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Pumpkin Apple Pancakes

Now I know what to do with leftover pumpkin puree after my annual Thanksgiving baking sprees. This super quick, delicious and of course healthy pumpkin recipe was inspired by a post in Sunset Magazine. The initial results were good, but we couldn’t help but adapt the recipe to make it turn out as delicious as their photo.I happened to have cooked apples on hand the first time I made this, which was even more appealing.

This is a perfect post-Thanksgiving  breakfast option, and would work great on a weekday morning since it is a one-bowl process.

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Easy and Delicious Homemade Yogurt

Our family is nuts about yogurt. Especially of the plain and simple variety. I’m not exactly sure how, but my kids  – who love sweets in every other context – continue to prefer their yogurt rich, creamy and unsweetened. This all means that we were going to through 3-4 32. oz tubs a week. Cost not withstanding, recycling that many yogurt containers began to feel incredibly wasteful. I tried creative reuse at first but one can only hold on to so many empties before they overtake the house. Even the preschool had politely declined donations. I knew it was time to get over my fear of culturing my own food and forge ahead toward homemade. With one caveat: the finish product had to taste just like our favorite Straus Family Creamery yogurt or else. Actually, two caveats: the kids would have to eat it without complaint.

With very little trial and error and a few months of practice, I’ve earned enough yogurt-making props from family and friends to officially go public with the technique. As you’ll see, the beneficial bacteria really do all of the work.

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Low-Sugar Apricot Jam: Taking PB+J To Another Level

I caught the canning bug a few years ago and have completely fallen in love with homemade jam. Sure, artisanal options abound these days, but they are quite pricey for such small jars. Its so worth making your own, if for no other reason than to have complete control over fruit, flavor, and sugar content (I am a big fan of low-sugar jams). Your kids will appreciate how especially delicious their peanut butter sandwiches will taste, and that morning toast ritual will be worth lingering over for a few extra minutes. Canning also gives you another great reason to go to the farmers’ market and get to know your local producers. Quality fruit is always more affordable in bulk, so buy a flat or two, save some for the fruit bowl and can the rest.

Stash those jam jars in the cupboard and you’ll have the pleasure of tasting a bit of summer in the dead of winter. Use jam in obvious ways but also explore. Who knew jam and blue cheese worked so well together? Of course, these also make great (holiday) gifts.

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Quick Tip of the Week: Sweet Potato Fries Discovery

I accidentally bought a couple of Japanese sweet potatoes last week, along with the usual garnet yams, with sweet potato fries in mind. You know the Japanese ones – they are light yellow on the inside, darker purple on the outside and most commonly found breaded with tempura alongside sushi.

Of course I threw them into the mix, assuming it couldn’t hurt. It didn’t. In fact, I discovered that Japanese sweet potatoes are perfect for this preparation. Because of their higher starch content, they hold up better than regular sweet potatoes/yams (this reminds me to again research the difference between the two) and have a stronger resemblance to thick-cut french fries. They are also a bit less sweet, which I prefer.

Give it a try! General directions for sweet potato fries are found here. Once they are tossed in olive/peanut/safflower/grapeseed oil, salt and pepper, a quick 15-20 roast minute roast in a 425° oven is all it takes. End result? Happy, goofy kids:

Quick Tip of the Week: Soup From Scratch, A Little Faster

Our family is addicted to soup, any time of the year. Yet many soups, especially bean and legume varieties, take some advance planning to prepare. Any bit of time savings helps (so does setting up the soup in a slow cooker!), especially for weekday dinners.

The format for preparing most soups is to start with base ingredients like a mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots or other vegetables, sauteing those to soften, adding spices and herbs, then the beans/vegetables/starch, water/broth and bringing the entire thing to a boil before turning the heat down to a simmer. Lately, I’ve found myself getting impatient with that last part.

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Quick Tip of the Week: Foolproof, Easy to Peel Hard-Boiled Eggs

I have to hard-boil two dozen eggs this weekend for a kid snack contribution. Normally, I would be anxious with worry about how they will peel. After all, I’ve never had consistent luck with the various approaches to a perfectly peeled egg. Some say  to chill the cooked eggs in cold water. Some say to peel right away. Some say to wait until they cool. Use older eggs. All good ideas but not foolproof, at least in my kitchen.

But thanks to my friend A. and her friend’s Pennsylvania-Dutch granny, I’ve hit the holy grail. How we got to talking about eggs when we met for lunch on a rainy fall day, I’m not sure. But we did. And out came a story about how A. and her friend volunteered to make hundreds of deviled eggs for a wedding. The horror on my face was immediately visible but she reassured me that there was no reason for concern. Each and every single egg peeled beautifully thanks to this nifty trick: cooking the eggs in salted water!

This works for us every time. Let me know how it goes for you.

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Baking Ups and Downs: Apple Marzipan Galette

Though I only bake cakes, tarts and pies a handful of times in any given year, the perfectionist in me inevitably takes over the minute the oven is warming up. So each Thanksgiving, never quite satisfied with the previous year’s results, I up the ante and vow to try something new.

From a culinary standpoint, the best thing to emerge from my Thanksgiving efforts this year is knowing how to make graham crackers from scratch. This is a fun trick to add to the repertoire. Turns out, homemade graham crackers are remarkably easy and taste far better from scratch then store-bought. But the reason for the graham cracker experiment in the first place? I’ve had problems the past few years with homemade pie crusts. Despite following strict directions provided by reliable sources like Smitten Kitchen and David Lebovitz, I seem to have no luck with the the hand-blended, all-butter crusts they favor, which leave melty, buttery oven messes and crunchy, crackly pastry. Far from perfection.

Luckily, a few days after the holiday, I decided to make this apple marzipan galette (which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since eating it at a friend’s house over a year ago) using a slightly adapted version of Ina Garten’s pastry crust. Remember that saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Well, that couldn’t be more apt in this case. I used this pastry crust recipe for years with great success but the combo of shortening and food processor seemed passe and a bit fussy compared to the all-butter version. The galette turned out gorgeous and delicious, with a wonderfully flaky crust. I will never stray again! Even if I will have more tools to clean up.

Incidentally, pumpkin pie might just be out next year, in favor of this incredibly easy version of apple “pie.” Unless one of you has a favorite recipe you might be willing to send my way?

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Easy, Delicious From Scratch Beans (Yes). Bisphenol A (No).

I’ve wanted to do a post on beans for a while now, because they are such a wonderful healthy food that seems to appeal to even the pickiest of palettes. In our house, beans satisfy both the carnivore and the omnivores, and are a perfect hot school lunch option when paired with rice or polenta.

Over the past two years, I have slowly weaned our household away from canned foods. I came to this decision out of concern that canned foods are contaminated with a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA for short). BPA is hormone disruptor that can interfere with normal development and function of the body. Recent tests by the Centers for Disease Control show that exposure is fairly ubiquitous, and human evidence of harm is emerging. Since canned foods are a primary source of exposure, and one that we generally have control over, reducing our family’s reliance on canned food seemed like a good strategy.

Figuring out how to efficiently make beans from scratch was key to this effort (that, and canning my own tomato sauce, which I’ll leave for another post). The great thing I discovered is that making beans at home is actually very easy; it inspires exploration of different bean varieties (we were stuck on pintos for years but tried heirloom black beans this summer that wowed us with their flavor and texture); and most importantly, it is far cheaper than canned.

The key to making this work? Don’t plan around a bean dinner to make beans. Make them anytime you’ll be around the house for at least an hour and have the capacity to stir a pot every so often. Or, better yet, rely on that slow cooker that may just be collecting dust in your small appliance cemetery. If you’ve got one, all you need is an outlet and a few hours of passive (ie no involvement from you) cooking time, no soaking required. Make lots of cooked beans and use some, then freeze the rest in small to mid-size containers. They defrost beautifully.

Stovetop Technique

Note: 1 cup of dry beans = about 3 cups cooked beans

Rinse and sort dried beans of your choice, discarding any blemished ones and stones/grit. Place in a medium-large pot and cover beans with cool water by about two inches. Soak overnight or for 8-10 hours. I usually set this up in the evening and if I don’t have time to cook the beans the following morning, I’ll place the soaked beans in the fridge until I carve out a more convenient cooking time.

Once the beans are soaked, it is time to cook. Start with a medium to large pot, depending on how many cups of beans you are preparing ( I would recommend at least 2 cups of dried beans to make it worth the time). Cover with three times their volume of fresh water. I like to add 1-2 tbsp. coarse sea salt to the cooking water, along with some aromatics.

Bay leaves, whole garlic cloves and onions are great options, especially for Mexican-style black and pinto beans. Bring beans to a rapid boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Check occasionally to be sure there is enough cooking water. You’ll know the beans are done when they are cooked through but not falling apart.

See below for use/storage info.

Slow Cooker Technique

This is my favorite method because no soaking is required! Wash your beans thoroughly, and place into slow cooker. Cover beans by about an inch of water, a little more is fine too. Add 1-2 tbsp. coarse sea salt. If using a fine salt, use less. You can always add more salt later but you don’t want to overdo it. Toss in the aromatics of your choice (see above) and cover. Set the timer for 3 hours. If you are home, check the slow cooker to be sure the beans are covered with enough water. If they begin to look dry, add some more. They should be ready in 3-4 hours depending on the beans.

Storage and Use

I recommend holding on to a least a can’s worth (a 14 oz. can of beans is about 1 ½ cups) in the fridge for school lunches; to serve alongside quesadillas for a quick lunch or dinner; to accompany chicken tacos; to sprinkle with nutritional yeast for a quick snack; and to make into proper vegetarian dishes of various sorts. The possibilities are endless.

Freeze the rest, and be sure to cover the beans with cooking water when freezing them. Now you have beans at your disposal anytime, after a quick defrost.

Final note: For those of you who eat beans frequently, a pressure-cooker may be a useful tool. I had to put the kibosh on further appliance purchases for our household but my vegetarian friends swear by it. Unsoaked beans can be cooked in a pressure cooker in 20-45 minutes, depending on the variety.

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The Perfect Egg

Is everyone else struggling to get back into work mode after the long holiday weekend? Productivity is not in the cards for me this week, and this includes the kitchen.

It started on Friday. I envisioned having ample time to prepare various delicious and fresh meals throughout this weekend but this lovely intention turned into a reality of leftovers and simple grilled offerings at BBQs. Though I did have time to make a summery version of my whole grain vegetable salad,with wheatberries. snap peas, carrots and feta (its time to put up some more preserved lemons!).

This is all to say that this week seems like a perfect one to focus on basics. A primer on eggs came to mind immediately, on account of their being a beloved culinary staple in most households and their versatility in meals throughout the day. And because most kids love them (sadly, though, not mine).

I recall having several “A HA!” moments when I came across a simple how-to guide in Saveur Magazine years ago providing specific instructions on how to make the perfect egg in every way possible. Hard-boiled eggs have never been better at our house, and I’m proud to say that after dozens of failed attempts, I can now poach an egg in a pan the old-fashioned way (no special device needed).

So you can imagine how happy I was to discover that all of this great technique to comes to us in the form of video. Enjoy! And don’t forget to check out the Sustainable Ingredients page to learn more about how to decipher all of those confusing labels found on egg cartons these days.

Essential Egg Techniques (Saveur.com)

How to cook soft boiled eggs »

How to make fluffier omelets »

How to cook the perfect sunny-side up egg »

How to create delicious scrambled eggs »

A helpful trick for peeling hard boiled eggs »

The very best way to crack eggs »