Without going into too much detail that isn’t mine to share, let me just say that it’s been a rough week in our family. No worries, Craig, Baby J and myself (plus Puppyface and Kittyface) are all fine, but we have some loved ones who are going through some really rough times, and it’s just been a difficult week all around. In fact, Craig just got back yesterday from an emergency trip up to Canada. I’m so glad he was able to step away from home and get up there when his family needed him, but, selfishly, I am so glad he is back. Being nine months pregnant and having your husband in another country is not the most pleasant thing, but he was needed much more up north than I needed him at home.
We’re all doing a lot of healing over the events of this past week, and, as much as the diet books and talk show hosts will try to tell you otherwise, I actually think finding comfort in food isn’t a bad thing. The fact of the matter is, food is inherently comforting. Just physiologically, the senses that go along with eating something pleasant (taste, smell, even feel) can help bring up your serotonin levels and help you feel happier. Food can literally make you feel better. And I’m not above exploiting that fact when some comforting needs to be done.
I agree, that when you use food as a crutch too often (or in too big of quantities) it can become a problem—and is a problem for a lot of folks that struggle to control it. But just like everything in my life, I believe that moderation is key here. I’ve always said that I hate that emotional eating gets villainized. Emotional eating isn’t the problem. I believe there is nothing wrong with wanting some cozy mac and cheese after a tough day at work. Or heck, even wanting to celebrate a big occasion with a piece of decadent cake. The issue starts to come in when that emotional eating turns into emotional overeating (whether that be in literal quantity of food, or in the frequency with which you use eating to tame your emotions). Quite honestly, I don’t want to live in a world where my food isn’t tied up with my emotions—the emotions are what make food so incredible to me.
Anywho, these simple peanut butter cookies are pretty much the epitome of comfort food for me. There isn’t any one particular moment that made them into a comfort food, but a collection of happy memories. Growing up, we almost never had any “junk” foods in the house. No chips. No soda. No desserts. But quite often, when Mama and I would get the hankering to bake something, we’d whip up these peanut butter cookies. Why these cookies? Well, we always had the ingredients to make them on hand, and when you live far out in the middle of nowhere, you aren’t going to run to the store just to grab some speciality ingredients because you’re in the mood to bake. So peanut butter cookies became our go-to cookie recipe. The peanut butter cookie page in Mama’s Better Homes & Gardens cookbook became so worn out and stained that it eventually just fell out of the cookbook—which was okay, because we had the recipe pretty much memorized anyway.
I’m not much of a baker, but I would say there is something incredibly therapeutic about firing up the oven, mixing together some good ole butter and sugar with a wooden spoon, and popping a sheet of cookies in to bake. A lot of life’s problems can be solved with a batch of homemade cookies. And the ones that can’t, well, at least the ritual of baking can take your mind to another place for a while, which is sometimes all you can do.
These cookies are for anyone who needs a little bit of comforting today. May they bring you a little bit of joy and light during an otherwise dark time.
When it comes to comfort food, these peanut butter cookies are high up on my list. They come together quickly, taste amazing and use ingredients you probably already have on hand in your pantry.
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- Sugar and shelled peanuts for garnish
- Preheat oven to 375°. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, peanut butter, sugar and brown sugar using either a wooden spoon, a hand mixer or a stand mixture until well-combined.
- Add in the baking soda, baking powder, egg, and vanilla. And mix together until well-combined. Then, add in the flour, working in three batches, until mixed well. It'll get hard to stir at the end!
- Using damp hands, roll the dough into 1-1/2" balls, then roll in sugar and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Using a damp fork, flatten the cookies using a crosshatch pattern, and then push in peanut halves. Repeat with remaining dough.
- Bake in preheated oven for about 7 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies just begin to darken—do not overbake! Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for a few minutes, and then transfer using a spatula onto paper towels or a cooling rack to cool completely. The cookies will still feel very soft when transfer them, but will solidify as they cool (this way you know they are chewy and yum!).
Adapted from Better Homes & Gardens
What’s your go-to comfort food?
Okay, why did no one tell me that the end of pregnancy is crazy exhausting (okay, I’m sure someone did, I just didn’t listen)? I turned in my manuscript to my editor earlier this week (YAY!), and it’s like the second I pressed “send” on that email, my body said, “Cool, now that that’s done, we sleep.” I had this awesome plan that as soon as I finished my manuscript, I was going to do all the nesting in the world. I was going to sew. And fold baby clothes. And clean. And make tons of freezer recipes. As evidenced by my lack of posting, none of that has happened. I have been napping like a rockstar, though. You guys probably don’t want to see a post about napping, do you?
Anywho, while I haven’t really been checking things off my to-do list with the vigor I had hoped, I have been trying to keep up with making us good, yummy, nourishing meals. I figure that it’s going to be a while before I get back into the swing of cooking post-birth, so I should probably take advantage of cooking sans-baby while I can. And I’ve been all about the grill lately!
This is one of those recipes that I’m not sure it’s possible to convey its deliciousness through any amount of words or photographs. It tastes like everything that is good and right about summer in one big bowl.
I’m not kidding when I say I think I could alternate this with Grilled Herb and Tomato Flatbread every night between now and the end of September and be a completely happy girl. I like variety as much as the next person, but when you land on insane, simple yumminess, why mess with perfection?
I think the key to this pasta dish is using the freshest ingredients you can get your hands on. I wouldn’t try this with dried herbs or bottled lemon juice. The elements or so simple, that they really need to be the best they can be. We actually managed to get our hands on some (very early) tomatoes around here, and while they aren’t quite July-worthy tomatoes, they are still pretty darn good and add tons of flavor to this. And our fresh herbs are taking off like crazy just outside our kitchen door! I can’t wait to make this again in late summer with the freshest, most flavorful veggies I can grab from our garden.
Enjoy. I’m going to go take a nap. Yawn.
This veggie-packed pasta gets all it's flavor from fresh herbs, grilled veggies and a hefty dose of lemon and parmesan—it doesn't need any sauce!
- 1 large eggplant, sliced into planks
- 1 large zucchini, sliced into bite-sized chunks
- 1 large red bell pepper, sliced
- 1 large red onion, sliced
- 4 Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 2 Portabella mushroom caps, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/3 cup each fresh minced basil, oregano and parsley
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- 1 pound whole grain penne, cooked and drained according to directions
- 1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat grill to medium-high.
- Spread the eggplant planks onto a clean kitchen towel, and sprinkle liberally with coarse salt (don’t worry, this doesn’t make it taste salty, it just brings out any bitterness the eggplant may have). Let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse under cold water. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
- Toss together the eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, onion, tomatoes, mushrooms, and one tablespoon olive oil in a grill basket. Place on grill, and cook, stirring every 5 minutes, for about 15 minutes, or until veggies are all very tender.
- Remove from the grill, and in a large bowl, toss together the veggies with all remaining ingredients (including the remaining two tablespoons olive oil). Salt and pepper to taste.
What’s your favorite pasta dish?
Before I got pregnant, I didn’t think I’d really miss drinking—after all, I wasn’t a heavy or frequent drinker. But what I’ve realized is that I really enjoy the romantic ritual a good pint of craft beer or a perfectly crafted cocktail (and well, the taste rocks, too), and that ritual is something I’ve been missing, especially with warmer weather here.
So, I’ve been living in the world of mocktails! The mocktails give me the same romanticism of sipping on a regular cocktail, without any fear of harming the little human growing in my belly. It’s not quite the same, but it’s still fun to explore. And while I’ve yet to stumble onto a good virgin beer (yeah, right), I have stumbled onto some seriously delicious mocktail recipes. And this cucumber mojito is high up on the list.
I first tried a virgin cucumber mojito during our anniversary dinner, and it was such a fun and delicious combination of flavors, I knew I had to recreate it at home. I’ve been alternating this drink with virgin margaritas (I’ve just been blending organic margarita mix with ice) for a nice cocktail hour treat while sitting on the front porch. Of course, if you aren’t growing a baby, you can add rum to yours. I’m sure it’s even better that way!
This refreshing twist on the classic cocktail tastes great with or without the booze!
- Juice of one lime
- 2 sprigs mint, leaves removed from stem
- 1/4 cucumber, peeled and deseeded
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 ounces white rum, optional
- Club soda
- Cucumber slices, lime wedges or mint leaves for garnish
- Blend together the lime juice, mint, cucumber and honey in a blender until smooth. Fill a high ball glass with ice, pour cucumber mixture over top, add in rum if using, and fill glass with club soda. Garnish with cucumber slices, lime wedges or mint leaves.
What’s your favorite summer cocktail?
We had an absolutely amazing time at our baby shower this past weekend. My Mama and sister really out-did themselves and managed to throw a party that was totally perfect for Craig and me! We’re not fussy baby shower type folks, so we requested early on that our shower be two things (a) a co-ed shower (Craig wanted to be part of the fun, too!) and (b) totally casual.
Honestly, we were mostly just looking forward to getting together with our friends and family one last time before Baby J shows up, and that’s what we wanted the day to focus on. And it did! We had beer (well, other people did), burgers, brats, and a ton of laughs. It was so amazing to see everyone. And everyone was so sweet and generous. We’re very spoiled!
One of things I requested when we decided on a casual baby shower was root beer! Craig and my Dad have become master craft brewers over the past year, and packed up three of their homemade beers for party guests to enjoy (and everyone raved about them), but I didn’t want to be left out, so I requested that we try our hand at homebrewing some root beer, too. It took a few trials, but we managed to land on a crazy delicious homemade root beer that everyone seemed to enjoy! It was so good I almost didn’t miss the real beer. Almost.
Brewing root beer at home seems complicated, but it was actually a pretty simple process. Basically, you just make a big batch of tea using roots and spices, add a sweetener and yeast, and then let it carbonate by sitting at room temperature for a few days. Admittedly, it helped that we have all the equipment from homebrewing beer, but that’s definitely not a necessity.
We loved being able to do this ourselves because we could control the amount and kind of sugar (no high-fructose corn syrup in our root beer!), and we can control the flavors and spices. In fact, we actually scrapped our first batch because it was too heavy on the licorice flavor. We landed on a pretty delicious final combination, but I can still see us tweaking it more in the future. I think I might add a bit more vanilla and a touch more cinnamon (to add some bite to it!) in our next batch.
Traditional root beer is made using the root of the sassafras tree. But back in the 60s, the FDA banned sassafras root from commercially-made root beer because of a (what I think is flawed) study that found that ridiculously high amounts of a compound from sassafras injected in rats caused a higher risk of cancer (it was basically the equivalent of drinking 32-12 ounce root beers a day for an extended period of time). The irony is, the FDA never tested it on humans, and in fact, many independent studies show that regular, but moderate, consumption of sassafras in humans actually lowers cancer risk. Humans have been consuming sassafras root tea for centuries for it’s health benefits, even! The most infuriating part is that while the FDA jumped to ban sassafras (probably because there aren’t many sassafras tree lobbyists in DC), they have no issues allowing artificial colors, artificial flavors and high fructose corn syrup in commercially-produced root beer. My personal belief is that ingesting lots of those kinds of chemical compounds frequently is a lot more detrimental to the human body than a moderate amount of sassafras root. But that’s up for you to decide on your own.
Anywho! You’d think after a rant like that, I’d go into saying that there is sassafras root in our root beer recipe, but there isn’t any. But it’s not because of the FDAs ruling, it’s because buying sassafras root is mega expensive! And while sassafras trees grow rampant in our area, it’s best to harvest sassafras for brewing in late summer or early fall—i.e. not now. Just like we learned with sugaring, when trees are budding and leafing out in spring, the sap becomes bitter. And no one wants bitter root beer!
We’ll probably tweak this recipe come summer or fall to include sassafras root from our property, but for now, we’re using an affordable mixture of spices and roots that approximate the flavor of sassafras. Bonus is, this recipe works for folks who don’t have sassafras trees growing rampant (I’m looking at you West Coasters). And, if the FDA ruling on sassafras worries you, you can make this recipe without concern.
A note about bottling: because of the high levels of sugar in root beer, it carbonates really quickly! Many home root beer brewers actually recommend you store root beer in plastic bottles because glass ones have been known to explode from the rapid carbonation. Quite frankly, we don’t store any of our food in plastic, and we weren’t about to start with our homemade root beer, so we chanced it and bottle it in regular ole beer bottles with regular caps. To prevent a mess, while the bottles were carbonating, we wrapped each one in bubble wrap, and put them in a large cooler. That way, if one went off, it hopefully wouldn’t cause a chain reaction. And, at the very least, it would keep the mess contained. But, thankfully, we didn’t have any issues.
Some folks also use flip-top style bottles (they help release a touch of the pressure) or even canning jars with the lids not 100% tightened. We just liked living on the edge by using regular bottles. We also checked our bottles every 12 hours after brewing for carbonation. Once it hit the sweet spot (it took about 48 hours in our 70° house) we popped the bottles in the fridge to slow the carbonation process down and prevent them from getting overcarbonated.
Not only is homemade root beer fun to make, but it's also so much more flavorful than anything you can get at the store! Feel free to tweak this recipe to appeal to your tastes. We're going to try a bit more cinnamon, vanilla and orange zest next time.
- 7 quarts filtered water, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon brewer's yeast
- 4 tablespoons licorice root (you can buy licorice root tea bags and open them up)
- 8 star anise pods, crushed
- 12 whole cloves, crushed
- 4 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
- 4 vanilla beans, sliced in half lengthwise
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
- 20 allspice, crushed
- Zest of one orange (or 1/4 cup lime or lemon juice)
- 2 tablespoons wintergreen leaves
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 1 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
- Take 1/2 cup of the water and heat in a small saucepan until boiling. Remove from heat and let cool until around 80°. Stir in the yeast and set aside to allow to bloom.
- In a large stock pot, combine the licorice root, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla beans, nutmeg, allspice, orange zest, wintergreen leaves and water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Then stir in the molasses and brown sugar until dissolved. Continue to cook for another 15 minutes. Remove mixture from heat, cover and let steep and cool for at least an hour, or until the temperature reaches around 80°.
- Strain the mixture over cheese cloth, discard the roots and herbs. Stir in the yeast mixture to the root beer mixture. Transfer to bottles, and allow to carbonate at room temperature for 36-72 hours, or until the desired carbonation is reached (check every 12 hours). We like to keep the bottles in a closed cooler just in case one of them gets a little too overzealous with carbonating and explodes.
- Once the root beer is carbonated enough, transfer to the fridge to chill and slow carbonation.
Have you ever made your own homemade soft drinks?
I’m usually pretty good about menu planning, which means that we almost always have something yummy on the docket for dinner throughout the week. And usually, before we run really low on groceries, I make another menu and head out to the store. But every now and again, life gets in the way (for all of us, right?), and I don’t end up getting to the store before our menu is “out”. And that’s when I hit up some of my favorite pantry recipes. And this soup is one of those staples—even if our fridge is almost empty and the pantry is looking sad, we almost always can scrape together enough stuff to make a big pot of this vegetarian soup.
I love this soup because it’s kinda impossible to mess up. I have a basic combo of spices and veggies down in the recipe, but really, you can experiment, add and change this recipe without worry of messing it up. And that’s what makes it such a good recipe for when the groceries are dwindling. Add more peppers, put in beans, add some spinach, throw in a handful of rice, add some sliced mushrooms, toss in a bag of mixed veggies—it’s pretty much always going to turn out. Which makes this not only a great dish for when your kitchen isn’t full-stocked, but also for cleaning out a fridge that is stocked with some not-so-perfect produce. In fact, I save our sad little baby celery stalks (you know, the ones from the middle of the bunch that are mostly leaves) just for using in soups like these.
If you haven’t done a lot of cooking with lentils, I highly recommend stocking them in your pantry. They are a cheap and healthy source of protein that work really well in soups like this because they have such a mild-flavor. Depending on the type of lentils you buy and how long you cook them, they can either completely dissolve into a creamy, mashed consistency, or, like these brown lentils I use here, keep their shape a little bit. They have a really nice “chew” that I think us carnivores can appreciate in vegetarian dishes. You can leave this soup in tact, or do what I did, and blend up a few cups of it to make the base creamy and thick.
Yum! Enjoy. I promise I’m going to the grocery store today.
This hearty, flavorful vegetarian soup is a great option for when there are slim pickins in the pantry. Serve it with a big hunk of whole grain bread and you've got a dinner that is full of a complete vegetarian protein (and darn delicious)!
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 large stalks celery, diced
- 3 large carrots, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1-14 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1-7 ounce can mild diced chiles
- 1 cup brown lentils
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a stock pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add in the red pepper flakes, onion and garlic, and cook until tender and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
- Add in the celery, carrots, and bell pepper. Continue cooking until vegetables begin to soften slightly, about 10 minutes.
- Add in the vegetable broth, diced tomatoes, diced chiles, lentils, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender and the veggies are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, discard the bay leaves, and serve.
- Feel free to adjust and change the recipe to fit with whatever veggies you have kicking around. It’s really hard to mess this one up!
- I almost always try to keep canned diced tomatoes and canned diced green chiles in my pantry. They’re a great addition to soups and casseroles to add flavor.
- We always have big zip-top freezer bags full of diced bell peppers in the freezer from our garden. But even if you don’t have a garden, freezing peppers in the summer (when they are cheap at the store or farmer’s market) is a great way to save some cash on winter and early spring produce—and it means you always have something to put into a veggie soup when your pantry is empty.
- If you want a thicker, creamier soup, remove two cups of the soup after cooking, puree until smooth and the stir back into the soup.
What are your go to recipes when the pickins are slim?
For years, I’ve been trying to squeeze dollars and cents out of our grocery budget. I’ve seen all the super saver blogs out there where dedicated couponers feed their families of six for $200 a month (and a lot of them even do it with relatively healthy foods). For the longest time, I beat myself up about not being able to hit a lower total at the end of the month. I tried different challenges and tricks and coupons to hit a lower monthly grocery bill. And while it would work for short term, we always bounced back eventually to our big, hefty grocery budget once our pantry was bare and our palates were bored.
Honesty time, for our family of two, we consistently spend around $800 a month on groceries alone, and we live in a very low cost-of-living area of the country. And, often, we spend a bit more than that. In fact, in 2013, we spent exactly $10,951.32 on groceries—just over $912 per month. We might eventually be able to lower that budget once our hobby farm is a bit more robust (we’re planning on adding animals next year—bees, goats and chickens!), but for now, we’re hovering around $800 per month—and if we didn’t garden and preserve food, it would be a heck of a lot higher.
For years, I’ve been ashamed of our total. I know some folks would absolutely have a heart attack if they spent that much money on groceries in a month (although, admittedly, in some areas of the world, it’s a reasonable—or even small—total). It always felt a little dirty to know that we had that big, cushy line in our monthly budget. But over the past year, I’ve come to accept our grocery budget is what is it is. And be okay with it.
From the outside, it can seem like that high of a total is the frivolous spending of two people who are financially blessed (which we are). Or the uneducated spending of two people who don’t menu-plan, buy tons of convenience foods or don’t shop sales (none which are true—we are still definitely aware of which stores are, uh, pricier than others—I’m looking at you Whole Foods). But what that total actually is, is a reflection of the lifestyle of two people who freaking love food.
My grandfather had a lot of good-to-remember catchphrases when he was around, and the one that is the most fitting here is this: If you want to know what’s important to someone, just look at where they spend their money. And the truth is, food is vitally important to Craig and me. Not just from a nourishment standpoint, but as a hobby, a career, a type of health insurance, and a bonding-experience. Sure, we could probably feed our tiny family for a couple hundred bucks a month, and satisfy the basic nourishment category, and we have during tight times in the past, but in doing that, we lose all the other wonderful things that we love about shopping, cooking and eating food. Yes, I could sufficiently feed us healthfully by making beans and rice every day. But it certainly wouldn’t be fun for us. And right now, we are fortunate enough to have the room in our budget to account for fun. And our fun is our food.
It’s taken me years to accept that it’s okay to put money into something that is important to us, even if it means taking money out of areas that aren’t as important to us—and maybe are important to others. Our monthly entertainment budget is a whopping $20 a month (no going out to eat or going to see movies for us). We don’t have cable anymore. We don’t have a gym membership. It takes us years and years to save up to go on vacations. But what we do have? A really healthy, comfortable grocery budget that brings us joy each week. A budget that is cushy enough that we feel like we can buy all the organic, local and healthy food we want. A budget that makes it’s so much fun to go grocery shopping each week (seriously, it’s such a fun outing for us).
This isn’t me saying that food should be that important to you. Maybe it isn’t. And that’s totally cool. Maybe you don’t get giddy when you walk into the local health food store (Craig and I do). Maybe you don’t get excited to plan your menu every week (I do). Maybe going to the farmer’s market isn’t a social event for you (it is for us). Maybe your family celebrations don’t revolve around good food at the dinner table (ours do). Maybe you haven’t watched every single food-related documentary on Netflix (I have). For you, what is important might be a different category in your budget—eating out, traveling, shopping, seeing movies or plays.
But what I am saying is that I’m coming out of hiding. I’m stopping shaming myself for spending so luxuriously on food. Because it’s what’s important to us, and that makes it okay.
In related programming news, I’ve often wanted to (and have a few times) share what I bought when I went grocery shopping. But the few times I did it, I got push-back because of our large budget. And while I hate the idea of making people feel guilty for not having that ability (I never want you to feel like you have to live your life like mine—what works for me may or may not work for you), I always thought it was a fun little look into our everyday lives. And it was something I always loved seeing on other blogs. It’s the foodie equivalent of beauty or fashion haul videos! Would you guys be interested in me bringing that back? I was also thinking about wrapping it into the same post where we share our menu for that week. So you see what we’re going to eat—and the foods we bought to make that happen. You won’t hurt my feelings if you tell me no—it’s entirely possible I’m the only one who is a weird grocery cart voyeur.
And now I’m off to go make a grocery list.