Monday, February 8, 2016

Soup season

I'm a soup lover year-round, most especially in winter, but I make soups even in the warmest part of the year. Soup is easy, filling and cheap, and there are always lots of leftovers for the Bear to take for his lunch at work. This is good for his health and our budget; the work cafeteria is relatively expensive and the offerings are not known for their healthfulness. We're not fanatical about health or budget, but we are mindful of both and we aim for frugality whenever possible, as well as a simple, healthy diet most of the time. This is where soup comes in; you can make a very good meal around a hearty soup. Add a salad or some bread, and you have a nutritious, satisfying lunch or dinner for not much money or effort.

I have shared many soup recipes here on my blog, largely because they are a staple of our daily life around here at the Thistlebear home. I like to share what we really do and, well, one thing we do a lot of is cooking and eating soup for dinner. I tend to make most of my soups in my crockpot, or slow-cooker, just because it's so easy. You throw everything into the pot in the morning, plug it in and switch it on, and by late afternoon, you have dinner ready to serve. Some of my soups may require a little extra help before serving, like cooking up some pasta to add, or adding faster-cooking veggies like mushrooms, which don't always fare well during a whole day of steamy heat. My slow-cooker soups are mostly my own recipes, cobbled together from various recipes I've collected or browsed, and tweaked along the way until they seem just right to me.

My slow-cooker soup recipes are among the most-viewed posts on my blog. I hope that means they've been helpful and interesting to readers. I thought I'd put a few of them together here in one post today. The small Bears and I have just come home from a children's theater production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and we're settling in for an afternoon of reading and math. It's windy and cool at my house right now, and there's veggie soup simmering away in the crockpot. It's a perfect time to talk soup.

We'll start with my most-viewed soup recipe, Slow-cooker Split Pea Soup.

This soup is my go-to whenever I have a leftover ham bone, or even just some slices or chunks of meat left from our usual Christmas-and-Easter spiral-sliced ham. Dried split peas are so easy to cook with; you don't have to soak them like you do most dried beans, and they take on a delicious creaminess that blends beautifully with the ham's flavor. I'll be making some of this on Wednesday, finishing off the last of our Christmas ham in time to bring in a new one for Easter in just a few weeks.

Next is my Slow-cooker Minestrone Soup.

This one is easily my favorite of all the soups I make. It's healthy and light, full of good veggies and beans, warm and rib-sticking. I like my minestrone to contain lots of tomato; I love the acidity and the texture of tomatoes, and I really enjoy a rich tomato broth, especially as it takes on some body from the starch in the beans and pasta. The best thing about a minestrone is that you can put anything you want into the pot; any veggie, any kind of bean, any shape pasta, meat or no meat, it's up to you.

My Slow-cooker Tortilla Soup is a newer addition to the repertoire, and it's becoming a fast favorite.

I often make this soup when I have meat left over from roasting a chicken. The roasted chicken is very tender and shreds easily, giving this soup a rustic style. Everything in it is a pantry staple, things I tend to keep around for easy meals. My family loves to dress their own bowls at the table, adding shredded cheese, crushed tortilla chips and fresh lime juice. You could add sour cream or avocado too. It's all the flavors of a chicken taco or burrito, in a bowl.

I have a few tips to share, after many years of cooking soups in my slow-cooker (which, by the way, is a bottom-of-the-line Rival Crockpot, 4.5 quart capacity, with a dial and just two settings - Low and High. No bells and whistles here, and that's just fine with me; I've had my crockpot for nearly 15 years and it's still going strong, cooking up delicious meals at least once a week).

  • If your soup contains aromatics such as onions, carrots, garlic and celery, I recommend cooking them lightly in a skillet with a bit of olive oil before adding them to the slow-cooker. I think this gives the broth a much deeper flavor and also avoids the overpowering smell you get with boiling onions from raw.
  • Similarly, when you slice the carrots, try to make sure you've exposed the core in the center, by slicing the carrot lengthwise first, to make two long halves, them slicing it into half-circles or quarter-circles. This helps the carrot release more flavor as it cooks (I saw this on America's Test Kitchen, and I was skeptical, but it really helps, and it's an easy way to boost flavor).
  • Slow-cooking can dull the flavors in food, so you'll want to boost flavor by adding more of the savory ingredients in the recipe. I find that adding an extra clove or two of garlic, or an additional quarter- to half-teaspoon of dried herbs, will help the soup be more flavorful, without needing to rely on added salt.
  • Instant rice is your friend in the slow-cooker; just add it to the pot about 30 minutes before you plan to serve the soup. You may need to add a bit of water along with it, but it doesn't soak up much water as it cooks. Pasta, on the other hand, never works well for me in the slow-cooker without being cooked separately first. One benefit is having all that pasta-cooking water you can add to the pot with the pasta if needed; it will give your broth a richer consistency. 
  • I can't taste any difference between good homemade broth, canned or boxed broth, or reconstituted bouillon after a day simmering in the slow-cooker. I use Knorr bouillon cubes, at approximately half-strength, with appropriate water. I think it works great. Go with your own tastes and budget.
  • Experiment with your own slow-cooker to see what kind of cooking times and temperatures work best. For food safety, I prefer to start the pot on High and let the soup come to a boil, especially if there are any raw meat ingredients in the pot. I'll turn it to Low after cooking for several hours, leaving it on Low as long as the soup stays at a simmer. If it doesn't, I'll just turn it back to High. Some soups need more heat than others to keep simmering, I find. Again, you may need to experiment with your own pot. I'm not an expert, but I think that as long as there is steady bubbling, you're good to go. 
  • I like to add tender ingredients like mushrooms, zucchini or spinach in the last hour of cooking, with the slow-cooker turned to Low, to keep them from overcooking.
  • Always taste your soup before you serve it. Add salt, pepper or other seasonings to taste. I find that some soups, like a hearty bean soup, for example, need a little something to wake up all the flavors. A squeeze of lemon juice, or a splash of wine vinegar, can make a huge difference. There's a lot to be said for the earthiness of beans, but I really like the lightening-up from a little acid at the very end of cooking.

About that veggie soup I mentioned earlier in the post...

Slow-cooker Veggie Soup with Barley

Olive oil
3 carrots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
6 cups veggie or chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage or marjoram
1 bay leaf
Vegetables of your choice: green beans, squash, corn, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, etc.
1 cup quick-cooking pearled barley
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook carrot, celery, onion and garlic in skillet with oil (just enough to coat veggies) for a few minutes, until onion is starting to turn golden and veggies are slightly softened. If you like a spicy flavor, you can add a few dashes of crushed red pepper to the veggies as they cook in the skillet.

Place veggies in slow-cooker with tomatoes, broth and dried herbs. You can add other veggies now, if they are of the longer-cooking type (others can wait until closer to serving). Cook on High for about 6 hours, letting soup boil in slow-cooker for at least a couple of hours. Turn the slow-cooker to Low.

Add additional veggies and barley to pot, let cook until barley and all veggies are tender. Season to taste and serve.

(You can of course add meat, beans or anything else you like to this soup, but I really enjoy having an easy all-veggie soup in my recipe rotation).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Winter Project Link Party

Welcome to February's Winter Project Link Party! I hope you'll want to share your current crafty projects. As for me, Hensfoot is still in progress. I'm sort of struggling with it right now. I still like the project just fine, and I have every intention of finishing, but I'm not sure it will happen before spring. This is really okay with me; it's not like we don't have numerous blankets to use, and the weather will warm up before too much longer. If it takes me a little longer to finish, no biggie. But there are other things I'd like to work on, including cross-stitch, and my guilt complex makes that difficult. I like to think of it as a work ethic, but let's face it - it's mostly a feature of my guilt complex. The fact that it extends to crocheted blankets might seem a little weird, but there you go.

When I started, I was looking forward to a mindless-crochet sort of project and I definitely got one. It's mostly a good thing - I find it relaxing and soothing to work on, especially in the afternoons when I'm either in the midst of home school time, when it keeps me calm and benevolent, or afterward, once we're finished for the day, when it repairs some of my frayed nerves. I don't mean to complain (about the blanket or the home schooling); I've actually made a fair bit of progress with Hensfoot over the past month. It's now about 42 inches long and more than halfway finished. I think I'd like to add another 30 inches or so, so the tall person (and other eventual tall person) can enjoy it fully.

I'm very pleased with the way this blanket eats up yarn. I've started hand-rolling balls of yarn lately because the yarn-winder cakes are collapsing on themselves. Do you have this problem too? I have the standard red-and-white winder that clips onto the edge of a table (mine came directly from China, in record time; seriously, I think it was at my doorstep four days after I placed the order. It was cool, but strange). I like the winder a lot but the cakes don't always hold together very well. It's entirely possible I'm doing something wrong. I recently received an umbrella swift as a present and I'm looking forward to using it next time I wind yarn, but I know I'm going to wrap myself in yarn the first few times. My family will unravel me like a mummy in "Scooby Doo" and I'll twirl across the room as the yarn comes off. I should probably clear the furniture out of the way first.

Just writing about this blanket has me feeling a little more chipper about it. I'm glad to be crocheting it; the design is new to me, and it will be warm and snuggly to use. I love the colors. It's hefty, but not heavy and not stiff. I've been flagging a bit lately, but the end is in sight now. Onward and upward!

How are your winter projects coming along, now that we're in the heart of winter? Are you still beavering away eagerly, or have you found yourself in a rut too? I'd love to hear how you're doing. Join in by adding a link to a blog post about your current projects. Anyone can join, even if it isn't winter where you are. Please read the rules and make sure to link back to this post to spread the word about the link party.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

News from home

The news is all rather boring, actually, but no news is good news, they say, and I agree.

Well, some news. I injured my rib/sternum area a few days ago and I'm not even sure how I did it. I was thinking it happened when I was scrubbing the shower, maybe, or while vacuuming. I spent Saturday and Sunday mostly lazing, trying to rest while I had the Bear around to help with things. It's getting better but it's definitely still there. It's that kind of pain where it hurts to sneeze or yawn, where every laugh turns into a yelp.

Resting helped, but by yesterday, I needed to get up and do something. I made my slow-cooker minestrone, as well as rice pudding (recipe from my Betty Crocker cookbook and also here), and did some very light straightening up. It's amazing what happens when you let it go for a couple of days. It was looking like a rummage sale. I will say that it's getting easier to be sick or out of commission, now that my children are a little older. They can do more for themselves and I don't feel as much pressure to entertain them or guide them through every activity. It felt good to do some gentle housework and I love having the slow-cooker simmering away.

The weather has been pretty terrible so far this week - two days in a row of dark skies, intermittent snow showers and brisk winds, real winter stuff. We've had a chilly winter here, largely because of El Nino. In some years, February feels like true spring, and this one may pan out that way eventually too, but it looks like it will be cold and grayish for at least a week. I'll be interested to see what my plum trees do this year; I've seen flowers as soon as late February, and as late as mid-March. My bulbs are never up until the end of March, no matter what.

If you want sturdy, long-lasting flowers for your house, buy some alstroemeria. Man, those flowers last forever! I bought a cheap mixed bouquet (including daisies, carnations, mums and the aforementioned alstroemeria) two whole weeks ago. The rest of the flowers have finally withered, but that alstroemeria is still going strong.

Did you watch Grease: Live? I loved it! So much fun. I don't want to give anything away if you haven't seen it yet, but you should look for "old" Frenchy.

I went to the dentist this morning, for my scheduled cleaning. I love my dentist. She is a bit older than me, a mother of four teenagers. She comes from Honduras and she often goes back there to do charity dental work. She complimented my sneakers and said she needs a new pair because she gave hers away last time she was in Honduras. That's the kind of person she is. She also told me that my teeth looked "fantastic." I'm not sure anyone has ever called a part of this body "fantastic." I'm kind of gloating right now. Check out my chompers, y'all.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tangelo marmalade

It's citrus season, when some of my favorite fruits are in plentiful supply. All winter, I keep a basket filled with navel oranges and clementines or mandarins on my kitchen counter. They look pretty and they're an easy, good-for-you snack. I send them to school in the small Bears' lunchboxes and I've been know to toss a couple pieces in my bag before leaving the house myself. After the excesses of December (both dietary and monetary), it's nice to have a cheap, healthy and eminently portable food that still feels like a treat.

Last week, I saw some beautiful tangelos in the grocery store. They were very affordable too, and I immediately thought about making marmalade with them. I hadn't made marmalade in two years; the plum-apple jam I'd made the summer before last was so plentiful that I felt we should finish it all before I did much more preserving. We finished it by the middle of this past summer. The time for new marmalade had come.

Have you had a tangelo? It's an interesting fruit, a hybrid of a tangerine and a grapefruit. The skins are deep orange, like a tangerine, and the fruit itself is quite tart with a nice citrus tingle. You can definitely taste both "parent" fruits in a tangelo, and they can be very juicy. These tangelos were really ripe so they were especially full of juice.

Would you like to try making tangelo marmalade? I followed a basic marmalade recipe, ending up with five half-pints of delicious tangelo marmalade for my pantry.

You'll need:
3 lbs. tangelos (about 6 large fruits)
3 cups water
4 cups sugar
Pectin, if needed (I used one tablespoon of powdered low-sugar pectin)

Prepare jam jars, rings and lids. There are lots of ways to do this, but I like to heat and sterilize my jars on a pile of newspaper in a very low oven, 200 degrees. The lids and rings go in a saucepan of water on the stove; bring to a boil and let simmer until needed.

Wash the tangelos thoroughly. Halve the tangelos and extract the juice. Cut the peels into quarters and, using a sharp knife, slice the peels into very thin strips (I like long ribbons of peel in my marmalade but you can cut them as long or short as you like).

Place juice, peels, sugar and water in a large pot. You can use a slotted spoon now to remove any seeds. Bring the mixture to a full boil over high heat, then turn the heat down to simmer (I added the bit of powdered pectin at this point; I wasn't sure if I really needed it, but I've come to look at it as jam-making insurance). The mixture will need to cook for at least 30 minutes (mine took close to 60 minutes before it was ready for canning). Test the fruit mixture on a saucer chilled in the freezer; properly cooked jam will set quickly on the cold surface (another way to tell: if you drag a finger through the cooled blob of jam on the plate and the finger track remains, the jam is ready).

When the mixture is ready, ladle it into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space and wiping rims with a wet paper towel. Quickly add hot lids and rings, screwing on until fingertip-tight. Process jars as desired (I follow USDA canning guidelines, adjusting for my location at high altitude). I filled and processed the four Kerr half-pint canning jars above, and partially filled a fifth jar, which I didn't process since we would be eating it right away. We ate it for lunch that day, while it was still a little warm, spread on sliced Italian bread. It was totally delicious. Cheerful too, the sweet-tart flavor and bright golden-orange color both very welcome in blustery, often-gray January.

"I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor." - D.H. Lawrence

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Color Collaborative: January: Warm

You may find this strange, but I truly enjoy making the beds. I like all the parts of bed-making: the straightening, the pulling-up, the smoothing and tightening. It's an important ritual in my day. This week, I was performing the usual mid-winter bedding blitz, where I wash every piece of bedding from all three beds in our house. The washer and dryer run all day long, a long procession of blankets and quilts emerging clean and fluffy. January is a good time for freshening most things, including bedding. Winter is far from over, and we'll need the heavy-duty blankets for quite a while longer. I feel very accomplished when all the beds are put back together; the bedrooms look neater and everything smells like fabric softener for a few days.

My bedding chores made me think about blankets and their origins. It occurred to me that I didn't know when people started using what we know as blankets on their beds. I was surprised to learn that woven blankets as we know them didn't come into use until about the 14th century, when Thomas Blanquette, a Flemish weaver living in England, developed a special heavy woolen weave which became useful in blanket-making. Blanquette became "blanket," and the rest is history. I felt motivated to learn more about different types of blankets. Here are some blankets I find interesting...

Photo from fansdelespanol

A serape is a traditional blanket from Mexico, probably brought by colonists from Spain. It can be used on a bed, or it can be worn poncho-style, via a hole cut through the center and pulled over the head, or hung on walls as decoration. They're almost always very brightly colored. Serapes used to be accessible to only the very rich before modern factory weaving. I'd think this is probably true for the blankets used by most cultures of the world; they would have been slower to produce, and therefore much more expensive, in the days when blankets were always hand-woven. I think serapes are really beautiful, with their colorful omber shading and bold stripes or diamond shapes, and I feel a bit sorry that they mostly bring to mind Mexican restaurant decor. Pretty, though, and likely just right for the hot days and cold nights in Mexico.

Photo from The Catalogues

Native American blankets have sort of a convoluted history, in that they were probably made in imitation of European blankets that the Indians received in trading with the Europeans; the Europeans were imitating traditional Native American artistic designs themselves. There is a little of both cultures in these blankets. In the 20th century, textile companies like Pendleton began producing blankets of this type for for sale to the Native market, and later for general sale. Indian blankets are still made by hand sometimes today, by Navajo and Pueblo Indian craftspeople trained in the art of creating their bold, colorful stripes and geometric patterns, but most are made on automated looms. Some Indian blankets also feature pictorial designs, such as the yellow birds on this blanket. They have been used in various ceremonies and rituals such as weddings and burials and have been traditionally given as gifts.

Photo from Brohammas

One of my personal favorite blankets is the Hudson Bay blanket (not that I personally own one; they're very pricey). This is a wool blanket, sometimes known as a "chief's blanket," made by the Hudson Bay Company for trade with Native Americans starting in the 18th century. These blankets feature brightly colored stripes on a white background, along with a woven design on the edge of the blanket which once symbolized the value of the blanket in terms of its trade equivalent in beaver pelts or other animal skins. These blankets were very popular; their off-white color made for good camouflage in the snow, and the woolen material was good at repelling water. I don't think most modern users of these blankets worry much about camouflage or water-shedding, but they're still popular today because they're so sturdy and warm.

Photo from Eldridge Textile

Finally, I was reminded of the nubby, snow-white spread on my parents' bed when I was little. Theirs was similar to the one above, called a Martha Washington bedspread. Do you remember these? You don't see them much anymore but I can remember most of my relatives having them. These bedspreads have been made on machine looms for a long time, but they were originally handwoven. George Washington gave a blanket like this to his bride when they were married, hence the popular name. It's a very heavy cotton weave, usually in pure white, and it would be used as a top layer on the bed, but not necessarily slept under. I think these blankets have a formality, a hotel-like stiffness, that I don't desire for my own bedroom, but I find their elaborate woven designs very impressive.

Blankets, where would we be without them? Shivering in our beds, I think. How do you like your bed to be made? Do you have a favorite type of blanket? Around here, we all have the usual sheets on our beds, along with woven cotton blankets and lightweight duvets. In the coldest weather, we add afghans crocheted by yours truly.

Don't forget to visit the other Color Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts. Just click on the links below: 

Annie at Annie Cholewa
Sarah at mitenska
What is The Color Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a color related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about color in new ways.

Monday, January 25, 2016

New-old books

Hello! Happy Monday. I hope your week is getting off to a good start. I want to talk about books today, specifically old favorites. I've always had a large book collection. I'm the kind of person who can read beloved books over and over again, without growing tired of them. It's good to have lots of books around the house, I think; you can always find something to do when you have a good assortment of books. They look nice too; I've always loved having bookshelves in the main areas of my home. We have three main ones for the Bear's books and my own, as well as another large one for children's books. They each have a bookcase in their bedrooms too, but those are more for board games and toys than books. The books stay out in the family room so they can both enjoy them whenever they want. I'm proud to say that both of my children are avid readers and both learned to read early. They read a lot and often want to discuss their books, which makes me really glad.

As much as I love reading and having lots of books around me, there have been many times in my adult life where I've had to unload some of my books, whether because of a move (our cross-country move in 2006 hit my book collection very hard), or because I really wanted to make room for some new books, clearing out the ones I didn't love so much anymore. I don't often buy brand-new books; I'd rather save money with a used copy if I can. There's also something about a book that someone else has written in; I like to read old notes and see what another person highlighted or underlined, what they found important as they read. In college, I bought used books as often as I could, to save money mostly, but I always found it interesting to see what previous users had found noteworthy. Sometimes it helped my studies too. I was a good student, not a perfect one.

Over the past few months, I've had the urge to replace some of the books I've jettisoned along the way. Not everything (I'll never have the room for it all; the whole place would be lined with bookcases along every wall), but a few really special books that I missed having in the collection. I started with Silas Marner last fall; I'd read it in high school and fell in love. It wasn't light reading, and in fact, I still find it slightly slow going even today, but I enjoy it very much. I re-read it as the seasons changed, as I normally do when I re-read it (large portions of the story take place around Christmastime and I like the feeling of reading a story in its season, if you will). For Christmas, I asked the Bear to replace a couple of other beloved books as gifts for me: Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Both are books I loved since I first read them in high school. I re-read them many times after that, but somewhere along the way, I needed to let go and they were donated.

I felt it was okay to replace them now; I've cycled through some of the other books I'd since acquired, there was more room on the bookshelves, and I was in the mood to re-read them both. But more than all of this, I just felt like having them again. I'm not a particularly acquisitive person; I actually quite enjoy paring down and having less, and I don't splurge very often. In fact, both of these are used books. I specified to the Bear that if at all possible, I'd rather have used copies. I like dog-eared pages, soft, floppy covers and loosened spines. He came through; there must be hundreds of copies of the Steinbeck book available used on Amazon. The Rolvaag was harder to find, and a bit more expensive, but we tracked one down. It's a less popular book than the Steinbeck, but it's fantastic. Have you read it? The story is about Norwegian pioneers on the American prairie and the trials they faced in their rugged life. It's gritty and wonderful. Both of these editions are decades newer than the ones I gave away, but they've been well-loved.

The Bear also gifted me with a third new-old book, The Cow Who Fell in the Canal by Phyllis Krasilovsky and Peter Spier. This was a favorite book when I was very little. Unfortunately, I was not able to take it with me when I moved away as a young adult (too many siblings, too many feelings, etc.), and I missed my cow book. I knew my children would enjoy reading it and really wanted to add it to our library. I thought about it for several years but never made a move to replace it. The Bear did, though, and I'm so happy to have this book again! Oh, I can't even tell you. My new copy is paperback, like my old one, but this new one is much smaller. It's a newer edition, 1997, versus my old one from the 70's (I believe this book is now out of print in the US). It came all the way from England, where the seller is located. You know how much I love foreign mail; so much the better if it's an unexpected surprise.

I want to show you a few pages from this sweet little book. It's a simple story, about a cow named Hendrika. She lives in Holland and she does the usual cow things: she eats grass, gives lots of creamy milk to make her farmer proud, and dreams of a life in the city, which she hears a lot about from her friend Pieter the horse.

One day, Hendrika is eating grass by the riverbank when she wades too far into the water and falls in. At length, she ends up floating aboard a raft all the way down the river to the city, where she is involved in a series of mishaps, which include running free in a marketplace, eating straw hats and cheese, and getting chased by market vendors. City life proves to be quite stressful for our friend Hendrika.

While she's on the lam, she encounters her farmer, Mr. Hofstra, who is not necessarily pleased to see her, especially as she decimates the cheese displays and gobbles hats. The city people are amused, but Hendrika soon realizes that the city is no place for a cow. The illustrations are so charming. I've never been to Holland, but I thought about it a lot when I was little. I loved the way the houses looked, and like Hendrika who had heard about them from Pieter the horse, I was fascinated by the idea of staircases on the roofs of Dutch houses. I also liked the wooden shoes and the round red and yellow cheeses. I've always been a fan of cheese.

Back home on the farm, Mr. Hofstra tightens security and Hendrika reminisces about her adventure. She has gained a lovely straw hat of her own, which she wears while she eats grass in the pasture. She has realized that the farm is just the right place for her and she is happy once again. Gosh, I just love this book. I'm so glad I can share it with my kids, who have also enjoyed it over the past few weeks. Yay for new-old books!

I saved a lot of the books I read in college; as an English major, I had great exposure to a wide variety of works, both classics and new literature. I kept most of them because I went on to be an English teacher and knew they'd be useful, which they were. They'll be useful here at home eventually too. I have a fair number of picture books from my childhood, which has been very nice, but I wish I had more of the "chapter" books I loved in childhood. I'd like to replace some of them, including:

All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor (and subsequent books from the series, which I loved in elementary school).
Veronica Ganz and Peter and Veronica, both by Marilyn Sachs
The Root Cellar, by Janet Lunn (my favorite book in fifth grade).
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (the LB would like this now and I just saw it at Costco last week, so I may need to pick up a copy next time I go).
The Story of Holly and Ivy, by Rumer Godden
Mitch and Amy, by Beverly Cleary (we have all the Ramona books, and I love them, but Cleary's non-Ramona books are terrific too).

How about you? Are there beloved books you would like to restore to your library?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Pasta puttanesca

As a longtime proponent of Meatless Monday, I'm often looking for interesting ways to serve meatless meals to my family. I make lots of bean- or veggie-based soups, egg dishes, salads and of course, pasta. I like to make my own pasta sauces sometimes, but I'm also perfectly happy to use prepared sauces, especially pesto, which can be hard to make from scratch in the off-season. When I do make a sauce, I like it to be simple and quick (obviously) but also fully-flavored, and that's why my homemade sauce is often made in the puttanesca style.

Have you eaten pasta puttanesca? It's one of my favorites. I had it for the first time in a tiny restaurant in Greenwich Village when I was 19 years old and it really stayed with me. The salty, spicy, tangy flavors are my favorite combination - it contains kalamata olives, capers, lots of garlic and a little bit of one special ingredient that I really want you to try if you haven't before - anchovy paste (a traditional puttanesca ingredient, the addition of which makes the sauce not quite meatless but pretty close). It's a thick, rustic-style sauce that I particularly love in wintertime.

Pasta puttanesca originated in the Campania region of Italy and is said to have a...salty background. The word puttanesca is derived from puttana, the Italian word for prostitute. As the story goes, the women would prepare simple pasta meals in between clients. Some say they would even put their fragrant sauce pots on the open windowsills to tempt men. Now, I know this isn't the kind of discussion you usually get 'round the old Thistlebear home, but this sauce is so tasty and easy to make that I think most of us can overlook its suspect origins.

You'll need:
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup capers in brine, drained
Spaghetti or other pasta

First, heat the oil in a medium saucepan with the garlic and crushed red pepper (you can use more or less red pepper, depending on your threshold for spiciness; I like to keep it relatively mild so the whole family can enjoy it). Cook over low heat until the garlic is slightly golden, then add the anchovy paste and stir it into the oil, cooking for another minute or two.

In case you aren't familiar with anchovy paste, here's mine. It comes in a small metal tube, usually packaged within a box. You may have to search a bit for it in the store; I've seen it near the canned fish sometimes, as well as near the imported and gourmet foods. It's a funny ingredient because it will smell a little fishy coming out of the tube but it doesn't taste fishy at all added to a recipe. It only tastes savory, nutty, salty...kind of mysterious. You can certainly use chopped anchovy fillets if you prefer, but I like anchovy paste. It's good for all kinds of recipes, very convenient, and a little goes a very long way. Now back to the sauce...

You can add the tomatoes to the pot once the anchovy paste has cooked a bit. While the tomatoes simmer, get the olives and capers ready. Sometimes I rinse the capers if they seem excessively salty in the jar, but usually I just drain them. I quarter the olives. I don't rinse them, though; I find that their brine enhances the flavors in the sauce.

Finally, stir the olives and capers into the tomatoes and let the sauce simmer a little longer, five minutes or so, to allow all the flavors to blend. You can add fresh herbs, or salt and pepper to taste, but I usually find the sauce to be plenty salty (if salt is a concern in your diet, you can certainly adapt the recipe, bearing in mind that olives and capers do tend to be high in sodium). Serve the sauce over hot cooked pasta with grated Parmesan. Mangia, ladies (and gents...tee hee).
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