A week of Instant Pot meals: Yes, it’s all that

When your favorite food writer, Rebekah Denn, writes in glowing terms about a new kitchen appliance how do you not jump on that? Especially when it’s time-saving and space-saving? And does just about everything? I mean, I think I’m a mere Google search away from programming it to run a race for me. See her persuasive argument in the Seattle Times here. She’s not wrong.

Enter the Instant Pot. It’s a pressure cooker, crock pot, rice cooker, and sauté pan all in one. For me, the main benefit was freeing up the cabinet space dedicated to storing the crock pot and rice cooker. Pressure cooking has always terrified me because of the whole blowing up the house thing. So I always worked around it. But now, with the introduction of the Instant Pot, whole new worlds are opening up to me.

Normally, I’m a total cheapskate who wouldn’t buy a new appliance on a whim. But Mike’s new gadget enthusiasm, coupled with Rebekah’s promise of faster food and less clutter in my cabinets, won me over. When the giant box arrived I was determined to put the thing to the test.

I’m not going to lie. Initially this was an intimidating endeavor.

Instant Pot instructions

Going against my usual M.O., I’d actually have to read the operating instructions.

Which weren’t, in fact, all that bad. It’s pretty easy to use. “Idiotproof” is the word Rebekah used. Perfect.

Once I started using it, I realized that it really does just involve pushing buttons. For the initial test drive I chose my standard turkey chili recipe. Though this recipe uses canned beans, I usually make mine with dried beans, which adds significantly to the cooking and prep time. Following instructions for Instant Pot soaked beans (I deliberately didn’t soak them overnight), I used manual mode for 4 minutes and the natural release method of depressurizing. All-in, I made completely cooked dried beans in about 45 minutes. This was starting to seem a little magical.

Next up, I tried Nom Nom Paleo’s Vietnamese Beef Stew recipe.

Another perk of the Instant Pot is the ability to sauté in the same pot that will do the rest of the cooking. Fewer dishes and easier clean-up? This thing is racking up the wins. The stew came together in a snap, and I realized that the time saving is not only found in the shorter cooking time, but also in the ability to completely walk away from it. I can cook and navigate the after-school sports taxi all at the same time.

Basic brown rice was my one miss so far. I’m not sure if I added too much water, or chose an overly long cooking time. Regardless, the resulting rice was a little goopy for my liking. But nevertheless paired well with this awesome Simply Recipes recipe for scallion pancakes.

Instant pot rice

The final, and best, test of the week was this Serious Eats recipe for Chicken and Black Bean Stew.

Instant Pot chicken black bean stew

I added some chopped tomatoes and substituted boneless chicken thighs for the bone-in legs and cannot emphasize enough how good and easy this recipe is. Even the kids, who don’t always love stew-like meals, couldn’t get enough of it.

My takeaway after a week of Instant Pot meals is that this thing is definitely worth the $129.95 investment (we went for the 8 quart size). Amazon will even deliver it straight to your doorstep, no driving to a store required.

An accidental foray into vegan, gluten-free cooking

This week I’ve gone the full hippie: vegan, gluten-free. I accidentally-on-purpose impulse bought this cookbook.

Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows Every Day spun out of her popular blog, Oh She Glows. Which, I now know, specializes in vegan, gluten-free recipes.

At the time of purchase, however, I didn’t realize this. Alexa and I were enjoying a pre-Christmas girls’ day of shopping downtown and I had just completed a long-winded lecture about Christmas shopping being for other people. While I waited for her to choose a present for her brother, I flipped through the pages of this book. I saw beautiful photography and lots of vegetables. So, I bought it for myself. In hopes of enticing the kids with the pictures and adding some new and healthy dinner standards to the rotation.

Then I got it home and actually read it. Plant-based sounded great. But vegan, gluten-free? Apparently not all impulse purchases pan out.

But the book got me with the pictures. And some innocuous-sounding recipes. Apple Pie Overnight Oats? I can get behind that.

Vegan, gluten-free overnight oats

You’ll need to get the book to get the actual recipe, but the blog has a Vegan Overnight Oats recipe that is pretty close. This was a wading-in of sorts for me. Since we are neither vegan, nor gluten-free, I used our regular oats and full dairy milk, but everything else followed the recipe. And it was good! The kids loved it. I decided to go a little deeper.

One of my favorite things about this book is the simplicity. Yes, you’ll need to get some new ingredients. You might find yourself in an unfamiliar aisle at the grocery store. Those weird Bob’s Red Mill products you usually blow right past? You’ll need some of those.

But the recipes come together quickly and easily. Next up, I tried the Chocolate-Almond Espresso Cookies. You pretty much just dump the ingredients together and stir. No special equipment or technique required.

The verdict? Pillowy, chewy, chocolatey goodness. The kids didn’t miss the gluten or eggs. But that was child’s play. Anyone can throw together chocolate, sugar and almond butter and make it taste good. What about dinner?

Vegan nachos would really test the limits of these crazy recipes. The foundation of this dish is the All-Purpose Cheese Sauce recipe from the book. It gets layered with a bean and vegetable based chili, then topped with tortilla chips. A close cousin to the cheese sauce recipe from the book can be found on the blog here (scroll down the link to find the cheese sauce recipe).

vegan, gluten-free nachos and cheese sauce

Though Alexa complained that there wasn’t enough meat in the dish (apparently I’m not the only one not understanding the whole vegan thing), she went back for seconds and Colin took the leftovers to school for lunch.

Shepherd’s Pie prompted the same lamentation over the lack of meat, but the kids ate it all the same. And these seven-ingredient Endurance Crackers have steadily disappeared throughout the week.

This book is really great and the recipes could not be easier. And, more importantly, they’re actually pretty good. Believe me, no one is more surprised by this than I am. Though I wouldn’t consciously choose to go vegan, gluten-free, I wholeheartedly suggest trying this cookbook.

As a result of this week of recipe testing, Mike even suggested a meat-free month of February. That, however, is taking things too far. We’re having steak tonight. Because, you know, balance.

Pumpkin puree from fresh pumpkin: you can do it!

wholepumpkin

Don’t just carve it, cook it. Yes, you can buy the Libby’s canned stuff, but fresh pumpkin puree is so much better. And really easy to make. Here’s how.

First, choose your pumpkin. There are so many varieties, and so many are interchangeable that you really can’t go wrong. For baking purposes my favorite varieties are cinderella (pictured above, straight out of our garden), blue hubbard and sugar pie.

Next, quarter it and throw it on a sheet pan.

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Additionally, you now have pumpkin seeds you get to roast. Bonus! The interwebs would have you believe that pumpkin seeds are practically a superfood.

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Then roast it, skin side up, at 400°F until soft. Once it’s cool enough to handle, scrape out the flesh and puree it in a blender. And just like that, you have yourself fresh pumpkin puree.

Pumpkin puree

If this makes more than you need, portion the leftovers into usable servings and freeze. I measure one cup increments and freeze it in Ziploc bags.

Got veggies? Make a veggie bowl.

This is one of my favorite times of the year. The temperature is cooling down, fall is in the air, and I have vegetables coming out of my ears. Almost literally.

veggies

We’ve been canning, freezing, pureeing, and baking. We’ve stocked the pantry with pickles, salsas and jams, and packed the freezer so full that there’s constant danger of a frozen food avalanche. But my favorite thing to do with all of this garden fresh produce? Make a veggie bowl.

Masters Mama veggie bowl

This is one of my go-to meals year-round. It’s easy, flexible, and you can tailor it to the different seasons. Start with your favorite grain, add your favorite veggies, maybe some lentils or beans and you’re good to go. Finally, I toss everything together with a vinaigrette, add a protein on the side and serve it up as an easy dinner.

This particular bowl put to use the cucumbers, tomatoes and kale that threaten to overrun our kitchen these days. It went a little something like this.

Grains and beans

1 cup quinoa
1 cup dried lentils

Cook and cool the quinoa and lentils separately, according to their own cooking instructions.

Vegetables

4 garden cucumbers (mine are small, this is probably equal to 1-2 store cucumbers)
1 bunch kale (once chopped I probably had about 4 cups)
3 cups garden cherry tomatoes
3 carrots
1 avocado
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Remove the ribs and chop the kale. Dice the cucumbers, carrots and avocado. Halve the tomatoes and chop the walnuts. Combine everything together in a large bowl with the quinoa and lentils.

Vinaigrette

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, chpped

I play it fast and loose when it comes to making vinaigrette. My rule of thumb is to take an acid (lemon juice, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar) and whisk it together with an equal amount of olive oil and whatever seasonings you want to add. Since it’s that simple I rarely buy grocery store dressings. Toss this together with everything else and you’ve got yourself a killer veggie bowl.

As the weather starts to change and cool, I use more root vegetables and squash, which I roast before adding. I might choose a heartier grain like farro, or my kids’ favorite Israeli couscous. The roasted veggie bowl pairs well with a poached egg on top, drizzled with a generous helping of Sriracha.

The beauty of this meal is its flexibility. So, get out there and try it out. It’s cooking without rules and a fantastic way to add nutrient-rich grains and vegetables to your day.

NY Times Cherry Coconut Ice Cream Sandwiches

New York Times Cherry Coconut Ice Cream Sandwiches

We might have stumbled upon the perfect dessert. Seriously. The Cherry Coconut Ice Cream Sandwiches recipe from the New York Times might just be the total package. Find the recipe here.

Forget what you think you know about ice cream sandwiches. I would never be drawn by the component parts individually. Of all the flavors of ice cream, cherry probably ranks in my bottom third. And a lemon wafer cookie? Meh. But together, the flavors sing and the cookie brings a buttery crunch to the smooth ice cream. Suddenly cherry ice cream is actually worth something.

The best part about these ice cream sandwiches is that you don’t have to go to some hot new restaurant in Brooklyn to get it. You can make this yourself. TODAY. Do it, it’s totally worth the prep and planning that is required to make an ice cream dessert.

The recipe completely works as written. The first thing you do is make the ice cream base. Cherry ice cream does require the pitting of about a pound of cherries. Since this was going to be a Father’s Day dessert, I recruited a sous chef. I highly suggest getting yourself one of these.

Gotta take a selfie before you start working.

Gotta take a selfie before you start working.

Start by cooking the pitted cherries with the sugar, salt and lemon juice until they’re soft – it took me about 10 minutes – pretty simple.

The ice cream custard is a little trickier, but you can do it. I used milk in place of the cream/half & half and it worked just fine. Bring it to a boil with the sugar and vanilla.

Milk

Once that boils, you’re going to temper it into the egg yolks and tapioca starch (I was tempted to substitute corn starch here but since it will not boil again you might be left with a starchy taste) that you have whisked together. To temper a hot liquid into egg yolks means you’re introducing the heat gradually so that the eggs don’t cook and curdle like they would if you just dumped them into the boiling cream. While constantly whisking, pour 1/2 of the hot cream into the eggs.

Milkintoeggs

Now switch to a rubber spatula, and while stirring the mixture in the saucepan, pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan.

Eggsintomilk

Over low-medium heat, gently but constantly stir to keep the eggs from cooking on the bottom of the saucepan. Cook until the mixture thickens and holds a line if you run your finger across the coated spatula, but do not let it boil. You want the eggs to cook enough that they will hold the custard together, but not so far that they cook into tiny egg particles.

Once cooked, add it to the cherry mixture in the blender, blend until smooth, then strain and chill (I like to use an ice bath).

This next part required the purchase of a new ice cream machine, after, ahem, an over-exuberant cleaning frenzy left me without a small, yet critical part, of our old machine. I found this Cuisinart on Amazon and was happy with the simplicity of it. There are only four large parts so hopefully I can avoid tossing another perfectly good machine. It did a great job freezing the ice cream in about 15 minutes.

Cuisinarticecream

The cookies are pretty straightforward. Mix the dough, let it chill, then roll and cut rounds to your liking.

Sandwichcookies

The fun part is the assembly. Let the cookies cool completely before you begin, and make sure the ice cream has had time to set in the freezer. I put the dried coconut on a plate and rolled the sides in it once the ice cream was sandwiched. Return the cookies to the freezer to set, call your friends, and wait for the compliments to come rolling in. These are the real deal.

NY Times Cherry Coconut Ice Cream Sandwiches

“Fried” pizza rolls and workout of the week

I am completely fried. Well done. Hopefully not to the point of totally burned, but I guess that remains to be seen. Not a good state to be in two days before the Carlsbad 5000, but here we are.

The kids are a school day away from spring break and I couldn’t make another school lunch for all the money in the world.

How did I get here? Could be the 1-2 combo of racing the 1500m last weekend at the SPU Doris Heritage Distance Festival and the killer workout that I squeezed in on Wednesday to allow for some rest before Sunday’s race.

I haven’t raced a 1500m since college. This isn’t even 4 full laps on the track. On paper I should have been ready for another race that very same day. But, as often is the case with physiology, things don’t work out neatly like that. Racing a 1500m is an all-out sprint for me. It’s taking off at top speed from the sound of the gun, and doing everything to hold on for 3 3/4 laps. I eked out a 4:56.42 – not bad, but will it keep me in the top 12 by the time the Trials qualifying window closes in June? We’ll see.

I was still beat by the time Wednesday rolled around, but there was a plan. Plans need to happen. That’s the way the universe works. Wednesday’s workout was a 3-round challenge set of 800s and 400s that went like this:

800m @ stretch 5k pace (which for me was 2:45 or faster, or 17:00 5k pace)
Rest 3:00
400m @ :80-:82 (also 17:00 5k pace)
Jog 400m
Repeat 3 times

I’d love to run under 17:00 but this workout was a huge eye-opener. I was barely holding on to that pace for two laps. How do you stretch that out to 12 laps? Anyone? I’d love to know.

With all of that going on, and a flight to California early tomorrow morning, decent meals around here are falling by the wayside. The kids don’t seem to care, especially when you come up with “fried” pizza rolls.

Fried pizza rolls

Baked, for when you’re fried

Make no mistake, this isn’t some earth-mother wellness meal to nourish the family inside and out. This is a knock-down, drag-out, I’ve-called-for-pizza-one-too-many-times-this-week meal. Sure, you could make it healthy, but that might be doing it wrong.

Here’s what you do. First, you take stock of your refrigerator. I had leftover spaghetti sauce (homemade, thanks to my half-Italian husband), leftover salami, and some shredded “Mexican mix” cheese (there was some sort of white cheese mixed in there – close enough). Maybe you have leftover pizza dough in the freezer from the last time you made homemade pizza dough (cue laughter), or maybe your local grocery store carries fresh, pre-made pizza dough in the deli section. Trader Joe’s even sells a whole wheat version for higher achievers.

Anyway… get yourself some pizza dough and roll it into a 3/4″-thick rectangle. Spread some sauce over the top.

dough:sauce

Add your cheese and desired toppings.

My crust is two-toned from a remnant scrap of whole wheat dough

My crust is two-toned from a remnant scrap of whole wheat dough

Then roll up like a jelly roll and cut into 1 1/2″ thick slices.

Slicedroll

I lined my baking pan with wax paper, but the rolls stuck to the paper, so I think you’re better off greasing the pan, then sprinkling cornmeal over that to keep the rolls from sticking. Line them up with enough space to account for the rising dough, but close enough that they bake together a bit.

Rollsinpan

I baked mine at 400°F for about 40 minutes. Ovens vary (as does the patience of hungry appetites) so they’re done when they’re puffed, set, perhaps a little browned, or once your family can’t seem to wait for dinner any longer.

Pizzaroll2

Gluten-free Cheese Rolls

I’m about to give you the keys to the baking kingdom. Gluten-free bread rolls with no yeast, no waiting for dough to rise, and no cooking or baking skills required? It’s possible.

Gluten-free Brazilian cheese rolls

But that’s not what this post was supposed to be about. This post was supposed to be about my triumphant (in the spiritual sense, not a presumption of victory) return to racing at the Mercer Island 10k over the weekend. It should have been a story about running a solid, though early-season race that built confidence for the races I have coming up over the next two weekends. How this 10k set me up for April 3rd’s Carlsbad 5000, a big race for which I’m traveling to California the weekend after next, and the 1500m this coming weekend, at which I’m hoping to run a decent enough time to qualify for the masters exhibition race at the Olympic Trials in July. I love a good plan and it was all coming together until I went down with a mild flu type of thing last week. And all I have from my experience on Mercer Island on Sunday was my boat-ride home, about 2 hours too early.

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If we didn’t live in the rainiest part of the galaxy, it would be more obvious that this is the sunrise over downtown, as captured from the 8:45 a.m. boat back to Bainbridge.

I went over for the race, tried to warm up, and still had undeniable body aches from being sick. Thankfully it was bad enough to cause shooting pain with every step, so I didn’t have to make any sort of excruciating decision, and as it turns out, I ended up with my first DNS (did not start).

But on to happier things. This is a Brazilian cheese bread, Pão de Queijo, which is made with tapioca flour, and therefore gluten-free. There is a great explanation and recipe at The Kitchn here. I first made these last week at work and had to recreate it at home for my bread-loving children.

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These are amazing. First of all, there are only six ingredients. Six! Even the busiest of us can muster six ingredients. Then there is the final product. These are chewy pillows of cheesy goodness. And gluten-free to boot. Try to eat just one. You can’t.

Gluten-free Brazilian cheese bread

When I went to make them at home, I had no parmesan cheese to spare, but plenty of extra cheddar. Being too lazy to go to the store, I went with the cheddar. It made my rolls a bit more dense than the original version, but still pretty good. I recommend parmesan, but if you’re in a pinch cheddar works too. Try this. It’s fast, your friends will think you’re a genius baker and your kids will love you forever.

Eat fat and you won’t be fat

There is a generation of people for whom that idea is completely counterintuitive.

I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

I was a teenager in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and as any dutiful teenage girl did, I read magazines. Lots of them. And they all said essentially the same thing: eat fat and you’ll get fat.

It was the age of the low-fat diet, and it fit with the way I preferred to eat anyway: carbs, carbs, and more carbs. I could eat all the bread and pasta I wanted. It was great. Cereal and frozen yogurt for breakfast? No fat in that! Sure, I was hungry all the time, and I can’t imagine how much muscle mass I sacrificed during my college running years eating that way, but those were the times. Magazines wouldn’t print things that aren’t one hundred percent true.

Of course in the intervening years that philosophy has been completely flipped on its head. And if the Atkins craze of the 2000s and Paleo diet of today have taught me anything, it’s that diets are a big load of crap.

These days I’m all about everything in moderation. Real food with limited processed stuff. Yes, crackers are still their own food group around here, but I’ve increased my  healthy fats, dairy and am working on the protein part. Good fats fill you up. And you know what? I’m no fatter than I was in the low-fat years.

So what’s for dinner tonight? Salmon cakes and kale slaw with curried almond dressing.

Healthy fat

The recipe for the salmon cakes can be found on The Kitchn here. It’s an easy recipe and makes for a pretty quick weeknight meal. I bought a 2 lb. wild salmon fillet on sale and cooked it last night while I had the oven on for something else. That streamlined the prep even more for today. I also doubled the recipe since I had extra salmon, and froze the extra patties for an even easier meal down the road.

The recipe for the kale slaw came from Plant-Powered Kitchen and can be found here. It does happen to be wheat-free, soy-free, gluten-free, and oil-free, but I made it despite those distinctions. The nut-based dressing gives the slaw great body and flavor and if you don’t love kale, a reason to eat your hearty greens.

Toast up some crusty bread and you’ve got a meal packed with good fats and protein that’s kid-friendly too. There was nothing left at the end of the evening at my house.

Break Your Resolutions Pancakes

I can’t stand it. How can the party be over ALREADY? Didn’t the vacation just start? A large part of me wants to spend 2016 as Christmas Break me: a lot of cooking and baking, little working out, and no worries about getting kids to school, making school lunches, or the afternoon activity shuttle. I can get behind a year of nothing but pajamas.

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For those who are with me on this, I give you the best pancakes ever. Don’t start your resolutions yet. You need to try these fist.

Ricottapancakes

These are extra fluffy, setting up nice and high with the help of ricotta cheese and whipped egg whites. The base recipe lends itself well to additions of fruit and berries. Into the batch I made over the weekend I added thinly sliced applies, laying them over the batter after I scooped them onto the griddle. This recipe makes enough to feed 4 people who love pancakes. Double it if you like leftovers (I think these taste great cold the next day), or if you have anyone in the house like Alexa, who seems to have an extra pancake compartment in her stomach.

RICOTTA PANCAKES

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 oz. melted butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla
4 egg whites

Directions

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and nutmeg. Add sugar and stir together.

Whisk together the egg yolks, ricotta cheese, milk, melted butter and vanilla.

Fold the egg yolk mixture gently into the dry ingredients. ***The key to delicate pancakes is in this step. When you mix wet ingredients into flour, it works the gluten in the flour and develops its elasticity. This is desirable in bread making, which is why you knead bread dough so much. Elasticity in pancakes, however, is less appealing, so you want to work the flour as little as possible. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, then pour the egg yolk mixture into the center of the well. Using a rubber spatula, run the spatula around the edge and bottom of 1/4 of the bowl, folding the spatula over the top of the mixture, which pulls the dry ingredients through the wet. Continue this around the bowl. Only fold until the flour is barely incorporated into the wet ingredients. You want to have lumps, otherwise the flour will start to get over-mixed, resulting in tough pancakes.

With a stand mixer, hand mixer, or with a large whisk, whip the egg whites until they reach soft peak.

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Carefully scoop the whites onto the pancake batter and gently fold just until it is incorporated in. Folding more than that will not only keep working the gluten in the flour, but will deflate the air you just whipped into the whites.

Preheat a skillet or griddle, then scoop batter (I use an ice cream scoop – it keeps things pretty neat) onto the griddle, cook and enjoy!

Banana Vanilla Bean N’oatmeal

This ain’t no hippie bullshit. Though that’s what I thought it might be when my friend and expert nutritionist Michelle Nevelle at Eat To Live Wellness posted this recipe.

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I like healthy eating probably more than the next guy, but there comes a point when capital “H” healthy food crosses a line into something that is just plain gross. To me this has all of the markings of something that is headed in that direction. “Detox”, check. Paleo? Check. Oatmeal replacement? Since when is oatmeal bad for you???

But it’s a simple recipe that would have only set me back a can of coconut milk, a couple bananas, and a few other things. One of the benefits of being a pastry chef is that I do happen to have vanilla beans on hand at all times.

I made the recipe last night and you know what? It’s really good. Really. I’m so confident about it that I packed it in the kids’ lunches and I doubt that it will come back this afternoon. Though part of me hopes that it does. I didn’t make enough for myself.