Thursday, June 28, 2012

On Lammas

With summer officially under way and fall harvest activities looming right around the corner, the next closest pagan holiday we'll be celebrating is Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh. Traditionally celebrated from the end of July to the beginning of August, Lammas signifies the beginning of the harvest and the end of the warmest, life-giving part of the year; it is a preperation for the fall and winter, and a celebration of the bountiful givings of the land. It's a lot like the traditional American Thanksgiving, with the focus on sharing the bounty of hard work, although truly that celebration is saved for later in September. During Lammas we share fall fruits, fresh baked bread, grains, berries, and those with altars sometimes add a small loaf of bread to their altar to offer up to the Lady.

Although I've already shared a good easy bread recipe earlier, those of you wishing to make bread that involves a little more time and effort (and thus more good energy and thoughtful blessings) but doesn't mean a billion more ingredients might consider taking this route instead:

3 cups of good bread flour (if you need a gluten-free flour, go for it)
1/4 tsp instant yeast (do NOT get the slower stuff, trust me on this)
3/4 tsp kosher salt (or about 1 tsp regular fine table salt if you must)
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (you know, the kind of water that yeast loves)

Mix dough the night before you intend on cooking it. Combine all ingredients in a large non-metal bowl with a wooden or plastic spoon until it just comes together. It will probably look like a gloopy mess and will be very sticky but that's okay! Cover it in plastic wrap and set it on the countertop in a dark place for 12-24 hours, or really however long you need to. If you set it out overnight, and your kids help you make it before they head to bed, it can sit all day while you're at work or otherwise busy and that won't hurt it.
The next day the dough SHOULD be kind of bubbly and just as sticky. Use a wet or olive oil coated spoon or spatula to dump it onto a well-floured surface of your choice, then fold the ends around and use the spatula to make it into a rough ball shape. If you use your hands, make sure they stay wet or coated in olive oil or the dough will stick BADLY! Place the dough onto a large piece of parchment paper and put that into a large bake-safe bowl, such as a well-seasoned and coated cast iron pan, a Pyrex baking dish, or some other bake-safe container that can safely sit out. Cover the dough with a towel (don't let the towel touch the dough) and let it rest for 2-3 hours. About 30 minutes from the end of your "wait time", place the covered container into the oven and preheat it to around 450.
At the end of this half an hour, the dough should have doubled again. Remove the container from the oven and the parchment paper and dough from the container, then return the bread dough to the container (spray with cooking spray or coat pan with olive oil if it isn't non-stick or well-seasoned). Bake covered for about half an hour, then uncover and bake about another 20 minutes or until bread is golden brown.
For Lammas, consider instead seperating your bread into equal-lengthed strips just before the final bake and braiding it. Brush the tops with olive oil, then add fun and festive herbs such as parsley, basil, rosemary, chives, and cilantro. For ultimate herb flavor, add them to the bread during mixing. Consider making a similarly-flavored butter by just combining your favorite butter with the same herbs in another bowl and using it as a spread. These braided loaves should be cooked on a shallow or flat baking sheet on parchment paper.

Alternate ideas:
- Add dried cranberries, fresh apple chunks, or a little brown sugar to make this into a truly festive Lammas bread that you can share with friends and family to celebrate the harvest!
- Consider sharing with coworkers, teachers, postal workers, or paper carriers by making a small braided loaf, allowing it to cool, and then wrapping it in an inexpensive checkered tea towel (think your local dollar store) tied off with a length of twine or plain string and a simple, handwritten note.
- Make it a learning experience: If you are part of a church or group that has younger members, this can be a fun chance to help them learn not only valuable life lessons (cooking, cleaning up, group contribution) but to learn about where food comes from. Have every child volunteer an ingredient if possible, and then get their help measuring out the ingredients, mixing, adding, and cleaning up afterwards. Obviously the baking portion should be left to adults or older members, but the children will love the chance to learn something new and will enjoy tasting their creation!
- Make a dessert bread by adding in a little sugar to the mix and sprinkling a cinnamon/brown sugar mixture on top of the bread just before baking. Afterwards, serve with honey butter or your favorite jam.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Another Recipe

Here's another good one for you - not made vegetarian/vegan as easily, but with ingenuity I imagine it would be just as good. This is great in the slow cooker; start the meat the night before, and in the morning shred it and add the noodles.

Warning: this is not a low-calorie, low-fat recipe, so eat at your own risk! Please keep in mind that Hubby and I cook enough to serve five people and have leftovers for us to take to work.

Slow cooker stroganoff

3-4 lb cut of bottom round roast of beef (with meat as expensive as it is right now, feel free to substitute with turkey burger or ground beef, but keep your cooker temperature lower during the day and consider adding more water to keep it from burning)
1 large bag (usually 14-16 oz) of your preferred type of egg noodles (there are Amish no-egg noodles at our local Hy-Vee that come in a clear bag with red printing and a twist tie closure, and I LOVE them in this dish)
1 4oz package or container of cream cheese
1 4oz container of sour cream (use your leftover sour cream from my Mexibread below in this dish!)
1 cup white onion
1 1/2 cup milk
Water as needed (to keep beef from sticking to cooker, and to help cook noodles)
Seasonings (salt, pepper, parsley, chives to taste)

Place beef into slow cooker, fat-side down. Add seasonings, onion, and water (about one cup should be okay), put on lid and cook on high for about 8 hours. In the morning, flip the meat over; you should be able to gently peel the strip of fat off of the bottom of the meat without much difficulty, then shred the meat. Add entire package of noodles, milk, and more water as needed, along with all of the cream cheese and sour cream. Allow to cook on low as long as necessary, either until the noodles are fully cooked or until you are able/ready to eat, whichever you please.

Serves five with leftovers for several days.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On A Recipe

We're big on recipes around here - ones that are straightforward, easy, require few ingredients, and still have a flavor familiarity that can accomodate a picky almost-three-year-old and a five-year-old who won't eat anything green without a huge struggle. We cook things that, during or after assembly, are "walk-away" foods: meals taht don't require having someone stand over them constantly, staring at the meal from start to finish to make sure nothing burns or is overcooked. Most of all, our meals require being sneaky, trying to get kids to eat things they wouldn't otherwise try without being paired with a familiar food.

Today, I share what I made for dinner last night - a tasty Mexican-inspired dish that can easily be made vegetarian or vegan without batting an eye. Please be aware I cook for five people with intentional leftovers for Hubby and I to take to work for lunch.

3 lbs ground beef (for low-fat option, choose ground turkey; for vegetarian/vegan choose semi-firm tofu or tofu crumbles that are marinated in the seasonings listed or vegetarian chorizo and ground veggie burgers)
2 boxes Jiffy cornbread
2 eggs (for vegan, choose egg substitute either powdered or liquid)
2/3 cup milk (for vegan or lactose intolerant, choose soy or almond milk, or other milk substitute of your choice)
1 12oz jar Tostidos salsa, your preference of heat (mild, medium, hot)
Seasonings (garlic, onion, white pepper, black pepper, salt, Tobasco sauce, chili powder, paprika, red pepper flakes, parsley, all to taste)
1 12oz bag Mexican cheese blend (for vegan, choose a veggie cheese blend of similar cheeses)
1 12oz bag frozen corn (if desired)
1 8oz box frozen spinach (if desired)
Sour cream (for topping, if desired)

Crumble and brown meat until mostly cooked (some pink at this point is normal and okay; meat will finish cooking in the oven). Add seasonings, jar of salsa, and veggies if they are being added; stir to combine and then spread into the bottom of a glass 13x9" baking dish. Top with 3/4 bag of Mexican cheese. Combine eggs, milk, small sprinkle of red pepper flakes, remaining cheese, and both boxes of cornbread in another bowl, stir until most clumps are gone. Spread cornbread mostly evenly atop meat mixture and pop into oven set to 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until top of cornbread is brown and a knife stuck into the middle of the cornbread comes out clean. Slice and serve topped with extra cheese and/or salsa if desired, and sour cream.

Serves five, with leftovers for two days of lunch for two people.

This would also work in a slow cooker on high if you were able to add in the cornbread about an hour before cooking was completed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On This Sorcery (And What It Is)

In case you hadn't guessed - and considering the subject matter, there's a very good possibility you haven't - the title of this post has to do with that amusing and decently-well-known quip, "What is this sorcery?!" It's something I don't often say aloud, but I think it sometimes to myself and after what's been happening around here lately I think it's something I probably ought to just start saying.

Life is crazy.

I think you never realize why so many people go batshit insane sometimes until you're faced with problems like the mental quandary in the realm of what we're dealing with right now. Not that we're making any life-or-death decisions, perse - don't think that we are, things are certainly not THAT bad - but suffice to say that something new seems to pop up every day, and when that new thing DOES pop up it always requires a creative answer, and as of late we've been sort of taxed when it comes to creativity. So much so that when we play D&D on Sundays we've been having difficulty coming up with new character ideas - but honestly, that's another realm of creativity. I mean the kind of creativity that allows a person to sanely and reasonably deal with a situation without feeling as though the only logical answer is to rip their hair out and try to go hide in a corner without being noticed, which right now is apparently the only option I can see. We're in one of those situations where the world isn't going to stop spinning based on the choices made, but depending on the chosen option, things could potentially improve a million times over - or they could come crashing down rather tremendously and with a resounding noise unlike any you've ever heard.

Naturally, because we are admittedly not good with the decision making process, Hubby and I both are trying hard to try to act like we're mature adults who are able to competently discern between what is important in the long term and what is important in the here and now while in fact only making things harder on each other and ourselves than we need to. The situation is played up to others, or in our heads, as though we are somehow being asked to walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls with no safety net, but with a $1,000,000 reward if we succeed: we know we are doomed to fail, but the idea of what's at the end is too tempting to not try. Of course, things are not even remotely THAT bad, but in our minds I think that's sort of what we're imagining. I can naturally only speak for me, and not Hubby, in that respect, but I think that's close enough.

To explain a little more, here's things from the perspective of Hubby's job:

The pros: The fact of the matter is that Hubby has an amazing job with a small, local company and an amazing boss. He loves what he does and he loves the other four employees and he loves his boss, who would undoubtedly bend over backwards for any of his employees (and he has on multiple occasions). He is only an administrative assistant, but the company owner/boss relies on him to keep the business functional and organized, and asks for Hubby's opinion on major issues often. Hubby is "in" on a lot of the company decisions, with a hand on pretty much everything at any given time. He does pretty much everything, and without a doubt this position has been a huge addition to his resumé that makes it look pretty damn awesome if I do say so myself. The people he works with have become close friends of our's, enough so that we have left our children with one of the guys and his wife one weekend to go on a two-day outing a state away. We love them. We all get together on Sunday with people we wouldn't have met if it wasn't for the guys he works with, and they have a monthly (or so) game day where they all go out and do things they want to for fun, together. They're like family to us.

The cons: Hubby will probably never make more money than he is right now - and unfortunately he isn't making much. If/when minimum wage goes up in our state, he will likely be making minimum wage again, and even that would be actually a huge improvement over what he makes now. His position offers absolutely no benefits, no PTO, no sick days. If he has to take off, he has no option to be paid for it, no matter the reason. He does not get vacation time and is at the office from around 8:30 AM until between 6:15 and 6:30 PM depending on how the day goes. The work has slowed down to a crawl, they are not bringing in much business, and the owner, as amazing as he is, keeps coming up with business ideas that could be awesome but instead end up backfiring horribly on him and the company, driving him into a deeper hole than he already is. He has stated on multiple occasions that he wishes he could pay his employees more, but he is simply unable, and things have shown no real hint of improvement. Because of the position he's already in, Hubby will likely never "move up" in the company simply because there is no position to move up into, and his hours and pay will probably never improve. Also, the company Hubby currently works at is all the way across town, and with only one car that means I have to leave about 45 minutes before I have to be to work just to take him to work, then get the kids to daycare and me to work. It's a lot of extra gas.

The median: We do not need more benefits. My insurance covers us all just fine as it is, and anything extra would be overkill and another deductible to try to meet before anything would kick in. We've been doing fairly well in the gas realm; we've adjusted to the extra running and it's pretty typical for us now. The savings on gas would be nice but probably minimal considering all the other driving that we do.

And from the perspective of my job:

The pros: I make a lot. More than either of us have, ever - I almost make as much as my mother, who has a nursing license and 24 years of experience under her belt, at a nationally recognized hospital. I have a pretty easy entry position at a company that's known for trying to treat its employees right. I have good benefits that I'm not paying out the ass for, and while my job can be stressful sometimes it's actually pretty easy now that I'm getting the hang of it. I like trying to help people and I get to interact with someone different every few minutes, but at the same time I'm at the office with the same group of people every day so I have that familiarity too. I have a space that's all my own, in a fairly laid-back environment where I can wear comfortable clothing and have off the cuff conversations with my friends. I have made us able to finally pay off some of our old bills. Most of all, there is ample opportunity for advancement if I improve and on the same level I am guaranteed yearly raises and "profit sharing" checks in February based on my performance levels. If I am doing well, I get rewarded for it consistently. Best of all, there's always the possibility that I can move to other departments, even become a supervisor if I want, and there is the remote possibility of even getting to work from home at some point if the chance opens up. My work is close to the daycare, and to the school that G will probably be going to this fall, so I can easily and quickly rush to either if I need or want to. Another plus: I have PTO days that I can save up, guaranteed weekends off, a fixed schedule, and paid holidays.

The cons: While I was in training, and sometimes even now, my job drives me crazy. It's often stressful and difficult and I've been cursed at more than once on the phones when someone has called in, and I've only been on the phones full time since late March.

Ugh, I am too frustrated right now in the whole situation to even continue this. My deepest apologies.

Friday, June 8, 2012

On Midnight

It is nearly midnight.

As I wander about the house, preparing for a too-early morning, my legs wobble and nearly give out on me - but this is to be expected. Tomorrow, they will be worse. Much worse. But their reaction tonight does not surprise me at all.

I just spent two hours at the gym. Two hours where I achieved a few new things and set a few new goals for myself. About 650 calories burned in those two hours, and some weight training done that adds in even more for a person of my size, and tomorrow's IndoRow session at 5:30 AM will burn another 900 or so.

I weigh 384 lbs.

At some point, I forced myself to admit that the only way I was going to follow through with any form of weight loss - no, healthy lifestyle changes - was to commit financially in some small form. One $25/month gym membership and unlimited $10/class IndoRow sessions later, I am finding myself slowly setting and achieving goals. They're ones that would make other people roll their eyes.

Walk 10 minutes on a treadmill at 2.8 mph.

Cycle 20 minutes at 15.5 mph.

Do 100 shoulder lifts at 35 lbs.

Do 60 crunches with 32 lbs of weight.

But they're things that seemed impossible to me until I began pushing my limits.

The shower was hard. I snuck into the house with all the stealth of a drunken co-ed, thanks to my exhausted muscles. Unfortunately, they have yet to meet up with the adrenaline still pumping through my blood; my body is done but my mind is convinced I can go a little further if I just TRY. I stumbled around, tried to keep the noise down, and eventually showered. I left the main light off; thanks to the motion detector light in the bathroom, though, I was left waiving my arms around wildly every minute or so when it threatened to turn off and leave me shrouded in nothing but blackness with the comfort of hot water pouring onto me. I bathed, and as I was drying off I struggled: I'm hungry. Do I snack? No, I eat a gummy vitamin. Do I use the self-tanning lotion I bought? No.. Not tonight, it just isn't worth the hassle. I go through the next few hours in my head, trying to make sure everything is ready.

Alarm is set for 5 AM. Coffee is ready to be brewed. Clothes are ready. My brain, not so much. I'm one of those people that functions best on 8+ hours of sleep, so tonight's decision to go work out before tomorrow's vigorous rowing class was not made lightly.

(Okay, I lied, it took me like two minutes to decide to go.)

Unfortunately, I can tell that the walking pneumonia we all recently caught is sneaking up on me. Despite days of antibiotics and no longer being contagious, my lungs bubble again when I breathe. I sigh. And cough.  Figures.

Still. Everything is ready. Now, I sleep.