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Summer is my least favorite season and will remain so as long as I live in the South. I do appreciate watermelon, and farmers markets, and… maybe some other summery things I just can’t recall at the moment, but the fact is that our summers are hot, humid, and long, and we don’t have sprinklers to play in anymore. A consequence of my low threshold for being hot all the time is that my passion for cooking cools tremendously during the summer, when we keep our house quite a bit higher than standard room temperature to save on the electric bill, and turning on the oven never helps it feel more comfortable. To try and overcome the disinclination to do anything that exacerbates the heat (and thus makes me cranky), this summer I intend to explore the vast territory of salads and sandwiches. The potential for either goes far beyond a Caesar or a ham-and-cheese, and both require little to no oven use. The past two summers (the only in my history as a housewife) I wasn’t very innovative with meals; I was a bit too fixated on keeping grocery costs down by working from the pantry and not buying much produce. I was as a result turning on the oven to braise tough meats (cheap year-round), or serving tuna or pasta salad a little more often than anyone should have to eat them. This time around I’m going to use my brain and take advantage of the benefits of a well-stocked pantry (thanks Southern Savers), which means I have more money to spend on produce and fresh sandwich fixings.

One obstacle I’ll have to overcome is a chronic inability to have ingredients for salad on hand, starting with the lettuce. It only recently dawned on me that when you buy a head of romaine ($1.79) rather than those stupid 6 oz bags of pre-cut salad ($2 on sale, which is the only time I buy them), the difference in yield is at least 3:1. Way to finally do the math, dear. In my defense, I was unaware that there WERE heads of romaine at Publix; I’d only seen the super expensive hearts of romaine packages (3 thin and shabby looking hearts close to $4) and overlooked the blissfully dark green romaines and lovely red leaf lettuces, which didn’t even begin to turn reddish brown around the edges after one week in my fridge. I spend maybe 15 minutes washing and drying the whole leaves, then rolling them up in a kitchen towel and putting the whole bundle in an open plastic bag in the crisper. Then the rest of the week, I enjoy the convenience of a bagged salad, so that preparing a side or appetizer isn’t like another dish needing attention while I’ve got things to watch on the stove (I’m a bad multi-tasker and only have so much counterspace for prep work). That, obviously, can be applied year-round.

During the summer, we always have some sort of tomatoes on hand, and as long as I keep some interesting nuts and seeds around, with dressing that completes a very basic side salad. I also want to try some entree salads besides our staple, Cobb (though I want to know, can you really get any better than avocado AND bacon AND hard-boiled eggs AND blue cheese all on the same plate?), and I need to get up some kind of repertoire of flavorful dressings. I have a blue-cheese dressing with buttermilk that is to die for, but sometimes we want something lighter, and we haven’t been too impressed with my simple vinaigrette attempts so far. It’s probably because I don’t exactly splurge on my vinegars and oils. (Though I have officially placed Crisco Olive Oil on the Do Not Buy Even If Free list.)

If I am to make our bread for sandwiches, the oven will have to be on at least a couple times a week. I am determined to master ciabatta (promising steps were taken toward this goal last week) and the money saved by making our own bread is significant, so this is a non-negotiable. With rustic breads, baking several loaves at once to store in the freezer is not really an option because it fairly ruins the crust you work so hard to get. (If there is an option of which I’m not aware, DO enlighten me.) I’ll make the most of this by using the oven for other things while it’s on, e.g. roasted garlic and croutons for salad that night. Or dessert. I can always justify turning on the oven for a dessert.

Another category of oven-free meals I intend to make lots of is Thai curries. We love them with plain old chicken and occasionally shrimp, and even keeping them on the conservative side of the spice scale they pack in lots of flavor. Then each of us can customize spiciness with Sriracha. I made a large batch of green curry paste that turned out very well, and should provide plenty of curries before I have to make it again (it was a 2-hour ordeal because of the plethora of ingredients combined with the fact that my knife skills are nonexistent). Curries are fast and basically a one-skillet meal, plus mindless rice, and fewer dishes means less time cleaning up in a hot kitchen. And if I don’t like cooking in a hot kitchen in the summer, you can guess how much I like cleaning up after myself in a hot kitchen. So that’s my game plan. What are your favorite summer dishes?

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Today has been a slow cooking kind of day. I made chicken stock for the first time since fall, so that we can have Thai chicken soup tomorrow. Funny thing is, I’ve never been that motivated to make from-scratch American chicken soup, and when I’ve tried it hasn’t been the greatest. But a spicy Thai chicken soup is much more interesting to me.

I also made stromboli for tonight. In the pizza dough, I swapped out a quarter of the bread flour for white whole wheat, so we will see whether we can tell the difference. I’ve made this recipe several times before. It is slow and easy, and quite tasty. Today I applied a trick I learned from Peter Reinhart’s book, the stretch-and-fold technique, to make the pretty sticky dough much easier to handle. As I was sending the recipe to someone who requested it, I did a search for videos illustrating this technique, and guess who should appear? None but Peter Reinhart himself. One would think he would outsource his instructional videos, or just not make any in favor of letting people buy the book to find out more—but he makes them himself. This is compelling. I am further drawn, as Heidi so aptly put it, to be his bread disciple. And now I have found a video he made to demonstrate shaping a boule, which I am still having trouble with. Oh joy.

With resources like The Fresh Loaf (where actual expert bakers, as well as very experienced home bakers, hang around and delight in answering stupid beginner questions) and instructional videos by Peter Reinhart (himself!!), reasonably committed culinary autodidacts can learn a lot—and that while listening to beautiful Handel arias.

So I tried the recipe I mentioned in the comments on Heidi’s post, for a “batido de avena” or oat shake. The recipe is from Ingrid Hoffmann’s cookbook Simply Delicioso, which I read in Spanish, but I promise I double-checked any uncertain vocabulary in this short recipe before attempting to make it and pass it on. I partly double-checked it because usually a “batido” is the equivalent of our smoothie; you blend the ingredients in a blender. With this drink you don’t blend anything and there is no fruit. In fact all you do is heat milk and oats (and pumpkin, see below) together, add cinnamon, then strain out the solids after a 2 hour or overnight chill in the fridge. I made it last night and stood over the stove reading this very funny and informative book by an ER pediatrician (I’m reading it partly in an attempt to feel slightly more in control of things when I babysit and the kids are running around incurring various injuries as they are wont to do) during the 10-15 minutes of constant stovetop attention.

I used 1% milk (one of the greatest sacrifices I make for our marriage, no doubt) and was afraid it wouldn’t be very thick, as Ingrid didn’t specify what sort of milk was used in the original, and if you haven’t noticed there’s a big difference between 1% and whole milk (oh how I miss thee). But I would be afraid to try it with whole milk—it would probably be like drinking a full-on milkshake first thing in the morning (this was in the breakfast section of the cookbook, I believe, and I drank it as such). Even with 1%, and though it didn’t look that thick the night before, after I strained it into my glass it had a very creamy, frothy texture just like a light milkshake. I guess that’s where it gets the name—from the effect rather than the technique. I’m drinking the rest of what I made now. It is a very refreshing drink and I will be making it again. I can imagine it heating up well for a more suitable fall/winter drink, too.

For this first try, I just used 2 Tbsp of canned pumpkin for the 2 servings I made. I might add more next time, but 2 Tbsp. does give it discernable pumpkin flavor. Plenty of earthy oat flavor, though it is kind of sad to use the oats for flavor and then throw them out. At least if it is like cooking vegetables in water, then some of the nutrients will still be in the milk, I think. Feel free to correct my simplistic reasoning here.

For two servings:
3 c. milk
1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
2 Tbsp. canned pumpkin
1 Tbsp. sugar
pinch cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla

Heat the milk, oats, and pumpkin in a medium saucepan over medium heat until milk is starting to boil. Turn heat to medium-low and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, til thickened. Stir in cinnamon and sugar and chill at least 2 hours, or overnight. Strain milk through a wire mesh strainer or a colander with fairly small holes into a measuring glass or some sort of pourable container. Stir in the vanilla and serve.

P.S. This reminded me to try another oat and pumpkin recipe, the one Elizabeth posted here last year. And we recently discovered that pumpkin bread and vanilla ice cream are a Ridiculously Good combination.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.  Genesis 1:29

Awhile ago, Heidi, wrote a post about amaranth. I have been meaning to write for some time about some of the other wonderful grains that God has provided for our use. They are equally obscure and interesting.

Kamut: Kamut is an ancient high protein grain-approximately 17% protein, and is a relative of durum wheat. It has never been hybridized. Studies have shown that around 70% of people that are sensitive to wheat are able to use kamut. Kamut flour can be used in any recipe without altering the amount of any of the ingredients, except that slightly more liquid may be needed. Although it is considered a high gluten flour, it has less gluten that wheat. While that is no problem in most baked goods, yeast breads will have slightly less volume.

Unfortunately, I have never seen a co-op, much less a store, that carries kamut flour. So, that leaves us kamut users to grind our own. This is pretty much the case for all of the grains that I will list in this post.

Barley: Barley is one of the cereal grasses, and has a bran similar to rice bran. The bran contains all the vitamins, minerals, and oils. Without refrigeration the bran will turn rancid, so be sure to refrigerate. Pearled barley has part of the bran removed. It is white, and is almost pure starch. Most of the nutrients of pearled barley is removed, so it is advised that you purchase hulled barley at your health food store or through a co-op. Barley also has a low gluten content for those who have to watch out for that.

Some of my favorite barley recipes:

Barley-Vegetable Saute’

2t. butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 medium yellow or red bell pepper, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

4 cups cooked barley (1 C.dry barley to 4 C. water boiled and simmered for about 50 minutes will do the trick)

2 T. chopped fresh or 2t. dried thyme leaves

1/2 t. salt

1package (16oz.) frozen corn, thawed

1 package (10oz.) frozen lima beans, thawed

1. Melt butter in 12-inch skillet over med.-high heat. Cook onion, bell pepper, and garlic in butter about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until bell pepper is tender crisp.

2. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until hot. Serve.

Beef, Barley and Kale

This is ridiculously easy.

In a large stockpot place I pound of ground beef and 1 cup of barley. Add 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn heat down and simmer on low for about 45-50 minutes. During last 5-10 minutes of cooking place on top of beef and barley, 6 cups of chopped kale or cabbage if you prefer. Cover and let steam for remaining time. Season and stir. Recommended seasonings are, salt, pepper, garlic, parsley, or whatever you prefer. My husband adds hot sauce to his. Serve hot.

Millet: Millet is the seed of an annual grass. It is high is amino acids, protein, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as lysine which makes it a more complete protein. This grain is very alkaline, helping an acidic system to become more alkaline. Few people are allergic to it. I have read that a person could live indefinitely on nothing but millet if they had to. We make millet as a breakfast cereal and I also use it in a stew recipe. It is very versatile and it used to be the staple grain in Asia, before rice took over.  It is a gluten free grain and is also a good bird seed I’m told.

Hot millet

1 Cup cracked millet (millet is a soft grain and can be cracked in your blender)

3 Cups liquid (water, milk or whatever you prefer)

Bring liquid to a boil. Add millet. Boil. Turn down heat. Simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot with one or more of the following: honey, nuts, fruit, milk, juice, cinnamon etc.

Millet Stew

4.5 Cups broth or water , 1/2 cup celery, chopped

1Cup millet, whole hulled, 1/2 tsp. thyme, dried

1 onion, chopped, 1 tsp. salt

3 medium potatoes, diced, pepper to taste

1 large carrot, diced

Mix all ingredients in 2.5 quart casserole dish.

Bake at 350* F. for 1.25-1.5 hours.

~ I add 1 pound of ground beef or chicken to this recipe to add more flavor and make it a complete meal.

Quinoa: (pronounced “keen-wah”) Quinoa is a grain-like plant that was used by the Incas, and is about 16.2% protein. It is also high in lysine, making it a more complete(usable) protein on its own. It is also high in essential fatty acids-13.5%, calcium, iron and B vitamins. Also gluten free.

While this is all very marvelous and fascinating, the one thing I can tell you for sure is that I do not like it. It has a very strange taste. I have tried to dress it up in all sorts of ways, but is still tastes like quinoa, ugh. I was glad that I had only ordered a 5 pound bag from the co-op!

I learned a lot of useful cooking information from a cookbook I ordered a few months ago called “Wow, this is allergy free”. Even though some of the recipes are a little strange, I found it to be very informative and a great help. Besides the info on the variety of grains, there are also a lot of ideas for substituting ingredients, which I found helpful. My oldest son is allergic to eggs, so I never use them in baking. I was given several other options in this book, and I have had great success in baking with them.

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