When Life Gives You a Bag of Limes

Ready for action!

Ready for action!

In our household, we are constantly trying to mitigate waste; waste not, want not could be our household mantra.  We do our best not to waste resources, food, time, energy and money.  Therefore in my continual quest to eat well on a limited budget, I am a huge proponent of the sale produce bins.  I am not afraid of a few bruises or misshapen pieces — I know what to do with the produce others do not want.  My favorite thing these days is the $2 bags of produce at the natural grocery chain.  These bags are gems full of produce that within a few days will be delegated to the compost bin.  I am a rescuer of these fruits and veggies, a produce rescue missionary.

I cherish the days when I can score one of these bags because whatever is inside dictates the menu for the next couple of days.  Soon, I will write an entire blog homage to the wonder that is the $2 (did I mention 100% Organic?) produce bag.  Today, my message is all about the limes.

My latest $2 score included approximately 3 pounds of limes and 2 bunches of fresh spinach.  The spinach was quickly turned into pesto and wilted further into a breakfast egg scramble.  The limes presented a tempting challenge; what could I do with this many limes?  An impromptu margarita cocktail party was my initial thought but that seemed like a bad idea on a work night.  I decided that what I could not use immediately, (i.e. margaritas or mojitos) could easily be saved for later occasions.

Holy pile of lime zest!

Holy pile of lime zest!

As a southwestern Colorado mountain dweller, I am appreciative of every lemon, lime, orange, avocado and banana I am able to get because none of these are grown within my time zone.  Often we only use the inside of the citrus fruit and forget about the incredible aromatics of the peel.  In our kitchen, I always save the zest for another recipe; a pinch of citrus zest can be an incredible addition to many dishes.  With the use of a zester or the finest setting on your cheese grater (careful to not scrape your knuckles!), you can extract the peel from the fruit.  You only want the outside of the peel and not the bitter pith which is the white coating protecting the interior.  I zested all of the lime peels to freeze for another time.  This zest will be great in Pad Thai or a stir-fry or in muffins when I need something to brighten up the flavor.  There is a good reason why the peel is called zest, it will add pep to any dish you choose.

Straight up lime juice.

Straight up lime juice.

After I zested, I juiced the remaining limes with a hand-held juicer.  A helpful tip here: it is probably a good idea to wear gloves if you have a lot of minor scrapes, cuts and overall dry hands.  What you extract is pure lime juice without any weird added coloring or sugar.  I chose to juice the limes into a Pyrex measuring cup because the next step in my lime preservation is lime juice ice cubes.  The rational being that because lime is such a strong flavor, the ice cube size is a perfect proportion for future margaritas, I mean recipes.

Voila! Lime cubes.

Voila! Lime cubes.

After all of this prep work, our house smelled enticingly of limes. Naturally I needed to see if my preservation plan worked.  I took the smallest lime cube and plopped it into a cocktail glass with tequila.  Blimey my drink is limey!  The lime cubes are quite intense, but on the positive side, in just a few sips I have prevented scurvy.

Vitamin C cocktail

Vitamin C cocktail

Don’t overlook the bins of bruised veggies and fruits. There are so, so many way to preserve produce.  If you are going to cook within a few days, save yourself a few dollars and save the produce from the slow decomposition back into soil.  Really ripe produce forces you to be creative in the kitchen and make the best with what you’ve got when you’ve got it.

Simple Green Chile Enchilada Sauce

Fresh from the oven.

Fresh from the oven.

I’m one of those people at the grocery store that is always reading the labels on food jars, standing there squinting under the fluorescent lights at the purposefully small print and clogging up the aisle traffic.  Sorry about that!  In my defense, once you start this habit, you just cannot stop; I have to know what is in those bags and boxes and cans.  The list of ingredients that freak me out are primarily added sugars of any kind to things that don’t need sugar (i.e. spaghetti sauce) and strange unpronounceable additives.  To this end, I wind up buying a lot of basics and making my own when I cannot can my own.  This strategy offers peace of mind and a smidge of savings in my bank account.

I used to rely heavily on mass produced enchilada sauces until my label reading habit turned me off with the high fructose corn syrups.  Since I declared my sauce independence, I have experimented to find a sauce that is delicious, quick and cheap to make on a regular basis.  I prefer green enchilada sauce to red, but you could easily swap out ingredients to make a red sauce if you prefer.

Simple Green Chile Enchilada Sauce

  • 1 -4 medium sized roasted green chiles (depending on spice level), stems removed and chopped
  • 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatillos, chopped
  • tsp – Tbsp of ground cumin
  • sprinkling of salt
  • sprinkling of pepper
  • fresh lime juice (if available)
  • fresh cilantro (if available)

Slightly chop the chiles, garlic and tomatoes and place in blender.  Add the remaining spices and blend until a smooth and thick consistency sauce-like consistency.   This recipe is a simple platform for sauce and can be adapted to your own liking.  If tomatillos are too tart, try a can of regular tomatoes.  If roasted green chiles are unavailable, try canned chiles.  I guarantee you that whatever way you choose to make your enchilada sauce, it will be so much better than the canned stuff.  The above recipe makes one 9 x 11 inch pan worth of enchiladas with sauce on the bottom and top.

Let’s talk about enchilada structure now.  I used to be one of those people who meticulously rolled up my ingredients into the tortilla and hoped that it wouldn’t crack and break apart in the pan.  This method is why people do not make enchiladas on a work night.  Now, I simply layer the tortillas lasagna-style: 1 layer of tortillas (slightly overlapping), then the filling, a top layer of tortillas and sauce which is so much simpler!  Aesthetically, yes it is more of a casserole but the flavors are the same and the frustration level during prep is minimal.  Try it sometime, it is a better way to construct.

I love to make enchiladas.  My favorite combination is spinach, black beans, sauteed red onions, corn and queso fresco (soft crumbly Mexican cheese).  I often make the enchiladas vegetarian because I just love vegetables, but enchiladas are a bit like pizza and you can experiment to your hearts content.

It is a great feeling to realize that you can make the same thing that comes in a can healthier and better.

The Holy Trinity — of Pizza Toppings

Best.  Combo.  Ever.

Best. Combo. Ever.

When we moved to our awesome town in southwestern Colorado, I was very excited about many things including the close proximity to incredible nature, amazing ruins and green chiles.  In fact when I became a resident here, I made a vow to eat green chiles every day and thus far, I have come pretty darn close.  There are always roasted chiles dotting our breakfast creations and they have graced many a burrito.  Now, my new favorite thing is to add them to pizza!

Pizza night is an event in our house.  My sweetheart makes a mean crust (even at this altitude). Pizza night is not exclusively a weekend event, nor does it always happen at night as pizza afternoons are super too.  Pizza is a great way to use up leftover veggies that are on hand — upcycling, if you will.  However, our most recent flavor discovery, the Holy Trinity of toppings is green chiles, pineapple and bacon.  The smoke, sweet and spice are absolute perfection and my new obsession for pizza.  If we happen to have some smoked mozzarella on hand, we’re talking about elevating an already amazing pie to an epic level.

Homemade pizza is somehow intimidating, but it is really a simple creation.  There is so much that you can do with pizza from having a party where everyone brings a topping or two, to letting kids help make their own pie.  And. let’s dispute this notion that pizza is an unhealthy food; if homemade, it is a very satisfyingly healthy meal.  Pizza is so much more than greasy overpriced delivery pies and frozen cardboard-tasting facsimiles, it is a fun creation with myriad versions.  A personal pizza is something that you can make on your own for yourself.  Pizza is the ultimate canvas for your tastes and personalization.  Go forth and bake your own pie today!

Handmade Sushi — Just Roll With It

Sushi at Home!

Sushi at Home!

When you make a lot of stuff from scratch, you always accept that what is handmade is not going to look exactly like that which is mass produced.  There are lumps and bumps and, very often, some cursing involved in trying to learn a new skill.  But for those of us who love to make, you always have to challenge yourself to new levels of craft.

Recently I made sushi all by myself from scratch.  The inspiration came while high-altitude lake kayaking, as I suddenly had a hankering for both sushi and baklava.  Sushi is a much more achievable a task than dozens of layers of phyllo dough, so I decided to strive for that craving.  Sushi has an aura of complexity, yet it is a very simple food that requires simple techniques and good ingredients.  As a devoted non-perfectionist, I wasn’t very intimidated for I knew that even if my rolls looked a little askew, they would at least taste good.  Or, I could just pretend that I was going for a whole deconstructed roll sort of aesthetic when they fell apart.  I started with cooking the sushi rice (adding a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar to the cooking liquid to make it sticky).  The center of my rolls was a super combination of smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber and avocado.  Once the rice cooled, it was spread one grain thick onto the nori, topped with a thin smear of cream cheese, slices of smoked salmon, and thin pieces of cucumber and avocado.   I think the toughest part of all the construction was the meticulous little slices of fillings.  I rolled without a bamboo mat and cut the rolls with a simple chef’s knife.  (Important note:  when cutting rolls, clean the knife with a wet rag after each slice.)   While slicing the rolls, my end pieces were not awesome, yet they offered up tasty samples for the sushi chef and her sweetheart.  The taste was quite splendid: the combination of the smoked salmon and cream cheese very New York,  the cucumber and avocado very simple and fresh.  In my humble opinion, pretty darn good taste for a non-traditionalist like myself.

As always, my rendition of the real thing came out costing a lot less than even the packaged sushi at our grocery and included leftover ingredients for future meals — smoked salmon, cream cheese and caper sandwiches on homemade bread for dinner, perhaps.  My rolls were far from perfect and, during the creation of said rolls, I wasn’t quite as zen as your (obviously stereotypical) image of a sushi chef.    All told, it was a fun dinner and not too much work.  Paired with a mug of miso soup, our house was transformed into a more cozy sushi bar for an evening.

Camp Stove Scalloped Potatoes

Casserole Style on the Campstove!

Casserole Style on the Campstove!

I have a soft spot for casseroles.  Perhaps this is a result of growing up in the culinary wonder that was the 1980s, or it is a latent expression of my family’s Midwestern roots, but I unequivocally enjoy a good casserole.  The foundation for a good ‘role is a starch — often potatoes  and topped off with lots of melted cheese.  Good things happen tend to happen when potatoes and cheese meet.

So, how does one create a casserole-like dish over a camp stove while backpacking?  Well, we’ve discovered a way purely by accident.  Awhile back, we had some potatoes lying around and decided to try thinly slicing them and putting them in the dehydrator for lightweight camping meals.  To prepare, we simply boiled them for a while — well, a long while by camping breakfast standards — then added melted cheese and hotsauce.   Incredibly the result of this haphazard meal was akin to a scalloped potato casserole!  The only ingredient that would have made it more tasty was some bacon, and perhaps a dash of garlic or onion powder.  The potatoes were still slightly firm with the texture of a potato casserole, impressive for a good roiling boil at high altitude.  In all, a good breakfast for a hike out of the woods.

When camping, meals are often created that would never satisfy under other circumstances.  (There is also the hunger factor with camp food, too; everything just tastes better eaten outdoors.)  Take ramen noodles and hardboiled eggs, I would never conceive of this concoction in regular home life, but before a day of kayaking, this becomes the breakfast of champions.  There are a lot of packaged meals that garner high esteem while camping — instant rice mixes, instant potatoes and mac and cheese.  They work well for camping, but they are so highly processed and full of ingredients I never learned about in chemistry class that I am turned off.  And, there is a high price for convenience.  Now, we have an alternative.  There is a hearty homey recipe that costs little, has no preservatives and takes only a little extra prep.  For the price of one boxed meal, I can dehydrate a whole bag of potatoes for a season’s worth of camp meals.  Of course there is additional time and energy (including fuel) involved, but the result is pretty satisfying and is all worth it when away from the bounty of home.

You can replicate the home kitchen outside with just a little preparation and an openness to creativity.  This time we lucked out and got scalloped potatoes.  Who knows what can be created next?

Time to Hatch

If I ever decide that life at a desk isn’t for me (again), wind up with some extra money to invest in harebrained schemes, or have a strong desire to peddle wares at craft fairs, I am going to become a candle maker.  And not just any candle maker, but a savory candle maker.  My specialties will be lasagna, a morning edition scented with bacon and coffee, and, my personal favorite, a roasted Hatch Chile candle.  There are few aromas that elicit such pleasure as the smell of fresh roasted green chiles.   When I smell chiles in the basket over a flame, I am transported to a happy place full of enchiladas and stews.   There is no smell quite like it.

Alas, I will not be adding candle maker to my resume anytime soon, so I will settle for the scent that permeates the van and the house from transporting home 50 lbs. of roasted chiles.  The smell is impermanent, but the freezer full of chiles should last us a winter — even at our daily rate of consumption.

What to do with all this bounty?  I have learned to simplify my preservation methods over the years.  Two years ago, after carting home a bushel full of chiles in a checked suitcase, I labored for a day peeling, seeding and chopping the chiles to make enchilada sauces, which I then canned.  Although it was awesome to grab a jar of sauce and make enchiladas in a flash, the labor up front was not realistic this year.  Now I simply take the roasted chiles and put them whole (peels, seeds, stems, everything) into quart sized freezer bags and freeze them.  This method is so much simpler up front, especially if you plan on buying in bulk.  (A word of advice, regardless of preservation method, whenever you’re handling the chiles use either gloves or tongs.)  When you want some spice, you can grab a bag, quickly defrost and add to any meal. 

Green chiles are amazing in just about anything.  Now that we live in the Southwest where chiles are part of our shared cultural identity, I realize that there are few things you can’t put chiles in.  Down here there we have chile hummus, chile goat cheese, chile beer and even a chile chocolate.  In our house, we are a bit more conventional with our chiles, but they can — and do — adorn many meals.  One of my favorite winter dishes is a simple potato corn chowder with green chiles and homemade bread.  A little chile goes a long way and can dress up even the most banal of meals. 

Like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter, I have a freezer full of chiles that will be gone come next August.  And I cannot wait to eat them!

Out of the Roaster and Into the Freezer.

Out of the Roaster and Into the Freezer.

Cooking With Stress

Lamb Meatballs with Spinach Yogurt Sauce and Basmati Rice - 30 minutes

Lamb Meatballs with Spinach Yogurt Sauce and Basmati Rice – 30 minutes

Cooking with less, I’ve pretty much got that down.  I can substitute and scrimp and still produce something pretty good — and healthy.  I can create meals that cost a few dollars, full of markdown produce and meats that rival take-out.  What I have realized is that I’ve also got cooking with stress down, too.

When I’m stressed out, a nap, preferably outdoors, sounds great.  A glass of wine and  a book near a river sounds delightful.  Or a long, long mind-emptying walk would work, too.  All of these are wonderful relaxants, but not particularly practical for my daily living.  Which is why I cook.  I realized the other day just how important cooking is to my stress management.  When my mind gets cloudy and my mood foul, the easiest thing for me to do is head into the kitchen and let it out.

My predilection for dishes with a lot of stirring are not practical for the everyday.  When life is busy, even a short meal preparation of 20 – 30 minutes can be transformative.  Over the last 5 weeks I have devoted the majority of every day to studying for some professional licenses completing some pretty epic 12 hour days.  When I hit my wall around 5:30, I could either retreat up to bed and hope that dinner materializes (which often it does thanks to my sweetie), or I can head into the kitchen and use my hands to create something nourishing.  Even a simple Cobb salad with crisp bacon and creamy avocado can be a satisfying dinner in a time crunch.  Stir fries with basmati rice are quick, too.  Suddenly my mind stops racing and my fuzzy eyes clear up and I feel human again standing over the stove.  

Mushroom Red Onion Raviolis - 30 minutes

Mushroom Red Onion Raviolis – 30 minutes

Cooking is my primary mechanism for managing the stress in life.  Maybe it is even a secret ingredient in some dishes.  We all have our ways of dealing with life, some run, some tune out, some ignore it.  I cook and even if just for a half hour, I have a release.

Wonton Wrapper Individual Lasagnas - 30 minutes

Wonton Wrapper Individual Lasagnas – 30 minutes