This is what happened when lazy and cheap met and had a baby on my stovetop.

Pasta e Fagioli
(made about 6-8 Jamie servings, your mileage may vary)

Tonight’s almost vegan soup (I ran low on veggie broth so finished up with some leftover chicken broth blocks from the freezer) got major raves for flavor and was cheap, fast, and easy to boot. 45 minutes and it was in my belly.

My guess is you probably have everything – or at least most – on hand already. Hungry? Ready? Good, me too. Grab a pen.

Melt together on medium heat:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter/butter substitute in a large soup pot

Sautee in the above:
1 medium onion, diced fine
5-6 cloves garlic, minced – I used 6
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes – smoked red pepper if you have it on hand

Add:
28 oz can diced tomatoes
4 cups vegetable/chicken broth
2 – 15 oz cans red kidney beans, the whole thing – liquid and all
2-3  bay leaves
Stir together. Turn heat to high. Bring to a boil.

Lower heat, keep at easy simmer for next 20 minutes, stirring occasionally

Add:
1 cup small pasta, cook until al dente (see package instructions)

Stir in:
2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped fine (if using dried, add in with the other herbs)
pepper to taste (probably enough salt via the canned veggies)

Serve with:
Good, fresh bread (I chopped a leftover half of French Boule into large cubes)
Jeff’s suggestion: That little bit of leftover, finely shredded parmesan cheese? Add some to each bowl. (Was yummy.)

PS – Toss the bay leaves before eating

Did I speak too quickly?

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The only part of our meal that went as planned

There’s something depressing about taking a 5# slab of beef, a bottle of wine, the usual onions and root veggies, and cooking them all low and slow — only to have it and the potatoes fail to soften to fork-tender like you were expecting. It appears that our cookbook had a typo and we were instructed to cook the pot roast too low, but for the right amount of time.

We salvaged things as best we could by boiling the potatoes for a while in the sauce, at the same time we were reducing it by half. The meat tasted good, we dropped it and the sauce and veggies over some wide egg noodles, and everything was edible – if kind of ugly – but it took about an hour longer than planned and it just wasn’t quite “right.”

From beginning to end, it was frustrating. Jeff and I got on each other’s nerves when the reality of the layers of mistakes came to light, but it all came out fine in the end. Good wine and patient neighbors who are always ready to be pleased made up for a lot of our  newbie mishaps. The cannoli they brought for dessert were a sweet end to our time together, too.

No failures (yet) but some flubs

We’ve been working our way through a lot of leftovers this week for lunch and dinner – chili, tomato soup, an impromptu linguine in spicy marina sauce (for an out of town friend that surprised us by being in town on business), yet another round of chicken and vegetable noodle soup. You get the idea. It’s always a surprise to see how much we get out of a recipe that says: makes 4 servings. I don’t know who they expect to be eating, university football players maybe, but it appears that they sure don’t expect you to be eating anything else! No bread, no salad, no roasted veg, nothing. Even with our largest bowls tonight, we still had at least two servings left over after all was said and done. Into the refrigerator the extra went.

Tonight we had a pair of friends over (one vegan, one vegan-ish) to help us eat the Miso Vegetable Soup with Rice Noodles that I made up in the slow cooker. It was good, simple, cheap and not bad, but also not tremendously flavorful. The broth was vibrant but the rest was nothing to write home (or blog) about. I ended up doubling the white miso paste halfway through cooking as things were clearly a bit too bland. I don’t think I’ll make it again but I won’t regret having to finish off the leftovers either, so I count it as a draw and not a win.

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Miso soup about to cook down, pretty unappealing at this point

Earlier, Jeff and I made big, fat, greasy-spoon-style omelets for breakfast. Eggs, mushrooms, red bell pepper, onions, spinach and cheddar. We cooked them a touch too long so, after folding, the bottom was clearly too browned, but they were filling and delicious nonetheless. I couldn’t finish mine, which is a rarity. Most impressive was that, eaten at 10:30 am and with nothing more than the most minor of snacks around 2:30 pm, they held our hunger off until our friends arrived for dinner at 6:30 pm. Way to work it, omelets.

The French press continues to elude our ideas of coffee perfection but we got much closer today. My guess is that with continued practice we’ll be humming along to Place de la Rèpublique and discussing the finer points of yeast selection for pain au chocolat in no time.

Tomorrow will find us finishing out the Open Table meal that started this afternoon and is still in the oven as I type. All I’m going to say at this point is that it smells amazing and my fork is ready.

Victory of the day: We’ve used up all our odds and ends so we met our goal of no waste in the kitchen – touchdown dance – but I would like us to plan better for the week to come. Leftovers for days on end was a bit dismal on these cold, winter days. I like a steamy, fragrant kitchen when the weather is so inhospitable.

 

 

Relationships and commitments

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A little backstory for reference, some friends had their first baby a week before the year ended. Having a kid grown and gone, it’s fun watching the whole process begin again – without the sleepless nights, sore body, ears on high alert and perpetual dead arm from carrying an infant around nearly non-stop. ‘Auntie’ duty is waaaay easier than Mommy duty. Dirty diaper, back to dad. Fussy hungry baby, back to mom. Contingency plans for ev.er.y.thing and finding yet another mystery stain on your favorite shirt? Hmm sounds familiar but I might be blocking it.

OK, back to task. So the new dad is not American and in his country it’s the norm for the new dad to gather with friends at the local pub for a drink in the first few weeks after a child’s birth. Are you saying, “Well, this presents a dilemma now, doesn’t it?”

Well, to me, the answer is “Not in the least” because a) these friends are aware of and very supportive of our decision to refrain from restaurants, cafe’s, bars, etc; b) we had already visited with them and shared a congratulatory drink (with the dad) the day after the wee one was born; and c) when the “Sorry, would love to but, ya know” went out the response was “Ok. It’s just the tradition back home. It’s going to be fun, all the guys are invited, would have enjoyed having you there too.”

To Jeff, however, it became a major dilemma in his mind. His friendships were on the line. He wasn’t being responsive to a friend. Things were at risk of going belly up if he didn’t go. And anyways, It’s just a drink. (Insert a bit of side eye here from me.) You get the idea. This was, by the way, the 4th of January. Halfway through the first week of 2019.

Long story short, he went. I visited the new mom at their place for the evening. When we reconvened later that evening, I laid out my disappointment with his decision and the reality that things like this are going to happen throughout the year. Where do we draw the line? When is a reason “good enough” to break this promise we made to each other and when is it a convenient excuse? What about being responsive to our commitment? What did it say that he couldn’t even get past the first week without buckling? We both went to bed angry, not even gonna lie. But Saturday dawned new and life goes on. Today, he admitted that the change in our going out habits has been rather harder than he expected it to be and apologized for some on-going surliness this past week.

So what’s next? Well, I’ve said my piece, didn’t rant and rave, but definitely made my feelings known. I’ve moved on with the knowledge that I can’t make his commitment stick if he chooses not to, but that I can and will hold myself to the decision we made. My guess is that Jeff won’t make breaking this promise a regular habit. I hope that it will be a one-time blip and that we’ll laugh about it in months to come.

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Yesterday, we had our first Open Table lunch for friends. We made Pantry-Basics Tomato Soup and Two-Sided, Extra Cheesy, Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with frosted brownies for dessert. Comfort food at its most basic, easy to prepare, and delicious. We did a repeat tonight with the leftover soup and, like chili and spaghetti sauce always are, it was even better as the flavors definitely mingled and mellowed overnight in the refrigerator. We made some no-frills grilled cheese sandwiches to go with it which were more to my liking, but Jeff missed the in-your-face bite that the grated parmesan melted onto the outsides gave to yesterday’s sandwiches.

Chicken, veg, noodles and a sharp sharp knife

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Look at the gorgeous texture of those noodles and vegetables

The brand new year, 2019, arrived at the stroke of midnight as it has a habit of doing every 12 months. With this turn of the calendar, however, things took a significant turn for my household. Goodbye spendy restaurants, sunny cafés, kitchy diners, and cozy pubs; hello shiny new kitchen shears and sheep’s foot paring knife. Time to get chopping.

Yesterday I made a spatchcocked (butterflied) whole chicken (use kitchen shears to remove the backbone and then splay it out in a rather unceremonious manner on a roasting sheet) and roasted an embarrassing amount of Brussel sprouts to go along with it. The chicken reached the desired temp in record time – 45 minutes! – but the veggies about 10 minute earlier, so we noshed on caramelized goodness while the chicken finished roasting and resting. That’s right you naughty bird, you just lay there and think about what you’ve done! Luckily Jeff doesn’t mind his meals in shifts from time to time.

With the backbone, skin, wings and bones, I made a batch of stock that bubbled away for a few hours and added some nice moisture to this dry, winter cave of a home. I swear, if you even look at the floor rug out of the corner of your eye lately, you’ll feel an electric current racing up your right thigh.

After another attempt at poached eggs for breakfast this morning — finally, success! — and a light lunch of toast and apricot jam (don’t judge), I got down to the serious business of making some soup with the remaining chicken breast, the usual vegetables, some greens (a boatload of kale and a bit of fresh parsley), egg noodles, and that luscious stock from the day before.

I cut the carrots and celery on the diagonal because I was feeling fancy. No simple rounds for us, old chap. And instead of a small onion, I finished off a large half one that was napping in the fridge, cutting it quite thin instead of the usual dice. I’m glad I did too, as the onion nearly melted into this really nice, silky texture without any need to sauté it beforehand. Less work, great flavor, and one less pan to wash. (Please hold your applause until the end of the meal. Thank you, thank you.)

Rice could have been used instead of the egg noodles I suppose but, let’s be honest, rice is dead boring sometimes. I wanted taste and texture, not just bulk and filler. Now, now, don’t go sending me any pro-rice hate mail. Yes, sometimes rice is the best starch out there for a given meal, but for me and my family, we choose egg noodles (for our chicken soup).

All in all, a decent way to begin the new year in the kitchen.

Healthy body, happy mind

My guess is that almost everyone has heard the expression ‘Organized house (office/classroom/desk), organized mind.’ I certainly find a lot of truth in it, but for me an even larger effect on my mental and emotional well-being comes from maintaining a healthy body.

If I’m not exercising, the world is dark place. I’m not the only one to learn this connection in their life. Nor am I the only one to fall prey to the comfort of sleeping in, the distraction of home life, the siren song of popcorn and a movie marathon. Without regular exercise, I feel poorly about myself and question my place in the world. On an intellectual level, I always know that my worth is not tied to my appearance, physical strength or dress size. But there’s no point pretending. I do feel better about myself when my body is strong, more proud of myself when I’m working towards my next training goal, and extra confident when I’ve reached a new achievement. I enjoy the variety and challenge of triathlon training but getting out the door can still be tough. So I occasionally go through a week-long period (or three) of ignoring the weight room, skipping out on runs, avoiding the pool, and making excuses for not getting on the bike. For some reason, this happens most frequently after I get home from traveling – even if I kept training WHILE traveling – so that cause has lost its trigger for awhile.

Similarly, when I’m also eating well I feel like I’m on top of the world. I have ample energy, my sleep is spot on, my mood regulated, my concentration consistent, my attention extended. I make better decisions in the other aspects of my life too. To top it off, if I’m eating poorly, I can expect to spend a fair bit of time bent over in pain, rethinking all of my life’s decisions. Yet too many times I’ve still gone for an easy, grab-and-go deli option or a high-sugar bakery treat rather than a nutrient-dense, pre-planned meal. My dietary will-power the last couple of years hasn’t gotten near the workout that my quads have, which has lead to poor decisions and some sub-par results down the line. This chain of excuses is now at the end of its line.

Thank you (for your opinion), next

It’s strange, the drive some people have to insist on giving their -hello!- unrequested opinion regarding the decisions that you make for your own personal life. The majority of people upon hearing that we are going to stop eating out next year fall into one of two categories:

  • a) That’s amazing.
  • b) That’s quite the challenge.

And then there’s the minority that start with some version of:

  • You should really consider … instead.
  • It would really be better if you…
  • There’s no way you…/It’s not possible to…/Now, you can’t really…

Why would anyone believe that they have a better idea of what is best for me or our household? How can anyone think that we haven’t given this adequate thought? It makes not sense to believe that it was possible for us to not eat out when we were poor university students or cash-strapped newlyweds, but a thicker wallet somehow now makes us incapable of cooking on a daily basis, making our own coffee, or packing a lunch?

I am so thankful for each and every friend that has embraced this decision, given a verbal pat on the back, said “I’ll come to visit you then” or just wished us the best of luck at tackling this -again, hello! very- conscious decision to live more lightly, inexpensively and thoughtfully the coming year. Each and every one of them has been a welcome light against the Negative Nancys, Disbelieving Dicks and Eye-rolling Earls that we’ve encountered along the way.

Food, the foundation

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Food, oh glorious food. I love eating. Cooking not so much, but eating is one of my favorite things.

Dinner for me growing up was simple, routine and bland. Spaghetti and plain sauce with bread and butter on Mondays. Fried egg and cheese sandwiches on Wednesdays. Frozen pizza on Fridays. Roast chicken in broth in the crockpot with canned veggies on Saturdays. Roast beef, potatoes, onions and carrots with a can of cream of mushroom soup dumped on top in the crockpot was our fancy Sunday dinner. Food that 12 year old me could easily make on days mom was working and that I could have ready by the time she and dad got home. Breakfast and lunches were even simpler: cereal and milk, PB&J on WonderBread. Non-negotiable. The favorite mid-day snack for we kids was white sugar sprinkled over a slice of bread, folded in half and edges crimped to make a sugar pocket. You get the idea; a health and flavor sensation my time in the kitchen was not.

During my teen years, my mom began working full-time for a packaged-goods food broker so things like shrink-wrapped ramen noodles (I started my junior year of university with 5 cases of them!), bagged breakfast cereals, single-serve frozen dinners, and luxury of luxuries boxed lasagna became the routine meal go-to’s. I can’t remember a fresh vegetable entering any of my kitchens from the time I was 16 until I moved in with Jeff when I was 22. Shameful but true.

Jeff was luckier, he had a mom who made relatively healthy (although very Dutch and Midwest bland) meals three times a day, seven days a week. There was a lot of fresh vegetables around a slab of meat at the plate’s center and always fresh fruit on the counter. So he went off to school expecting to make and eat real meals from real food on a daily basis. Alas, as quality home-cooking wasn’t a common part of my life, we agreed early on that Jeff would do the bulk of the cooking and I would do the dishes.

Over time, eating out increased along with Jeff’s wages, to the point that we now eat out 4-5 times a week and nosh on restaurant leftovers at least once or twice a week. No fuss, no muss. Let someone else take the trouble. Let someone else clean up. Everyone gets what they’re in the mood for. Maybe get a drink or two while we’re here. All it takes is a swipe of the blue credit card.

Well, um, it also means that we spent 14% and 13% of our income on eating out in restaurants, bars and cafés in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Can we afford this? Yes, I have always made sure that our budget is always in the black. Is this a good use of our time and money? No, not at all. It’s too easy to fall back on the “well, we can afford it” crutch, to ignore the larger costs to ourselves, the budget, our relationship, and the environment.

Cooking for ourselves day in, day out will clearly line up better with some of the goals I mentioned in the original post. By menu planning, shopping and cooking together, we can increase the nutrition we give our bodies, boost our consumption of grains and vegetables, and reduce the negative health effects that Jeff is now experiencing. Working together and sharing the moments of our day in a more natural and less distracting environment will help to patch some of the holes that have popped up in our relationship over the years as well. Reducing our day-to-day meat and dairy consumption will go a long way to minimizing our meals’ carbon footprint. As for slashing the drain on our bank balance, that’s a given. I know it will vastly improve my existing cooking skills too, while fostering some more taste and seasoning creativity in both of us.

So the cookbooks* are our of the pantry and on the counter, ready to help us find new favorites, learn new techniques, and make new memories.

*the cookbooks that survived the last household purge

The Conversation

Despite a ruthless purging this past spring, the garage still has many things we love and things we ignore – some of which are one and the same. Despite a series of decluttering sessions, the laundry room has a shelf full of all-but-ignored board games, the office is full of expensive, underused drawing materials, we have shelves full of unread books, three cameras that spend far more time sitting than shooting, and more blank or partially used notebooks than I’m willing to admit. You get the idea.

What do we spend our free time actually doing? Well, it depends on the person but for Jeff it’s mostly TV, sports and movies, scrolling timelines, and eating out. I tend to read, go online, take a hot bath, and clean. I also tend to travel for pleasure more than most (a long story), which is expensive, involves a lot of in-between time sitting alone in airports, on public transport and in strange rented rooms. It can be more mundane and disappointing than I ever planned for. There’s nothing like traveling to a far-away place, having an experience you’ve been building up in your brain, and falling asleep in tears feeling pistol-whipped by your shattered expectations or someone else’s bad day.

About a month ago, I asked Jeff to consider a radical change to how we’re living our day-to-day lives. Now radical and change are probably two of Jeff’s least favorite words so I knew I was facing a tough sell but after laying my idea out, I asked him to consider it for a while before deciding. And he did. In the end he agreed, he thought it was a good idea both for us as individuals and for us as a couple. I asked him to give up going out to eat for the next year – his most favorite, comforting and social activity – with the agreement that I wouldn’t travel except for an already planned out trip to help a friend move. Not exactly a pleasure trip, although it is always a pleasure to see her. I asked him to set aside the bulk of his TV time and I promised to set aside the bulk of my evening internet time so that we can spend it together and with friends, to cook delicious meals, to photograph the city and nature areas around us, to cycle and improve our overall fitness, to read more excellent books and to curtail our spending.

If we hold to our plan, we’ll dramatically reduce our carbon footprint (air travel is an environmental disaster), save a large amount of cash (allowing us to make a big dent in our mortgage), and be a stronger, more intentional couple. We have both recognized that we’ve drifted away from each other in some ways, that our formerly rock-solid bond needs a bit of patching, like all relationships do from time to time. We’ve watched several friends’ decades-long marriages split and allowed the myth of others’ perfect lives to wedge itself between our all-too-real, and all-too-imperfect, selves.

In a way, this year will also be a sort of relationship tune-up. Change the filters, put in some fresh oil, and give all the mechanical parts a good going-over to ensure everything’s safe, sound and ready for the coming decades.