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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Irish Soda Bread

Well, sort of.  Purists will tell you that Irish Soda Bread is made with buttermilk, but I never have buttermilk, so we're not going to use any!  I have made this bread several times, and it's great for accompanying dinner or just by itself.  It requires no milk, yeast, or butter, if you're lactose intolerant--you can use olive oil as a substitute in this recipe, although I used butter.  It's also very inexpensive to make.  Here's how:


You will need a cookie sheet to bake this bread

1 1/2 cups water
2 tsp apple cider vinegar (I prefer Bragg's)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp sugar
4 cups flour
1 tbsp butter plus a little more to grease your cookie sheet

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees

Mix all your dry ingredients, forming a well in the middle once they are well-mixed.

Add your vinegar to your water, then dump it all into the well.  Mix.

Once it starts to look like this, begin to hand-knead the dough.  It's important to knead as little as possible, as there are bubbles from the vinegar and baking soda that will cause the bread to rise in baking.  If you knead too much, all the bubbles will be released.

When the dough is all one piece and uniform, transfer it to a floured surface.

Press the dough until it is 1.5-2 inches thick. 

Transfer this dough to your greased baking sheet, and use a large knife to cut an "X" about halfway through the dough.  This will help it rise.  Don't ask me how.

Put this in the preheated oven for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 250 degrees and bake for 30 more minutes.

While your bread is baking, it is a good time to melt your butter.  I didn't feel like exploding anything else in my microwave, so here's a neat trick.  Your back left burner usually functions as a plate-warmer when your oven is on, so there is heat coming through it.  I placed my butter in a ceramic ramekin and left it on this burner.  When the bread is ready, the butter will be too!

About 15 minutes later...

To test if your bread is done, pick it up with some oven mitts and tap on the bottom.  It should make a slight "hollow" sound.

When time is up, take your bread out of the oven, brush with butter (especially in the cracks) and allow to cool.  I don't use a cooling rack, because the crust is rather thick, and using a cooling rack will make it much crunchier than usually preferred.  Just leave it on the baking sheet to cool.

Here is how it looks right out of the oven, after I brushed the butter on it:

And after it's relatively cool (I recommending eating at least one slice before it's completely cool, there's nothing like it!


Oh, wait, it needs one more thing:

That's better.  I also recommend some dipping oil with Italian herbs, or some homemade jam.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Crock Pot Roast and Leftovers Beef Stew

Today is my husband's birthday, and I wanted to make him a special dinner.  We almost never eat beef (mostly because I'm not a big fan of it), but I know how much he likes it.  He once showed me how to make a great roast in the crock pot, and we put together our own recipe (based on what we both like and dislike). I'm also going to show you how to easily make the leftovers into beef stew.  Here's how:

 3 lb chuck roast
5 lb red potatoes (or golden potatoes work great also)
2.5 cups beef broth
merlot red wine
fresh thyme
fresh sage

I normally set my kitchen up into 2 stations when I am cooking with meat and vegetables:  I set up a cutting board and the meat next to the stove, then on the other side, I set up my crock pot, a second cutting board, and all the vegetables and other ingredients.  You start with the meat, wash your hands well, and move over to the veggie side with separate utensils for each side.  Cross contamination is dangerous, and this method will help you be safe!

First, you want to brown your roast in a frying pan.  This seals in the juices and helps season it.  If you don't brown it in a pan, it won't brown in the crock pot, and it won't be nearly as pretty--plus, it will be dry.  Put 1 tbsp of butter in a frying pan on med-high heat.  Salt and pepper your roast on both sides.  Put the roast into the pan, about 1-2 minutes on each side.  

You want to make sure to hold the roast up on its sides in order to brown every single edge!  When you're done, it should look like this:

Turn off the heat, set the pan (with roast) on an unused burner, and go over to the veggie side of your kitchen and start on the vegetables:

You're going to be layering the ingredients in the crock pot, and I always put the potatoes on the bottom, as they take the longest to cook.  Chop your potatoes into 1/2 inch cube-ish sizes, I tend to cut mine into long french-fry sort of slices, as shown. You don't want to have any slices bigger than your pinkie (well, I have little hands, so maybe 2/3 of your pinkie).  Add the potatoes to the crock pot, about an inch deep.  You'll have a lot of potatoes leftover that won't fit in this recipe, and we'll use them for the stew.

Take your bag of baby carrots and add about the same amount on top of the potatoes.

Now it's time to add your roast.  Take your roast in the frying pan over to the crock pot, and gently slide it into the crock pot on top of the vegetables.  If there's any butter or juices left in the pan, dump that in there too, as it will add to the flavor!

Next, you need to add 2-2.5 cups of beef broth around the sides, on the vegetables.  I suppose I could have done that before I added the roast...

Add half of your Thyme.  The spices will lose their potency while cooking, so it is good to cook with half of it, then add the other half a little while before it's done cooking.  It makes for better flavor.  Now, you're eventually going to have to pick out all those sprigs of thyme, so don't shred them or tear them up at all.  You aren't going to want stems in the finished product.  It's a bit of messy work, but the flavor is worth it!

I also like to add a couple of sage leaves (always fresh herbs, of course!)

Next, you want to add your wine.  I found this merlot on sale for $3.99.  You may want something better, but it's not so important to have the best wine when you're cooking with it.  When putting the wine into the crock pot, dump it over the roast, so it fills in the crevices of the roast.

Now, I wouldn't normally add butter, but it's my husband's birthday, and he loves butter on beef. Plus, he's one of those men who eats like crazy, yet stays thin, with perfect bloodwork.  See how the wine filled up those crevices in the roast?  That's going to taste sooo gooood!

Set your crock pot on low for eight hours.

Here is how it looks after 2 hours:

Here's how it looked after 4 hours:

As you can see, the temperature is 160 degrees.  If you want your roast to be medium-well, add the thyme and let it sit on warm for about 15 minutes, then take it out to serve.  If you want it well-done, then add the thyme and let it cook for the remaining time.

I have since altered my recipe so that you leave the roast in for 8 hours.  This makes a roast that falls apart with a fork and melts in your mouth.  If you want a firmer, more steak-like roast that is medium well, take it out after 6 hours, but I highly recommend the 8 hour setting.

After six hours, take out your roast, pour a little juice on it from the crock pot, and let it sit for 5 minutes before you cut it.  This is a good time to dig out your sprigs of thyme from the crock pot and throw them away.  You won't need them in there for the stew, so take a fork and dig them out.  Cut up your roast and enjoy!

Now that you may have a little meat left, and you've probably got a crock pot full of juice, extra vegetables, and some other ingredients, let's make that into stew!  First, take your leftover meat (without the fat) and cut it up into little cubes.  Add it to the crock pot.

Add more carrots and more potatoes.  I still had about 5 potatoes leftover after I added as many as I could to the crock pot.  Next, add enough broth to cover the ingredients, and add some more wine, too!

If you want your stew to be a little creamier (like I prefer), add a bit of half and half or whole milk at this point (or whatever milk you have on hand).  I used a bit of half and half, because it's all I had on hand (and it's delicious!).

At this point, you will have new potatoes and old potatoes (as well as carrots) in the crock pot.  This works quite well, actually, because the old potatoes will begin to liquefy and make the stew thicken.  Set your crockpot to low for 10 hours, and go to bed.  Your stew will be ready in the morning, and will be a great lunch.  

This morning, I went to check on my stew, and it smelled delicious, but it was still more like soup than stew.  To remedy this, I did the following:

Take 2 tbsp butter and put it in a frying pan on medium-high heat.

Once it is completely melted, add about 1/3 cup flour and stir continuously.  keep adding flour until the mixture is a play-dough consistency.  This is called a rous, and it is a base for many sauces, especially in French cooking. 

Add the rous to your crock pot and stir it well.

Eventually, the mixture will thicken up a bit, and look more like this:

I then turned my crock pot on high and left it for 2 hours uncovered, stirring about every 1/2 hour.  The end result didn't look very thick, but trust me, once it cools, it will be great stew!  At this point, the beef just melts in your mouth!

Here the stew is after cooling for an hour or so.  You can see that it is continuing to thicken.  At this point, divide up the stew into some tupperware containers and place the lids on loosely, and leave them out to continue to cool. Placing them in the refrigerator or freezer while still hot can be very dangerous and cause bacteria to grow in your other food, so leave it out until it is about room temperature.

We had  a great dinner last night, and now we have six quarts of stew to freeze and take for workplace lunches!  How easy is that?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

DIY Flea, Tick, and Mosquito Repellent for Dogs (and people)

I have dogs with sensitivities.  First, there's Duke.  He's an 8 year old Sussex Spaniel/Chocolate Lab mix, and he has a super thick coat.  He gets occasional hot spots, and I am constantly getting on him not to chew on them.  Since we have changed to a really good food,  He gets them less often and he's not constipated anymore.  I know, TMI, right?  Sorry, but my dogs are my kids, and parents talk about poo sometimes.  Anyway, I think Duke has a corn sensitivity, so we use Natural Balance food.  It's expensive, but his coat is so shiny now, and his digestive issues are almost gone.  He doesn't drink enough water, so he's often a bit dehydrated, but I can't force him to drink!

Then, there's Chunk.  Chunk is a 2 year old Yorkiepoo (yorkie and miniature poodle mix), and he's the baby of the house.  He's stubborn, rambunctious, and adorable.  He has a bad allergic reaction whenever we get him a rabies shot, so we have to put him on steroids whenever he needs it done.  He also has hypoglycemia when he gets overheated, so I keep some corn syrup on hand and put a little gob into his mouth when he is showing signs of hypoglycemia (a common yorkie condition).  I keep his coat very short so he doesn't get too hot, and I just stick sweaters on him in the winter time.  He loves his sweaters, and it's cute to see him help me put them on him (he puts his head through the neck hole, etc).

Okay, so why the hell am I going on and on about my little furbabies?  Because I WUV them, and I don't like to use chemical pesticides on them.  I have read too many articles about dogs dying or getting very sick from them, and they're just not that safe for people either.  I have looked for a lot of natural bug repellants, because we do have fleas and mosquitoes in the backyard.  They are so expensive, and the ingredients themselves aren't that expensive!  In the Spring, when the mosquitoes first came out, poor Chunk was bitten by several, and had bites on his back that stayed for over a week before the swelling disappeared!  I was determined not to let this happen again to my poor doggies.

I set out to use my own homemade bug repellent, so I did some research online about what works best and what is safe for dogs.  The result?  My homemade Lavender and Cedar oil spray.  It works great on humans, too, and it smells awesome.


Lavender essential oil  Available on Amazon
Cedarwood essential oil Available on Amazon
0.6 ounce Glass spray bottle Available on Amazon
Water (purified is best, but any bottled water will do)

While the initial cost of these ingredients may be a bit pricey (about $23.00 for the oils alone), you will only be using a few drops per batch, so this ends up being pennies a batch, in comparison to expensive store-bought natural treatments. Lavender oil is often used in dog calming products, but it also works as a general insect repellent.  Cedarwood oil is proven to repel fleas, ticks, and mites.  


Add 5 drops of cedarwood oil to bottle
Add 8 drops of lavender oil to bottle
Fill the rest with water about 1/4 inch from the top.  Screw the top on and shake well before each use.

To use, spray on the back/behind of each pet (away from their face) before they go outside, I usually spray them every two to three days, or more often if the bugs are pretty bad.  I usually put one spray on Chunk (he weighs 12 pounds) and three sprays on Duke (he weighs 50 pounds).  It's not an exact science.

I have been using this on my dogs all spring and summer thus far, and they are doing great, and no bug bites!

The recipe I posted here is for a small batch, because these oils do lose potency and it is best that they are kept in their original bottles as long as possible.  This allows for the least amount of waste.  I hope you and your fur babies enjoy this and it works as well for you as it does for us!


Crock Pot Chicken Tacos

It all started last Christmas, when my stepbrother gave me a crock pot.  I'm not a great cook, but there are a few things that I make well.  The crock pot has been something I can use to make things that are simple, but taste like I slaved over a stove for hours!

A common problem in our household is the issue of finding food that both my husband and I will eat.  We're both rather picky and quite stubborn.  In the past, we've made chicken tacos (I won't eat ground beef and he won't eat ground turkey, so this is our compromise), but ground chicken just doesn't cook up well, and the taco seasoning mix turns to sludge.  I finally found a solution that we both love:  Crock pot shredded chicken!  It's so easy, and perfect for cooking in the summertime so you don't have to stand over a hot stove or hang out in the kitchen:


2.5 lb bag of frozen chicken breasts (about six chicken breasts)
2 packages of Ortega taco seasoning (or whatever type you prefer)
1.5 cups chicken broth

Other taco ingredients you will want once the chicken is done:
Tortilla shells (I prefer burrito shells for these, as they can be messy)
Shredded cheese
Hot sauce

First, put your chicken breasts into the crock pot (right out of the freezer).
Add 1.5 cups of chicken broth (or, for less sodium, 1 cup chicken broth and 1/2 cup water)

Set your crock pot to high for 4 hours.  All you need to do is turn the chicken breasts over after 2 hours.

Once time is up, use a fork and remove the chicken breasts from the crock pot and put them on a cutting board.  Using 2 forks, shred them.  Make sure to pick out any pieces of gristle and throw them away.

If there seems to be a lot of extra liquid in the crock pot, be sure to scoop it out and dispose of it at this point.  There will also be chicken fat floating around at this point, and I usually remove most of the larger chunks, but it will add flavor if you leave it. You may leave it in or take it out. At this point, there should be some liquid, but not "soup."  The proper amount is not an exact science, but I aim for about one cup of liquid or less.  If your chicken comes out a little dry (it shouldn't), then I usually leave some liquid in the crock pot and store the chicken in the liquid, that way the leftovers taste pretty good. Again, you would rather have too much liquid than not enough, because you can always take more out or cook it down more, but it's more difficult to add water later.

Add the shredded chicken back into the crock pot.Add 2 taco seasoning packets to the crock pot and stir well.  Leave the lid off and let the liquid cook off until desired consistency (optional step as necessary).

The finished product should look like this:

Now, you're ready to have delicious shredded chicken tacos!