Thursday, March 26, 2009

Foodie Friday - Cleaning The Fridge, Stocking A Pantry, And Giving Thanks

Sometimes, I need to be reminded to clean the fridge. Occasionally, the reminder comes in the form of a cucumber that rolled to the back of the crisper and is approaching a liquefied state. Other times, it's a bottle of something that expired a few months ago. This week, I was nudged into the chore when I made a cake for book club that needed to be refrigerated. I opened the door to the stainless steel monster, and every shelf was cluttered with odds and ends. What a nuisance! This week was busy enough without one more thing to do, but I had no choice and started to pull things off the shelves.

I can only assume, that Jupiter must have aligned with Mars or some such thing, because when I looked at the mishmash of ingredients on the counter, plans for dinner materialized. Five left over flour tortillas, half of a large onion, most of a red bell pepper, salsa, red and green taco sauce, a small piece of cheddar cheese, a chunk of colby-jack, and a handful of 'almost' fresh cilantro could make fajitas! I get upset when food gets wasted, so this job was accomplishing more than I had anticipated. After adding a chicken cutlet from the freezer, chopped garlic and a shot of liquid smoke, dinner was on the table in just over an hour...

and it was delicious. The ingredients that were on the cusp of their expiration date were used. The cake was in the fridge. All was right in my 'foodie' world, and I took a minute to give thanks, because there are people who don't have enough to eat, and would never complain about cleaning a stocked fridge, let alone having to find room for a cake. Those are the people that we serve at the food pantry at our church every week, and I consider it a privilege to be a part of this effort.
Last Spring, I approached our Pastor about starting a food pantry at our parish, and was surprised to learn that a young family man from our community had already brought up the possibility. The Pastor put us together, and introduced us to a non-profit organization that was already in existence in our county. We visited an established pantry in a neighboring town, and the wonderful couple who lead it became an invaluable resource. They patiently took us through their systems for paperwork and food handling, and gave us the knowledge we needed to get underway. Without them, we'd probably still be floundering. The planning, scrounging and work began in earnest last fall.

The basement in our Parish Center had just been cleared out and painted, and we claimed the largest room. Heavy old tables were stored in another room. No one wanted them, but they were perfect for our application, so we hauled them in to our space. We needed more tables and a parishioner was able to get us a few from his employer. We went begging for pallets to keep food elevated off of the concrete, and a local landscaper and a home improvement center donated them. When the pallets needed to be cut to size to fit under the tables, a friend who is a carpenter by trade obliged. We would have been helpless without his tools and expertise.

While our friend is cutting more pallets, the co-leader of our pantry is vacuuming up the sawdust.
The pantry was shaping up quickly now, so we put out a call for volunteers. We needed people to screen clients to make sure they meet eligibility requirements. We also needed men with trucks to assist with food pickup and delivery, and people to pack bags and manage stock. I should explain that all of the food that stocks our pantry is non-perishable. Most of it is purchased in bulk with money that comes to our parent organization from a state grant that's administered by the United Way. Additional funds that are used to purchase food come from corporate and private donations. We also receive food from food drives that are run by various organizations such as the Boy Scouts, school classes, and the Postal Service. Just recently we found that we were low on canned fruit and sent out an appeal to the people who attend the two churches that combine to make up our Parish. We covered our shortage until our next pickup was ready.

Below is a picture of our pantry shortly after we opened last December. Bags are being prepacked so they're ready when clients arrive. The pantry director works with a nutritionist who creates packing lists so that each bag contains the right assortment of food to create balanced meals. Sometimes when food runs low we need to substitute items, while still maintaining the proper balance. It can get a little tricky.

This past week our pantry had more stock, because a Boy Scout troop had just completed a community food drive. Sometimes it's scary how quickly food moves through this room.
Food from drives needs to be sorted, and expiration dates have to be carefully checked. We can't use canned milk from 2004, or undated packets of oatmeal that are taken from the box!

Below are two volunteers who are ready to check in existing clients or screen new applicants. Our pantry is designed to serve the most needy in our community, and it is necessary to carefully qualify each family or individual who comes to us.
Working on the food pantry has been quite an experience. It's certainly not glamorous, and at times it's frustrating to have to do paper work, make out schedules or do something concerning fundraising, but most often it's very rewarding and it's always pretty darn humbling.
For more food related adventures, pop over to Designs by Gollum. Our hostess for Foodie Friday, Michael Lee, has Mr. Linky ready to take you on a culinary cruise of blogland!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bird Brained Decorating: A Sorta Scary Story

Last month, I did a quick sweep through our local indoor flea market and found these adorable pink bird planters. The price was right, and they were in perfect condition, so on an impulse I snapped them up.
When I got my little treasures home, they were given a bath and buffed. Then I began searching for a place for them to nest.

I started in the foyer, but the newbies couldn't light there. A pair of peacocks had already claimed the space on the hall table next to a pile of books, and they complimented the picture frame. Best to leave that vignette alone and look elsewhere.
Next stop was the living room. There had to be a perfect spot in the behemoth of a wall unit. I went to have a look.

No room on this shelf. A pudgy budgie had alighted on another stack of books and looked too comfortable to displace. Don't you want to pinch those cute little cheeks?

Maybe a higher shelf on that side? Well, maybe not! The middle birdie seems to be saying, "Go ahead, make my day. Just try to move me!" My right eye started to twitch in anticipation of having it pecked out in a fit of avian fury. I moved on...
Couldn't bring myself to oust the Cardinal. I'm still feeling guilty because his dogwood blossom was broken during a move, and we haven't seen his wooden pedestal since before Christmas. He has a right to look miffed. It's not just my imagination, he does looked miffed, doesn't he???
Maybe I could move the small eagle. No, that wouldn't work either. Two pink birds in each hand are worth eight in the bush, so they certainly won't fit in this tiny space! Besides, I think he's giving me the eagle evil eye!
On the highest shelf, the large gyrfalcon was striking his usual majestic pose. It's the only shelf that accommodates his bulk. He definitely won't be relocating in the near future. He's also a strong and very fierce predator. Hmmmmm...Did I just see him blink??? I swear...he blinked at me! Didn't I read somewhere that they blink just before they move in for the kill???
I turned to leave the living room and had a full blown Tippi Hedren moment. (Remember The Birds???) I heard the sound of a thousand wings flapping, and through the chandelier window the sky grew dark. Tightly grasping my pink treasures, I looked right and saw birds facing one way.
I glanced left, and saw birds facing the other way! A chill went up my spine. A cold sweat coated my brow.
I spun around, and the massive wood carving that my husband has nicknamed The Claw, loomed over my head!
My heart started to pound, and I closed my eyes in an attempt to regain my composure, but it didn't work. Instead, my mind's eye flew to the metal wall hanging that was sitting in a spare room upstairs waiting to find a new home.
I raced into the master bedroom, and had to kick the door shut with my foot, because now I was clutching the pink birds to my chest. I raced for the closet to hide, but remembered the tapestry that was sitting on the floor still in it's shipping box. It's covered in blue birds! Now I regretted not being able to decide where it should be hung.
I slammed the closet door, and with shaking hands set the pink birds down on the dresser. I became weak in the knee as I looked around my bedroom with the khaki green walls and soft yellow accents. Why did I buy pink birds that didn't match anything in my house, and where was I going to put them? My head was swimming as I threw myself across the bed. How had so many birds gotten into our home? I turned on my side, and the last thing I saw before I fainted was the pattern on the soft, comfy quilt that's my current "blankie"... More birds!

Okay, that last part was a teensy exaggeration. I actually stretched out across the bed and took a short nap because it was Sunday afternoon, and I was frustrated at not finding the right spot for the new additions to the flock.

When I woke I felt much better. While dozing, I had a wonderful dream, and I was basking in the after glow. In the dream, the pink bird planters had been filled with tiny flowers and served as the centerpiece in a wonderful tablescape. Chocolate brown, mocha, and dusty rose hues swirled around meticulously arranged dishes. Flatware and crystal gleamed in the sunlight and linen napkins were pressed and folded to perfection. It was a glorious sight, but alas, it was a dream.
Fully awake, I realized that the birds would play a major role in a tablescape someday, when I had the time. It wouldn't be that day, but it would happen. I retrieved the pink birds from the dresser, and carefully placed them in the small sideboard in the kitchen.

That's where the pink birds were perched last night, while my husband and I helped ourselves to dinner straight from the pots in which it was cooked. The serving dishes stayed in the cabinets doing their usual job of holding down the shelf liners. We sat at the kitchen table, which had been 'tablescaped' with our best plastic placemats and paper napkins, and enjoyed our supper. It had been a busy week, and a busy Saturday. It was nice to sit and relax with a good home cooked meal.

More than once during dinner, I did hear chirping. It could have come from the yard - sound has a funny way of moving around here in the hills - but I strongly suspect that it came from the sideboard. My husband gave me a funny look, but didn't comment when I whispered, "Soon pink birdies, soon."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Foodie Friday - Trainwrecks In The Kitchen & A 'Catered' Trainwreck On The Rails

If we had remembered to take the camera on our family vacation in the winter of 1995, among the photos tucked into our album would be one that looked something like this...

Yes, we were passengers on a train that was involved in an accident. A real photo of this unfortunate event wouldn't have looked quite this bad, because mercifully, the train we were riding on didn't derail. (My husband 'posed' some of the trains and vehicles on his model train layout so I could take a picture for this post.) It was however, a very serious accident, because it involved a fatality. We were traveling on Via Rail Canada between Quebec City and Montreal when the driver of a car chose to ignore the warnings at a grade crossing. His attempt to beat the train cost the man his life. In a matter of seconds, our vacation took a strange and very distressing turn.

As soon as details were available, train personnel fanned out through the passenger cars and stopped at each seat. In hushed tones, they compassionately explained in French and English what had just occurred, and apologized in advance for the inevitable delay that would ensue. An investigation by authorities would have to be completed, debris needed to be removed from the undercarriage of the train, and inspectors would have to check for damage to the operating systems before we would be allowed to continue on our way. They also told us that food service would commence shortly.

Food service? Now I must explain, that in 1995, even on short journeys like the three hour trip between Quebec and Montreal, Via Rail included meals in the price of the fare. We had already been fed, so we were uncertain as to what 'food service' meant. It became apparent as soon as carts began to roll out of the kitchen.

Following the same instincts that drive us to put on the kettle, and pull out a coffee cake when tragedy strikes at home, the kitchen crew bowed to the fact that food is the great comforter. They must have raided every cabinet and refrigerator quickly, because soon an array of sandwiches, cheese and crackers, fruits, desserts and snacks flowed in a steady stream from the galley. Coffee cups were silently filled and refilled and food was graciously offered, while we sat on an elevated section of track where the train had come to its unscheduled stop. Everyone in our car was unusually quiet, as we watched the emergency vehicles come and go on the streets below us. Sipping hot drinks and nibbling cookies gave some of us time to reflect upon the unfortunate accident. Others used the time to offer silent prayers for the person who had lost his life.

Gradually, the passengers began to break their self imposed silence by sharing stories about where they were from or why they were travelling. We had the opportunity to share the details of our stay at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec.The college girls across the aisle talked about visiting their friends, while others spoke about business meetings or seeing family. The gloomy atmosphere in the train lifted a bit. Food and drink hadn't changed our situation, but it did provide a familiar and comforting touch when it was most needed.

Finally, after a few hours, we were able to resume our journey. When we reached Montreal, we said good bye to the people who had shared our experience. We knew we'd never see each other again, but our brief time together in a stressful situation had connected us in a unique manner.

Looking back on the happy, sad or frightening experiences in our life, it seems that food was always present. It has helped us to celebrate or mourn, and in situations like the train accident, it sooths, but sometimes preparing food can be the source of some pretty weird stories, laughter, and both good and bad memories.

Disasters in my kitchen are not common, but there have been a few. I did drop a pineapple upside down cake upside down on the floor. A road construction project near our home in Connecticut necessitated blasting through some rock, and unfortunately the explosion occurred in mid cake flip. I was so startled, that the pan, the cake dish and the cake flew out of my hands. Our dog, Gretchen, who was the very definition of the term 'chow hound', immediately dove in to the mess on the kitchen floor and badly burned her mouth and tongue on the hot sugary syrup! It took a few buckets of hot soapy water to clean the floor, and I had to keep filling the dog's water bowl with cold water and ice cubes!

There was also the episode of the shrink wrapped banana cake. I baked the cake, left it in the pan and gave it a good layer of frosting. I had to run out, so I covered it with plastic wrap and hid it in the oven so our cat Sullivan wouldn't attack it while I was gone. I forgot about the cake, and at dinner time, I lit the oven. After several minutes at 350 degrees, the cake was hermetically sealed in a Pyrex baking dish. The family cried when I threw it away. I cussed when I tried to get the melted plastic off of the baking dish.

You can read about my biggest kitchen disaster in a post named The Cat And The Griddle that I wrote last July. It's about a breakfast adventure that no one in our household will ever forget. Click here to read the full length version. Once you read it, you probably won't forget it either!

Hopefully I've whet your appetite for strange food related stories and disasters. If you'd like to read more, pop over to Designs by Gollum. Michael Lee is the special lady who hosts Foodie Friday, and she's got Mr. Linky up and running to direct you to participating bloggers.

(Photo of the Chateau Frontenac was taken by Bernard Gagnon and is subject to the GNU Free Document License per Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Bunny Dishes That Hopped In To My Car

I'm developing a love-hate relationship with bunnies. I love to see then hopping around the yard at sunset, but I hate the massive amount of destruction that they've inflicted on my gardens this winter. They've been so voracious, that I fear that some of the damage may be irreversible! I'm researching ways to control them, but I still have a long 'row to hoe' to solve this perplexing outdoor critter problem. Wish me luck!

Despite the little eating machines gobbling up my shrubs and plants, I'm still attracted to them, so I was immediately smitten by these dishes when I stumbled across them online.

With Easter and Spring just around the corner, they'd make perfect luncheon or salad plates and the shape was interesting without being too fussy. The only thing I didn't like about these plates was the price. Sometimes you have to think with your head, and not a heart that's currently filled with dish lust, so I put my desires on hold and pretty much forgot about them.

Then I walked into TJ Maxx last week, and look what I found...the bunny dishes! The price was 60% less than on line and there was no shipping charge to tack on to the total. There were 8 on the display, but only 6 were in perfect condition. I scooped them up and practically ran to the register! When I got home, it was a nice suprise to see that I had placemats and napkins that complimented them perfectly. Here are the other designs in the set...

Now these are bunnies that I'm sure I'll love for years to come, and the only destruction they might cause is to waistlines when dessert is served.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Foodie Friday - Leprechaun Bait

I have reason to believe that a Leprechaun has invaded our home. There's just no other plausible explanation for some of the shenanigans that have been going on around here.

Things have gone missing. (First my good sewing scissors disappeared, then a whole box of small ceramic pieces vanished.) The cat has been chasing something, (someone?), around the house that we can't see. (Sure, he does this all of the time, but it's been worse lately.) The computer is doing weird things, and to top it all off, someone ate the last dish of chocolate pudding. I found the empty bowl in the sink!

Last Sunday, after yet another futile attempt to locate the missing ceramics, my husband and I decided that we needed brunch. I suddenly had a strange craving for corned beef hash and eggs, so we headed to the kitchen.
As we sat down to eat, I had an idea. Why not lure our little mischief maker out into the open with food? Maybe I could catch him, get my things back, and put a stop to his Tom foolery. Of course, there was also the pot of gold to consider. What a bonus...I'd probably net enough to buy a large china closet and stock it with Lenox and Villeroy and Boch!

I found the tiniest bowl in the kitchen, and filled it with some hash.
Now all we had to do was wait, and watch. Of course, after eating we were a little drowsy, so my husband went off to watch TV, while I headed to the office and the comfortable chair at the computer. I wanted to scan the hundreds of pictures we've been taking to see if maybe we caught the Leprechaun on film. I didn't find any pictures of our little friend, but I did find a picture of one of the many rainbows that we see from the hills.

Just in case you're not believing my tale, I submit this as more proof to substantiate my theory.
That rainbow ends on the east mountain, but it was too chilly and damp to check that area out, so I decided to see if I could find more evidence at the local shops.

On the way out the door, I remembered the 'Leprechaun bait' that we left in the kitchen. Faith and begorrah! It was gone. The slippery little urchin ate and ran! Maybe I'll have better luck hunting for clues at the stores...

I didn't have much luck while shopping until I got to the local candy store. The little rascal was obviously one step ahead of me. He dropped a few coins, his pipe and a shamrock.

Frustrated, I went home to whip up another batch of 'bait'. This time I'd make bangers and colcannon. Surely, that would be a dish that would lure any Leprechaun into a trap, and oh yes, we'd have to keep a closer watch.

The bangers are simply pork sausages, while colcannon is mashed potatoes combined with chopped cabbage and onions that have been sauted in bacon drippings. Add crumbled bacon, salt, pepper, milk and butter to taste. It's a great meal for a chilly day, and extremely satisfying. In fact, it's so satisfying that I took a short nap on the couch. You guessed it...another botched attempt to get my pot of gold.
I only had one last morsel left to use as bait, but I decided to eat it myself. These 'Babycakes' were too good to waste on a Leprechaun who has been giving me nothing but grief.

You can find the recipe for these fabulous cupcakes at the Food Network website...just search Babycakes, but beware...the recipe makes a hugh amount.
Oh, and Mr. Leprechaun, if you give me my ceramics back, I'll make you a whole batch of Babycakes. I need my napkin holders for Easter!
Now please stop over at Designs by Gollum and see what the other folks participating in Foodie Friday have been feeding their Leprechauns.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Foodie Friday #3 - Nostalgic Desserts

There's a time machine in my kitchen. If you see it on my kitchen counter, you might mistakenly assume that it's just a recipe box, but when I open it and start rummaging around, it transports me back in time. I never know where I'm going, but I'm sure that I'll enjoy the trip. Sometimes, I land in a friend's home in the 1980's or I'm transported back to my parents' ranch house and it's the 50's. Occasionally, I go to Greece or Hungary. There are many places for me to go, but lately it's been taking me back to my grandmother's house.

This past week, I made a soft landing in Grandma's big, warm, country kitchen. The year was 1972. An Apple Dutch Cake was cooling on the counter, and the room was filled with the smell of cinnamon and vanilla. Coffee perked on the stove, while I made a hard sauce under my grandmother's watchful eye.
We poured cups of coffee, cut pieces of cake, and returned to the kitchen table so we could continue working on a project that we had started earlier that morning.
I didn't realize it that day, but my grandmother was giving me the first set of keys that would activate my still non-existant time machine. The table was strewn with Grandma's recipes, and a few packs of note cards. Here's the key that started it all.
Grandma dictated the recipes, and I wrote them on the cards. I loved the way she added advice as we went along. Sometimes she would remember a tip that she wanted to give me about a recipe that had been finished several cards ago, and I'd have to retrieve it and add the note.
My grandfather came in while we were 'cutting more keys', and asked what we were doing. My grandmother told him that she was giving me recipes for my hope chest.

"Don't you mean the 'hope to get a man chest'?" he quipped, as he grabbed a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. Before he shuffled off to the sun porch to enjoy his cake, he turned to me and said, "You'll get a husband because you already know how to cook, and having your grandmother's recipes certainly won't hurt." The backhanded compliment was high praise coming from grandad, and my grandmother actually blushed!

Some of the recipes I recieved that day were simple. Tapioca pudding? "Use the recipe on the box. You can't beat it."
Others, that I thought were well guarded family secrets, came from ordinary places. This included Grandma's signature chiffon cake. When we came across the recipe, she told me not to bother with it. "The recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook is much better," she confided.

I made this cake for a friend's birthday last year.
There's probably a time machine somewhere in your kitchen, too. Why not pull out a key and take a trip back in time? If you do, I wish you a safe trip, but most of all I hope you land in a kitchen where they serve love and dessert in equal portions.
Now please stop over at Designs by Gollum for a listing of bloggers who are participating in Foodie Friday. You'll love what you see...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Dishes That Sang My Name...Have I Become A Dish Addict???

It started out innocently enough. It really did. A few weeks ago, I finally acknowledged the fact that we needed new everyday dinnerware. The old plates, cups and bowls that served us well for quite some time have started to show their age, and just aren't bringing anything to the table anymore. I haven't found the perfect set of all purpose dishes yet, but along the way, I have acquired some pieces that have made me very happy.

This set is currently making me grin from ear to ear, and I found them at a very unlikely favorite garden center! As soon as I saw them, I knew they'd be coming home with me.
There were only 4 salad plates and 4 dinner plates left. If they had 4 more of each I would have taken them on the spot!
The dinner plates have a wonderful raised pattern on them. Some birds are in full flight...
other birds are swooping...
and a couple of love birds are snuggling on a branch.
I just can't wait to use them. Now I'm hunting for the perfect black mug or cup and saucer to match. I'm also looking for more yellow majolica to match my Easter set, additional pieces to match my red set, and yes, I'm still looking for the perfect set of everyday dishes. Guess I'm hooked, huh? I may need an intervention...