Monday, April 30, 2012

Tin Cans as Planters & Garden Update

Left: this guy is winning so far with 3 baby tomatoes
Right: We ate salad greens I grew for dinner last night, and there's still more for tonight. win!
Happy Monday! It's an exceptionally happy one here because not only is it a beautiful day and I don't have to go in to work, but also a new cousin came into the world. Huzzah! Mom and baby are doing well, and I've even seen an adorable video in which she (the baby) yawns. Tough couple hours so far.

As you can see, our container garden, salad greens, and tomatoes are all thriving. All the sun lately has been great for them! We even are starting to get flowers on our pepper plants. You can really see a difference from three weeks ago.

These chic planters were once cans of tomatoes I used for sauce. All I did was spray paint them with some white Rustoleum (I checked when I got it for the tomato planters that it works on both metal and plastic), create some drainage holes in the bottom with a hammer and nail, add soil and seedlings, et voila! Almost-practically-free planters. I should note that this nail photo is from the first one I made. But by the second I figured out that I should make the nail holes first, then spray paint the can including the bottom to prevent rust. Pictured are nasturium and rosemary plants. As new cans become available, I'd love to have a few other herbs as well.

How was your weekend? Any exciting news or projects?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Thank You Cards - free printable

Happy Friday! Today I'm sending you over to ThanksLot for these fun confetti thank you cards. They're both festive and spring/summery.

I hope you had a great weekend and have some fun weekend plans ahead. My big plans for tonight? Pizza and cupcakes. Rock on.

What are you up to?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Brown Sugar Meringues - dairy free & gluten free

These were a revelation. Meringues have always been one of my most-favorite desserts, but they are also a dessert I've had a fear of. They sound persnickety and challenging and far too high-maintence for someone who doesn't always follow a recipe and tends to cook relatively simple things. Rainbow cake and challah are probably the most complicated dishes on this site, and they're not really that bad. (Pretty impressive, though, if you're looking to impress)

Left: not ready, just foamy. Be patient, this too shall pass
Right: soft peaks! When you lift your beaters out of the whites, just the tip of the peaks should fall over

But now that I've burst this particular bubble, I can't wait to try Pavlovas and chocolate meringues and mocha meringues and candy corn meringues. That last one may have to wait until the fall since most people I know can only handle candy corn once a year (if they can stomach it at all). But Pavlovas? They are a perfect vehicle for raspberries and other summer fruits that are soon-to-be abundant.

Left: adding brown sugar. For a bit, it will look less stiff. 
Right: see? it's ok. The mix stiffens up again. Note the stiff peaks that don't fall over

Never tried meringues? You need to. Not only are they super delicious, they're practically a healthy dessert since there's nothing to them besides egg whites, sugar, and air.

Left: I forgot until they were in the oven to get a Before photo. You can even see my spoon-dropped ones on the top.
Right: After. The piped ones definitely look the best. And they're so cute!

A couple tips to make sure you get the best ones possible:
  • Use a glass or stainless steel bowl, not a plastic or ceramic one. The latter two kinds acquire tiny nicks and scratches over time that can trap tiny molecules of oil.
  • Use a super clean bowl and beaters. Any trace of fat or oil can prevent your whites from stiffening up properly. 
  • Do not allow any yolk to get in the with whites for the same reason.
  • Make sure your oven temperature is accurate. An overly hot oven will dry the exterior but leave the interior chewy instead of crisp.

Brown Sugar Meringues - dairy free & gluten free
adapted, barely, from Food + Wine April 2004
These are simpler than I imagined and super delicious. They taste a bit like toasted marshmallows. Perhaps some mini chocolate chips will find their way in next time? Here are some suggestions for leftover yolks.

4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 C lightly packed light brown sugar (just over 4 oz)
pinch of salt

Separate your eggs while they are cold - it's easier. Refrigerate or freeze yolks and allow whites to come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 250F. In a large glass or stainless bowl, beat the whites until soft peaks form. Beat in the brown sugar about a tablespoon at a time. Add the salt and continue to beat until the meringue is thick and glossy. This whole process took me about 15 minutes.

Spoon or pipe (I just used a plain+wide one. You could certainly go fancier, or even use a ziplock bag with the corner cut off, which might be less messy than the pastry-bag-that-got-very-sticky) 1-2-inch mounds of the meringue onto two parchment-lined baking sheets. They can be fairly close together; mine didn't spread. Bake for 70 minutes, or until the meringues are no longer sticky to the touch. Depending on the day, weather, and humidity, you may need to bake them longer. I ended up keeping them in for an additional 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, prop the door open an inch, and let the meringues cool for 1 hour before serving.

I got about 40 (mostly small) meringues.

Store in an airtight container. If you don't, they may absorb moisture overnight and you'll need to bake them again for a short amount of time. I know this because I popped mine back in for 20 minutes the next day because they were sticky and wouldn't come off the parchment. Don't be like me.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Keeping it Green

Happy Monday! I hope you and yours had a good weekend. It was gorgeous here, and I did everything on my list.

As you may know, it was Earth Day yesterday. I know lots of towns had recycling drives, fairs, and rummage sales. I figured this was a good time to share some more of what Mr Official Taster and I do in our lives to be green. I also wrote a pretty extensive list last month.

  • I mentioned last month that most of our cleaning products were weird-chemical free, and this spring, I've been slowly replacing our personal care products as we run out. By "personal care" I mean toothpaste, facewash, bodywash, shampoo, etc. I especially love my new Avalon Organics facewash. It smells great, and I only use a tiny amount (a dollop maybe the size of the head of a thumbtack?) because it lathers up into more than enough.
  • A lot of people use reusable shopping totes these days, but I also reuse plastic produce or bulk bags (within reason). If they need it, I give them a quick rinse when I get home from the store, allow them to dry, and then stuff them back into a shopping bag. It doesn't slow me down at the store, and bags that hold rice or apples don't get that dirty.
  • Plastic bags get recycled. Every grocery store, and a good amount of other types, has a bin near the front somewhere where you can recycle used plastic bags. I let mine collect for a while, and then drop them off once or twice a year. The hardest part is remembering to bring them from the car into the store.
  • I said it before, but I'll say it again: Farmers' Markets. Not only are you getting delicious, local, fresh and often organic products, but the farmers get your money directly. No middlemanperson gets a cut, so families doing the work get a better deal. Find one near you here.
  • Take advantage of your grocer's bulk section if available. I find some products (though not all) to be cheaper than their packaged version, but I really like being able to get as small of an amount as I want. For example, I get pine nuts in bulk because pesto only uses a third of a cup. I just get what I need, and I don't have to worry about the remainder becoming rancid. (and pine nuts are waaaay to expensive to waste!)
  • Speaking of waste, I've been trying to cut back on food waste. If we don't finish our fresh strawberries before they start to turn, I'll hull them, lay them out on a lined baking sheet, and freeze them. Once frozen, they can all live together in a ziplock bag, but spreading them out lets them freeze individually instead of in a big clump. They'll be great in smoothies! When Mr OT tried a new recipe a few weeks ago, he bought some fresh basil. It didn't all get used up before the leaves started to wilt, so I made some pesto and froze it. Find yourself with some stale bread? Give it a whir in a food processor for breadcrumbs. A little creativity and foresight can save a good amount of dough down the line. 
  • Walk or bike when you can. I understand it's not always feasible, and although my new job is probably close enough to bike (with a little conditioning), I would be terrified to do so. The route there just doesn't feel safe. However, I never let myself drive to the library. It's a rule. 
  • Finally, and the least palatable: we pick up after our pups every. single. time. Poop that's left can really contaminate our water supply, so we always take the extra 5 seconds to scoop.

That seems like a lot, but it's really only a small effort on our part. What are some of the things you do to stay green year-round?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Summer Garden Bookplates - free printable

Hello and Happy Friday!

Today feels like summer. It's about 80 degrees fahrenheit, sunny, blue skies, and it's an overall beautiful Friday afternoon with a three day weekend in front of me. Things are looking good! To celebrate, I'm sending you over to Stephanie Fizer Coleman's blog for these bright bookplates.

This weekend, I'm hoping to enjoy the sunshine, cook some tasties, go to my new favorite farmers' market, and enjoy being home. How about you?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Oatmeal Cookies with Chocolate Chunks & Dried Cranberries - vegan

Things are definitely improving here at Chez Sweets. I am feeling much better, and Mr Official Taster is not working 80 hours this week. We're even heading to the ballpark this evening. Go Phillies!

In celebration, I give you cookies. This is a good recipe that you can almost endlessly tweak. Dried cherries, apples, or raisins would all work, as would any kind of chocolate or nuts, if you're into those. If you're feeling sassy (and I hope you are), try changing up the spices a bit; add some cloves, more nutmeg, even pumpkin pie spice sounds good. Please share your experiments!

Oatmeal Cookies with Chocolate Chunks & Dried Cranberries - vegan

1/2 C neutral oil*
1/2 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C applesauce
1 1/2 C flour
2 C rolled oats
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
pinch of salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 C nondairy milk
1/2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
1 1/2 C chocolate chips/chunks, dried cranberries, or a combination**

Preheat oven to 375F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, blend together oil and sugars. Beat in applesauce.

In a small bowl, mix together the flour, oats, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Alternating with the milk, add the dry ingredients to the dough a little at a time, mixing on low. Add in any chocolate chips/dried fruits/etc. Stir in extract.

Drop tablespoon-side mounds of dough 2-3 inches apart on your prepared baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, 10-15 minutes (obviously, for soft cookies go for 10 minutes, and for crunchier cookies aim for 15). Cool cookies for a few minutes on the sheet before transferring to a rack to finish cooling. Store in a tightly covered container for no more than a day or two.

*lots of smart people suggest grapeseed oil as a good neutral oil. Corn or vegetable will also work. I used olive oil, mostly because I always do.
**I used about half and half, and my chocolate this time was some broken up dark chocolate. You could also use nuts, other dried fruit, coconut, different kinds of chocolate, etc.

Monday, April 16, 2012


It turns out that I can't do everything.

Maybe you noticed a conspicuous absence of, well, me last week? A couple weeks ago, I started a new job, and, predictably I came down with a nasty cold. You know, that bug everyone gets two weeks into a new school year or any other new environment? Last Monday I found myself, with my mom, in the office of the doctor who treated my childhood illnesses. The office lady thought I probably needed to update my paperwork.

I flew back west on Tuesday, fell into bed, and stumbled into work the next morning. They did the right thing and sent me home early. I didn't work Wednesday, either, and since then I've been alternately working and laying on the couch bonding with the puppies and Netflix.

It turns out that when I'm working, sick, and tired, and when Mr Official Taster works an 80 hour week, no laundry gets done, no dishes get washed, barely any email gets read much less responded to, no bills get paid, and nothing yummy gets cooked. Also (obviously), no pictures got taken or blog posts written.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you lovely people know that I haven't fallen into a black hole, and, since I'm an underachiever, am going to try and get back to posting this week, though maybe not everyday.

How have you been?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Garden Update

Today I've got a quick update about my garden to share. I took these photos on Friday morning, and already I can see a big difference between now and when I started these containers, tomatoes, and salad greens.

I'm so proud of my little spinach! The baby romaine seeds are starting to pop up too, but they're still too small to photograph well.

And, look! There's even a baby tomato already. I can't wait until a) it's edible and b) it has lots of edible siblings.

I hope that if you celebrated Passover or Easter (or even a birthday) this weekend, you had a good one. I got everything I wished for, and today I fly back to the west coast, Mr Official Taster, the puppies, and reality. How's your week ahead looking?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Birthday & Thank You Cards - free printable

Happy Friday! Today, I'm sending you over to Love vs. Design for these birthday and thank you cards, which are always in season.

I hope your week has been less exhausting than mine. I'm visiting family on the east coast this weekend, and I'm planing on treating myself to deviled eggs, laughter, and jelly beans. And these. I can't wait.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fresh Strawberry Sherbet - vegan & gluten free

If you haven't noticed at the farmers' market or the grocery, strawberries are in season. I made this for a get together a couple of weeks ago, and it seemed to go over well - everyone cleaned their bowls! It's very close to sorbet, but the milk keeps it creamy.

Sidenote: if you like asparagus, it works really well as an add in to Baked Lemon Risotto. Trim and rinse your asparagus. Cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces. At the halfway point in the baking, distribute the pieces evenly across the top of the mixture. Follow the rest of the recipe as written.

I know this because both this sherbet and the risotto with asparagus were part of the same dinner. I thought it was a great way to celebrate Spring.

Fresh Strawberry Sherbet - vegan & gluten free
adapted from Eat. Drink. Love.

2 C hulled strawberries, fresh or frozen
2 tsp lemon juice
2 C non-dairy milk (I used coconut from a carton)
1/4-1/2 C sugar

Puree strawberries in a food processor or blender. If you don't want seeds in your dessert, strain through a fine mesh strainer. Otherwise, just pour directly into a bowl. Stir in the milk, lemon juice, and 1/4 C sugar.  Taste, and add a bit more sugar if needed. 

Refrigerate until chilled - 2 hours or overnight. Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fast & Easy Tomato Sauce - vegan & gluten free

Today's recipe is all about ease. And versatility. And speed. And tastiness.

Pasta is one of those staples that I reach for on nights that I am tired, pressed for time, and/or uninspired. Taking an extra 10 minutes to make a fresh tomato sauce elevates it quite a bit, and since a lot of pre-made sauce has sugar (and other strange things) in it, making my own also makes it healthier. More like Real Food.

Fast & Easy Tomato Sauce - vegan & gluten free 
Here is a basic recipe, but the opportunities for variation are endless. Feel free to add in any other herbs or  veggies you have on hand. A couple spoonfuls of tomato paste is an option for thickening it. You can start the onions, set the pasta water over heat, and have everything ready at roughly the same time.

1 medium onion, diced
olive oil
1 (29-32-ounce) can plum tomatoes, chopped, or diced tomatoes
salt & pepper to taste
fresh or dried herbs

In a large skillet or saucepan, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, sprinkle with salt, and stir to coat. Cook until softened and slightly translucent. If you're adding any veggies like peppers or carrots, add them now and saute briefly.

Add tomatoes. You can either drain them before adding them, or add the whole can and it's juices. It depends on how thick you'd like your sauce. Without any liquid, it will be super chunky; will all the liquid it may be too watery and need to be cooked down. The best option may be to drain the tomatoes but reserve the liquid so you can add some as you'd like. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and allow to simmer until the pasta is ready or until it's reached your desired thickness.

Season with salt, pepper, and/or other herbs you'd like. Some obvious Italian herbs like oregano, basil, and rosemary work, but so does adding in some chile or red pepper to spice things up, fresh parsley, or even savory spices like nutmeg. Play around, and you can create many "different" pasta sauces.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Welcome to My Kitchen

When we moved in here, I told you about unpacking and that the kitchen is itty-bitty. Well, the stars all aligned the other week for pictures - good light, time, and remembering to put the two together to good use.

It's roughly 30 square feet, and all of them are used. Whoever designed this little room, thankfully, was really smart about it, and there are lots of cabinets and generally good use of space.

One of the great features (besides having a dishwasher) is all the windows. The one over the sink is a regular window to the outside, but there are also cut outs in front of and to the left of the stove that make a huge impact. I never feel like I'm stuck in a little tiny box.

So this is my little kingdom (queendom?). I hardly ever take food photos in here, unless I'm doing some step-by-step photos, because the light isn't great. Actually, the main reason is that I hate the counters. I think they are hideous.

Finally, I have to mention my framed art. A friend gave it to me for Christmas (thanks, L!!) and I love it because it's true and because in my vows, I promised to "fill our bellies with real food." It's just perfect! Even though there's no wall space, I had to include in in the kitchen, so it lives, propped up, on the counter.

What's the smallest kitchen you've cooked in? Any tips for others dealing with small spaces?
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