recipe adapted from Bon Appetit
serves 6

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
8 garlic cloves, chopped
1 28oz can stewed tomatoes
2 15oz cans of black beans, well drained
1 15oz can red kidney beans, well drained
1 15oz can garbanzo beans, well drained
3 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp spicy chili garlic sauce (or 1 tbsp sriricha for extra spicy chili)
salt & pepper
optional:  cheddar cheese, cilantro, and sour cream for garnish

Heat oil in a heavy saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat.  Add garlic and onion and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add tomatoes, beans, chili powder, cumin, and spicy chili garlic sauce and bring to a simmer.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until flavors are blended, at minimum 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.  Add water in 1/2 cup increments to thin the chili if needed.  Salt & pepper to taste. 

Serve hot and garnish with cheese, cilantro, and/or sour cream.


Game Night and Homemade Pot-Stickers

I'm not really sure how it happened but board games have become a huge part of our relationship.  It may have started around Tim's first Thanksgiving with my family.  You see, after dinner we return to my parent's kitchen table and pull out our dominoes.  This is no ordinary after-dinner-dominoes-game--we play Mexican Train dominoes all the way from double blanks to double twelves.

This game can take some time, and usually a long time, but my family is committed to seeing it through to the end.  The usual suspects always play:  my dear grandma, who like any loving grandparent loves to set up plays that will destroy everyone else's gameplan; my mother, who pretends not to be competitive but delights in winning (and wins often); my father, who acts like he's not interested in playing but plays anyway; my brother, who used to beat us all when he was 10 years old; and there is still my sister, her husband; and now Tim, my stepdaughter Melissa, and me.    

I like to think that this enthusiasm for board games was one of the first things that Tim and I had in common (besides an affinity for good red wine and good music).  Tim has learned that I am competitive when it comes to games, and lucky for me, he is my perfect match. 

Now, Tim can lay claim to being the better of us at trivia games.  I have never met anyone in my life who knows more trivia than him.  My friend Meg has said that her husband is the same way, and that meeting of the minds that we've been planning needs to happen soon (and we'll need to start penciling in an inevitable rematch). 

But Scrabble--that is my specialty.  I'm not fancy, and I don't always draw the best tiles, but I always have a strategy.  If I put the tile here, will that maximize my points?  Can I save a Q until I pull a U so I can use that for a triple letter score or double word score? 

On some game nights we just grab a couple of good blocks of cheese from Murray's Cheese Shop in Kroger.  Other times we sip on Brandy Alexanders while we play.  This past Saturday, I opted to make home made pot-stickers and Tim picked out some Tom Waits on vinyl. 

The pot-stickers were relatively easy to make.  The filling was a simple mixture of Asian staples that most people who cook stir fry on a recurring basis would probably have around and the amount of pot-stickers one batch made was enormous.  As a bonus, we finally got to use the meat grinder attachment for our Kitchenaid to turn some boring boneless pork chops into ground pork. 

I know that you can just grab a bag of ready-made pot-stickers from TJ's or Whole Foods any day of the week, but it was pretty satisfying to assemble these myself, and the recipe is so simple, it could be adapted any time to fit your mood or craving. 

Whatever we are eating or drinking, I like to imagine that we are going to end up as that couple, stooped over the kitchen table, quietly putting together puzzles or playing cards, and enjoying that comfort of just sitting near one another.  In many ways, we already are that couple, and that's nice to think about. 

Fast Pot-Stickers
recipe from The New York Times
makes 45-50 pot-stickers

Dumpling wrappers can be a little hard to find in the grocery store.  Tim found them with the refrigerated organics and natural foods at our grocery store.  The kind we bought came as a pack of 50.  Also, these could easily be made vegetarian (or even vegan, I suppose, depending on the dumpling wrapper) by upping the cabbage and perhaps adding some carrot or mushroom.  The water is not necessary in the filling if you go the veggie route. 

3/4 lb ground pork or other ground meat
1 cup minced cabbage
2 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
6 scallions, minced, white and green parts separated
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp soy sauce, separated
dumpling wrappers
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup of water, divided

Combine meat, cabbage, ginger, garlic, scallion whites, 2 tbsp soy sauce, and 1/4 cup room temp water.  Using your finger or a small brush, spread a bit of egg around half of the circumference of the dumpling wrapper.  Spoon about a teaspoon of filling into the center of the wrapper and fold over, pressing down to seal the edges together.  Place dumplings on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Do not stack dumplings.

You can freeze part or all of the batch at this step if you just put the baking sheet into the freezer for about 2 hours or until the dumplings are frozen, and then pack the dumplings into zip lock bags or air tight containers.  Store up to 2 weeks.

To cook (fresh or frozen), add oil to a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  When oil is hot, add dumplings in a single layer.  Cook for 2 minutes or until slightly browned on one side.  Add 1/4 cup of water to the pan and cover.  Let simmer about 3 minutes. 

Uncover dumplings and cook another minute or two, flipping dumplings if you desire both sides to be cripsy, but it's not necessary.  Serve hot.

For dipping sauce, combine remaining green scallions, soy sauce, and vinegar.